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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kansas versus Duke! Sorry, Football, Not Hoops

Kansas versus Duke is a great basketball rivalry. Even though they've only played each other ten times, it feels like most of the time there's something at stake. And there is, because when you're talking college basketball, these are two of the top programs in the land, year in and year out. Oddly enough, they did not first meet on the basketball court until the preseason NIT in 1985. But they've also met in the NCAA Final (Duke's 1991 win), two NCAA Semifinals (KU lost in '86 and won in '88, part of Danny and the Miracles and two NCAA Regional Finals (split). Duke leads the series 7-3, but KU did win the most recent meeting last fall in the Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago. They will both be at the Champions Classic again this year, but will not play each other. Instead, the Blue Devils will take on Michigan State and KU faces Kentucky. So that might be fun to watch.

I mention this because Kansas versus Duke is clearly not a football rivalry. But they play each other this weekend (Saturday, 2:30 pm Central Time/12:30 Pacific/3:30 Eastern, ACC Regional/Fox Sports Midwest) in Durham, and it will be just the second time they've met on the gridiron. You would think they'd played before in football, but it's just the once so far. And it wasn't in 1935 or something like that, but 2009. KU won that game. It certainly appears Duke will even the series this weekend.

I'm not giving my alma mater a chance. I actually think they'll get walloped. First of all, any time you almost blow a 28-0 lead to Southeast Missouri State, a feat KU nearly accomplished last week (they won 34-28), the chances of beating, uh, you know, anybody else, seem fairly slim. Also, Charlie Weis has never started 2-0 while KU's head coach. Admittedly, this is his third season in Lawrence. However, KU hasn't started two and oh since 2011. But it gets better. The time before that was 2009, when they won five in a row... including the win over Duke.
The Duke Coach and his two most accomplished students

As for Duke, their football fortunes have turned under David Cutcliffe, who the coach for Duke then, and before that, was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to both Peyton and Eli Manning in college. After Peyton had his five million neck surgeries, he re-learned how to throw during rehab sessions at Duke with Cutcliffe. A brilliant move on two parts: one, why wouldn't he go back to the guy who helped him become a top QB in the first place? And two, who would even look for Peyton Manning in a Duke football facility? Hell, who would look for a good football player at a Duke football facility, period?

After last season, a lot of people. In 2013 Duke won 10 regular season games, the first ten-win season in school history. If you don't count the post-season (smoked by eventual BCS Champ Florida State in the ACC title game, losing a shootout to Johnny Football in the Peach Bowl), they've now won 10 in a row. But it gets better. It's taken Duke football less than a calendar year to win ten regular season games in a row. Before that? It took eight seasons. To win ten games, period, never mind in a row. And their starting QB, Anthony Boone, has 12 career victories. The Duke all-time leader at QB in that category is Jerry Barger. He has 17. That's the kind of football history Duke is fighting here.

Regardless of the outcome Saturday, the recent Duke football success needs to force KU to take a good look at how they did it. Here's a small private school, really good at basketball but bad at football, who got a head coach and let him build the program the way he wanted, rather than firing him after a couple of really terrible seasons when it looked like they were going nowhere, again. It certainly does not seem like KU has the patience to let a football head coach develop. That's why they fired Turner Gill after two seasons, and that's why they hired a reclamation project like Charlie Weis.

Duke versus Kansas football rivalry? Hell, right now I'd settle for a competitive game. Don't think I'm getting it Saturday.
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 photos courtesy: kansascity.com, nydailynews.com, rockchalktalk.com


Friday, September 12, 2014

2014 Oregon Ducks Football, Game Three: Set Your Alarm Clock!

A few years ago on a different website named after primates, I wrote about how horrible the Pac-10's teevee contract was after a game involving undefeated and 2nd-ranked Oregon originally wasn't allowed to be broadcast live in Eugene (you know, where the university is located) because of exclusive broadcast “windows” the conference had negotiated with the ABC/ESPN conglomerate. Since then, the conference has expanded by two, and gotten their own TV network in order to show all their football games live to at least the area where the home university is located (Oregon and Oregon State fans are guaranteed to see Ducks and Beavs, Arizona gets Sun Devils and Wildcats, etc and so on).

But what is the good part about having your own network when you have football teams playing at bizarro, unheard-of times? The game between #3 Oregon and Wyoming on Saturday on the Pac-12 Network will kick off at 11 in the morning. The game is not in Cheyenne, where the game would start at noon Mountain time, but at Autzen Stadium, the home of the Ducks. This is the reward they get for being a top five team? Now, I understand that the start time for this game was determined months ago. But by then, the Ducks were already known to be a top-five preseason team, and even if they had lost to Michigan State last weekend, they were guaranteed to still be ranked in the top 15. And yet they have to start a football game before Rennie's Landing stops serving breakfast.

For the players and coaches, this shouldn't matter much. For several years the Ducks have their regular practices from 9 to 11 am. Starting a game that early isn't an issue for them. It is an issue for the fans, and the exact opposite scenario of a problem Oregon tailgaters have had since the team became a national power. Fans coming from Portland and Medford and all over Oregon have complained that the late start times have made it difficult for them to see their team. For if a game starts at 7:30 pm, then they have to decide whether they're going to drive back 130 miles or more after watching a four hour game and then spending 90- minutes getting through post-game traffic- so they're not even getting on the road until 12:30 or one in the morning- or trying to book a room in a university town that rarely has any vacancies on gameday weekend anyhow. So they would end up driving an hour north or south anyway to get to a hotel in Salem or Roseburg, and if you've already driven an hour towards your house and you have an hour and a half to go, why not keep going? But that means not getting home till 3 ayem, and that's just asking for trouble.

This weekend, the fans coming from Medford or Portland and all over Oregon have had to decide, for an 11 am kickoff, whether they're going to get up around the time they get home from those late kickoffs, or if they're going to try and come into town the night before. Either way, a horrible start time, and the earliest I can recall a Duck game ever kicking off at Autzen. Even if you live in Eugene or Springfield, you've got to get going before you usually get up to go to work! (Provided you work a regular 9 to 5. Of course you don't drink before you go to work. I assume.) That the game is against an atrocious Wyoming team almost guarantees a half-empty stadium at kickoff. That seats are going on StubHub for $25 should tell you something about the fan interest in going to this one. (Actual sentence about the game: If the Ducks don't lead by 40 at some point, something's gone horribly wrong.)

Not to say that 11 am kickoffs don't happen- my alma mater, Kansas, regularly has 11 am start times. But we're one of the worst football teams around, and we are happy to be on teevee, period. The Ducks deserve better. The Pac-12 deserves better. But to get a national audience (an 11 am kickoff in Oregon is a 2pm kickoff in New York), I suppose you have to do what you have to do. It would help, however, if the people on the east coast could actually get the Pac-12 Network. But that's a completely different thing entirely. I suppose Duck fans who can't get to the game should be glad they even have a chance to see it while they're eating omelets at Rennie's. 
Don't forget the Irish Coffee.
 photos courtesy: oregonlive.com, rennieslanding.com

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hamburgers, Boutique Chains, and Enforced Scarcity

Americans love their burgers. Even vegetarians. Actually, the whole world loves meat (or something like it) between two slices of a bun, or bread (or something like it) and has for centuries. The sandwich wasn't really invented by The Earl of Sandwich so he could keep playing cards in the 1700's, that's just the name that stuck. Although the actual inventor of what we now know as the hamburger is up for dispute (Wikipedia not only has a “Hamburger” page, there's a “History of the Hamburger” page as well as a “History of the Hamburger in the United States” page), several people seemed to do the same thing at the same time: put a patty of ground beef between two slices of toast or stiff bread and sell it at fairs and carnivals in the late 1800's. Because a ground beef patty was at the time called “Hamburg steak,” it seems rather logical that the name became popular- probably at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904- and stuck, no matter where the sandwich travelled. Calling it a “ground beef sandwich” just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The hamburger also gave rise to the franchise restaurant, which was really unheard of until White Castle started in the early 1920's. McDonald's took it to a different level after World War Two, and every chain restaurant that exists does so because of the success of the McDonald Brothers and Ray Kroc (although if it wasn't them, it would have been somebody else- the production-line America that homogenized America in the 1950's, from houses to automobiles to grocery stores, would have found its way to food eventually).
The very first drive-through at the very first In'N'Out

Recently, many smaller hamburger chains have flourished because of a backlash to places like McDonalds and Burger King and the rest of them. Over the past month, purely unintentionally, I've been to several of the “boutique hamburger chains” that continue to gain traction all over the country- HabitBurger, Super Duper Burger, SmashBurger, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and the most famous of them all- In'N'Out Burger. Even though In'N'Out and McDonalds started in the same area (SoCal- San Bernadino and Baldwin Park, 45 miles away from each other according to Google Maps) and the same year, 1948 (when the McDonald brothers reorganized their 8-year-old successful restaurant to focus on quick-service burgers). But while the McDonald brothers went the franchise route, In'N'Out stayed privately held and stayed close to home (their first non-SoCal restaurant opened in 1992). Now, thanks to the big chain backlash, they're considered boutique even though they invented the drive-through window.

And once I'd gone to three of the above mentioned places, I thought about doing a “burger comparison.” And after I thought about it for five minutes, I realized that there's no reason to compare these places. That's because quality of the burger doesn't really matter in your visit- it's the ability to go somewhere that you usually can't get to. For instance, I used to live in a town with two Five Guys within minutes of each other. And I went to Five Guys maybe once every six months. Well, due to my ever-changing addresses, the nearest Five Guys is now an hour away. So when last Thursday I found myself within a couple of miles of Five Guys, I went there. And when on Saturday I found myself within a couple of miles of a different Five Guys, I went there. And really, I went for no other reason than I can't get to Five Guys as easily as I once could.

I wonder what Walter is saying?
We're all like this, and it's because of something I like to call “enforced scarcity,” one of my favorite phrases to discuss supply-and-demand. The selective expansion of any chain- not just a restaurant- isn't a problem any more, it's actually an unintentionally positive marketing ploy. Why do so many people covet Pliny the Elder beer from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California? It's because the way the beer is made the brewers don't want it in transit too long, even if it's shipped in a refrigerated car. Boom- they've created “enforced scarcity.” When do you most want a Starbucks coffee, which is available pretty much on every corner in every town you've ever been to? You want it when you're camping deep in the wilderness. Enforced scarcity. When do you want McDonalds? Probably when you're on the road in the middle of nowhere. When do you want an In'N'Out burger? When you're somewhere they're not available and you're watching The Big Lebowski for the 928th time. I have been to Vegas a few times with a good friend of mine who insists on dining not at Wolfgang Puck's or any of those five-star restaurants- he wants to go to Cheesecake Factory because there isn't one within 200 miles of where he lives. I now live 15 minutes from a Cheesecake Factory, and I know that if he ever comes to visit, we'll have to go there. I doubt I'll go there until then. But that's enforced scarcity for you.

So really, none of the boutique burger chains are better than the other, they're just either more accessible to you or they're not, and your desire to go to one of them is based on how close they are to you. That's the difference.

And with the kind of choices I now have, I can be choosy. That means of the five boutique chains I have nearby, SmashBurger is off the list. It's not like it was bad, their ground beef sandwich just wasn't on the same level as the other four. Now, if I was on a raft floating the ocean for weeks, I certainly wouldn't turn it down, but I'd probably have a real hankering for a Jumbo Jack instead. Enforced scarcity, indeed.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Oregon Ducks Football Week Two: College Football Playoff Preview?

It was probably halftime of the South Dakota game when most of the Oregon Duck football team started seriously thinking about the Michigan State game, easily the best matchup of the weekend. In other years, people would be yelling that it's a Rose Bowl preview, now it could be a College Football Playoff preview... which would still technically be at the Rose Bowl. (Saturday, 3:35pm PT, Fox)

These teams have very little history together. You have to go back 15 years to the last time they met, and 16 years for the last time they met at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks won that day on the strength of four first-half touchdowns from Akili Smith, whose quarterback coach (and the Oregon offensive coordinator at the time) was one Jeff Tedford, the next hot up-and-coming coach. The names Reuben Droughns and A.J. Feeley also loom large in the Oregon-Michigan State games back then.

But that was then and this is now. The Spartans are coming off their best season in some 50 years, their first Rose Bowl win since 1988, and the most wins in one season in school history. The Ducks didn't make a BCS Bowl for the first time in five seasons (although they should have), didn't beat Stanford for the second straight year, and on top of that had a really bizarre shellacking at the hands of Arizona when the division and the conference championship- and a meeting with Michigan State in the Rose Bowl- was in their sights.

I know nothing about these two teams yet, and neither do you. Last week, the Ducks put a thumping on South Dakota, while Michigan State beat up on Jacksonville State. They are both very good teams. The winner will be an early front-runner for inclusion in the College Football Playoff.

The teams have met a total of four times, and the home team has won all four times. So Oregon has that going for them. No matter what happens, the team will be discussing this game the rest of the season. It will either be discussed as the game that propelled them to a great season- or signaled that for the second year in a row, they're good- but not that good. 

Photo courtesy: uoduckstore.com

Kansas Football: So Bad They Couldn't Find A Week One Opponent. Again.

Kansas Jayhawks football is so bad, they once again couldn't find anybody to play in week one, and open the season in week two. (6pm Central Time Saturday, ESPN3) Against an FCS team, not even a real D-1 team. That's not intended to be an insult to Southeast Missouri State- hell, they get to play a BCS school. It's yet another indictment to the patheticness (is that even a word?) of this football program. I really don't know how this can get any worse. And I'm an alum looking at this as positively as I can.

It's year three of the Charlie Weis era and the only thing that's in danger of being destroyed is the buffet. It's an easy joke, but Charlie is not a small man. But like I said last year, is there really a better option out there if you get rid of Charlie? Who seriously wants this job? The program has no direction and no chance of success and no breakout prospects.

I don't fault the players. They're 18 and 19 and 20 year olds who get to play football in college. Many high school football players would love to be playing football in college for a D-1 school, even if it is Kansas. Maybe they would have been a backup somewhere else but wanted the chance to start, even as a freshman. KU gives them that choice when Texas does not.

The problem is that all these players think that they're going to be the reason for the turnaround, and they might not be the kind of team players that you need to have the turnaround. It's weird. The players at good college football programs are better at teamwork than the guys at bad college football programs. You would think that the guys in the bad football programs would be more willing to change what they do in order to make the program successful. But maybe they're there because they won't adapt. And the guys who do adapt find themselves coveted by larger programs because of that. Am I making any sense here?

It seems like the head coach is the same way. Charlie Weis insists that his way will make KU better at football. He's got to be able to adapt to the players that he has in order to make that happen. They went from one win to three wins, in his first two seasons, and I guess that's an improvement, but when three wins is an improvement.... yeeesh.

I guess it could get a lot worse. Remember, I'm an alum looking at the bright side. And the bright side is basketball practice starts in less than a month. 

photo courtesy: rockchalktalk.com

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

San Francisco Giants: Future Tense


It's March 2014 and you're at a San Francisco Giants Spring Training game in metropolitan Phoenix. The person next to you turns and suddenly exclaims, “I'm from the future.” “Prove it,” you say. They point to their “Germany 2014 World Cup Champions” t-shirt and it seems plausible. “Tell me, future boy,” you say in your best Doc Brown voice, “How far in the future did you come from? Can I even believe in this team?”

“Well,” says the Germany fan, “I can tell you that by the first week of September, Matt Cain will be shut down for the season, Tim Lincecum will have been banished to the bullpen, Sergio Romo lost the closers job by July, Angel Pagan missed yet another month with back problems, Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchez have got so many concussions they're done for the year... hey, where are you going?”

For at this point, you're out of your seat and heading for the exit. “The nearest bar,” (which, since you're in metropolitan Phoenix, is about 25 minutes away, no matter where you are) “This team is clearly screwed. They're nowhere close to the wild card and they must be a billion games out of first place. Don't even tell me how far they are behind the Dodgers.”

“They're two games out of first,” he tells you. “They lead the wild card.” Abruptly, an about face. You come back to your seat, staring at the Germany fan. “How on earth....”

“Well,” he says, “For the first two months of the season, they were hitting tons of home runs....”

“Wait, are you sure you're talking about the San Francisco Giants?”

“Yes. And in early June had a nine and a half game lead over the Dodgers, far and away the best record in baseball. Then...”

“The June swoon. As predictable for the Giants as the sun rising in the east.”

“Yes. Worst record in baseball for six weeks. The lead was gone by the end of the month. But just as they really weren't as good as they seemed for the first two months, they really weren't as bad as they seemed for those six weeks.”

“What about Cain? What about Lincecum?”

“Cain was clearly not right from the get-go. You've seen that for yourself right here,” gesturing to the spring training field. You nod. “And a month before he got sent to the bullpen, Timmy threw a no-hitter against the Padres.”

“He's gone mental again, hasn't he?”

“I can't tell you everything. But you've seen him enough to know that one for yourself. And along those lines, I'd pay attention to the right side of the infield in the B-squad games.”

“Oh God, how many games does Marco Scutaro end up playing at second base?”

“Marco who?”

“Dammit. That was a mistake from the beginning.”

“Okay, I've spilled too much already. I've got to get back, the last month of the season promises to be really fun.”

“Wait, why didn't you wait until the end of the season? I want to know if they make the playoffs, the pennant, the World Series.”

“Look, when you see an open phone box, you take it. You don't ask questions.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. Anything else? I figure I should bet Germany to win?”

“Good call. And whatever you do, don't be in Napa in the wee hours of August 24th.”

“What happens in the wee hours of August 24th?”

“Just don't be there. You know your Big Joe Turner.”

And with that, he hops out of the seat next to you and bounds up the steps. Stunned, you don't even make a move to follow. You lean back in your seat and make a note to not be in Napa on Sunday, August 24th. You certainly do know your Big Joe Turner. And you look forward to September.