Saturday, April 04, 2009

Premo Stuff

I wrote True Sons for the same reason anyone writes a book – to be able to settle disputes among strangers on internet message boards. This week, I received an e-mail asking if I could resolve a disagreement on about the stature of Missouri’s basketball teams of 1921 and 1922.

Specifically, I was asked to verify that those Tiger teams were ranked number one nationally in the Premo Power Poll. For the uninitiated, the Premo Polls are the province of Patrick Premo, a college professor and basketball historian who spent countless hours researching and ranking the best college basketball teams from the game’s early years.

The Tigerboard dispute seems to arise from the fact that there is no complete and accurate set of the Premo Polls available online; unfortunately, it appears that an incomplete and inaccurate posting is on the web, one that incorrectly notes that Penn topped the Premo Poll for 1921 and that Kansas held the top spot for 1922 (in 1936, Penn and Kansas were retroactively awarded mythical national championships for those years by the Helms Foundation; the list provided seems to reflect Helms titles, not Premo Polls). My understanding is that one of the parties to the dispute goes so far as to suggest that I may have fabricated my claim in True Sons that Missouri was ranked number one in the Premo Polls for those seasons. I can tell you unequivocally that I did not (though when I wrote that Mizzou beat Indiana to win the 1976 national championship? That was totally made up).

I first became aware of Professor Premo’s work while reading Blair Kerkhoff’s book Phog Allen, the Father of Basketball Coaching. On page 60, while detailing the early years of the rivalry between Missouri and Kansas, Kerkhoff notes that Premo ranked the Tigers number one for the 1921 and 1922 seasons.

(click to enlarge)

My curiosity piqued, I interviewed Premo while doing research for True Sons, and I bought Mike Douchant’s Inside Sports College Basketball, a terrific history of the game, which includes a full set of the Premo Polls. Those polls do in fact show Missouri to be the number one team for 1921 and 1922. I have scanned the relevant pages, and included them below (click images to enlarge).

I believe my work here is done.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Fine Day for a Parade

In the hangover haze of Mizzou’s Orange Bowl snub, my buddy The Boy makes a pertinent point: the problem isn’t the BCS – it’s the bowls.

He’s absolutely right. Expecting the bowls to cultivate championship consensus is like expecting ice cream to cure cancer. They were never designed to deliver the desired result.

Bowl games aren’t playoffs, they’re pageants. They’re exhibitions, relics of a bygone era, designed to boost local economies. It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s where you play the game.

The BCS idea, initially, was well-intentioned and more effective than people would now have you believe. Under the old regime, this year’s slate would put #1 Ohio State vs. #7 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl; #2 LSU vs. #3 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl; and #4 Oklahoma vs. #5 Georgia in the Orange Bowl. In the absence of a playoff, the BCS at least gave us the one-versus-two matchup that everyone wanted by breaking the grip conference tie-ins had on the games, and allowing each of the Big Four Bowls to serve as the de facto title game once every four years.

But now that we have a dedicated, non-bowl, championship game pitting one versus two, you have to ask: Why exactly are the bowls still part of the process?

Because they’re more resilient than rats, more constant than cockroaches, more deeply rooted than giant redwoods.

Bowls still matter because they still want to matter. They are the HAL-9000 of sports, dictating the mission despite the wishes of those of us along for the ride.

And no one can fix the problem because no one is in charge. It’s like the Food and Drug Administration regulating the research and production of pharmaceuticals only to cede authority to the Federation of Deranged Anarchists when it comes to distribution. We play NCAA football until December, and then it just stops, with a confederation of parade planners and conference commissioners taking over from there. And the NCAA is powerless to act because it is nothing more than the sum of its badly fractured parts. With such a powerful voting bloc – the twenty-one schools of the Big Ten and Pac-10 – suckling off the Rose Bowl’s lucrative, milky breast, there will be no Tournament of Touchdowns so long as there’s a Tournament of Roses.

I’m through being outraged at the Orange Bowl’s pick of Kansas over Missouri, and truth be told, I was never all that outraged to begin with. The decision, on its face, was too comical to raise genuine ire, and it illustrated the epic chasm between the words “Bowl” and “Championship” in “Bowl . . . Championship Series.” This game has no more bearing on crowning a college football champion than my drive to the grocery store has on determining the Indy 500 winner. And lest anyone think that the bowls could be part of the solution, the Orange’s teaspoon-shallow reasoning – they preferred a one-loss team – should disabuse all but those who would prefer Manute Bol to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because of Bol’s superior height.

By falling to Oklahoma last Saturday night, the Tigers ensured that their next contest would be no more than a consolation game, an exhibition to allow long-sufferers like me to experience a New Year’s event for the first time, no matter where it was held. Missouri’s game in Dallas will mean the same as the Jayhawks’ game in Miami. It will mean that someone just had a parade.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Curses, Foiled

I am prone to belief in the divine, but not the supernatural. I recognize the existence of coincidence, happenstance, and random events of bad fortune. Never in my life have I believed in curses. Except when it comes to the Missouri Tigers.

There are the lightning bolts of cosmic scorn that even casual fans know: Colorado’s fifth down, Nebraska’s kicked ball, Tyus Edney’s zero-to-heartbreak in 4.8 seconds. There have been other moments, equally powerful but more obscure, like first round NCAA flameouts against Rhode Island and Northern Iowa back when I’d never heard of Rhode Island or Northern Iowa (geography, alas, was not a strong suit). And then there were those times when we were made to pay for our prosperity, like when the undefeated, top-ranked football Tigers lost their shot at the national title by falling to Kansas in the 1960 season’s final game, only to have the game futilely forfeited back later. Or Norm Stewart being blindsided by cancer at age 54 in the midst of a season in which he had one of his best and toughest teams. Or 2002, when an ascending basketball program welcomed Ricky Clemons to town and became a national punch line. Sadly, I could go on. There’s more where that came from.

Despite what rational thought tells you, sometimes you have to believe your eyes. When water falls from the clouds, it’s rain. When calamity pours from the sky, it’s a curse.

After one remarkable week in Kansas City, though, I proclaim Mizzou to be cleansed. The curse is over.

It started on a Sunday night, in a reborn downtown, in a shimmering building, when Norm Stewart took his place in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. As the coach stood at the podium nearly nineteen years after beating cancer – and helping countless others do the same through his charitable efforts – you knew that he was blessed. He was surrounded by family, including Virginia, his wife of fifty-one years, and his son Lindsey, who gave a world-class induction speech, full of the humor and fire he inherited from his dad. Coach Stewart also was joined by the other starters from his high school basketball team, and by members of the Stalcup, Faurot and Devine families who brought him back to Columbia in 1967. And he was surrounded by his players, Tiger titans like John Brown, Willie Smith, Steve Stipanovich, Jon Sundvold and Derrick Chievous, who won eight league championships and eleven conference tournaments (five old holiday affairs, six post-season events) in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. To see this living history mingling in the same room, it was plain that the good times have far outnumbered the bad, and hard to fathom that we might ever have considered ourselves unlucky, let alone cursed.

It continued the next night in the same building, when the Tiger basketball team played eleventh-ranked Michigan State. I had heard laments that years of scandal and mediocrity had crushed fan enthusiasm, as evidenced by only 5,000 turning out to see the Tigers play Central Michigan on a Monday in Columbia. But what I saw in the Sprint Center suggests that the problem might be playing Central Michigan. On a Monday. In Columbia. In Kansas City, against a top-flight opponent, an overwhelmingly pro-Mizzou crowd of more than 18,000 turned out, and those fans were fierce and hungry for success. And though the Tigers’ rally from sixteen points down fell just short, they played with purpose, and the crowd loved them for it. The next night, when those fans returned to see the Tigers drill Maryland – a program with a national title this decade – it was plain that Mike Anderson’s team is immune from the voodoo of Mizzou’s recent past.

Then, on Friday, already surrounded by a family of Tigers in town for Thanksgiving, I drove to the airport to meet my friends Scott (in from Denver) and T.J. (New York). In recent years, with the demands of careers and families, our gatherings had been limited to weddings and funerals. But with our alma mater’s football team set to play its arch-rival in the year’s biggest game, we ran out of excuses not to get together. As we caught up and remembered winter nights at the Hearnes Center and spring Saturdays at Simmons Field, I realized that the Missouri Tigers had blessed me with the chance to share time with these great friends.

And then, of course, came Saturday night. I’ve never seen a stadium so electric, or a Tiger team so self-assured. From my perch on the verge of 40, it’s easy to forget how young these guys are. Chase Daniel and Martin Rucker are barely old enough to remember the past’s great disappointments. They don’t believe in curses, they believe in each other. When Stryker Sulak and Lo Williams fell down like hard rain on Todd Reesing to secure a heart-stopping triumph, I looked to my right at my wife, who has shared the joy and despair of Tiger sports with me for nearly two decades, and I saw relief. I looked left at my father-in-law, who played on that star-crossed 1960 team, and I saw vindication. Then, as I thrust my hands in the air and looked up into the night sky, from which no calamity had fallen, my mind drifted to the elegant toast T.J. made at Scott’s wedding. Traditionally, he said, the guests bless the newly wedded couple. But when a bride and groom like this share their moment, they bless us.

Missouri Tigers, you bless us. The curse is dead.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Greatest Week in the History of Time

Sunday: Attend Norm Stewart's induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Monday: Visit spanking-new Sprint Center to see Mizzou hoops team play Michigan State.

Tuesday: Attend Coach Stewart's Hall of Fame lunch; back to Sprint Center for Tigers vs. UCLA or Maryland.

Wednesday: Rest.

Thursday: Give thanks.

Friday: Pick up buddies Scott and T.J. at the airport, head down to Tiger Rally at the spanking-new Power & Light District.

Saturday: Game of the Century.

Life is downhill from there.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Game On!

How do you articulate what you can’t even fathom? How do you express what you can’t comprehend?

This week, in my hometown, on the last day of the regular season, the Missouri Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks will play a football game, and the winner will be one game away from playing for a national championship.

There, I’ve written it, put it on the page, stared at it. And I still don’t quite believe it. The Missouri-Kansas game is the center of the football universe. In the best rivalry in sports, in the town that serves as the front for the border war, these two universities will play the biggest game in more than a century of hostilities.

I’ve written it again, and it’s starting to sink in. But I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it.

Still, I like it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Gotta love the coach

On the broadcast of the exhibition game against UMSL, Norm Stewart referred to field goals as "fielders," making him the first person since Grantland Rice to use the term. Regrettably, he did not comment on modern players and their baggy pantaloons, nor on the unfortunate abandonment of underhanded free throw shooting.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bookmark these

Steve Rushin and Joe Posnanski, two of the very best writers on the subject of sport, are blogging. Rushin's blog is here, and JoePo's is here.