Friday, June 30, 2006

Appearing on ACC Nation This Week

My friends Patrick Hite and Chris Graham were nice enough to have me on the latest edition of their radio show, ACC Nation, this week. We spoke about my recollections of the day Len Bias died and the piece I wrote for Johnny Holliday's new book "Hoop Tales: Maryland Terrapins."

You can listen online here.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Honors for Johnny Holliday

I've had the opportunity to get to know Johnny Holliday, the voice of University of Maryland football and basketball, a little bit over the years and can honestly say I have never met a nicer, more genuine person in sports. I have written a couple of pieces about him over the years:

February, 2004: The People Behind the Voices

September, 2002: "From Rock to Jock" Book Review

I bring this up because Johnny recently received two awards that show the balance his life has and the excellence he brings to every phase of it.

Today, the National Football Foundation announced Holliday will be the recipient of its 2006 Chris Shenkel Award. This award is given annually to a college football broadcaster who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career with a direct tie to a specific university. Johnny's 27 year career at Maryland certainly qualifies.

"Johnny's remarkable career with the Terrapins makes him the perfect recipient of this award," said NFF President Steven J. Hatchell. "His level of passion, integrity and commitment to his profession is exceptionally rare."

In acknowledging the award, Holliday said, "To be mentioned in the same breath with some of the past recipients of this award is humbling. My tenure with the University of Maryland has been the highlight of my broadcasting career and being associated with the sports teams and the great Terrapin fans has been an honor."

Only two weeks ago, Johnny was honored in a totally different arena. He was one of five men named "Father of the Year" by the Father's Day Council of Washington, D.C. and the American Diabetes Association. This honor recognized his success in balancing home and career while raising remarkable children.

Back in May, Holliday was presented the James Cardinal Hickey National Figure Award by the Office of the Youth Ministry/Catholic Youth Organization, which is presented annually to an individual who exhibits excellence in his/her career and personal life, while acting as a positive role model for both youth and adults.

I am proud to have a man like Johnny Holliday representing my school.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Blue Ribbon Yearbook: Truth in Advertising

The Blue Ribbon College Yearbooks are advertised as "The most Comprehensive Guide on the Market." If anything, editor Chris Dortch and his staff are being modest.

Coming soon is the 2006 edition of the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, 384 pages of analysis that goes far beyond what you will find anywhere else. The yearbook reviews each Division 1-A team position by position. It also covers the coaching staffs, provides a review of the prior season, forecasts the impact of incoming recruits, and makes their fearless predictions.

There are plenty of statistics here, but what sets the Blue Ribbon guides apart is the depth of the narrative they provide. If you want a volume of numbers or a collection of action photos or sexy cheerleaders, you need to buy another preview guide. If you want the best collection of information and analysis available that covers the entire nation, you need the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook.

The 2006 edition will be shipping soon. You can purchase it through their website. They also have the 2004 and 2005 editions of both the football and basketball yearbooks available if you want to fill out your collection.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Thumbs Down to 128-team NCAA Hoops Tournament

The National Association of Basketball Coaches is prepared to make a push to expand the number of teams at the upcoming NCAA basketball committee meetings.

One idea with some traction is doubling the number from 64/65 to 128. This would go well beyond watering down the best sporting event in the nation. This would take the existing field, add all the NIT teams, and then scrape up another 15 schools that normally wouldn't even make the NIT. What could possibly be gained by this moronic idea?

How about some coaches possibly saving their precious jobs? One of the primary measures of success for most major basketball programs is whether or not they received an NCAA bid. Just like the pleathora of bowl games helps football coaches keep their jobs, hoops coaches probably believe this would give them some more security.

The other side of that comparison, however, is a reminder of how incredibly watered down the whole bowl system. You can debate the merits of the BCS vs. an official playoff, but it's hard to argue that there aren't too many bowl games. I would really hate to see the NCAA basketball tournament head in a similar direction.

A proposal made by Jim Boeheim, however, carries some merit. He suggested expanding the play-in round from two teams to as many as eight. This would create more of a real tournament atmosphere at that event and allow a few more teams in. Of course, if 72 make the field, get ready to here #73 and #74 scream bloody murder about how they were screwed by the selection committee.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Looking Beyond the BCS For Winners

When handicapping which college football teams will be the best in the nation, it is easy to limit your search to the BCS conferences or Notre Dame. Historically, that hasn't been a bad idea. Either the Fighting Irish or teams currently in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 have claimed every national championship since Brigham Young went 13-0 in 1984.

Click here to read the rest of the column.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Dose of Reality, A Pinch of Humility

The June 26, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated contains an outstanding investigative feature on the Duke lacrosse scandal written by S. L. Price and Farrell Evans. It covers the case from the perspective of the accused, the accuser, the prosecutor, the (now former) coach, and the school. I found it to be the most comprehensive piece written about this incident and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the case.

I mention the feature here because there are some things in it I want to comment on. In particular, some of the comments made by the principals showed a glaring lack of perspective about where they and this case fit in the big picture of the world around them.

Brothers Dan and Chris Loftus are members of the lacrosse team. They grew up in Long Island, and their father Brian was a New York City fireman who worked 36 straight hours at the World Trade Center in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Commenting on the fallout from the investigation, Brian Loftus said, “I thought that (September 11) was the worst day of my life. You want to know something? This (the lacrosse incident) is the worst thing.”

The team’s coach at the time of the incident, Mike Pressler, has since resigned. He gave the eulogy at his 41-year old brother’s funeral two years ago, yet he told SI that telling his team that the balance of their season had been cancelled was harder to do.


How can people honestly compare a cancelled sports season or damaged reputations to the loss of life? How twisted, how narcissistic can one get? I know I am addressing people under an unusual level of stress, and there are far, far too many people in the sports world that are even worse megalomaniacs, but this is Duke, the school where everything is supposed to be done the right way.

Aren’t people associated with the University supposed to hold themselves up to a higher standard? That’s what the school and its alumni want everyone to think, but this situation has given the general public a peek behind the curtain, and it’s not much different than what would be found at a lot of other schools with big-time sports programs.

That, in a nutshell, is my point. Don’t get me wrong, there are many more good things going on at Duke than bad (like their 96% graduation rate), and I suspect that ratio is still among the best of major sports colleges and universities. The staggering number of legal issues encountered by the Blue Devils’ lacrosse team (56 players involved in 36 on-campus incidents since 2003 according to SI) combined with J. J. Redick, the supposed poster child for all that’s right in college sports, being cited recently for DUI, points out that even Duke’s pristine image is not without blemishes.

When all is said and done in the lacrosse case, which I’m sure won’t be for quite some time, I doubt there will be any good guys. Everyone associated with this situation already seems to have been tarnished in some way. If Duke University, however, can gain a pinch of humility and those associated with it can take a dose of perspective, at least something good can come from it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Handicapping the Heisman

Odds are already out regarding who will win the 2006 Heisman Trophy. Here is how I rank the candidates:

Check out for the rest of this story

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Mad About U," A Book to Watch For

My friends Chris Graham and Patrick Hite have collaborated on a new book titled "Mad About U; Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall." This book tells the story about University of Virginia. University Hall was the home of the Cavaliers from 1965 until this past March. Virginia moves into their new home, the John Paul Jones Arana, in the fall, but Chris and Patrick's book will be a "must-have" for fans of Virginia basketball or anyone who is interested in ACC or college hoops history.

Their book is due out on October 5, and I'll have a review and in interview with the authors up around that time. Pre-orders begin soon, and you can get your copy here along with excerpts from the book.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"Where Will J. J. Go"

My friend Chris Graham obviously went against his better judgement and interviewed me for a piece he wrote for the Augusta (VA) Free Press regarding J. J. Redick's prospects for the upcoming (June 28) NBA Draft. Opinions were offer by myself and other "experts" regarding the impact Redick's recent DUI arrest (I chimed in on that one) and his ailing back would have on his draft position.

Monday, June 19, 2006

June 19, 1986

I wrote this piece about the day Len Bias died some time ago, but it has never been published. I thought the 20th anniversary of his death would be the appropriate time to present it. This was the most painful piece I've ever written because I dug very deep to bring back the pain of that day, one of the most depressing, disillusioning of my life.

In 1986, if you were a Maryland fan, you were a Len Bias fan. He had capped off his senior season (most stars actually stayed in college for four years in those days) by winning his second consecutive ACC player of the year award a feat no other Terp has accomplished. Bias also made the first team on every meaningful All-American squad published in 1986. He broke Albert King's school career scoring record and clearly established himself as the best basketball player in Maryland history up to that time.

Although Maryland's 19-14 record in 1985-86 represented the most losses in the 17-year Driesell era, it did not diminish the superstar aura around Bias. That status was cemented when he almost single-handedly led the Terps to a 77-72-overtime victory at #1 North Carolina. After so many outstanding teams had been better remembered for the games they lost, this mediocre Terps squad would be remembered for a game they won. More specifically, this was Len Bias’ signature game.

Bias would simply not allow Maryland to lose that night. He scored 35 points and showed unbelievable quickness and cunning late in regulation by scoring, dropping back on defense, then abruptly dashing in to steal the Tar Heels' inbound pass and slam home a reverse dunk to turn the game around in Maryland's favor. Even sweeter for Maryland fans was the fact that this was the first loss for the Tar Heels in the brand new Dean E. Smith Activities Center, better known as the Dean Dome. I still enjoy bringing that up when talking to a Carolina fan that is plucking my nerves.

One seemingly mandatory item for a dorm room in College Park that year was a life-sized poster of Bias, all 6'8" of him flashing his infectious grin, palming a basketball with each hand and wearing Maryland's gaudy gold and red home uniform. Terrapin fans anticipated having many years of enjoyment watching him lead a new generation of stars into the NBA.

There was little doubt among us that Bias would be a better pro than Michael Jordan. To a younger fan, this may sound ludicrous, but the young Jordan was quite raw and very much a work in progress, nothing like the player who would lead the Chicago Bulls to six titles in the 1990's. In 1986, Bias was a better jump shooter and rebounder than Jordan. Bias was also bigger and stronger than Jordan, and ran the court just as well. Jordan was a better man-to-man defender and could handle the ball better than Bias at the time, but he also had the benefit of two seasons in the pros (although the second one was severely shortened by injury). If Bias was drafted by the right team and received some good NBA coaching, his potential seemed limitless.

On June 17, 1986, Bias’ fans had their prayers answered when the Boston Celtics, benefiting from a trade made three years before, selected him with the #2 pick in the NBA draft. The Celtics had just won the world championship and featured one of the greatest front lines in the history of basketball; Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. This group was reaching the end of their prime, so Bias would have the opportunity to learn the game from these masters before the mantle of leadership was placed on his broad shoulders. Even better, Red Auerbach, a native and resident of Washington, D.C. and one of the greatest sports executives in history, would oversee his development.

As the Bullets had slipped into mediocrity, I had grown to love watching the Celtics play. I enjoyed the toughness and poise they demonstrated on the court, and I thought Bird was the epitome of what a basketball player should be. He immediately offered to arrive early at the following fall's training camp to begin working with Bias, yet another example of the high esteem in which the rookie was held. It appeared the Terps were headed for a bit of a down cycle following Bias' departure, but at least Maryland fans would be able to enjoy watching him keep the Celtics at or near the top of the NBA for at least the next decade.

Two days later, Len Bias was dead, and many dreams died with him.

Thursday, June 19, 1986 held no promise of being unlike any other workday. It would just be a long one for me since I had a class at the University of Maryland to attend that night. I was in the midst of the seemingly endless pursuit of my bachelor’s degree on a part-time basis. The summer heat and humidity that is such a staple of the Nation’s Capital area was establishing it’s stranglehold that morning, and I reminded myself yet again that I must get air conditioning in my next car.

When I arrived at the office, there was still a buzz among the sports fans there regarding the Celtics’ selection of Len Bias in Tuesday’s NBA draft. Along with that, there was considerable debate on how much the Bullets’ blockbuster trade two days ago would help the team. The Bullets had obtained former MVP Moses Malone from the Philadelphia 76ers, bringing him back to the area he spurned eleven years earlier when he chose a pro contract over playing college basketball at Maryland.

Early that morning, word started filtering into my office and many like it throughout the Baltimore-Washington area that something had happened to Len Bias, perhaps a heart attack. That seemed impossible, since Bias appeared to be as close to physical perfection as a human being could get. Phones were ringing constantly throughout the morning at my office as friends and loved ones called to relay the latest news or rumor they had heard in these pre-Internet days.

I was desperate to get any information I could about the situation. AM radio signals could not be picked up in our building, so we had to rely on outside sources or people running out to their cars to hear news broadcasts. I absolutely would not accept the possibility that Bias would be doing anything except playing for the Celtics in the fall. There had been the tragic, premature deaths of former Maryland basketball players Owen Brown and Chris Patton within weeks of each other in 1976, but this was Len freakin’ Bias for God’s sake. Fans would not have been all that surprised to see bullets bounce off his chest. He couldn’t just keel over. He just couldn’t!

Finally, the announcement came late that morning that Bias had died. My mother, who was severely limited physically but still razor sharp mentally, was one of our office's unofficial current event monitors. Some of my co-workers used to call her "UPI" because she often called me and relayed breaking news. As she had done only a few months earlier when the Challenger space shuttle exploded during takeoff, mom called me with the news about Bias. Initially, I argued irrationally with her, denial having a firm hold on my suddenly fragile psyche. I told my mother that she must have heard reports wrong or that there must be a case of mistaken identity, anything to make this not be true.

HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? HOW COULD THIS BE REAL? Only two days earlier, Bias had been on top of the world and taken his fans along for the ride. Now he was gone and the joy we shared because of his accomplishments and the celebration of the person we thought he was had been replaced with a deep, dark and intense feeling of despair.

I joined many coworkers in moving through the balance of the day in a daze. This tragedy was not on the same level as the Challenger accident, but I didn’t know the astronauts personally. Maryland basketball fans felt we KNEW Len Bias. It was like having a member of our extended families stricken down. One young African-American in our office was particularly devastated. He had played some college basketball at a smaller school and idolized Bias. Idols are not supposed to die, especially so young, but his had.

I then had my class on the College Park campus that evening. I habitually left work immediately at quitting time on school nights to try and beat the worst of rush hour traffic on Washington's Capital Beltway. This usually gave me a chance to relax in the student union on campus or at a local restaurant before class and wind down from the day at work. There was no need to wind down that night, however, because I was already numb. Instinctively, I headed directly for Cole Field House. Upon my arrival, I found that I was not the only person drawn there that night.

Cole was usually open when there was no event in progress. The concourse, located above the seating bowl, was often used as a jogging track, discouraging loiterers. When I entered the building I saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of students and other fans scattered among the gray, yellow, and red seats. Many were in small groups but some, like me, were alone with their memories and sadness. Some were holding their heads in their hands sobbing, but more were staring out into space, searching for a way to make sense out of what still seemed to be a tragic death of an innocent and heroic young icon.

Sports are where most of the people in that building had turned to escape everyday stress and find a balance to pain and tragedy in their everyday lives. Damn it, that's what I had done, and I just did not feel I could bear having the only orderly and entertaining part of my life violated by such heartbreak! Other schools did not have to deal with their stars dropping dead at the ridiculously young age of 22. Why Maryland? Why us? God, I thought, help me understand why this happened!

My Christian training led me to consider approaching someone who was sitting alone to try and reach out to offer comfort, but I truly had none to give. If I opened up to someone, even a complete stranger, I was fearful of starting to cry and not knowing when or if I would stop. Instead, I looked up toward the heavens for answers. What I saw were the banners hanging from the rafters at Cole commemorating the greatest players and teams in school history.

At that time, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Albert King, and Buck Williams were the athletes so honored. All of Lefty's teams that finished in the top 20 nationally were also recognized. Driesell had put together some wonderful teams made up of truly great college players. None of them had been greater than Bias, who was now gone forever. He would never experience the love of his adoring fans on a special night when his number joined those hanging over the floor where he had made basketball magic happen. On this night, it was instead Bias' memory being honored by an impromptu gathering of heartbroken mourners.

I sat in the stands for a while, allowing my mind to sift through the happy memories and today’s tragedy. I was in too much of a daze to shed tears, and I eventually left without interacting with anyone. I'm not even sure I went to my scheduled class. I don't remember anything until my return home later that night. I sat on my bed for the longest time trying desperately to get my mind on something, anything else so I could get some sleep. Instead, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that things would never be quite right again, how a part of my spirit had been crushed and I was not sure that it would ever heal.

For the first and only time in my life, I seriously questioned if I should try to douse the fire burning so strongly in me that fueled my passion for sports and especially the Terps. The joy that I had experienced watching the Redskins, Orioles, and Bullets win championships was wonderful. More specifically, the excitement and attachment I felt toward Maryland basketball had been a great part of my life, even with all the close losses in big games. As good as any of that had ever made me feel, it could not compare to the depression I was not settling into.

How could watching games and becoming emotionally attached to players I would likely never meet be worth this? I had no answers, only a dull ache in my soul. I desperately needed to get my arms around this pain, but it was like a shadow, something I could not touch but that was engulfing me in darkness.

I finally went back into the living room and turned on the television. I aimlessly flipped channels with the remote, making sure I did not linger on any news or sports channel since they were saturated with reports about Bias’ death. I could feel how the despair, anger, and confusion were working together inside my body to tie my stomach up in a knot that threatened to consume me. After a while, I turned off the TV and sat by myself in the dark, silent apartment and felt the tears finally flow. When I returned to bed, I thought the worst part of this tragedy was over. I never suspected that, in reality, it had only just begun.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

New College Footbal Coaches Who May Make a Difference

I have recently signed on with to provide college sports "expert" columns. Here is my first one.

We're still weeks away from the opening of preseason camps at college football programs across the nation, but it's never too early to start looking for keys that will help you beat the odds this season.

Click here to read the rest of the column.....

Sunday, June 11, 2006

My Part In a New Book About Maryland Basketball

There's been a lot going on with The CourtMaster in recent weeks, it just hasn't shown up on this blog.

One thing I do want time to let you know about is the piece I wrote that is included in an upcoming book. The title is "Hoop Tales: Maryland Terrapins Men's Basketball" and is co-authored by Johnny Holliday and Steve Moore.

Anyone remotely acquainted with University of Maryland sports recognizes Holliday as the long time (since 1979) radio play-by-play voice of both Terps' basketball and football. Moore also co-wrote Johnny's autobiography "From Rock to Jock" which chrnoicles Holliday's radio career as he became first a famous top-40 radio disk jockey then moved into sports full time. You can find my review of this book in the September 2002 archives of this blog.

A short time ago, Steve Moore approached me and asked me to contribute a piece to their new project, and I was happy to do so. I wrote a short piece about the trials and tribulations of being a Maryland fan going back to the early days of the Lefty Driesell era and how sweet the payoff was on the night the Terps won the national championship on April 1, 2002. I also tell how I shared these experiences with my best friend Robin and my late wife Bette, and how being at the sports bar with them on the championship night made a great experience perfect. There will also be contributions from other writers included in this book along with stories from Johnny himself.

This book is part of a series of Hoop Tales and Stadium Stories published by The Globe Pequot Press. I have 15 of them in my personal library and found all of the ones I've finished so far to be an enjoyable, quick read.

Hoop Tales: Maryland Terrapins Men's Basketball is due to be released on October 1, 2006. You can preorder it now through for only $9.20 + shipping. Such a deal!