Friday, May 31, 2013

One more barrier down

It looks as if a coaching technique that has been around for decades is about to disappear from sports.

The image has been a popular one. Coaches have been yelling and screaming at their players at all levels for quite a while. Basketball legend Phil Jackson recently said that a lot of people came out of World War II with a military approach to leadership, and they carried it into athletic coaching. There's a lot to that. Think of how many coaches have practiced something later called "tough love" - plenty of yelling and screaming in the name of discipline. The parents of the baby boomers have put up with it, perhaps because that's how fathers learned to teach as well.

Some coaches had a lot of success that way. Remember the story of Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys, featuring practices so tough that part of the squad headed home after quitting the squad? Vince Lombardi didn't exactly take it easy on the Green Bay Packers during their glory days. And so on. In basketball, Bobby Knight was extremely hard on his players - but most at Indiana looked the other way because he was a brilliant basketball mind who never cheated and, let's be fair about this, won games. My theory is that in the Sixties and Seventies a lot of adults loved coaches who imposed strict discipline on their players, perhaps because those adults couldn't do the same in their own lives - like in raising their own kids.

But time has moved along, and so have attitudes. Maybe we've learned that there are all sorts of ways to win, and one of them is to treat the athletes like people. Bill Walsh won a lot of games in San Francisco, and he refused to yell at his players. If Marv Levy had been very tough, I would think some of the Buffalo Bills stars of that era would have rebelled and the team never would have reached four straight Super Bowls. Going way back for an example, John Wooden never said anything stronger than "goodness gracious saints alive" but made it stronger than any curse word.

And now we're reached the tipping point. It came in the form of a video showing then-Rutgers coach Mike Rice verbally abusing his players and throwing basketballs at them during practice. Virtually everyone who saw it knew a line had been crossed. Rice even received a warning from the administration, but didn't - maybe couldn't is a better word, speaking from the outside - change his ways. Rice was finally shown the door.

That incident also cost the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, his job. The university searched all over the place for a replacement. It came up with Julie Hermann, who had a quiet couple of weeks on the job. Then it was revealed that she had been charged with the same sort of behavior as Rice when she coached volleyball at Tennessee. Hermann said she never heard of those charges, but this blog by one of her ex-players makes a very convincing and rational case that something bad happened in Knoxville. You'd think previous coaching tactics would have been the second or third question on the list by the Rutgers search committee.

I would guess that this is the tip of a relatively small iceberg. Coaches of all sports around the country probably have been reading these stories about Rutgers in recent weeks, and looking themselves at the mirror. Maybe they'll try to treat their athletes a little more humanely in the future. As for the athletes, maybe they'll be a little quicker to complain when they have a valid complaint about a particular coach.

I don't doubt that a majority of coaches have a genuine interest in teaching their players lessons about games as well as life. Still, we seem to have learned a lesson in the past several weeks about behavioral limits.


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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hanging curveball

Traditionally, I find that I don't pay much attention to many of the local elections. There are exceptions, naturally, mostly when I happen to know something about a particular candidate or actually am a friend. But for the most part, it's often a case of "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" when filling out the ballot.

The Erie County Sheriff race certainly qualifies. People in my generation only cared about this race once. Way back in the 1970's, Mike Amico was the sheriff. Whenever there was a rock concert in Rich Stadium, Amico seemed to devote every resource in the department toward making arrests of concert-goers. That technique was at least subject to debate, but I swear he had a news release issue about the number of arrests before the parking lots were clear. When he ran for election, everyone in my age group headed to the polls to cast a ballot for Ken Braun, who won in fine style.

It looks like it's time for another exception.

When I scanned the newspapers after returning from vacation, I discovered a surprising front-page article about the current Sheriff, Timothy Howard. He said that he doesn't support New York State's new gun control law, which is his right as a citizen.

However, he said about the law, "I won't enforce it." He thinks it's unconstitutional and thus will be overturned by the courts.

Funny - I don't remember Sheriff Howard's appointment to the Supreme Court. I thought he was elected to enforce all the laws, and not pick and choose the ones he likes. His opinion just doesn't matter.

Luckily, it's an election year, so this year's Sheriff's race will be the equivalent of a hanging curveball - an easy choice to swat out of the park. The incumbent definitely is an "eeny" this year, and the other major candidate is a "moe."

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

New boss, old boss

My coworker Miguel made the crucial comment on Tuesday night when it came crystallizing an opinion about Ron Rolston's return as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres for the 2013-14 season. Miguel said that Rolston sounds just like Darcy Regier when he talked in public. I later saw a clip of the news conference and realized that Miguel was on to something here.

All of a sudden, the hiring made good sense, at least from Regier's standpoint.

As I've written before, Regier got his hockey training under Bill Torrey with the Islanders. He picked a head coach in Al Arbour, one he was comfortable with, and stuck with him for years and years. It worked out pretty well, especially in the dynasty days of the early 1980's. Regier got the GM job in Buffalo in 1997, and stayed with Lindy Ruff through last winter for mostly the same reasons.

Put yourself in Regier's shoes at the end of the season. He knows the fans aren't happy with how things have gone lately, and he certainly might have been fired had he been associated with a different set of upper management types. The rebuilding process started with the trading of veterans leading up to the deadline. Regier needs someone as a coach that he had confidence will serve as a good teacher and partner in the process.

Rolston is right down the hallway, figuratively speaking. They'd worked together for two years, and apparently gotten along fine. Rolston did oversee an uptick in the team's play during his tenure this past season, even with some talent leaving along the way, so there's no pressure there to switch coaches for that reason. They talked alike, which can be translated into having similar philosophies about the game.

Regier is known for playing it cautious on player transactions, and we'll assume that reputation extends into other areas of his work philosophy. If this is a situation where Regier knows he had better be right, well, he's not going to be throwing any long passes. Picking Rolston might not be an simple handoff on third-and-16, but it might be a low-risk flare pass that might turn into something better.

The result? To quote the Who, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

If I can understand the hiring, I have to ask a follow-up question. Was the process done properly a good idea? I'm not so sold on that part.

We have a fan base that is disillusioned after the past couple of seasons. The team has watched the playoffs lately, and has already traded some veterans. There is talk of trading Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, who probably are the two best players on the roster. The bundle of draft choices involved in the spring trades aren't going to be ready to help for a while. And the hockey management team will have the same leaders.

Think there will be some empty seats at the start of the season next fall? Me too - even if a couple of high-priced free agents are signed, which would seem to go against the current plan.

I would have been tempted to at least talk to some other possible candidates. To use an historical example, John Muckler needed a new coach in the summer of 1995 after moving upstairs full-time. He picked Ted Nolan, which certainly didn't work in terms of front-office harmony. But in terms of changing the hockey culture dramatically, Nolan did that job successfully. Promoting assistant coach Don Lever probably wouldn't have had the same effect on the organization.

The fans became relatively excited about a rebuilding roster, one which thanks to Muckler's moves and Nolan's coaching went on to win a division title well ahead of schedule in 1996-97. Note: I am not saying Nolan should have gotten an interview here. But could it have hurt to interview somebody, anybody? It might have been a good opportunity to talk with outsiders about the state of the Sabres' franchise, if nothing else, as well as a bit of a public relations technique.

It's fair to say, then, that Regier didn't act like he was under pressure from the boys and girls in the marketing department to do something. He went with an option that featured the fewest unknowns, one that was obviously approved by team ownership. That sort of faith is relatively rare in professional sports, a results-oriented, high-pressure business. Now we get to see how the near future plays out to determine if the team's faith is justified.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Radio daze

My former boss at WEBR Radio, Mike St. Peter, put out a note of interest on Facebook this morning. Seems he is going to be addressing some communications students soon, and wanted some stories about real world mistakes.

I can only hope that hiring me is not at the top of his list.

The stories come to mind quickly. Every day in the business was another potential landmine. It comes with the territory of live broadcasts.

I should pick on myself first. WEBR did the broadcasts of the Buffalo Bisons' games around 1980. I remember my college friend, Ben Walker, once telling me once about how he was driving somewhere in Washington, listening to the Senators. During the game, announcer Shelby Whitfield said, "Fly ball to center ... curving foul." Ben almost drove off the road laughing.

I was doing a game at War Memorial Stadium one Sunday. We had a very high broadcast location, looking right down on home plate. This was great for calling balls and strikes from above, but sometimes it was hard to tell where the ball was going based on its initial flight. Sure enough, I blurted out "line drive to center ... curving foul." I immediately thought of Whitfield. The lesson was, don't be too quick to describe the action; wait a beat and prevent problems from taking place.

I never did break up in laughter while on the air, but I came mighty, mighty close once. It was Thanksgiving, I believe, and there wasn't much going on except the NFL games and the Harvard Cup. Anchor Larry Hatzi was in the main studio, giving the news, and I had the sports duties. I put on a feature report and Larry found a cart that was labeled "bomb" on the front. He asked me what it was. "I made it up just in case I need to 'blow up' callers on my talk show," I answered. "I used to listen to a Boston talk show that did that, and liked the idea." I was too polite to use it, though.

Larry put the cart into the machine and turned the pot down so the sound wouldn't go out over the air. But he set the volume level as loud as it would go and hit play. It really did sound like a bomb had gone off in the studio; I think the news editor even ran in.

Larry started laughing hard, and I was ready to do so. But ... the taped report was ending, so I was due back on the air. I knew I'd never get through the last 90 seconds of the sportscast, so I just mumbled, "That's sports, I'm Budd Bailey." And then I fell helplessly over the table, convulsing with laughter. Larry wisely went to a promotional spot or three.

Writing had its hazards too. At one point, I was writing sports scripts for people who didn't know much about sports. The wrong typo could be, um, unintentionally funny. For example, I wrote a story about a tennis competition, part of the Grand Slam of tennis. Except, I mixed up one letter. So Cynthia Wallace read what I wrote - "The Grand Slaw of Tennis." She still brings it up in a good-natured way.

One time veteran anchorman John Gill was introducing me for a sportscast. He leaned into the microphone brightly and said, "And now with the sports, here's Bud Palmer." For you younger folks, Palmer was a former pro basketball player who made the switch into broadcasting in the 1950's through 1970's or so.

The usual rule on such matters is, don't call them to the listener's attention. Naturally, being young and relatively stupid, I came back immediately with this classic response: "WHO???????" John slapped his head, apologized on the air and got my name right.

One of our anchors, who shall remain nameless, wasn't particularly good on the ad-lib. He once made a mistake which has been made by several announcers over the years -- "Coming up later on Newsradio 970, Budd Bailey has a preview of the N-Double A-C-P basketball tournament." But the story that gets passed around the most involves a tease at 59 minutes after the hour. The next anchorman would give a few headlines, and throw it to the network news. But our anchor forgot the script that particular time. Thinking fast, he said, "In the next hour on Newsradio 970 ... um ... er ... frequent checks of the time and temperature." Bet that sent our ratings soaring for the following 60 minutes.

Oddly enough, even the engineering department wasn't immune from the disease. One time an engineer was working on some wires in the building. At the same time, an anchor went into this introduction: "Next, commentator Howard Ruff has some thoughts on the state of the American economy."

At that exact moment, the engineer crossed the wrong wires and somehow got on the air. And at that exact moment, the engineer let out a bad word in frustration, followed by "...a duck in the butt." Ruff's commentary then followed. One woman called the newsroom, saying, "I thought the opening by Mr. Ruff in his commentary was a little rude." Come to think of it, you'd think more people would have called.

There probably are more stories along these lines that would come to mind if I had taken more than 10 minutes of thought to recollect them. The point, kids, is that you can't do anything wrong that hasn't happened before. Mistakes take place, and you just have to learn from them. And then you learn to laugh at them later -- in some cases much later. But you will laugh.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Speak up

The management books are no doubt full of advice on what sort of role top executives should take in dealing with the public. There are all sorts of role models in that sense. Remember when Chrysler decided Lee Iacocca was the best possible front man for its message - or maybe Lee himself made that decision - and he became the star of commercials and books? Then there's someone like Howard Hughes, famous as a recluse.

It applies in sports too. Take the history of the Dallas Cowboys, for example. For years, the team's owner was Clint Murchison. He wasn't exactly chatty in public, letting executives such as Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Tom Landry to the talking. Later on, Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys, and Jones never saw a microphone he didn't like.

Oddly enough, that has emerged as an issue with the Buffalo Sabres. You'd think the Sabres would have better things to worry about - such as trying to win games - but owner Terry Pegula's relative silence has not been a popular stance. That's especially true with the media, but the public probably wouldn't mind hearing something from him at times too. It quickly took to him when he bought the team - he was just another fan, albeit one with $3 billion. Pegula admittedly doesn't have much experience in public speaking, and probably doesn't like to do it very often.

I've got some experience in this area. When I worked from the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, Seymour Knox III was in charge of the ownership group. Knox at times had the title of team president, and he did live in Western New York, so sometimes he did make public appearances. He understood that it came with the territory. Now, no one was ever too sure what he was going to say at such events. A few times in those six years I wrote speeches for him, and listened as he gave them to see how he much when he was sticking to the text. When he strayed, I became instantly nervous - although I don't remember any huge problems off the top of my head. Still, I could almost hear the robot in "Lost in Space" say "Danger, Will Robinson" in my mind. Others had the same reaction.

I would guess some people at the First Niagara Center have similar thoughts when Pegula speaks. His clumsy attempt at a joke involving Ted Black and Byron Brown at the groundbreaking of the Webster Block project might be considered an example of those fears somewhat coming to life.

Pegula obviously has set up a management structure that outwardly insulates him. He has Black running the operation and general manager Darcy Regier running the hockey department. They are certainly in the public eye, a lot. Is that enough? I don't think so.

This isn't the oil business (Murchison) or the aviation business (Hughes). It's a very public operation, if only in part because of public contributions to such areas as buildings and infrastructure. Pro sports relies on an emotional connection between fan and team. It's not a rational connection - unless you think wearing Zubaz pants is a rational act - and it's a fragile one. The Sabres got lucky with Pegula, who got weepy at the site of Gil Perreault at the introductory news conference and thus immediately showed the fans that "I'm one of you." Ask Ralph Wilson how tough it is to buy that good will over a long period of time. Keeping that connection is important to the health of the franchise, and having Pegula make a few statements can only help in that sense.

Admittedly, the media is insatiable in such matters, so Pegula and the Sabres might have to learn to pick their spots. He doesn't have to do a monthly news conference. The odd one-on-one interview and then the occasional group session when appropriate probably would work fine. Black and Regier can handle the easy stuff; they are pros.

Such a move might defuse the situation and get everyone to work on the relatively important stuff here - winning hockey games. I have no free advice on that one at this time.

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