If I were a betting man …

Uncategorized

It was not that long ago that I was shocked to learn that  friend of mine was scrambling to come up with cash to pay off his bookie.  Who knew a bookie?  How would one even find a bookie?  And, really, who would bet on baseball on a daily basis?  Come on.

Bookies lived in the shadows, I thought, tempting Shoeless Joe, Paul Horning, and Pete Rose, but were generally not travelling in polite society.  I had seen Newman and Redford as con men in The Sting, had wallowed in one of HBO’s best series, Luck, and had long admired the wordsmiths who write about the nether world of horse racing and gambling, many of whom wrote with an immediacy missing from accounts of other sporting events.

Damon Runyon gave us Brandy Bottle Bates, Nicely Nicely, Harry the Horse, and Nathan Detroit, mixing strikingly vivid gambling jargon in prose that was unfailingly elegant and always in the present tense.  The following exchange was not included in Guys and Dolls, the adaptation of Runyon’s story,  “The Idyll of Sarah Brown”, but includes much of the breathless urgency of Runyon’s prose.

“ONE of the first guys out of Mindy’s and up to the crap game is Regret, the horse player, and as he comes in Brandy Bottle is looking for a nine, and The Sky is laying him twelve G’s against his soul that he does not make this nine, for it seems Brandy Bottle’s soul keeps getting more and more expensive.Well, Regret wishes to bet his soul against a G that Brandy Bottle gets his nine, and is greatly insulted when The Sky cannot figure his price any better than a double saw, but finally Regret accepts this price, and Brandy Bottle hits again.”

“The Race Track” ran in The New Yorker from 1926 to 1978.  The byline used the moniker Audax Minor, but the writer was George F.T. Ryall, regular contributor to the New Yorker and frequent contributor to Town and Country as he also wrote about auto racing, polo, and mens’ fashion.  His prose was less breathy, more contemplative, as befit a writer writing to the New Yorker crowd, but it too captured the affection of writer for the sport of horse racing, a sport that belonged to breeders of throroughbreds and the railbirds who bet on them.

“There was something about Belmont that raised it above the level of other racecourses. It wasn’t merely the historic races that were run there, for richer stakes were to be run elsewhere, and it wasn’t just the excellence of the track itself, which gave every runner a fair chance. But Belmont seemed to show racing at its best, in a spacious setting. Whatever the reason, it also brought out the best in horses, and winning at Belmont was was something that a stable could be justifiably proud of.”

Charming, but lest we find ourselves simply waxing nostalgic, let’s recall that these enterprises of great pith are attached to gambling, an issue which is very much on my mind as the Supreme Court tosses out the federal ban on sports betting, the NFL waffles on its policies about gambling in its usual down-the-rabbit-hole fashion, mumbling its disapproval while planning the development of NFL fantasy football empires, and as network radio sports hosts tout betting sites on air. CBS, ESPN, and Fox Sports regularly report the betting lines set on the weekend’s games; talking heads and Vegas gamblers debate the value of taking the over or under on the game’s point spread.

Approximately ninety-five billion dollars will be bet on NFL and college football this year, not counting the three hundred million that DraftKings will collect in entry fees.  Given the behavior of sharks when chum hits the water, we can reasonably expect that the scent of billions in transit is more than enough to tempt serious investors to nudge the outcome of games, if only slightly, just enough to beat the line.

A high stakes gambler doesn’t have to fix a game, just shave a few points.  I have to wonder how much a fluffed field goal is worth at the end of the game where a point or two does not change the outcome of the game but does change the spread.  Kickers get no respect; the temptation could be irresistible.

Point shaving and game fixing have been around for as long as games have been played I suppose.  Boxers have taken a dive, jockeys have pulled up on the reins, tight ends have dropped a pass, ballplayers have let a fly ball drop.  Easy.  Well, easier to fix in less closely scrutinized circumstances.  Fix the World Series, for example, and someone might notice; fix CCNY  or BC basketball, Northwestern football and the harsh light of public inquiry is less likely to shine.  Oh, wait.  All three of those rigged enterprises were discovered.  Major League Baseball works with Genius Sports to monitor betting on all games; even the benighted NFL keeps track of the lines.  The bad news for the NBA was that referee Tim Donaghy gambled himself into debt and made up some of his losses by betting on games he officiated; the good news is that he got caught.

True confession.  I drop $25.00 a year on DraftKings, setting up my fantasy lineups with great care and high hopes.  If my imagined roster does well, I “win” $3.00 to $5.00 bucks which allows me to continue to play for a week or two more.  These stakes are low and the impact on the economy slight, but I am an example of a reasonably avid football fan who once watched my team play on Sunday and tuned in other games at playoff and championship season.  To be candid, I did not give a rat’s tail about how the Cowboys were doing, as long as they were losing.  This Sunday, however, as the balance of my account is now at $11.68 (I know, huh?), I will be keeping track of the Rams defense, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, of course, watching the Lions … and wide receiver Golden Tate.  Whew!  Full day of football ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gee, Coach, We’re Sorry!

College Football, Uncategorized

Look,  when I get a chance to lob a few grenades in the direction of Nick Saban, I’m certainly not going to hold back.  I can’t take issue with his coaching, his coaching staff, or his teams; Alabama football is the most successful program in the nation, year and year out.  Saban deserves his spot in the pantheon of great collegiate coaches, right up there with Rockne, Bryant, Yost, Robinson, Gagliardi, Leahy, Stagg, and Camp.

But, securely atop the national polls, standing 4-0 with a good chance of running the table unless Georgia gets frisky, Saban delivered an ill-tempered screed aimed at Alabama’s students, essentially calling out the undergraduates who did not attend home games in the number he expected and who did not make enough noise when (if) they did attend.  This was not the first time Saban had railed against what he sees as an unresponsive student population, and his language in speaking to and about them has been consistently dismissive.

Here’s an open letter to Coach Saban –

Sorry to hear that you live with disappointment, Nick.  You mashed Louisiana Lafayette, retain the top spot in every poll, and have the respect of friends and foes.  You are clearly top dog.  And yet … this is where you go in post-game interviews:

“I can honestly say I was a little disappointed there weren’t more students at the last game, I think we’re trying to address that. I don’t think they’re entitled to anything, either.”

Not entitled.

Well, Nick, actually, you see, they are the university.  You are a hired gun.

When I say hired, what I mean is you pull down $7,000,000.00 per year in salary and another $4,000,000.00 in assorted other job related income.  Oh, and you get a $700,000.00 incentive bonus if Alabama reaches the college football championship.  To give your salary a bit of perspective, Nick, the governor of your state earns $119,950.00 a year and the President of your university gets by with $717,000.00

But, go ahead, knock the kids who pay tuition, do the classroom thing, get up on a Saturday morning in order to watch ‘Bama rock the snot out of Louisiana-Lafayette.  Let’s take a moment to remember that more than 100,000 fans packed the stadium as Alabama played the Ragin’ Cajuns, coasting to a 56-14 easy victory, playing the third team for much of the second half.  Up 28-0 at the end of the first quarter.

This was clearly a blowout, and, Nick, not a lot of fun to watch.

“When I first came here, you used to play that tradition thing up there and everybody was cheering and excited and happy and there was great spirit,.  Now, they don’t even cheer. They introduce our players, and nobody even cheers.”

I saw the same movies you did, Nick – “…that tradition video thing”?  I’m pretty sure none of the coaches who inspired us counted on “that tradition video thing” to animate the crowd.  No, the coaches with whom you would like to be compared were actually more than executive mechanics.  They knew that their team was an important part of something larger.  They knew that coaching is in its own way a calling.  Coach shows up on Friday night by the bonfire, Rockne crouches by the Gipper’s bedside, Herman Boone literally pulls the Titans together, Coach Lengyel meets Marshall’s grief head on, Burt Cotton listens to Sandra Bullock, Molly McGrath pulls the Wildcats from obscurity.

You are miffed when students don’t show up, so you made the university end block seating.  You really don’t like spectators who leave halfway through your team’s performance.  Your point is that the players put in 60 minutes of gut busting play on the field; spectators should be expected to invest the time it takes for the team to do its work.

“Everybody else should have the same sort of commitment. You don’t have to do the work all week, you don’t have to practice, you don’t have to come in at 7 in the morning and leave at 11 at night, you don’t have to do any of that stuff.”

Wait,

Nick, you do understand  how these institutions of higher learning actually work, right?  You and your guys do football.  You get the eleven million and your players attend the university for free.  The best of your players are showcased, ending up as well compensated athletes in the NFL.  The students join the band or the cheer squad, or they get involved with any number of other activities, and may take the opportunity to sit in the stands as you do your thing.

Some of them might be playing volleyball or basketball in Foster Hall, the  university’s auditorium, capable of seating 3,800 vocal fans.  Your spring game attracted more than 70,000 fans.  In searching for information about athletics at Alabama, I found that virtually every article was about football.  You’re the main attraction.  How’d you like to coach football at Duke, where basketball is king?

Or, since we’re discussing school spirit …  well … not school spirit so much as vocal enthusiasm for your team, perhaps you’d like to coach at Kent State, your alma mater?  Coaching salaries are on the rise in the MAC; newly appointed coach, Sean Lewis, will earn $440,000.00 this year for coaching your Golden Flashes.  Dix Stadium holds just over 29,000 spectators in its three grandstands, but averages about 13,000 per game.  Of course, the big bucks for Kent State football come when the Flashes travel to Clemson (56-3) or Penn State (63-10).

That might be fun.

I’m not sure they have a tradition video thing, but I’ve seen the footage of Sean Lewis and the Kent State coaching staff for all sports at the Welcome Week Pep Rally.  Looked like a great event, the stands were packed, all 6,362 seats at the MAC Center were filled.

And nobody left halfway through.

 

OK, Maybe Michigan IS the Texas of the North

College Football

I write for a Michigan fan site.  It’s what a fan who writes might do, if, as is the case with me, that fan lives thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, can’t get to the Big House, and needs some connection with a legendary football program that essentially provides all the excitement and validation he is likely to get in the course of the year.  To be a fan is to  experience the seasonal roller coaster; one year your team wins the big ones, the next they can’t dress themselves and get lost on their way from the locker room.

And, but, then … Michigan, a program that has won more football games than any team in the nation, sputters, coughs up a sequence of hairballs, and loses to Ohio State in fourteen of the last eighteen games.  Ohio State’s latest streak stands at six in a row.  There are worse things in life than losing to Ohio State; my perspective is not entirely grotesque.  Many worse things.  But still, it hurts bad.

The pre-season buzz about Michigan remains oddly animated, as if the results of the past year don’t count when it comes to legendary programs; Michigan is often ranked in the top ten or fifteen. And, but, then … week by week, its highly recruited players, highly paid and frequently canonized coach, and the best helmets in football take the field, muck around for a bit, and limp back to Ann Arbor with a 5-4 record in the Big Ten.

The current season began with a humiliating loss to Notre Dame followed by somewhat encouraging victories over Western Michigan, SMU, and Nebraska.  Heartened (suckered), I wrote a jolly and optimistic piece for that fan site, predicting a run away stomping of a Northwestern team that had recently lost to Akron.

My current assessment of Michigan is notably less jolly.  Here’s what I sent to the site this  morning:

If you took Michigan football and fourteen points against Northwestern, you lost.  If you took Michigan and four points, you lost.  The Wolverines squeezed out a last-minute victory over a team that lost to Akron and Duke, and once again Michigan fans endured a brutal first quarter, yet another questionable first half, and then saw Michigan outscore Northwestern 13-0 in the second half, with six of those points coming from Quinn Nordin’s field goals.

Let’s not forget that Michigan football is a team seeking a conference championship, a team still ranked in the top 20 in the nation.  Top-ranked teams do not get pushed around by teams that lose to Akron.  Top ranked teams improve game-by-game.  Top ranked teams showcase top recruits improving game-by-game.  Right now, Michigan looks a lot like the other perfectly ok teams that play big time football.  Texas, Florida, NC State, Colorado, Virginia Tech.  Perfectly ok, but none of them are heading to a conference championship, and for sure, none of them are going to be playing for a national championship.

Once again, the stats seem to indicate a strong performance by the Wolverines, racking up 376 yards on offense to Northwestern’s 202, 180 yards rushing to the Wildcat’s 28, nearly 10 more minutes of possession, and yet, the game was still in question throughout the second half.  In the first quarter, Michigan could not move  the chains while Northwestern piled up 105 yards and 17 points.  A stat that doesn’t reflect well on the team and its preparation are the 11 penalties, only one of which was from Mars.

Coach Don Brown ran a remedial diagramming session during halftime to pull the defense back into reasonable shape, and Chase Winovich had his best game hauling down 8 solo tackles and a sack.  Winovich was called out by Brown last year; he wanted to see Winovich bring leadership to the defense.  Mission accomplished.  Nevertheless,  Northwestern’s speedy offensive sets in the first half threw off a defense that has been touted as one of the best in the nation.  Penalties in the secondary continued to add yards and opportunities that ought not to have been given the Cats.

The offense has improved, thanks to Karan Higdon, a bull at full speed, who picked up 110 yards and 2 TDs, essentially pulling the Wolverines’ to a victory.  Patterson made some good throws.  Gentry looked solid… in the second half.  A slow start against Northwestern, a 17 point deficit to Northwestern – scary but possible.  A slow start against the tough teams looming ahead?

Brutal.