I’m as excited as I’ve been in at least four years for the start of college football. This has much to do with Tim Tebow being in the NFL and Lane Kiffin again being two time zones away from where my family sleeps. (If there is a football god, Kiffin will someday coach Tebow with the Washington Redskins.) The temperatures around here make for a cruel welcome to football season, but the college game remains the lingua franca of Southern sports fans. (Or for any man, woman, or child who considers “the American South” home.)
Here are seven stories I’ll be following over the next four months.
• Conference USA is no BCS league; we’ll be hearing and reading this until the University of Memphis is finally able to make a big switch. But considering C-USA remains the Tigers’ battle ground for 2010, you couldn’t ask for a more challenging home schedule. The four highest-ranked C-USA teams, according to Rivals.com, will all be visiting the Liberty Bowl. An upset over Houston, UCF, Southern Miss, or Tulsa could well make the season for first-year Memphis coach Larry Porter. And if you can see only one game this fall, get tickets for the October 30th contest with Houston. Cougar quarterback Case Keenum is on every Heisman Trophy watch list, and aims for a third consecutive 5,000-yard passing season. Yeah . . . 5,000 yards.
• This will be the third straight season — and fifth in the last seven — that a Heisman Trophy winner returns for a chance to join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only two-time recipients of the hallowed stiff-armed hardware. (There were actually two Heisman winners playing last season: Tebow at Florida and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma.) But I’m not convinced Alabama’s Mark Ingram will repeat. The Tide has another tailback — Trent Richardson — who will demand carries this season. The Heisman doesn’t go to sidekicks. If I were to pick a winner here in August, I’d go with Pitt tailback Dion Lewis. Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards as a freshman last season, and his Panthers have a schedule with only two Top 25 opponents.
• Here’s a bowl scenario worth watching. Let’s say 8th-ranked Nebraska — on its way to the Big 10 in 2011 — upsets Texas (ranked 5th in the preseason) in the Big 12 championship game on December 4th at Cowboys Stadium. And let’s say the top Big 10 teams — Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin — disappoint. (Unlikely, as the Big 10 is top-heavy. One of these teams will lose no more than a single game.) Would the Rose Bowl, which traditionally invites a Pac 10 and Big 10 team, consider the Huskers for New Year’s Day 2011? This presumes, of course, Nebraska wouldn’t be in the mix for the BCS title game.
• If you’re looking for this season’s Game of the Century, mark your calendar for October 2nd when Alabama hosts Florida. The only two SEC teams in the Top 10 — the teams that squared off for the SEC championship last December — will play in the regular season in what will likely be mere prelude to the SEC championship two months later. (Another game worth watching will be next Monday night, when Boise State and Virginia Tech play in Landover, Maryland. The Hokies could be all that stands in the way of a second-straight undefeated season for the Broncos.)
• In debating which conference is the country’s second best, it’s hard to ignore the ACC. The league that steals our attention every March starts football season with five teams in the Top 25: Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Florida State.
• Here’s an upset waiting to happen: LSU over Alabama on November 6th. Tiger coach Les Miles will be fighting for his job, having gone 9-4 in 2009. Tide coach Nick Saban will be back in Death Valley, where he sculpted the 2003 national champs but now will face the scorn of an entire football culture. If Alabama can get by Florida in October, this will be its final hurdle before the SEC championship game.
• Memphis coach Larry Porter will likely name his starting quarterback for the Mississippi State game today. Between freshman Ryan Williams and sophomore Cannon Smith, may the better signal-caller win. But purely in metaphorical terms, I like the idea of a guy named Cannon playing quarterback, the son of a man who made his fortune with a company built on delivering through the air. The headlines will write themselves.
Chris Maloney is two weeks away from finishing his fourth season as manager of the Memphis Redbirds. As of Sunday, the Redbirds trailed Iowa by 3.5 games in the Pacific Coast League’s American-North division. Having led the ’Birds to the 2009 PCL championship, Maloney now ranks fifth in career wins among Memphis managers with 279.
FM: You can go to the ballpark a thousand times and still see something you’ve never seen before. Last week, your bullpen retired 27 batters over nine innings — essentially a perfect game — after the seventh inning had been completed.
CM: Something like that happens every night. Anything can happen, and it usually does. I’ve never had a pitcher playing the outfield, and bat right next to our pitcher in the lineup. [Pitcher Brandon Dickson played rightfield late in the 16-inning win over Colorado Springs.] This club has proved to be very resilient, especially here at home.
You’ve had a challenge this year, with three of the Redbirds’ top players — Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Tyler Greene — spending much of their time in St. Louis. How does the roster volatility affect your approach to managing?
That’s just part of it. The Cardinals have had to make a lot of adjustments, dip down here and get a lot of our guys. You can rest assured, injuries are going to happen in baseball. There’s always going to be movement. You understand it, and put your best foot forward every night.
You’ve had a fairly steady starting rotation led by Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson. How have these two pitchers developed this season?
They’re both first-year guys in this league. Lance started well, then got on a really bad jag, but he’s rebounded. This last month, he’s pitched well. Dickson started out well. He had some games when he gave up runs early, but he kept pitching, and got some wins out of those. We’ve been trying to get him to the 10 [win] mark.
What do you look for in starting pitchers that might indicate they’re big-league material?
The first thing is arm strength. Then, is his secondary pitch a swing-and-miss pitch? Does he have an out pitch? Can he make a pitch when he needs to? You’re always teaching; trying to find ways to get better. And be consistent. That’s the name of the game in professional baseball: consistency.
Did you foresee the kind of impact Jaime Garcia would have in St. Louis?
I knew Jaime had the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, and be a really good pitcher. But he was hurt last year. Came here at the end of the season and had a couple of so-so starts. Then the playoffs got here, and he had two really good starts. One of those games, I remember thinking to myself, he could have beaten the Yankees tonight. Those five innings [in Albuquerque] were as dominant as he could be. [Garcia pitched a three-hit shutout against San Francisco Sunday in St. Louis.] <p>Among this year’s players, who has surprised you with the progress he’s made?
Amaury Cazana. When we first got him [in 2008], there was never any question about his power. The ball jumps off his bat. But he was a little more muscular, and he had trouble catching up with a good fastball. This year, he’s more selective at home plate. He’s not swinging at everything. And he’s hitting the fastball better. He’s tailored his workout program to not include so much heavy lifting. He gets more extension on his swing.
What have you enjoyed most over your four years as Redbirds manager?
We’ve had a lot of success here. The last three years, we’ve been in the running. You hope to play meaningful games in August.
Anything unique to Memphis among baseball towns you’ve seen?
It’s a downtown park, the best-built park, the infrastructure, the atmosphere. It’s just like a small big-league stadium. I think people are missing the boat by not coming out as much as they once did.
Did that first season in Memphis (56-88 in 2007) seem like it would last forever? How do you survive a season when the team’s out of the playoff hunt by the All-Star break?
The games are on the schedule, so you’ve got to play them. You’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, like Bob Dylan says. You know it’s not forever.
Looking back on 2009, what was the key component to the championship run?
We were down a good bit entering August. We got some players back from St. Louis: Nick Stavinoha and Allen Craig. Craig was remarkable the last two months, getting big hit after big hit, driving in runs. Jon Jay had a slow start, but he caught fire. We lost Stavinoha with about 13 games to go; he broke his wrist. It was gonna be tough to get there without him. Then Craig went down with a hamstring pull.
But the guys just had momentum. It’s funny: you can feel that as a manager. The pitching sharpened up. You could just see it in their eyes. They were ready to go. We were loose, but we were focused. I could see something good might happen. You gotta be intense without being tense.
Did you see Jon Jay playing every day as a Cardinal in 2010?
I didn’t see him doing what he’s done this quickly. The thing about Jon Jay, there’s no one who enjoys playing baseball more than him. He’s like a Little League kid out there. He really comes to play every day. Now, he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a very natural player, has great instincts on the bases and in the outfield. He has enough speed, and knows how to use it. He made a little change with his bat, shortening up his trigger. He could always go the other way; now he’s learning how to turn on the baseball and pull a few home runs.
Do you aspire to manage (or coach) in the major leagues?
Absolutely. I want to get there one day. I think it’s gonna happen, and when it does, I’m going to be grateful. I’ll probably have to coach before I manage in the big leagues, but that’s all part of it.
Which players did you admire growing up (in Jackson, Mississippi)?
Johnny Bench was always my guy when I was a kid. I ended up catching my second year as a pro. But I hurt my shoulder, and I could never really throw well after that. Kinda ruined my catching career.
It’s impossible to turn away from a bench-clearing brawl on a baseball field. I was reminded of this sad truth last Tuesday, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds had a 50-man dust-up before the home team’s first at-bat at Great American Ballpark. Hardly your average “he-threw-at-my-head” tantrum on the part of a hitter, the benches cleared for these two division rivals after Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina and Red second-baseman Brandon Phillips went face-to-face after Cincinnati’s leadoff batter entered the box. (Phillips had used some incendiary language the night before, openly expressing his hatred for the Cardinals.)
This particular brawl was especially dramatic, considering the histories of the combatants. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa and Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker have been pointing at each other since Baker’s days as manager of the Cubs (2003-06) and Giants (the Cards and Giants faced each other in the 2002 NLCS). Given the chance to calm the atmosphere last Tuesday, the two acted like parents unwilling to admit their children could possibly have done any wrong, instantly lowering the maturity meter behind home plate, and pushing things toward an ugly end. (Major League Baseball handed each manager a two-game suspension.)
And beyond the managers, you had two recent Cardinal heroes — Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds — in Cincinnati uniforms, trying to restrain former teammates like Molina and Chris Carpenter, loyalties determined solely by the logo on their jerseys. It was great theater, really.
Then Johnny Cueto started kicking. Taking the legend of Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes to the ultimate extreme, Cueto —backed into the net behind home plate, as were several players, including Carpenter — began kicking, first the back of Carpenter, then the face of Cardinal backup-catcher Jason LaRue. (LaRue’s finest days as a player were, of course, as a Cincinnati Red.) Just like Juan Marichal and Bert Campaneris before him, Cueto managed to turn what was essentially a grappling match into a bloody, cover-your-face street fight. The MMA act earned Cueto a seven-game suspension.
While hockey fights are legitimate and NBA fights are just funny, baseball’s code of behavior makes the brawls we see now and then compelling drama. Punches are acceptable (however rare), but kicks are definitely a no-no. And grudges last entire careers. The day will come when Johnny Cueto has to bat against Chris Carpenter. It will be impossible to turn away.
• I asked a Memphis Redbirds official about why Double-A catcher Steven Hill leap-frogged the Redbirds’ Bryan Anderson when the Cardinals needed to promote a replacement for LaRue. (Hill was leading the Texas League in home runs and RBIs at the time.) It wasn’t so much that St. Louis has crossed Anderson off its list of prospects, but the Redbirds were playing in Reno at the time, and traveling from Reno to Cincinnati was problematic. Hill homered for his first big-league hit in Sunday’s loss to the Cubs.
• The Cardinals have contenders for each of the National League’s three major awards. Albert Pujols (.315, 30 homers, 86 RBIs through Sunday) is making his annual run toward Most Valuable Player honors, with his chief competition being his first-base counterpart with the Reds, Joey Votto (.322, 28, 79). If only Pujols and Votto had gone chin-to-chin last week; would have been a priceless photo.
The NL’s Rookie of the Year trophy was essentially given to Atlanta’s Jason Heyward (.259, 12, 51) in spring training, then passed to Washington’s Stephen Strasburg upon his headline-making debut in June. But with Strasburg’s arm ailing, the Cards’ Jaime Garcia has quietly made a case for himself as the finest first-year pitcher in baseball (10 wins, 2.71 ERA). He’s already surpassed his career high for innings pitched in a season, so we’ll see if the lefty hits a wall during the dog days. Giant catcher Buster Posey (.337, 9, 43) and Cub shortstop Starlin Castro (.314) are in the picture.
Finally, the man who should have won the 2009 Cy Young Award, Adam Wainwright, has caught Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez to force a two-arm race for this year’s hardware. Waino is near the top of the NL in wins (17), strikeouts (158) and ERA (1.99). Best bet in baseball: Wainwright pitching at Busch Stadium (where he’s undefeated) in a day game (he’s undefeated under sunshine, too).
A couple of years ago, I made the profound discovery that there’s an Elvis Presley song for every last one of us. Then I applied the formula to a few Memphis sports figures. Time for an update.
Stuck on You — Rudy Gay
$82 million is a lot to pay an NBA player who has yet to appear in an All-Star Game or playoff series. But Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has clearly seen enough of his small forward — who turns 24 next week — to make him the centerpiece of the franchise’s climb back to playoff contention. By modern standards of pro sports contracts, Gay is a healthy investment. In four seasons, he’s never missed more than four games. And his scoring averages the last three seasons have been a metronomic 20.1, 18.9, and 19.6, even as O.J. Mayo has emerged as an equal threat with the ball. An important lyric to remember, at least from Heisley’s perspective: “Squeeze you tighter than a grizzly bear.”
Return to Sender — Allen Craig
The Memphis Redbirds’ top prospect opened the season with the St. Louis Cardinals, only to be sent down in late April after a slow start and limited playing time. The Cardinals’ 2009 Minor League Player of the Year proceeded to knock the stitches off the ball for Memphis and earned a recall to St. Louis on July 15th. But soon after hitting his first big-league home run, Craig was again optioned to Memphis. In 77 games at the Triple-A level this season, Craig has hit .322 and driven in 76 runs. Last week, the Cardinals again promoted the 26-year-old and started him in rightfield just in time for an 18-4 drubbing at the hands of Houston. No postage due on such a natural hitter. Here’s hoping we’ve seen the last of Craig at AutoZone Park.
Kentucky Rain — John Calipari
Oh yeah, Calipari is a Memphis sports figure. And will always be. Considering the millions Kentucky hoops boosters are paying Calipari to recruit the finest NBA prospects in the land, that “cold Kentucky rain” is a perfect metaphor. Another tune I was itching to give Coach Cal: “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise.” But that would be harsh.
A Little Less Conversation — Larry Porter
The Memphis Tigers’ new football coach has quickly developed a reputation for controlling information into and out of his program. The writer in me may miss Tommy West’s open-door policy and comfortably familiar conversation style. But Porter was hired to win games and sell tickets. Those don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with keeping media types happy. I look forward to the chats (however infrequent) we get to have, and hope discussing 2-10 football teams isn’t a regular topic.
Teddy Bear — Greivis Vasquez
“Don’t wanna be a Tiger ... “ During the 2009 NCAA tournament, the Maryland guard all but mocked Conference USA before the Terrapins faced the U of M. “’Cause Tigers play too rough ... “ Memphis took the floor and beat Maryland by 19 points. “Just wanna be, your teddy bear.” Looks as though Vasquez has taken to Memphis after all. The 28th pick in last June’s draft, he’ll back up Conley at point guard for the Grizzlies, all the while giving Memphis fans new reasons to cuddle. At his introductory press conference, Vasquez emphasized, “I love the Tigers now, love them.”
If I Can Dream — Tiger basketball freshman class
"Where all my brothers walk hand in hand . . . .” Dreaming is easy when you have the kind of recruiting class Josh Pastner has brought to town. Even with the apparent loss of Will Barton, this year’s frosh inspire. And with a pair of local prep stars (Joe Jackson and Tarik Black) in the mix, there’s a deeper sense of “home team” than there’s been in a while. Dreams are two parts optimism, one part excitement, and a pinch of faith. It’s a good time for Tiger Nation to dream of “a sky, more blue.”
It’s Now or Never — Mike Conley
I get the sense that Grizzly fans want Conley to be the team’s long-term point guard ... they’re just not certain he’s the guy. Considering how young Conley is — he’ll turn 23 in October — a bit of patience may still be in order. (Had Conley stayed in college, last season would have been his senior year at Ohio State.) Can he be a primary scoring option, in the Tony Parker category? (Conley averaged 12.0 ppg last season.) Or might he be the much-sought-after distributor for a team with stronger shooting options? (Conley’s assists were up 20 percent last season compared to his second year as a pro, but his turnovers were up 19 percent.) O.J. Mayo has been considered a possibility at the point, and the Grizzlies how have Vasquez (rehabbing from surgery) and Acie Law on the roster. The upcoming season will be enormous for Conley, and tomorrow may be too late.
Greetings from Memphis. It’s been 18 years now, since Charlotte and Jacksonville were given the dance ticket Memphians wanted so desperately ... but that wasn’t on your watch. We’ve come to recognize Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for what it is — not an NFL stadium — and we’ve either adopted the Titans, or stuck to cheering for the Steelers, Packers, or Cowboys. Bottom line: Memphians are NFL fans like the rest of the country.
Our heart rates seem to spike this time of year, as the Hall of Fame welcomes its newest class — it’ll be hard to top the one to be inducted this weekend, including Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith — and the exhibition season gives us our first glimpse of the uniforms (if not the players) we'll cheer as the mercury drops.
But as great as the game is, as profits continue to add millions through one revenue stream after another, there are fundamental changes the NFL needs to make. You have the chance, Mr. Commissioner, to leave a legacy beyond that of your predecessor, Paul Tagliabue (who continues to have trouble gaining election to the Hall despite serving as the league’s authority for two decades). But you’ll have to be brave, somewhat stubborn, and immune to the criticism you’re bound to receive from pro football’s old guard (pardon the pun)
The necessary changes (listed in order of priority):
• Eliminate the three-point stance. The late Chris Henry — or Henry’s brain, at least — should have the kind of impact in the NFL that Rosa Parks had on the civil rights movement. Only 26 years old, Henry died last winter when he fell out of a moving truck during a dispute with his fiancee. Then Henry’s autopsy report was released in June, showing significant brain damage suffered before the player’s fatal accident.
Your players, Mr. Goodell, are dying. They’re dying slowly, some of them only between the ears (a harsh use of the word “only”). But they are killing one another through collisions to the head in every game and contact practice. Premature deaths of former NFL players far exceed those of the general population, and this has more to do with trauma to the brain than with the ugliest of blown-out knees.
You can pad helmets, you can penalize spearing, and you can try and enforce proper rest for players who suffer concussions. But the only “cure” for concussions is prevention. Forcing linemen to stand at the line of scrimmage will significantly reduce helmet-to-helmet blows and will put a premium on speed and athleticism, as opposed to sheer girth. Football will gain from the change, however odd it appears at first. Better, though, mankind will gain from the change.
• Eliminate exhibition games. As things currently stand, season-ticket packages are sold to NFL fans that include two home contests in the preseason. This is the sorriest excuse for selling “big-league” sports in the country. Star players are routinely excused from these affairs and, if they do appear, play a series or two before giving the field to undrafted free agents desperate to make the final 53-man roster.
Get rid of these games, add a pair of regular-season contests (making the season 18 games), and restore credibility to every ticket you sell.
• Reduce the number of divisions. When 25 percent of the league's teams can call themselves division champions, the title has no meaning. Eight four-team divisions? The NFL is too splintered, Mr. Commissioner. And as long as Dallas is in the NFC East while St. Louis is in the NFC West, don’t suggest regional ties matter.
Cut the number of divisions in half: two eight-team divisions in each conference. A division championship — and the first-round playoff bye it earns — will again be worthy of a banner. Teams with the four best records after the division champs (regardless of division) will qualify for the playoffs. Annual rivalries (like those between the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East) can be retained while loosening the rotation of opponents from the division-by-division system currently in place.
• Return the Colts to Baltimore. If Peyton Manning’s team wants to wear the Ravens’ uniforms, that’s fine. (A domed football stadium would certainly be the subject of a modern Poe tale of horror.) But Johnny Unitas’ colors and that iconic horseshoe helmet are Baltimore’s. Make this right, Mr. Commissioner.
Finally, a suggestion on the Brett Favre matter. Welcome the future Hall of Famer back. But insist he play in all four exhibition games.
Yours in football,