Column: An Unexciting Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl LII is tonight, but I’m not excited.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still watch — it’s the Super Bowl after all — but I’m the least excited I have ever been on any Super Bowl Sunday since I started watching them 14 years ago.

A big part of the reason dates back to my maiden Super Bowl, the 38th one in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, birthing a distaste for the Patriots that has grown ever since.

The principals from that 2003 team are still around in quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, even at 40, is as good as ever, taking home his third NFL MVP Award at last night’s NFL Honors and continuing to build his case that he may be objectively the best player to ever play the game.

Now, as the Patriots play their third Super Bowl in four years and their eighth in 17, it’s hard for me to be excited about watching the same old thing, especially since they are favored to win another Lombardi Trophy. If they do, they would have won each of those three appearances in the last four years and six of their eight since 2001.

Depending on who from Las Vegas you read, the Patriots are between four- and five-point favorites, although I think they’re even heavier favorites than that, given that they’ve been here before and seem to be able to come back from anything (see: multiple Super Bowl comebacks, this year’s AFC Championship Game, etc.).

They are facing an upstart Philadelphia Eagles team which has come from nowhere to get here. They posted a 13-3 regular season, primarily with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, then won their two NFC playoff games, with backup signal-caller Nick Foles under center after Wentz’s torn ACL cost him the season.

It’s cool to see a team that has been down recently — before this season they had one playoff appearance in the last six years, which ended in the first round — make this run to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have relished the underdog role this postseason, as without Wentz they were underdogs to both the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

But neither one of those games were against the mighty Patriots, the “evil empire” if you will, who are in the midst of the greatest sustained run of excellence in NFL history, dating back to Brady’s first season and Belichick’s second in 2001. This run includes a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As such, I am mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of another Patriots title tonight, even while hoping that my forecast is incorrect.

Perhaps it will be; eight straight MVPs to play in the Super Bowl have lost, including Brady 10 years ago in the Super Bowl XLII classic against a Giants team that was far heavier underdogs than tonight’s Eagles.

But by expecting Brady to end that trend before the game even starts, I’m hoping to dampen the disappointment level around 10 p.m. tonight when the Patriots are inevitably celebrating, again.

Oh well. It’s almost baseball season.

 

Prediction: Patriots 28, Eagles 20

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Column: MLB Free Agency Unusually Slow This Winter

Forget the hypothetical of “what would it be like to run an MLB team” — this year I’m actually going to do it. All I need is a couple hundred million dollars and the cooperation of MLB to allow me to start an expansion team less than two months before Opening Day.

With any luck, by the first week of November I’ll be lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy as a World Series champion.

How am I going to do this, you ask? I’ll simply sign a team of current free agents, and that team will be so deep and talented that they’ll win it all this fall.

***

Of course I’m kidding about starting a team, but the fact is, even just two weeks from Spring Training, the MLB free agent market has moved so slow this winter that there still remain enough quality free agents on the market that a hypothetical team of them could win the World Series.

If you’re skeptical, check out this potential roster:

Catchers: A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy
Infielders: Todd Frazier, J.J. Hardy, Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Brandon Phillips, Neil Walker
Outfielders: Jose Bautista, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, J.D. Martinez
Starting Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn
Relief Pitchers: Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Tony Watson, Tom Wilhelmsen

Every position has an All-Star-caliber player on the board, with all except catcher also featuring incredible depth on a hypothetical team.

Having this many high-quality free agents available on Feb. 2 seems unprecedented (with the exception of the strike offseason of 1994-95), and due to the high volume of unsigned players, the MLB Players Association is considering running a Spring Training camp for these players to attend until they sign, and has even discussed a potential work stoppage in protest of the high number of unsigned players (more on that later).

Looking closely at the current MLB landscape, there are reasons for this offseason’s historically-slow market.

With the recent success of the Cubs and Astros, winning the last two World Series as the dividend of their massive rebuilding projects, more teams are following that model, going all-in on rebuilding — some would even call it tanking — trying to win later by building up the talent in their farm system at the expense of the current success of the major league club.

Because of this, more teams than ever are uninterested in spending the millions of dollars it takes to sign free agents. Outspoken agent Scott Boras pointed this out to The Athletic a week ago, saying “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer… that is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”

Those comments are quite stern, and should be taken with at least a moderate grain of salt since Boras is always brash, and here is venting frustration that his players are not yet signed. But he may have actually been under-selling the number of teams opting not to compete in the free agent market — according to Jayson Stark, 13 of the 30 MLB teams have not signed a position player to a major-league contract this offseason.

Another factor, and one less discussed than the number of teams rebuilding, is the absolutely loaded free agent class coming next winter (Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson,  Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are just the headliners, with many others also set to be free agents).

With a historically-good group set to be free agents next winter, it is entirely possible that teams are consciously not spending money now to keep funds available to offer big contracts to major players this time next year.

Unfortunately, these factors have combined to negatively impact the current free agents listed in the hypothetical team above and others, as it is February and they still don’t know where they will play in the 2018 season and beyond.

The possibility of a work stoppage by the MLBPA has reportedly been discussed, although it’s unknown how realistic that possibility actually is. Such a move would certainly not be popular among fans (See: 1994 MLB strike), but certainly is not unprecedented — remember, the first time MLB and the MLBPA went through a round of collective bargaining negotiations without a work stoppage was not until 2002.

So maybe that expansion team full of current free agents isn’t such a bad idea. If it prevents a work stoppage, and thus a black eye on baseball, it may be priceless.

Column: A Gamecock Embarrassment

I’ve followed South Carolina football closely since moving to the state in 2009.

In that time, the Gamecocks have certainly had their share of ups and downs, but I can’t recall any game as embarrassing for the Gamecocks program as Saturday’s rivalry-game loss to Clemson.

I’m not talking about the score. Sure, the 34-10 score wasn’t the result what the Gamecocks and their fans were looking for, but we all knew going into the game that Clemson was the better team, and Gamecock fans were hoping their team would play a strong game and have a chance to shock the world. That didn’t happen, and the Tigers dominated, so the Gamecocks will move on to the next one.

But in the process of watching their team lose a fourth straight game in the Palmetto Bowl series, some of the Gamecock fans showed a complete lack of class and respect.

After a bad call against the Gamecocks in the middle stages of the second quarter, some fans threw trash on the field in protest. They continued throwing trash — some of it aimed at Clemson players — after additional penalties, or any time Clemson did something good for the duration of the half. Furthermore, it was reported that things had been thrown at Clemson personnel before the game even started, during pregame warmups.

“That’s an embarrassment,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN at halftime. “These people are better than that. And it’s just a few people here — that’s not a majority of these South Carolina people. That’s an embarrassing situation right there. That’s how somebody gets hurt.”

I agree with Swinney — the lack of character shown by this faction of Gamecock fans is appalling. There is no excuse for this behavior, plain and simple. It is classless, disrespectful, and most importantly, it’s dangerous.

I have been to my share of live sporting events as a fan. I’ve seen my team of choice be dominated, and occasionally disagreed with calls by the officials. I’m don’t always react perfectly calmly — but the thought of showing my displeasure by throwing something on the field has never even remotely crossed my mind.

Yet the Gamecock fans not only did this, but did it multiple times, even after being asked not to by the stadium’s public address announcer — an announcement which was reportedly booed.

The result is an embarrassment for the rest of the fan base, on top of the disappointment for the team playing their worst game of the season in its biggest.

This was more embarrassing for the Gamecock program than losing 56-10 in the program’s only SEC Championship Game appearance. It was more embarrassing than consistently being unable to beat Kentucky.

This was even more embarrassing than losing to The Citadel during the 3-9 debacle of 2015.

In each of those circumstances, the on-field result was objectively bad for the Gamecocks. But Saturday night, it was the unacceptable behavior of a few fans that was objectively bad, and put a blemish on the reputation of a loyal, enthusiastic fan base.

As a result, this embarrassment is worse than it would be for any on-field result, and will last longer than the disappointment of the blowout loss, too.

Column: Finding Inspiration From a Winless Team

Today marks one month since I began working as sports and education reporter at The Clayton Tribune in Clayton, Ga.

Over the last month, I’ve grown comfortable with the job and the area, and I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve covered and the people I’ve met.

But I’ll be honest: for the first few days, I was internally a nervous, anxious wreck.

Learning the duties of the job was almost overwhelming, while at the same time the logistical side of moving to another state and being as far away from home as I’d ever been was hanging heavily over my head.

But things changed when I found inspiration from where I least expected it: the winless Rabun County High School softball team.

On Thursday, Sept. 21, one week after I started, I went to cover their senior night game against Monticello. I had covered two of the team’s games earlier in the week, which they had lost 11-0 and 20-1. I expected more of the same on this night, especially when the Lady Cats fell behind 10-0.

In the bottom of the third, however, the team fought back. They battled, scratching and clawing for runs. The effort that coach Danette Holcombe said was missing two nights earlier was back, even though they were down big.

They got frustrated with a blatantly bad call, but channeled that emotion productively and scored five runs. Even as they still trailed by five, they were fired up as if they had tied the game.

The rest of the game had the feel of a tight game, even though the Lady Cats never got closer than five runs and eventually lost 11-6.

I was impressed how hard the team had played, how much emotion they had shown, and how genuinely they cared in a situation where many teams would have simply mailed it in. After the game, the players were disappointed they had lost, but Holcombe was, rightfully, proud of their effort.

The team honored its five seniors, then set up for a pizza party as part of their senior night celebration.

There’s no way they could have known this, but after witnessing the team’s spirit in spite of their circumstances, I was inspired by them. I was less anxious than before, and felt more at home.

My appetite hadn’t been good for the whole week before due to nerves and anxiousness–and if you know me, you know that’s unusual–but it was back. My plan of leftovers was scrapped and, prompted by the Lady Cats, I went out and got some pizza of my own.

The athletic teams of Rabun County High School are doing some amazing things this fall. The football team is undefeated, and the volleyball team hosts their state playoff opener on Tuesday after winning the area championship.

The softball team didn’t win a game this season, but they did accomplish something.

They helped a young journalist feel better acclimated to his new home, and for me that was a victory in itself.

 

For more coverage of Rabun County High School athletics, subscribe to The Clayton Tribune or visit theclaytontribune.com.

Column: Don’t Mourn for Pitino

Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday (with the expectation that he will be fired once his contractually-required 10-day notice expires) after the Cardinals program was among several implicated by an FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.

Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach with great on-court success at multiple stops throughout his career, but that has all come to a very blunt ending.

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Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday. (Bradjward/Flickr)

Yet there’s no need to mourn for the legacy Pitino has lost, as his impending termination is the end of a long, winding and, to be frank, disgraceful road that got him here.

Yes, Pitino is the only coach to lead two different schools to national championships, winning them in 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville.

Yes, he has seven Final Four appearances, and is the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four, also doing so at Providence.

Yes, he has 12 conference tournament championships (one at Boston University, five at Kentucky, six at Louisville), and been to 21 NCAA Tournaments, including 19 of the last 21 years his team was eligible.

Yes, Pitino has 770 collegiate wins, and may have 900 if not for six seasons as an NBA coach with the New York Knicks, who he took to the playoffs twice, and the Boston Celtics.

But with the revelation of the scandal that has brought Pitino’s career to a crashing end, real questions exist about Pitino’s on-court accomplishments, as the legitimacy of his players, their amateur status and their reasons for coming to Louisville (or Kentucky, Providence or Boston University) is now under a black cloud of doubt.

The FBI alleges that the family of a highly-ranked recruit (the overwhelming consensus is that the player, unnamed in the FBI report, is Louisville commit Brian Bowen) agreed to be paid $100,000 by Adidas executives–who were working in conjunction with a Louisville assistant coach–for the recruit play at Louisville. As part of the agreement, the recruit would represent Adidas when he turned professional.

This scandal reaches far beyond Louisville, as 10 individuals, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested in the case on Tuesday. But it’s Pitino who has the highest profile of anyone implicated in this case, even as he was not directly named in the FBI report (though he reportedly was listed as “Coach 2”).

Pitino was already suspended for five games this coming season as the result of his program’s previous scandal, in which former assistant coach Andre McGee had paid for the services of prostitutes and strippers for players in the team dormitory.

The program self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season, and Pitino was suspended by the NCAA for “lack of institutional control.”

Pitino has also admitted to an extramarital sexual encounter in 2003, in which he impregnated his mistress and paid for her abortion.

In each previous case, Pitino’s job has seemed bulletproof. He downplayed both his affair and the escorts scandal, and claimed ignorance regarding the escorts.

With Pitino’s habitual refusal to accept any responsibility, and the pattern of athletic director Tom Jurich–who was also fired–releasing a passive statement of support (which he’s also done in regards to the football program’s issues), I assumed we would see the same movie this week, and Pitino would be pacing the sidelines of the KFC Yum! Center this winter.

Yet this scandal, which figures to bring down more than just Pitino over the coming months, finally ousted a man who could have, and should have, been out of college basketball years ago.

From purely an on-the-court perspective, Rick Pitino can legitimately say he has had a good career.

But don’t shed a tear for Pitino’s career coming to an end the way it did.

He’s done plenty to deserve this.

Fast Five: Best Throwback Paint Schemes at Darlington

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington is NASCAR’s oldest crown jewel, dating back to 1950 when Johnny Mantz won with a whopping average speed of 75.25 miles per hour.

This weekend, as the speeds will approach 200, the competitors will honor the past for the third straight year during NASCAR’s throwback weekend.

Darlington Raceway began the throwback theme for their race weekends in 2015, and the event instantly became a favorite in the sport, getting bigger and better every year.

In addition to some throwback apparel and haircuts making their way through the garage area each year, the majority of the cars are sporting throwback paint schemes to the drivers of yesteryear.

Here are the best among the paint schemes for this year’s throwback weekend:

Honorable Mention:  XFinity Series Drivers Honor Legends

The cars in Saturday’s XFinity Series race, the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200, will not race in the Southern 500, but are still honoring some of the sports’ greatest legends.

Dylan Lupton is throwing back to six-time Southern 500 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and his classic rainbow paint scheme from the 1990s.  In the rainbow DuPont car, Gordon won four straight Southern 500s from 1995-98, including the 1997 win to clinch the Winston Million bonus.

Erik Jones pays tribute to the late Davey Allison, who drove a #28 Texaco-Havoline paint scheme in the late 1980s, including his 1987 Rookie of the Year season and a runner-up finish to his father Bobby in the 1988 Daytona 500 in a car that is also being thrown back to this weekend (see below).

Ryan Reed is honoring the late Alan Kulwicki on the 25th anniversary of his remarkable 1992 Cup Series title.  This paint scheme is from 1989, when Kulwicki drove his #7 Zerex Ford to his first career Cup win at Phoenix.

Cole Custer’s car honors two-time XFinity Series champion Sam Ard (1983-84), who died earlier this year.  Ard, who is Pamplico, S.C., near Darlington, won 22 XFinity races in just three seasons before retiring after the 1984 season due to injuries.

Jeremy Clements, who drove a family-owned car to win last week’s XFinity Series race at Road America in a huge upset, is honoring A.J. Foyt, who drove this paint scheme to victory in the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.  This car has personal meaning for Clements; his grandfather Crawford was the crew chief on Foyt’s car.

Dakoda Armstrong honors legend and local native Cale Yarborough, from Timmonsville, S.C., who won five Southern 500s and three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles (1976-78).  Yarborough drove this paint scheme, sponsored by Hardee’s, from 1983-87, mostly in number 28, the number of Armstrong’s car this weekend.

 

5.  Denny Hamlin

While all the throwbacks honor racing’s legends, Hamlin’s is unique as it honors modified racing legend Ray Hendrick.  Hendrick, from Hamlin’s home state of Virginia, is nicknamed Mr. Modified, won over 700 races, and is the all-time winner at Martinsville Speedway with 20.

4.  Aric Almirola

Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 will honor The King with a car replicating the paint scheme he drove to his 200th and final victory on July 4, 1984 in the Firecracker 400.  Almirola has honored Petty with his throwback the last two years, but you can’t go wrong honoring the undisputed greatest living driver in the sport’s history.  This car even has the original sponsor, STP, on the throwback scheme.

3.  Three Classics from 1985-1989

The official theme for this year’s throwback weekend is the 1985-89 era, and these cars are running paint schemes from that era:

Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman are both throwing back to Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler Chevrolet from the late 1980s, but Dillon’s is the more notable throwback as he does so in car number 3.  This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the first of three Southern 500 wins by The Intimidator, who won seven NASCAR Cup titles.

Kasey Kahne will recreate the Levi Garrett #5 Chevrolet, driven by Geoff Bodine from 1985-89 in the early years of Hendrick Motorsports, including his 1986 Daytona 500 win.  The number has since been driven by drivers including Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, all at Hendrick, but will not return in 2018 as Hendrick re-aligns its car numbers to allow Chase Elliott to drive #9, his Hall of Fame father’s old number.

Matt DiBenedetto’s #32 Ford depicts the #12 Miller High Life Buick that Bobby Allison drove to victory in the aforementioned 1988 Daytona 500.  Allison’s career also ended in this paint scheme when he was seriously injured in a 1988 crash at Pocono.

2.  Drivers Throwing Back to Themselves

Two drivers are throwing back to cars they drove in the 1990s.  (You know you’re old when…)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his final Southern 500 start in his #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, in the paint scheme he drove in the XFinity Series as a #3 AC Delco Chevrolet in 1998-99.  Earnhardt Jr. won two XFinity Series titles in the car, and finished 2nd in the 1998 XFinity Series race at Darlington.  He has never won the Southern 500 but finished second in 2014 and eighth in 2015 (he did not start last year due to injury).

Talk about throwbacks, how about a throwback driver!  1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, who made his Cup debut in 1982, will make his 11th Cup start of the season in a paint scheme he drove in 1994 for owner Bobby Allison, as Mane ‘n’ Tail returns as sponsor.  This is not the first time Cope has thrown back to himself, as he drove the paint scheme from his Daytona win in the 2015 Darlington XFinity Series race.  Cope has not finished higher than 31st in a race this season.

1.  Brad Keselowski 

Brad Keselowski will drive a Miller Genuine Draft Ford identical to the car Rusty Wallace drove from 1991-95, a period when he won 23 races.  Miller has sponsored the Penske Racing #2 car ever since, so the sponsor is even the same on this throwback.  Even as simple as it is, this is one of the great paint schemes in the sport’s history, and I naturally like black and gold things, so this is easily the top paint scheme of this year’s throwback weekend.

Column: Thomas Earns PGA–And Rightful Place Among Golf’s Young Stars

The biggest storyline entering the 99th PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, and whether he could become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.

When the dust settled at dusk on Sunday Spieth was, in fact, celebrating a championship on the 18th green–in street clothes, as he hugged close friend and first-time major winner Justin Thomas.

Thomas earned the PGA title by emerging from a crowded pack of contenders over Quail Hollow’s back nine on Sunday, and in doing so earned his rightful place among the group of young stars dominating today’s golf landscape.

A Well-Earned Title

Thomas started Sunday’s final round two shots back of 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner, and while he certainly benefited from a couple of good breaks on his way to winning the Wanamaker Trophy, he also showed his skill in the clutch en route to victory.

After struggling through the brutal opening hole, Thomas made a clutch 15-footer to limit the damage and make bogey.  Thomas then birdied the second and seventh holes, before holing a 36-footer for birdie at the ninth to get within a shot of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead.

Riding the momentum at the turn, Thomas’s 10th hole turned a good round into a round of destiny.  His tee shot was way left on the 600-yard par-5, but bounced off a tree straight to the center of the fairway.  After his second missed the green long and his third rolled to within eight feet, his birdie putt rolled to the left lip of the hole and stopped, before falling in the hole after 12 suspenseful seconds, keeping him within one.


A par at the 11th pulled Thomas into a five-way tie for the lead (when Matsuyama made bogey), then a par at the 12th gave him the lead as his fellow co-leaders each fell off the 7-under mark, Thomas chipped in from left of the green on the par-3 13th, adding to his final round highlight reel and his lead, which was two.


As other players continued to struggle down the stretch, Thomas made pars on the 14th, 15th and 16th, then birdied the difficult par-3 17th after an aggressive tee shot to 14 feet on a green guarded on three sides by water, allowing him to conservatively play the dangerous 18th with a three-shot lead on his way to clinching the victory with a tap-in bogey.

A Young Star

By earning the PGA title with his steady play throughout the final round, Thomas has also earned his rightful place among golf’s young stars, especially alongside his friend Spieth.

Thomas and Spieth, both 24, grew up playing together as two of the best junior golfers in the world.  Both represented the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup (Spieth 2008, ’10; Thomas 2010) and Walker Cup (Spieth 2011, Thomas 2013), contributing to American victories in each event.  Both would eventually lead a college team to a national championship (Spieth at Texas in 2012; Thomas at Alabama in 2013).

Both Spieth and Thomas appeared in a PGA Tour event at age 16.  Spieth opened eyes with a 16th-place finish at the 2010 Valero Texas Open, but a few months earlier Thomas had shot an opening 65 in the Wyndham Championship and become the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event, proving his game’s strength to all in attendance that week in Greensboro–myself included.

Spieth has had more success since the two turned pro, but that’s at least partially because Spieth turned pro before Thomas, and had more PGA Tour opportunities through sponsor exemptions, while Thomas had to qualify for the Tour through the second-tier Web.com Tour.

But now, Thomas is catching up in the most-viewed category of success–major championships–by ironically winning the one major Spieth lacks.

The major title puts Thomas a leg up on others in the tight-knit group of young stars.  Other young guns still seeking their first major include Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman from the U.S. and international players including Jon Rahm, Emiliano Grillo and Matsuyama, who went on to tie for fifth Sunday and has finished second to Thomas in two other events this season.  Rickie Fowler, who was also waiting to congratulate Thomas at the 18th green, is older (28) than some of the other players, but is close with Thomas, Spieth and others of the young wave.

Thomas will also be the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors as the Tour enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs next week.  Thomas leads the Tour with four wins, all by two or more strokes, including one in a major and one in January’s SBS Tournament of Champions.  On January 12, Thomas became the youngest of eight players in PGA Tour history to break 60, shooting 59 on his way to a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.  Thomas also tied a U.S. Open record with a 63 in the third round before finishing ninth.

The last time two players under 25 won back-to-back majors was in 1925, when Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

The names Jones and Sarazen were commonly heard in major championship conversations over the next decade.

We know the name Spieth will similarly be a part of the conversation for the extended foreseeable future.

But now, after earning his first major, Justin Thomas has earned his place in that conversation too.