Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Negative Perception

(published in The Davidsonian, 8/30/06)

Fall is upon us. A new school year has started. The days are beginning to get shorter, and the leaves will soon be turning. For the past 20 years of my life, this has signified one thing: it’s football season. Somehow, that fact always seems to get overlooked at Davidson. Maybe it’s because we don’t have all the pageantry of our neighboring Southern colleges and universities. Maybe it’s because we don’t have to actually go to the football games, but can rather watch them from the union while we do our Saturday afternoon studying. Or maybe it’s because somewhere along the line we collectively agreed not to care about Davidson football.

When Tripp Merritt agreed to become Davidson’s head football coach in the summer of 2005, he knew that there was work to be done. It had been five years since Davidson’s perfect 10-0 season, and a combined record of 5-15 over the last two seasons had created a pall over the program. Merritt knew that his football squad needed to establish a positive image both on and off the field.

“I talk the guys all the time about our image,” said coach Merritt. “There are certain things they should be doing on campus to put this team in a positively light, both academically and socially.”
Last season, Coach Merritt re-ignited the ride-in program where football players had to ride alongside campus police for their nightly patrols. Not only did players garner a greater appreciation for the responsibilities of law enforcement on campus, they were also able to cultivate a greater sense of community and better image.

This season, the ‘Cats will unveil a new helmet design that references the design from several decades ago while still being trendy and energizing. The white helmets with the block D will be a bold statement that this team embraces Davidson’s rich football history while at the same time looking forward and not accepting an image of mediocrity.

“The design harkens back to the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, but it’s also us putting a physical mark on this program and on this campus,” said Merritt. The uniforms serve as physical reminders that Davidson football cares about image and the success that is required to cement that image.

Like all sports at Davidson, Wildcat football has always fought an uphill battle with financial support. Several teams in Pioneer Football League have recently opted to supply scholarships for their players and move up to D-I scholarship football. With every one of our football players essentially being a walk-on, one has to wonder about the success potential for this program. How much can they really achieve?

When major college football is plagued with excessive scandal, bribery, and sanctions, perhaps playing good football for its own sake is good enough.

“Davidson needs to be the beacon for non-scholarship I-AA football,” said Merritt. “Our kids do it because they love the game and the academics. That’s something that is hopeful and appealing in and of itself.”

Underneath all of the talk of image and ideology, Merritt knows that his team will speak for itself when it goes on the field this year. With 15 returning starters from a team that upset Georgetown in its final game last season, the Wildcats look to link their off-field images with on-field improvement.

“You don’t change negative perceptions overnight. We’re just trying to put ourselves out there a little bit at a time.”

If the pre-season confidence and image can translate into victories on the field, those perceptions might be changing more quickly than we thought.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

JJ a prospect

Len Kosmalski. Brian Winters. Dell Curry. Could Michael Jordan be next? Everyone knows that Davidson has a tradition of attracting the sons of former basketball players. We just have one of those "coach's sons" type of program. According to this, MJ's son Jeffrey is considering Davidson. This would not be surprising considering the Jordans' ties to North Carolina and now the Charlotte area.

Wouldn't that be something to have MJ show up in Belk Arena. Does he have secret service?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Panthers Preview

The Carolina Panthers started their 2006 season with a 14-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills in front of 62,000 fans at Bank of America stadium on Saturday. Jake Delhomme went 5-6 for 64 yards including a 14-yard TD strike to Drew Carter and two completions to newcomer Keyshawn Johnson. The Panthers' other TD came on a 23 yard interception return by Ken Lucas.

The Panthers are the "trendy" pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year, and since everyone in North Carolina has written pre-season Panther previews, I figure that I might as well join in.

Much has been made of Jake Delhomme's tendency to have tunnel-vision at key points of the game. With such a foursome of receivers as Smith, Johnson, Carter and Colbert, he will have a hard time justifying not looking to secondary routes. The focus of the passing game this year needs to shed a glance at the tight ends. Marty Hurney has always tried to utilize Kris Mangum and Michael Gaines in deceptive seam routes and late releases that take advantage of zone coverage. With secondaries focused on multiple threats on the outside, the middle of the field could be wide open for these tight ends. Let's hope that Jake can find them.

For the last several years, the name DeShaun Foster has been synonymous with potential, injury, explosiveness, and "maybe this year". With DeAngelo Williams lurking in reserve, the pressure will be on Foster to become a solid NFL running back. However, in this sense I am not using solid in reference to staying healthy. Foster is going to need to continue to hone his ability to be all types of backs in all situations. Last year, he demonstrated fantastic growth in not waiting to juke people in the backfield, but rather diving into holes to take the 4-5 yards that was created for him. If Foster can continue to commit to holes while utilizing his cutback ability on toss plays, the Panthers won't have to worry about bringing in the inexperienced Williams or Eric Shelton to diversify the running game.

On Defense, the Panthers just better not get hurt. The depth isn't really there at linebacker with Dan Morgan being the only remaining starter and Keith Adams being more fit to a special teams slot than a starting weakside linebacker. If Thomas Davis can learn the position the starters will be solid in the Panthers weakest defensive area.

Overall, this group of Panthers better lose some games and early on. The Panthers have never played well as the favorites. They have an underdog mentality. We aren't the Patriots or the Seahawks or the Colts. "We dont have quote stars," Delhomme famously states in the 2003 Super Bowl highlight video. With Steve Smith going first in most fantasy drafts and Keyshawn's "give me the damn ball" fame, this group isn't hidden anymore. Maybe this year they can learn to play as the favorites.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Business of Basketball, part 2

So we are left with the NCAA. I think that it's pretty apparent to everyone that people like T.J. Gassnola are out to screw our kids and our high schools in return for some power and success. But in the end, as long as parents see him getting their kids signing on the dotted line and helping buy them a few nice things along the way, who are they to argue with the system. Besides, if you can make money, who needs education right?

Well I think that for all intensive purposes, the NCAA has its hands tied when it comes to dealing with people like Gassnola. He is not giving gifts in order to get kids to come to a certain college and who's to say that someone out in the world can't give you money. Plus, the NCAA is already obtaining a reputation for overreaching too much. Just look at Oklahoma's Rhett Bomar. While getting paid money to do a nothing job seems in line for rules violations, there are more than a few whispers out there that maybe we shouldn't tell these kids that they have to live in a bubble and never talk or do anything but study, practice, and play.

The problem is that the culprit in that situation wasn't Bomar, it was the auto dealership. But we can't punish them. All of this is to say that NCAA compliance officers have enough cases on their desk to be worrying about what high school kids are doing.

During the summer, I heard the suggestion of levying policy against coaches who recruit from certain leagues, coaches, sponsors, what have you. One Davidson coach suggested that NCAA coaches shouldn't be able to recruit at these money-tinged summer tournaments. That was quickly rebuffed by the observation that those tournaments are great timesavers for small schools with limited budgets and manpower.

The other approach, or lack of approach, is to do nothing. Where no laws exist, no crimes are committed. It's a free country and if parents and kids choose to go with the sketchy guys who pull them off their high school teams, then that's their problem. Because for so many Americans, especially minorities, basketball is the way out. Basketball can get you the money to get out. Education doesn't even factor into the equation.

This is where we are left with William C. Rhoden's new book: Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete. The post on that one might be long in coming, I have enough books to read already.