Monday, June 25, 2012

Sun Sets in East! And, There's a College Football Playoff!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 9:38 AM

You gotta hand it to college football’s powers-that-be. It only took two decades (three? four?) of public clamoring for a playoff system for conference commissioners, NCAA suits, and bowl officials to concede that, hey, deciding our champion on the field of play with elimination games (emphasis on the plural) is worth a shot.

It appears that we’ll have a three-game (semifinals and final) playoff to decide college football’s best team after the 2014 season. (Why must we wait three seasons for this? Major League Baseball can institute a new playoff round in less than a year, but we have to “plan” college football’s playoffs over the course of two years?) Four teams will be selected to compete for the sport’s crown, the criteria for selection — and, not incidentally, who exactly will be selecting the teams — still undetermined. Here are some quick thoughts on the new landscape:

• The four-team playoff is a huge step in the right direction — but only a step. Just as there has always been debate over the two teams selected to play for the Bowl Championship Series title (since the 1998 season), there will be debate over which four teams qualify as national semifinalists. Quickly: How many teams finished last season (after the bowl season) with no more than two losses?

The answer is 13. Thirteen teams with a case for being included in any playoff that included at least one team with two defeats. There’s no end, of course, to debating inclusion in a playoff selection process. (Every March, basketball programs feel cheated when left out of a 68-team field.) But if the new playoff format included eight teams, we’d be more likely to include all teams that have earned a legitimate shot at the throne.

• There’s been some back and forth on whether a conference championship should be required for inclusion in the four-team playoff field. I say absolutely. This is another shortcoming of only four teams in the mix. With eight, you’d see all six power-conference champions (yes, including the football-diminished Big East), plus two at-large teams. But with the field as tight as it will be in 2014, how could the NCAA allow a second-place SEC team in and exclude, say, the champion of the Pac 12 or ACC? The entire reason for creating this new system is to further legitimize the national champion with performance on the field. If a team falls to second place in its league . . . tough beans. (Miami-Boston would have been a better NBA Finals this year than Heat-Thunder, but the Celtics happen to live in the Eastern Conference with Miami. Tough beans.)

• Can the bowls survive? Easy answer (with one qualifier): If they continue to make money, yes. There’s been some griping that the new playoff will somehow diminish the bowl season. Diminish the bowl season from what? As of now, we have a month of games played by more than 60(!) teams all over the country, on random dates, often in front of half-empty stadiums. Revenue for bowl games has long been more about title sponsors and television than ticket sales or traveling fans. Here in Memphis, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is an institution on our sports calendar, a weeklong pigskin party of the first resort. Had there been a four-team playoff last winter, I’m convinced the players, coaches, and fans at Cincinnati and Vanderbilt would have still relished the chance to play in that Bluff City bash. Perhaps the playoff will weed out some of the second-tier bowl games (the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl? the BBVA Compass Bowl?), in which case the new format will have killed two birds with the same football.

• When will the Memphis Tigers land a playoff spot? Be patient, Tiger fans. Be very, very patient. Much will have to happen before our local program is anywhere near the top four teams in the country. As the U of M enters the Big East, though, the Tigers are actually on the radar. And if (I say when) the new playoff is expanded to (at least) eight teams, the chances of Justin Fuente’s boys rising to the top of a “power” league and capturing a treasured playoff berth are that much greater.

Just consider how good it feels to ponder the thought of a playoff berth for college football’s national championship. It took way too long, but those dreams — for millions of football fans — are a significant step closer to reality.

Monday, June 11, 2012

June: Paradise for Sports Fans

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 at 8:49 AM

I come closest to bliss in the month of June. Father’s Day has become my favorite holiday and I enjoy celebrating my wedding anniversary on the 11th. Sentimental reasons aside, though, the month annually delivers a weekend like the one just past, overstuffed with championship events that run the gamut from equine greatness to icy might. It’s the kind of weekend that leaves a fan — a sportswriter — dizzy with observations.

• Not since 1994 has a golfer with a Memphis championship on his resume won a major title (Nick Price at that year’s PGA Championship). With Dustin Johnson having claimed the 2012 FedEx St. Jude Classic, this drought will end soon. Just shy of his 28th birthday, Johnson is the biggest rising star to win in Memphis in at least two decades. He’s been on the short list of Now Generation stars since his 8th-place finish at the 2010 U.S. Open. (He tied for second at the British Open last year.) Seeing Johnson edge a field of contenders that included reigning U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy made Sunday’s final round one of the most memorable in the 55-year history of pro golf in Memphis.

• On the subject of former Memphis champions winning majors, it was nice to see Maria Sharapova (2010 champ at The Racquet Club) complete a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open. On my list of most-distinctive physical attributes among athletes — one that includes Rollie Fingers' mustache and Karl Malone’s biceps — Sharapova’s legs are near the top. If she weren’t a tennis player, she’d win the Olympic high jump.

As for the men, there are no more adjectives to fit the brand of tennis Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic play across the net from one another. (Consider Nadal's career plight. Having endured a rivalry with Roger Federer that included eight Grand Slam finals — six won by the Spaniard — Nadal has now done battle with Djokovic in the last four Grand Slam finals. It’s like Muhammad Ali following up Joe Frazier with Mike Tyson.) These two titans of their sport exchanged 44 shots in a single rally (during the opening game of the fourth set). Next time you’re playing with your favorite partner, try keeping the ball in play for 44 shots. Then imagine each of those shots an attempted winner. Breathtaking.

• I was disappointed (yet again) that we don’t have a Triple Crown to celebrate. But I was thoroughly impressed by the decision of I'll Have Another's handlers to remove the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ from the Belmont Stakes. The amount of money dangling before owner J. Paul Reddam is hard to imagine, and would have been impossible to count had his horse become history’s 12th Triple Crown winner. But that dollar figure would have been swallowed by the agony of seeing I'll Have Another pull up lame in the most grueling event in horse racing. What could have been? We may be left to wonder. In the meantime, Reddam can count plenty of cash with I'll Have Another's stud fees.

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• We have the NBA Finals most fans wanted: LeBron James and his Heat against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Top two vote getters in this year's MVP balloting for all the marbles. I can't imagine a greater contrast between communities: the city that gave us Crockett and Tubbs against the city that gave us ... dust bowls? Two cities that didn't have teams when Magic and Bird were in their prime. Maybe the next two weeks will validate the dreamy construction of the Heat roster. But I like the Thunder in six, with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka performing the role Dallas’s Tyson Chandler did last year.

• This year’s Stanley Cup Final is missing the NBA’s star power (as it usually does). Even with teams from greater New York and Los Angeles, there’s not much to draw a casual fan. Until you watch. Entering Game 4 on June 6th, the New Jersey Devils were but supporting players for the 8th-seeded Kings’ romp to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. But then New Jersey’s 40-year-old goaltender, Martin Brodeur, played like the three-time champion he is, holding L.A. to a single goal in each of the next two games. The Kings will have a chance to skate the Cup at the Staples Center Monday night, while the Devils will have a chance to force a Game 7 back in Soprano country. It’s gripping stuff, fairly standard for June.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Q&A with Justin Leonard

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 10:01 AM

Justin Leonard is one of only five golfers to have won multiple championships in Memphis (he was victorious in 2005 and 2008). The Texas native — who turns 40 five days after the final round of this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic — won the 1997 British Open and drained a 45-foot putt to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup for the U.S. team.

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Memphis is one of two places you’ve won twice. Safe to assume you’ve come to like the Southwind course?

When they transitioned the course to Bermuda grass a few years ago, it really changed the event. It went from being a golf course where you felt like you had to make seven or eight birdies per round to a much more difficult course, because of the firmness and speed of the greens. And it’s a fun layout to play, with some risk-reward opportunities. I don’t think it favors a particular kind of player.

Do you have a favorite hole?

I try not to pick favorites. A lot of how the course plays depends on the wind. The fifth hole can be very difficult when it’s into the wind. Eight and nine are challenging. Twelve is a very tight hole. And, of course, you have a lot of drama between 17 and 18, with water up the side of the last hole.

Any specific memories of your wins here that stand out today?

They were two very different wins. In 2005, I had a huge lead and played okay on Sunday, but David Toms shot a great round and made it interesting. My second win there, I hung in there all week, then played a good round on Sunday and was surprised myself to get into a playoff with Robert Allenby and Trevor Immelman. I was able to make a nice putt on the second playoff hole.

As the story is told, your wife had to convince you to play here before your first win in 2005. Can you share the details?

She’s done that a couple of times, looking at my record. She knew I had done well there [three top-ten finishes] and said, “Let’s go back.” A lot of times, no matter how much you love the golf course, it’s hard to make it work. We obviously had a great week [in 2005].

The tournament has been a longtime supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. How has St. Jude impacted you since you first played here in 1994?

I have four wonderful kids. And I realize how special St. Jude is, for the treatment they offer and the research they do. So many kids are treated there that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford health care. My kids are healthy, so I haven’t been through the experience that a lot of the kids and parents have who have visited St. Jude. But I certainly realize the impact they have. Having been able to spend a little time meeting some of the families, and when you tie that in to an event, and realize the impact you’re making, it makes it very difficult not to go back. I missed not being there last year.

The tournament seems to have a unique harmony between its title sponsor and St. Jude. Do you see these kind of connections elsewhere on the PGA Tour?

When I think of Memphis, I think of St. Jude and FedEx. Those two organizations are synonymous with Memphis, Tennessee. FedEx took a huge step in sponsoring the FedEx Cup. What a huge commitment, financially and from a marketing standpoint. I’m so happy to see them come back and realize how important that tournament is to the area, not that they ever lost sight of that. For them to step up says some incredible things about the company and their support of the PGA Tour. They’re doing everything they can to support the hospital and the event.

The FESJC seems to have a nice spot on the Tour calendar, coming a week before the U.S. Open. How important is it for you to be playing well entering the U.S. Open?

I’ve got to qualify for the U.S. Open, but if I’m able to qualify, the best preparation I can have is to play well the week before. Being in Memphis, playing at Southwind — a course I like — is very important. But Memphis is bigger than a warm-up event. The best thing I can do to prepare is to play well in Memphis. That’s my main goal.

Eleven of the last 12 majors have been won by players who had never taken one before. Is this healthy for the sport, the parity?

It’s healthy. Look at the season that Luke Donald is putting together, and his consistency the last couple of years. Look at Rory McIlroy and all he’s done. Lee Westwood seems to play great every week. Phil [Mickelson] wins a tournament and seems to get into contention every week. Then you have guys like Ricky Fowler and Keegan Bradley stepping up and winning golf tournaments.

For a long time, it seemed like everybody was focused on just five or six players, and I think that did a lot of players injustice. To have so many great players from all over the world playing well speaks volumes about the PGA Tour and the depth. That can be nothing but good for the game. It’s good to have a dominant figure occasionally, but I think dominance, at times, gets old. Tiger’s dominance was extraordinary, and he may return to that kind of dominance again. But as a player, it’s more interesting when you have a whole handful of guys who are the favorites, as opposed to one player against the field.

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