Every once in a while, the memory man goes short-term, reminding he can live in the present as well as the past. This is Volume 66: “A Thankless Job.”
The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame’s honors committee will meet soon to select an abbreviated Class of 2021. (Missing will be a “Veterans” recipient this time around.) As usual, there is a logjam for one choice in the “Contributors” category that includes coaches, athletic directors, sports information directors ad infinitum.
In their shortsighted wisdom, the hall’s founding fathers failed to designate “Coaches” as a separate entity. And, despite numerous tweaks since then, the Hall has remained unmoved to correct the mistake. Never mind that this special group always has several top-rate nominees. Executive Director Will Driscoll says he plans to review the selection process and make recommendations.
Here’s one: Drop designated categories and select the six-or-eight best available. If that means four coaches, or five basketball players, so be it. At least the honors committee won’t be faced with a stretch in one or two classifications and be hard-pressed to choose from among two or three (or more) worthy candidates in another.
Driscoll: “The original criteria called for six inductees each year: four living and two posthumous. Changes and modifications have been made over the years … I’m not opposed to change, I would just want to ensure we don’t make change just for the sake of making change. I also want to make sure we are not missing opportunities to induct the absolute best.”
Former Randolph-Macon and Old Dominion basketball coach Paul Webb, inducted in 1993, called it “a thankless job.”
“No matter what you do there’s always going to be somebody who is mad,” Webb, 92, said recently.
Webb doesn’t email or text. He doesn’t use Facebook, nor does he Twitter, glitter, bitter or critter. Good for him. If he has a computer, it’s gathering dust somewhere. He prefers talking to people, he said. Good for him again.
In fact, his recent nomination on behalf of longtime friend and coaching associate the late Hal Nunnally for state sports HOF was written long-hand. “I don’t have a secretary anymore,” Webb explained.
That he doesn’t do social media has to be an upside to his reluctance to go modern. Webb isn’t subjected to, at least first-hand, the lack of objectivity, the heavy-handed manner of correspondents expressing opinions. You are always fair (bad choice of word) game, win or lose.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would be well-advised to pretend social media didn’t exist. His team is 4-0, ranked 12th – and he invariably takes a weekly hammering from Irish “fans,” who obviously don’t find him likable and therefore an easy, unsympathetic target. Anything short of a national championship – by a very wide-margin, of course – won’t be enough.
They know he’s used four left tackles and three quarterbacks already this season. Doesn’t matter. To think Saturday’s win over Wisconsin was 106 for Kelly at Notre Dame, breaking legendary coach Knute Rockne’s school record. Will anyone ever confuse Kelly for the Rock?
In the season-opener, which saw the favored Irish blow an 18-point lead, Kelly looked like a moose, bear, antelope, deer (the big wild animal of your choice) in the headlights while Florida State was mounting its home-crowd-pleasing comeback only to bow in overtime. ABC could have done him a favor by pointing its cameras elsewhere.
Then, in an attempt at humor in a post-game interview, Kelly went esoteric on everyone and referred to a John McKay response from long, long ago – like 45 years ago. “I’m in favor of execution,” Kelly told network sideline eye-candy. “Our entire team needs to be executed after tonight.” Oops!
In 1976, during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 0-14 first season, Coach McKay was asked about his team’s execution. “I’m in favor of it,” he said. A funny guy, McKay, and everyone laughed. Not known for his humorous side, Kelly took an instant beating. To which he replied, “It was tongue-in-cheek. I was making a joke. It was taken seriously? Are you guys crazy?”
Left on the Cutting Room Floor … from last week’s wordy saga about Notre Dame football signees past (Buster O’Brien, 1964) and present (Brendon Clark, 2018) was something else they also had in common: Both first committed to other schools.
O’Brien was so sure he would enroll at Vanderbilt, his original choice, that he told Commodore coaches not to worry … he would keep scheduled visits to Georgia and Notre Dame (as promised) then make it official he planned to spend the next four years in Nashville, Tenn. A trip to South Bend, Ind., was all the record-breaking quarterback from Virginia Beach needed to change his mind.
Clark, a QB who threw for 7,147 yards (85 touchdowns) and ran for 2,067 more (34 Tds) at Manchester High, opted for Wake Forest during his sophomore year. “He felt pressure and hit the panic button,” said Lancers’ coach Tom Hall. “I told him the recruiting process was different for a quarterback, especially at his level. ‘Be patient.’ Then the [major schools] started coming to see him, and first thing they all asked was: ‘Why isn’t he a five-star [recruit]?’”
In the end, Clark chose the Irish over Clemson and North Carolina. Now, after three years in South Bend, seeing limited play compounded by knee surgery, he could transfer if he doesn’t get a fair chance to compete for No. 1 in 2022. How ironic would it be if the classic 6-2, 225-pound pro-style thrower of footballs decided to move to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Wake coach Dave Clawson has one of the country’s best passing offenses? Or, opt for Clemson, without Trevor Lawrence, suddenly rudderless offensively?
From the Hey, He’s a Coach, So Making Sense Is Optional Dept. of Logic comes this explanation from UR’s Russ Huesman … but first a quick backstory. In the good, old days, Penn State was among the last of the major-school football holdouts (still is), refusing to put the players’ names above the number on the back of their jerseys. Coach Joe Paterno was a stickler for the old-school approach that included drab black and white uniforms. Part of the explanation was: fans would be less likely to pay for lineups, numbers, etc., ergo the ancient adage You can’t tell the players without a program.
No charge for programs at Robins Stadium where we were reminded of JoPa’s legacy, seeing UR’s nameless unis during the season-opening rout of Howard. Didn’t the Spiders used to have them? They did but switched from Nike to adidas. Maybe that was a possible reason.
Asked to explain during his weekly radio show, Huesman answered the question with a question. “Why do they have to have their names on their backs?” he said.
Moving right along …
While this country is in a name-changing rage, isn’t it about time to find a new handle for the Atlantic Coast Conference which has expanded well beyond original boundaries? What used to be a nice, compact league of considerable interest and rivalries to match has become a sprawling conglomerate of schools from all over the place. And, sad to say, has diluted the old-time feuding that made basketball, in particular, a season of incomparably intense competition.
In fact, the ACC grew from nine to its present 15 members during commissioner John Swofford’s 24-year tenure – starting in 2004 with the addition of Miami, Fla., and Virginia Tech. He came to replace the late Gene Corrigan in 1997 after spending 17 years as athletic director at alma mater North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In other words, no one understood the value of heated traditional rivalries better than Swofford who, nevertheless, also recognized an obvious truth: either keep up and expand or be left in the dust of their biggest rivals.
Therefore, whereas we used to hang on every word from, say Dean Smith or Bobby Bowden, now money talks. The one upsmanship continues with Virginia attempting to raise $166 million for state-of-the-art athletic facilities after VaTech collected $136M to move ahead – if not for long.
Now, Jim Phillips, who replaced Swofford (retired) as commissioner, has announced the ACC might move its headquarters from Greensboro. Why? Left unsaid was the real reason: to have potential sites bid in a shameless auction that should mean additional revenue that will be measured in millions of dollars. Don’t be surprise if the conference offices are named after a major donor. Yuk!
Gregg Berhalter lived to coach the men’s national soccer team another day when his rookies came through in the second half for a 4-1 World Cup 2022 qualifying match victory over homestanding Honduras. After 0-0 in El Salvador and 1-1 versus Canada, the twice-favored Yanks had a mere two points, and Berhalter was being taken apart by critics. For example:
“Watching the U.S., play is like watching a Sunday league match.” … “Driftwood is more creative than Berhalter” … “[He] is destroying this team.” … “Gregg needs to be fired.” … “God, if only they could get a real coach.” … “The guy is a dud.”
In truth, the Americans looked disorganized and unwilling to function as a unit. The absence of Gio Reyna (injury) – son of former UVA, All-American and USMNT playmaker Claudio Reyna – and Weston McKennie (discipline) didn’t help, of course. But, had it not been for goalkeeper Matt Turner, they could have lost the first two games. Against Canada, in particular, he made an incredible stop at the post, somehow deflecting an up-close shot with his left hand, then kept the U.S. from going down 2-1 against Honduras with another magical save in the 64th minute.
It’s doubtful there is a sport more subjective than soccer or has more experts who are prone to second-guess every time a team doesn’t get a favorable result. That becomes even more magnified when an American coach fails, even momentarily, on the international stage.
In 2018, the U.S., failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The decisive blow was a 2-1 loss Oct. 10, 2017 at Trinidad & Tobago, thanks to an own goal. A tie would have been enough to move on against a heavy underdog. Jurgen Klinsmann had been fired as the U.S. coach after losing the first three qualifiers, and U.S. Soccer Federation turned to Bruce Arena to replace him.
The winningest coach in USMNT history, having taken the team to its best-ever Cup round of 16 in 2002, the former UVA coach with five NCAA championships probably should have known better. It was a difficult, at best, situation. And when it was over, the critics were legion. Check ESPN FC coverage on YouTube, where the panel of four – all from overseas – trashed Arena and seemingly took special delight in doing so. It doesn’t get any more vicious than that.
They won’t let him forget either which is why “The World’s Greatest Soccer Coach” probably never will be considered again even if he could be the most qualified. Fortunately, Arena couldn’t have cared less what they said. Somehow he’ll survive without another term as national coach.
Come to think about it, he should be laughing, given the federation paid Arena a reported $1,199,348 – including $300,000 settlement – for less than a year on the job. Klinsmann did OK, too, making $3,354,167 two years after he was terminated. Berhalter, who played for Arena as a defender on the 2002 USMNT side, has a contract through the 2022 World Cup. His first year he got $304,113 including a $200,000 bonus.
The next series of three qualifying games (among 14 in all) starts next month. Things haven’t gotten any easier for Berhalter who learned he could be missing several players including Christian Pulisic, the team’s best.
By the way, Turner plays for Major League Soccer’s runaway leader New England Revolution. Arena is the coach and sporting director which could explain, in part, why the naysayers don’t like Turner with the national team. Guilt by association, perhaps. Despite his brilliance, replacing No. 1 Zack Steffen (Covid-19), Turner was given an average rating by one critic because he didn’t distribute the ball quickly enough to the know-it-all’s liking.
Update: Jessica Paquette, Colonial Downs’ on-site handicapper – and subject of our Volume 64: “Having a Sense of Humor Helps,” also attracted national attention when the New York Times did a long piece about the same time. Her day job is director of the Thoroughbreds Retirement Foundation which sounded innocent enough until readers were reminded of 10 years ago when the Times ran an article that said the TRF “is the target of abuse and neglect allegations.” (That, of course, led to denials as well as accusations questioning the paper’s intent.)
Then, the recent Paquette piece also stirred up the ire of animal lovers who pointed to protests at this summer’s major meet at Saratoga over what they considered cruelty to horses. Through mid-July, 53 Thoroughbreds had died at New York’s three tracks also including Belmont and Aqueduct.
“We are not interested in reform,” one of the protest ringleaders was quoted as saying. “We are out to end horse racing in the United States.”
For the record, there were no deaths by our four-legged paramutuel flat-racing friends during the at-times-intense daytime heat at Colonial Downs this summer. However, early in the seven-week, 21-day meet, we’re told a steeplechase horse had to be put down for what was described as an “unrecoverable injury.” The track offered limited (no-betting) steeplechase competition held prior to the regular Thoroughbred card.
Coming off a record handle, plus more money from gaming (Rosie’s one-arm-bandit emporiums), the New Kent County track is expected to add racing days in 2022 – quite likely by as many as seven to meet minimum standards of a law enacted by the General Assembly. As long as Colonial continues its average $500,000 per day payout, which seems a forgone conclusion, it should remain an attractive stop for owners and trainers regardless of the competition elsewhere.
“All signs point to a longer meet,” said Darrell Wood, director of communications for the Virginia Equine Alliance.
The thinking is, if the track ran seven weeks this year, it’s going to be nine or 10 next year. The question is: Do they stretch it from three to four days a week? And, what is their best chance to get horses and full fields?
Also, a longer meet should make it more attractive for trainers not located in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“In order to justify re-locating from, say, Florida to Virginia, you need a two-month-plus meet.” said Wood.
Don’t forget, one of the major contributing factors to Colonial’s 2021 runaway success was the availability of horses that usually would have competed at Churchill Downs. The home of the Kentucky Derby was shuttered this summer for a major renovation but will be up and running next year.
Colonial had 725 horses stabled at this year’s meet in a barn area that holds a maximum of 800. There also was a receiving barn that accommodated those coming in for the day. The overall caliber of Thoroughbreds was the best since the track re-opened under new ownership three years ago after Jeff Jacobs shut it down in 2013. He eventually sold Colonial for a reported $20 million-plus – or considerably less than his original asking price of $60M – to Revolutionary Racing out of Chicago.
The track opened Sept. 1, 1997, with Jacobs awarded a state license that depended on a large number of racing days – for harness as well as Thoroughbred – that was never met. His tenure as owner was marked by perpetual disagreements between the absentee owner and the horsemen as well as the State Racing Commission.
State law, passed in 2018, calls for one day of racing for every 100 slot – sorry, historical racing – machines operated at the Rosie’s gambling emporiums, also owned by the come-heres from the midwest. (Now, with some local investors, ownership is listed as the Colonial Downs Group.)
With more than 2,800 slots already up and running at six locations – including one at Colonial Downs, it would appear 28 days will be the minimum number next year.
The goal, we’re told, is to reach a maximum of 30. In the meantime, the horsemen agreed not to press management despite falling short of the law’s requirement in 2021. Chance are, they won’t be as benevolent again – if it comes to that, and hardly anyone expects it to happen. There has been too much harmony – and mutual prosperity – to blow it all and revert back to the dark, combative Jacobs era.
The Virginia Racing Commission is expected to set the 2022 Thoroughbred calendar at its December meeting here.
Until next time ...