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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Will It Like Winston

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The Super Bowl XLVII will make history with brothers Jim and John Harbaugh as the opposing head coaches. The game also evokes some personal history for one of the Observers.

    Frank: As soon as Jim's 49ers beat Atlanta I rushed to my archives.

    Artie: Sounds dramatic, like, “Quick! To the Bat Cave!”

    F: Nah, just the closet where I have clippings from my years in the mainstream Milwaukee press. Anyway, I found my Journal story from Sept. 16, 1990, about a certain quarterback for the hated Bears.

    A: Young Mr. Harbaugh, ain'a?

F: The headline was “Lessons in Perseverance: Harbaugh Battles the Whims of Ditka to Earn a Chance.”

A: Kind of relevant to this season, when the whims of Harbaugh kept Colin Kaepernick as the starting QB even after Alex Smith recovered from his November concussion.

F: Which became a brilliant decision for the only reason that matters in sports—it worked out. And yes, Smith is absorbing a lesson in perseverance. But my main memory of the '90 story stems from its lead: “One of history's lions stares out from a Chicago Bear's locker.”

A: That paragraph does its job because I want to know more.

F: Harbaugh's lair at Bears headquarters in Lake Forest had something pretty unusual for an athlete. Taped to the locker wall were four photos of Winston Churchill.

A: I had no idea! I figured Winnie for a rugby man.

F: Remember, he had an American mother. But Churchill's appeal to Harbaugh was strictly intellectual.

A: I wonder how many current pro athletes have any idea who Churchill was. Even in 1990 he was 35 years under the turf.

F: Harbaugh sure knew about him, to wit: "He did so much with his life, and his political career was so fascinating. He rose to the top three or four times and was thrown out of office just as many times. He just kept battling back.”

A: Excellent point. Churchill rode a political roller-coaster for decades before he became the desperation choice for prime minister when the Nazis were just across the Channel in 1940.

F: And he seized his chance! This guy could give a pep talk: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..."

A: Rockne had nothing on that!

F: But after helping save Britain with his “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” three months after V-E Day he and his party were bounced in an election. But he returned as prime minister in '51 when he was pushing 80.

A: Talk about the will to win.

F: I asked Harbaugh if Churchill's career had relevance in his dealings with the mercurial Mike Ditka. His smiling reply: “It's a great lesson. There's nothing wrong with being knocked down or losing; it's the coming back that counts.” Here's how Churchill put it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

A: If at first you don't succeed...

F: Harbaugh knew about that, as perhaps he's told Alex Smith. He was drafted out of Michigan in '87 but didn't get a chance to start until '89, and even then he split time with Mike Tomczak. And when Ditka named him the starter in '90 it was with this odd endorsement: “I went to Oz and saw the Wizard.”

A: How'd Jim handle that?

F: In my story his quote was, “I really don't mind being coached.”

A: Diplomacy worthy of a Churchill. And from what I've read he's continued to be a student of history.

F: That's why I've been surprised by how volatile Harbaugh can be as a coach. That post-game push-off of the Lions coach last year, or the arm-flinging tantrum when he didn't win a challenge in the NFC title game.

A: More like an Adolf than a Winston.

F: Churchill would certainly have growled at the refs, maybe puffed cigar smoke their way, but he'd have waited to zing 'em after the game with, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

A: And not even one cuss word there!

F: The 1990 story has a postscript. A few hours after it ran Harbaugh and the Bears won at Lambeau Field, 31-13. This was the year after Don Majkowski's breakthrough season, but “Majik Man” didn't start that day because he'd just ended a contract holdout. Remember who the Packers' starting QB was?

A: Two years before Brett Favre arrived, too late for Randy Wright to be there....

F: His first name was Anthony.

A: Dilweg. Oh my God. Time to close these archives!

 

IF WE HAD OUR WAY...

F: Even though I find Jim Harbaugh's antics off-putting, I'd still prefer that the 49ers win Sunday. The main reason is kind of negative: I don't want the Ravens to win because I don't want Ray Lewis to win.

A: Ray Lewis, the beloved elder statesman of the game, the man of many charitable causes, the painted-face dancer whose drive and intensity inspire his teammates to win and TV viewers to buy products?

F: No, the Ray Lewis whose murky connection to two murders in January 2000 has never been clarified, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in return for testifying against two associates, and whose tiresome “Look at me! I'm such a bad-ass!” shtick represents one reason why football's culture of violence may ultimately kill the sport.

A: Oh, THAT Ray Lewis. You're not the only one who holds him in low regard. Did you see what Wes Welker's wife said about him?

F: Nope—you mean the wife of the Patriots' receiver?

A: You betcha. After Baltimore beat New England for the AFC title, Ms. Welker wrote on her Facebook page, “Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"

F: Hmm. One inaccuracy there; he was originally charged in the murders but got the charge reduced in his plea deal. His two associates were acquitted and no one else has ever been charged. Lewis did make settlements with the victims' families. And he's not alone among athletes in the fatherhood department.

A: Ms. Welker later apologized, but I don't think she changed her mind.

F: I know we're a forgiving society and everyone deserves a second chance, but it bothers me that with Lewis retiring after the Super Bowl the vast majority of the coverage seems to idolize him. Anyway, I hope the 49ers win.

A: I don't really care much for either team, and I'm no Ray Lewis fan, but I guess I lean a little bit toward wanting the Ravens to win.

F: Your reasoning?

A: For one thing, they're the underdogs. And Jim Harbaugh bugs me with his antics. And also there's something about Kaepernick at this point that bugs me too.

F: How so?

A: His ego seems a little large for having had half of a successful season.

F: How much of this derives from the fact that he ran through, around and over the Packers?

A: Well, there's that, but it seems that all the publicity he's gotten makes it seem like he can do everything—like maybe in his spare time he repairs the transmissions on his teammates' Escalades.

F: I guess he does seem to have a little swagger.

A: I'm not averse to a little hot-dogging in a guy, but it just seems like Kaepernick hasn't really faced any adversity yet. I'd like to see how he responds to having a really difficult game.

F: See if he has any Churchillian qualities.

A: One thing I do know: This Super Bowl is a game I wouldn't bet on for my life! I can see it being a nail-biter, coming down to a field-goal try by David Akers...

F: Who ain't nearly as reliable as he was a year ago.

A: Or I could see it being a blowout either way.

F: That pretty much covers the possibilities. I'll hold onto my cash too.

 

VICTORIES, WINGED AND OTHERWISE

 

(Over the phone Sunday afternoon)

 

A: Hey, I just turned on the TV and saw Michigan State was playing Indiana. And it hit me that the Hoosiers now join the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys as the only teams who seem to play all their games at home!

F: Gee, I've got to think the Hoosiers wear their red uniforms once in a while.

A: Not as far as I can tell! And what puzzles me is that I'm the only person who's noticed it.

F: So it's eluded the Big Ten schedule-makers, presumably year after year?

A: Them, the opposing coaches, reporters, bloggers, you name it—must be one of those things that's right under your nose but you blank it out. No wonder Tom Crean wanted to coach in Bloomington.

F: Getting back to reality, Marquette and Wisconsin played at home Saturday and kept their successful seasons going—UW in a real grinder and MU in what can only be called bizarre circumstances. And I happened to be on hand at the BMO Harris Bat-ley Center.

A: I was out all afternoon and recorded the Badgers but didn't hear anything about the MU game until this morning's paper. That would have been pretty cool to see!

F: It was indeed, at least for a while. But after repeated swoops through the court area, with players running away, flailing at the winged invader and throwing towels at it, it got really weird when they turned out all the lights inside the seating area.

A: And why'd they do that?

F: One of my companions, who's had bats in his home, said they react to light. So the idea was to make it go out into a corridor and I guess ultimately into an atrium where a door could be opened to let it out. Anyway, it didn't reappear when the lights came back on, and there were no sightings during the Bucks game that night.

A: Out into a corridor where the concession stands are—great! “You want cheese sauce or guano with those nachos?”

F: The bat must have been a Providence fan because the breaks in play seemed to help the Friars get back into the game a couple of times. MU should have won by more than 10 points. But the worst part of the delay was that someone decided to play Whitney Houston's “I Will Always Love You,” perhaps in farewell to the bat.

A: More likely to drive it away in horror. Speaking of which, I'll bet some MU fans were saying, “Hey, if there's a bat around shouldn't we be playing The Count, Bo Ryan?”

F: As a matter of fact, my out-of-town buddy who always calls Bo “Dracula” was with me! But his only references to UW were scornful comments about the low-scoring Badgers.

A: Neither UW nor Minnesota shot well but there's something to say for the defense they played. I found the 45-44 game very entertaining. Those scores don't bother me. I'm not enamored if a game is just running up and down the floor with no defense; more often than not I find THOSE games boring.

F: I should have reminded my buddy that Al McGuire's teams when we were at MU had a lot of low-scoring games. The absence of a shot clock was a factor, but Al usually didn't like a high-scoring pace. The greatest home win of our college years was over a powerful Minnesota team in December 1971, and the final score was 55-40.

A: It was good for UW to get past Minnesota, considering the next two games are on the road at Ohio State and Illinois.

F: MU has a big road game coming up, too—at Louisville on Sunday, just before the Badgers take the court in Champaign.

 

ALL-STAR DUMBNESS

F: I don't really care that much, but when I saw that both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis had been overlooked for the NBA All-Star Game I was surprised and a little annoyed.

A: You and me both!

F: What annoyed me was the fact that for some reason the NBA sticks with choosing only 12 guys from each conference.

A: Which means there are several other guys who should have been named but got snubbed. Stephen Curry of Golden State springs to mind; he's having a phenomenal season

F: Why in the world wouldn't the NBA, just for promotional reasons, expand the all-star rosters to 15 or even more? The game has absolutely no importance except as an advertisement for the league.

A: It is indeed ridiculous.

F: Sometimes the rosters “expand” because someone the fans have chosen to start is injured. But I researched some box scores, and the first time I saw 12-man rosters was 1968, when the NBA had 12 teams. Now there are 30!

A: It's the same argument some people—including me—are making about the voting for baseball's Hall of Fame. You and the other voters can name a maximum of 10 guys, but that goes back to the original voting in the '30s when there were only eight big-league teams instead of 30. The pool of eligible guys has expanded a lot, and it's the same in the NBA.

F: David Stern is supposed to be this totally savvy guy in terms of marketing the league. Well, what is the All-Star Game for if not to promote players across the whole league?

A: And nobody needs to see Kobe Bryant play 30-plus minutes in a game that doesn't matter.

F: Baseball expanded its all-star rosters decade ago—under duress from the fiasco at the 2002 game at Miller Park, when both sides ran out of pitchers. Why shouldn't NBA fans see more of the league's young stars like Jennings and Curry?

A: What I'll be interested to see in the next couple of weeks is how Jennings reacts to his second straight all-star snub. Last year he took the pouting and whining route, at least for a while, and it hurt the Bucks—not that they were heading for a successful season anyway.

F: But this year they're above .500 and seemingly bound for the playoffs.

A: So if Jennings goes back to pouting it could really be harmful. Or if he tries to overcompensate and starts shooting too much, that's bad too. But if he just uses this as motivation and plays better in the true point-guard mode, with good scoring but maybe more assists, well, everyone benefits.

F: Jennings has a heavy financial motivation to follow that last route, with free agency coming up this summer. So far his post-snub performance has been mixed: 12 assists but 5-for-19 shooting at Cleveland, then an 18-point third quarter but only two points otherwise against Golden State.

A: Jennings said he was concentrating on distributing the ball in that first half, and that makes sense considering that Ellis was facing his former team and Ersan Ilyasova has been scoring so well.

F: So you don't see any sign that he's reacting badly to the snub?

A: Not yet. We'll see how things go in the nine games leading up to the All-Star Game.

F: The Bucks are past the halfway point of the season now, and at 23-19 they're seventh in the East and in striking distance of Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago.

A: Beating Golden State was big, but so was the loss in Cleveland, especially since they were up 20 points in the second half. They still can't put away the teams they should! That's the sign of a team that's just slightly above average.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for 18 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has strong feelings about Chicago teams.

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