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?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

At the end of the day ... stand up, sit down

       Let's see: Colin Kaepernick, sitting, not standing ... Anthony Weiner, doing what (again)? ... Rick Perry, dancing ... Hillary's e-mails and the Clinton Foundation ... Trump and his daily blurtations ... Tony Romo's back ... Ryan Lochte, lying (no, dancing).
    Lots to be angry about, isn't it?
    We can be angry every day, if we choose to be. I'd like to choose to not be angry; done enough of that in my life.
    So I'm going to laugh at all this craziness.
    But, hey, it's college football season. That we can like.
    (But some people -- I can't divulge names -- are so anti-football, period, that we can't discuss it here. I'll leave it at that. It's OK.)
    Quick hitters ...
    -- Colin: Plenty of you are plenty upset about his national anthem sitdown. Fine. Frankly, in my opinion, he can do what he wants. He wants to make a statement, he has to take the criticism that comes with it. (Borrowing these thoughts from a friend.)
      What the hell does he care? He's making $11.9 million this season.
     The way I see it, he isn't playing football worth a darn, so he has to find a way to call attention to himself.
    He has succeeded. He's not the first to protest this way   and he probably won't be the last.
      A friend re-posted an story on Facebook in which Jackie Robinson, in his 1967 autobiography, wrote, in part: "... I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag."
      Jackie Robinson is revered in baseball.
      Look, I think it's disrespectful, and I always would stand for the anthem and the flag. But it's America; he has the right to protest, and at least it's a peaceful protest. We've had too many bloody, angry protests.
      But to call him names, to call anyone names, I'm just not into that. It makes me question your (lack of) respect.
      Here's what I think happened: New 49ers coach Chip Kelly said to him: Colin, you are playing like crap. Go take a seat on the bench. And he did.
       If I was a 49ers fan, I'd be PO'd about that six-year, $126 million contract they gave him two years ago. That's $21 million a year average; that's today's sports world. Salaries so overblown, athletes so overblown. Where are our priorities?
        -- I have a solution: The Cowboys need a quarterback, or at least an experienced backup (to our man from Haughton, the rookie and now-starter Dak Prescott). So Kaepernick goes to join "America's Team." Now that's a laugh.
        Hey, Jerry Jones likes to take chances.
        -- Tony Romo: Three plays -- three preseason plays -- and that might be it for his 2016 season. Sure, they're saying he'll be back. Want to bet $27 million on it? 
        Taken from a Cowboys' web site press release on Romo's contract in November 2014: "Romo's base [salary] is only $8.5 million for 2016, but with 2015's restructure it places his cap hit at $27.1 million; so no way Romo  is not the Cowboy starter in 2016."
          Oh, yes, there is. Back fractures. 
          -- I'll say it again; I said it last year: I do NOT care about the NFL anymore, not even about the Cowboys. Not the Saints, either. Don't intend to watch one second of play this season. (Yes, I've at least partially joined my no-football companion.)
         And here is one major reason why: I was asked by a Facebook friend to check on tickets for a Cowboys' preseason game a couple of weeks ago. I was given a list of ticket prices. One word: outrageous.
       My take: Paying -- any amount -- to see an NFL preseason game is the biggest ripoff in American sports. Period.
        I don't care about the NFL.
        -- Oh, wait, a couple more Romo thoughts:
        (1) We like Romo; we do. But let's face reality: Colin Kaepernick came within a few yards, and one completion, of leading his team to a Super Bowl championship. Romo hasn't come close to the Super Bowl ever.
        (2) Yes, Romo has been a talented, exciting player, and he's handled all of the ups and downs as well as anyone can. And, yet ... In the best imitation of Danny White, he's had the most star-crossed career for what has become a star-crossed franchise.
Not watching, no longer an NFL fan, but I will root for this kid --
 Dak Prescott, of Haughton, La. (photo by Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)
        (3) Not watching, but silently really rooting for Dak Prescott. I'm partial to Shreveport-Bossier athletes, and I have fond memories of many trips for visits and games to Haughton, where Dak went to high school. Still have lots of friends living there. 
        -- Speaking of The Star, here's a real true-to-life outrage item: Frisco, Texas, voters turned down a 13-cent property tax increase that would have funded pay raises for the school district's teachers and help hire new teachers. It means some coaches in the district might lose their jobs. 
      I have a Facebook friend, a newspaper friend, who angrily -- curses! -- denounced Frisco voters and pointed out that a couple of years ago they happily approved $115 million to contribute "to the richest sports franchise on the planet" for  the building of The Star, the Cowboys' superstar office/training complex that just opened in Frisco.
       Another friend, an old Woodlawn High friend who is a longtime teacher in the Frisco district, posted in a more genteel manner how she felt "physically ill," "sadness" and "heartbroken" about the vote, but how much she still loves teaching her students.  
       Entertainment over education? Never should be that way. Especially if it's the NFL and Jerry Jones who benefit.       
      -- My sportswriting buddy, O.K. Davis, tweeted recently that the most overused cliché in interviews these days is "at the end of the day." He's right. See how many times you hear it or read it today?
      -- I was told to not use an Anthony Wiener joke. Can't help myself. Has there ever been a more (in)appropriate name for this -- uh, behavior -- than Wiener?
      -- We've loved watching Dancing With The Stars for years. This might be the season we don't watch. The cast of celebrities was announced this week, and we're dismayed.
      We know Rick Perry should do very well dancing to his right. We know Ryan Lochte will dance around the truth.
      Dancing around the truth brings us back to Donald and Hillary. Oh, never mind. At the end of the day, we don't want to comment. 
        -- Outstanding first weekend of college football matchups: LSU-Wisconsin, Southern Cal-Alabama, Clemson-Auburn, UCLA-Texas A&M, Oklahoma-Houston, Notre Dame-Texas, Ole Miss-Florida State ... and, yes, Louisiana Tech-Arkansas.
        We'll start with a major vs. mid-major matchup tonight: My Smith family's Tennessee Vols at Rocky Top Stadium vs. App State.
         Our youngest grandson, Eli Smith, almost 2, now repeats phrases when prompted. When I asked him to say, "Go Vols," he quickly said, "Go Vols." When I asked him to say, "Go Tigers" ... silence.
         What the ... ?
         I do have two grandsons who know how to say "Geaux Tigers," and they've seen Mike the Tiger and they've been in Tiger Stadium, and they can mimic the LSU band. So there.
         At the end of the day (tonight), I'll be watching college football ... without the other person who lives here. Might even stand up for the national anthem. Thank you.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Natchitoches, a macho man with a soft heart

       The calls still come in, not quite as frequently and not quite as boisterously, but once in about six weeks, I hear the familiar voice.
    "Chinaman, [blank] [blank] you," he says. "You little [blank]. Why don't you ever answer your phone? I can't ever get you. ... When are you going to come down here and see me?
Bettye and Jim Bruning, in good times
    Few have ever said Jim Bruning was subtle, or politically correct. And, yeah, you can fill in the blank-blanks.
    It has been almost three decades since he was Coach Bruning -- the head football coach at first Natchitoches, La., High School and then, after integration, Natchitoches-Central High.
    And he was a darned good football coach. He coached at those schools for 20 years -- the last 12 (1966-77) as head coach. He spent practically his whole life in Natchitoches, and those were his only coaching jobs.
    Most years, he was a big part of winning teams. But one year was special -- 1969. Natchitoches High, in its last year, won the only state championship (Class AA) in the program's history. 
    The people in that mid-sized North Louisiana city remember that. Bruning's players that year still relish it, still get together to celebrate the good times.
    Bruning was a big man in Natchitoches, and still is. More than football, what people know, what his players and ex-students know, is he was a true friend, an endearing personality.
    He was gruff and tough, an old-school disciplinarian ... and he was funny, and fun, and full of mischief.
The young couple, with baby Janyce
    He is 83 now, and his health has been -- is -- a concern. Walking is difficult and even breathing is a problem. I'll spare further details, but being in an assisted-care facility and in a hospital isn't his choice.
    It's been a lonely existence of sorts since 2009 when Bettye, the attractive dark-haired girl he married in 1956, died of breast cancer, eight years after the first diagnosis. They spent a lot of their last two decades traveling together.
    The three children -- Janyce, 59; Harryette, 55, and Jim Jr. ("Bubba" to everyone), 52 -- are long gone from Natchitoches. Two live in Texas, one relatively closeby in North Louisiana, but they check on Dad often. So do his many friends. 
    And he'll call those friends, anytime he feels like it. One of those is a retired sportswriter -- also in Texas -- who he entertains with, well, a practically one-way conversation -- Coach's hearing is almost nonexistent -- but so what?
    I'm expecting analysis of LSU football and the Northwestern State Demons in the coming weeks. Because Bruning is not shy of [blank-blank] opinions.
    Covering high school athletics for The Shreveport Times or Shreveport Journal in the '60s, '70s and '80s meant lots of visits to schools -- particularly in the immediate area -- and phone calls to coaches, particularly those farther from Shreveport-Bossier. 
    So I covered games involving Bruning's teams only a few times, but the first was memorable -- the 27-7 Class AA state-title victory against Tallulah at old Demon Stadium in Natchitoches in December 1969. That was at the end of my first football season as a fulltime employee at The Times. 
    I'd see Bruning and his assistant coaches scouting games, and he'd always have some clever things to say (OK, some BS), and we'd laugh. 
    But our friendship became more than writer-coach because of a story I did before the 1973 season opener. Because Jim Bruning was bold and brash in a hilarious way.
    His 1972 team had been 10-2 and shared a district championship, but the 1973 opener was a real challenge -- at Neville (Monroe).
    That was never an easy game for any visitors (and still isn't). But Neville then was the defending Class AAAA state champion and, as always, a formidable opponent.
    So I called Bruning early that week and asked how he felt about his team going to play at Neville.
    "We're going to beat their butts," he said (don't think he used "butts"). Of course, I laughed and said, "You want me to print that?"            
    "Yeah, I don't care," he replied, and then went on to say that his guys wouldn't be scared, wouldn't be intimidated, that they had a game plan to win, that Neville was just a good opponent but could be had, etc., etc.
    Disbelieving -- and laughing -- I asked again if he was sure that I could use these quotes. Sure, he said.
    Neville's coaches always loved using the "us against the world" hype to pump up their players, so this bulletin-board stuff was perfect for them.
    "Hey, next time you're down here, stop by and I'll buy you a steak," Bruning said.
    The story ran -- on a Wednesday, I think -- with the quotes, a little toned down. 
    On Friday night, Neville beat Natchitoches-Central 42-0.
    On a trip back from South Louisiana to cover a playoff game late that season, I called Bruning ... and he (and Bettye) bought me a steak dinner.
    "If you ever need a place to stay when you're coming this way, you can stay with us," Jim said. (Their new home was big enough to house his starting lineup.)
    Took him up on that -- several times. I was single and hungry, and so Bubba -- then about 10 or 11, but already bigger than me (there's a laugh) -- was my roommate.
    It was during one visit that he said, "What kind of name is that you have? Are you from China?" And, from that point, I was "Chinaman." (Who knows why? I think Dutchman would have been more accurate. But not for Jim.)
    Let's see, I think the steak or catfish dinner count is up to about a dozen. I have been reminded of this, oh, about 150 times over the years. But there is no way that Bruning would ever let me pay, even if I offered.
    Of course, I reminded of Neville, and 42-0, and butt-beating a few times.     
    And the phone calls -- when I was living in Florida, Tennessee or Texas -- always came. Coach Bruning liked talking about sports, and life.
The coach and his kids: Janyce, Jim Jr. ("Bubba")
and, at her wedding, Harryette
    His children will tell you that the coach was much the same at home as in football.
    "He was pretty demanding," said Janyce Bruning Kinley, a social studies/world languages coordinator in the Bryan (Texas) school district. "He was very loving and crazy, doing stuff that drove mother crazy, like when it was snowing and the roads were icy, and he's doing donuts in the street.
    "He was the disciplinarian of the house, but also the fun one."
    On Janyce's Facebook page, a friend -- Danelle Moon -- posted this: "Your Dad wore a football helmet on the day I started driver's ed and he made a statement in front of other students, 'Well, Lusby" is driving today, looks like I'm gonna be eating my knees!' He was the best instructor ever ... and a hoot!"
    "A great daddy," said Harryette Tinsley, who lives near Arcadia, La., and teaches computer classes at Ruston High School. "He was there to support us, no matter what I did or screwed up. He was very stern, believed in right or wrong.
    "He loved my mother with all his heart. He might act rough and tough, but he had such a big heart."
    And, as Harryette noted, one of Jim's fondest wishes is that all four of the Bruning grandchildren earn their college educations.
    "Caring," said big Bubba Bruning, a tax accountant for an oil company in Humble, Texas. "He'd do anything for you, but he wanted you to learn to do things for yourself. He was a disciplinarian; he wanted you to do things right.
    "I learned to iron because of him," he added. "He wouldn't let me out of the house (for school) unless I was neatly dressed."
    Bettye and Jim loved to travel, always, so they hitched the trusty camper to Jim's truck and "they showed us much of the country," Bubba said. "Mom being a librarian (research librarian at Northwestern State, then school librarian for a dozen at Natchitoches-Central), we had to learn all that [history]."
     Son-in-law Allen Kinley, who played and coached at Woodlawn High in Shreveport, played at Northwestern and for a couple of decades has been a weight-training coach for Texas A&M athletics, said Bruning "has been like another Dad."
      When Allen met Janyce in his first week at NSU and they began dating, Coach Bruning soon pulled out the game film from a Natchitoches-Woodlawn game and checked out Woodlawn's No. 84 at linebacker, "and then he called [Woodlawn principal] Bubba Cook" for a scouting report.
      He received approval. "If I had not gotten along with him," Kinley said, "I don't think his daughter would have stayed.
      "He's been very accepting of me. He gave me a hard time about being from Woodlawn, but we've always had mutual respect from the beginning."
      Kinley said that he "amazed that every time we visit, there are a lot of his ex-players there to visit with him."
      And even in the assisted-living facility and the hospital, Janyce said, "He's very social. The more people around, the more he likes it.
      "He cares about people. He'll tease them, get on them about their bad habits, and so on, but he has a bigger-than-life personality.
       "At the hospital, a nurse asked him, 'Is there anyone in town who doesn't know you?' "
    James Lindwind Bruning grew up in Clarence, a village seven miles east of Natchitoches. He was known there as "Sonny" and he grew tall and slim, and was a talented athlete -- especially in baseball, and good enough in football at Natchitoches High in about 1950 to earn a scholarship to LSU.
    But when LSU wanted him to redshirt as a freshman, after about a week he went home to Natchitoches -- and to Northwestern State. He lettered as an end in 1952, but messed around in school and ended up in the U.S. Army and a stint mostly served in Germany.
    He came home, back to Northwestern, and Bettye -- engaged to someone else -- soon was his wife. He lettered for the Demons in 1955-56-57, and his field goal to beat McNeese State 23-20 in 1957 helped coach Jack Clayton's first NSC team share a conference championship.
    The next year, with the Bruning family growing, Jim joined the coaching staff of his own coach, Trent Melder, at Natchitoches High. He was there to stay.
    In 1958 and '59, the Red Devils were district champs, with a 10-0 regular season in '59 but a state semifinals loss. In 1960, a 9-1 record wasn't enough to make the playoffs (only the district champ qualified then).
    Then came a decline, and Melder stepped out of coaching after the 1965 season. Bruning took over the program, and the first year was rough -- a 2-8 record.
    But he was building discipline, and a stable, loyal coaching staff, and what followed was six playoff years in succession -- records of 9-2, 9-3-1, 14-0, 9-3, 8-3, 10-2.
    After four district titles (or shares) in six years, Bruning's last five seasons of coaching were so-so. Still, he got out -- into a decade of work for an oil distributor in town -- with an 80-50-3 record over a dozen seasons ... and a lot of respect.
    The 1969 Natchitoches High team produced a magical, once-in-a-lifetime season.
    Led by a talented backfield -- All-State quarterback Gene Knecht Jr., tailback Rand Dennis and junior fullback Jim Knecht -- that was as big as the Red Devils' linemen, the team survived a close call in the season opener (7-6 vs. Mansfield), routed its next seven opponents (scoring 28 to 42 points each time), then survived five close games in a row (its first three playoff games) before dominating the state-title game.
    Gene Knecht made All-State; so did center Steve McCain (also the next season), linebacker Ricky Whittington and defensive back Joe Beck Payne. 
    Dennis and Jim Knecht went on to play at LSU; Gene Knecht also signed with LSU, but after a year there, transferred to NSU, which Gene Knecht Sr. was the longtime defensive backs coach.
    Bruning was selected Class AA "Coach of the Year."
    "He was an exceptional coach," said Jim Knecht. "A good motivator. He motivated you to go beyond what you thought you could do.
    "He expected you to do your best. If you didn't, he'd let you know. He got the best out of his players."
    Dennis said Bruning was "a figurehead type head coach" who let his assistants handle the details, such as Levi Thompson devising different offensive schemes each week.
    "We had kids who had brains," said Jim Knecht, "... who were smart, fast and strong. We lined up in slots and trips (formations); no other teams had seen those then."
    "We had good players across the board," said Dennis.
    "Smartest group of kids I ever coached," said Dan Poole, for a decade the school's defensive backs and track/field coach until -- in his words -- he was "demoted" to school principal. "It was the whole team, and they were also very competitive, adjusted to changes very quickly."
    And he credits Bruning for this: "I don't know how he could read the kids so well. We had kids who didn't look very good in practice, but Jim would play them. He knew which ones would come through in critical situations; he would pick the right ones. He was just great at picking personnel.
    "He grew up here, so he knew the families and the kids."
    The connection started early. Stuart Wright, Natchitoches-Central's starting quarterback for three seasons (1970-72) and as a freshman the backup to Gene Knecht in 1969, remembers that "what made a difference in our program (in high school) was that he was at every one of our junior high games. He knew us better than we knew him."
   His kids, and his players, will tell you: Coach Bruning kept up with everyone.
   "The main thing I remember," said Wright, "is he'd get on your case in a heartbreak; he got on everyone. But he was a really genuine great guy. His bark was a lot worse than his bite. He really loved the kids through the years. He's been like a second father to all of us."
   Same from Jim Knecht: "He's a guy who was almost like a father. He's kept up with all of us; showed true interest in our lives. He really cares, and that makes a difference."
   Wright is an attorney in Natchitoches and was first assistant district attorney in Natchitoches Parish. Knecht has been a family medicine doctor for 30-plus years in Natchitoches, and a team physician for Northwestern State and Natchitoches-Central's football teams for decades.
   "He really cared about his players; he would do anything to help them in their lives," added daughter Harryette.
   "What we remember is he always had such a gruff exterior," said Rand Dennis, for 35 years a litigation attorney in Baton Rouge and now living in San Antonio. "He would bark at you, but you know there'd be a smile right behind that."
    Knecht and Dennis played together at LSU in the early 1970s, giving Natchitoches half of the Tigers' starting defensive backs -- a proud Coach Bruning watching them often.
    What the players also knew was that their coach's concern covered more than football.
    "If we were playing hooky from school," recalled Dennis, "he'd come out in town and find us. He'd watch out for us."
    "I remember him many nights calling parents to check on the players, make sure they were home," recalled daughter Janyce. "Same on the weekends. And if they weren't home, he went into town to find them."
    Wright, who often has treated the coach to meals in recent years said Jim's memory " is better than mine. He remembers games, and people. You go in and he recognizes you immediately."
    He credits Bruning's influence for helping pave a smooth transition in a rough period when court-ordered integration forced the merger of practically all-white Natchitoches High and all-black Central High in 1970.
    The new school emerged on the west side of town on the Highway 1 bypass. The old Natchitoches High, located on the Northwestern State campus along University Parkway, became the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.
    With that in mind, Bruning felt as if the 1969 state championship trophy belonged to old Natchitoches High and the team players. For years, that trophy sat in the Bruning home, in the large recreation room/den; I kidded him about it often. Later, it began being rotated among the players. Word is that John Williams, in Tyler, has it now.
    That '69 team, with some from preceding and succeeding classes, reunites every June for an outing at nearby Toledo Bend.
    "It's been a wonderful thing," said Dennis, saying that while he was able Bruning brought crawfish to the Friday night gathering. "He thinks of us as his boys, and we like that he does. It's been rewarding."
    The 1978 Natchitoches-Central yearbook includes a copy of a letter written on behalf of Bruning's players in his final season of coaching. Harryette provided it, it is entitled "Coach" and it reads:
    "In the past years the senior football players have given our head coach an award. This year's award, which represents our love, respect and admiration, has been, and is, much more meaningful because we are coach's last group of seniors.
    "Coach Bruning's overall record speaks for itself; however, no won or loss record can ever reveal the success that this man has had in the growth and development of young men. Records are for statisticians or spectators and never can be used to judge the value of a man. No won or loss record can ever picture the father image of Coach Bruning. Prints are just numbers on a scoreboard and are short-lived, whereas Coach Bruning's image of a man will live with us forever.
    " 'Macho' is a Spanish word meaning 'all man.' Until eternity, we seniors will remember you as our coach who was, and is, 'macho.' "
    My friend, macho.
    I am waiting for the next call, the next blank-blank politically incorrect opinion ... and the next steak dinner.   

Monday, August 22, 2016

"That Bolt guy" and other Olympics stories

       My Olympics observations ...
     I have always been an Olympics fan -- as I wrote in a blog piece before the 2012 Summer Games in London began -- so I again reveled in Rio and Brazil these past two weeks. 
    Didn't spend as much time watching on TV as others did, but I watched enough. Could not turn away from track and field -- still love it after all these years -- and the best part was this was a wonderful diversion from the gawd-awful, never-ending political and social media discussions (and I use "discussions" loosely).
Matt Centrowitz's golden 1,500-meter run finish
(The Washington Post photo)

    Before I go any further, here is my favorite story of these Olympics: Matthew Centrowitz Jr.'s gold-medal glory in the men's 1,500-meter run. 
    Oh, hallelujah. What a story. Son of an Olympic-runner father, son of a track/cross country coach. The first United States winner of this event in 108 years.
     Jim Ryun, somewhere in Kansas, had to be overjoyed. Those of us who loved Jim Ryun -- our favorite runner in 1964 through 1972 -- had to love it. 
     This one was long, long overdue -- at least 48 years overdue. (More on this below.)  
      We were on Facetime last week and asked our 8-year-old granddaughter, Josie -- who has been taking gymnastics lessons for a few years -- if she was watching the Olympics.
    "Yes, the gymnastics," she answered, "and that Bolt guy."
    Yes, even our precocious children know of Mr. Bolt, the fastest runner in history, a forever legend, a charismatic (and kind of crazy) character.
    I think Josie liked his lightning-bolt victory pose. We all got to see it nine times in nine races ... over three Summer Olympics. He is awesome.
     But so were Michael Phelps (again and again -- dang, 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold), Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, and so many others ... and the beautiful, joyful country of Brazil.
    Despite all the pre-Olympics concerns, and some tacky Olympic stories (unfortunately, American-made), Rio did it right.
    Those of us who love the pageantry and the traditions of the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies had to be satisfied. Maybe other cities/countries have spent many more dollars, but they did not put on any better, more colorful shows, than Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
      There is, for me, a lot of pride in seeing the United States athletes dominate the competition, especially in track/field and swimming and basketball. But, gosh, shouldn't we expect that -- as much money and time as we invest in pro, college and even at the high school/amateur levels?
       It's good to be an American.
       It is also good -- and I think you'll understand this -- to be a native Dutchman.
       I still feel emotional when I see The Netherlands flag being carried in or -- better yet -- on the gold-medal flag pole. And in the closing ceremony Sunday night, it was great to see the athletes at one moment dressed in a sea of orange; no question what country that represented.
       Had a friend send me a text early in the Olympics -- when the U.S. faced Holland in, I think, women's volleyball -- asking me who I rooted for in U.S.-Holland games.
       My answer: It depends. If it's men's soccer, no question -- the Dutch team was/is my first love. If it's speed skating or bicycling, probably Holland, but not always. Anything else, let the best team win ... I'm rooting for both. (Think Louisiana Tech vs. LSU.)
       But, honestly, I do think there is a bit too much nationality involved in the Olympics, too much flag-waving. Just my view. I enjoy seeing any superior performance by any athlete from any country.
       Some of the great moments, for instance, were Mo Farah's double golds-- repeated from four years ago -- in the men's 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, and the amazing 400-meter world record by the runner from South Africa.
       It is also nice, U.S./Dutch partisanship aside, to see the host country take some significant gold medals. Brazil deserved that, just for its Olympic host efforts. So good for its men's volleyball team, and its men's beach volleyball pair ... and, yes, men's soccer.
       For Brazil, that final men's soccer victory-- on the hallowed turf of Maracana Stadium -- was the one it wanted. Brazil thinks of itself as the king of soccer.
        But, but, but ...
        Look, it was all the drama you wanted -- a tie game with Germany, a penalty-kick shootout after extra time (have I told you lately how much I detest PK shootouts to settle world-level soccer games?), and superstar Neymar's final golden PK.
        Let me remind you, these are basically under-23 national teams. These are not THE national teams.
        Make what you want that this was an equalizer for what happened in the Brazil-Germany semifinal of the World Cup -- in Brazil -- two years ago. No, it wasn't. That 7-1 Germany victory, a Brazil embarrassment, was achieved by the best players in the world, not under-23 teams. So there.
      Now about women's soccer. Those are the national teams, and so it was tough for the U.S. world champions to lose a PK shootout to Sweden after a 0-0 tie. It was tougher to hear U.S. goalie Hope Solo -- who made her team spokesman? -- carp about Sweden's team being "cowards."
      Shut up, Hope, and tell you teammates to score and keep you from being the victim in the PK shootout.
      Speaking of shutting up. Ryan Lochte, what the hell? This was the most overblown, overrated story of these Olympics. I guess NBC -- carrying the games on TV here -- felt that it had to be the news lead/interview subject, repeatedly. Too much, just a punked-out story.
       And then there was the overblown public reaction to gymnast Gabby Douglas not showing what many felt was the lack of respect during the U.S. national anthem. C'mon, people, give her a break; she's represented this country well for two Olympics.
       Now, Matt Centrowitz Jr. -- "like father, like son," as the tattoo on his chest says, and he proudly showed it off.
       Like Dad, who ran in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he also followed him to run at the University of Oregon. He wanted the Olympic medal Dad didn't get, and four years ago in London he missed out by a split second of a podium finish in the 1,500.
       Watching Matt Jr., I could not help but think of Jim Ryun in the prelims and then the final Saturday night. 
Jim Ryun: 1972 Summer Olympics
(Getty Images)
       Because for three Olympics (1964, 1968, 1972), I rooted for no athlete more than Jim Ryun. He was 1 1/2 months older than me, and he was the first high school athlete to break 4 minutes in the mile run (in our junior-year spring, 1964). The next year, he set a national high school mile-run record (3:55.3) that stood for 36 years. He was in the Olympics at age 17.
        A year later, running for Kansas University (his hometown was Wichita), he set world records in the mile (3:51.3) and 880 yards (1:44.9). He was one of America's greatest athletes then.
         We thought he'd win the 1,500-meter gold for sure in the 1968 Olympics. But running in the mile-high altitude of Mexico City, even though he ran a career-best 3:37.8, he finished almost three seconds behind Kip Keino of Kenya, who was accustomed to running at heights. 
         Ryun had beaten Keino several times on flat land, and I am convinced he would have done so if the Olympics had been on flat land.
         But what we also didn't know then was that Keino was the first of what would become decades-long distance-running domination by Kenyans.                     
        And that only the first of two Olympics heartbreaks for Ryun (and us). Even worse was four years later in Munich's Summer Games when Jim was tripped up and fell during a qualifying heat. He was out; the U.S. protest was denied by Olympic officials.
        Ryun always remained one of our heroes. I wasn't a political fan (he was a very conservative 10-year House of Representatives member from Kansas), but some things can be forgiven.
        Matt Centrowitz, on Saturday, led almost the entire race, and set a very slow pace, much to his liking. When it came time for the sprint -- and the field included the past two Olympic champions in the event -- he held them all off in a gutsy, determined, golden effort.
        So what if it was the slowest men's 1,500-meter final (3:50) in 84 years? It was pure gold.
        Made my Olympics. For Josie, it was "that Bolt guy."