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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Penn State Football: Four Years and Four Men

On January 2, 2016, the Penn State Nittany Lions football team will face the Georgia Bulldogs in the TaxSlayer Bowl.  In one sense, this will be just a football game.  But, for many Penn State fans it is a bright ray of sunshine after four years of darkness.

Altered logo in the wake of the Sandusky scandal
In the fall of 2011, a harsh spotlight shone down on Happy Valley.  The details of the Jerry Sandusky scandal were well documented over the following weeks and months.  Sandusky was tried and convicted of his heinous crimes and will die in prison.  Joe Paterno was fired via a phone call and died just a few months later.  Then in the summer of 2012, the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against Penn State.  The Nittany Lions were banned from bowls for the next four years.  Crippling scholarship restrictions were handed down.  Most astonishingly of all, Penn State's players and recruits were given permission to transfer and immediately play for other schools.

All Nittany Lions' fans feared that Penn State football, like SMU in the 1980's, would never recover from the NCAA's punishments.  After all, that fate was declared as absolute truth by the mainstream sports media.  For some fans, the dismay might have been limited to anger over the NCAA denying them some fun in the fall.  That is certainly how the mob on Twitter treated anyone who dared to speak a kind word about the university in the during the winter and summer of 2012.

Mourners lined the route to Joe Pa's burial
But for many Penn State fans, the developments of 2011-2012 threatened their very self-image.  Although it might have seemed naive and silly to the talking heads on TV and fans of most other schools, Joe Paterno's motto of "success with honor" was something they truly believed in.  It was something they truly loved.  It was something that had been widely recognized since the 1987 Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami.

Even if the football program one day recovered on the field, there was a generalized despair that Saturdays in the fall would never mean the same thing again.  Sure there would be wins and losses, but would there ever be something bigger to believe in?  Would there ever again be something like "success with honor" that would give the program a cause and a unity of purpose?

At various points in the process, four men stepped into the whirlpool of moral ambiguity and restored a higher purpose of Penn State football.  They also preserved Penn State's role as a major college football program on the gridiron.  These men are:  Bill O'Brien.  Christian Hackenberg.  Michael Mauti.  And James Franklin.  This is not an exhaustive list, but each of these men each stepped up when they were needed most and played a special role in the lives of the program and its fans.

Bill O'Brien led with toughness
Bill O'Brien took over the head coach position at Penn State in the winter of 2012.  Although the NCAA had not yet handed down its sanctions, O'Brien was well aware of the tempest he was stepping into.  O'Brien not only kept the Nittany Lions respectable on the field, he also embodied the character and toughness that Penn State fans yearned for in Joe Paterno's replacement.  Although O'Brien left for the NFL after two seasons, he kept the Nittany Lions afloat when most expected them to drown.  For this, the faithful in Happy Valley should be forever grateful.

In 2011, Christian Hackenberg was one of the nation's top recruits at any position.  When the 5-star quarterback from Virginia committed to play in Happy Valley, Penn State was one of the most stable programs in the nation.  All that had changed by the time Hackenberg reported for camp in the summer of 2012.  Although he was but a boy at the time, Hackenberg was a man of his word.  When he kept his commitment to the program, most of his recruiting class followed suit.  Although his play has been the subject of great scrutiny as he contemplates leaving for the NFL, Christian Hackenberg's contribution to the program when he honored his pledge to come to Penn State should never be underestimated.

Mike Mauti's #42 on PSU helmets on senior day 2012
When the NCAA opened up the floodgates for departing players as part of its sanctions, it was Michael Mauti who rallied the troops and gave the remaining Nittany Lions someone to rally around. Mike Mauti's words at Joe Paterno's memorial service and his statement to the public in the wake of the sanctions reassured fans and reminded critics that there were still men of integrity and honor playing football in Happy Valley.  If there was ever a symbol of what Mauti meant to the team, it came on senior day when the players voted to alter the iconic Penn State helmets to honor their injured leader.  Mauti's contributions on the field during his senior season were a big part of the Nittany Lions winning season, but it was his spiritual leadership and moral compass that kept the Nittany Lion family together.

The last of these four men to enter the Penn State picture was James Franklin.  After Bill O'Brien left for the NFL, Penn State was once again left in search of a head coach for the second time in just a few short years.  This was a shocking development for a program who had been led by a single man for over four decades.  When James Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt, he declared that Penn State was his destination job.  He stated that he was a "Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart."  But more than that, Franklin talked about Penn State being a special place.  He talked about family in ways that were more than lip service.  And he enthusiastically hit the recruiting trail with those principles.  His message and his commitment to Penn State's ideals resulted in some of the top recruiting classes in the nation.  Perhaps the greatest testament to Franklin's success is that Penn State fans were once again focused on the on-field results this season and were no longer satisfied with moral victories.
James Franklin has 2 daughters and 95 sons in Happy Valley

When the Nittany Lions take the field on January 2, 2016 for a big time bowl game against a prestigious opponent, it will be about more than just a football game.  It will signal a return to normalcy for a once proud football program.  More importantly, it will signal the end of a four year period of contrition for a once proud fanbase.  As Nittany Lion fans settle in with chips and dip on Saturday to engage in what was once a yearly ritual, let none of them forget the contributions and sacrifices of Bill O'Brien, Christian Hackenberg, Michael Mauti and James Franklin.

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Best Sports Tantrums of 2015

2015 was a memorable year for sports fans.  We witnessed a tremendous Super Bowl, the fight of the century between Maweather and Pacquiao and a Triple Crown winner.  But not all the memorable moments of the sports year were great achievements.  In fact, some of them were downright shameful.  These moments are presented in chronological order, not order of magnitude.  Here are the best sports tantrums of 2015.

1.  Cat Fight.  This incident involves mostly women, but the only reason "cat fight" is an appropriate term for this brawl is because it is between the Texas Southern Tigers and the Southern Jaguars.  Texas Southern had a one game lead in the SWAC standings when they hosted Southern on March 8, 2015.  Southern had a two-point lead midway through the second half when this bench clearing brawl broke out.  The fight involves players, cheerleaders and apparently a fan or two.  It was so violent that officials ended the game.  As a result, the two teams ended up tied for the regular season title.  You can skip through the preliminary nonsense at start the video at the 45 second mark.  My favorite part of this video comes at 1:45 when the Texas Southern mascot does a swagger prance at mid court.

2.  Dirty Girl.  I'm pretty old school.  I believe there is a place for physical intimidation even in girl's high school sports.  But, this catcher in the Texas 4A softball state championship game definitely crossed the line.  Not once but twice.  The thing I don't understand about this video is why the opposing team didn't take any action to retaliate.  Rest assured that if this happened in a game in the coal region of Pennsylvania, punches would be thrown.

3.  Going Postal.  This video makes the list because it is so unusual.  Not only does it involve the typically non-violent world of cycling, but it involves someone who isn't even in the race.  I understand that delivering the mail is serious business, but it's not like the Tour de France route should have come as a surprise to anyone.  This video is worth watching with the sound on.  French swearing is always funny.

4.  Manager Meltdown.  Alaska is not widely known for its heated baseball rivalries, but in mid July of 2015, the Peninsula Oilers and the Anchorage Bucs dropped the gloves and went at it.  Baseball fights usually have a lot of milling around and "hold me back" moments, but not this fight.  This fight has a few haymakers.  The reason this is so unique, though, is because the haymakers are thrown by the managers.

5. Shadow Boxing.  Much like mostly everything involving the University of Texas, this brawl against the Baylor Bears was overhyped.  But, thanks to Vine gurus, this gem from the incident was dug up and highlighted in the Twitterverse.  The comedic value of this Texas player putting up his dukes must be celebrated.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Temper Temper: Sports Tantrums of Fall

Fall has changed to winter.  On the east coast, it still feels a lot like summer.  Perhaps those hot temperatures are reflecting the hot tempers we have seen on the fields of play over the past couple months.  The NBA season is underway and the NHL is in full swing.  Yet somehow, this is a college football centered tantrums post.  Here are the best sports tantrums of fall.

1. Shadow Boxing.  During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan preached "peace through strength."  The idea was that if you were ready for war then your enemies would not start a war.  Evidently, that is what this Texas player believed during this bench clearing staring match between Texas and Baylor.

2. Swagger.  The U.  Those words alone make opponents bristle and make fans get ready for a scrap. When Miami played Georgia Tech, emotions boiled over after the final whistle.  There are a few skirmishes between the players in this game, but the best part of this scene is when Sebastian struts through the turmoil as if he contributed.

3.  Midwestern Manners.  The fans in the midwest have a reputation for being loyal to their teams without crossing any lines.  In November, Wisconsin fans were a bit dismayed at the officials in their game against Nebraska.  They expressed that dismay in a very cold way.  They threw snow balls.

4.  Keep It In the Family.  Football is an emotional game.  When players lose their tempers, it is incumbent upon the coaches to keep them in line.  When coaches lose their tempers, that burden fall upon the blogosphere.  In October, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly rightly drew the ire of many when he completely lost his cool with an assistant.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Tuffy Teaser: Bowl Game Edition

Tuffy plans to sip the bubbly after these picks.
Nothing gets Tuffy more excited than the college bowl season.  Unlike the regular season, there is plenty of time to consider all the choices and make wise wagering decisions.  Therefore, Tuffy fully expects to bounce back from his late-season struggles and ring in the new year with a little extra coin jingling in his pockets.

For the uninitiated, the Tuffy Teaser is a three-team teaser bet.  It is based on a $5 wager with a 6-point tease.  The lines come from  What makes this teaser special is that all the teams must have cat mascots.  Overall, the Tuffy Teaser is 6-4 with a net gain of $28 on the year.

Fourteen teams with cat mascots got invited to bowls this year.  Two of those teams are playing each other, so that means that Tuffy had 13 games to pick from for this column.

Without further ado, here are the picks.

Hawaii Bowl.  Thursday, December 24, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. EST.

Cincinnati Bearcats                           + 4.5
San Diego State University Aztecs     + 7.5

When both teams are getting points in a tease, the game becomes basically a pick-em.  Cincinnati is the proper pick.  Giving up 65 points to South Florida is an ugly mark on their record, but besides that, the Bearcats have given good teams a tough struggle and have beaten the bad teams on their schedule.  They have also beaten Miami in a non-conference matchup.  SDSU is the champion of the Mountain West Conference.  But, this is not a banner year for the league, and SDSU has a home loss to South Alabama on their record.  If any of you are doubting if Bearcats should qualify for this column, relax.  The word "cat" is in their name.  That's good enough for Tuffy.  It should be good enough for you.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.  Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. EST.

Houston Cougars             +13
Florida State Seminoles     - 1

The Houston Cougars have put together one of the most impressive seasons in all of college football. They have wins over Louisville, Memphis, Navy and Temple.  The only blemish on their record came in a game where their quarterback was injured.  Coming out of the AAC, Houston will be inspired to play in a New Years Six bowl game.  For FSU, there is a significant risk of apathy and disinterest.  A noon kick on New Years Eve is not what the Seminoles had in mind at the start of the season.  I expect Houston to win this game outright.  I certainly expect the Cougars to be able to stay within two touchdowns.

Outback Bowl.  Friday, January 1, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. EST.

Tennessee Volunteers           - 2
Northwestern Wildcats     + 14

Northwestern comes into this game with a very solid 10-2 record that includes a convincing victory over Stanford.  Tennessee is a program heading in the right direction, but they have four losses and no signature wins this season.  The line on this game is a perfect example of how point spreads are not predictions.  They are designed to make the betting balanced.  The public perception of the SEC in the eyes of casual gamblers is the only explanation for making Northwestern an underdog in this game.  Take the points and enjoy.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Banshee's Bowl Season Preview

Over the next three weeks, college football will take over the sports landscape with forty-one bowl games.  That's right.  Forty-one.  For all but the most dedicated fans, that dazzling array may seem overwhelming.  In order to help you all through the viewing process, I will pick one game from each set of bowl games as must-see game of the group.

The Holy War
The Pre-Christmas Games:  Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.  BYU vs. #22 Utah.  December 19, 2015 at 3:30 EST on ABC.

Twelve bowl games will take place before St. Nick finishes his rounds for 2015.  The Las Vegas Bowl stands out from the rest of that crowd.  First of all, the irony of the Holy War between BYU and Utah being renewed in Sin City is just too rich.  After taking a year off in 2014, we will get the 96th battle between these longtime in-state rivals.  All things considered, with a 9-3 record, BYU has to be pleased with this bowl game.  Utah comes into the game with an identical 9-3 record, but with wins over Michigan, Oregon and Cal to their credit, Utah fans have to be a little miffed about a pre-Christmas bowl.  I'm thankful this is not a gambling post because I do not want to make a prediction except to say that this will be entertaining.

Runner up:  Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.  Toledo vs. #24 Temple.  December 22, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The Tweener Games:  Russell Athletic Bowl.  #10 North Carolina vs. #17 Baylor.  December 29, 2015 at 5:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The bowl committee overlooked the fact that neither of these teams wear Russell Athletic uniforms and put together a terrific matchup.  The #10 North Carolina Tarheels and the #17 Baylor Bears square off in one of the best games of the bowl season.  It is a traveshamockery that this game is buried in an afternoon time slot on a Tuesday.  One of the most intriguing aspects of this game is the quarterback situation at Baylor.  Due to injuries, Baylor finished the season with a wide receiver taking snaps in their season finale against Texas.  With a month to prepare and heal, it is safe to assume that Baylor will have a competent offense in the bowl game.  North Carolina is more of a known factor.  Clemson fans know that North Carolina gave them all they could handle in the ACC Championship.  This may not turn out to be the offensive explosion that some expect, but it should be an interesting and competitive matchup right to the end.

Runner up:  Birmingham Bowl.  Auburn vs. Memphis.  December 30, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

Iconic Sooner Schooner
New Year's Eve Games:  Capital One Orange Bowl.  #4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson.  December 31, 2015 at 4:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

There are only three bowl games on New Year's Eve.  They are staggered throughout the day, so there is no legitimate reason to miss any of these games.  But, if you have to pick just one game, I recommend the Capital One Orange Bowl between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Clemson Tigers.  The main reason is that there is more novelty in semi-final playoff game than in the other.  The Big 12 did not have a team in last year's playoffs, so Oklahoma is a fresh face.  Clemson is also a team that is not part of the national championship discussion every year.  Both teams have explosive offenses led by electrifying quarterbacks, so this game will remain up for grabs until the final gun.

Runner up:  Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.  #3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama.  December 31, 2015 at 8:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The Rose Bowl at sunset
New Year's Day Games:  The Rose Bowl Game.  #6 Stanford vs. #5 Iowa.  January 1, 2016 at 5:00 EST on ESPN.

New Year's Day is no longer the jam packed bowl bonanza that it was in the days of my youth, but there are still plenty of good games to choose from.  The Rose Bowl between Stanford and Iowa is the best of the bunch.  Based on pure aesthetics, the Grandaddy of Them All is a joy to watch.   The colors of the split stadium are dazzling as the California sun sets over the San Gabriel Mountains.  Then there is the history of the game.  This bowl has been played continuously since 1916.  It is also one of the only bowl games that still has true conference ties.  With rare exception, this game is played between the Pac 12 and the Big Ten.  Then there is the 2016 game itself.  Stanford is led by Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffery.  Iowa is perhaps the least publicized top five team in decades, but the Hawkeyes lone loss came against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship.  This game is the perfect combination of history, pageantry and skill that should not be missed.

Runner up:  BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl.  #8 Notre Dame vs. #7 Ohio State.  January 1, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, TX
The Remaining Games:  Valero Alamo Bowl.  #15 Oregon vs. #11 TCU.  January 2, 2016 at 6:45 p.m. EST on ESPN.

Over the years, the Alamo Bowl has put on many entertaining shows.  Usually the game was played before New Year's.  This year, the Alamo Bowl is in a time slot worthy of this matchup.  This bowl could easily be named the Mayo Clinic What If Bowl.  Oregon and TCU both came into this season with realistic national championship hopes, but key injuries derailed those hopes and left these teams facing each other in the Alamo Bowl.  Despite the fact that both of these programs have been in the national championship discussion over the past few years, because of their time zones and conference affiliations, east coast fans don't regularly watch their games.  This is a perfect time to change that.

Runner up:  TaxSlayer Bowl.  Penn State vs. Georgia.  January 2, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

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