Monday, November 14, 2011

Tough Act to Follow

Scott Hunter, Quincy Carter, Jay Fiedler, Bert Jones, Aaron Rodgers.

Any idea what those five quarterbacks have in common? Maybe this will help: Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre.

Yep, that's right. Each of the first five was the starting quarterback who replaced those in the second group. Four of the first five faded into the realm of sports trivia, unable to fill the very large shoes of those they attempted to replace.

Which makes Rodgers' accomplishments the last two NFL seasons even more astonishing than they otherwise would be. And they are quite astounding by their own right. A Super Bowl victory, a Super Bowl MVP award, 16 straight NFL wins (a record in the history of the Packers' storied franchise), and a likely NFL MVP this season are the stuff of a budding legend.

That Rodgers has been able to so seamlessly replace a bona fide legend in Favre, someone who arguably was the face of the franchise more than any quarterback since Namath or Unitas, speaks volumes both for Rodgers and for the coach and front office personnel who first groomed him and then placed him in a position to succeed.

While Rodgers may be more popular in the U.S. than George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa these days, it is his mentoring and "handling" by the Packers that perhaps impresses me the most. For while the fawning over Rodgers is deserved (and even as a life-long Lions fan I will find myself somewhat conflicted as I watch the revival of a meaningful Lions-Packers game on Thanksgiving Day) I am convinced that the Packers' management and coaches placed Rodgers in the position that he is in today through a series of shrewd decisions.

One percent behind Jesus.

The authors of the book that I'm currently reading about the birth and growth of ESPN convincingly argue that the network's rise to its self-proclaimed status as "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" may have never occurred but for a series of decisions and events, any one of which may have resulted in the demise of the network. So too the Packers brass had multiple opportunities to fumble away the chance to grow Rodgers into the player that he is now but chose the right path every time. 

First, the Packers used a first-round draft pick to select Rodgers at a time when they already had a "franchise quarterback" in Favre (take note Indianapolis Colts). Second, they brought Rodgers along slowly, letting him to adjust to the speed of the game, learning from one of the best. Third, they recognized when it was Rodgers' time and when they did they committed to him fully, whether growing tired of Favre's "I'm retired; I'm not retired" antics or simply considering it in the best interests of the business to hand Rodgers the reins. And, finally, once Rodgers was installed as the franchise keystone, they collected, kept, and surrounded him with good talent.

Recognizing talent, training team members, surrounding your leaders with good employees, managing expectations. The Packers have taught us all something about how to achieve success in their handling of Aaron Rodgers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where Was Joe?

"Joe Paterno IS Penn State football!" said one of the rioters on that campus in the wake of the news that Paterno had been fired by Penn State's Board of Trustees.

To which one can only respond: you'd better hope not. 

The charges against Jerry Sandusky and the revelations of cover-up, inaction, lying and half-truths that followed force one to conclude that no school would want Paterno to lead one of its teams, let alone represent that team and that entire institution, given the vacuum of morality and leadership at the top of that program over the last 13 years.

Where was Joe when his Sandusky, his loyal assistant coach, was raping a 10 year-old boy in his team's facility?

Where was Joe and what did he do after that act was reported to him by a graduate assistant? Following the chain of command? When Sandusky was banned from the Penn State campus in 2002 what possible reason could there have been for it other than that the school knew, and Joe knew, that Sandusky had committed the precise act that was reported to Paterno. And yet those sordid details were apparently kept within the Penn State campus, enabling Sandusky to pursue his twisted habits everywhere else (including, potentially, one of the school's satellite campuses).

Where was Joe, when that loyal assistant retired, at the age of 55 and heir apparent to Joe's throne? What exactly did Joe know at that time about Sandusky? Why did Sandusky retire then, at the peak of his career, and what was his nebulous attachment to the Penn State football program after that?  Why was Sandusky still travelling with the team after his retirement, and apparently taking some of his victims (along with his wife) with him to bowl games?

Where was Joe when after Sandusky retired he founded The Second Mile, a charity ostensibly devoted to helping youths from troubled families, but in all likelihood to offer Sandusky a ready supply of young boys to prey upon? The Grand Jury states in its indictment of Sandusky that "[i]t was within The Second Mile program that Sandusky found his victims" which makes Penn State's and Paterno's lack of notice to anyone, including those within the foundation, of what they had to know, what they had to be worried about regarding Sandusky's predilections, all the more heinous. That is, if they were at all concerned about the welfare of children as opposed to, say, the reputation of the University and its lily white football program.

Where was Joe when that student quoted above and others were clashing with police and calling for his return? If he had really planned on devoting the rest of his life to the university after he magnanimously announced on his (and only his) terms when he would step down, shouldn't he have done something? Why not address the crowd and tell them that they were being completely wrong-headed and ill-motivated? Why not ask them where the protests were on behalf of those 7, 8, 9 or more (many, many more perhaps) boys who were abused and forever scarred by Joe's right-hand man when that news broke? Where was the Tweet, text, email, phone call, press release, telegraph, carrier pigeon message telling the students that they were merely heaping more shame on an already shamed institution? That his ability or inability to coach three more football games was not worth that extra layer of tarnish?

Shooting the messenger -- the extra layer of tarnish.

To hear anyone say that Paterno was denied the "right" to retire on his own terms by the Board of Trustees is so galling, so myopic, it defies belief. Paterno lost any right he had to any sort of sympathy, understanding, or deference when he turned his back on the first boy he knew had been violated by Sandusky and lost it even more with every one that followed.

We know where Joe will not be on Saturday when his team takes the field without him for the first time in 60 years. And that is exactly the way it should be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Down Goes Frazier

And with him boxing dies a little more.

Smokin' Joe Frazier's death this week has caused me to reminisce about the Golden Age of boxing, or at least the golden age that I knew, from the mid-1960's, through the '80's.

I readily admit that it has always been difficult to defend boxing as a sport. It was, and is, brutal, dangerous, exploitative, and corrupt. One only has to observe the rare public appearance by Mohammad Ali these past few years to understand latent dangers that boxing carries with it, along with the more immediate, and occasionally tragic, ones.

And yet, boxing as I knew it was a great sport and fantastic spectacle. Clay-Liston; Ali-Frazier; Hearns-Leonard; Mancini-Chacon. You don't need first names, or even specific fights, to know exactly who and what I'm talking about. Some great fighters are tied to each other for eternity.

The greatest fights and fighters earned status not accorded to any other sport or competition, not even Super Bowls or World Series. They weren't merely contests, they were world events that came close rivaling the biggest news. Its images were every bit as iconic as those of an anti-war protester offering a flower to a National Guardsman or Neil Armstrong taking that giant leap.

The most famous photo in sports history?

You remembered where you were when a fight happened and what happened, round-by-round. You recognized the fighters, their managers, their trainers, the reporters and analysts, and maybe even the ring announcers, by merely their face or their voice. You marveled at the courage, stamina, strength, and fortitude of fighters who, battered and beaten, found the will to get off of their stool to fight the fifteenth round, even though they had little chance of winning.

And that was part of what made boxing unique. As long as a boxer was in the ring and on his feet, he had a "fighting chance". Announcers talk of "knockout blows" in other sports, but boxing is the only sport where one side can deliver that blow after being beaten for 90% of the contest and impossibly behind in the score.

In boxing, there was always hope.

But boxing wasn't just will and brute strength. Skill, speed, power, hand-eye coordination, strategy, and stamina were all vitally important to deciding the outcome of a particular bout.

Sadly, boxing has been replaced to a large extent in the 21st Century by mixed martial arts fighting. Boxing is the "sweet science," for all the reasons listed above. There is no science to MMA, at least none that I care to discern.

The title to this post, of course, echoes Howard Cosell's famous call from the Frazier-Foreman fight in 1973. Back when prize fights were shown on live television, not only to those willing to fork over half of a week's savings to watch on pay-per-view or a king's ransom to see a fight live. That may be part of what killed boxing, along with greedy promoters and the ridiculous proliferation of world boxing organizations that tried to grab a piece of the pie.

This is not, however, an analysis of what went wrong with boxing or why. It's strictly a remembrance of an athlete we all knew, in a sport we all knew.  We'll miss you Joe, along with the pastime that has largely died along with you.