Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 was blessed for us ... Happy New Year

      In preparation to write this year-end wrapup, I had to consult my daily gratitude journal to review the highlights of our 2014. That was fun, and I'll get to some of that in a moment, but I can sum it up: We had a blessed year.
     Didn't need to look up the date of the best day of the year. That was Sept. 19 -- my mother's birthdate and the day Eli Smith -- our fourth grandchild -- was born.
Rachel posted this on Facebook on Tuesday
     That was a "wow" day, a nervous day for me, but what a thrill when Rachel, just a few minutes after delivering beautifully and surprisingly quickly, posted the first photo of Eli on Facebook with Bea and me looking at it while sitting in the waiting room. "There he is!" I exclaimed.  
     It was a joy, too, to see older sister Josie, then about to turn 7, come bouncing into the hospital room a couple of hours later with the Smith grandparents and take her turn holding Mr. Eli. They've made a great pair these past three-plus months, and Josie -- as she reminds us -- can read. Plus, she's writing books and magazines (I'm not kidding).
     But we get just as much joy -- and laughs -- from our first two grandsons. This year we watched them in swimming lessons and play on soccer teams for the first time, and Jacob went to kindergarten and Kaden gets into all kinds of mischief -- and keeps smiling.
     Obviously, those kids and their parents are what make every year wonderful for us. But there's so much more. We enjoy our lives as senior citizens here in Fort Worth.
     And before I go further, I am going to announce that we intend to get younger next year. (More on that at the end.)
     We attended a half-dozen entertaining Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Pops Series concerts at Bass Hall; among the best, the music of John Williams and then Marvin Hamlisch. But the highlight was Bea's favorites (and birthday present), the Gala with world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma. We went to Sundance Square for a Van Cliburn Tribute on the one-year anniversary of his death.
     We went to UT-Arlington for Maverick Speaker Series sessions featuring Anderson Cooper, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Nina Totenberg, Bill Rasmussen. Plus, there were old movies and jazz concerts and one piano concert at the Fort Worth Central Library.
    A great year for book reading; between printed books, the Kindle and -- thanks to our daughter's influence -- audio books (on our lengthy trips), plus the Beth-El monthly book club, I probably totaled more books than I have in three or four decades.
    We kept upgrading with new stuff: In our apartment, carpets in the bedrooms; wood flooring everywhere else; bedroom blinds; our first flat-screen TV, boxes for the U-Verse; brown shoes and a beige lightweight suit for me; beautiful scarves, a royal blue dress and a yoga outfit for Bea.
    The biggest change of all, maybe, smartphones for both of us -- Bea's first. This was done much to her dismay, and the (unexpected) change from IPhone to Android wasn't easy. (Now she says she's learned to appreciate her phone.)
    Our big trip of the year -- remember, it was my home country, The Netherlands, in 2013 -- was the long drive to Savannah, Georgia, for the spring wedding of our niece Abby (my sister Elsa's daughter). Beautiful event, beautiful and historic place.
    That also led to the first of three trips to Knoxville (Rachel and Russell's home, and we lived there in the late 1990s). Back in September for the week's wait for Eli; then we had to go back and see him again Thanksgiving week.
    One enjoyable week was Rachel and Josie's annual stay with us. And how about those nights when Jacob and Kaden -- who live an hour away -- were here? Kaden, only 2 then, was a little unsettled a year ago, so he stayed up and watched all of the Sugar Bowl game with me.
    There were a couple of trips to see family and old friends in Shreveport-Bossier. The first, on Jan. 3, I made for the funerals of J.W. Cook and Ann Thaxton on the same day; the second was Aug. 1 when Coach A.L. Williams was among those inducted into an athletic Hall of Fame (his second honor of the year).
    We loved going to an early Shaw Family Thanksgiving in central Texas (Bea was a Shaw). On a few occasions, I reconnected with old friends -- some from Louisiana Tech, some from my newspaper past, some on Facebook -- and we made some new friends right here in the apartments and in Fort Worth.
    We are grateful for our family and friends, always.
    One of the best things of the year was -- I'm sure most will agree -- the rapid fall in gas prices. When they get down to 29 cents a gallon, I know we really will be back in the great decade of the 1960s.
    I have grown to like Facebook -- despite too much negative/political commentary -- and in particular the Throwback Thursday photos. I got into Twitter, too, where news and opinion is instantaneous. And television remains a big part of our lives.
    This year's TV highlights for me: the Barbara Walters retirement/goodbye; the Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga  special on PBS; specials on Bing Crosby, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Big Bands as part of KERA (public TV) fund-raising periods; and the tops: A Football Life on Roger "The Dodger" Staubach on the NFL Network. 
    One special video, found through Facebook (and re-posted): A recap of our Woodlawn High School buddy, LSU quarterback and Vietnam War victim Trey Prather, done by Rick Rowe of KTBS-TV in Shreveport.
    We're still Dancing With The Stars fans and Season 19 this fall provided two memorable moments: (1) the night Alfonso Ribeiro Jr. did "The Carlton" dance he made famous years ago on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and (2) when he and partner Witney Carson won the competition, as I predicted at the first of the season.
     I watched more college football and the NCAA men's basketball tournament than I have in years -- it was as exciting, or more, than I can remember -- and I watched less baseball ... until the playoffs. They were fabulous; the Kansas City Royals were a tremendous story but could not conquer the San Francisco Giants, the every-other-year champions. And Madison Bumgarner did a helluva Sandy Koufax impersonation. 
     For me personally, it wasn't much of a sports year. The only real fun the Yankees had was the year-long so-long for Derek Jeter, a class act to the end of his career. But all-Jeter all the time was a bit much. LSU football wasn't what he wanted -- right through Tuesday's bowl-game loss to Notre Dame -- but Louisiana Tech won nine games and was fun to watch in men's basketball. Plus, hiring Tyler Summitt as the women's basketball coach was an attention getter.
     But The Netherlands gave me some thrills, first with an astounding domination of speed skating in the Winter Olympics -- repeated gold-silver-bronze for the Orange team -- and then in the World Cup of Soccer.
     Didn't win it (those Germans did), but Holland didn't lose a game, only a confounded penalty-kick shootout in the semifinals. And there were some great wins in there -- a 5-1 walloping of mighty defending champion Spain, with Robin Van Persie's spectacular flying-header goal, and finally a 3-0 rout of host Brazil. Yeah, the beautiful game.
     Bea continued to watch, love and support her Dallas Mavericks, no matter what.
     One near highlight, right down the street at Colonial Country Club: David Toms of Shreveport led the Colonial golf tournament going into the back nine on Sunday, looking for his second title there in four years. He faded, but as always, it was fun to follow him.
     Back to the Dutch: One of the best gifts I received all year was a Holland World Cup soccer scarf, sent by Ron Nierman. Another good gift: a CD of 1960s/'70s music, 1,100 songs, from Sid Huff. Another one, from Ron: old clippings -- some of my stories/columns -- from my Dad's desk at his workplace.
     Which reminds me of a project I worked on all year: scanning clippings from my writing career and other clippings I'd saved, going from paper to digital. Lots of room on the hard drive, and there's more to do.
     Other projects: Organizing family photos (especially old ones of my parents) into albums and scanning them in digitally, and working on the family genealogy. That was part of the 34-chapter series I completed on my Dad, centered on his Holocaust experiences. 
     They are on my blog, and I will continue blogging next year, although -- obsessive as I can be -- I decided that two blog pieces every week was no longer necessary. So I will write when I want to write ... and I hope you keep reading.
     Might have a surprise, too, if it works out. Stay tuned.
     No year is without losses, and some were stunning: Robin Williams on Aug. 11 and then Jimmy Moore, son of good friends.
     More personal deaths: High school friends Tommy Watson and Terry Rice; family friends Sylvia Katz and Herb Broughton; the funny David DeFatta; journalism stars Wiley Hilburn Jr., Jeff Fries and Bobby Dower; and Mr. Bill Bradshaw, father of a famous quarterback. Have to add this one: daughter-in-law's old dog Keeley.
     Feel for those friends who became widows or widowers.
     I kept walking, and had some big-money finds: 98 pennies in one place one day, a $10 bill, a bronze dollar one day and a silver half-dollar two days later, and just last week, eight quarters right by the curb on a major street in this area.
     But it's not about money, it's about exercising, which -- finally -- brings me to being younger next year. That's the name of a book Bea has been reading, and on which we heard a presentation, and I have started it, and the emphasis is on mind-set of an active, healthy lifestyle.
     So Bea has stepped up her exercise routine -- including strength work and stamina, and yoga -- and she encouraged me to join the Downtown YMCA, located about a minute's walk from where I worked for nine years (and I'd never been in the building).
     The intention is to work harder and tone up the body and maybe lose weight. Not 30-35 pounds like a certain sports editor I know who has been on the run for three years, but I'd settle for 3-8 pounds, which would get me in the 150-155 range. 
     I know you are laughing now. And by the time you finish reading this, it might be 2016. Have a Happy New Year.                    


Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't knock Shreveport-Bossier -- and the I-Bowl

      Found out last week how to gain Twitter followers: Just jump on the Tim Brando and Paul Finebaum bandwagon.
      Long story short: A conversation on Finebaum's simulcast TV/radio show included derogatory comments by Paul, but mostly by his producer, about Shreveport-Bossier and the Independence Bowl. Brando, like Finebaum, a national TV/radio voice (and face) with ties to Shreveport, quickly took up defense with a series of tweets in which he was critical of Finebaum and the producer.
      I chimed in -- of course -- to side with Brando in defending our hometown and, in my case, more particularly the Independence Bowl.
      (Excuse me if I don't refer to its sponsor name, the Duck Commander Bowl. But we should thank the Duck Dynasty people, the Robertson family, for its involvement.)
      A couple of disclaimers: (1) I almost never tune into radio or TV talk discussions; I've had my fill of them. I have written this before. (2) I have not lived in Shreveport-Bossier since 1988, but it was home for 30 years, and the base of my sportswriting career, for most of 2 1/2 decades.
      So I am not as gung-ho on Shreveport-Bossier as Tim Brando, whose career has taken him from there to ESPN, CBS and FOX Sports but who -- after living in Bristol, Conn., for a time when he worked for ESPN -- returned to live in Shreveport and base his talk TV/radio show there.
     Shreveport-Bossier isn't the same place as when we lived there; what place is the same? The neighborhoods I came up in sure aren't the same.
      We don't go back that often, but I have hundreds of friends and acquaintances there. I am fond of the place, I root for it and the people there, and I don't like seeing it or them criticized nationally. And I don't like the fun that's made of the Independence Bowl.
      I wrote a blog two years ago addressing that:
      Last Friday, either in reply to Brando or a post of my own, here is what I tweeted ...
      -- Cheap shots at Independence Bowl and Shreveport-Bossier are BS. It's not paradise, but it is home. I am with Timmy B.
      -- For years, Independence Bowl people have done a very good job making this game and visit enjoyable. Give them credit.
      -- Shreveport-Bossier not a sports haven. But Independence Bowl is a lot better show (and bowl game) than people realize. To critics, shut up.
      -- This producer, in the words of the great Jerry Byrd, is "GUTLESS."
      Here is the bottom line: I had 94 "followers" on Twitter before those posts, and picked up six more. But I received the usual weekly notice from Twitter today that those posts had more than 10,000 views (10,119, to be accurate). That's because I included the Twitter handles @TimBrando and @finebaum.
      Those guys have thousands of followers. As I'm writing this, Finebaum has 254,812 followers and Brando has 95,271. I have 100. (Please surpress that laughter.)
      Thank you, guys.
      As Brando tweeted, he considers Finebaum "a dear friend." And, other than one bad moment, my history with Finebaum is fine. I wrote about him, too, a couple of years ago:
      I admire Paul's outstanding career, which is still on the rise with his daily talk show on SEC-TV and his appearances on network pregame/postgame shows. But through the years, he has taken his shots at Shreveport-Bossier and the Independence Bowl.
      I think some of it is for effect, to stir up talk. I consider it show biz. But it irritates Shreveport-Bossier people; it infuriates one of my best friends. Another friend says Finebaum "is dead" to him.
      Oh, gosh.
      Brando was really teed off. Here are some examples of what he tweeted Friday:
      -- Beneath contempt!
      -- Hurrying away from the incredibly horrid comments about Shreveport, Finebaum turns to a Sports Business guru to justify the criticism.
      -- ... not when my hometown is defamed AGAIN! NO! I do defend it.
      -- I'll defend my hometown until my dying days. Finebaum made a horrible error allowing his rookie producer to take him down a horrible slope!
      -- Paul's done this before but it's no less CHEAP! A shame.
      -- Cheap shots against communities that have BOWL games has no place in intercollegiate sports.
      Let's consider this last one: I agree. The communities that have bowl games are doing college football programs, and the schools, a favor. Take the Independence Bowl, which is paying each team $1,200,000 this year. There are -- if I count correctly -- 38 bowl games. The I-Bowl pays more, I believe, than 15 others.
      This will be the 39th Independence Bowl. Shreveport-Bossier has a long history of being unable to maintain sports success, but the people who have carried on to keep this bowl game going are to be commended. It ranks, by my count, 11th among the current bowls in longevity.
      The stadium is old (opened in 1925) and even after several renovations could use a remake. But the south end-zone skybox opened in 2008 is a neat and useful addition. Like the city itself, the stadium -- for so long State Fair Stadium -- is my home stadium. It is for many of us from Shreveport.
      In response to Brando, I saw a dozen "critics" calling Shreveport-Bossier names and how it lacks things to do, how gambling is the community's only attraction, etc. Most of those critics seemed to have Alabama-based Twitter handles; some were defending Finebaum, the bulk of whose career has been in Alabama.
      I looked up tweets by a couple of those people and what I saw almost exclusively was sarcasm, criticism and bitterness. I don't like the negativity on Facebook or Twitter in any form or on any subject. I try not to engage with stupid people, but sometimes ...
       So it's BS (see above). People that come to this bowl game can have fun ... if they want to. And, as I pointed out on Facebook, as a friend said to me, if South Carolina and Miami did not want to be in the Independence Bowl, they should have played better.
      Look, there aren't many teams who start the season aiming to play in the Independence Bowl (or in many of the other bowls). But as my friend Patrick Locke pointed out on Facebook: "EVERY team I've talked to, including Nick [Saban] when he was at Michigan State, said the bowl was a great experience. Make no mistake, though, the best thing about the bowls for college coaches is the extra practice time they get a start on for next year. They only work on their game plans a week prior. The rest of the time is prep for the next season."
      We all agree there are too many bowl games, too many what I consider mediocre -- maybe undeserving -- teams. There are, by my count, 12 teams with 6-6 records in bowl games, 17 at 7-5, two at 6-5, one at 7-6, and one (Fresno State) at 6-7. That's a lot of mediocrity.
      But communities (and ESPN) have the funds to pay those teams, and the NCAA will not turn down that money. And among those mediocre records are some nice matchups: Texas-Arkansas, Iowa-Tennessee, Texas A&M-West Virginia and ... Miami-South Carolina in Shreveport.
      I have a friend (Bob Basinger) who has been to all 38 I-Bowl games -- sometimes through rain, cold and one blizzard. He'll be there again Dec. 27. That's supporting Shreveport-Bossier, college football and the bowl game. He, like Tim Brando and me -- and thousands of others have this message: Don't knock the Independence Bowl. We're proud of it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

College football: Good system, with some faults

    I have waited all week to write this piece because I have mixed feelings. But I can tell you that I feel awful for TCU and Baylor football fans, coaches and players.

TCU coach Gary Patterson and Baylor's Art Briles were not all
smiles after their teams didn't make The Final Four (AP photo).
    If that had been LSU -- with the same credentials -- left out of the College Football Playoff's Final Four, I think I would've been furious.
    Ohio State? C'mon.
    If you're a college football fan, I am not going to tell you anything you don't know by now. But I will repeat a thought I offered a month ago: There is no perfect selection system.
    If you're not a college football fan, congratulations and Merry Christmas. There are more important things in this world.
    I offered my two cents' worth of opinions on the College Football Playoff almost a month ago ( And here is two more cents' worth.
    In my previous blog on the subject, I wrote that I like the idea of a playoff, and I've said that for a few years. I also said that an eight-team playoff is much more preferable than a Final Four. I will stick to that, especially after last Sunday's announcement of this Final Four.
    I find it hard to believe The Committee -- the almighty Committee -- gave Alabama a bye into the national championship game.
    I am not a betting man; any time I have ever placed a bet, I have lost. But if I had to bet, I would take Alabama over Ohio State 101 out of 100 times.
    Know this, though: I am only slightly better at predictions than I am betting. No way did I think Oklahoma -- a 17 1/2-point underdg -- not only would beat Alabama in last season's Sugar Bowl, but dominate the game.
    And if you ask me to pick a winner in this season's other Final Four semifinal -- Florida State vs. Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 ... I have no idea what's going to happen there. But I will say that until Florida State proves it can't come back and win -- as it has so often in its 29-game winning streak -- it is the reigning champion.
    So no question about Alabama, Florida State and Oregon making the Final Four (although I would have kept FSU, even as unimpressive as it was at times, at No. 1). It came down to three teams -- Ohio State, TCU and Baylor -- for the No. 4 spot, proving that six does not going into four.
    (If the committee had had to pick eight teams, it's true that the debate would have been difficult to pick Nos. 7-8. I repeat: There is always going to be some controversy.)
    Fact is, all those teams stumbled some during the season -- and all were resilient to keep on winning. Just an example: Alabama was fortunate to get past Arkansas, LSU and Auburn, but talented enough to do it.
    OK, Ohio State. I not a Buckeyes fan, not an Urban Meyer fan. I don't hesitate to point out -- as I did on Twitter -- that while history should not matter, Ohio State has lost six of its last seven postseason games.
    Yeah, these Buckeyes kept their poise and rallied through adversity. They beat a very good team (Michigan State) and one supposed to be good (Wisconsin). But the Badgers rolled over last week in the Big Ten championship game, and the program is so sound that the head coach quickly moved on to Oregon State this week.
    No doubt -- no doubt -- that 59-0 score swayed The Committee's selection from TCU-or-Baylor to Ohio State. No doubt that two strong, successful football coaches with Big Ten ties on The Committee -- Tom Osborne and Barry Alvarez -- swayed the opinions.
    No doubt it kept The Committee from having to pick one of the Big 12's co-champions. TCU and Baylor fans forever will claim their team was better.
    I've lived in Texas, in the Fort Worth area, for 13 years, so I have many friends who are fans of TCU or Baylor. I don't root for either school (except Baylor women's basketball because of Louisiana ties). I do think both are terrific universities
    But as I am making this argument against Ohio State, I don't think I'm Texas-biased. I watched the teams play -- my "eyeball" test -- and I think TCU was as good as any team in the country. I am on record, on Facebook and Twitter, as saying that a couple of times in the past month.
    My opinion is that Gary Patterson -- whose treatment of some of my Fort Worth Star-Telegram co-workers at times has been detestable -- and his staff have done the best coaching job in the country this year. The Frogs are big, fast, well-coached and ... well, they look like an SEC team.
    I will say that Patterson -- who often mentions lack of respect for his TCU program and whose chip on his shoulder is as big as the fourth green at Colonial Country Club -- publicly was very classy in his reaction to The Committee's selections.
    On one of my daily walks, I had to stop at the TCU Bookstore, where I noticed a man asking about purchasing a TCU Big 12 championship T-shirt. In my usual shy manner, I asked him how he felt about the Final Four selections.
    "We got screwed," he said, not as diplomatically as Patterson. "It's all about money. It's always been about money. Until we get a bigger reputation, we'll get left out."
    And I agree about "reputation." Ohio State has it -- and the ratings (money) power. I am convinced that if The Committee had been given TCU's list of victories this season and been told that it was Oklahoma or Texas, that team would be in the Final Four.
    Committee chairman Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director, strongly denied that suggestion and said it was the "body of work" (strength of schedule, maybe) that put Ohio State past TCU and Baylor. Fine, but my biggest complaint -- one I've seen repeatedly this week -- is why did The Committee tease (and deceive) all of us by releasing five weeks of rankings with TCU ahead of Ohio State each time ... and then change it mind/direction the last week?
    That's bunk. Advice to The Committee: Next year don't release weekly rankings. Save it all for the end, and let everyone speculate.
    When the NCAA does make me the commissioner of college football -- any day now -- the first change will be to go to an eight-team playoff ... provided teams return to 11-game regular-season schedules and/or drop all conference championship games.
    In other words, no team should play more than 14 games in a season. Enough already. I do think football players should go to class and work toward graduation. Last I heard college was about earning a degree. (OK, so it's idealistic. I can hear you laughing.)
    But my idea is folly because we all know college football mostly is about finances. And if stadiums at most or many of the major-college programs are full anytime they tee it up, the people raking in the money aren't going to be cutting games.
    Here is what I would suggest for any program wanting to win the national championship or make the Final Four (or Final Eight), drop those Division I-AA (or Football Championship Subdivision, as it's been known since 2006) opponents. Drop those mid-majors (but Division I), too, if necessary.
    Sorry, I know those are "money" games for the smaller schools, games they have to have to make the budget work, to pay for the programs. But those usually easy victories just don't help the big boys.
     Baylor, those games with Northwestern State and Buffalo probably kept you out of the Final Four. You'd have been better off with Northwestern and, say, Maryland.
     TCU, how about Stanford instead of Samford? We'll give you a plus for Minnesota and, well, SMU (also a Baylor opponent) is a traditional game and, well, the Mustangs should be more competitive.
     Why is LSU playing Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State? Why are Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina on Alabama's schedule (plus Southern Miss isn't as good as it has been in the past)? South Dakota and Wyoming weren't exactly tough opponents for Oregon.
     So maybe The Committee looked at Ohio State's schedule and, yes, Kent State was a breather, but it judged Navy, Virginia Tech (which beat the Buckeyes in Columbus) and Cincinnati as a bit tougher than what TCU and Baylor faced. And Florida State -- other than The Citadel -- had strong "name" non-conference opponents in Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Notre Dame.
     If I'm on The Committee, I certainly think strength of schedule is a major factor in picking the playoff teams. And because I think the SEC is the best, strongest and deepest conference in the country and has been for a decade -- I'll argue that with anybody -- I would advise any possible contenders from other conferences to put at least one SEC opponent on the schedule each year (but Kentucky and Vanderbilt don't count, unless it's Kentucky in basketball).
     Bottom line, I suppose, is that The Committee did the best it could and this is the system we have. We can all complain and debate. We will next year, too.
     I know this: I have taken more of your time than necessary, given you much more than two cents' worth. So I'm done because you need to go Christmas shopping. For football fans, happy bowl season.