Friday, January 24, 2020

Gradually Getting Going

Okay, everybody say it together: Eli Manning is a Hall-of-Famer.

Manning, who announced his retirement earlier this week, ranks seventh in NFL history in passing yards (57,023), touchdown passes (366) and completions (4,895). That's impressive enough - though you do have to consider that passing numbers are way up in his era.

What you don't have to adjust for is the fact that there are five players who have been the MVP of the Super Bowl twice. Three of them - Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana - are already in the Hall of Fame. The fourth is Tom Brady, who figures to have a reasonably good chance of getting there.

Brady and Bill Belichik are 6-3 all-time in Super Bowls. Of their three losses, two came against Manning's Giants, and both because Manning orchestrated late fourth-quarter comebacks - completing two of the most famous passes ever along the way.

So yes, that's a Hall-of-Fame resume.

TigerBlog is glad that Manning is retiring after spending his entire 16-year career with the Giants, as opposed to going to play a year for another team. There's a long list of players who look out-of-place (and past their expiration date) in another team's uniform, and that list includes players like Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Walt Frazier and even Montana and Manning's brother Peyton, if they had success at their last stops.

That list could also include Brady, if he goes to play for a team other than the Patriots. He would look really weird as a Raider, or a member of any other team.

So everyone is in agreement then. Eli is a Hall-of-Famer.

It's good to have that settled.

What else?

Well, today is the end of the the break for first semester exams. That means the athletic schedule gradually gets going this weekend, with the men's and women's track and field teams on the road, the women's tennis team really on the road (in Seattle) and three teams at home.

The women's swimming and diving team is home against Columbia tomorrow at noon. The Tigers enter the meet ranked 22nd in the country, which makes Princeton not only the lone Ivy team ranked but also the lone non-Power Five team ranked.

The two-day HYP meet will be at DeNunzio Pool next weekend. The big dates to circle are Feb. 19-22, when the Ivy League championships will be held at Brown.

The men's tennis team will host Buffalo and Drexel in Jadwin Gym Sunday as well, with the first match at 10 and the second at 3.

The men's basketball team returns from exams to take on Rutgers-Camden Sunday at noon. Raise your hand if you've covered games at Rutgers-Camden.

TigerBlog has, back when he was in the newspaper business. His most vivid memories of his games there, back when he was covering Trenton State College (which a long time ago became The College of New Jersey) was that Rutgers-Camden was the last place he worked that didn't have phone jacks. The gym there still had the phones where the wires went directly into the wall, as opposed to into the jack, and so to transmit a story, he needed the really, really old fashioned acoustic couplers to go with his really old fashioned TRS-80 word processor.

Princeton hasn't played since it beat Penn twice in six days to go to 2-0 in the league, which is a great start as the team chases the league title and the league tournament.

Princeton will then go back into the Ivy schedule next weekend, hosting Dartmouth and Harvard. That will begin a run of 12 games in 37 days leading up to the end of the regular season.

This weekend will also see the second games in the travel partner matchups. Yale, Harvard and Columbia will all look to join Princeton at 2-0.

And of course, this marks the last year that Princeton Athletics will have these two weeks off in January for first semester exams. With the new academic calendar there will come new schedules, and this time of year will be largely different around here.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

So What's Next?

So it got pretty ugly at the end of the Kansas-Kansas State game the other night.

The brawl came at the end of the Jayhawks' 81-60 win at the Allen Field House. It was either all the fault of Kansas or Kansas State, depending on which team you like.

It was, of course, completely unnecessary, as it started when Kansas was dribbling out the clock. It was also pretty bad, with real punches thrown, a player who picked up a chair and almost launched it into the middle of the melee and even cheerleaders trying to act as peacemakers.

The repercussions of the fight will be significant. And they should be, since this has no place at all in college athletics.

For starters, referees need to be really diligent about calling technicals at the earliest sign of unsportsmanlike behavior. If you let any of it go, you risk having it build.

For those who think this kind of conduct is much more prevalent in sports now than it was 20 or more years ago, TigerBlog isn't so sure that's the case. It's just that when there is a brawl like this, you don't just hear about it - you hear about it immediately (through social media) and even see it immediately (via smartphones).

If both of those existed decades ago, then there would have been a lot of ugliness caught on video as well, he's pretty sure.

In 2020, though, that's 100 percent how it works. And so it was Tuesday night, when angle after angle began to emerge of the fight. Also in 2020, it's a race to see either who can get the best angle video up on their Twitter account first or who can best make fun of the situation.

Very little of what TB saw indicated that anyone was anything other than entertained by it. That's a bad sign.

For his part, TB went to the official athletic websites for both schools to see what they had to say, if anything, in their game stories. Kansas had nothing - not even its normal postgame story, just a postgame notes page that didn't talk about what happened.

K-State had a quote from head coach Bruce Weber way down at the bottom of the postgame page: "I didn't see what happened at the end of the game. Obviously, I'm disappointed it ended that way."

By yesterday morning, KU had added a statement from its Director of Athletics about the incident.

One by-product of the look at the Kansas site was that TB really liked the postgame notes page.

Interestingly, the look at that page came on the same day that TB was part of a meeting to talk about some of what the future of athletic communications at Princeton will include.

The Princeton Office of Athletic Communications has always been good at evolving, and part of that is abandoning what no longer has value. It's about constant re-evaluation and looking at whatever metrics can help you make decisions while relying on common sense and anecdotal feedback. And about checking out what other people are doing.

So is there a future for the postgame story? What about the pregame story? What do you want to read? How much time are you willing to invest in reading something? What's too long?

What do you want only to consume through social media? What video do you want to see?

These are the questions. The answers constantly change.

This year, Princeton went away from the traditional pregame stories, which had been a staple of in the first 20 years of its existence, to the format of Gameday pages. Do you like those? Are you getting the information you need?

How about bio pages? They're among the most read. Maybe most of the information should be filtered through them?

This is what the meeting yesterday was about.

It's a conversation that has been going on since TB first came to Princeton. He can vividly remember a discussion about the printed seasonal schedules that the OAC used to produce - and how big a deal it was when they stopped being produced.

The issues keep changing. The discussions do not.

What's the best way to get the information out to the people who want it and need it?

Or, as TB always says, what would you do if you were starting athletic communications from scratch?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Another Alarie Award

So if you're wondering what people in college athletic communications offices talk about when their teams are all shut down due to first semester exams, TigerBlog offers this conversation that took place in his office yesterday afternoon.

Who is a better player? Larry Bird or Kevin Durant?

There you have it. Those are the kinds of conversations that happen.

TB's colleague Warren Croxton says he'd take Durant. In fact, he said Durant is one of the 10 best basketball players of all time.

TB then rattled off a list of 10 players he thought were better than Durant: Jordan. Bird. Magic. Kareem. Lebron. Russell. Chamberlain. Robertson. West. Erving.

He actually texted the list to Warren, who looked at it and then said "if Durant and Bird played one-on-one, Bird would never score."

Ah, to be young. Warren is 32 years old, so he can be forgiven. And hey, at least he knew what team Jerry West played for (it's the Lakers).

TigerBlog started to try to explain David Thompson to Warren, but what was the point? 

TB was very fortunate to have been able to see ever player on his list play, even if he was a kid for some of them. Certainly with the emphasis on the three-point shot these days, the NBA is a completely different world than it was back then, when the thought was that you couldn't win a championship without a dominant low-post center.

Still, the NBA that TB watched in the 1970s was a great one. It's not Warren's fault he wasn't born yet. 

Anyway, that was the conversation yesterday afternoon.

Speaking of basketball, Bella Alarie was honored Monday night at the Philadelphia Sportswriters' Association as its amateur athlete of the year. 

The PSWA website has a partial list of past winners, and there is nobody on that list who is from Princeton. On the other hand, the website also says that the  awards go back to 1905, so somebody from Princeton must have won before.

Pete Carril? Dick Kazmaier? Bill Bradley?

For that matter, how about Hobey Baker if it goes all the way back that far? 

Regardless of if she was the first Princetonian, Alarie is a most deserving winner. 

She is the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, and she'll certainly be in the very serious discussions this year. She is closing in on Princeton's career record for points, and she already has the record for blocked shots. 

In addition, she is fourth in career rebounds at Princeton with 854, which leaves her six away from tying Niveen Rasheed for third. TB would not have guessed Rasheed was third in rebounds, since you don't think of her as a rebounder.

With 13 Ivy League games to go, Alarie would need to average 11.2 rebounds per game to get to 1,000. Ellen DeVoe is second, with 942, and Margaret Meier is the only woman ever to reach 1,000 rebounds at Princeton, with 1,099. 

Another Princeton record that Alarie has is most times being named Ivy Player of the Week. She won the award the last time Princeton played, after her 25-point, 11-rebound performance against Penn before exam break.

That was the 18th time in her career that she was named the league's Player of the Week. Only Harvard's Allison Feaster, with 21, has more.

What's most amazing about that is that the people who pick such things like to spread them around if they can. It takes a lot to say "okay, let's give it to the same person again."

And yet she's earned it, time and again.

Princeton is 1-0 in the league and 13-1 overall. Alarie has missed four games this year due to injury, but she seemed to be in top form against the Quakers.

There are still nine more days until Princeton plays again. The Tigers will jump into the thick of the Ivy League race next weekend, with their trip to Dartmouth and Harvard. 

Princeton will have played only the Penn game in a 33-day stretch and only two games in a 41-day stretch when that trip happens.

After that, it'll be 13 games in 37 days, to the end of the regular season.

Multiply similar numbers around other sports, and things are about to get really busy around here. That won't leave much time for trying to explain to Warren that sports began long before he started watching.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Football Tuesday

TigerBlog saw Princeton head coach Bob Surace the other day and congratulated him on having the 2017 World Series title awarded to his beloved New York Yankees.

He laughed and said 2018 too. In the wake of the whole sign-stealing mess, there is one pretty funny part for those who don't like the Yankees - they very likely would have won at least the 2017 Series had the Astros not been blatantly cheating.

Of course, as TB said the other day, why is sign-stealing illegal in baseball? Shouldn't it be on the team giving the signs to protect themselves, rather than the other way around?

The Yankees are very much like the baseball version of the Dallas Cowboys. They are the two most polarizing teams in professional sports, as in you either love them or hate them. TB doesn't remember too many times he's heard someone say "yeah, the Yankees? Theyr'e fine. Don't like them or dislike them."

Because of that, if you're a Princeton fan and not one of those people who loves the Cowboys, then you've been in a tough spot when it comes to Jason Garrett.

On the one hand, Garrett is one of the absolute most likeable and most highly respected Princeton alums that TigerBlog has ever met. The only other Princetonian that TB would compare him to in that regard is former baseball/basketball player Chris Young.

On the other hand, well, it's always been the Cowboys, and you know what that means.

The news that Garrett was out of Dallas and now joining the Giants as their offensive coordinator was therefore very easy to take. Now rooting for Garrett doesn't have to coincide with rooting for Dallas.

With the Giants, Garrett will be working with first-year head coach Joe Judge, who 1) is 38 years old, 2) is someone who has made an extraordinary first impression, 3) has never been an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator and 4) is a graduate of the same high school - Lansdale Catholic outside of Philly - as current Princeton senior running back Ryan Quigley.

Because of No. 3 on the above list, Judge will benefit immeasurably from having someone who has been a successful NFL head coach on his staff. So will Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, the Giants' very promising quarterback and running back around whom the team is trying to rebuild.

And now you can root for the Giants and by extension Princeton.

The Super Bowl for this year is set - it'll be Kansas City against San Francisco in Miami. The Chiefs are making their third Super Bowl appearance and first since 1970; the 49ers are there for the seventh time, with a 5-1 record.

By the way, who thought a team could win a conference championship game and only throw the ball eight times? The 49ers simply pounded Green Bay on the ground, and when you can do that, you become basically unstoppable.

To show you how misleading football stats can be, and how big it is to be able to run the ball like San Francisco did yesterday, consider this: Green Bay outgained San Francisco 358-354. Also, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers was 31 for 39 for 326 yards and two touchdowns - and his team was never in the game.

Quarterbacks throw for 300 or 400 or even 500 yards and lose all the time Teams do not outgain the other team 285-62 and lose. Ever.

TigerBlog is rooting for Kansas City, because Princeton alum John Lovett is on the team. On the other hand, he'd rather see the Chiefs win next year with, presumably, Lovett on the active roster than this year with him on injured reserve.

Finally, this past weekend saw Princeton senior Kevin Davidson compete in the East-West Shrine Bowl in Florida. Davidson was 6 for 11 for 51 yards in the game, with two passes dropped, but the game itself wasn't as big as the week in practice.

Davidson had a great week in Florida, and he's continue to make a name for himself as an NFL prospect as he looks to follow his two immediate predecessors - Lovett and Chad Kanoff - into the league.

Remember, Davidson was only Princeton's starter for one year (plus one game last year against Brown), so he wasn't totally on the radar of pro scouts when the season started. The push he's made in year has been amazing.

Hopefully he'll be in the NFL next year as well.

Even if it would have to be, gasp, Dallas. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Remembering John Doar

Today is the national holiday of Martin Luther King Day.

TB has written about this holiday before, including this:

When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

The United States has 10 officially recognized federal holidays.

They are:
New Year's Day
The Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
Washington's Birthday
Memorial Day
Independence Day
Labor Day
Columbus Day
Veterans' Day

According to the official government website, the official name of "Presidents Day" is really "Washington's Birthday," and it offers this explanation:
This holiday is designated as "Washington's Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.

In other words, only one federal holiday is named after a person who was born in the United States of America.

That's a fairly large group of people, a group that has accomplished some of the singularly greatest moments in the history of mankind, in every single area of human existence (science, religion, government, athletics, women's equality, economics, discovery and on and on and on).

Only one, Martin Luther King Jr., has ever been honored by a federal holiday in his name.

Dr. King was the driving force in the civil rights movement, and his non-violent approach helped achieve monumental successes in a struggle that had begun with an entire race of people literally in chains. 

The holiday falls this year on the Monday after the weekend without any Princeton Athletic events because of first semester exams. There will be events this coming weekend, and then it's the wild month of February, which will see winter Ivy League championships and spring openers in another crossover season.

This weekend, though, was quiet, in contrast to what comes next.

TigerBlog did see the story last week on the main University website and on social media about John Doar and his role in the civil rights movement. Anything with the name "John Doar" in it gets his attention.

John Doar, a member of the Class of 1944, was a native Minnesotan who went on to play basketball at Princeton and then attend law school at the University of California. After that, he practiced law in the family firm in Wisconsin, and there was absolutely nothing that suggested he was about to become a towering figure in the South.

This is from a story TB wrote about Doar almost 20 years ago:
 "I looked around late in 1959 and became conscious from newspaper articles and magazines that nothing had happened with segregation since I left Princeton," he says. "A friend of mine called me and asked if I'd like to go to work for the Justice Department, in the Civil Rights Division. It didn't take me long to say I'd do it. I moved my family to Washington on July 4, 1960."

He'd had conversations with Princetonians from the South about segregation at Tiger Inn, and then all those years later decided to do something about it.

And do something he did.

TigerBlog would end up spending considerable time talking to Doar long after Doar retired. TB also nominated him for the NCAA Inspiration Award, which Doar ended up winning - and then ended up sending TB a handwritten thank-you note that he still has.

You can read TB's feature on him HERE.

You can read the story from HERE. A book about Doar's role in the civil rights movement is in the works from Princeton professor Kevin Kruse. If you read the two stories, you'll get a better sense of who Doar was and what his role was in the South in the 1960s.

If you've never heard of him, he's definitely worth reading up about.

Especially today.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Another Gameday For Davidson

This story about the Houston Astros and the sign-stealing is pretty amazing.

It has come out that Astros were stealing signs during their 2017 World Series championship season. That's pretty extraordinary.

This is probably going to end up being one of the biggest cheating scandals in sports history. There are already new reports coming out about the extent to which the team went to steal signs and to relay them, including the possibility that players wore buzzers under their uniforms.

Of course, the question of whether or not sign-stealing should be illegal is another issue. Teams try to do it all the time in other sports, right, especially football.

Shouldn't the onus be on teams to figure out how not to get their signs stolen? Ah, that's a different subject - the reality is that in baseball, stealing signs is illegal.

And the punishments have already been harsh.

The Astros saw their GM and manager suspended for a year and then subsequently fired. Alex Cora, a bench coach at the time with the Astros, was fired as manager of the Red Sox - this after he led them to the 2018 World Series title.

Carlos Beltran is out without ever managing a game for the New York Mets. He was implicated as a player with Houston.

What about if other players are caught, current players? Will they face one-year suspensions?

And, taken to the extreme, could the Astros be stripped of their championship?

It's a fascinating story.

And then there's Odell Beckham Jr., who apparently has some issues with his need for attention. First he handed out either real or fake money to LSU players after the national championship game Monday night. Then he slapped a police officer's butt and subsequently was charge with simple battery.

The worst part is the way he's taken away from the players on the LSU team, a group that has just completed one of the best seasons any college football team has ever had. And there's Beckham, trying to make himself part of it.

The question is, who would want him on their team? What has he ever done other than make a few really spectacular catches with the Giants?

He certainly wasn't much of a factor this year for the Browns. In fact, he had exactly three more TD receptions than Princeton alum Stephen Carlson did for the team.

Speaking of Princeton football and the NFL, it's been a great week for Kevin Davidson as he prepares for tomorrow's East-West Shrine Bowl. That game, which is being played in St. Petersburg, Fla., kicks off at 3 and can be seen on the NFL Network.

There were 70 players from last year's game on NFL rosters this year. It's obviously a big step in the direction of getting into the league.

Davidson's path to this stage hasn't exactly been typical. In fact, you can read a lot more about his story.

Davidson was the backup quarterback for his first three years, though he wasn't backing up just any quarterbacks. There were two NFL quarterbacks, well, NFL players, in front of him, first Chad Kanoff and John Lovett together, then just Kanoff and then just Lovett.

He did have one big moment in the 10-0 season in 2018, when he threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Brown. He then started all 10 games this year, and despite being only a one-year starter, he finished his career seventh all-time at Princeton in touchdown passes and 12th in passing yards.

That's not easy to do in basically one season.

Oh, and he's also the Ivy League record holder for touchdown passes in a game with seven, which he did against Bucknell this season.

Davidson is 6-4 and 225 pounds, and he certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback. He also has an NFL level arm, that's for sure. And that was obvious from the first pass he threw in that Brown game a year ago, a 39-yard pass to Carlson that was perfectly placed.

There were NFL scouts at Princeton games all season, and Davidson impressed them from start to finish.

The game itself is probably the least important part of the week at a senior all-star game. The practices, run while NFL coaches watch, are way more important, and by all accounts Davidson has had a superior week there.

This game, it appears, will not be his last one.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Less Than A Month

Here's a true statement to start your Thursday: There's less than a month until opening day for Princeton lacrosse.

The one-month mark was yesterday, actually. The 15th of the month.

Princeton opens its men's and women's lacrosse seasons on February 15th, with the men at home against Monmouth and the women at Temple.

They will have wildly different starts to their season in terms of playing on Sherrerd Field at Class of 1952 Stadium. The men follow the opener at home against Monmouth with a game that Tuesday against Colgate, also at home, which means the men will play more home games in four days than the women will in the first 40 days.

The Princeton men play five of their first six games at home and eight of their 13 total at home. The women play six of their first seven games on the road and then six of the last eight at home.

Both teams will feature history-making offensive players.

Kyla Sears is the only player in Princeton women's lacrosse history with two seasons of at least 80 points. Keep in mind that she's entering her junior season.

Sears has 178 career points; should she match that in the next two years, that would give her 356, bettering the current career record of 285, set by Olivia Hompe, who graduated in 2017.

Joining Sears is senior Tess D'Orsi, who is already 10th all-time in career scoring at Princeton with 187 points. D'Orsi scored 64 goals last year, which is tied for the second-best single-season total in program history - with Sears. Only Hompe with 75 in 2017 has scored more.

The big storyline for the women is the fact the Tigers return a 95-point scorer (Sears) and an 80-point scorer (D'Orsi) and then no player who had more than 10 a year ago (sophomore Maria Pansini).

As for the men, they return Michal Sowers, who will rebreak the school career record every time he gets a point, since he is already the record-holder with 255. He enters his senior season with 105 goals and 150 assists, and his 6.07 points per game are fifth in Division I history and the most in the last 38 years.

Think about that. No player who has played in the last 38 years has as many points per game as Sowers does. That includes the Gait brothers, all of the Thompsons, the great Pat Spencer - everyone.

You can also think about this: Sowers ranks fourth in Division I history with 3.67 assists per game. Should he play in all 13 regular-season games this year and NOT record a single assists, his per game total would drop to 2.73 - which would leave him in 22nd place all-time.

Sowers does not currently hold the career records for goals in a career (Jesse Hubbard with 163) or assists (Kevin Lowe with 174). His career numbers suggest that he has a better shot at the assists than goals; his last game of last year suggests he could get both (seven goals, one assist against Cornell).

As for the single-season record, yes, he holds that. And second. And third. In his first three seasons. He is the only player in program history with at least 80 points in a season, and he's done that three times, including a 90-point junior year that saw him become a Tewaaraton Award finalist.

In its preseason Player of the Year watchlist earlier this week, Inside Lacrosse had him ranked second, behind Penn State's Grant Ament. TigerBlog and Grant go back to when Grant was in fifth grade, and TB has always liked Grant a lot. He would take Sowers over him in an instant. 

There is much more to both of the two teams other than their top scorers obviously. For now, one day less than one month away, they're a good starting point.

If you think winter has barely started, consider that Colgate and Jacksonville men scrimmaged earlier this week. The first actual live Division I men's games are Feb. 1, when there will be 12 games.

You can buy tickets to the men's home games HERE. There is no admission charge for regular season women's games.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Guest TigerBlog: It's Humbling To Be A Junior College Coach

TigerBlog has a standing offer to anyone who would like to write a guest entry, and he's always happy when someone takes him up and writes a meaningful, thoughtful piece on something that is of importance.

Today the floor belongs to former Princeton men's basketball great Howard Levy, a 1985 graduate who was an All-Ivy center and who is still the program's career record holder for field goal percentage. Howard is now the head coach of at Mercer County College, as well as one of the most loyal and well-liked Princetonians you will ever meet.

It’s humbling to be a junior college coach.  

The best laid plans and coaching strategies mostly don’t work and then it’s all about adjustments. This season, I thought I had it figured out with some great ideas on what to do and more importantly, how to teach it quickly.   

Well, a few months into the season, I realized that the ideas were more suited to last year’s team, a mostly mature, veteran, very good team that moved the ball as well as any team I have ever coached, rivaling the 1998 Princeton team in that regard. So it’s time to adjust, and my coaching upbringing has been to blame myself, that there is no problem that better coaching can’t solve.  

I had been feeling sorry for myself as my Mercer Vikings team headed into the holiday break with a 4-8 record, with one game to go against Frederick (MD) Community College on our annual trip to the Washington, DC, area.

We have visited Washington every year that I have been the head coach at Mercer, so this is our 12th trip.  I had the idea to give our team an annual cultural experience to go along with a game, and John Simone, our long serving Athletic Director, agreed. I spent seven years in DC from 1987-1994, three as a law student/assistant coach at George Washington University, and the remainder working as a lawyer, so I have a lot of good friends and contacts there, both in and out of basketball.

In my first year, then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson III allowed us to practice at McDonough Arena, and the trip has taken shape from there. After that first practice, John spoke to my team, and after a few minutes, he grew very comfortable and started talking as if he was speaking to his own team.  
From there, we’ve either played a game at the Verizon Center (or whatever it is called these days)—usually at 8 or 9am before a Georgetown game—or we have held a practice at the Wizards’ practice facility. Our guys have gotten to see and meet Georgetown and NBA players and coaches, and I’ve gotten to deepen my friendships with Wizards execs, including current GM Tommy Sheppard and former President and GM Ernie Grunfeld.   

I have always followed Ernie - one of the few Jewish NBA players of my generation, and his career closely, and our paths have crossed several times over the years, the first time being at Brendan Byrne Arena in 1985 during my all-too-brief tenure with the New Jersey Nets. I lasted through the exhibition season, and my first game was against the Knicks (it was Patrick Ewing’s first game too).   

Before the game, players from both teams were shooting around and talking. I felt a little awkward as I had no one to talk to; Ernie saw this, came down and introduced himself. We shot around a bit and started a relationship that has continued over the years.

Of course it has been great to see John and his dad. John would normally speak to our team after our game and his words and manner served to reinforce the fact that our Mercer teams are part of a bigger basketball family.  I know the players were surprised and happy to realize that prominent people in our sport follow them.

John’s dad is one of my all-time favorites, and I treasure the time we have spent together talking about life and basketball. Besides his wealth of knowledge and experience, his personality and way of carrying himself remind me so much of my (also 6’10”) father, Syd, who passed away too young a dozen years ago. My last encounter with Coach Thompson was two or three years ago during John’s last season at Georgetown, when he saw me leading my team out of the locker room, and bellowed, “Hey MF-er, they haven’t fired your ass yet?”

Our results on this trip have been mixed—we’ve lost more than we have won but have won our share.  Our usual opponent—Frederick—is a perennially good team, and we have played some really exciting hard-fought games. I’ll get to this year’s game in a little bit.

In addition to the basketball, we do some sightseeing in DC. We’ve visited monuments, usually the Lincoln and Martin Luther King Memorials. We have visited the Holocaust Museum; that visit was preceded by a session at the Mercer County Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center.   

We’ve been to the Washington Nationals Baseball Academy, which provides baseball and academic instruction to underprivileged youths in DC. Two years ago, we visited the Supreme Court and every other year we try to visit the U.S. Capitol.   

Our former Congressman Rush Holt has hosted us, as has Congresswoman Terry Sewell (Princeton 1986) of Alabama. Terry took us onto the floor of the House of Representatives, where I ran into retiring Senator Tom Harkin, and he was happy to hear that I coached his son-in-law Steve Goodrich (Princeton 1998).

This year we were fortunate enough to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Prior to leaving, my good friend and former Princeton football coach Steve DiGregorio (“Digger”)—currently a history teacher in his hometown of Nutley, NJ—spoke to the team about what to expect at the museum. Steve and his son Derek accompanied us on the trip. The museum is incredible, but I was most impressed with the engagement and seriousness of our players, most of whom are African-American from low income backgrounds, with what I perceive as little knowledge of their history.  I was happy and grateful to see them taking their time and asking questions during our 2+ hours there.

Then it was off to practice at the Wizards new facility in SE Washington. I will just say that the practice bore little resemblance to the players’ Instagram posts of them “working” at an NBA facility.   

My general feeling about this team is that we have enough talent to be successful but only with a consistent level of work, attention to detail and mature behavior that has not been present thus far.  Unfortunately lack of effort and talking and bickering have been the hallmarks of this team, and solving these human problems has been our central challenge as coaches.  We have found this to be more difficult than teaching offense, defense or any basketball skill.

After a difficult practice, we headed to our final, and to me, the most important event of the day—DINNER—not because of the food but because of the company. This annual dinner is organized by me and two close friends: Rich Dipippo, a DC insurance agent who was the academic advisor and mentor to many GW student athletes during my time there; and Jimmy Lynn (“The Judge”), who I met as a Princeton freshman in 1981 when he visited his best friend and Princeton football legend Kevin Guthrie.   

The Judge is “Mr. DC” and has built a tremendous career in sports marketing and diversity, first at AOL, and currently as a founder of Kiswe—the world’s most advanced cloud-based interactive mobile video streaming platform and as a professor of Sports Marketing at Georgetown.  He has used his success to mentor scores of kids and young adults in the DC area, from Georgetown student athletes (usually those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from outside the U.S.) to youngsters at the Nationals Baseball Academy where he serves as a board member.
The food is generally a sidelight to the evening, but this year it is worth mentioning. The Judge was able to set up the dinner at Momofuko, one of DC’s top restaurants owned by famed restaurateur David Chang.  Even here, I was happy to see our guys embracing the atmosphere and eagerly trying new and different types of foods.  One of the guys said it was the first time he had eaten salad.

In addition to Rich and The Judge, I try to invite friends and former players to share their life experiences that I hope will be relevant to our players. In a nice coincidence current Princeton Women’s DOBO Helen Tau has joined us in the past when she had a similar role at Georgetown.  Over the years we have heard from former Princeton star and babysitter extraordinaire, current American University assistant coach Scott Greenman, some of my former GW players, and a former Mercer player who now has an MBA and is working in real estate, Paco Boussougou.   

Paco’s words were particularly impactful as he played on my first two teams, and we constantly butted heads.  I even temporarily threw him off the team at one point. In Paco’s second year, we went into the holiday break with a 2-9 record only to rattle off 11 straight wins in January and February to win our Region championship and earned a berth in the NJCAA Tournament.  

This year Digger invited and introduced Billy Jordan, a great running back and Princeton and now a successful real estate executive. Billy had to wait his turn to play at Princeton as he backed up Keith Elias for two years. He shared how the lessons he learned about being a good teammate and continuing to work while not playing have helped him in life. These are difficult lessons to teach in today’s instant gratification world.

The Judge wrapped up the evening tying together the life lessons, particularly how simply showing up for work every single day is the foundation for success. All the speakers offered to be in contact with the guys to help them as they progress through college and life. I know that at least one of the guys has already followed up, which is encouraging to me.

I am grateful to my friends for the interest that they have taken in my guys, and I know that the  things they have heard will impact them, though I am not sure they will have the desired effect by TOMORROW in time to improve our team enough to win.

I am also grateful for this entire experience as coaching is an often frustrating job, and when done in obscurity at a place like Mercer, it’s easy to forget what is really important—the development of these guys. Hearing my friends and seeing the engagement of the guys is a needed reminder why I do this.

Oh yeah—the game.  Well, we had our moments, overcoming a bad start to take a lead while playing some beautiful basketball against a more talented opponent and then issues that have plagued us—bickering, lack of hustle—showed up and we lost by 15.  

I was particularly distressed to see one of our guys who didn’t play as much as HE expected sulking and not rooting on his teammates. Of all the things that were discussed at the dinner, that is the one that can be changed immediately—just fake it!

In any event, my assistant coach (and former Mercer player) Stan Tuchez and I spoke to them about the need to self-evaluate, absorb the lessons that they have learned and come back in January ready to get better.  At the very least, we gave them some things to think about, and I hope they will now see their coach a little differently—possibly as a human being that cares about them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

0.6 To Go

When you walk onto a plane, do you turn to the cockpit to see who the pilots are before walking down the aisles to your seats?

TigerBlog does. He also thinks that probably close to 90 percent of the people do this.

Why? He's not sure.

Is it because it's human nature to see the people who are now entrusted with taking over all control of your immediate future? TB doesn't know the first thing about flying a plane. He needs to be able to trust the pilots.

Still, what exactly are you looking for when you see them? Young pilots? Old ones? Is there anything that suggests that these people do or do not know what they're doing?

TB operates on the theory that 1) the airline has hired these people, so they must have a sense of how to fly a plane and 2) they're going with you, so they presumably have as much invested in getting you where you need to go as you do.

Another thing that TB always figures is that if they know how to taxi the plane to the end of the runway before takeoff, then that's a sign that they have a basic working knowledge of how an airplane works and how to communicate with air traffic control.

TB likes pilots who get on the PA system and have a nice chat with the people in the back. He likes knowing how high they're going to fly, how long it's going to take, that kind of thing. He used to like when pilots would tell you the route, which is something they don't do much of anymore, probably because you can find it out so many other ways, either online or in the little TV in the seat in front of you.

When TB got on the plane in Florida the other day, he did the instinctive look into the cockpit and saw two very, very, very young pilots. And one of them was scarfing down Chinese food while everyone boarded.

Whatever he did, it worked. The flight was uneventful.

TB flew from West Palm Beach to Trenton the other day. There was also supposed to be a flight on the same airline that went from West Palm to Philadelphia, but that one got cancelled and everyone on that flight got put on the one to Trenton.

If you've never driven from Trenton-Mercer Airport to Philadelphia, it takes about 30 minutes. Listening to the Philadelphia people, you'd think that 1) they'd never heard of Trenton and 2) that their flight had gotten rerouted to Utah or something.

As he listened to two such people talk about Trenton as if it were in another country, TB also watched the Princeton-Penn men's basketball game on his phone. Because his flight was delayed slightly, he was able to see the game through to the end, which turned out to be a 63-58 Princeton win that improved the Tigers to 2-0 in the league.

The best game of the weekend for Princeton, or at least the most dramatic ending of a game, was the men's hockey game Saturday night against St. Lawrence. TB also watched this one on ESPN+. Unlike the men's basketball game, he didn't see it to the end, though he thought he had.

He was watching without sound as the teams played through a scoreless first three periods and into the five-minute overtime. And though what he thought was the entire overtime.

When he flipped his computer off, he though the game had ended. Then, about 15 minutes later, he saw the tweet that said that Luke Keenan's goal had given Princeton a win.

What? How had he missed that?

As it turns out, he had looked away for a second and then saw Princeton players on the ice. He figured it had been a 0-0 tie but no - Keenan had tipped in a shot with 0.6 seconds left to win it.

That's 0.6 seconds. After going 64:59.4 scoreless.

Princeton goalie Jeremie Forget was outstanding, as he has been lately, especially in the OT, when he made six saves.

And suddenly Princeton is showing that it could be a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the season. Princeton is only four points away from home ice in the first round of the playoffs, with five more weekends to go. In fact, of those 10 remaining league games, five are against the three teams directly ahead in the chase for home ice - Brown, Yale and Union.

Of course, as with the rest of Princeton's teams, the men's hockey team is on break for first semester exams, and the first of those 10 games is still 17 days away.

Still, it's nice to think ahead to the coming weeks and the stretch run, a time when Ron Fogarty's teams have usually been at their best.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Weekend In Shorts

For all of you in the Northeast, TigerBlog says "you're welcome."

For what? For bringing back the weather from Florida, of course.

If you were anywhere from Washington, D.C., to Boston this weekend, you may have noticed that it was hovering around 70 degrees. On January 11th and 12th.

As TB rode his bike this weekend, he was struck by two things: 1) there were a lot of people out riding as opposed to a normal mid-January day, when he'd be the only one out and 2) the weather was so much nicer than it will be more the majority of the spring seasons, but oh well.

In fact, it was so much better than the weather for last year's Ivy League lacrosse tournament, which was played in rain and temps that were maybe touching 50.

Oh well. It'll be winter at some point.

In the meantime, it's always good to be outside in shorts in January in the Princeton area, if only for a weekend.

For those inside in shorts this weekend, it couldn't have gone much better for those wearing the shorts of Princeton basketball. Both the men and the women had big wins, both defeating Penn and both making statements along the way.

It started Friday afternoon, when the men's team defeated the Quakers 63-58. The win was the second in six days for Princeton over its arch-rival, after the Tigers won 78-64 at the Palestra.

As TB said Friday, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson has an extraordinary record against Penn, as both a player and coach. In fact, the win Friday was his 20th against the Quakers, against eight losses.

That's a winning percentage of .714 in games in which he has either played or coached. If you take the rest of the series, all of the games without Mitch Henderson, then Penn leads 122-97, or a winning percentage for Princeton of .443.

Henderson's record got TB thinking that the only person who could possibly approach his win total against Penn is obviously Pete Carril.

And so he looked it up.

Carril's record against Penn was 27-34. It was 26-26 before Penn went on an eight-game streak from 1993-96, and then Carril won his last game against the Quakers, during that incredible few days of 1996, when he led his team past Penn in the Ivy playoff to snap an eight-game losing streak to the Quakers and then followed it up five days later with the win over UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Carril's 27 wins are obviously more than Henderson's. He did it in 29 seasons, whereas Henderson has his 20 wins in four as a player and now nine as a head coach.

That record is extraordinary. It's even more extraordinary when you consider that he started out 0-4, playing in the last four of that eight-game streak. That makes him 20-4 since.

The more TB thinks about it, the more impressive it becomes.

The game Friday night was closer than the one at the Palestra, and the Tigers didn't go wire to wire like they did in Philly. They did, though, lead for the last 29:16, and playing with some margin for error is always a huge thing.

That's exactly what happened at the end, as Penn got within three before Jose Morales sealed it with a driving layup with 10 seconds left in the game and one second left on the shot clock. The Tigers got 38 points from Ryan Schwieger, Jaelin Llewellyn and Richmond Aririguzoh.

Suddenly the Tigers have won five of six and are 2-0 in the league heading into first semester exams. The next league game isn't until Jan. 31, so there's a long way to until then.

As for the women, they only played one game in January last year and had to stew over a loss to Penn for four weeks. This time, there's another game Jan. 31 - also Dartmouth - and this time there will be no stewing, not after the 75-55 win Saturday at the Palestra in the Ivy opener for both.

For the record, Carla Berube is now 19 wins away from Henderson, though she does have a 1.000 winning percentage after getting to 1-0 in the rivalry.

The Tigers and Quakers came into the game at 22-2 between them. They were also both ranked in the top five in scoring defense in the country, allowing fewer than 100 points combined.

They're still in the top five, separated only by 0.4 points per game, with Penn at 50.2 and Princeton at 50.6 (fourth and fifth in Division I). Princeton, though, scored 75 against a Quaker team that had allowed only one team (Duke, with 66) to score more than 55 all season.

There are obviously 13 more league games to go, including a stretch of five in eight days that will include the Penn rematch. And this is a pretty impressive Ivy League in women's basketball right now.

Still, the win sent Princeton off on a high note into exam break. Actually, the wins, plural, as the men and women both had themselves a very good weekend.