Monday, October 17, 2016

A tribute to Survivors: 62511, 70726

       First, a disclosure: This is self-promotion. The blog often falls into this category.
      Here it is: I have written a book, and it is now in published form. If you want to order it, I will provide the links below.
      It is available through the self-publishing company, CreateSpace, and -- as of this weekend -- it is listed on Amazon.
      The title is in the headline on this post. It is the story of my parents and their lives before and after they were Holocaust survivors.
      Survivors: 62511, 70726 -- the numbers the Nazis tattooed on their left forearms.
      It is Rose and Louis Van Thyn's stories, but also my sister Elsa and mine -- our journey from Amsterdam to the United States.
      If you have followed this blog for more than 4 1/2 years, you have seen much of the material in the book. But it has been a while since the early chapters, and you might not have seen many of the photos in the book.
      Doing this has been a labor of love -- and several people encouraged me to do it -- and it also has been a labor.
      Trying to do it on my own two years ago, I failed miserably because I am not that technical savvy. It was driving me more nuts than I already am -- you can laugh at that -- and it also was driving someone who lives with me a little battier than she already is.
      So I dropped the idea. But as I kept writing about my parents' stories on this blog, people kept telling me I should put it together in a book.
       There are a couple of heroes responsible for it finally happening. Tom Johanningmeier, deputy sports editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (my journalism home for a final decade of work), formatted the whole thing, really put it together. Janet Glaspie, who lived down the street from my parents in Shreveport for years and helped care for them, proofread the pages and made many good suggestions and necessary fixes.
       Without them, I am not a published author.
       I never had great desire to write a book, but -- as I state  in the introduction to the book -- I wanted my parents' stories in one place for their many friends and mostly for our family, for the generations.
       And here's what else; it can't be said enough: The Holocaust was real, and the threat of oppression and genocide remains ever-present. There are people out there who deny the Holocaust, who excuse what happened, who  say it is fictional history.
       They are so wrong, wrong, wrong. Often loud wrong.
       I knew two people who lived through it, and who told their stories. And I've retold those stories.
      To order the book (the list price is $15, plus shipping charges): (this is the preferable option, although you might have to create a free CreateSpace account to place an order)

Kindle: (price $2.99, no photos)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

He was All-Everything that Bradshaw wasn't

     He is the answer to a trivia question, and he laughed when I suggested that to him.
     In his senior season of high school football (1965), Terry Bradshaw was not All-City (in Shreveport-Bossier), All-District (1-AAA) or All-State (Class AAA in Louisiana). Who was the quarterback who earned those honors?
     The answer: John Miller, Fair Park (Shreveport).
     When I asked him if he tells people, some five decades later, that he beat out Bradshaw for All-Everything, Miller answered, with a laugh, "It depends who I'm talking to."
     What he remembers is that "a good time in my life" and that receiving the all-star honors was "kind of a shock" considering that he was a junior and Bradshaw, at Woodlawn, had a strong senior year.
     Their statistics were almost equal that season; their teams each advanced far in the state playoffs. But as Miller noted when we talked a week ago, "I got the (Shreveport Journal All-City) Cotton Bowl trip."
     But he was gracious about it. Bradshaw, he said, "was a fantastic athlete. His pro career was tremendous. Such a great arm, and he threw the hell out of the ball."
     He wasn't all that big for a quarterback (5-foot-9 1/2, 160 pounds) -- Bradshaw was five inches taller -- but Miller too had a strong right arm. He had a young offensive coach just starting his coaching career who liked the passing game; a smart, capable offensive line; two future LSU signees as teammates (guard Robert Davis and linebacker Bobby Joe King); and two  talented wide receivers named Smith (Jerry at split end, Vitamin T. -- V.T. -- at flanker).
     Jerry, also an All-State choice, went on to play at Baylor. The fleet V.T., son of a 1949-53 Los Angeles Rams star running back (same name), played at Abilene Christian.
     As several people described him, Miller was "very smart," able to run an offensive system which -- rare in those days in high school -- could audible plays at the line of scrimmage.
     He was junior class favorite that year, "Mr. Fair Park" the next year, and a smart enough student to earn a scholarship to Vanderbilt University -- known much more for producing real student-athletes than football success.
     His Vanderbilt football career was injury-curtailed, but he had his moments. One significant fact: He started only one season (1968, as a sophomore). But the 5-4-1 record that season was the only winning season Vandy had in a 14-year period.
     And the degree he earned as a geology major set up his future.
     Fair Park, in the fall of 1965 and again in 1966, was a perfect setting for John Miller to throw the football.
     "I enjoyed that so much, the way we played," he said. "We had great receivers -- I was lucky to have those two -- and an offensive line that could call out blocking assignments, and help me call audibles. It was great timing, great fun."         
     We know what happened to Bradshaw. Whatever happened to John Miller?
     He is 67 now, has lived for 15 years in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- just west of Knoxville -- an upscale community started in 1942 as home of the "Manhattan Project" (development of the atomic bomb). It was home base for the oil and gas company he joined as an engineer a couple of decades ago.
     Two recent developments: (1) He retired from business and (2) now settled in one place after a life and career of constant travel, he re-married. After 34 years of being a couple while Carolynn lived in Franklin, Tenn., they're together in Oak Ridge.
John with daughter Kelly at her wedding.
     The son of an Air Force pilot, the third of four brothers,  they made -- oldest brother Don remembered -- 42 moves while in their growing-up years. John kept traveling in business.
     Now the traveling is for pleasure -- recent trips to Portland, Ore., where his daughter Kelly and granddaughter Arisa, 6, live, and to North Carolina for a weekend golf outing (that delayed our talk for a couple of days).
     "I've always loved golf," he said. "Now I've got the time to really play some."
     It's been a while since he played some football. 
     "He always was a tough kid growing up, real quiet," said Don Miller, five years older. And it was Don -- a longtime coach at Northwood High near Shreveport -- who was John's first coach. Retired, he now lives in Ormond Beach, Fla.
     "Don was my mentor," said John. "He was a coach from the day he was born." He recalled throwing footballs at tire swings in backyards from coast to coast, and beyond, working on quick releases and accuracy.
     The Millers' Air Force journey/stops included Riverside, Calif., Savannah, Ga., Albany, Ga. (where Don went to high school), Germany, Ankara (Turkey) and then Barksdale Air Force Base (Bossier-Shreveport).
     It was in Savannah where Don got John involved on a neighborhood football team, an 11-12s team (but John was younger). He started as a defensive back. A move later, in Albany as a fifth-grader, he came home one day and announced he was a quarterback.
     "A quarterback?" Don remembers saying. "That coach doesn't know anything. You can't be a quarterback. I'd always made him play defensive back because he was a hitter."
     In Germany, John got more QB work on the American Air Force base. And, as Don liked to recall, at age 8, "he was [water] skiing barefoot in Italy [on vacation]."
     Then from Turkey, it was on to Barksdale, where Ray Miller eventually retired as a major.
     Instead of living in Bossier City, the Millers found a place on Curtis Lane in Shreveport because, said Don, they "found a great deal on a rental property where they could have a horse and there was a swimming pool."
     And Midway Junior High had a new student. John wanted to play football, but coach Ab White was reluctant to give him a uniform because he was so small. Ricky McNabb was bigger and set at QB. But once John had the uniform, he also proved to be the best QB.
     As a sophomore at Fair Park, Miller again found skepticism because of his size. Head coach Roy Wilson -- the decades-long, old-school, rough-and-tough "Bull" -- wasn't sure, but James Farrar -- the Indians' varsity defensive line/linebackers coach -- was coach of the "B" and sophomore teams and knew John could throw the ball.
     Another plus: Jimmy Orton, after a pro baseball career, had just come back to coach and teach at Fair Park -- where he was a three-sport All-City, All-District star in the mid-1950s. He had quarterbacked the Indians to the state finals (1955), then played two years at Louisiana Tech.
     Farrar and Orton convinced Wilson. Orton liked what he saw.
     "He didn't have a lot of height, but he had a great arm," said Orton. "He had a knack of throwing the long pass, and the Smith boys could get down under it. John had a lot of ability."
     "It was a great opportunity for me," Miller said. "Coach Orton took me under his wing. He was my biggest fan. We rocked and rolled in that offense. He molded me as a quarterback."
     Miller dressed with the varsity as a sophomore, but he had an inauspicious debut. The only game he entered was as a PAT kick holder and, taking his eyes off the snap, "the ball hit me in the head."
     Before the '65 season, it looked as if senior Tom Shea would be the starting QB, with Miller playing defense. But they switched spots early in the fall.
     The Indians had an 8-4-1 record and scored 314 points (24.2 per game). What is significant: No Fair Park team the last 50 years has scored that much. Only two Fair Park teams scored more -- the 1952 state champions (334), the 1955 state runner-ups (348).
     "We were running the offense Coach (Joe) Aillet used at Tech," Orton said. "Basically it was Wing-T sets, run-oriented, but we had split receivers and we threw a lot. Lee Hedges was doing the same at Woodlawn."
     Miller passed for 1,727 yards and 20 touchdowns (Bradshaw, in one more game, threw for 1,372 yards and a state-record 21 TDs.)
     One of the rare off nights in that season for Miller, though, came in the season's second game -- a 28-7 loss to Woodlawn and Bradshaw, who was the star of the game. That was the difference between first and second place in the district.
     The Indians boosted their point total with three high-scoring victories -- North Caddo 60-0, Bossier 55-14 (the Smith points scored 42 of the points) and West Monroe 46-38. But they also proved they could win the low-scoring ones, beating city rivals Jesuit 6-0 and Byrd 13-0 (their first win over their old rivals since 1958). 
     It also clinched Fair Park's first state playoff entry since '58. When it rallied from a 12-6 halftime deficit to beat Jesuit (New Orleans) 19-12, it was the school's first playoff victory in 10 years.
     The season ended the next week in the state semifinals with a 29-7 loss to Sulphur, which returned to State Fair Stadium the following week to edge Woodlawn 12-9 in a hard rain for the state championship.
     Don Jones was president of the Fair Park Student Council in 1965-66 and is now an orthopedic surgeon in Eugene, Ore., and a team doctor with the University of Oregon football team.          
      Miller, he said, "was very smart. One example of how smart he was is that I started every game at tight end my senior year and he only threw to me once.  That includes practice. And on top of that, it was in the last two minutes of the state playoff game which we lost. 
      "Actually he was very smart. I respected him and really enjoyed playing with him."
      "He was a thinking man's quarterback," said Jerry Smith, who now lives in Wylie, Texas, and owns/operated a factory automation company based in Plano. "The coaches gave him credit for changing plays at the line of scrimmage more than 50 percent of the time the last part of the season.
       "Miller was one of those guys who had no fear. He had a strong arm -- not like Bradshaw, though -- but he could put the ball where it needed to be. He'd throw it into places you'd think he couldn't get it there.
      "Very intelligent guy," Smith added. "He'd get us up to the line of scrimmage quickly, and just call a play before the coaches would send one in. ... And he was cagey, too, and he wasn't afraid to run the ball."
      Before the season, Miller had told his mother he thought he could make All-City. She had her doubts and promised they'd buy a new ski boat if he did.
      "Sure enough, I was, and we did [get the boat]," John said. "She thought that was a long shot."
      No question: He was confident.
      Orton recalls one of Miller's early starts -- he thinks it was at LaGrange (Lake Charles) -- when the Indians began with a couple of yards on two running plays, then threw incomplete, and punted.
      "John came to the sideline and said, 'Coach, we can score on these guys any time we want,' " Orton said, laughing at the memory. "I said, 'OK, why don't we try that next time we get the ball.'"          
      Art Walker was a basketball guard at Fair Park and lived across and down the street from the Millers. He was good friends with John, and they were pals with two other neighbors who were athletes -- Ronnie Burns (baseball) and Dennis Dans (halfback in football).
      "John was very quiet, and very confident in his ability," said Walker, who lives in Benton and is the father of former LSU and major-league baseball star Todd Walker. "It was amazing for someone like me to watch him throw the football.
      "He was just a good guy. Being military, it was a close family [Marshall was the second-oldest brother, three years ahead of John, and David was considerably younger]. They stood up for each other and protected each other."               
      John had another good season in 1966, and Fair Park was 8-3, but missed out on the playoffs. Wayne Haney was a standout receiver, but said John, "We didn't have the same  weapons." 
      One of the nice elements of that season was that Don Miller, having graduated from Auburn University, was in Shreveport, starting his teaching/coaching career at Linwood Junior High. He joined the Fair Park staff the next year, Wilson's last year as head coach.
      "He [Wilson] was heading into his retirement phase," John Miller said of his senior year. "But I admired him, respected him. He pretty well left the [offensive] coaching to Coach Orton."
      Miller repeated as All-City and All-District. But the Class AAA All-State QB selection was Butch Duhe of Holy Cross (New Orleans). He was one of LSU's prime recruits ... and his death of a brain hemorrhage in late summer 1970 was a stunner.
      By then, Miller was about to be a senior at Vanderbilt.
      "He lived football," Don Miller said of his brother in the 1960s, and it was obvious in late 1966 that he was going to get a chance to play in college. His size didn't deter the recruiters.
      Tulane pushed hardest, and John signed a letter-of-intent (multiple "intent" signings were permissible then). LSU coach Charlie McClendon came to Shreveport twice to visit with him, but LSU's pass-hesitant offense wasn't appealing to John (sound familiar?). Baylor, with a passing offense, was interested.
      Vanderbilt -- a football weakling, an educational beacon -- became a late option.
      "It was a weird way that it happened," John said. When his grandfather passed away in Stevenson, Ala., near Chattanooga, then-Vandy linebacker star Chip Healy was at the funeral "and he started talking to me about Vanderbilt."
      When he visited the school in Nashville, he felt comfortable, and his parents had just moved to the family farm in Stevenson. "So Mom had some influence in my decision" to play closer to where they were living.
      He got an introduction to SEC football in 1967 on the freshman team (freshmen were not eligible for varsity in Division I then). It was only four games, but one was against Ole Miss and a quarterback named Archie Manning. Final score: Ole Miss 80, Vandy 8. Oops.
       Bill Pace had been an assistant to Frank Broyles at Arkansas before becoming Vandy's head coach in 1967. Miller gained his confidence before his sophomore year ('68).
       "It was like my junior year in high school; I progressed really fast," Miller said. He didn't start the first two games, but when Vandy struggled in game two at Army, he came off the bench and sparked a 17-13 comeback victory.
       "We weren't doing much when I came in," he said. "They were playing a loose-six defense, so they were loose in the flats. Coach Pace was a good offensive mind; he could find the weaknesses in defenses."
      Miller set a school record for completions in a game and was named SEC offensive back of the week.
      With one "above average receiver," Curt Chesley, Miller set a Vandy sophomore season record for passing yards (1,164), although some numbers weren't pretty (49.3 completion percentage -- 99 of 201 -- with 18 interceptions and five TDs).
      A three-game winning streak near season's end clinched a rare -- rare -- Vandy winning season. But a 10-7 loss to arch-rival Tennessee in the finale was a bummer, and a lesson for Miller.
      Tennessee had two future All-Americans and NFL stars at linebacker, Steve Kiner and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds. "A long day," said Miller, who recalled running for 5 or 6 yards "and they knocked me plumb over the bench."
      Disaster struck in the off-season. Playing tennis with a teammate on a cold night in February 1969, Miller felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder.
      It was a badly injured, maybe even torn, rotator cuff. His throwing arm and motion was badly compromised.
      It was a few years before surgery for that injury and repair/rehab was common, and Vandy's team doctors "were reluctant to operate. They felt I would only be at 70 or 80 percent strength after that," Miller said.
      So the option was shots of novocaine and cortisone, "and it would get a little better. [But] it would make everything feel heavy, and tired. I could throw in practice one day, then it hurt badly the next day."
      Still, he gave it a try and started the season in The Big House at Michigan -- Bo Schembechler's first game as Michigan head coach. In the 42-14 Vandy loss, Miller said, "I played decently."
      But the difficulty continued and Pace soon put in a triple-option offense, "so I saw the handwriting on the wall."
      Watson Brown, older brother of Mack Brown and a future longtime college coach, took over at QB, and Vandy started 1-5. But that one victory was extremely memorable -- Vandy 14, Alabama 10, in Nashville.
      Since 1959, Vanderbilt is 2-44 vs. Alabama, 1-35 since Brown sparked that victory in 1969. 
      The Commodores finished 4-6 that season, and Miller played sparingly (24 of 56, 310 yards, four interceptions, one TD).   
      As a senior, he was still listed at QB on the depth chart, but at his suggestion, Denny Painter had been moved from center to QB the year before and emerged as the 1970 starter. The team went 4-7.
      "Coach Pace wanted to find me a position," so Miller played some at safety. But his lack of size made it tough and it was "unfamiliar."
      He did get some shots at quarterback, threw a couple of TD passes and nearly led a comeback against nationally ranked North Carolina.
      "I think he (Pace) let me play QB out of kindness," he said. "Even in the [season-ending] Tennessee game, he put me in at the end just to be nice."
      The Vandy experience, though, was a good one, especially with teammates such as tailback (and future coach) Doug Mathews (SEC's leading rusher in 1969) and defensive end Pat Toomay (of Dallas Cowboys fame).
      Plus, that victory against Alabama ... and the education.
      After his Vanderbilt graduation, he took a job with Dresser Industries and went to Alaska for a year to work on the Northern Slope, then was transferred to California, where he met his first wife in Bakersfield. Art Walker also was there at the time in his first job after graduation from Louisiana Tech.
      Then it was back to Louisiana, to off-shore jobs in the Gulf, where he was a mud engineer -- and a pilot (just like his father, who was a flight instructor on gliders). "I flew a float plane out to the rigs," he said.
      When people he knew from his Vanderbilt days got involved in the Dixie Oil Co., he joined them and that brought him to the Appalachian basin and stays in Corbin, Ky., and Oneida, Tenn.
      "The business goes up and down, like a yo-yo, especially in this area," he noted. He supervised the drilling and completion of wells, and "I never hit the big time, but I enjoyed it."
      Just as he enjoyed those long-ago days at Fair Park.
      "Fondest times I had was in Shreveport, with my friends," he said. "That was a close community. It was not the same in college."
      As for Bradshaw, coincidentally, "I never met him. Saw him at [Fair Park and/or Woodlawn] basketball games, but we never had any conversation.
       "I remember thinking he was so big, and he looked like Chuck Connors (The Rifleman")."
       That he did. And for a couple of seasons at Fair Park High in the mid-1960s, John Miller looked much like a passing quarterback named Bradshaw. It was not a trivial matter.
John, with Arisa and Carolynn a couple of years ago



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My day with Arnie, the King

       He was my favorite golfer always, as he was for millions. And I spent one day -- at a distance -- with Arnie.
    I write this with apologies to Hal Sutton and David Toms, the best two golfers of recent vintage from Shreveport and my favorites from the late 1970s through today.
Arnie, his health obviously declining, at his final Masters
opening ceremony appearance in April 2016 (from
    Like so many of the thousand PGA Tour stars who followed, I think they will tell you they are indebted to Arnie.
   On a Sunday that began with sadness with the news of the death of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins in a boating accident and the not-totally-unexpected firing of Les Miles as head football coach at LSU, the news that evening was most difficult for me came in  a text message from a friend:
    "Tragically sad day. Arnold is gone."
    Oh, Arnie. We loved you so.
    This has been a year of more deaths of sports and sports media icons, nationally and on a personal level, than I can ever remember. For those of us who relish the late 1950s and the 1960s, Arnie was one of the greatest memories.
    He was the golfer I rooted for -- not for his greatest rival and great friend, Jack Nicklaus; not Lee Trevino; not Gary Player or Raymond Floyd or Billy Casper or any of the others.
    If Arnie was playing, I was in the television Army.
    And one day, in June 1989, I was in the on-course Arnie's Army in a round at Sawgrass' then-new The Valley Course in North Florida. It was the only time I followed him live.
    It was the Senior Players Championship; it was on a day I wasn't working at the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) and so I took the long drive (45 minutes or so) from Orange Park,  where we lived to Ponte Vedra Beach, home of PGA Tour office and the adjoining course, the more famous Stadium Course.   
    Not having grown up as a golfer, rarely having covered the sport until the mid-1980s and still not knowing much about the intricacies, I was grateful -- despite my lack of knowledge -- to be on the Times-Union coverage team for five The Players Championship tournaments.
   Arnie never played in those, his best PGA Tour days long behind him. If he had been there, I would have followed him. Still, following my other favorites -- Sutton and Greg Norman (this was before Toms made the Tour) -- was exciting.
   But the one day, at the Senior Players, was memorable.
   Arnie was no longer a contender but still competitive, and he did not play well that day. He struggled for, I want to say, a 74. And in the news conference afterward, which I sat in on, he was un-Arnie-like.
   In the hundreds of interviews I've seen and the hundreds of stories I read, Arnie was almost always gracious, courteous, with a story/memory or two, his humor wry, his comments diplomatic even in controversy. 
   That day at Sawgrass, he was a bit peeved. His answers about his game were curt, not expansive. He wasn't rude, but he obviously was not happy with his play.
   He was, as we were reminded last night watching a 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, his own toughest critic. He told Charlie that his Latrobe, Pa., club pro father, Deke, who had brought him up in and taught him the game, always told him: "Don't tell people how great you are; show them."
     Obviously, he showed them so much over the years. For me, he was golf for many years.
     I have seen many beautiful stories/columns written on Arnie the past few days, including those by my golf writer friends -- Jeff Rude, Garry Smits, Jeff Babineau -- and by the great Dan Jenkins (of Fort Worth). (Links are below.) 
     My favorite Arnie golf memory: His last of his 62 PGA Tour victories, at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He won it in typical Arnie fashion, with flair: A last-hole birdie putt, and a pump-fisting celebration. We were watching on TV at The Shreveport Times.
      Biggest Arnie disappointment: What else? The 1966 U.S. Open when he blew a seven-shot lead in the final nine of the fourth round, while Billy Casper blazed to a 32 and tied him. Then Casper won an 18-hole playoff the next day.
      Arnie finished second in the Open again the next year (he was second four times in a six-year period), but he never won another major.
      Watching that Sunday round from San Francisco was, unbelievably, an even greater collapse than Norman's blowing a six-shot lead in the first nine holes at the 1996 Masters, finishing with a painful 78 and losing by five shots to Faldo. Loved watching Norman, exciting and flawed, almost as much as Arnie.
      My fondest Arnie memory: He was guest host of The Tonight Show, the first athlete I'd ever seen do that. Looked this up -- it was July 17, 1970, one of those rare nights (there's a laugh here) that Johnny Carson was away on vacation or appearing in Las Vegas. I loved Carson and The Tonight Show, so I watched often.
       I was so proud Arnie was the host. Don't remember much, except he was not exactly adept at the monologue, not quite as at home as on a golf course, and I know he wore a bright red blazer. Arnie always was a colorful dresser.
       He was a colorful character, period, and one of the sports greats of our time. He was golf's ace ambassador.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Happy about it? No, no, no

         So we heard the news Sunday afternoon -- son-in-law was the first to call and alert me -- and a few minutes later, Bea walked in and asked, "Well, are you happy now?"
     After 20 phone calls and text messages over the past 24 hours, with several more people asking me how I felt about Les Miles being fired as head football coach at LSU, here is my answer:
     No, nothing to be happy about.
     There's not much good about anyone being fired, period. I know from personal experience, several times. But often it is for the best. Other doors will open.
     Happy about a 2-2 record? Heck, no.
     Yeah, the losses were close, and they could have turned into victories. But LSU's team looked so out of sync and was so thoroughly outplayed in those games.
      And, really, there wasn't much difference in a stilted, passing-challenged offense and a much-too-leaky defense from the last couple of LSU teams we've seen.
      Except for a super running back, Leonard Fournette, LSU last season could have lost five or six games. But not even Superman Fournette can make up for what I believe is a subpar offensive line so far this season.
      Miles gone at LSU after 11-plus seasons, a helluva lot of success, much fun ... and much agony. 
      It had gotten -- my opinion -- so that his football teams were not enjoyable to watch any more. In many seasons, the Tigers were sporadic but also exciting and ultimately successful. But, damn, the method often was excruciating.
      The past two-plus seasons these were -- again, my opinion, and that of many others -- not well-coached teams.
      You look at so many other programs, especially in the SEC and especially in the SEC West (Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas are prime examples), and their offenses, defenses and special teams were so much sharper than our Tigers.
      The reality: LSU is 4-5 since last season's deceptive 7-0 start (thank you, Leonard). This has become a mediocre program.   
      So was it time for Miles to go? Yes.
      Was it good timing? Yes, no need to wait. His job status  would have, could have been, a distraction through the next two months -- especially with each mounting loss.
      Will it make a difference? Your guess.
      Unless the Tigers improve quickly and drastically, they are looking at a six- or seven-loss season, or maybe even eight. Florida? Alabama? Ole Miss? Arkansas? Texas A&M? Maybe even Missouri this Saturday.
Ed Orgeron: He's in charge ... for now. (photo from
      Interim head coach Ed Orgeron has been in this role before (at Southern Cal). He is a fiery guy, a funny one, and he's been around a long time in the coaching world.
      Maybe he and new offensive play-caller Steve Ensminger, an LSU guy who also has been coaching for years, and the rest of the staff will have some answers, or wrinkles, or whatever that Miles and deposed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did not have.
      I would suggest -- football mind that I am -- that they give their quarterback, be it Danny Etling or Brandon Harris, a chance to roll out and make plays with their feet, depend less on the pocket passing which hasn't worked well.
      Mostly, I would suggest that the offensive linemen actually block defenders more consistently, knock them out of the way, and give the QBs a chance to pass the football.
      Sacks, or heavy pressure, late in the Wisconsin and Auburn games badly curtailed LSU's comeback chances.
      Defensively, new coordinator Dave Aranda has a lot of talented players. But when the opponents are controlling the ball for 17 to 21 first downs a game (only Mississippi State had fewer, 14) and totaling 339 to 388 yards a game (Miss. State had only 270), the Tigers are vulnerable.
      (Only in the second half against Jacksonville State and for the first three quarters vs. Mississippi State did LSU look like a decent defense. And then it nearly gave the Mississippi State game away.)
      When the Tigers really needed a stop late in the game last Saturday, Auburn rolled off three first downs and almost a fourth, gained 51 yards and -- most important -- took 6:05 off the clock and kicked its sixth field goal.
      So what if Auburn didn't score a touchdown, and LSU had one goalline stand to keep it that way? Auburn had seven chances to score, and the way LSU's offense is, that was enough.
      Now, about that offense ... we all know that's what cost Miles and Cameron their jobs. Here, in a capsule, is the example of how they operated:
      Auburn led 12-10, late third quarter, when LSU recovered a fumble at the Auburn 16. They reached a third-and-3 at the Auburn 9 ... and then couldn't line up correctly and had to burn a timeout. Critical.
      Given time to come up with something creative or different -- anything to get the ball into the end zone or get a first down -- they instead ran their favorite play, the worn-out toss sweep left to Fournette. The blocks weren't made, he was tripped up short of a first down, and LSU settled for a field goal.
      Fournette was obviously upset, speaking to Miles as he came to the sidelines and then having a coach speak to him moments later. 
      My complaint? The timeout call. What a waste. Think the Tigers could have used that in the game's final ill-fated drive? The clock that ran out, and wiped out what looked like the winning TD pass.
      So typical of the whole Miles era. A waste of time, clock mismanagement (15 wasted seconds between plays need the end, a receiver failing to go out of bounds).
      And a loss, not a last-second undeserved victory, as so many of LSU's "miracle" victories under Miles have been.
       I don't like the trend in college football, the firing of coaches on any day, any time in the season. Used to be firings didn't happen until the end of the season, period. Now coordinators are at risk from game to game, and so are head coaches. Miles wasn't the only one fired Sunday.
       Miles won't go broke, not with buyout LSU will have to pay him, and he'll coach again if he wants to, and he indicated Monday that he does. Some program will hire him, probably for next season.
       Don't feel sorry for him. And many, many LSU faithful, including his players, thank him for representing the university well. He spread good will in the community often, in tough times, and the media appreciated his good moods and cooperation.
        So you keep hearing and reading that he's a good guy. But I have friends, coaching friends in Louisiana I respect, who did not like him, did not respect him, thought he was a fraud and not as good a judge of talent as so many thought. And flat out despised his offensive tactics. 
        Bottom line: It is about winning football games, or at least looking like a well-coached, disciplined team.
        It is obvious, as it was last November, that there were powers-that-be at LSU -- maybe the athletic director, certainly some big-money people on the Board of Supervisors -- who wanted him fired then. 
        I was told by what consider a reliable source not affiliated with newspapers or athletics, that the then-governor (Bobby Jindal), reportedly friendly with Miles, who told the LSU President (King Alexander) to back off, that the huge buyout then would not look good considering the state's woeful educational funding -- do we blame Jindal for that?
        Nothing saved him this time. You can lose to a mediocre Auburn team. You can't lose five in a row to Alabama, or look totally outclassed two years in a row by Ole Miss and Arkansas. You can't always depend on magic tricks.
        So good-bye and good luck -- and thanks -- to Les. It was past time to move on.
        But more good luck for LSU. I hope Orgeron and the Tigers go 9-0 (with a bowl victory), and if he becomes the head coach (after the interim), great. He's perfect for the job; he's a helluva recruiter, and he speaks Cajun.
        They don't all have to be wins. If it looks as if the Tigers know what they're doing, if they are organized and competitive, that would be more acceptable.
        Time for LSU football to be fun again.         


Friday, September 16, 2016

Let's hear it for the bands

      This subject might surprise you. It is sports-related, but it's not sports. It is about bands -- school marching (and playing) bands.
      I love high school and college bands. I always have.
      Football games and, to a lesser extent, basketball games would be a lot more dull without them. These bands are such entertainment, and such spirit boosters.
      I appreciate hard work, the enthusiasm and the spirit of the kids in the band. Seems to me they are having a ton of fun. 
      I thought of writing about this a week ago when late Friday afternoon -- on my usual route that day through the Paschal High School parking lots -- I saw the school band practicing on the new artificial-turf football field.
      It has been a regular feature of those Paschal walks, the band practicing. A year ago, when it was part of the annual UIL regional/state competition -- yes, it is a competitive endeavor in Texas high schools -- those Panthers were out there, and the band directors were drill sergeant-like. I stopped and watched several times.
      Bless their hearts. That took some doing, especially early in the school year when it was still awfully humid-to-hot, even at 4:30 p.m. or so.
      What's nice these days is that with the addition of dance teams and flag bearers -- we didn't have those in the 1950s and '60s; only a few majorettes then -- it gets a lot of young people involved.
      They don't get much publicity, not like our over-scrutinized, over-publicized football and basketball players and teams -- but we are thankful for them. And if band members go on to earn college scholarships or aid, great.
      My love for high school bands, obviously dates to Woodlawn in Shreveport in the early 1960s.
      Those hear those kids -- many of them my friends -- play the fight song, and the alma mater, and The Stripper and the marches they practiced during the week was always a thrill. (More on this below.)
      But even before that, I was aware of the bands at the first college football game I saw -- Louisiana Tech vs. Northwestern State, at the State Fair in 1957.
      The clincher, though, was my first trip to LSU -- fall 1960. I remember "The Golden Band From Tigerland" even more than the football game.
      Because when we arrived on campus, early in the morning, after the overnight train ride from Shreveport (Kansas City Southern railroad, starting at midnight and arriving at maybe 6 a.m.), the band was already practicing. 
      It was fascinating; I was impressed. It was probably five hours until kickoff, and they were out there for about two hours.
      Their numbers -- Tiger Rag, Touchdown for LSU, Fight for LSU, and the alma mater -- stuck in my mind.
      When I listened to LSU games on radio in those days, I relished just hearing the band.
      I can imagine that the LSU bands of the past couple of decades, so sharp-sounding and sharp-looking, practice just as hard.
      OK, so I'm partial, but I've never seen the LSU band -- or the Golden Girls dance team (majorettes?) or the flag bearers -- make a mistake. 
      The football team should be so disciplined (you can laugh here).    
      My love affair with bands continue at Louisiana Tech, where in the mid-1960s, the program got a boost from school president Dr. F. Jay Taylor and the band director, Jimmie Howard Reynolds.
      One of my freshman roommates was a drummer with the band, and because it practiced close to Memorial Gym -- where the sports information office was relocated in my last three years at Tech -- I often heard them while I was working. 
      Wendy was my favorite tune as the band marched down the street toward old Tech Stadium. 
      Tech's band now is known as "The Band of Pride" and for 25 years it has had as its director, The Man in the White Hat ... Jim Robken.
      And just as LSU's songs are dear to me, so are the Tech alma mater and the two fight songs (an old-time one, and one created in the late 1960s, and quickly copied by a dozen North Louisiana high schools).
      But, honestly, give me any of the bands and theme songs -- "The Pride of the Southland" and Rocky Top at Tennessee, "The Showband of the Southwest" (with the huge bass drum) and Texas Fight, "The Pride" and Boomer Sooner at Oklahoma, even the Fightin' Texas Aggie band and the Aggie War Hymn.
      Yeah, the Aggies rock, and the band's marching precision is awesome, if you like those drab uniforms.
      Then there's the "Million-Dollar Band" -- to match what the football players are paid -- and Roll Tide. (Just kidding, OK.)
      I went to the TCU-Arkansas game a week ago, and those bands were fun, too. I've seen them perform, and ... I want to stay positive here. The football teams are better.
      But I really like them all -- Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Southern Cal, Michigan, Ohio State, etc. -- the traditions and the fight songs  All good.
       Better than good: I covered the Grambling-Southern football game about five times, even before it was known as the Bayou Classic. Talk about great halftime shows. Same for the Green Oaks-Booker T. Washington high school rivalry in Shreveport -- the "Soul Bowl" -- and I also covered it several times. 
Not much better than this on college football gameday:  The LSU
band on Victory Hill (photo from New Orleans Times-Picayune)
       I prefer the traditional pregame and halftime shows. Then there's the wild, zany band at Stanford and "The Mob" at Rice. Nothing traditional, certainly not the "uniforms," of those bands, but there are people who enjoy their antics.
       At just about every school, there is now the football team's "walk" through crowds to the stadium, and the band's pregame shows. 
        And all LSU fans can tell you that there is nothing better than the band's march across campus, the stop at the top of Victory Hill right next to Tiger Stadium, the "four corners" salute and then the run down the hill.
        We have marched and then run behind the band. But that was a few years ago.
      At Woodlawn High in the early 1960s, the band practiced during second period within range of the beautiful main building. So during English class, we could hear it play.
      My friend John English -- we were together in school from Sunset Acres through Louisiana Tech -- was a three-year band member at Woodlawn, and band captain our senior year.
       He tells me that the march he remembers practicing so often was called Grandioso, and he remembers the long hours, especially in late summer before school. While the football team had two-a-day practice -- in the heat -- the band also was preparing on another field.
        It was getting ready for games, pep rallies -- and regional and state competitions.
       "The band was a big deal in my life, and to an extent it still is," said John, now an attorney in Houston. "It enhanced my life. ... If you're a member of a group like that, it enhances your experience."
       At a recent class reunion, a group of former band members independently wound up in the school band room and talked about the old days.
       "When we came to Woodlawn, you knew that [band] was at a different level [than in junior high]. You knew that you had to be better than you had been, you had to improve if you wanted to be in the marching band. You had to up your game."
       My opinion: Our band was as good as our football teams, and that was pretty darned good.
      High school bands are a big deal in Texas -- just as they were, for example, in Georgia when I saw several games there a couple of decades ago. 
      The most impressive high school band I've ever seen is Allen High School north of Plano (north of Dallas). It is one of the largest high schools in the country, probably -- some 6,000 students.
      And while the football team dresses out 125 players and is practically unbeatable every year, the band numbered 850. All on the same field -- goal line to goal line -- and the two times I've seen them, they put on a perfect show.       
      Paschal might not be perfect, and not nearly that large. But its our neighborhood school and -- I saw this on the web site this morning -- it is full of tradition. This school began as Fort Worth High School in 1885, and the band began that same year.
      That's right: 1885.
      It became R.L. Paschal High (named for its longtime principal in 1935), and it moved from near downtown (what is now Trimble Tech High in the medical district) to its present location, about a mile from TCU, in 1955.
      While I watched the Paschal kids practice a week ago, I saw a half-dozen school buses lined up in front of the school and I visited with a band parent waiting in a parking lot.
       "It is amazing how much time these kids put into this," he told me.
       Practice ended, and the band began loading onto the buses for a football game in Mansfield, and a ride in very busy rush-hour Fort Worth traffic.       
       When I saw the band director a few moments later, I asked about practice limits. He told me that UIL rules limit band practice to eight hours a week -- not counting the games. But before school started -- just as at Woodlawn in the '60s -- there was "band camp," two-a-day practices, three hours each time. 
         Lots of time invested, just as with all school bands. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.     

Monday, September 5, 2016

This is going to be a long season ... and what's next?

        I did not want to write about the weekly mis-adventure series that is LSU football so soon, but I can't resist.
     To begin, who do you have being LSU's next head  coach? And how soon?
     Next week? Don't laugh. It is a possibility ... if Jacksonville (Ala.) State -- no pushover -- does to the Fighting (?) Tigers what Wisconsin did on Saturday. 
     Wouldn't surprise me. Nothing with LSU football for the last dozen years under head coach Les Miles surprises me.
Brandon Harris and his LSU teammates were woeful and
embarrassed against Wisconsin at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
(photo by Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports)
     You know darned well the "help Mac pack" faction -- oh, sorry, a little flashback there -- no, the "let Les leave" crowd is gathering the money for the contract buyout that I read Sunday is substantially less than the roughly $15 million it would have been last year.
     Can't lose four of your last six games at LSU and not feel the heat.
     Lose your season opener, which had never happened to Miles before at LSU, and lose it with the promise of a better-balanced and maybe even more exciting offense -- didn't happen -- and the hot seat is burning.
     I was ambivalent during the "Miles is fired" onslaught last November. But I'm worn out now. 
     A change might be a good thing. I think it was Steve Spurrier -- now the ex-Head Ball Coach -- who suggested that a dozen years is enough for any head coach at schools these days. The days of long-time tenures (think Joe Paterno, Tom Osborne, Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Mack Brown) now are rare.
    Time for Les to go? More days like Saturday, and it'll be an easy decision. Maybe even Les will agree, although -- as LSU faithful know well -- he is one stubborn individual.
    Keep reading that LSU has as much or more football talent on campus than most schools (except maybe Alabama). I said this last year, and I will repeat: Not true.
    Most people will tell you that the Tigers' main problems the past few years are (1) coaching, be it Miles and/or offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron and (2) quarterback play.
     Yes, yes, and yes. But here is what I believe is the biggest problem: The Tigers' linemen -- offense and defense -- are vastly overrated.

     Better line play, and a lot of problems are solved. But -- my opinion -- against better teams, the Tigers have been whipped up front consistently the past couple of years.
     They've rarely been as dominant as some of the LSU lines for most of Miles' first 10 years there.
     You saw it Saturday. Wisconsin's defensive front so badly outplayed, outmaneuvered, out-willed LSU's offensive line that it made all the difference in the game.
     I've read several reviews that said LSU's defense played at least decently, considering how much it was forced to play. I don't agree.
     Yes, it was the defense which scored the first LSU touchdown and set up the second one with a forced Wisconsin turnover.
     Truth is, the Badgers had several time-consuming drives -- punching holes against the LSU linemen/linebackers or space in the secondary because the Tigers rarely pressured the Wisconsin QB (certainly not to the extent that the Wisconsin defense harassed Brandon Harris).
     When it came to crunch time, LSU trying to protect a 14-13 lead, Wisconsin kept the ball 4 1/2 minutes and drove 48 yards (eight plays, three first downs) to the winning field goal.
     The Badgers had 21 first downs, 339 total yards, 19 pass completions ... and a couple of near-misses. They should have won more easily than they did. 
     So overall LSU's defense was hardly impressive, not anything like some of LSU's finer defenses over the years (the last one in 2011). 
     I had to laugh when one of my friends -- not an LSU fan -- sent me a message right as the game ended, saying "I really miss the Chinese Bandits."
     Very (not) funny.
     Now about the LSU offense ... what's new? Nothing.
     Boring. Haphazard. Not creative enough. Not nearly. Watch other teams' offenses and they're efficient and often unpredictable.
     The quarterback is too erratic; same problem for nine years, or since Matt Flynn in 2007 (national title).
     Zach Mettenberger had some very good games (and great receivers) in his two seasons as the starter (2012-13) but also some subpar ones. Harris is looking more and more like Jordan Jefferson (2008-11) and Anthony Jennings (2014).
     Leonard Fournette is outstanding -- a pro star developing -- but even he cannot do it on his own enough times to overcome a lack of blocking.
     Too many three-and-outs, too many failures (short on 3rd-and-1, then 4th-and-1), too many off-target Harris passes (high, low, wide), two sacks, repeated hurries, too many unblocked defenders spoiling plays.
     Tell me if I'm wrong, but LSU in recent years can never throw an effective screen pass. Either the ball is poorly thrown, or a defender breaks through and makes the tackle after a short or no gain (as Wisconsin did Saturday in a crucial situation).
     As usual, two wasted time outs when play calls didn't come in fast enough from the sideline (or Harris didn't read them quickly enough). A typically weird  "explanation" by Miles after the game.
     A really dumb timeout call by Harris with 2 seconds left in the third quarter to avoid a delay-of-game call. (Take the darned penalty, and save the much more valuable timeout.)
     You'd think he would have improved over last season -- with more coaching from Cameron. Nope -- not yet.
     (If you look at Cameron's resume, his many stops and many good coaching ties, you'd think better results. He has had some success, but rarely at a championship level. He does have a Super Bowl ring, with the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 NFL season ... and they fired him with two games remaining in the regular season.)
     I'm not a fan. Sorry. I've seen many more effective play-callers and quarterbacks coaches.
     Kicking game? Also, still inconsistent and often harmful, a poor punting game and kickoffs that are either short or out of bounds. Happens much too often. Bradley Dale Peveto has been called a good special-teams coach. I question that ... often. Again, not a fan.
     I am a fan of Brandon Harris, as I wrote last year. The kid is from Bossier City and from the school in what was our neighborhood in the 1980s. Playing QB at LSU is a high-profile, high-pressure job. Hope he grows into it; I know he wants to.

    One of my thoughts on the Miles era: The Tigers invariably make it interesting, they more often than not play to the level of their opponent.
     Another thought: If the opposing team is smart and well-coached, and its talent can come close to matching LSU's, it has a great chance to beat the Tigers.
     Wisconsin, on Saturday, was smart, well-coached and more talented than LSU fans might have expected.
     I've written this before, and I'll say it again; it is something everyone knows: Miles has been one of the nation's luckiest coaches. But luck has turned on him and hasn't bailed him out much in recent years.
     In other years, Wisconsin might have missed that final field goal.
     Oh, there's still the great escapes. Take you back to last season when LSU escaped losses -- Mississippi State and Syracuse, to pick two games -- mainly because Fournette made some spectacular runs to save the Tigers' butts.
      Miles better find that lucky charm in the next dozen weeks. He needs to coax his linemen and his QB to play much better and -- and his coaches to find solutions.
      Glenn Guilbeau, who writes columns and stories on LSU for the Gannett Co. papers in the state (Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lafayette) and is one of several Louisiana writers I respect a lot, reminded us Sunday that Miles will not change his philosophies or his quirky ways. He is who he is.
      Might not work much longer here. You can bet that LSU's money brokers in the anti-Miles faction are looking at an offensive-minded head coach successor.
      Already, with the Tigers at 0-1, we're reading/hearing Jimbo Fisher (again), Tom Herman (the hot name at Houston), the unemployed Art Briles (fired in a scandal at Baylor) ... and here is one someone suggested to me -- with a controversial career somewhat rehabilitated as the offensive play-caller at Alabama, Lane Kiffin.
      Spurrier is available. LSU has its chance with him once.
      But maybe Miles and his staff -- and it is a good defensive staff, especially -- can salvage this mess. They better hurry. No. 5 (a ranking far too high, I thought) should be number zero now.
      I have told a few friends this already, but have been reluctant to say it publicly about LSU football. However, I suspect a few people will agree with me:
      I'm disgusted.
      People know: I love LSU, and I love Louisiana Tech. Never would root against either one -- in any endeavor, but especially not in football.
      But as I hinted in a blog post last week, I no longer love football; I merely endure it these days.
      After watching LSU in that woeful game Saturday, I made a decision: I'm not watching for a while. Don't enjoy it, don't need the stress or aggravation. 
      So call me a front-runner. But until things improve, I figure the Tigers can win or lose without me. I'll record the games and watch them later because I'm interested. I apologize for this -- but the Les Miles era has become too hard for me to endure.
     Who's next?