The Butler divide

How people perceive sports is something that’s always fascinated me. The NCAA Tournament is not simply a great sporting event because of the thrills it provides; it’s also a look in the mirror for many sports fans.

No university’s men’s hoops team elicits such a wide range of reactions more than the Butler Bulldogs. Their run last year was seen as a cute story. Their run this year combined with VCU’s and the lack of one or two seeds in the Final Four, has many fans very concerned about the state of the game.

Some of us like the so-called “blue bloods,” the traditional elites. Some of us root for the underdog every time. Judging the national pulse on something is difficult but has been made easier thanks to Twitter. As I watched Butler-VCU last night unfold, I saw many comments about how this was “bad basketball” and not what America wants to see in the Final Four. Fans are worried the game has so much parity that the quality has eroded. Michael Wilbon wrote about this before the tournament even began and he was dead right about the parity.

The quality or lack there of, now there lies the rub. We’re in a new era in college sports. Ever since the NBA  declared that every high school athlete needs to wait one year (translation: go to college unless you’re Brandon Jennings and want to take your talents to Europe) before going pro, traditional powerhouses in college basketball have relied primarily on star freshmen such as John Wall, O.J. Mayo, and BJ Mullens. (I’m kidding about Mullens, he sucked.)

The only problem: a star freshman has not led a team to a title since Carmelo Anthony, and he did that before the new rule was instituted. 18 and 19 year olds, no matter how talented, are still learning the game of basketball. The jump from 18 to 22 is significant, and now we’re seeing the teams who recruit the players who actually stick around thrive the most.

This has led to cracks in the armor of the traditional powers. Upsets have always been a part of March Madness, but the runs we’ve seen recently from teams outside the power six conferences are truly remarkable. George Mason made it to the Final Four in 2006, becoming the first 11 seed to do so since LSU, and that was just the beginning. Since then we’ve seen an elite eight run by Davidson, San Diego State earning a two seed, BYU earning a three seed, VCU dismantling teams from five of the six power conferences, and the absurdity of Butler reaching two straight national title games.

This is shaking the foundation of college basketball. Fans are lamenting that the game isn’t like it used to be, and they’re right, it’s not. But that’s not a bad thing.

I happen to fall into the underdog fan category. How can I not…having grown up in Seattle and attended Northwestern University? Frankly, I root against the powerhouse teams at every turn. I want as much chaos as possible in my tournaments, playoffs, and BCS.

Although, I’m not so sure Butler should be considered an underdog anymore. They had a NBA lottery pick last year in Gordon Hayward, and there’s a lot of buzz this year about the pro potential of Shelvin Mack.  Nonetheless, the underdog theme continues in prominent places because some people are hopeless romantics.

Other people are obsessed with advanced metrics and refuse to give Butler any credit, saying that Florida is a better team than Butler….after Butler beat the Gators.

You get the idea…however you may view Butler, it’s an insight in to how you view sports. If they’re bad for college basketball, it means you like traditional, elite programs. If they’re an example about why college football needs a play-off, you really hate the BCS and can’t stop thinking about it even in March. If Brad Stevens is a genius, you think coaching matters more than the players. If Matt Howard annoys you, you probably also hate the Wisconsin Badgers and a certain style of basketball.

My view? I love Butler and think they are a legitimately great team. Comparing eras is impossible so I can’t say whether they could have hung with the old UNLV teams or the old Duke teams or the Fab Five. Frankly, I don’t care. Maybe I don’t pine for the olden days because I’m 23 years old.

All I know is that for this era in college basketball…they’re one of the best programs in the nation. You don’t need a bunch of NBA draft picks to win in college basketball. That’s fine. It’s a completely different sport than the NBA. Watch a college game and then watch a NBA game. The differences are much more immense than simply talent.

My advice to people struggling with the idea of the “little guys” taking over: appreciate college basketball for what it is, not for what it was or what you wish it would be. It’s kids playing because they love the game, not for money or endorsement deals (in most cases…I think). It’s entertainment of the highest order that is still pretty darn good basketball. It’s true parity.

It’s embodied by Butler.

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A different kind of art

I fully admit that I don’t know the first thing about music. Piano lessons were pretty short-lived for me as a kid. One time I tried to learn how to play a trumpet. I couldn’t make a sound. You’d be hard-pressed to find very many recording artists that I’d recognize when their songs play on the radio.

But I’m very proud of my friend Doug Kaplan, whose band released their debut album today. It took them two years as they raised funds, wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. This is no small accomplishment.

I feel like broadcasting, just like music, is a form of art. And with any form of art, you have to be totally dedicated to your craft to succeed. Broadcasters spend countless hours perfecting their style and musicians spend probably even more time with their music.

Just like me, Doug is a product of Northwestern’s outstanding student radio station: 89.3 FM WNUR. The station gave me the chance to get experience calling division one athletics and in leadership as I was sports director my junior year. Meanwhile, Doug became General Manager of the station and was one of the most dedicated of all the DJ’s as almost every time I came in to the on-air control room, he was there enthusiastically showing other people the ropes or hosting his own show.

The most valuable part of college in my opinion is what you do outside the classroom. There are so many extracurricular opportunities where you can explore your passion. My passion happens to be sports. Doug’s is music. This album is an impressive start and I suggest you give it a listen.

Let the journey begin…

In case you weren’t aware from my Twitter and Facebook posts, I will be headed to Joliet in about a week to work in media relations and broadcasting for the expansion Slammers of the Frontier League.

This is really exciting because I get to be with a team that was only formed a few months ago.

What’s really amazing about this gig is that I wouldn’t have gotten it if Twitter didn’t exist. Sorry if this sounds like I’m rehashing what I wrote yesterday, but this is a new development.

I am a member of STAA, which is a site that for about 20 bucks a month they’ll host your resume and demo and send you job notifications. They also have lots of other cool services that you can read about on their site. Anyways, one thing they did about a year ago was create a “Twitter list” of all their clients. They also created a list of their top 20 collegiate broadcasters of 2010. I happened to be on that list along with Adam Young, who is now the voice of Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League. Well Adam and I started conversing back and forth first on Twitter, then on Facebook. We critiqued each other’s demos and generally got to know each other via the world wide web. One day in December he emailed me about a potential opening with the expansion Slammers. I had never heard of the Slammers at that time but I sent the GM an email. He responded right away and invited me out to Joliet for an interview.

At the interview I was really impressed with the organization, even though it’s in its infancy. The Slammers want to run their operation like a big league franchise and clearly have a great drive to be successful. They seemed to like me as well. For the next month I was basically sweating bullets waiting for a response and yesterday it arrived in my email. While I didn’t get the lead role, I will be heavily contributing to the broadcasts and handling most of the media relations for their inaugural season.

This is awesome on so many levels, one of which is the fact I’ll only be an hour away from where I went to college and where so many good friends still reside. But the greatest thing is I’ll be getting paid to do something I love, which is everyone’s goal, isn’t it?

This opportunity would have never arose without someone I’ve never met in person giving me the job lead.

So stay tuned as I’ll be continue updating this blog on my journey to Joliet and through the 2011 baseball season.

Go Slammers!

Social media and sports

What we’ve seen the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. Teams, athletes, the media members that cover them, and the fans that follow them have fully embraced the social media revolution.

Some might say “revolution” is hyperbole but I think it’s justified due to the fact social media has completely changed how we interact. For instance, yesterday I was chatting on Facebook in real time with a friend currently in Cameroon. Just  a decade ago, this would have been unimaginable. While Facebook Chat is a derivative of AIM and G-CHAT, it’s so much more powerful because Facebook as a whole allows you to keep up with your friends’ lives without making the effort of..you know..calling or having to even write anything at all.

But Facebook and more recently Twitter have had the biggest impact in the way we follow sports. Twitter in particular has become like a big sports bar for nationally televised games. Everyone gets together online and comments on the action in real time, with their predictions usually being hilariously wrong. My favorite moment is after a big play and people issue Tweets like “WOW” and my personal favorite “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” It is rather amazing that you can sit alone in your house, watching a game, yet still be connected like never before just simply by refreshing your Twitter app on your cell phone.

It hasn’t taken long for athletes and teams to catch on. Teams smartly use social media as a way to directly connect with their fans. It’s marketing Mecca. Ticket give-aways through re-tweets, which consequently spreads their brand, is just one way they get their message across. A simpler way they connect directly with you, the consumer, is by taking a photo of the starting lineups the minute they’re posted and posting them to Twitter. In the past, you didn’t know the lineups until they were announced at the game or on the radio. Not anymore. It’s instant information in the palm of your hand.

Sports are supposed to be fun. Social Media has increased their entertainment value ten fold. Athletes joined Twitter and Facebook as a way to talk to the fans without having to answer questions from a reporter. But luckily for us, some athletes aren’t quite savvy when it comes to the power of social media yet. For instance, the Matt Hasselbeck-Antonio Cromartie dust-up was classic unintentional comedy. Media members aren’t above picking fights either. Jason Whitlock joining Twitter was probably one of the best social media occurrences ever. He is a must-follow because you never know who he’s going to call-out next.

Sports is also about debate. Before Facebook and Twitter came along, you could definitely debate sports. Talk Radio and more recently blogs, were your only forums though. The @ reply feature on Twitter has allowed for heated debates that can carry on for days. You can set up your phone for a notification that someone has replied to you. These debates often are not one-on-one, but can include tons of people. And unlike on a blog, you face the challenge of having to make your point in 140 characters or less. It’s brilliant, and makes debating so much more intriguing and entertaining.

Breaking sports news is another amazing feature of social media. If you’re a reporter you can literally break the news the instant you find out. Then you can write the article to post online. As a consumer though, you have to follow the right people because there is always the risk of erroneous reports.

The world of social media is making everyone’s sports-life better. Teams can find their target audience easier, players can skip the middle-man, reporters can break stories and promote their articles, and fans are connected to the world like never before.

It’s a crazy cyber world out there and I love it.

The purpose of coaching

We get hung up on the scoreboard too much. When I say that, I am not being some old school, idealistic person who preaches “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” I would rephrase it and say “if you do things the right away, the wins will start coming.” I want the teams who I root for to win with all my heart. And I realize that sports at the Division One and especially the professional level are big business. For instance, Kyle Brotzman’s missed field goal against Nevada cost Boise State three million dollars.

But the role of the head coach goes way beyond wins and losses.

That brings us to Bill Carmody.

Carmody is the head coach of the Northwestern University men’s basketball program. He’s the second-longest tenured men’s hoops coach in the Big Ten. Let’s get this out of the way: his record is not very good. He’s never led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament (nor has anyone else). On the surface, it would appear he’s more than worn out his welcome. If you were judging him purely on wins and losses, he should have been fired a long time ago. Popular NU blog Lake the Posts wrote today that after the the Wildcats’ embarrassing loss to Penn State that Carmody’s time is up. He writes off the administration’s patience with Carmody as a product of former NU president and “Princeton buddy” Henry Bienen’s loyalty.

This, of course, is absurd, and is a misunderstanding of why Carmody has been around for so long and why he’ll continue to be Northwestern’s coach whether fans are happy or not.

Most fans pay lip service to what’s really important about coaching, but at the end of the day they come back to the won-loss record, and that’s a mistake.

No matter the sport, the most important thing about coaching is your players buying in to what you’re preaching. Everything else follows from that very simple point. At the professional level, it’s mostly managing egos with some instruction. At the college level, it’s mostly teaching the players how to play the game. Although there are certainly egos to manage in college as well. But no matter what you’re doing, it’s all about the players wanting to play and liking to play for you.

I’ve seen from first hand experience why this matters. As a freshman and sophomore at Northwestern University, I traveled frequently with the women’s basketball team. To say the atmosphere on the team bus and at the team meals was toxic would be an understatement. One time we were in the elevator and the coach shouted “hold the door”, and got on. After she got off the elevator, one of the players said “we should have closed it on her.”

Naturally, the team’s record was terrible and the coach finally left after my sophomore year. NU brought in Joe McKeown and the players liked him instantly. He connected with them and the turnaround has been remarkable, both off and on the court. Traveling with the team my last two years was fun because a great weight had been lifted off the program.

The reason why the players liking the coach and buying in to what he or she is preaching is so important is that athletics is all about building. You cannot build a sustainable program if you continue to just cycle through coaches or have a coach no one likes hang around. You can definitely win in the short-term with a coach the players don’t seem to listen to if you have the talent, but eventually that program will collapse.

Northwestern players like and respect Bill Carmody. This has been clear to me on the trips I’ve taken with the team. The atmosphere is always loose and the players feel at ease. He is an interesting man because he’s very intellectual. His disarming honesty is refreshing. You won’t hear him making grand statements. He avoids hyperbole. He’s not “RAH RAH” like other Big Ten coaches (Tom Crean comes to mind), but he gets his points across quite effectively. He came from Princeton and runs a unique offense that will occasionally look very ugly because it relies so much on the three-point shot. For instance, the Penn State game was terrible because quite simply nothing would fall. Carmody’s motto of “make shots” is brilliant in its simplicity. But he can’t control if every player on the team happens to have an off night.

Another measure of a good coach is whether or not his peers respect him. Talking to other Big Ten coaches, they don’t just give platitudes like “he’s a good coach, his teams are tough”, they go above and beyond the usual statements and they rave about Carmody’s ability. Tom Izzo once told me that he thinks Bill Carmody is one of the top coaches in the entire nation.

Izzo would know a thing or two about good coaching. NU has not seen the results yet on the court for a variety of reasons. Reason number one in my opinion is that you cannot recruit with the big boys when your facilities are so rotten. NU’s practice gym is quite frankly an embarrassment. Even when they try to change something for the better, they screw up. Welsh Ryan Arena added a bunch of banners in the rafters to make it look more impressive. Only problem: they screwed up the men’s basketball banner. They only credited the ‘Cats with four NIT appearances when in reality they’ve made five. I’m not going to give a history lesson, but NU’s hoops history has zero tradition. Actually, worse than that, they have negative tradition. There is almost nothing to be proud of and no real draw for recruits. People always say “if Stanford and Duke can do it why can’t NU?” Well, we can, but we’re going to have to be very patient.

That being said, the administration is making admirable efforts to turn NU sports into something to be reckoned with. In my opinion, during his time at NU Carmody has helped the cause by doing more with less. There’s a web site called “Fire Bill Carmody.” Their tagline is “because 8th place is not good enough.” Well, no, it’s not. But a lot of NU fans see the climb as almost impossible if Carmody remains on board. They forget that all it takes to make the NCAA Tournament any given year is 5th or 6th place…assuming your non-conference record is good. In recent years, NU’s overall record has been close to NCAA worthy, yet people write it off as due to easy non-conference schedules. NU tried to schedule Duke, but Duke backed out of a home and home arrangement. They did play eventual national runner-ups Butler last year. The thing is…no one wants to come to Welsh Ryan Arena because they know how dangerous the ‘Cats are at home. NU is close…and the reason they are so close is Carmody. It’s not a coincidence that the program has made the NIT the past two years after hitting rock bottom my sophomore season. We’ve seen a new dedication from the administration that has supported Carmody and given him more to worth with. It’s not enough yet, but it’s getting there.

In college, academics are considered quaint, a relic of the past. Not at Northwestern. Bill Carmody has guided NU to a PERFECT APR over the past four years. In my opinion, one very important measure of a college coach is how he encourages his athletes to also succeed in the classroom. There are only two rounds in the NBA draft. Life continues after college and Bill Carmody has prepared every student-athlete who has come through this men’s basketball program for great success in life. I would take a Bill Carmody over a John Calipari every…single…time.

When a coach is universally respected by his players and fellow coaches, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach is dedicated to the development of his players both on and off the court or playing field, he’s a good coach no matter the record by his name.

When a coach does more with less resources, he is a good coach no matter the record by his name.

Bill Carmody is a very good coach. The wins will start increasing, the losses will start decreasing, and people will find it silly one day looking back that they ever wanted him fired. The reasons behind NU’s lack of success over the years goes beyond simply who the head coach has been. Throwing Carmody under the bus is ignoring how good a coach he is and how much more support he’s starting to get.

So the next time you’re thinking about calling for the coach of your favorite team to get the ax, do some thinking, look beyond the obvious. Sports is more than the final score sometimes. If you do things the right way, eventually those scores will turn in your favor. It’s taking Bill Carmody and Northwestern longer than many fans would like, but you get the sense they’re just a few points here and there from reaching the promised land.

The sun rises again

I’m a Mariners fan, so most would say I should not be excited about another baseball season. Considering my team scored the fewest runs in the DH era last year, that would be a reasonable statement. Also, when your biggest off-season acquisition was Jack Cust…well that says it all doesn’t it?

But after this longest of winters, which has seen practically the entire country hit by multiple blizzards of epic proportions, the fact that Valentine’s Day marks the beginning of Spring Training this year seems very appropriate.

It’s time to begin our love affair again.

The baseball season is like an epic movie. It’s not for everyone. Some people have a hard time paying attention for that long. But for those who truly appreciate the beauty of what they’re seeing, it’s worth every minute. The thing about Spring Training is that it’s a time where every team believes there’s a chance this could be their year. I pay almost no attention to pre-season projections because they don’t matter. The lush history of baseball is full of improbable underdog stories of teams and players that no one believed in, rising to heights that no one could have anticipated.

At the same time, sometimes teams suffer through seasons you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Luckily for fans, this era of spectacular ballparks makes the suffering a little less harsh. The experience of going to a baseball game today is both tremendously fun and relaxing. Every football game is rife with intensity and you feel drained afterwards. That is fun, but my heart couldn’t handle that intensity for a whole year. Basketball games are indoors and intermittent, there is no rhyme or reason to the schedule; same with hockey.

But baseball is every day (with a few Mondays off), and with a few exceptions, outdoors. Unlike football, you don’t have to stress over the result of the particular game you attend. At Safeco Field, when the Mariners are losing 10-2 to Detroit, I can still breathe in the fresh air and admire the surroundings. I can still appreciate the little things in the game, like a great throw from Ichiro, or a particularly nasty breaking ball. Baseball just relaxes me, yet is still wildly entertaining. It’s like there’s some sort of spell on the ballpark. Once I enter…all is right in the world.

That’s not to say I don’t deeply care about the fortunes of my favorite team. I think what’s happened over the past decade with the Mariners is tragic as we’ve wasted Ichiro’s career. One of the most exciting players of all-time has been to the post-season once due to poor management and bad luck.

But Spring Training is here. There’s already positive news on the Eric Bedard front as he continues to try and revive a career that’s taken a turn for the worse. I’m excited to watch Adam Moore, Michael Saunders, and Franklin Gutierrez continue to develop. Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda are close to Big League ready as well. Maybe new manager Eric Wedge will have an immediate impact. Maybe Chone Figgins will find himself and become the dynamic threat we thought we were getting last year.

Maybe…just maybe…the Mariners can shock the world.

It’s Spring Training time…I’m allowed to dream.

 

The most difficult game

Having graduated from Northwestern University in December, I’ve been job hunting ever since. Unlike most people who are in the marketplace, the job I’m searching for is incredibly specific. My goal is to land a job broadcasting minor league baseball. There are a lot of minor league teams out there; the problem is that for every job that opens up…hundreds apply. Once someone lands a job in minor league baseball, they tend to hang on to it for dear life. This is not an industry for someone who doesn’t have a passion for the game of baseball.  Having worked a season with the Huntsville Stars as a broadcast assistant at the Double-A level, I can tell you that baseball broadcasting is a grind. Your hours are not normal and those that are lucky enough to get paid still make very little. (And when I say very little I mean if you’re making more than 20,000 a year in minor league ball, you’re doing very well.)

I know of no other job where the compensation is so low but the supply of people who want the gig is so high. Part of this I think is due to the fact that all young aspiring broadcasters grew up in the ESPN era. ESPN makes broadcasting look glamorous, and at the highest level, it can be exactly that. But, similar to acting, for those at the lower levels it is not glamorous whatsoever. As someone wise once said “if you’re in this business for the fame or fortune..get out now.” But another reason the supply of broadcasters is so high is that there are a lot of people who grew up like I did..eating, drinking, and sleeping baseball. We can’t see ourselves doing anything else but broadcasting the sport we love. Sure, we all would have liked to have been major league baseball players, but most of us realized at around the age of oh 11 (in my case) that this wasn’t going to happen due to genetics or just lack of skill. So the next step is this: how can we still be involved in this game without actually playing it? The answer came easily enough to so many of us: broadcasting!

One of my friends is a talented broadcaster whom I worked with at the student radio and TV stations at Northwestern for four years. He graduated in June (I took spring quarter off to take the internship with the Huntsville Stars), and has been looking for a broadcasting gig ever since. I’m happy to report he landed a number two gig with a Midwest League team the other day. The only catch: he has to play the role of the mascot at public events related to the team. It’s also a seasonal job…meaning he’ll only get paid for the season…during the off-season he’ll have to find another job. Full time, lead broadcaster positions, are extremely rare and hard to find. You have to be proficient in not only broadcasting, but media relations, community relations, and group/corporate sales to succeed in minor league baseball. Wearing many hats is expected. The best way to stick in minor league ball is to become an expert salesman. If you can bring money to the organization directly, your value goes up significantly in the front office’s mind. If there’s one thing that connects all minor league teams is that money is always low, and sales must be made.

And in the end…there are only 30 major league teams. If you’re generous and say each have about three announcers that aren’t ex-players…that’s 90 people in America who have achieved their dream.

I’m looking to be one of those 90. It’s going to be a long, interesting journey, but here we go…