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Monday, February 25, 2013

Banshee's Best: 10 Must-See Sports Movies

As Bob Costas once said, "Sports are drama without a script."  So, it should come as no surprise that movies about sports are some of the most beloved in American culture.  On Sunday night, the 85th Academy Awards took place in Hollywood.  To commemorate the event, Banshee Sports decided to put together a list of all-time great sports movies.

This list was a group effort.  I received input from a panel of advisors as well as Facebook and Twitter.  No comedies were considered because that made the task too complicated.  In the end, fifty-nine films were given consideration, and ten were chosen.  I decided not to rank these movies.  Instead, they are presented in alphabetical order.  This is a list of ten movies that all Americans should see ... sports fan or not.

1.  Chariots of Fire:  "Chariots of Fire transcends sports.  It's a sports movie about life."  That's what Dan Chittock told me when I was gathering input for this list.  Chariots of Fire is a true story about two British track stars in their quest for gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  Though the two men represent the same country, their drive for excellence comes from very different sources.  One man is driven to succeed by a desire to vindicate his family's place in the upper echelon of British society.  The other is motivated by his love of the sport itself and his recognition that athletic success provides a platform to spread the Word of God.  "God made me for a reason," stated Eric Liddell in the movie.  "But He also made me fast.  When I run, I feel His pleasure."  In addition to being a favorite of sports fans, it also received critical acclaim.  In 1982, it won four Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.

2.  Cinderella Man:  The very nature of boxing makes it an ideal subject for movies.  Although not as famous as many others, Cinderella Man is perhaps the most compelling boxing movie ever made.  It tells the true story of James J. Braddock's struggle to feed and clothe his family during the Great Depression.  After injuries derail a promising career, Braddock is forced to beg for work on New Jersey's docks before getting a second chance in the ring.  At one point Braddock, played by Russell Crowe, states, "Now I know what I'm fighting for.  I'm fighting for milk."  I defy anyone who views this film to tell me that they did not tear up at some point.

3.  Friday Night Lights:  This movie is based on H.G. Bissinger's book by the same name and it has a much different tone than the TV series that starred Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.  This movie takes a raw and unflinching look at high school football in a small Texas town.  It shows both the greatness of sport and the dangers that can come from deifying teenaged boys.  The theme of the movie is captured succinctly during one of Coach Gary Gaines' pre-game speeches.  Gaines, played by Billy Bob Thornton calmly and truthfully tells his team, "Gentlemen, the hopes and dreams of an entire town are riding on your shoulders.  You may never matter again in your life as much as you do right now."

4.  The Greatest Game Ever Played:  This is possibly the most fun movie on this list.  It's not about the gritty underbelly of anything.  It is about golf.  A noble game played in the beauty of nature.  The Greatest Game Ever Played tells the true story of 20 year-old Frances Ouimet's improbable performance at the 1913 U.S. Open.  Ouimet, a young and poor caddie played by Shia LeBeouf, struggles against societal and cultural pressures during the tournament.  But, true to the sport of golf, Ouimet's primary challenge comes from his own nerves and the course itself.

5.  Hoosiers:  As Grant Habbershon said during the preparation of this list, "This movie perfectly conveys the spirit and history of high school basketball in Indiana."  Gene Hackman plays the outsider who takes over as head coach at Hickory High after his beloved predecessor passed away during the off-season.  The famous final game in the movie was filmed in storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the part of this film where Coach Dale has his players measure the height of the basket and the length of the lane to show them that it is just the same as in their little gym at home.  The game action in the movie is good, but the overriding message that team is greater than self makes this film an all-time classic.

6.  The Karate Kid:  Let me be very clear.  The movie I am talking about is the 1984 classic starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel and Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi.  I know this movie might raise some eyebrows as to whether it really is about sports at all.  But, unlike the other movies in this franchise, the original culminates with Daniel facing off against the Cobra Kai dojo at the All Valley Karate Championships.  As Daniel prepares for the tournament, he learns hard lessons about discipline and loyalty from the mysterious and creative Mr. Miyagi.  The character development throughout the movie is very well done, and the final tournament scenes are truly iconic in American pop culture.

7.  The Pride of the Yankees:  This is by far the oldest movie on this list.  But, this is appropriate since no sport values its history more than baseball.  Made in 1942, this classic stars Gary Cooper in the role of Lou Gehrig.  The movie was made just three years after Gehrig's retirement and features Babe Ruth playing himself.  Almost everyone knows that Lou Gehrig was forced into retirement due to contracting the disease that now bears his name.  And most sports fans also know that Gehrig held the record for most consecutive games played until Cal Ripken took that honor in the late 1990's.  But, as Eric Harrison reminded me when we were discussing this list, Gehrig was possibly the greatest first baseman to ever play the game.  Gehrig had a .340 career batting average and 497 home runs in his shortened career.  The historical greatness of this player is reason enough to see this film.

8.  Remember the Titans:  This film ought to be required viewing in high school social studies classes.  This movie is based on the true events at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA when it was desegregated in 1971.  Denzel Washington stars as Coach Herman Boone.  His first challenge is getting his newly integrated players to even speak to each other.  Then comes the challenge of competing with opposing teams.  The most interesting aspect of how long ago this seems to take place and how recently 1971 actually was.

9.  Rocky:  This movie could get on the list for its theme song alone.  Seriously, who has not at some point in their lives stood at the top of a staircase and hummed the Rocky theme with their arms raised in the air?  All tolled, there are six movies in this franchise.  But, the original Rocky stands apart from the others.  Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress.  Burgess Meredith and Burt Young both received nominations for Best Supporting Actor.  And, Rocky won Best Picture for 1976.

10.  Seabiscuit:  In the early part of the 20th century, horse racing was one of the top three sports on the American landscape.  For this reason alone, it is worth seeing.  But, this film is not just a token homage to the once-great sport.  This true story takes place during the Great Depression and tells the tale of a long-shot horse that captured America's imagination as he rose to greatness.  The most endearing  part of the story is three men who owned, trained and rode this beloved horse.  Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 2004, including Best Picture.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 NASCAR Preview

When the green flag drops in Daytona on Sunday, NASCAR's 64th season will be underway.  Stock car racing is a purely American sport.  And, it is fair to say that NASCAR is as popular with the American people as any sport besides football.  If you're not already excited about the start of the 2013 season, here are a five things to look forward to this year.

Chevy SS race car and street car
1.  Return to "Stock" Cars.  NASCAR is an acronym for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing.  But as Robert Duvall's character says in Days of Thunder, "There's nothing stock about a stock car."  Well, for 2013, NASCAR is trying to do a little something about that.  While the engines certainly won't look like the one under the hood of your family sedan, in 2013 the cars on the track will have the same outward appearance as the cars on the street.  Three manufacturers will be participating this season.  Chevy will be running an SS model.  Ford will be running a Fusion, and Toyota will be entering the Camry.  The basic idea here is to capitalize on the fierce brand loyalty that Americans feels towards their own cars.  In the old days, it was easy for fans to pick out a Chevy from a Ford on the track just due to body shape.  That should once again be possible with the 2013 cars.

2.  All About the Drivers.  NASCAR truly is a team sport.  Engineers, mechanics and pit crews build and set up the cars each week before the driver gets behind the wheel.  There are significant differences in the preparation of the cars for each different track on the circuit.  With the new cars making their debut in 2013, the teams have no history and very little research to fall back on when prepping for a race.  Therefore, there will likely be some cars that take the green flag for a race that turn out to be quite a handful to actually drive.  So, many weeks, especially at the start of the season, it's going to be up to the driver to manage the equipment that they're given.  Obviously, anyone who has a ride in the Sprint Cup series knows how to drive a car.  But, there are a few guys out there who truly excel at making the best of an ornery car.  Tony Stewart is one name that jumps to mind immediately.  Kyle Busch and defending champ Brad Keselowski are two others.  That is certainly not an exhaustive list.  There are many others who could jump up and take advantage of the open competition.  But, whoever does take the crown this year will have proven early on in the season that they have more innate driving talent than the rest of the field.

(Michael Hickey/USA Today Sports)
3. Girl Power.  It seems like Danica Patrick has been part of NASCAR for years.  And, while she's been on the periphery for a while, 2013 will actually be her rookie season on the Sprint Cup circuit.  For the first time, Danica will be running a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in the #10 Go Daddy Chevrolet owned by Stewart-Haas racing.  I know that a lot of racing purists are tired of hearing about this girl.  I also know that, thus far, her performance on the track has not measured up to the publicity that she has garnered.  But, love her or hate her, all eyes will be on the only female in the field for every Sprint Cup race this season.  And, when the green flag drops on the season in Daytona this Sunday, it will be Danica Patrick that leads the leads the field to the line.  By virtue of her qualifying laps last weekend, Danica will be starting from the pole position for the Great American Race.  But, that's not Danica's only draw.  As I wrote a few years ago, NASCAR is as much about the personalities and backstories of the drivers as it is about what actually happens on the track.  This year, Danica brings a little extra in that category.  Not only is she the only girl on the track, but she is also dating fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.  This might not be a big deal as long as things are peaceful on the domestic front, but one can only imagine what mayhem might ensue if a mid-season break-up were to occur.

4.  Junior Nation Rising.  As I type this, I am wearing an official Junior Nation staff shirt.  And there is a mini #88 car plugged into my laptop's USB port.  So, I acknowledge I am not the most objective observer on this topic.  But, the Wild Banshee is not alone in this devotion.  Far from it.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR for ten straight years.  But, for the first time in many years, Junior Nation has a legitimate reason for optimism as the season opens.  Last season was Junior's first full season with Steve Letarte as crew chief.  And, it was Junior's best season in a long time.  When the 2012 Chase started, Junior was only 9 points out of first place.  Although the Chase didn't turn out the way that Dale's fans would have liked, there is plenty of reason to believe that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be a strong contender in Letarte's second year on top of the pit box.

5.  Unpredictable.  In some ways this might just be a recap of the first four categories of this post.  But, in other ways, it's a perfect final category for the 2013 NASCAR season.  As described to me by Don Hawk, Sr. VP of SMI, stock car racing is "frantic serenity."  And that is in the best of circumstances.  With the addition of the new car, Danica Patrick in a Stewart-Haas ride, Dale, Jr. on the rise and a multitude of hungry drivers trying to get a piece of the pie, this season is about as unpredictable as any season in recent memory.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Banshee's Best: The Mythical Michael Jordan

Today, Michael Jeffrey Jordan turns fifty years old.  This evening, the NBA's current greats will gather for the NBA All-Star Game.  And both of these come while LeBron James is in the midst of a historically great string of 30+ point games.  This confluence of events led to a weeklong debate on sports talk radio, Twitter and in the blogosphere about who is the greatest basketball player of all time:  LeBron James or Michael Jordan?  As the debate wore on, there was an overwhelming chorus in favor of Michael Jordan.  But, the answer to the question doesn't fascinate me nearly as much as the way the debate unfolded.

It didn't surprise me that the old guard, guys like Mike Wilbon and Bob Ryan, think Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time.  Folks that age are old enough to be able to appreciate the difference in the athleticism between Oscar Robertson types and the players of the 1990's.  Yet, for many in that age bracket, it's hard to recognize that current players could be superior to the players a couple of decades ago.

(Ken Levine/Getty)
Then there is my age group.  Mid 30's.  People my age were just coming of age in the spring of 1991 when Jordan finally won his first of his six NBA championships.  Fans my age sang to ourselves, "sometimes I dream that he is me" as we practiced fade aways in the driveway.  Much the same way that people will forever view their own father as the best H-O-R-S-E player in the neighborhood, people in my age group will also view Michael as the greatest player who ever lived.  He's the one we grew up with.

But, as the conversation intensified this week, it was the younger age group that really surprised me.  I expected that fans who were too young to really remember Michael in his prime would voice their opinions in favor of LeBron James.  After all, they just got to watch King James dominate the playoffs to win last year's title and then follow it up by winning an Olympic gold medal for our country.  But, those younger fans were among the most passionate voices in favor of Michael Jordan.

I asked myself, "How could this be?  How could people who grew up with LeBron James be so committed to Michael when he retired before they were even old enough to stay up to watch him on TV?"

(Walter Looss, Jr./SI)
And then it hit me.  Michael Jordan is not just a basketball player.  Michael Jordan is a mythological figure.  Michael Jordan will always enjoy the status of greatest basketball player of all time because he is the last athletic superhero to exist before the dawn of the Information Age.  Like Hercules or Pecos Bill, Jordan did not have to contend with camera phones or the scrutiny of bloggers.  If Paul Bunyan had existed in the Twitter and smartphone era, I bet we would have found out that there were actually a couple of trees he couldn't chop down and that he was occasionally nasty to his faithful blue ox, Babe.

During Jordan's career, we really only got to see him play on TV once a week ... at most.  If Jordan had a bad game on a Wednesday in Milwaukee, we didn't really know.  If MJ said something unflattering about a teammate in the moments following a loss, we would only know about it if the beat reporter who captured it on his mini cassette blabbed it to the nation.  And, even if it was leaked, it would not have been the lead story on PTI because there was no PTI.  The Michael Jordan that we knew or learned about or remember fondly was a mythological figure that existed almost exclusively in impressive box scores and highlight reels.  And, the beloved off-the-court persona was the careful creation of Gatorade, Nike and McDonalds.  And that was a fun way to enjoy sports.

None of this is to suggest that Michael Jordan was not a truly amazing player.  And, I'm not suggesting that his image was a grand deception.  Michael Jordan was immensely fun to watch play basketball.  And, he impacted not just the game but the culture at large in positive and lasting ways.  What I am suggesting, though, is that it isn't just Jordan's athletic skills or even his smile that make him an irreplaceable figure.  It's also the time in which he played.  In this Information Age, there is more money and fame to be garnered by tearing down folk heroes than by creating them.  And, for this reason, no one will ever be able to rival the Mythical Michael Jordan.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cooking with Banshee: Smoky Bacon Spaghetti

With the Super Bowl in the rear view mirror and the Daytona 500 still more than a week away, we are in a bit of a lull in terms of must-see sports on TV.  I figured I would take this opportunity to share a recipe that isn't necessarily game day fare.  In its current form, this recipe is part Giada De Laurentis, part Uncle Joe Mattes and, of course, part Wild Banshee.

Serves 6-8

2 lbs trimmed asparagus
3/4 lb thin spaghetti
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz center cut bacon, diced
6 oz mozzarella, grated
3 Tbs liquid smoke
6 Tbs fresh basil, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper

Cook asparagus in boiling, salted water until crisp-tender.  Approximately 2-3 minutes.  Remove asparagus with a slotted spoon and place asparagus in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.  When cool, cut asparagus into 1 inch pieces and set aside.

Return the pot of water to a boil.  Additional water may be needed.  Cook spaghetti until al dente.  Drain the pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Cook the diced bacon in a skillet until crispy.  When finished, remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add the garlic to the pan of bacon grease.  Sauté until fragrant.  Approximately 30 seconds.  Add asparagus pieces to the pan.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add the pasta and, if needed, some of the reserved cooking liquid.  Add the liquid smoke.  Toss to coat.  Add the bacon, mozzarella and basil.  Toss to combine all ingredients.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy with a glass of Chardonnay or red Zinfandel.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Top Dog: Day 2 at Westminster

Oakley (Reuters)
On Tuesday night, the Westminster Kennel Club wrapped up its 137th annual dog show in Madison Square Garden.  The featured event of the night was the crowning of the coveted Best in Show title.  But, before that could take place, three more group winners needed to be determined.

Sporting Group:  The evening's events got started with the sporting group.  This is a very popular group made up largely of hunting dogs.  When you think of the word "dog" this group is what comes to most of our minds.  These are the types of dogs that you'd see in paintings hanging in the billiard room of a Vanderbilt mansion.  Oakley, the German Wire Haired Pointer certainly fit that mold and took home top spot in the group.

Matisse (Reuters)

Working Group:  As the name would suggest, the dogs in this group are bred to do a job.  Among other things, this group includes rescue dogs, guard dogs and sled dogs.  Matisse, a Portuguese Water Dog, edged out the Doberman Pinscher to win the group.  If Matisse looks familiar, that is because a Portuguese Water Dog is the family pet in the White House.

Adam (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty)
Terrier Group:  The final group of the night was the terrier group, which also happens to be my favorite group to watch.  While these dogs might be too yappy to make for a good neighbor in a townhouse, they are perky and cute and therefore entertaining to watch in a dog show.  Adam the Smooth Fox Terrier recaptured his spot as top dog in the group by upsetting the favored Wire Fox Terrier.  Adam won the Best in Group title in 2011.

Best in Show:  After the Terrier champion was crowned, it was time for the much-anticipated Best In Show competition.  The Best in Show competition included all three winners from this night as well as the four group winners from Day 1.  For the second year in a row, when the top dog was announced at Westminster, the general public was left asking, "Wait ... Is that thing really a dog?"  Last year, Malachy the Pekingese took home the top prize.  This year, the adorable, monkey-faced Affenpinscher, Banana Joe, was named Westminster's Best in Show for 2013.

Banana Joe (Stan Honda/AFP)

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It's a Dog's Life: Day 1 at Westminster

Jewel strutting her stuff
Yeah, I fancy myself to be primarily a sports blogger.  But, even back in the old days of the original Banshee Blog, dog show posts have always been among the most popular and anticipated columns of the year.  On Monday night, the 137th edition of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show got under way in Madison Square Garden.  Best in Breed awards were handed out throughout the afternoon.  When the bright lights of primetime turned on, it was time to award the Best in Group in four of the seven groups.  The live announcer in the Garden sounded significantly less drunk than in past years, but Mary Carillo was as delightfully awkward as always.

Hound Group:  As always, the hounds were the first group to enter the show ring.  This is one of the most difficult groups for the lay person (like me) to wrap their mind around because it features huge dogs like the Irish Wolfhound and short little dogs like the Dachshund.  On this night, it was a very traditional looking American Foxhound named Jewel that won the group and advanced to tomorrow night's Best in Show.

Toy Group: The next group was the Toy Group.  Most of these dogs look like what the group name would imply.  These dogs are bred to be companions and lap dogs and really nothing else.  Banana Joe the Affenpinscher fit the bill perfectly and won the group.  In case you were wondering, "affenpinscher" means "monkey face" in German.  After being named Best in Group, Banana Joe stumbled a bit during his victory lap when his hind legs appeared to slip out from under him.  But, all evidence suggests that the little dog should still be 100% for Tuesday night's Best in Show competition.

Non-Sporting:  This group is basically a catch-all group.  Originally, the WKC was divided into only two groups:  The Sporting and the Non-Sporting.  Over the years, the other groups broke off into their own categories.  The dogs that were left make up the current members of the Non-Sporting group.  That results in a wide variety of pooches in this category.  In a minor upset, Honor, the Bichon Frise defeated the defending group champion Ian the Dalmation and took home the title of Best in Group.

Herding:  The dogs in this group are obviously bred for a specific purpose.  As a result, some of the most athletic and intelligent dogs in the entire competition are in this group.  So, the appearance of the group's winner may come as a bit of a surprise.  Swagger, the Old English Sheepdog, looks neither athletic nor wise.  Swagger's victory came as a surprise to the experts.  At only 20 months old, Swagger was a relative unknown heading into Westminster.

The competition resumes on Tuesday afternoon with more Best in Breed competitions.  The conclusion of the show will take place on Tuesday night when Best in Group will be awarded in the Sporting, Working and Terrier Groups.  The competition will conclude with the awarding of the coveted Best in Show title.  The festivities will be shown on USA Network starting at 8:00 p.m.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Banshee's Best: Signing Day Monstrosity

Wednesday, February 6, 2012 was National Signing Day for college football recruits.  To hear ESPN tell it, you'd think this was a national holiday.  In reality, it is merely the day that high school seniors can officially sign their letter of intent to play football at the college of their choice.  While the signees have the physical appearance of full grown men, but they are really just teenaged kids.  Teenaged kids who are making one of the first major choices of their life.  Teenaged kids who are forced to make that choice after intense scrutiny and pressure from social media and, in some cases, in front of thousands of viewers on ESPNU and local TV outlets.

I love college football about as much as anyone I know.  I pay attention to my favorite team in the offseason.  And, I do keep an eye on the recruiting process.  When there are no games being played, it is fun to think about the future of the program and learn the backstories of some of the players who will be on the field next year.  And, after the letters are officially signed, it can be fun to compare recruiting classes and debate which school got the upper hand on their rivals.  If that was the extent of the interest in national signing day, then I would have no complaints.  But in this era of social media and 24-hour sports networks dedicated exclusively to college sports, fans have unprecedented access to information and to the recruits themselves.

(AP/Bob Self)
Twitter, in particular, provides a forum for people to cross over from the realm of fandom and into fanaticism.  A glaring example of this involved one USC fan's Twitter attack on Notre Dame recruit Eddie Vanderdoes.  Vanderdoes was behaving like a teenager and narrating his life on Twitter.  In response, the USC fan was behaving like a crazy person and making personal attacks on a kid in a public forum.  This is a troubling exchange, but, unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident.

But the signing day craziness isn't confined to fans.  The scrutiny and attention surrounding a young star's commitment to a school can also put unnecessary pressure on already strained family dynamics.  This week's saga surrounding Alex Collins' commitment to Arkansas is just one example.  Collins, a highly rated running back from Plantation, Florida, planned to sign and send his letter of intent to Arkansas on Wednesday morning.  But his mother, Andrea McDonald, threw a monkey wrench in the works when she stole her son's paperwork and went on the lamb with it.  The apparent reason for the theft was that McDonald wanted her son to go to Miami instead of Arkansas.  Eventually, Collins got new paperwork from the Razorbacks and secured his father's signature to make it official.  But mom isn't ready to give up the spotlight just yet.  McDonald has hired Johnnie Cochran's law firm to assist in her quest to thwart her son's decision.  Thanks to the unwarranted attention of signing day, what should have remained a private family disagreement became a national story.  No teenaged boy needs that kind of tabloid attention on his relationship with his parents.

So, what is the solution?  Admittedly, it's almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.  Reining in the signing day monstrosity requires responsibility on the part of each individual fan.  Friends and fellow fans who cross the line on Twitter and Facebook can and should be held accountable by others in the social media.  As far as TV goes, if a significant number of sports fans find this exploitation of high school students distasteful and stay away from signing day broadcasts then the ratings should eventually reflect this sentiment.  If the ratings drop, the broadcasts will stop.  And kids can go back to being kids ... at least until that first college Saturday in the fall.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Banshee Rant: Super Bowl XLVII

Wild Banshee gets back into the podcasting game with a look back at the good, the bad and the sexy from Super Bowl XLVII.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Banshee's Best: Brother Against Brother

It's Super Sunday.  While it's not a holiday celebrated by Hallmark, it is one of the most anticipated days of the year in the United States.  People watch the game for all different reasons.  To keep up with chatter in the office break room.  An excuse to eat greasy food and drink beer.  To see if Beyonce lip syncs or to catch the debut of pricey new commercials.  But, for many of us, Super Sunday is a day to gather together with the people we love to watch a game that we love.  It is a time to gather with family and friends.

If you are reading a blog called Banshee Sports, then you are probably already aware that today will be an extra special Super Sunday for the Harbaugh family.  When Super Bowl XLVII kicks off, it will be the first time in major American sports that two brothers have faced each other as head coaches trying to capture their game's greatest prize.  There are two reasons why this story line has such great appeal to the American public.  First of all, it's so novel.  Think about it.  There are more than 300 million people in America.  Only two of those people will be a head coach in tonight's Super Bowl.  And this year, those two people shared each other's hand-me-downs.  What are the odds?

But more importantly, a game pitting brother vs. brother is a narrative that most of us can relate to.  Most of us can't really identify with the Ray Lewis narrative of a month-long emotional retirement after a life that included murder charges and a miraculous recovery from torn muscles.  In contrast, almost all of us can relate to inter-family competition.  If not with a brother, then with a sister or cousin or the legend of an uncle.  We all understand the basic human emotion of competition tempered by love.

So, who are these Harbaughs?  John Harbaugh is the coach of the Baltimore Ravens.  Jim Harbaugh is the coach of the San Francisco 49ers.  Both boys were born in Toledo, Ohio to parents Jack and Jackie Harbaugh.  Though never as famous as his two boys, Jack Harbaugh was a successful football coach in his own right.  John was born in September of 1962.  Just fifteen months later, Jim was born.  Little sister Joani came along several years after that.  And lest you think that Joani was a shrinking violet left out of the family passion, think again.  As a little girl, Joani helped her dad splice together game films.  Evidently, she enjoyed living in a hyper-competitive household where the mood at dinner was determined by wins and losses.  Joani married Tom Crean.  Yes, that Tom Crean, head coach of Indiana's men's basketball team.

In most families, older brother John would be the athletic hero of the family.  John played defensive back at a Division I university.  Then he followed in his father's footsteps and joined the college coaching ranks.  After thirteen years as a college assistant, John broke into the NFL in 1996 as a special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.  In 2008, John was hired as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.  And, after just five seasons, John has led his team to the Super Bowl.  Not too shabby.  But in the Harbaugh family, John is not a standout performer.

Way back in high school, younger brother Jim beat out John to become starting quarterback at Pioneer High School in Michigan.  Jim then went on to be a four year letterman at quarterback for the University of Michigan Wolverines.  While wearing the maize and blue in 1986, Jim won a Fiesta Bowl, was named to the Academic All Big Ten Team and was named Big Ten player of the year.  Jim was then selected in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft by Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears.  Jim had a fourteen-year NFL career that included a Pro Bowl selection in 1995 and an induction into the Indianapolis Colts' Ring of Honor.  Shortly after his retirement as a player, Jim joined the Raiders coaching staff as a QB coach.  After a short stint as head coach of an FCS program in San Diego, Jim has hired as head football coach at Stanford in 2007.  After four season successful seasons, Jim left the college ranks and became the head coach of the 49ers in 2011.  In just his second season as a head coach in the NFL, Jim has guided his team to the Super Bowl.

Personally, I feel a little sad for the Harbaughs on this day.  Sure, there will be a Super Bowl champion in the family when this day ends.  But, there will also be a Super Bowl loser.  It's a dilemma the Manning family never had to face since their boys never played against each other in a Super Bowl.  As an older sibling, I can really only put myself in the position of big brother John.  Born into a football family, there is no doubt that hoisting the Lombardi Trophy has been a life long dream.  But, even though he's been smaller and less physically talented than Jim for most of his life, older brother John probably still feels somewhat protective over Jim even to this day.  As for Jim, my guess would be that despite his achievements, he looks up to John.  And in some ways, I bet Jim doesn't really want to topple the person he's looked up to throughout life.  I could be way off.  And maybe the fact that I'm a girl taints this analysis, but I do find the psychology of this matchup to be interesting.

So, as you watch tonight's game and enjoy your friends and family that are gathered around, take a moment to think about what it would be like to have the ones you love the most competing against you in the most important event of your life.  Then, by all means, get back to the guacamole and wings.

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Super Bowl Preview

When it comes to the Super Bowl, everybody and their nanny takes to the airwaves and Interwebs to give their predictions.  But, this, my friends, is the definitive Super Bowl breakdown.  I know, some of you are scoffing and rolling your eyes.  But, after ten playoff games this season, the Wild Banshee is 8-2 when it comes to picking winners.  And, in the Divisional Round and on Championship Weekend, I pretty much gave you the script for how the games would be played.  But before my fingers get too tired from tooting my own horn, I better get to typing some analysis.


Baltimore vs San Francisco.  Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST on CBS.  This is a very unusual Super Bowl to analyze.  In recent history, we have seen a number of teams get on a hot streak and win the Super Bowl despite having mediocre regular season records or statistics.  That's not the situation we are in this year.  The Ravens and the Niners both had solid regular seasons and won their divisions.  Still, if you break down the statistics for the season, the 49ers have an advantage in nearly every meaningful offensive and defensive category.  But, that kind of statistical comparison is not particularly informative this year because the versions of these teams that will take the field for the Super Bowl are significantly different than the teams we saw early in the season.

If you look at the stats, the Ravens defense was decidedly mediocre over the course of the season.  But, the Ravens had significant health issues on defense at different times throughout the year.  Now, Ngata, Suggs and Ray Lewis are all healthy at the same time.  On offense, the personnel has remained steady, but the Ravens changed offensive coordinators after Week 14.  For the 49ers, the defense has been ferocious all season long.  But on offense, Niners took the drastic step of changing quarterbacks at the midway point of the season despite being in first place in their division at the time.  With each passing week, the 49ers have expanded the playbook for Colin Kaepernick, so it has been an evolving experiment right up through the NFC Championship game.  In order to choose a winner, it's not trends that tell the story.  It is the personnel match ups.

I expect both quarterbacks to play well in this game.  Joe Flacco will be put on a poised and veteran performance.  Colin Kaepernick may show some signs of over excitement early in the game, but it won't take him long to settle into the game.  Kaepernick's legs will certainly be a factor, but the Ravens defense is a smart and experienced group that will not be confused by the pistol offense after having two weeks to prepare.  But, another word for "experienced" is "old."  The Ravens defense has been playing well throughout the playoffs, but they have yet to face a team with a tight end like Vernon Davis.  New England's Gronkowski would have presented a similar challenge, but Gronk missed the AFC Championship game due to injury.  Davis' speed will be too much for the Ravens linebackers to handle.  Davis will be able to get open repeatedly for deep passes down the seams.  For Baltimore, the ticket to their offensive success in the playoffs has been running the ball with Ray Rice and then throwing the ball deep.  That recipe will not be as successful against the 49ers as it has been against the Colts, Broncos and Patriots.  The 49ers front seven is physical enough and fast enough to contain Rice without committing extra men to the box.  That means the secondary will be in proper position to defend against the deep threat of Tori Smith.

In the end, it will be defense and a physical fourth quarter running game that will carry the 49ers to victory in an entertaining and well-played game.  Wild Banshee's official prediction is 28-24 in favor of San Francisco.

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