Category Archives: Sports

Top 25 Letdown

The Wall Street Journal recently had an interesting item about the win-loss records of the football coaches in all the major conferences against AP top-25 teams. Here’s the current ACC coaches’ records:

School Coach W-L Career W-L Current
Boston College Steve Addazio 1-6 1-4
Clemson Dabo Swinney 9-18 9-18
Duke David Cutcliffe 9-26 3-14
Florida State Jimbo Fisher 12-6 12-6
Georgia Tech Paul Johnson 10-22 10-13
Louisville Bobby Petrino 14-19 4-7
Miami (FL) Al Golden 3-13 3-8
NC State Dave Doeren 1-4 0-3
North Carolina Larry Fedora 3-9 1-5
Pittsburgh Pat Narduzzi 0-0 0-0
Syracuse Scott Shafer 0-7 0-7
Virginia Mike London 4-9 4-9
Virginia Tech Frank Beamer 45-50-1 45-50-1
Wake Forest Dave Clawson 1-9 0-2

Add it all up and these guys have won 39% of their games against Top 25 teams while coaching at their respective schools (the current number above), which is only nominally better than the 36% collective career average. Why’s that important? Because many of these coaches came from head coaching positions at smaller schools and you would expect them to have more losses there since they would have been homecoming/early season fodder for larger football schools. You would think that once they got to the larger schools their records would have improved with access to more resources, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Of course you can also look at it this way: it takes time to build a winning program and in today’s “win now” culture these guys just don’t get the time to lay the groundwork needed to have a strong sustainable program. That’s why Virginia Tech stands out. Beamer might have a sub-.500 record, but he’s had almost 100 games against Top 25 teams which indicates that they don’t run away from a tough schedule and they also give their coach plenty of opportunities to build and rebuild.

Love it or hate it, the reality is that college football is big business on college campuses and the head coaches are among the highest paid people on campus. And to be clear the ACC isn’t the only conference with coaches with numbers like these – the vast majority of coaches have losing records against Top 25 teams – so you have to wonder how so many keep their jobs right? That’s why we have the FCS which is chock full of teams from smaller football programs willing to take a beating in exchange for some cash. Everyone wins – the big schools get two or three almost-guaranteed wins a year, the coaches get to pad their records and the small schools get their biggest paydays of the season before playing their peers. It’s the American way.

The Genesis of Lewisville’s Cycling Culture

In the region in which I live the small town I live in, Lewisville, NC, is a bit of a mecca for road cyclists. Several times a week you will see large groups of cyclists meet in downtown Lewisville and depart for long rides in several different directions. The good townspeople of Lewisville are split on their feelings about the cyclists – some welcome their presence and wonder how the town can make hay out of Lewisville’s reputation within the cycling community, while others find them a nuisance as they wait for an opportunity to pass the riders on Lewisville’s two-lane country roads – but they’ve been a presence for many years and in the ten years I’ve lived here I’ve always wondered how Lewisville came to be known as a cycling hot spot. Scott Sexton’s recent column in the Winston-Salem Journal reveals how it all got started:

(Gene) Gillam was born in Iowa and grew up in Greensboro before heading to The Citadel. He became a pilot with the U.S. Army Air Force and flew B-26 bombers.

Sixty-one times he flew missions over Normandy, northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. He was shot down several times, and was rescued by French families and the French Resistance — the sorts of things that awe us today but were almost routine to men of his generation…

It was through his hobbies that a lot of people got to know Gillam. He was an avid runner and, later on, became something of a pioneer within the local cycling community. That’s where Ken Putnam, the owner of Ken’s Bike Shop, first met and got to know Gillam.

“He used to live out in Lewisville, on Grapevine (Road),” Putnam said. “A group of us would meet out at his house and just go ride. That’s why all the rides now start in Lewisville, because we’d leave from Gene’s house.”

Again, that might not seem like much more than a couple of guys out indulging a hobby — until you consider what has transpired since a handful of oddballs started heading west from Gillam’s house in Lewisville each weekend in the early 1970s.

The routes plotted out by that little group eventually got written down, named and taught turn-by-turn to new groups of riders as they discovered the sport. That small group grew by twos and threes, and turned into other groups of differing interests and abilities.

These days, hundreds of riders leave from Lewisville in any given week throughout the spring, summer and fall.

48 Years of Sewing Balls

The whole “Deflate-Gate” kerfluffle from this year’s AFC Championship Game put the most focus on the actual footballs than we’ve seen in years. That makes this five minute video about the making of the balls, and one lady who sewed them for 48 years, seem super-appropriate as we get ready to watch Super Bowl XLIX.

BTW, have you heard that the powers that be don’t like the idea of identifying the 50th Super Bowl as Super Bowl L? Instead it will be Super Bowl 50, which kind of irks me because I was really looking forward to getting all kinds of schwag with my last initial on it.

Support “The Beast”

When it comes to sports I’m generally what you’d call an “old school” kind of guy. Basically I believe in good sportsmanship – I’ll let you define that – and I don’t much care for showboating. That probably explains why I have what probably looks like contradictory opinions about two very good football players: Marshawn “The Beast” Lynch and Cam “Superman” Newton. I love watching Lynch play and Newton just makes me shake my head.

Here’s my reasoning in a nutshell: Newton is know for his “Superman” pose that he strikes after scoring a touchdown. That does indeed irk me, but touchdown’s are hard enough to come by that I long ago accepted touchdown celebrations as part of the game and I definitely understand why people do them. On the other hand, Newton has a habit of doing this goofy pointing thing (seen here) whenever he’s gotten a first down and that just drives me around the bend. Getting a first down is kind of a minimum expectation of a quarterback’s job – it’s like getting a √ on your report card when you were in kindergarten. Celebrating it is like me running around my desk after sending a fairly well written email.

Another thing that gets me about Newton is that he can seem so disengaged and sometimes just looks like he lacks a fire in the belly. Certainly some of that can just be outward appearances – some players are truly so gifted that they look like they aren’t trying because they’re literally so good that they make it look effortless. Newton, however, has some fairly significant swings between his good and bad games and those bad games seem to coincide with those instances where it looks like he’s not 100% there.

Then there’s The Beast. While he will do his share of smack talking during the game he most certainly is always 100% engaged on the field. He seems to relish playing hard, initiating contact with the defense and never taking a down “off.” The guy’s earned his nickname and if you like football then you have to appreciate how hard he plays. He definitely defines an “old school” or “throwback” runner who resembles players like Walter Payton who play with a fire in the belly that’s apparent to everyone watching.

Off the field is where this comparison gets even more interesting, and where I think people might find my opinion of these two players to be contradictory. Newton is personable, affable and seems to generally be a “good interview” with the press. Lynch, on the other hand, can appear surly and dour, and most definitely is not a favorite of the press. Hell, Lynch is becoming just as well known for his non-answer-answers as he is for his play on the field, but to be honest that’s one of the reasons I like him and also why I think he defines “old school.” Over at The Week Sarah Jaffe explains why better than I ever could:

Having been fined $100,000 over the last two seasons for refusing to play nice at press conferences, Lynch showed up at Media Day in a cap and dark sunglasses with one answer for reporters’ questions: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” He gave that same answer some 25 times.

Rumor had it that Lynch was threatened with a $500,000 fine if he didn’t show up for the conference; instead, he made it very clear that his appearance was compelled, and that there was only so far the NFL could push him…

There is no doubt that Lynch gives the game everything he’s got and more — we should always remember when we watch football or any other physical, contact sport that we are watching people literally putting theirsafety and lives on the line for our entertainment. So why, on top of all that, does the NFL demand that its players show up at press conferences and answer the same inane questions with a ready smile?…

After many in the media branded him a “thug,” Richard Sherman embarked on a press tour in which he mostly made mincemeat of his critics, but public debating is a particular skill that few people have mastered. It’s not surprising that Lynch, who has heard the T-word a few times in his life (and even, when playing in Buffalo, was stopped so routinely by police that he finally called a meeting with a local chief to discuss the problem) wants no part of it. His job, as he sees it, is on the field. When he wants to give back to the community, to the fans, he does it with his charity in his hometown of Oakland.

That, my friends, is why I’ll be cheering Mr. Lynch during the Super Bowl. I just like the way he rolls and I also like that he’s found a way to expose the NFL brass’ hypocrisy and general crappiness.

Tennis Stats Have Been Left Behind has a fascinating post on the state of statistics in tennis:

Old, an avid player himself, meticulously charted every shot of every rally to figure out how to play the game optimally. A scientist, he broke down the sport scientifically — then wrote about it in a series of books endorsed by some of the best American tennis players of their day.

Sometimes his son, Randy, watched matches with him. “It was boring,” Randy said, laughing. “He didn’t talk. He had this huge notebook, and he just was concentrating.”

In a typical story of a sports stats pioneer, I’d show how this early work inspired others and led to a revolution in analysis of the game.2 Not this time. Nearly six decades after Old’s first book hit shelves, no one is producing stats like his. Old’s stats on how often pros hit overheads for winners, or hit their returns down the line, aren’t available in tennis today.

The author of the post showed Old’s 60+ year old book on doubles to some modern players, including the record-setting Bryan brothers, and they found that much of it still applied to the modern game:

Last month at the World Tour Finals in London, I showed the doubles book to the Bryans, to Fleming, and to Daniel Nestor, a 12-time Grand Slam champion. None had seen stats like Old kept — on winning percentage on volleys depending on where they were struck, or on which shots were most likely to yield winners.

They said some data-driven tenets from the book still held: Come to net.12Crowd the middle of the court. Keep returns low. Others, like taking speed off the first serve to allow time to come to net, don’t apply in today’s power-dominated game, the current stars agreed.13

Unfortunately doubles is the red-headed stepchild of tennis and so these kinds of stats aren’t available to even the pros. While the tenets are all well and good, it would be helpful for them to have stats like these on specific opponents. After all, you might find that a certain player’s success rate drops if you hit sliced low returns versus aggressive hard returns. That kind of information can mean all the difference in matches that are often decided by two or three critical points.

O’s and Royals

For those of us who grew up in the DC area in the 70s and 80s the closest thing to a home baseball team we had was the Baltimore Orioles. My friends and I spent a good amount of time driving up I-95 to go to games first at Memorial Stadium and then at Camden Yards. The 70s and 80s were heady times for the Orioles who were perennial contenders in the AL East division against the hated (by Os fans) Yankees. The 70s and 80s were also a great time for Royals fans; their team dominated the AL West for years and they probably hated the Yankees almost as much as Boston fans do today since the Yankees seemed to always beat the Royals in the AL Championship Series.

Here’s an interesting twist though – the Royals and Orioles never faced off in the playoffs when they were both so strong. According to this Wikipedia page on the AL Championship Series the teams both appeared numerous times in the ALCS, but they never faced each other head-to-head. Checking out the Orioles team page confirms that they’ve never met, and that surprised me because in my notably fallible memory I could have sworn they had. All that’s to say that the fans who are old enough to remember the teams’ heyday should really enjoy this series.

Fixing Tennis?

I love tennis, both watching and playing it, which is why Scott Adams’ suggestions for fixing it in his Sports are Broken post caught my attention:

For example, when tennis was invented, serving was just a way to start the rally. One player bunted the ball into the service box and it was on.

Fast-forward to 2014.

Now the pros are 6’8″, their rackets and strings are made from exotic materials, and they are trained to serve at 140 miles per hour. As you might imagine, that creates a lot of double-faults and aces. Both are boring.

To fix tennis, eliminate the serve. That is already happening where I live. A group of folks in my town already play without the serve. Under the no-serve rules either player can start the rally and the point is live on the third hit. You play to 21, win by two, so no more funky tennis scoring with the 15-30-40 ridiculousness. This version of tennis is about twice as fun as playing serve-and-miss while wishing you were getting some exercise.

As someone who relies heavily on his serve this would not be good for me – when I’m practicing with guys at the same level as me and we play games that don’t involve serving I lose more often than I win – but I tend to agree with his assessment. I also really like the first to 21, win by two, idea. That rewards fitness due to less breaks in the action and helps reduce the likelihood of losing to someone who hits a hot streak like you see in regular seven- or ten-point tiebreakers.

On another note, even if we keep the serve I think the “let” call should be eliminated as John McEnroe has suggested in the past. That will speed up play and add an element of adventure to points just as regular net cord shots do.

Even if the pros don’t do it I think amateur play would be greatly enhanced by these kinds of changes.

Tennis and Life – A Wonderful Story

Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay has written the finest story involving tennis you’re likely to read:

For 40 years, my father, Ward Gay, was a tennis coach, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass., the city where he grew up. When he started, rackets were wood. The No. 1 men’s player in the world was Ilie Nastase. My dad studied tennis bibles written by Rod Laver, Bud Collins and Harry Hopman, and taught himself the rest through years of little victories and mistakes.

He liked natural gut string, one-handed backhands, the serve-and-volley, the chip-and-charge. He was also a science teacher at the high school, and he enjoyed how tennis was a game that rewarded mental acuity as well as physical skill. His favorite tennis maxim was the well-known adage he borrowed and passed on to every player: You’re only as good as your second serve…

My dad admired the pristine grass at Wimbledon and the red clay at Roland Garros, but the kind of tennis he really adored was city tennis. Cracks in the hard court. Rusty chain-link fences. Holes in the nets. Trucks howling by on the street. Country clubs weren’t his thing.

Tennis was for everybody, he felt…

In early March, just days away from the first tennis practice of the season, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He resigned from coaching the team. He told me about it matter-of-factly, but stepping away after doing this for so long had to have been devastating. Spring afternoons on the hard court had been a ritual for him, a sanctuary…

Last Thursday, Aug. 21, in a Boston hospital that overlooked a pair of beautifully ragged tennis courts on the Charles River, my dad died. He was 70 years old.

The next day, my brother and I walked down the street to the courts we grew up on. We pulled out a couple of our father’s old rackets we’d uncovered in the garage, and hit like we used to hit when we were young. Dad had given us and so many others a sport we could play for the rest of our lives, but his reach was much more than that. We ran with our rackets back, ready for anything.

Cupcakes – The Secret to Success for College Football Coaches

Despite the headline, this post is not about whether multi-million dollar football coaches provide a good return on investment, because quite frankly that’s the kind of debate that has all kinds of rabbit holes. No, this post is about how those multi-million dollar coaches’ teams perform on the field against good competition and the Wall Street Journal has a fascinating graphic showing that very few are all that good against non-cupcakes. Here it is:

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Wall Street Journal

You’ll notice that only 14% have career winning records and only 9% have winning records with their current teams. For those of us here in ACC country here are the most pertinent numbers:

School (Coach): Career Record/Current School Record

Boston College (Addazio): 0-4/0-2
Clemson (Swinney): 9-13/9-13
Duke (Cutcliffe): 8-25/2-13
Florida St. (Fisher): 9-5/9-5
Georgia Tech (Johnson): 7-20/7-12
Louisville (Petrino): 14-17/4-5
Miami (Golden): 3-11/3-6
UNC (Fedora): 2-8/0-4
NC State (Doeren): 1-3/0-2
Pittsburgh (Chryst): 3-4/3-4
Syracuse (Shafer): 0-3/0-3
Virginia (London): 3-6/3-6
Va. Tech (Beamer): 43-50-1/43-50-1
Wake Forest (Clawson): 1-7/0-0

So one out of 14 coaches (7%) in the ACC has a career or school winning record against top-tier teams. Sounds terrible, but when you compare it to the other conferences it really isn’t all that bad:

SEC – 4 out of 14 (29%)
Big 12 – 2 out 10 (20%) + one coach with a .500 record
PAC 12 – 1 out of 12 (8%) + one coach with a .500 record
Big Ten – 1 out of 14 (7%)

Luckily these guys get to coach against each other a majority of the time so it’s all good.