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.

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Column: A True Fall Classic

The World Series is nicknamed “The Fall Classic,” but let’s be honest–it doesn’t always live up to that “classic” billing. Many Series over the years have ended in four or five games, with few enduring moments.

But this year, as the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for a winner-take-all Game 7 tonight (8:20 p.m. ET, FOX), the World Series has lived up to the “Fall Classic” label, unfolding as one of the greatest World Series ever played. And just think, there’s a game still to be played, and it’s a Game 7–baseball at its best.

From the time the matchup was set, the 113th World Series was destined for greatness, with two exceptional teams meeting for baseball’s greatest prize–the Astros and Dodgers are the first set of 100-plus-win teams to meet in the World Series since 1970.

Yet as good as this Series looked on paper, it has been even better on the field. With each team playing at an incredibly high level, each game has been close (even the 6-2 Dodgers win in Game 4 was 1-1 entering the ninth), intense and entertaining. The Series has had everything, with pitcher’s duels in Games 1 and 6, an all-out offensive slugfest in the Game 5 instant classic, and a Game 2 that had both extremes in the same game.

A great week of baseball will now conclude with the 38th winner-take-all game in World Series history, as the Astros and Dodgers become the first 100-win teams to meet in a Game 7 since Herbert Hoover was president in 1931.

Tonight’s game marks the first time back-to-back World Series have reached a Game 7 since 2001 and 2002. But while last year’s epic Game 7 between the Cubs and Indians will be a tough act to follow, if there’s a World Series that can produce a comparable classic, it’s this one. It has, after all, already produced six phenomenal contests.

So as the Astros and Dodgers play the final baseball game of the year tonight, bringing this breathtaking World Series to a decisive climax, savor it. We’re watching the determining game of a true “Fall Classic.”

 

 

113th World Series

Game 1
Los Angeles 3, Houston 1
W: Kershaw, L: Keuchel, S: Jansen
Dodgers lead Series 1-0

Game 2
Houston 7, Los Angeles 6, 11 innings
W: Devenski, L: McCarthy
Series tied 1-1

Game 3
Houston 5, Los Angeles 3
W: McCullers, L: Darvish, S: Peacock
Astros lead Series 2-1

Game 4
Los Angeles 6, Houston 2
W: Watson, L: Giles
Series tied 2-2

Game 5
Houston 13, Los Angeles 12, 10 innings
W: Musgrove, L: Jansen
Astros lead 3-2

Game 6
Los Angeles 3, Houston 1
W: Watson (2), L: Verlander, S: Jansen (2)
Series tied 3-3

Game 7
Houston at Los Angeles
Tonight, 8:20 p.m. ET, FOX

 

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.

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.

Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins

Column: Raiders Backstabbing Fans With Move to Vegas

Monday, the NFL owners approved for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas.  The move will take effect once a stadium is built in Sin City, with an earliest realistic ETA of 2020.

By moving, the Raiders franchise is stabbing one of the most vocal and loyal fanbases in sports in the back.

Prior to last year’s AFC playoff appearance, the Raiders franchise had been in a prolonged slump.  After reaching Super Bowl XXXVII–which they lost to Tampa Bay 48-21–the team did not have another winning season until last year’s 12-4 campaign.  While that season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to Houston aided by several key late-season injuries, the future is very bright for coach Jack Del Rio’s team.

Now, as the franchise’s boisterous and devoted fans finally have a solid on-field product to watch, the Raiders executives are abandoning their supporters who have stayed with them through so many rough seasons.

Sure, the Raiders have actually consistently ranked in the bottom half in attendance over the last few years.  But every franchise would suffer at the box office if they were mired in a decade-plus of losing–and few other franchises have the culture and tradition of the Raiders, which they have enjoyed in good seasons and bad.  As the team’s fortunes improved in 2016, attendance did as well.

In addition to on-field struggles, the Raiders have one of the smaller stadiums in the NFL–the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum has a capacity of 63,132.  The Raiders share a market with the San Francisco 49ers, who play across the bay at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara; the Bay Area is by far the smallest two-team market in the NFL (behind New York and Los Angeles).

Combining all factors, the Raiders low statistical attendance makes sense.  However, the stats can’t show the atmosphere created in Oakland, especially in big games (even though there haven’t been many of them there in recent years).

Even as these fans are the ones hurt by the move, they are not actually the reason for it.

It’s no secret that for the team to stay in Oakland long-term, a stadium was necessary.  The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is shared with MLB’s Oakland Athletics and is, quite frankly, seen by many as a dump.

The City of Oakland has dragged its feet for years, but now has a stadium proposal which is realistic and feasible (but expensive).  A stadium plan approved by both the city of Oakland and Alameda County would cost the city $200 million, an investment group led by Raider legend Ronnie Lott $400 million, the Raiders franchise $500 million and the NFL $300 million (the league committed this money to a potential stadium proposal when it turned down the Raiders’ application to relocate to Los Angeles in favor of the Rams and Chargers moving there).

If a plan exists for the Raiders to remain in place, and especially in a place where all their fans and tradition are already established, then why are they so eager to move to Las Vegas and abandon their fans in northern California?

Sure, the NFL is a business, and there is a potential for tons of revenue in a previously untapped market that is also one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.  But that being said, I’m not completely sold that the move will pay off in the long run.

Las Vegas is certainly a growing market.  Pro sports have stayed away in the past because of the connection the city has with sports gambling, but all four of the major North American pro sports leagues have softened their stance in recent years.  The city acquired an expansion franchise in the NHL that will begin play this fall, and now has convinced the Raiders to move from Oakland.

The city, theoretically, has a large enough population to support an NFL franchise, since it is as large or larger than several existing NFL cities.  But while cities like Green Bay and Buffalo both have well-supported franchises, other cities similar in size to Las Vegas have struggled with fan support; partially for this reason, St. Louis lost their franchise when the Rams moved to Los Angeles last year.

That said, Las Vegas is unlike any other city in America.  In the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World,” tourism is the biggest part of the economy.  Sure, the residents of the Las Vegas area would make some permanent fans, but the NFL is surely counting on tourism to provide additional filled seats in the Las Vegas stadium, which will be located just off The Strip.

This is an experiment, as no other NFL franchise will be so reliant on tourists being interested in its games, and one which may work–or may not.  Sure, fans will show up en masse at first, but once the novelty of a Las Vegas team wears off, it’s impossible to know if the visitors will keep heading to the stadium.

It’s telling that the NFL owners, who typically have little tolerance for unnecessary distractions, are moving a team to a city full of them.

As for the immediate future, while the Raiders wait for their Las Vegas home to be built, the Raiders will continue playing at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Their lease there runs through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018.

The earliest the Las Vegas stadium can be finished is likely 2020, meaning the Raiders would have to find a temporary home for that season, either in the Bay Area (more likely) or the Las Vegas area.  Conventional wisdom would say to play as few lame duck seasons in the Bay Area as possible, but there is not currently an attractive stadium option in Las Vegas to even use temporarily:  UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium has a maximum capacity of 40,000.

The Bay Area has three more likely options for a temporary home in 2019:  Levi’s Stadium (capacity 68,500), which they would share with the 49ers, Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto (cap. 50,000) or California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley (cap. 63,000).  Levi’s Stadium just opened in 2014, while California Memorial Stadium was renovated from 2010-12.

The move to Las Vegas is not the first time the Raiders have forsaken their long-standing fans in Oakland for a move to one of America’s centers of entertainment.  After playing in Oakland from 1960-81, the Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, playing in the City of Angels for 13 seasons before moving back to Oakland after 1994.

Now, history is repeating itself as the Raiders move to Las Vegas.  But this time, even if they return to Oakland in another decade as they did before, the forsaken fans may not.