Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vols pull off the Daily Double

Lane Kiffin. Bruce Pearl. NCAA violations.

There's a harmony here that's almost too perfect, but not so perfect that it can't be appreciated.

In the meantime, why does Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton still have a job?

'Nuff said.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Toomer's trees and a rivalry long out of control

After this year's Iron Bowl, when Auburn left me near comatose with the greatest and most painful comeback I have ever seen, I received a consoling note from my best friend, George.

George is from Toledo, Nick Saban's first head coaching stop, and George despises Alabama. Yet being an Ohio State fan, he long ago earned his merit badge for crushing defeats. He, as much as anyone, knew what I was going through, and he told me this story.

George, it seems, has a friend in Toledo who has a friend who has kept in touch with Saban. Which meant that George's bud was invited to Tuscaloosa to watch the Auburn-Alabama game from a pretty cushy seat, so cushy, in fact, that his neighbors for the evening were Greg McElroy's parents. Afterward, the Tide quarterback and some of his teammates caught up with the group, and George's friend was struck at how even-tempered the players seemed to be, even after what had to be the most crushing loss of their lives.

It just goes to show, George wrote me afterward, that players react to the outcome of a game a lot differently than the fans.

I thought about that point this week when the poisoning of the oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn became national news. A former Texas state trooper, who moved to Alabama in 1983 and quickly chose sides in the state's civil war, was charged with dumping pesticide on the most famous trees in college football.

In Auburn, those live oaks are the pillars of sacred ground. For decades, Tiger fans had descended on the site to celebrate victories by rolling the trees with toilet paper. It's a distinctive tradition, and not one I particularly like, given the damage done to the oaks by the pressure washers used to blow the TP out of the boughs. But that's not my call. It's Auburn's ceremony, not mine, certainly not Alabama's.

The suspect in the case, now an Alabama fan so fervent that he named his children Bear and Crimson, told a syndicated radio talk-show host that he poisoned the trees because he heard that Auburn fans, in 1983, went to the Charmin to celebrate Paul Bryant's death. No one can verify that the macabre party ever took place. Suffice to say, however, that Auburn and Alabama fans frequently have taken great glee in the other's misfortune. In the late 1960s, for example, the state's newspapers carried a photo of the Auburn dean of students leading a giant snake dance around campus to celebrate Alabama's loss to SEC doormat Vanderbilt.

In the time since, this most bitter of rivalries has turned increasingly toxic. Each side has been accused of going to greater lengths to bring down the house of the other. Auburn boosters have launched several plots to draw an NCAA investigation of its hated rival. Tiger Nation howled when an Alabama coach was interviewed during the SEC/NCAA probe into the eligibility of AU quarterback Cameron Newton. Alabama fans laughed off talk of any conspiracies, even as significant numbers of them get down on their knees every night praying that AU is found guilty of cheating its way to a national championship.

None of this, however, approaches the level of the attack on the trees at Toomer's Corner. A relationship as heated as this one will always attract extremists. Given enough room to operate, however, the sickos can define the rivalry -- if the so-called normal segments of the fan base stay silent. And that's one of the most troubling aspects of this sordid and ridiculous affair.

My favorite Bama board has the reputation of being one of the most sensible sites on the Web, and early on, the responses to the tree poisonings ranged from disbelief to anger to disgust.

And then the hard-liners took over. The trees were already dying because of the repeated pressure cleanings. Auburn officials knew about the poisoning for weeks but released the news to deflect attention from reports of the NCAA's questioning of AU recruits. And then there was this: Auburn deserves anything they get because of its past actions -- from the spray-painting of Saban's lake house to, allegedly, the vandalism of Bryant's grave -- and, because, well ... Auburn is Auburn. Yes, UA's sense of superiority transcends even this nationwide embarrassment.

Both sides talk openly of retaliation, which may have led Saban and Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to step in Friday and ask for calm, to speak about treating the country's best gridiron rivalry as something even more valuable than Toomer's oaks. But rivalries can be poisoned just as easily as trees, and in Alabama the contamination between the state's two major universities has been profound. As the coarseness of the Internet bleeds more and more into everyday life, the flow of poison has increased and deepened.

That leaves the rivalry at a crossroads. What are the schools and the coaches and the fans and the media that fan the fires prepared to do? If the answer is to blame all of this on a sad figure whose love for a football team led him off the path of a normal life, then we should all prepare for the worst.

The last two national championships live in the state of Alabama. This should be the zenith of a rivalry. Instead, for the moment, we are at its nadir.

It's clearer now than ever before that what brings life to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry can kill it, too. If cooler heads still exist, it's well past time for them to step forward and prove it.

Michael Gordon

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Clowney to announce, but will he qualify?

The transcendent potential of Jadeveon Clowney and where he will take it next year have long masked the next variable: Will he make his grades?

Thousands of stories, blog posts, tweets and texts have accompanied the recruitment of the country's top high school football player. But none have really addressed whether his academic record is good enough to get him on a college campus next fall.

Until now. (Cue the New York Times theme song, boys.)

Clowney, a defensive end at Rock Hill South Pointe, announces his college decision Monday, his 18th birthday, two weeks after just about every other major recruit went public with his choice. He will pick between South Carolina, Clemson and Alabama. The Gamecocks, however, are the clear favorite, and if Clowney puts on another hat the chicken feathers will fly for months.

Still, the celebration at the winning school could be short-lived should Clowney's grades detour him for a year or more to a junior college or prep school.

That, according to the Times, is more than a mild possibility. Read more here.

Clowney will make his announcement on Monday at 10:15 on ESPN. He is considered by some experts to be the finest football recruit in more than a decade.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

The power of one word

Nick Saban is a big boy. He's a lightning rod. And he has become the front man on the issue of "oversigning" -- the practice of rejiggering his team's roster every year to sign big recruiting classes.

He's not the only coach who does this. In fact, Alabama was 10th on a recent list put together by Sports Illustrated, trailing several other SEC teams. But Saban is Saban and Alabama is Alabama, and so the coach has gotten plenty of attention for his use of the practice.

Which is all well and good, until it isn't. A case in point: Stewart Mandel's recent column written off Saban's Signing Day press conference, during which the coach defends his recruiting approach.

Mandel describes Saban's remarks as a diatribe. Really?

You decide. Follow the link. Find the two videos of the press conference and click on Part I. The 431 words to which Mandel refers come up around the 6 minute mark. Let me know when Saban raises his voice or sounds defensive or does anything more than answer the question in his typically straight-forward way.

Otherwise, you can choose to believe Mandel's description of the press conference as a Saban rant. And that's unfortunate, because it's not as if the columnist doesn't raise important points. As we have written before, the NCAA should standardize recruiting so all conferences and teams follow the same rules.

Along those lines, check out this fine column by the Birmingham News' Kevin Scarbinsky on Saban's defense being undermined by his school's refusal to turn over basic scholarship information.

But Mandel's otherwise solid piece is fatally flawed from his misuse of a single word. That word is inaccurate and unfair. And it forces the reader to view everything Saban says about a timely and important issue through a grossly distorted lense.

michael gordon

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The year-long war . . .

Let's start this recruiting wrap-up on a high note. The white bulldog puppy runningback Isaiah Crowell pulled out when he announced for Georgia on Wednesday is the cutest and most novel exclamation point ever put on what is normally a boring and predictable hat ceremony.

But that was about it for charm.

This year's SEC recruiting wars seemed particularly bloody, fueled largely by the growing number of nutcases feeding their inner Komodo dragon on the Web.

A top recruit in Mississippi claims to have decommitted from MSU because of Internet stalkers. When Cyrus Kouandjio, the country's top offensive line prospect -- and long considered a lock to join his big brother at Alabama -- announced instead for Auburn, the cyber nether world erupted. When the big kid didn't sign the paperwork, instead announcing he was reconsidering his decision, trolls from both fan bases took over Kouandjio's Facebook page to rekindle their One Hundred Years War.

Silly us, we thought the Iron Bowl showed the best and worst of a college rivalry. But those hatreds mutate into something even more toxic given the freedom and the anonymity of the Web.

Here's hoping the kid and his family go off the grid for a couple of days and figure out what's best for Cyrus, regardless the uniform he chooses. Don't expect an announcement until Friday, when another tsunami of online invective will undoubtedly be unleashed. Here's the latest from the Washington Post. Meanwhile, back to the fun part.

Once again, the SEC dominates the recruiting rankings, with only Texas, FSU -- more SEC than ACC anyway -- and USC -- where coach Lane Kiffin thumbed his nose at the massive NCAA sanctions -- interrupting the run of conference schools.

The Big Winners: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and LSU. The strong got stronger, and Georgia coach Mark Richt's newest players may quickly determine if he keeps his job.
The On the Cusps: Florida and Tennessee, which closed quite strongly under first-year coach Derek Dooley.
The Dissapointments Mississippi State and South Carolina didn't clearly capitalize on breakout seasons, though Steve Spurrier signed a multitude and is the favorite to land Jadeveon Clowney, considered perhaps finest prospect of the last 20 years. (No pressure there.)

Jess Nicholas of did his annual bang-up job of objectively analyzing the signing classes of each SEC school. How objective? Even St. Onge couldn't find fault with Jess's assessment of Auburn.

You can read more here.