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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013

Football? What's That?

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San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31. Frank knew what to expect in Sunday morning's phone call.

 

Frank: So, how are you feel...

Artie: Fire them all!

F: Anyone in particular you have in mind?

A: Well, it seemed like Dom Capers game-planned his defense for the wrong team—one whose quarterback has two broken ankles. Or maybe no one told Capers the 49ers had switched from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick.

F: A week earlier the Packers beat a running QB who couldn't throw. This time there was a running QB who can throw—stunningly well in a couple of cases, like the second touchdown to Michael Crabtree..

A: Yeah, Kaepernick sure ain't no Joe Webb. It's all so disgusting and disappointing. Football is dead to me now. Hey, maybe Capers can get hired as the Bears' new coach!

F: Kaepernick was terrific, but 579 total yards for the 49ers was shocking.

A: Not really, if you remember the Giants game a year ago or the track meet in Arizona in 2010. Over the regular season the D improved, but then it came apart again. Mike McCarthy tried to inspire the team by showing a movie called Death Zone, about the dangers of challenging Mount Everest. Well, the defense, found that zone, and so much for the climb to the Super Bowl.

F: I, for one, thought the Packers were primed to get there.

A: Well, you know how everyone debates whether a first-round bye is good or bad? It was bad for the Pack last year but apparently good for San Fran this time. But if you think a bye would have helped Green Bay, that early, bogus loss in Seattle came back to bite them.

F: If the replacement refs had gotten it right, Saturday night's game would have been at Lambeau Field. But that didn't happen, so now do you have any interest in who takes the NFL crown?

A: You mean there'll still be a Super Bowl without the Pack? I suppose I'll watch, but I'll be turning big-time to basketball to distract me from the misery. It's some solace to know that college hoops is just hitting its stride.

F: And the state's two top teams had big-time wins Saturday—Marquette gutting it out in overtime at Pittsburgh and Wisconsin crushing 12th-ranked Illinois by 23 points at the Kohl Center.

A: I sure didn't see those coming, especially since both teams had not been shooting well in their previous games. Heck, the Badgers are even having trouble from the free-throw line! But this time the shooting was there for both teams.

F: MU persevered even though point guard Junior Cadougan twisted an ankle and played only 16 minutes—and even though Pitt seemed to have the momentum with a game-tying three-pointer at the end of regulation.

A: And UW, which had been having trouble at point guard with Josh Gasser out for the season, got some solid play there. It's just like we said about both teams in December: They have their troubles but always seem to improve as the season goes on.

F: And that's a credit to Buzz Williams and Bo Ryan.

A: It doesn't get any easier as the season goes on. In December I was thinking that going .500 in the Big Ten would be enough to get the Badgers into the NCAA tournament, so a 3-0 start is terrific, especially heading into a huge test at Indiana this week.

F: And 3-0 in the Big East is nothing to sniff at, even if MU got there by its fingernails against UConn, Georgetown and Pitt. Meanwhile, there's that other basketball team to take your mind off the Packers.

A: The one that just helped itself by changing coaches, ain'a?

F: Yup. The Bucks, with Jim Boylan taking over from Scott Skiles, won three of four to get to 19-17, tied with Boston for the seventh Eastern Conference playoff spot. But we'll see if they handle a West Coast trip this week better than they usually do.

A: I have my hopes. But then I had my hopes for the Pack.

F: Hey, there's always the fact that spring training starts in about five weeks—although I don't really get stirred up about baseball until the games actually mean something.

A: I can't think of that long haul of a season for a while. And besides, March Madness always trumps exhibition baseball. So hoops will help me get over football for a good stretch. Then again, how many months is it until they tee it up again at Lambeau?

 

Frank Clines covered sports for 18 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek will get over the Packers' loss eventually.

They expand their observations to include Skiles' departure, baseball's Hall of Fame voting, Alabama's BCS triumph and the NHL's return, at expressmilwaukee.com.

 

GOING SCOTT-FREE

F: So Skiles is gone—fired, resigned, whatever—after four-plus seasons, one playoff appearance and a 162-182 record. I suppose his tough-guy approach was effective for a while, but he never looked like a guy who was enjoying himself.

A: Not in the least. On the sidelines, talking to the media—nothing but that Junior G-Man scowl.

F: Back in his playing days it was obvious he's a really intense guy. But boy, I don't think anyone's ever seen him look pleased about something. And I think that kind of thing just wore the team down along with Skiles himself, the way it seemed to in his previous coaching stops in Phoenix and Chicago.

A: His contract was expiring and all that, but in those last few games it almost seemed like he was trying to get a ticket out of town. That whole thing about a guy having a really good game and then being glued to the bench the next night, or playing very little.

F: It seemed like that happened to just about everyone on the team except for Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Mike Dunleavy. All the big men—Samuel Dalembert, John Henson, Epke Udoh, Drew Gooden. Hell, for the first few weeks of the season it seemed like Gooden would never get on the floor at all! Even Larry Sanders got that on-again, off-again treatment until recently, when he became a shot-blocking demon.

A: Adjusting for the matchups against certain teams is one thing, but all those genius changes didn't add. A lot of times they just seemed arbitrary or random or desperate. I can't imagine too many players wanting to play for him, either because of his personality or his unpredictable moves.

F: After his departure, Skiles made two statements that I found absolutely incredible. When he was asked if he wanted to be in Milwaukee, his quote in the Journal Sentinel was, “That's a question it's not easy to answer. Absolutely (I was committed). That's the absolute bare minimum I owe the franchise.” Wow!

A: I doubt Herb Kohl or John Hammond thought they were paying him for a “bare minimum” commitment.

F: Then when he was asked about his players, Skiles said, “There's always the normal coach-player friction that goes on... As NBA teams go, this is a good group of guys.”

A: No one says everybody has to love each other, but that doesn't sound like a guy who was happy with his working conditions.

F: The Journal Sentinel story used the word “inevitable” in describing Skiles' exit because his contract was not extended before the season began. But if that was so important to him, why did he start the season in the first place?

A: There's speculation on the Web that he really wanted to start the season as Orlando's new coach, but couldn't get out of the contract here. Whatever the reason, being in limbo clearly affected him. My theory is that when the team had that little spurt to get to 16-12, maybe he approached Hammond about an extension and was told something like, “Hey, what matters is where we are at the end of the season, not right now.” And that was the straw that broke Skiles' back.

F: And what broke things for Hammond was probably the fact that after top-notch wins over Brooklyn and Miami in the days after Christmas, Skiles' team lost to lowly Detroit and then three more times to stand at 16-16.

A: There had to be friction there in the first place, either because of the contract thing or all that lineup-shuffling.

F: The good news is that Hammond and Kohl are giving Jim Boylan a shot at grabbing the coaching spot permanently—as much as “permanent” might mean in the NBA.

A: The best thing is that he's an Al McGuire guy! He was my second-favorite Marquette player in the '70s, behind Earl Tatum. He was always such a smart point guard.

F: People always think of Butch Lee, Bo Ellis and Bernard Toone in connection with the 1977 NCAA championship team, but Boylan had a terrific 14-point game when they beat North Carolina for the title.

A: He knows Milwaukee, he likes Milwaukee, he's been with this team for a while, and whenever he did those halftime interviews or post-game instructionals on TV, he came across as a pleasant, personable guy.

F: He's a straight shooter, as much as anyone can be in the pressure cooker of NBA coaching. He seems comfortable with himself and his situation, which Skiles definitely did not.

A: And the team responded with three wins in four games heading into the West Coast swing.

F: Speaking of wanting to be in Milwaukee, I wonder what Brandon Jennings is thinking as he looks toward free agency in the summer. Skiles definitely committed himself to Jennings as the “franchise player.”

A: I'm sure Jennings will check out the market, but I don't think he's totally counted the Bucks out.

 

THE BALLOT SHUTOUT

F: I must say I was surprised that my colleagues in the Baseball Writers' Association of America wound up electing no one to the Hall of Fame. It was only the eighth time that's happened since the voting began in 1936, and the first time since '96. Craig Biggio and Jack Morris each got about 68% of the votes but 75% is required.

A: The biggest disappointment for me was that Kenny Lofton didn't muster even the 5% needed to stay on the ballot. Like Lou Whitaker in '01, he got bounced on his first try. But like “Sweet Lou,” he deserved much better.

F: Bernie Williams dropped off the ballot in his third year, losing 36 votes from the previous vote. And Fred McGriff, who stayed on the ballot with 20%, nevertheless lost almost 20 votes. It illustrates how each year provides a different context, in terms of newcomers who join the pool of guys with legitimate chances. This time those newcomers included Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza. I was sure that Bonds and Clemens wouldn't get enough votes because of steroid suspicions, but with voters limited to a maximum of 10 choices they siphoned off enough votes to squeeze out Lofton, Williams and Julio Franco.

A: Which raises a point I've been reading a lot about. The 10-player limit goes back to the original ballot in '36, when there were only 16 teams. Now there are 30 teams and many more players coming up for the ballot, so why not expand the vote to a maximum of 15? If nothing else, it would probably let a guy like Lofton stay on the ballot longer and give the voters more time to really assess him.

F: Interestingly, I just got word that a discussion has been set up on the BBWAA's message board to get members' opinions on revising the 10-player limit. I presume the Hall itself would have to approve such a change as well.

A: I don't think it would suddenly produce a flood of inductees, but it's a fact that some guys make the Hall by building their vote over the years.

F: There's a 15-year limit for being on the ballot, and Morris has only one time left. I thought he might benefit from the anti-steroid atmosphere this time, but he gained only three votes from last year. And the context will change radically for him next time, because the newcomers to the ballot will include Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina.

A: Sounds like Morris will have to hope that the Veterans Committee votes him in sometime.

 

THE TIDE ROLLS ON

F: How about that dud of a BCS title game?

A: I watched as much of that as I've watched this “Downton Abbey” thing that everyone talks about—which is none of it. I had ZERO interest in that game!

F: I'll confess that I watch “Downton” even though I think the stuffy British soap opera “jumped the shark” last season.

A: Or jumped the crumpet. Hey, maybe I could get PBS interested in a series called “Downtown Artie.” Just like my real life—lots of jokes, snappy patter and gorgeous dames.

F: Now that I'd definitely watch. The BCS game was a lot like the Vikings-Packers playoff tilt: Once the Irish were down two touchdowns, there was no way they were coming back.

A: Just like last year's Bama win over LSU, I can't imagine anyone in 49 of our wonderful states feeling glad about it.

F: I keep flashing on that ESPN football promo where people on the street—and even at a wedding and a funeral—have only one thing to say: “Roll Tide.” Or this recent headline in the Onion: “Alabama State Constitution Changed to Just Read, 'Roll Tide.'” Not that one should castigate an entire state...

A: Are you kidding? It's my one simple pleasure to castigate an entire state—an entire region, in fact.

F: But here's the best thing out of the whole ridiculous college bowl season, at least for me—that one-point safety!

A: I read about it but didn't see it—or believe it.

F: Believe it! Oregon scored it against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

A: And how did this happen?

F: An Oregon extra-point kick was blocked. K-State recovered but ran it back into the end zone looking for a way to break it all the way for two points. But the guy was tackled in the end zone, and voila, a one-point safety.

A: Which probably no one even knew existed.

F: Except the referees—and me! And how I knew it is what delighted me.

A: Keep going.

F: Remember me telling you about my devotion to Chip Hilton? He was the hero in this great series of sports novels by Clair Bee, a revered basketball coach in New York in the '40s and '50s. Chip was the All-American Boy, starring in three sports for Valley Falls High School and then State U. And he was every parent's dream: Modest, hard-working, reverent, neat…

A: I get it.

F: Chip would lose a game once in a while, but usually it was from an act of God. Once in high school he lost a basketball game because a desperation shot deflated in mid-air and pffft-ed through the hoop.

A: Like I don't know about getting deflated by an act of God. That's a daily thing for me.

F: Anyway, in a big college football game Chip's team is going for a two-point conversion that will produce a tie and the conference title. A State player is about to cross the goal line when he fumbles into the end zone, and an opponent kicks the ball out of bounds. The result: “Pandemonium reigned as the referee awarded a one-point safety to State... It was right in the rule book.”

A: So Chip loses, through no fault of his own of course.

F: Triple-Threat Trouble, copyright 1960. For 50-plus years I've been waiting for validation of Clair Bee's plot device!

A: And now the wait is over. Mazel tov!

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

F: Are you glad the NHL lockout is over?

A: The what? I hadn't noticed that hockey was missing—me and just about every other sports fan in this country.

F: A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in any event a 48-game season will begin Saturday. This was the third lockout since Gary Bettman became NHL commissioner in 1993, including the one that canceled the entire 2004-'05 season.

A: I guess that '05 settlement didn't take, ain'a?

F: In a big surprise, the latest mess was all about who gets more of Joe Fan's dough, the guys in the owners' suites or the guys getting their brains scrambled on the ice.

A: This is just another advertisement, like last year's NBA lockout, for shorter seasons where each game will be a lot more meaningful. And how about baseball going back to a 154-game sked?

F: Alas, you know why none of that will happen. Everybody in the game has to wring every last cent they can out of anyone who watches.