Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Looking to Sochi

What do you think about Los Angeles becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. If you want to see evidence that I'm not smoking hash from a hookah when I say that, you need look no further than the host of this year's XXII Winter Olympiad, for Sochi is living proof that Russia's landscape is not limited to the frozen steppes of which we always think.

Located on the Black Sea, closer to Istanbul than it is to Moscow, Sochi is about as far south as you can go and still be in Russia. Much like Los Angeles, it is a sunny subtropical paradise with palm trees everywhere you look. On average, it experiences less than three days per year that the temperature drops below freezing.

View of the Black Sea from a park in Sochi

But then there is this: Sochi's residents can look east to the snow-capped peaks of the Caucusus Mountains, and LA's can look east at snow-crested summits in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto ranges -- which means that even if it is 60 degrees where they are standing on a February afternoon, residents of both cities are only a short drive away from wintry landscapes where they can build snowmen and go ice climbing, and therein lies an ability to host events that might not seem to fit.

The San Gabriel Mountains behind the LA skyline

In the coming weeks, the city of Sochi will feature indoor competitions while the Rosa Khutor Ski Resort, 24 miles away and much higher up, features outdoor competitions. So going back to the LA comparison: Why couldn't Southern California host the games with hockey played in the Honda Center, figure skating staged in the Staples Center, and skiing taking place over at Big Bear or Mount Baldy?

Not that I'm advocating for a SoCal Winter Olympics, mind you. I'm only using the LA comparison to illustrate how different Sochi is from most places that play host to winter sports spectacles.

At heart I am a traditionalist who wishes these games would go back to the days when they were always held in snowed-under, out-of-the-way spots with names like Lillehammer and Saint Moritz. But Sochi, a place I had never heard of until four years ago, was such an iconoclastic choice for a host that it intrigued me the moment I started reading about it. That intrigue moved me to learn more about the city's history and people, and isn't that part of what the Olympics are all about?


Look at a map and you will find Sochi opposite the Bosporus, near the Georgian border on that isthmus-of-sorts that runs between the Black and Caspian Seas. If you were a bird flying from it, you could reach Iran faster than you could reach Kiev.

The region where the city sits is one where Europe and Asia merge and the line dividing the continents is vague. To my eyes Sochi is in Asia. To the eyes of a friend of mine who is from Bulgaria, it is in Europe. And even when talking to people who are authorities on such matters, the answer to the question "Which continent is Sochi in?" changes depending on who you ask.

If you retained a lot of what you learned in school, you might recall that the term "Caucasian race" owes itself to this part of the world, due to two Germans who were working independently of each other when they wrote about race in the late 1700's. Christoph Meiners divided mankind into two races and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divided it into five, but they each theorized that the palest batch of humanity was descended from ancient ancestors who came from the Caucasus. Thus, the term "Caucasian race" was coined to refer as much to geographic origin as to skin tone.


Archaeological evidence reveals that early humans inhabited this region nearly 100,000 years ago and lived in open settlements for 65,000 years before retreating to cave dwellings with the onset of the Ice Ages.

Maritime Greeks crossed the Black Sea in the 500's B.C., landed at what is now Sochi, and found it to be inhabited by tribes that included the Aehi and Zygii. Those tribes readily traded for luxury goods, and consequently, commerce-hungry Greeks continued to sail here for more than four centuries. Darkly, slaves were among the "things" they traded for.

From approximately 280 B.C. to 60 B.C., the people who lived in what is now Sochi were subjects of an interesting and understudied entity called the Pontic Empire, which straddled cultural crossroads and drew customs from multiple sources (for example, the rulers of Pontus worshiped both Persian and Greek deities, in particular the sun gods Ahuramazda and Apollo).

Eventually the Pontic Empire was supplanted by the Roman. Then, many hundreds of years later, the Roman Empire's authority over the region was ceded to the Ottoman. There was no Russian presence until a relatively recent point in history.


In 1838, nine years after the end of the Russo-Turkish War, the first Russian outpost was constructed here. The natives resisted, viewing its construction as an imperial maneuver by a distant monarchy that aimed to take control of their homeland.

Hostilities ensued and mushroomed and the result was the Caucasian War, which went on for an astonishing 47 years before the distant monarchy prevailed. As Russia's Romanov Dysnasty proceeded to assert control over the region, much of the native population emigrated to Turkey.

Ethnic Russians, inspired by the warm climate, moved here gradually but steadily as the nineteenth century grew long in the tooth. In 1896, more than 2,000 years after the little burg by the sea first appeared, Russia gave it the name Sochi in honor of the local river.

As time marched into the first decade of the twentieth century, the newly named municipality began drawing vacationers for the same reason it had drawn settlers; namely, the weather. Its first major resort opened in 1909 and was called the Kavkazskaya Riviera.

Sochi officially received "town" status in 1917, which, coincidentally, was the same year the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Romanovs. Unfortunately, all the Bolsheviks did was usher in Soviet Communism, an even worse breed of tyranny that would plague not only Russia but all of Eastern Europe and a large portion of the entire planet for the next 70+ years.


Under Soviet rule, Sochi's climate once again proved to be its salvation, for while freedom remained a stranger on its shores, prosperity did not. As the only warm weather resort town in the world's largest country, it attracted Russia's elite like a porch light attracts moths. Extravagant hotels were erected, marinas brimmed with high-end boats, and health resorts (what we Americans might call spas) popped up to turn postwar Sochi into the world's leader in sanatoriums and health vacations. It enjoyed a Club Med/Playground of the Rich and Powerful status even when Communist Party bosses had unfettered access to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula during the height of the USSR.

Meanwhile, the local climate opened the door to other economic successes that had nothing to do with tourism. Tea is the most prominent example, for Sochi's outskirts are home to the northernmost tea farms on the entire planet. Over the years these farms have given rise to a number of respected tea brands, of which Krasnodarsky is the most notable.

Two decades ago, when the USSR dissipated and Ukraine gained its independence, an already well-off Sochi took full advantage of the fact it no longer had to compete with the Crimean Peninsula to get the attention of Moscow pols trying to figure out where to spend their domestic vacation rubles. As of 2010 it was bringing in more than 1.5 million tourists per year -- roughly five times its population of 343,000.


None of the above means that everything is hunky dory in this city and its surroundings. It sits near the nexus of the Old World's Christian and Muslim populations, and on the doorstep to three small countries that were forcibly controlled by the USSR for much of the past century (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Therefore, civic tension is a reality, which you might have guessed from the much-reported worries that terrorists might attack this year's Olympics.

But despite all the headlines terrorism has garnered, no terrorist attack has ever happened in Sochi. The most prevalent and systemic problem is grift, which many claim to be rampant. Perhaps that is an almost inevitable byproduct of the city having spent most of its history under despotism, and the despotism having been replaced not by liberal democracy but by corrupt kleptocracy.

There has been much talk that the preparation projects undertaken to pull off these games have been nothing more than a massive wealth transfer to well-connected Putin cronies, who may or may not deliver on their promises but will definitely finish over-budget and with their pockets plushly lined.

There has also been talk that Putin pulled international levers to bring these games to Sochi not because it is better qualified than the cities it beat out (Salzburg, Austria and Pyeongchang, South Korea) but because it is where he likes to ski and he wants to flaunt it to the world.

There has been talk that he sees these games as a chance to project Russian significance in much the same way Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to project Nazi power. The thinking is that he wants to 1) create an innovative image by showing his regime can pull off the Winter Olympics in a place that is not very wintry, and 2) gain an economic boon by showcasing Sochi as a place all the world should want to visit.

Every bit of that talk is easy to believe, but that does not change the fact that Sochi is indeed a fascinating place. And we should remember that its citizens are not responsible for the acts of their rulers.


My original Los Angeles analogy, though apt, is not perfect. Sochi's low temperatures in February are not cold enough to impress people in Tennessee, much less people in places like Alberta and Finland. However, its daytime highs in February are not balmy either. They average 50 degrees, which is only about 10 degrees warmer than New York's.

Geologically speaking, the snow-caps of Southern California are seasonal and somewhat inconsistent, while the ones east of Sochi are permanent, deep, and much more prominent. This is due partly to Sochi's wetter air and more northerly latitude, and partly to the superior elevations of its nearby mountains.

There is no question that the ranges which encircle the Los Angeles Basin are world-class affairs. They exceed timberline, culminate in rugged pinnacles, and top out at the 11,499-foot summit of San Gorgonio Mountain. Yet San Gorgonio would not even rank among the top 25 points in the Caucasus, which have 18 named summits exceeding 12,000 feet and numerous unnamed summits exceeding that threshold as well.

The loftiest peak in the Caucasus, Mount Elbrus, is a white behemoth that soars to 18,510 feet above sea level -- 3,000 more than the highest point in the Alps and 4,000 more than the highest in the Rockies. Its hulk is home to 22 glaciers that give birth to three rivers. According to myth, it is where Zeus bound Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver as punishment for teaching humans the knowledge of fire. Not only is Elbrus one of mountaineering's Seven Summits, it is one of the grandest sights ever painted by the brush of God.

Mount Elbrus


The oft-repeated claim that the Olympics are about peace and brotherhood is, in my opinion, a bunch of pap. What the Olympics are primarily about is excellence in competition, and the goal of all competition is to defeat your opponent. Such an environment does not tend to produce the mother's milk of peace and brotherhood, even if its media cheerleaders say otherwise.

The Olympics do have a "bigger purpose," however, and it is this: By changing locations around the globe, they serve to broaden our understanding of how vast and various our planet is. By projecting Earth's beauty onto our television sets, the Olympics serve us by making us appreciate all that is out there to be explored. By spotlighting people from faraway lands, and spotlighting nations big and small whose citizens have their own trials to endure and their own triumphs to enjoy, the Olympics do lift us up even when we are gritting our teeth over the hockey officials and snowboarding judges.

For me, the Sochi Olympics have already served this "bigger purpose" by bringing to my attention a city I never knew of, and by bringing back to my attention a region I had learned about in high school (thank you, Mr. Foley!) but later pushed to the back of my mind. By prodding me to read up on Sochi and its surroundings, these Olympics have reaffirmed for me the mystique of human history. They have reminded me of the reasons I have always wanted to travel the word. In those things, I am confident I won't be alone as February unfolds.

Friday, January 24, 2014

et ceteras

Perhaps the most manipulated (i.e., lied about) figure in American politics is the unemployment rate.

You would think that calculating the rate would be a simple matter of taking the total number of able-bodied, working-age people who aren't working and dividing it by the number of able-bodied, working-age people who are alive. But then again, even that would create an inaccurately rosy picture by not taking into account the phenomenon of under-employment; for example, it would count as "employed" those who are only working part-time because they can't find a full-time job, without any regard to the fact that their economic "well-being" is anything but.

Unfortunately, calculating the unemployment rate is not that simple because it is hard to know the total number of people in the country to begin with, much less the total number who are able-bodied and working-age, much less the number who do and don't have jobs. And because a high unemployment rate threatens incumbent politicians while a low one threatens their challengers, far too many pols have something to gain by cooking the books.

The most common method used to arrive at a specific number of unemployed people is to use the number of people receiving unemployment benefits. This, however, can be particularly deceiving because not everybody out of work receives unemployment, and those who do receive it can only do so for a limited period of time.

If unemployment benefits in a particular state expire after six months, then everyone in that state who is unfortunate enough to remain unemployed for more than six months will no longer be counted as unemployed after their six months are up. So if in April of this year two million people in that state disappear from the unemployment rolls because their benefits end, while one million people come onto the unemployment rolls, the governor will be able to claim that unemployment decreased by one million when it really increased by one million. Such massaging of numbers is especially odious when you consider that the people it intentionally ignores are the ones who are in the most dire straits because their unemployment is long-term.

Speaking of long-term, however, what I am getting to is this: Do not believe the recent claim by Obama & Co. that America's unemployment rate has gone down to 6.7 percent, for as was recently claimed here by one person who knows far more than most of us, the actual rate is higher than 37 percent.

The Final Frontier
Recently I walked out to my car before dawn to drive to work. I looked up at a sweep of stars and a big, glowing bowling ball of a moon, deliberately exhaling into the cold air so that the fog of my breath would be visible in the moon's light. And I wondered: Where has our wonder gone?

It was Tom Teepen (a man with whom I rarely agree) who 11 years ago described mankind as a "questing animal" in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia exploding during its reentry to Earth's atmosphere. Today we are less than a week away from the 28th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger exploding as it sought to escape Earth's atmosphere. To the question "Why did we stop our exploraton?" I have no answer more true than "We lost our wonder."

When I was a child, space travel was still new and it enraptured our minds. Say what you want about Columbus crossing the uncharted ocean only because Ferdinand and Isabella promised him wealth, or Yuri Gagarin breaching the atmosphere only because Kruschev demanded it -- human beings do such things not because they are paid off or ordered to, but because it is in their nature to push Nature's envelope and experience the great unknown.

I was born less than two years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. When I was five years old, the United States celebrated its 200th birthday and my parents took me to Cape Canaveral, where rocket ships were laid out to view. On that trip in 1976, I was amazed to see a computer because it was something I had only heard about. It was bigger than most of the rooms in my house yet had less memory than the 16K Texas Instruments PC I would get five years later.

Star Wars hit theaters the next year, followed a year later by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and somewhere in there our nation flung the satellite Voyager 1 way out toward the great beyond with an LP (of all things!) that included a recording of the Rolling Stones singing "Satisfaction" so extraterrestrials could listen to it.

If you had told me then that our country would abandon its exploration of space before my second child was even a month old, I would have been appalled and lost much of the faith I had in the future. But sadly, that is precisely what has happened, and I can't help but think that a big reason for that abandonment is that we simply became jaded and lost our sense of childlike amazement. This is one area, and perhaps the only one, in which we grown-ups should learn from our kids.

Gun Control
I am against it because I am in favor of freedom. And also because I am in favor of safety. A post I saw today on Facebook said it best: "Gun control: The idea that if you give up your right to defend yourself or others, criminals will no longer have guns." Can I get an amen?

On the one hand, we scream that our professional athletes should play for the love of the game and not be concerned with money, since they all get handsome salaries. Yet down here in Tampa, when Martin St. Louis was recently denied his deserved place on Canada's Olympic hockey team and was noticeably displeased by it, many of my fellow Lightning fans claimed that he should subordinate his desire for Olympic gold to the fact he has a contractual relationship with the Lightning.

To which I say: Are you people schizophrenic?

I don't get it. You can't have it both ways. Would you feel the same way if he was born in New Hampshire instead of Quebec and was seeking to play for Team USA instead of Team Canada? He has brought us a Stanley Cup. He has been named league MVP. Last year he led the league in points -- at age 38! The man deserves to play in Sochi and experience the feeling of a gold medal hanging around his neck. If you disagree, well, screw you.

And with that...
...I am signing off. See you later!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Peyton Problem

It was January 2, 1998, and in one of those odd calendar quirks that happen every so often, the Peach Bowl and Orange Bowl were being played on the same day.

Erika had to work that night, so I was alone when I parked myself at a table at Market on 7th to watch Auburn finish off Clemson in the Peach. (For those who don't know, Market on 7th is a pizza joint in Ybor City, which is a colorful segment of Tampa whose history is marked by waves of Cuban and Italian immigrants mixed with dollops of Mob influence.)

Anyway, my waiter was wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers hat, and knowing that his team was soon to face Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, I nodded towards his scalp and said "good luck tonight."

He replied with a simple "thanks," but his face seemed to light up and his body language showed he was happy to hear someone speak about the Huskers.

I took a swig from my beer and uttered, "I'm just #$%* sick of hearing about Peyton Manning."

"Me too," he said, practically spitting out the words as he wrinkled his brow with irritation.

Even then, way back when Peyton Manning was a college kid who had yet to play a single down in the NFL, I  had a problem where he was concerned.

And even then, I was thankful for every encounter I had that showed I wasn't alone.


To be clear, I do not have a problem with Peyton Manning. He has never done anything to me, and by all accounts he is a good man who works diligently at his craft and manages to never lose his temper despite constantly being in the throes of competition. It took great ardor and even greater courage for him to return to football at age 36 after undergoing three spinal surgeries.

What I have a problem with -- and have always had a problem with -- is the media coverage of Peyton Manning. The first time I heard his name was reading a glowing Sports Illustrated article about him when he was in high school!

And so it has gone, seemingly ad infinitum, for 20 years. Manning has always been the media's golden boy and is continuously hyped as a flawless Superman in cleats. If his team loses it is never his fault. If other quarterbacks routinely outperform him in the most important situations, well, the bulk of the media just glosses over that incongruity and heaps criticism on anyone who doesn't gloss over it.


It is odd that Manning has sustained this level of media fawning for so long when you consider how glaring the weaknesses are in his body of work. They have been written about enough that I won't go over all of them, but a Reader's Digest version goes like this:

His career playoff record is below .500, which is the kind of thing that might be explainable if not for the fact he has always played on teams loaded with championship-caliber talent...Coming into this year, eight of his twelve playoff appearances ended with first round eliminations and four of those eliminations happened at home...Manning entered this season with the same number of playoff wins and same number of Super Bowl rings as Joe Flacco, despite having played nine more seasons and having done so with a stronger supporting cast.

Yes, football is the ultimate team sport. If the offensive line can't block, it usually doesn't matter what anyone else on the offense can do; and if the defense can't stop the other team, your offensive players can't migrate to the other side of the ball and do their jobs for them.

But Manning has always played behind top offensive lines, and contrary to what his media apologists try to claim, most of his career has been spent on teams with strong defenses. The Colts squads of his first few seasons were suspect on that side of the ball, but after Tony Dungy arrived in 2003, the Colts' defense became stout and stayed that way. "Strong" is also a very fitting adjective for the Bronco defense of the last two years.

Plus, Manning has always had elite receivers to throw to (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker) and always shared the backfield with top flight running backs to keep opposing defenses honest (Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Knowshon Moreno).

In short, every team he has played on over the past decade has been designed to win a championship, yet only once has a championship been won. The best quarterback to ever play the position (or even one of the seven or eight best) would by definition deliver multiple titles in such a situation over such a long period of time. But instead, reality shows that Peyton Manning is an individual version of the 1990's Atlanta Braves: laden with talent, flaunting lots of regular season wins and eye-popping statistics, but at the end of the day an underachiever because he has routinely failed to deliver the goal he was put in position to accomplish.


None of which is to say that Peyton Manning is not an extremely good quarterback. He deserves to go into the Hall of Fame, but is he really that much better than Dan Fouts and Ron Jaworski?

How many Super Bowls would Joe Montana have won if he played on the same teams Manning has played on? I think he would have won at least four, just like he did with San Francisco over a similar period of time. I believe the same is true for Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach, and Terry Bradshaw. Suffice it to say that none of those guys would have thrown four interceptions in the conference championship game, and a loss-clinching overtime interception in another conference championship game, and a loss-clinching pick-six in a Super Bowl -- like Manning did in 2004, 2013 and 2010, respectively.

And what about retired greats Sonny Jorgensen, Bart Starr, Len Dawson, Ken Stabler, Joe Theisman, Doug Williams, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman? What about Manning's boss John Elway? What about Manning contemporaries Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and the aforementioned Joe Flacco? I can't hazard a realistic guess as to exactly how many rings each of them would have won playing on the teams Manning has led, but I have no doubt they all would've won more than Manning has won.

All I am saying is: Why do so many media people consider it a given that Manning is better than most of the people I just mentioned? Why do they consider it a given that he belongs on the short list for the "greatest of all time" label?

Which puts me in a pickle. I have nothing against Peyton Manning and a big part of me would like to see him earn another Super Bowl ring to legitimize the "greatness" label and silence his naysayers (including myself, I suppose). However, I know the sure-to-follow media hype would be so overblown and larded with saccharin as to make me vomit.

So a big part of me wants the Bronocs to lose simply to keep the media in check. But I know damn well that that's a bad, bad reason to cheer for an outcome.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MLK, Born Today

Next Monday is set aside as Martin Luther King Day. But today is his real birthday, and he would be turning 85 had he not been met by an assassin's bullet on that "early morning April 4" (though with apologies to Bono, it was actually in the evening when the shot rang out in the Memphis sky).

But I digress. Rather than wait until next week, I figured I would go ahead and re-post my favorite MLK quotes now, on the true anniversary of his birth, rather than wait until next week's generic third-Monday government-declared day of recognition. Here they are:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it.Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law…This would lead to anarchy…I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

...I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.

The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo…If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.

I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. The note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

…we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

A man can’t sit on your back unless it’s bent.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.

…right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

…I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom…If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

College football in the rearview

A couple years ago an acquaintance of mine described this as a "political blog," which somewhat surprised me because I use it to write about pretty much whatever I feel like writing about. Still, I only say somewhat surprised because, let's face it, politics are a frequent topic of mine and my opinions are strong.

Remembering that comment brings me, rather circuitously, to something I want to say: Writing on this blog over the last few months has been pure joy because I have stayed away from political issues. I still have strong opinions about them and am still tuned in to what is happening with this noble, 237-year-old experiment known as the United State of America; but writing about politics on your off-time can be a drag, and it has been a wonderfully escapist release to instead focus mostly on college football.

So with the entire 2013 season behind us, and with it capped off by a tremendous title game, I am in the mood to offer up a few final thoughts on it before turning my attention to other things.

The National Championship Game
My school lost the final BCS Championship Game on Monday night. In most circumstances -- and in all circumstances that involve championship games -- I am a firm believer in the old adage that moral victories are for losers. Therefore, I will not concoct any hokum about moral victories for my Auburn Tigers. The best team won, and Florida State proved they are #1.

To a man, Auburn's players are competitors, and therefore they are certainly feeling bad. As they should. Competitors should feel bad when they earn their way all the way to the brink of the national championship, then fail to close the deal when they are in a position to close it.

Which is not to say...
...that they shouldn't be proud of everything they accomplished this season. From 3-9 in 2012 to 12-2 in 2013, from winless in their division to champions of the toughest conference in all the land. In many ways, this was the most memorable Auburn team of my lifetime, surpassing even the national championship team of 2010.

What I will say...
...on behalf of Auburn is that they proved all of their doubters and critics wrong on Monday night. Nobody gave them a chance, yet they came within 13 seconds of winning. FSU's final touchdown would not have won the game, but merely sent it to overtime, had Cody Parkey not missed a field goal on a 33-yard chip shot earlier in the evening.

"Can't throw" Nick Marshall completed clutch passes down the field from beginning to end.

The defense, which everyone thought incapable of stopping the Noles, succeeded in bottling up Jameis Winston most of the night; in covering FSU's much taller receivers like wallpaper; and in tackling better that I have seen any other NCAA defense tackle this year (with the possible exception of Michigan State).

When Auburn fell behind late in the fourth quarter -- following a 100-yard kick return that would have been a dagger to the hearts of most teams -- they responded with grit and poise by marching all the way down the field against Florida State's highly touted D, and scoring a touchdown to retake the lead with 1:19 remaining.

The Denouement
Unfortunately, it was right after that clutch TD that the phrase "most of the night" would rear its head to haunt the Auburn defense. After 58+ minutes of superb tackling by everyone on that side of the ball, two defenders simultaneously blew a tackle, which caused a fairly short hook pattern to morph into a long gain down the sideline. That set up FSU's winning score, which occurred with 13 seconds left,  when Winston threaded a pass through good coverage and into the hands of a receiver who enjoyed a decided height and reach advantage over the DB's.

In short, the team with the match-up advantages won. And in a logical world, isn't that exactly how it should play out when the turnovers are even (which they were) and the bad officiating cuts both ways (which it did)?

In the final analysis, 1) Auburn's offense was better than FSU's, but just barely; 2) FSU's defense was better than Auburn's, but just barely; and 3) FSU's special teams were clearly better than Auburn's, even after taking into account the fact that Auburn's punting unit routinely pinned them deep in their own territory...And when a team is better in two of the three phases of the game, doesn't logic say they should win?

About that bad officiating
On the off chance anyone wonders what I was talking about, Auburn was victimized by four blatant holds going uncalled. Meanwhile, FSU was victimized by a facemask and a horse collar tackle both going uncalled, and by a pathetically weak taunting flag being thrown. (Technically, the taunting penalty was the correct call, but all that does is prove that the rule should be changed.)

For all you haters out there who are claiming the SEC is weaker than before because the national champion is from another conference: Think again, because the numbers prove you are wrong. The SEC finished 7-3 in bowls, better than any other conference in America. Right behind it was the Pac-12 at 6-3; and after that, the only other conference with a winning record in this year's bowls was the Sun Belt, which went 2-0. Every other league was .500 or worse.

Every conference has good teams, and the best team from every conference is capable of beating the best team from any of the others on a given Saturday. But when it comes to which conference is strongest top to bottom, that conference is still the SEC.

The Top Twenty
And finally, here's how I see it having shaken out for the 2013 season:

1.    Florida State
2.    Auburn
3.    Michigan State
4.    Missouri
5.    South Carolina
6.    Oklahoma
7.    Alabama
8.    Stanford
9.    Oregon
10.  Oklahoma State
11.  Clemson
12.  LSU
13.  UCLA
14.  Central Florida
15.  Baylor
16.  Ohio State
17.  Wisconsin
18.  Texas A&M
19.  Duke
20.  USC

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year's sports et ceteras

Winter Classic
New Year's Day is still meant for college football, but it is no longer reserved for it because the NHL's Winter Classic has become an integral part of the New Year's Day experience. Considering the comparatively short period of time the Winter Classic has existed, it's impressive how quickly that event has woven Canada's sport into the USA's January 1st fabric.

I literally got goosebumps watching the national anthems being sung while snowflakes fell on the players in white-blanketed Michigan Stadium. The Tenors came out dressed in Maple Leafs jerseys and performed "O Canada" in alternating English and French, followed by the Zac Brown Band coming out in Red Wings jerseys and performing an a capella version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Each nation's flag was unfurled during the rendering of its anthem.

If you weren't moved by the spectacle, you're not human. Despite being born 1,000 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I have been whistling "O Canada" ever since because it is stuck in my head.

About those NYD bowls
Wasn't it good that every single one of the New Year's Day bowls was close? That entering the final minutes of every single one, both teams on the field had a shot to win? I don't remember that ever happening before.

Of course I'm not including the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which no one watched because no one has ever heard of it. When a game features a 7-5 team from the Mountain West Conference playing an 8-4 team from Conference USA, it simply does not deserve to be recognized as a New Year's Day bowl.

But getting back on topic, I was especially happy that the Rose Bowl lived up to is pregame hype as a slugfest between old-school teams who like to hit you in the mouth and beat you sans trickery. If the national championship game is not close, Michigan State deserves to jump ahead of its loser and finish the season ranked #2.

I was also happy that Central Florida defeated Baylor to eliminate my earlier doubts about whether they deserve to be nationally ranked. It turns out that the real UCF is not the team that needed last minute heroics to get past 2-10 South Florida and 2-10 Temple. Instead, it is the one that defeated Louisville and Penn State on the road and came within four points of beating #7 South Carolina.

He's baaaack
I'm talking about Big Game Bob. After his Sooners got plowed by USC in the midst of losing five straight BCS bowls, many people started mocking the moniker previously given to Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, but they aren't mocking it anymore. Not after he led the Sooners to a season-ending road win over sixth-ranked Oklahoma State, and especially not after the Sugar Bowl, in which he led them to a stunning and convincing win over Alabama on January 2nd.

Stoops kept his players focused and confident after humbling losses to Texas and Baylor. He believed in them when no one else did, and as a result, a team that was an afterthought entering the season's final week is suddenly sure to finish in the top ten. Fans from elsewhere better keep their eye on the team from Norman, OK next season, because the swagger Stoops exhibited in early 2001 is back. And it has a reason to be. (And did you know he is now 3-0 lifetime against Alabama?)

Will somebody, whether it's Charlie Strong or someone else, please take the Texas Longhorns' head coaching position so the rest of us won't have to keep hearing about it? I know I'm not the only person in America who is tired of how the media endlessly jawbones over this Texas coaching search. The reason we are tired of the jawboning is that the Texas job simply isn't that big a deal.

To be sure, Texas is a fine football program and leading it is a plum job, but it ain't any better than a lot of other programs. I dare anyone to make a case for it being a better place to hang your hat than Oklahoma, Nebraska, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, USC, LSU, Tennessee, Oregon, Florida, etc....and etc....and etc. again.

Seriously, what puts Texas ahead of all those other destinations? I hear grads from the others wax poetic about how much they love their school; and while I do not doubt that there are some UT grads who love UT for itself, as opposed to loving it solely because of its football team, I have never heard a'one of them say so.

I hear lots of people say that UT is located in fertile recruiting ground and that is undeniably true, but so what? The same is true for Penn State and Pitt, Florida and Florida State, USC and UCLA. If Texas and its prospective recruits were really as great as Texas grads and the media would have us believe, then the Longhorns would win a minimum of three national titles every decade. Here in the real world, however, they have managed only one in the last 43 years -- just like Colorado, Georgia Tech, BYU, and Pitt!

The Texas Longhorns have been playing football for 121 years and have four national titles to show for it. That certainly isn't bad, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are well ahead of them (with seven) and the Army Cadets are only one behind them, which goes to show that Texas was not necessarily the king of the hill even way back when.

If anything truly separates Texas from the pack, maybe it's money, because their football program is routinely described as "the wealthiest in America." But then again, so what? People in Austin need only look a few hours up the road to Dallas, where Jerry Jones lords over the Cowboys, to find proof that money fails more often than it succeeds when the goal is to win championships.

The other programs I mentioned (and many more) have more than enough money to pay for lavish facilities and to give comfortable salaries to their coaching staffs. Money-wise, that is all you need. Unfortunately, when you fly beyond the realm of enviably rich and into the realm of filthy rich, money is far more likely to breed dysfunction than it is to breed championships, especially when the Russia-sized egos of UT's boosters drive them to insert themselves into affairs about which they have no expertise.

In my previous post I wrote this about tomorrow's BCS Championship Game: "I can think of several reasons to expect a blowout; several to expect a cliffhanger; several to think the Noles will win, and a few to believe my Tigers will win. Maybe I will get into some of those reasons between now and then, and maybe I won't."

When today dawned, I planned on getting into those reasons in this post. But I think I have already been way too long-winded, so I won't. Sometime after the title game I will be back to opine some more, but until then: Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Rivalry Reborn

The bowls are entering full swing and Monday's upcoming, last-ever BCS Championship Game is one of the most eagerly anticipated in years.

The match-up is intriguing for a number of reasons, many of which have been written about in the press and yakked about on TV and radio. One reason has gotten almost no attention, however, and it is this: By pitting Auburn against Florida State, it marks the return of what used to be a major rivalry.

AU-FSU was a Reagan Era staple. The teams battled each other seven times from 1983 through 1990, and on three of those occasions both were ranked in the top seven. Auburn won the first three games, Florida State the next three, and Auburn prevailed in the finale.

This is a rivalry that deserves to be reborn because it is oh so natural. FSU is located closer to Auburn than it is to any of its ACC foes, while Auburn is nearer to FSU than it is to all but two of its thirteen SEC opponents.

Both football programs are major powers with national championships on their resumes, yet each labors in a shadow created by sharing its state with a showboat -- for just like the University of Alabama receives a disproportionate share of media love in the Yellowhammer State, the University of Florida receives a disproportionate share in the Sunshine State.

Jimbo Fisher is in his fourth year as Florida State's head coach, but long before that, while cutting his teeth, he spent six years as Auburn's quarterbacks coach.

Dameyune Craig was one of Auburn's star players during the 1990's and is now its co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach -- but during the three seasons prior to this one, he was Florida State's quarterbacks coach.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston, this year's Heisman winner, is from Bessemer, Alabama -- which also happens to be the hometown of Auburn Heisman winner Bo Jackson.

Then there is this: Bobby Bowden coached Florida State and Terry Bowden coached Auburn. The father's tenure in Tallahassee was much longer and more storied than his son's in The Loveliest Village on the Plains, but the son's is not to be sneezed at, for Terry Bowden did guide the Tigers to an undefeated season and 20-game winning streak.

That is enough about the programs' histories and similarities, however. As I look forward to the BCS Championship Game, I will use this post to look backward at the games that I consider to be the most memorable between them.


1985: The Heisman Game
The Tigers romped by a score of 59-27 after having won the first two in the series by scores of 27-24 and 42-41. So it might seem strange to exclude the first two from the list and include this game instead. But then again, the list is about what is memorable, and that does not automatically equal cliffhanging.

Bo Jackson is such a legend that it's hard to fathom the fact he barely won the Heisman over Iowa QB Chuck Long, but at the time, no one had a clue which of them would win. 28 years later the '85 vote remains the closest in Heisman history, and therefore it is safe to assume Bo would not have taken home the trophy if not for the cleat marks he left all over the Noles.

FSU was ranked eight spots higher than AU (#4 versus #12) when he took a hand-off on the first possession and galloped 53 yards to the end zone. Later, he added a 35-yard score that was equally impressive. I remember watching as a high school freshman and wondering if anyone in garnet and gold was capable of tackling him.

Speaking of Bo after the game ended, Bobby Bowden said: "I think if we would have had him, we probably would have won the game. The teams were fairly even. He's the difference." Before you laugh, be aware that the score was 31-27 at one point in the fourth quarter. Auburn Coach Pat Dye remarked: "I don't know when I've had this much fun."

1989: The Sugar Bowl
The Tigers and Seminoles took a regular season sabbatical in 1988, only to wrap up the '88 season by squaring off in the Sugar Bowl on January 2, 1989. Florida State was ranked fourth, Auburn seventh, and the latter was appearing in the Sugar Bowl for the second straight season. In other words, this was big time.

FSU drew first blood with an 84-yard touchdown drive, then added a pair of field goals to take a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. The Tigers punched back with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Reggie Slack to Walter Reeves, sending the game into halftime with FSU ahead 13-7. Then the defenses took over and it was still 13-7 when the game ended, though Auburn did not go quietly into the good night.

With 3:30 remaining, the Tigers started a drive at their own three and drove to the FSU 22, converting three fourth downs along the way...With five seconds left, Slack threw to Freddy Weygand for what looked like a for-sure touchdown, but well before the ball arrived, Dedrick Dodge pulled Weygand down in what proved to be a smart pass interference...On the ensuing play, receiver Lawyer Tillman was open in the corner of the end zone and Slack rifled the ball to him -- only to see a certain cornerback named Deion Sanders suddenly appear and pick it off just before it arrived.

Afterward, Slack said: "That last play stunned me. Lawyer had Deion beat. I thought it was six points. Then Deion just came out of nowhere and made a tremendous interception." Sanders said: "That last play was like a storybook ending. All week long I had visualized how the game would end. I was tired from being on the field so long, but there's no quarterback who can pick on me." It was a fitting finish to his college career.

1990: The Ear-Splitter
When the 1990 season got underway, Auburn had won three consecutive SEC championships, beaten Alabama four years in a row, and knocked off Georgia in six of their previous seven meetings -- yet they were mired in a four-year, three-game losing streak to Florida State and their fans were ravenous to see that course reversed. As a sophomore who hailed from St. Petersburg, Florida, I felt like the most ravenous one of all because many of my high school classmates had gone to FSU, including a select few of my best friends who would not let me live down another Auburn loss.

Jordan-Hare Stadium was packed to the gills long before the evening kickoff. As the sun and temperature dropped, fans shook their pom poms in rhythm while "Sweet Home Alabama" blared repeatedly over the loudspeakers; and when the Tigers finally took the field, the roar was so deafening I swear it surpassed that from the prior year's legendary Iron Bowl.

Auburn jumped ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, then the Noles responded by reeling off 17 unanswered points to take a 17-7 lead into halftime. But the worm turned in the third stanza as Auburn's defense clamped down and its offense regained its legs. After a Jim Von Wyl field goal pulled the Tigers within 17-10, the shift in momentum was palpable.

In the fourth quarter there was an undeniable feeling that Auburn was taking over, and in an attempt to break the momentum, Bobby Bowden called for FSU to run a fumblerooskie. Although that then-legal play ordinarily went for a big gain, in this instance it was snuffed out by nose guard Walter Tate, who saw the ball remain on the turf at the instant of the phantom snap. Tate promptly jumped on it for a turnover, after which AU's offense drove to the end zone and tied it up on a touchdown run by Stacey Danley.

Florida State managed to regroup and get as far as the Auburn 37, where with 1:04 left to play, Bowden opted to go for it on fourth down because he knew his team was outside of the kicker's field goal range. Casey Weldon dropped back to pass only to be met by defensive tackle Ricky Sutton, who exploded through the line and literally threw him for a 22-yard loss.

Auburn proceeded to march to the red zone, with the key play being a third down conversion on which TE Fred Baxter laid out over the middle to make a one-handed catch. On the next-to-last play, QB Stan White intentionally lost a few yards to down the ball in the middle of the field, then Von Wyl came out and kicked a field goal that barely slipped through the left upright to clinch the 20-17 win. The crowd remained in the stands for a long time, doing a mock "tomahawk chop" before heading to Toomer's Corner.

On those three pivotal plays down the stretch (the sack, the catch, and the kick) the noise level in Jordan-Hare was so loud it can not be described. Everyone shook their pom poms so furiously that dust hung visibly in the air. When I blew my nose that night, my snot came out tinged with the dust's blue and orange.


There are interesting subplots to Monday's upcoming championship game.

As it will be the last one of the BCS era, I find myself remembering that Florida State also appeared in the first one of the BCS Era. Its opponent that year, just like its opponent this year, was an SEC team that no one thought of as a contender when the season began.

Both head coaches are young bloods, with a mere five years of head coaching experience between them.

Both programs have executed major turnarounds. Yes, Auburn's resurrection from 3-9 in 2012 to 12-1 in 2013 is more dramatic, but Florida State's emergence from a decade-long trend of losing about four games per year is no small feat.

Both teams have won six straight bowl games, which puts them in a three-way tie for the longest active streak in the country.

If you are into "human interest" stories, Auburn DL Shon Coleman's triumph over cancer is downright Hallmark-worthy.

Also in the "human interest" vein, do not give short shrift to Jameis Winston's composure in the face of heinous things being said about him. It is a noteworthy quality that has not received the amount of appreciation it deserves. We should all remember that no charges were even filed after the accusations were reviewed by a tough-as-nails prosecutor who has put multiple football players behind bars in the past.

None of us knows how Monday's game will play out. It could be a barnburner like two of the ones I described above, or it could be a dud like FSU's 34-6 win in '86. Or it could be something in between, like the contest from '85 that I dubbed "The Heisman Game."

I can think of several reasons to expect a blowout; several to expect a cliffhanger; several to think the Noles will win, and a few to believe my Tigers will win. Maybe I will get into some of those reasons between now and then, and maybe I won't.

What I know is that Auburn and Florida State are natural rivals who share a great deal of common ground, and that each one has a large fan base filled with people who love their school with a passion.

May the best team win. And I hope its colors are blue and orange.