Sunday, July 19, 2015

Uncle Van

I can tell you when the first time I ever saw Van Miller on television, give or take a month or two. I can tell you when the first time I ever saw him in person was. And I can tell you when the last time I saw him in person was.

I just find it a little difficult to tell you how surprising it is that I ended up being something of a friend of his over the years.

The start of this "relationship" with Miller, who died on July 18, came in 1965, when our family moved to Elmira, New York from northern New Jersey. Elmira wasn't close to much in the electronic sense back then, and we had to sign up for some fancy invention called cable television in order to see any channels besides the one (!) that was in Elmira. The Syracuse and Binghamton stations were on there, but so was one from Buffalo - WBEN-TV. I quickly dove in to watch the local sports news, and at that time Van Miller presented the sports during the 6 and 11 p.m. news.

I knew about the National Football League in those days, having followed the New York Giants in New Jersey. But I didn't know much about the American Football League then. Van offered a course in the AFL, and as the play-by-play announcer of the Bills, you could tell he wasn't too objective about them. It should be added that the Bills were in one of their few glory periods then, and you could count on Van to wave the flag for them on his sportscasts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I moved to Buffalo in 1970. I already had a head start on sportscasters of the town, although I think I started watching Ch. 2's Mike Nolan for whatever reason when I arrived - probably because he was on first. But I listened to Van broadcast the Bills when the games weren't on TV, and heard him do the play-by-play of the NBA's Braves. He was obviously really good, an announcer who could bring the action to life. Our high school group watched him courtside as he broadcast Braves' games. When one of the Buffalo players went up for a dunk, Van rose from his chair right along with him to give him a figurative boost to the hoop.

More importantly, I saw Van for the first time up close in person during the winter of 1972-73. My high school fielded a team for the quiz show, "It's Academic." Van was the host. The taping was held at the Ch. 4 studios on Elmwood Ave. As a high school reporter, I talked my way into joining the studio audience for the show so I could write about it for the school paper. Van was glib and professional as a broadcaster in that role too. I no doubt was too shy to say anything to him at the time, but it was something of a thrill to see a real NFL/NBA announcer in the flesh.

After 1973, I went to college, came back to Buffalo, and started to pop up in local press boxes for games. I went to enough of them to become a familiar face, and got to know just about everyone in the sports media in town. That eventually included Van, probably through my friend and Ch. 4 weekend sports reporter Brian Blessing. It was easy to see that Van had something of an on/off switch. Sometimes he'd be quiet and sit in the background. Of the three TV sports directors at the time, Van probably was the least accessible - with Ed Kilgore the most visible and open, and Rick Azar just ahead of Van. But when the situation called for it, Van could turn on the personality and become the person you saw on the air. When I introduced him to friends, because all of them knew Van and wanted to meet him, he was always friendly and gracious to them.Van would joke a little with the guys and flirt a little with the girls.

When I started working for the Sabres, Van would sometimes call up for information. Let's say there was no other caller like him. I'd pick up the phone and hear, "It's Uncle Van!" I'd laugh and say hello, and then Van would say, "Where are WE practicing today?" Sometimes I'd answer, "I don't know where you and I are practicing, Van, but the team is out at Sabreland in Wheatfield." All in good fun.

One of my favorite Van stories centered on a conversation in the Sabres' pregame media room, where dinner was served. My friend Glenn and I were talking about football free agency with Van over a meal. It should be noted that the media room frequently ran out of silverware, causing some odd eating moments. Well, Glenn made the point that no matter how much money Bills' star Bruce Smith was getting, it was a bargain compared to what he'd make as an unrestricted free agent. Van looked at Glenn and said, "You make a good point for a guy who eats steak with a spoon." We all dissolved into laughter.

One time Van and I were talking when he showed up a little late for a game, and I told him, "It's 2-2, but the game is closer than the score indicates." He loved it - he repeated on the air a few times over the years.

Eventually in the late 1990s, Van started to cut back on his duties. He retired from Ch. 4 in 1998, and stayed on the Bills' broadcasts until 2003. I'd see him occasionally at events, watching the slow decline that can come with moving into one's 80s. The last time I saw him was in 2013, when Larry Felser - whose story parallels Van's for me when it comes to going from larger-than-life figure to friend - died. At Larry's funeral, Van wore a Bills sweatshirt. He's the only one who could get away with it. I made sure to go up to him after the service - "Hi Van, it's Budd Bailey, good to see you again." He said the right things back, but it was tough to tell as he spoke through his personal fog how much he actually remembered.

That's not the way I want to remember him, of course. I can still hear him providing the soundtrack to some great moments in Buffalo sports history, expertly described with genuine enthusiasm. There won't be another like "Uncle Van" any time soon.

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Across the pond

Brilliance of the Seas - home for 13 days for 2,500 cruisers
Our two-week European vacation is over - our first trip together across the Atlantic. We were in eight countries in those 14 days. In my case, that's pretty good for someone who had been in four countries in more than 59 years.

Travel is supposed to be educational, and a trip like this - complete with different languages and strange-looking money - qualifies. You wouldn't think I'd take pride in buying camera batteries in a Helsinki store - but I did. I'll put up pictures and specific comments on my travel blog. In the meantime, here are some of the things that struck me as interesting while serving as a slightly naive European traveler as I went from the United States to Canada to the United Kingdom to Denmark to Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Denmark to the United Kingdom to Canada to the United States:

* Who was the big winner at the end of the Cold War? American business. We walked into a mall in Tallinn, Estonia, a place that has thrived since the Soviets left, and saw familiar stores and brands. With a few superficial changes, the mall could have been in any well-off U.S. area.

That's even true in St. Petersburg. The Cyrillic alphabet does tend to obscure some names, but McDonald's and Subway tended to jump out. There's one word that doesn't need to be translated to catch the attention of Russian shoppers when it is on a billboard: "Sale." And speaking of billboards there, it was funny to see one of the M-and-M characters depicted in that format.

* By the way, we visited six capital cities. I believe each one had an Irish pub, a Mexican restaurant, and a Texas steak house. Nothing says Denmark like some good ribs. 

* It really is true that you can get by in many European cities if you speak only English. That might not be true outside of tourist areas, but many service workers could deal with visitors quite well. I was surprised that many of the kiosks at attractions that had descriptions in two languages usually used English as the second one - even in Russia.

* The oddest scene of the trip might have come at the Hermitage, the famous museum in St. Petersburg. The biggest attraction in one of the zillion rooms in the place was a painting by Leonard da Vinci. Suddenly, a large group of Chinese tourists surged around the painting, leaving me crowded and a little scared. That was a first. I have felt that way at sporting events, but not in an art gallery. According to veteran travelers, life in China is of course overpopulated, and that has led to a different and smaller definition of "personal space" that what the West usually accepts.

* When we were getting ready to enter the Hermitage, it look us a while to cross the square to get to the entrance. Our group was there at the same time the St. Petersburg Marathon was finishing. I recognized the look of those runners who had taken more than five hours to complete the 26.2-mile distance. It's a universal expression.

Speaking of running, I did it a few times on the ship. On the first sail day, I used the treadmill - and was reintroduced to the concept of running on a platform that swayed with the waves. The running track was better, even when fog made the top of the ship a bit blurry when I looked at it.

* The best pre-trip advice I received was from someone who said not to worry too much about money. The ATMs generally are all connected, and credit cards are accepted in most places. I didn't have the chance to do much shopping in Russia, but the one souvenir store I entered took dollars, Euros, and credit cards. It really is a global village in some ways.

* In most of our European stops, we saw traffic lights that went from red to red and yellow, quickly followed by green. The only other time I've seen red and yellow on together was in New England, where it was used for pedestrian crossings. (It still may be, for all I know.) In Europe, it's almost like it's a signal to start revving the engine.

* There's a major business opportunity in Europe for a good shirt designer. Most of the souvenirs we saw in that area were rather boring. The exception was in Skagen, Denmark, an artsy resort area that had some specialists in that area and were rewarded by a brisk business.

* I think it's fair to say that it looked as if more people in Europe smoked than they do in America, but it didn't look like an overwhelming edge.

* Odd cultural moment: a small band greeted tourists at Catherine Palace. The song of choice: "Yellow Submarine." 

* I can't say I ever thought of the Baltic Sea as an Interstate Highway for ships before this, but it was true. At any given moment, we could see another big ship - usually a barge - in the distance.

* Cruisers (my shorthand for people who travel this way a lot) love to talk about the differences in ship lines, but - based on two experiences, Holland America last year and Royal Caribbean this year - the similarities are far greater than the differences. Our stateroom was almost a carbon copy of last year's home. The companies both made plenty of suggestions to drink, gamble, buy jewelry, and pose for photographs. Royal Caribbean might have been a little louder when it comes to promoting its upscale restaurants, ones that charge an extra fee for dining. Holland America does get credit for handing out a daily news summary from the New York Times. Without signing up for Wifi services, which is pricey, it was impossible to keep up with the outside world - so we didn't.

* Last year we couldn't imagine what it was like to be on the same boat with 1,200 people. This year we were on a boat with about twice that. That thought was a little scary, but Royal Caribbean did a good job of keeping the size of the lines for goods and services down. A little wait is to be expected at times like getting on board or getting luggage, but realistically that part was smooth. I will add that the food seemed a little better on Holland America. I would think feeding half as many people would provide a bit of an advantage in that department.

* The cruise lines try to keep the customers occupied when they are on board, particularly during "sail days" when the ships don't go to port. We often showed up for trivia games, and got to meet some nice people that way. Those contests were pretty tough to win, and not just because a few people might have used their phones to look up answers. With the United Kingdom and Australia well represented on board, some questions were geared in their direction - leaving some Americans stumped.

At one point in a game, I asked myself the question, "Do I really want to win a game about identifying disco songs?" I need not have worried, finishing well back in the pack. There was no such ambiguity about winning a game all about American history, particularly when it was played on July 4.

*  Most of the time it was hard to know that there were people with some serious money on the boat, even though you might have guessed that about people who were more than willing to pay $14 for a mixed drink. However, at certain points in the cruise economic class became apparent. That was on the so-called formal nights, when everyone was told to dress for dinner. Suddenly the children on board, who looked like typical kids the rest of the time, were in obviously expensive suits and dresses.

* The first show I saw on our ship featured an ABBA tribute band. I should have seen that coming. After all, this was a trip that featured a stop in Sweden, and ABBA made substantial contributions to the Swedish treasury over the years through record royalties. Besides, ABBA was popular starting in 1977, which means those in their late 50s know the songs well - and that's the start of the sweet spot of the cruising demographic. ABBA songs popped up at other times during the trip as well.

One act prompted some lively discussion after the show. Was the guy portraying Elton John in a tribute band actually playing the piano, or was the guy in the back row doing the work for him? Since "Elton" wasn't touching the foot pedals, most people guessed he was faking it. The entertainment star of the trip was a "comedy mind reader" named Mike McClean, who was quick and clever throughout his act.

* We had only been on a cruise ship once before, and the crowd on the Alaska trip last year was mostly American. This featured more of an international cast. It's hard not to bump into strangers on the big ships, if only because seating at the buffet restaurant is limited and you have to take any available seat. That means conversations can go in unexpected directions.

For example, I got plenty of lessons about immigration within the European Union. A worker from Poland can do better in the United Kingdom than he can at home, even if he takes less than the going rate for a skill. That's led to some hard feelings. I asked how Northern Ireland and Ireland were getting along these days, and was told that while the people didn't exactly trust each other, it was in their best interests to get along and so they did so - a little grudgingly.

The conversation could go the other way too. A couple of Europeans had followed the shootings in South Carolina, and wondered why Americans didn't do something about this obvious problem. It was hard to explain to them why American politicians used the mass killings as a launching point for a discussion about ... the Confederate flag. My guess is that the political leanings of the group as a whole are more conservative than the population at large. It costs a good-sized amount of money to travel this way.

Generally, though, the conversations stuck to travel. The cruising population is pretty well off and has seen a lot of the world. That often gives them a perspective and curiosity that doesn't come with day-to-day life for most. They helped make the trip a memorable experience.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Unsafe at any speed?

Drivers in the city of Buffalo these days are facing some very odd times. Let's call it the law of unintended consequences at work.

In late May, there was a simply horrible accident on a Saturday on Route 198, the Scajaquada Expressway. A driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road - right into Delaware Park. One child was killed, and another critically injured. The mother also was slightly injured in the accident. It doesn't get much worse than that.

One of the worst parts of the accident is that we all should have seen it coming. Placing a four-lane divided highway with a 50 MPH speed limit in the middle of a park for part of its run, with no major railings, was a horrible idea. The rest of the highway isn't exactly relaxing, either. There's an extremely short merge lane going west of Parkside, and the on-ramp from the 198 to Route 33 is often backed up and features an on-ramp that can require a cross-over technique through traffic that always looks like it could create an accident a day.

Governor Cuomo wasted no time in taking action. He almost immediately ordered the speed limit reduced from 50 MPH to 30. The Department of Transportation was told to take a long-term look at the situation in order to make it safer for everyone. Can't argue with that premise.But it will be a while for a solution is reached. And in the meantime, driving on parts of Route 198 is downright scary.

Ever drive on a road where everyone is going a different speed? That's what is happening in places. There are some posted signs on spots about the new rules. Some drivers are obeying them as soon as touch the road. Some are slowing down a notch to 35 or 40. Then there are others whostill  are going 50 and above. Granted, I don't drive through the park section of Route 198 much, but the end of the highway by Route 33 feels unsafe.

I have heard that speeding tickets are being handed out, which is good. But it's tough to patrol every inch of the highway at all times of the day or night. It's also tough to break an old habit of hitting a particular speed on a highway, no matter how big the signs are. People have been driving at a certain rate for decades. And others tend to believe they have the Constitutional right to drive at almost any speed they want, a philosophy I've never understood.

Again, I don't want to this conversation to diminish our sympathies for the family involved in the accident by the slightest bit. The way we responded - and will respond - to the circumstances involves is what's being examined here. We can only hope that the DOT does a thorough job of investigating the situation, using, ahem, all deliberate speed. In the meantime, if you see a driver who is a little slower than most cars on Route 198 and looks a little nervous about it, well, that could be me.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The second time around

Veteran Buffalo Sabres' fans remember Ted Nolan's first tenure as coach of the Buffalo Sabres. It was one of the oddest times in the history of the franchise.

General manager John Muckler and Nolan were barely speaking by the end. Muckler wanted to fire Nolan in the middle of a successful 1996-97 season, but wasn't allowed to do so by team management. Players on the team were split into sides, most famously in the case of Dominik Hasek (Muckler) and Pat LaFontaine (Nolan). As team member Derek Plante once said, he didn't mind missing his usual soap operas on TV; the drama at the rink each day filled that need nicely.

Muckler was fired right after the 1997 playoffs, and Nolan left after turning down a one-year contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier.

Yet that might be the second-oddest period of Nolan's coaching career in Buffalo. That alone says a lot about what to think about his latest departure, a day after the end of the regular season. It's sure tough to put "Nolan II" into perspective.

To recap, Nolan was brought in as interim coach when LaFontaine arrived as the top hockey executive when Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired relatively early in the 2013-14 season. Fans, who always had a great relationship with LaFontaine and Nolan, reacted in some cases like MacArthur had returned to the Philippines. Yes, the team had a massive rebuilding job in front of it at that point and wasn't going to be good for a while, but having Nolan around made the idea more tolerable for many. Eventually, Tim Murray was brought in from Ottawa as the new general manager.

Then with a month or so to go in the 2013-14 season, LaFontaine abruptly resigned his position. And at that exact moment, Nolan knew that the countdown toward unemployment had begun.

Nolan knew first-hand that general managers want their own people to be head coaches most of the time - and probably for good reason.He went through that when he coached the Islanders, as he and general manager Garth Snow didn't get along philosophically - whatever that means. Come to think of it, if Nolan had taken Regier's one-year contract contract offer, he probably would have exited after the 1997-98 season. Regier obviously valued a close relationship with a coach, and had that sort of friend in longtime Sabre coach Lindy Ruff. Shotgun marriages usually don't work, in hockey and in life.

It's very, very difficult to judge how Nolan did as a coach in Buffalo the second time around. Most of the veteran talent was sent elsewhere for prospects and draft choices, leaving a roster that slowly deteriorated to the point where it often wasn't competitive once the calendar flipped to 2015. We know that Mark Pysyk was kept in Rochester for most of the season against the coaching staff's wishes; we don't know if there were other such disagreements. A few of the kids seemed to take some small steps forward at times, but it's still a little tough to guess how many of them will be part of a better Sabres' future. There's Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen ... well, the Magic 8 Ball replies to those questions about others with "Ask again later." Plus, all the speculation of a deliberate, year-long (or perhaps longer) tank attempt by the front office poisoned the atmosphere.

I've heard that some of the players had mentally packed in the season a few weeks before the actual conclusion, but the team didn't completely fall apart. It almost broke the hearts of some Sabres' fans by not finishing last with a little rush at the end. Nolan is known as a motivator and not an X's and O's genius, but this season certainly tested those skills. Ted is a survivor, and at least seemed to roll with the punches as well as could be expected. Meanwhile, a member of upper management said recently that the season was toughest on the team's front office, which sure sounds like someone who is a little too insulated for his own good. It was tough on everyone, right down to the last fan in the 300 level.

No one should feel too sorry for Nolan. He walks away with a nice golden parachute of a few million dollars for his efforts, paid out through 2017. Consider it a lofty 401K payment.

Nolan also leaves as someone who has gone 0 for 3 in terms of getting along with his boss at the sport's highest level. It seems unlikely that he'd get a fourth chance somewhere.I'd argue that the Sabres' front office probably got good value for what it paid, and will pay, Nolan. I'm not sure anyone else could have calmed the fan base that much during the past two years of losing. People still came to games throughout the season and watched on television.

Now that the page has been turned, though, it's fair to say the Sabres had better swing for the fences, to borrow a baseball phrase, when it comes to hiring the next coach. Teenagers Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can't be expected to do all the work concerning good will around here. After all the talk about the Sabres being deliberately bad, a "name" coach would go a long way toward putting a bizarre and often unwatchable season behind them as quickly as possible.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tanks for nothing

There's one last point to make about one of the strangest and ugliest hockey seasons in recent memory.

It all could have been prevented by changing the draft lottery just a year sooner.

The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes play on Thursday night here in Buffalo. If the Sabres lose in regulation, it will be very difficult to catch the Coyotes in the overall standings, which means Buffalo probably will finish last. This pleases a segment of the fan base, which wants to see the team grab one of two potential stars in the summer draft in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. So you'll probably hear some people cheering Thursday in Buffalo when/if Arizona scores.

It's part of a very odd year. Let's count the ways.

The Sabres organization has been accused of writing off the entire year in order to get a shot at one of the stars. The fans aren't sure how to react, and it may depend on whether you are willing to donate thousands in season-ticket payments for the chance at better times in the future. The players know that there are a bunch of prospects waiting to grab their seven-figure salaries, and thus have the usual incentive to play hard to stay in the league. The general manager signed several free agents last summer who haven't helped much. Did the team look for players who weren't too good and who could simply fill up a salary cap minimum without helping the team much, or does the hockey department have people who aren't good judges of talent? The coach realizes that this season hasn't been exactly a fair test of his abilities, and that he could lose his job at the whim of a general manager who was hired by an executive who is no longer with the organization ... and who hired the coach before that general manager. The coach wants to win games; does the front office want him to do the same? Sometimes players and coaches love to play the "us against the world" card. Usually it's silly, but in this case it might be true.

Oh, one other point. When Toronto comes to town later in the season, many Maple Leaf fans will be showing up as usual. Will they be rooting for the Sabres to win, so that Buffalo has less of a chance of getting McDavid or Eichel and then be better in the future (plus perhaps give a slightly better chance statistically to the Leafs of winning the lottery)? Would that be the strangest moment in a good-sized, old rivalry?

I think that covers it, more or less. Yes, it's complicated. There's probably an Arizona version of that list, but I'll leave that to a Coyotes' watcher.

The problem is the system. The National Hockey League set up a draft lottery a few years ago to prevent this sort of season. The idea was that last place would not be any sort of guarantee of receiving the first draft pick. The 30th-place team right now has a 20 percent chance of going first in the draft. Who would throw an entire season away, and possibly anger the fan base, with an 80 percent chance of not getting the top pick? No one. But what happens when there are two really good players coming into the league?

Since only one team could move up in the draft lottery, the number 30 team in the standings was assured of going second in the draft. Therefore, that team would definitely get one of the two top prospects. That created an award for finishing last - which the lottery tried to avoid, and is exactly what shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Even the 29th-place team has only a 33.5 percent chance, more or less, of getting one of the two top players - 20 percent of the No. 30 winning the lottery, and 13.5 percent of moving up a notch. That's quite a difference.

Next year, however, there will be a lottery for the first three picks in the draft. There will be no guarantee that the worst team in the league will do better than the fourth pick overall. It seems like it will prevent this sort of season. That's the way it works in the NBA. Admittedly, some years lately there hasn't been one franchise player out there, let along two or three. And it doesn't stop teams from stocking up assets for the future, as the Philadelphia 76ers have been doing.

But at least their fans know who to root for during the course of the season. And they know that management has the same goal as the coaches and players. Not so in hockey this time.

It's been a mess of a season, and I don't want to see its likes again.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Our hostess

I took a trip back to the Seventies today while going to the barber shop. While waiting for my turn in the chair, I picked up the Clarence Bee - the weekly of the town where I lived in my high school and college days - and unexpectedly came across the obituary of Mary Hormell - the mother of some good friends of mine from that era. Once I got past the initial shock, memories from a distant era quickly came back.

Did you ever wonder about how and where kids gather? The dynamics probably change from case to case. But when it came to the Hormell family, it was easy to see why the house was such a magnet. Mr. and Mrs. Hormell had two sets of twins - Dave and Debbie, Peter and Tish - who were two years apart. Since they lived only a couple of blocks from high school property, the house could have a crowd of teenagers just by leaving the front door open. Still, in spite of what the real estate agents tell you, location isn't everything in such matters. A welcoming presence by the people with the keys to that the front door is a necessary part of the equation. The Hormell parents didn't just tolerate the friends of their children (which usually is the way it works), they actually seemed to like them.

The house became a frequent collection point for me and some of my friends by the time my senior year of high school rolled along as I got to know classmates Debbie and Dave. Then Debbie and I went to Syracuse together where we worked on the school newspaper, broadening our ties. And then Debbie and I worked together briefly after college, extending the base of friendship even more. Dave and I maintained connections through sports; he kept insisting that the upcoming season would be the one that the Bills would win a Super Bowl in spite of the obvious evidence against that prophesy in a given year.

Every so often, a party would break out - either planned or unplanned. Everyone would have a fine time, staying later than they planned. I think I set a personal record for my latest night out while visiting the Hormell residence one year. It was New Year's Eve, and they were having a party. I had to cover a Sabres' game (remember Tux 'N Pucks?), so I didn't get to the party until about 12:30 a.m. Well, I believe I got in the car to leave around 5:45 a.m. The reason I know that is I listened to my own taped report on the game on my radio station on the drive home, which - trust me - is an odd experience.

Debbie once reminded me of another story from those times. Mom had instructed me to pick up the proverbial quart of milk to bring home for someone's breakfast. I stopped on the way to the Hormells and put it in the refrigerator for "safe keeping." Well, at some point the milk was desperately needed for a purpose that has been lost to history, although it probably was used as a mixer with an alcoholic beverage. Debbie remembers me stumbling around after it was consumed saying, "What am I going to tell Mom?"

I have two specific memories about those gatherings in general. One, there were people in the living room. This was almost shocking. When you grew up in the suburbs, you learned as a child that the living room was filled with "good furniture." That translated into furniture which was too good to actually use, especially by children. Yet the Hormells actually let their children's friends sit in the living room for long periods of time. For whatever reason, that really made me feel welcome.

Then there was a fact that a regular participant in these gatherings was Mrs. Hormell. I don't want to imply that she was crashing any parties, or trying to act 19 years old or something. She'd simply be around, and start conversations with her children's friends. Mrs. Hormell was obviously quite interested in what those friends were like and what they were doing. I'd walk in the house, and Mrs. Hormell would be at the dining room conversation, chatting with a 21-year-old as naturally as could be. That was very unusual. Looking back, it is obvious how she set a comfortable tone for all who entered the house.

That era came to an end as the 20-somethings moved on with their lives, which in some cases took them out of town or at the least out of the house. I'll bet Mrs. Hormell missed those gatherings as much as we did in some ways. In looking over the obituary, it was striking how little I knew about Mrs. Hormell - her first name, for starters. But we all knew what a kind, nice woman she was, and hope she realized how much we appreciated her hospitality and interest in our lives.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The alma mater

We're all used to seeing universities receive penalties and go on probation for some sort of violation with the NCAA. If we've learning anything over the years, it is that the rule book is incredibly large and difficult to comprehend, let alone follow to the letter. In addition, we all know that if some booster wants to give a $100 handshake with a player on the basketball team, well, it's a little tough to enforce.

We're also used to see some schools cut some corners when it comes to recruiting these days. The idea of a student-athlete is a romantic one. But realistically, being a college football or basketball player is essentially a full-time job these days, and that doesn't include study time. Not too many young people can balance the workload easily, and - as one coach once said - those people go to Duke or Stanford. When the rewards of success are considered, it's easy to understand why teams might take a chance to keep a talented quarterback enrolled and eligible.

Athletic programs have gotten so ridiculously big, and the amount of money involved has gotten so large, that it's difficult to wonder how our universities got so far away from their original mission statement of educators first and providing extra-curricular activities second. It's particularly true when it's remembered that most university athletic programs lose money; places like Texas and Alabama are the exceptions.

That brings us to Syracuse University's latest programs. Just for the record, that's of interest to me, a Class of 1977 graduate. That's so long ago that I still covered Jim Boeheim's introductory news conference from his hiring in 1976. Since I'm in the sports journalism business, I'm still something of a fan of the Syracuse sports teams; it's a good way to feel a connection to some good times and good people from my past. But I'm also a fan of the university itself, and have something of a stake in its reputation. When the athletic department breaks the rules, all graduates, students and staff members suffer consequences in a sense.

Syracuse doesn't exactly have a history of innocence here. The school has been on probation in the past. Still, this particular incident has a really odd feeling. Not only did it take forever to investigate, but a description of the offenses sounded worse than the actions themselves.

For example: it's never good when a booster is charged with paying players. In this case, a few football and basketball players and athletic staff members earned a few thousand dollars for so-called volunteer work. That's not a good idea, but I've heard of far worse.

For example: the director of basketball operations tapped into players' email accounts in order to check on academic progress, and may have even attached some revisions to course work that way. Of course, if you recruit student-athletes who have trouble with the student part, the pressures build all through the system.

For example: the athletic department didn't follow the written guidelines for a drug testing policy. Apparently some first violations (probably involving marijuana) was supposed to be reported to parents and weren't. Again, it's not a good idea to follow the guidelines, but players weren't exactly completing drug deals at halftime. 

Let's say you were the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, and certain violations of a comparable nature popped up. Mr. or Ms. CEO would call someone into the office, and promptly suspend the culprit until he or she could be suitably fired. The regulations in college athletics might be different, but the goal should be similar. The coach has to set the tone for the entire program, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Based on the NCAA report, a few people weren't even reading out of the same book. It's tough to know how often Boeheim acted like a CEO and how often he acted like "just another employee" here, but the NCAA obviously believed there was too much of the latter.

Syracuse received some punishment for its actions from the NCAA. The basketball team will lose scholarships after the coming year. Even in a world when a team has something like 15 scholarships but only plays eight guys regularly, the cuts will make an impact on depth and make it difficult to compete on a national level. A five-year probation shouldn't matter, as long as things in the department get fixed. Boeheim will sit for nine conference games next season; well, potential coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins will get some on-the-job training that way. And Boeheim and the university will have to vacate 108 wins, which always seemed like an odd penalty that only matters to the historians.

The other shoe dropped on Wednesday morning. It was announced that athletic director Daryl Gross has left that job in favor of moving on to other responsibilities at the university. I can't say how much Gross had to do with any of this, but he seems to be taking some blame - fairly or unfairly. Gross might be feeling like a bit of a scapegoat, although you probably won't get him to say that. Then the school announced that Boeheim would retire in three years at the latest. The longtime coach will be around through the scholarship limits and thus hand Hopkins a program with fewer worries and restrictions in 2018. Boeheim did reserve the right on Thursday to retire when he saw fit.

I'm just a long-distance observer here, but it's easy to guess that the Syracuse athletic department has pressure - pressure to win games, pressure to sell the 30,000+ tickets in the Carrier Dome. They've done rather well over the years, which might have led to some institutional arrogance on the basketball side. (I would guess that there might be even more pressure on the football side, because they've been mediocre at best for quite a while and could REALLY use wins and filled seats ... but that's for another time.) Considering the charges from the NCAA, it's a small stretch to think that a complete housecleaning was in order - although business as usual isn't going to cut it any more.

Still, Boeheim's reputation certainly feels a little tarnished. He's still the most important person in history of Syracuse basketball. He's still a respected voice on the sport. But Boeheim is still at times a bit on the prickly side, particularly in a public setting. That combination has made him easy to respect, but tough to love.

Well, he's got three years tops to complete the book on a legendary career of coaching. He doesn't seem too concerned with his legacy. He's certainly done a lot of good for the university and for the community. Still, you'd think he'd have an interest in righting the ship before he goes. It might make a disproportionate effect on how he's remembered.

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Friday, March 06, 2015

Defenseless

Let's forget about the endless arguments about tanking by sports teams for a moment. As I've said before here, it's more of a rhetorical matter anyway.

Instead, let's talk about a related problem in a couple of sports that no one is really discussing.

It's become standard practice in baseball and hockey for teams who are doomed to losing seasons to sell off their assets - usually in the form of free agents to come - to contenders. In baseball, the trading deadline is at the end of July, although other deals can take place through the end of August. In hockey, the deadline is final - in this case, on March 2.

Yes, if you were a general manager, you'd probably do the same thing. Why let a free agent walk away without any compensation? A team can get a draft choice, prospects, etc. (depending on the circumstances and the sport) in return for someone who is departing. Fans of contenders can't wait to see if their teams fill some holes for the stretch run and playoffs, while fans of non-contenders see what sort of ransom those players can bring. I could argue that in a perfect world teams should have a similar roster at the end of the season to the one that started it - in other words, no loading up for the final weeks plus playoffs. But fans like to see wins, and championships.

Here's the catch, though - if you were an employee of major league baseball or the National Hockey League, you might have another reaction. Is all of this really in the best interests of the sport?

The Buffalo Sabres, in this case, are exhibit A. They completed several deals short of the trading deadline. In the biggest swap, several assets were shipped to Winnipeg for a respectable defenseman and a power forward who will not take a single shift for the team this season. While it's tough to know who will "win" that deal in the end, few would argue that the Sabres had a better big-league roster when it was completed. In addition, the No. 1 goalie, Jhonas Enroth, was set to Dallas for a backup goalie and draft pick. Then on Deadline Day, the Sabres unloaded four players for draft choices and a couple of players.

When the dust had settled, the Sabres had two goalies who had enjoyed almost no success lately in the NHL before turning up in Buffalo. They also had lost some other forwards and defensemen. The roster as presently constituted is a long way from being competitive for the rest of the season.

The unspoken question, then, boils down to this: How would you like to have bought tickets for games in the next few weeks, and now realize the chance of your team winning has, um, dropped considerably? Would you take it like a fan, say that it's all part of the rebuilding process and hope for the best? Or would you start asking lawyers about class-action suits?

It's not just a Sabre matter. The Arizona Coyotes moved some of their assets as well in the past few weeks. The Edmonton Oilers have been doing this for a few years, it seems, and they don't seem to be making a whole lot of progress. Remember, this isn't just about the first overall pick. Some sellers won't come close to the bottom three in the standings, so their chances of getting a top 18-year-old are pretty small.

And it's not just a hockey matter. Baseball's Boston Red Sox tore apart the roster in midseason when it was obvious that repeating wasn't going to happen. Most of the pitching rotation went elsewhere. To be fair, the Red Sox made their moves with 2015 in mind, and have been busy since then in putting together what appears to be a competitive team. That didn't help much when fans were watching the 2014 team in August and September, especially at some of baseball's most expensive prices.

Solving this problem isn't particularly easy. Yes, the trading deadline could be moved up to earlier in the season. That would make it more difficult for teams to figure out if they are out of the playoff race, and thus less tempted to have a clearance sale. But it wouldn't affect a team like the Sabres much, since their fate has been sealed for months. In the meantime, the status quo is pretty ugly.

And so we watch the real value of tickets drop - StubHub has some Sabre tickets barely above $10 for some games the rest of the way - and we guess that the no-show numbers will rise (which means less money in the form of concessions, souvenirs, etc.). And we wonder, is the well of patience and loyalty by fans really as bottomless as teams hope it is?

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