Thursday, December 31, 2015

Resolutions? Sure, we'll try it

     Don't usually do New Year's resolutions, but because I haven't posted a blog piece in three weeks and I need to write today, let's give it a shot.
     Looking back at last year's Dec. 31 post, I did a review of our year in 2014 -- and it (the blog, not the year) went on and on. I intend to keep this one much shorter. Don't want to bore you (again).
      So I am resolving the following ...
      -- Work on being nice, or kind, to people. Take out the harshness. I'm much better in this area, but patience -- especially when we're driving in this often bizarre Fort Worth-Dallas area traffic -- can be lacking.
      -- Forgiveness. Goes with being kinder. I forgive the young woman who sharply told me I was walking on "private property" during one of my Thursday "church route" (as I like to call it). When I told her I was not trying to do any harm, she said again harshly, "It's private property." I took out that phase of that route; haven't been back.
       -- Relish all the phone calls, Facebook posts and pictures, Facetime sessions and visits from the kids and especially the grandkids. They are so beautiful and so interesting, so curious and inventive. This is an easy resolution; this is the top priority in our lives.
      --  Maybe more than one trip to East Tennessee a year. But, gosh, that road gets longer all the time. That's a l-o-n-g drive, and flying is not only costly, it is a hassle. Even the driving trip to see the two oldest grandsons is now 10-15 minutes longer.
      -- Keep vacuuming and Swiftering regularly in the apartment. Beatrice and I work on this together; the place needs it. Stuff spreads, and our cats have hair that sheds.
      -- Listen better, more closely. I resolve not to walk out of the room while Bea is talking ... even when she's rambling (just kidding). Don't mean to be rude, but that's how it appears. However, I'm trying to convince Bea that when I am loading up the washing machine and the water is running, I can't hear you.
       -- Less computer time. Trying to improve here. There's the half hour in the morning to catch up on the news and e-mail and Facebook, but sometimes that's an hour-and-a-half. And at night, when Bea is watching the Dallas Mavericks play (and I can't stand the stress), the computer is my outlet.
       -- On the other hand, keep writing. I have been doing the blog for almost four years now, and I aimed to write two or three blog pieces a week. But several months ago, I decided I would only write when I felt like it, when I had something that a few people might want to read.
        -- Keep reading. I am proud of this -- I am about to finish my 26th book this year. (That's 11 sports-related books, eight for the book club, four on historical political issues.) That's in addition to daily Internet reading (hello, ESPN), and weekly Sports Illustrated issues (when I can find them).
        -- Selected television viewing. We don't do a lot other than Charlie Rose and Stephen Colbert, the 5 p.m. WFAA newscast, the NBC Nightly News and the PBS NewsHour. Then there's Washington Week on Friday nights with Gwen Ifill, and our favorite, Sunday Morning on CBS, and then Face the Nation. Only a few series, such as Hawaii 5-0 and Major Crimes and -- one more time -- Downton Abbey. Bea is missing Person of Interest.     
         -- Keep exercising. Yes, there's my daily walk -- still -- of 45 minutes to (yikes) two hours if the weather is really good. More importantly now, we go to the Downtown YMCA in Fort Worth for yoga or stretching classes 3-4 times a week. Like the work; like the company.
          -- Eat more wisely. Big area of need for me. I snack far too much, eat too many sweets, eat portions that are too large, eat too late at night. I need to lower my cholesterol/triglycerides levels before my yearly physical because I don't want to have the discussion with my friendly doctor that includes the word "statins."
          -- Same vein: With exercise and better eating habits, I want to lose the extra 5-10 pounds I need to, and to trim my waist. But, as I was reminded when I read my last 2014 blog on Dec. 31, I said the same thing last year. Oops.
          -- Honor the friends we have lost -- either by word, e-mail or on Facebook. Paying respect, having remembrances ... it's important to me.
          -- Continue to write or post stories or comments about Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana. I don't live there anymore -- truthfully, don't really want to -- and our visits are less frequent, but we have so many friends and so many ties there. And I feel that I owe those people and that community because for 30 years that was home and where my professional career (which I mostly loved) began.
          -- Watch less football. Seriously. Bea is totally anti-football, and I'm getting there. I cannot watch less NFL because I have watched no games this fall.
          She deplores the violence; I am sick of the off-the-field and some on-the-field crap, especially in the NFL. I do read about the league some, but I don't want to read about or watch any interview involving Jerry Jones, Dez Bryant, Greg Hardy, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Odell Beckham, etc., etc., etc. (Let's make a hero of O.J. Simpson.).
         But even the showboating and trash talking are too much in college football. And, yes, the LSU kids are part of that; they were much too chippy and a little too arrogant the other night against Texas Tech.
          -- I don't intend to watch another LSU football game until at least September. Don't know about you, but I found the 2015 Tigers very difficult to watch. Don't want to get into the coaching thing, but this was a team that gave every opponent some hope. I don't expect a rout every week, but I do wish for more efficiency.
          -- I watched more college football than I probably should have this fall, and I don't intend to do that again next fall. Not likely to keep this resolution, though.
          -- I will watch the Dallas Mavericks because I like the team (but not as much as Bea likes them) and because Dirk Nowitzki is an all-time great player, plus he's as funny and as humble and genuine as any superstar could be. Rick Carlisle is, in our opinion, as good as Gregg Popovich as an NBA coach.
          -- I'd love to watch more baseball on TV. But not in person because games take far too long now. Too many strikeouts, too many one-batter relievers. I watched a lot of Houston Astros games last season because they were a fun team.
           One of my resolutions, though, is to watch more of the New York Yankees, although it is hard for me because my expectations of them are so high. When you've won 40 pennants and 27 World Series, you expect them to win -- always. That's not realistic, is it?
           -- I resolve to take American politics with a level head. There is so much harshness, so much bitterness, so much criticism out there; I don't think it solves anything.
           There is a guy out there who reminds us every day that he has all the answers -- never mind facts or realism -- and who thinks everyone is more stupid than him. If you like him, fine. I think he's a deterrent, someone playing on people's fears. The political process will play out as it usually does and we will get what we deserve.
            But the harshness is destructive. That's my opinion. And here is what I resolved a couple of months ago -- on Facebook, I am "unfollowing" anyone who posts what I consider a derogatory remark or cartoon or story ... and especially those who fall into "name calling."
            I try not to challenge anyone online or tell them what I think, or what they should think. But I don't want to see it, and I imagine my "unfollow" list will grow in the next few months. What I decide won't hurt anyone, and we're still friends. But not on political matters.
            -- Mostly, I resolve to believe that peace is possible -- in this country, in the world. Wish I could erase prejudice toward others in any fashion, but all I can do is resolve that for myself. Back to where I started; it takes kindness and understanding and (if possible) trust; name-calling and the lust to use guns and bombs, to "put boots on the ground," don't work for me.
            So I wish you and yours personal peace and a Happy New Year. I resolve to have another great year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In the real world, people matter most

     Real-life matters keep reminding me what is really important. It is not all fun and games.
    For years and years, I have lived in an unreal world -- athletics. I have plenty of company. We love our teams and our games; they are part of our lives, and they can dominate our thoughts.
    How often I wish it wasn't so.
    Honestly, I do not want to discuss or even think about LSU football and Les Miles for a couple of weeks. Enough already.
    And I kept thinking as people were contacting me by phone, Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, about the Miles/LSU saga, I have other things that matter more. People things.
    They matter more to other people, too. The blog piece I wrote and posted about the young woman -- a family friend -- and her unborn baby dying received more than 5,400 "views" on my blog site. The piece I wrote about the Shreveport sportswriting legend, now with dementia, received more than 1,100 views. The Miles piece had 200 views.
    That's the difference in the real world and the unreal world. 
    It is unreal the amount of attention athletics receive, the money that is spent on athletics, the outrageous salaries of coaches and professional athletes, the off-the-field crap that we have to endure. The games are what count for me; yes, the wins and losses, but even more, the competition. 
    It is, in many senses, a fantasy world. It is, as a friend pointed out, an entertainment world, which explains the ever-growing amount of money these people make. And now we're talking about paying college athletes. Why not?
Amy Geneux Keck: This is the cover photo for the beautiful,
touching memorial tribute posted by her husband.
    But I have learned -- finally -- not to let the games bother me too much or too long. Because in recent months there have been so many other considerations.
    Here is real life:
    -- The death of Amy just before childbirth, and Adeline. We think of the grieving family daily, and if you watch this video (link below) posted by Amy's husband, it will grab you.
    (And we know other parents, old friends, who have lost their children much too soon -- an Oak Terrace/Woodlawn athlete and his wife, a woman from a Dutch family in East Texas. Their pain might subside over time, but it never goes away.)
    -- While in Shreveport for Amy's visitation/funeral, we learned that the delightful 95-year-old matriarch (with her 93-year-old sister) of the family that were our first "sponsors" after we immigrated to the U.S. was in the hospital with pneumonia and other health problems. Thankfully, she has recovered and continues to live this beautiful life.
    -- My visit with the Byrdman, "Tweety" to some and "The Man, The Legend" to me. After I wrote the blog piece, one of our co-workers said "it must have been hard to write." Not as hard as the actual visit itself, knowing that The Man would not remember it.
    -- My best friend since 1958 having his third heart attack while on vacation with family members in San Francisco. Yet another procedure to clear blockages, and lots of uncertainty before they could return to Shreveport. He's battling; he always has.
    -- Another close friend's 4-month-old grandson, a precious Down's Syndrome baby named Jack (after his great grandfather), undergoing heart surgery and making a recovery.              
    -- One of my high school coaches and good friend, 85 years young, going through another heart episode and the same doctor as before, thankfully, keeping him going up in Tennessee.
    -- Another high school coach and good friend seeing his wife -- a popular couple with so many of us from North Louisiana -- go through lung cancer and surgery. Again, a nice recovery.
    -- Still another high school coach, tough guy on the field and super nice guy off it, deep in the throes of Alzheimer's for several years now.
    -- Quadruple heart bypass surgery for the soon-to-retire LSU play-by-play announcer of more than three decades, whose broadcasts I messed up regularly when we did Centenary road basketball games in the late 1970s.
    He missed all three LSU football losses and the three road-trip men's basketball losses, so -- as I write this -- he's undefeated this school year. He's recovered enough to return to the games and to travel, and on Monday night in New York City, he received the Chris Schenkel Award for long and distinguished  service in college broadcasting.
    -- An older woman from The Netherlands who immigrated to East Texas, after a long recovery from hip surgery is moving to the Seattle area to be near her second and youngest daughter. She is the widow of one of my Dad's oldest and best friends. 
    -- My sportswriting buddy since the mid-1960s partially paralyzed and limited after a stroke and again dealing with health challenges. He's not OK with it -- none of us are -- but he's still cranking out stories and columns and doing the best he can daily.
    -- I've written about losing old coaches/players earlier this year. The latest was a high school/college pal with Fort Worth ties who was a do-good person, a U.S. Navy veteran, husband and father, and forever sports (especially baseball) fan.
    A lot to deal with, but we also cherish the good parts of life:
    -- Our daughter, so devoted to her kids at home and at school, so dedicated to increasing interest in reading by fellow faculty and her students.
    -- Our son-in-law trying to straighten out Tennessee athletics on his radio show in Knoxville.
    -- Our son and daughter-in-law preparing to open a third Cajun Tailgators location, a restaurant at the Dallas Farmers' Market. There is much to do.
    -- Our oldest grandchild, our only granddaughter, sweet, silly, sassy and smart, into gymnastics and soccer, and the avid student and reader her mother wants her to be. Two years ago, she told me enthusiastically and emphatically, "I can read!"
    -- Our youngest grandchild, her brother, at 15 months learning to walk and talk and seeing his first Christmas tree. Stay out of it, Eli.
    -- Our two oldest grandsons, growing wiser and more curious and active, taking in their first LSU football gameday. They wore out, but they are ready to go again.
    -- The boys' new foosball game. They're good at it, but they found out that Opa is not a pushover. It's competitive, remember.
    -- Beatrice and I working daily to keep the apartment in shape and, with regular trips to the downtown YMCA for stretching and yoga, to keep our bodies in shape.
    -- We have to keep our place tidy because our spoiled-rotten cats also live here. Ditto and Grayson, brothers who are almost 10, wake us daily at 6 a.m. or earlier, demanding to be fed.
    -- We think of our extended family and our friends, and we try to stay in touch. We are grateful for the good days. We know everyone has hardships and tough times, so we understand.
    The games, my teams, are important to me; they always will be. That's just me. But when you weigh this unreal world against what really counts, it's all relative, isn't it?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

LSU football: "Imperfect" says it exactly

      So do I think Les Miles is a great football coach? I don't. But he has a darned good record.
     Do I think he should have been fired as the LSU coach last week? Hard as it might be to believe, I don't have a strong opinion on that. And, what difference does it make what I think? Not my call, thank goodness.
A final victory ride after the Texas A&M game? No, the "Mad Hatter"
will continue his ride as LSU's head football coach ... for now.
(The Shreveport Times photo)
     Of course, I have plenty of opinions or theories about LSU football, although -- as I've written before -- there are many, many people closer to the situation, and much more knowledgeable. I'm just an interested fan/would-be analyst from a distance, another state, away. I have been watching Tigers' teams for 5 1/2 decades.
      I'm like so many people. I can run an offense and defense better than the LSU coaches. We're all experts. (I'd sure as heck wouldn't call the confounded, predictable, old-timey short-pitch running plays -- always good for a 1- or 2-yard gain -- 25 times a game; maybe once or twice.) 
     But on the Miles firing/buyout question, I wimped out. I could argue both sides.      Because I try (and don't always succeed) not to worry about things I can't control, I'm OK with the result (he's staying). I would have been OK with a coaching change, too.
     Change doesn't have to be a bad thing. Coaching effectiveness, coaching tenures run out (see Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Frank Beamer, etc.). But it can be unsettling, wondering who the next coach will be, and can his teams win as often as Miles' teams, will the program be run as well, will it be as much fun (and as much agony)?
     But, damn, $15 million to buy out a contract, maybe $20 million with the rest of the coaching staff's contracts added? ( (Honestly, and I told several friends this a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was any way LSU people/boosters would come up with $15-$20 million for a buyout. I was wrong.)
    Ridiculous. Really ridiculous in a state in which funds for education have been cut to shreds. Bad message.

    Plus, the way all this came down -- rumors, rumors, reports of a "done deal," hour after hour, day after day of speculation. An embarrassment for LSU, for the state.
     It was a fire drill, a borderline disorganized mess. Those are descriptions some of my friends will recognize because that's how often I describe the way Les Miles' LSU teams play. And they still win.
     It is difficult to explain to people who don't follow the program closely, who just see the scores and the record, why there is dissatisfaction with Miles. It has to do with the mostly conservative, run-oriented offensive style; with ragged special-teams play; and with defenses so prone to giving up big plays.
      And how the Tigers consistently play down to the level of teams that should be more easily handled, such as falling behind 31-3 to Troy (2008) and then coming back with 37 points in the last 16:26 of play  -- 30 in the fourth quarter --  to win 41-30.
      You have to see it to (not) appreciate it.
      But what we do appreciate is how many times Miles' LSU teams have come from behind to win, how resilient they've been, how he has called the trick plays that work like a charm. (The man has "Les-ticles.") It's like watching a circus act.
     You want to blame the media for blowing up the "Miles is out" story, you can. I don't.
     Sure I'm prejudiced, but I also think I am qualified to judge, and I think the coverage of LSU football is better than it's ever been. Yes, I know many of the writers involved, they are friends and some date to my time in Louisiana in the 1970s and '80s, and I'll tell you they do a great job. That's a talented group.
      On this story, though, they missed -- badly. Or that's how it turned out. The national media which picked up on the story missed, too. But everyone went with the information they were given; writers are only as good as their "sources." I'd say in this case they were misled.
      Those sources, and I'm guessing they were LSU Board of Supervisors members or in the athletic department, talked too much and too soon.
      We know it couldn't have come from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva because he didn't say anything -- not publicly -- until he told us postgame that, never mind all you've heard and read, Les Miles is still the LSU coach.
      We also know that someone, or several people, had to organize the $15-$20 million effort from the deep pockets to assure buyout could happen. Who knows how much Alleva was involved, or knew, about that?
      It's fairly clear that Alleva's unwillingness a year ago to adjust John Chavis' contract clause covering the possibility of Miles' being let go was enough for the defensive coordinator to bolt for Texas A&M. That was out of Miles' control.
      Of course, the way that LSU played against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss on three consecutive Saturdays was out of Miles' control, too. Which is why we had this growing predicament/movement. But it's been like that for most of 11 years.
      The most on-target assessment was a head-shaking moment Saturday night, one of many during this LSU football season. In his opening remarks after the Tigers' game with Texas A&M, after addressing his job situation, Miles called the victory "an imperfect fistfight" and later said, "We were imperfect offensively."
     "Imperfect" describes so many LSU victories -- and losses -- in the Miles era.
And describes all the commotion about the program the past few weeks.
      Here's what I'm sure of: Many people in my world -- in person, on e-mail and Facebook and by phone -- wanted to talk about Les Miles and LSU football the past few weeks.
      It's taken up too much of my time and energy, but here is my view of the situation. I could write several pieces on this, but enough already.
      We have heard how likeable Miles is, how good a family man, a man of good deeds and sympathy. We've seen and heard how much his players respect him and we saw the fans' love Saturday. We know he's "quirky" with a sense of humor. I have no personal experience with him, but I know that he treats my media friends well (and we know of some coaches who can be quite peevish that way).
      I do have friends who think that Miles' act is fraudulent, that his program isn't as clean as people think. I know some people were critical of his leniency toward Jordan Jefferson and Jeremy Hill -- to use two examples -- after their off-the-field transgressions. But we also know that he's disciplined those players and others, cutting some from the program.
      For head coaches, it's like parenting, and in college programs, you're in charge of 125 kids or so. Not easy. Not as easy as being critical of the coaches.
     So when LSU loses a game, or three games in a row and is dominated in each one, coaching must be one of the reasons. The strategy is wrong, or the players weren't prepared properly. Or so we keep hearing.
     I am not a fan of coaching changes; I don't believe they necessarily fix what ails teams. What I believe is that it's about the players. Coaches can only do so much. Players win -- and lose -- the games. So that means it's also about recruiting players.
     That said, coaches' philosophies and strategy can make a difference. LSU football is often -- always? -- ripe for second-guessing.
      I have a friend who was a coach and who says that Miles "didn't have them [LSU] ready to play" in the losses. I don't quite agree; I think that's a coach's cliche'. Teams have all week to prepare; coaches prepare them for what opponents tend to do.
      So my thinking is that the players did not execute what they were taught. If they weren't taught, if the opponents' strategy was unfamiliar to them, that's on the coaches. Can't imagine LSU's coaches don't do their homework.
      One of the constant argument I hear is that LSU has as much or more talent than any team in the SEC, except Alabama. Some years, most years, I'd agree. The recruiting rankings -- which I think are over-emphasized, over-publicized -- suggest that LSU's recruits are among the nation's best.
      And if you look at the number of LSU players who have made NFL teams the past decade -- few programs can match the number -- you'd have to say that's a lot of talent.
      Because so many of those players went to the NFL and passed up another year of college eligibility, it's been a challenge for LSU's coaches, forcing them to give more playing time to sophomores and freshmen. In that way, Miles and staff have paid for excellence.
      But my opinion -- and I've had a tough time selling this to several friends -- is that this LSU team lacks the overall talent of most teams Miles has had here.
      Sure, there is some great talent -- Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, for instance -- but this team's defense is too mistake-prone, caught out of position far too much; the offensive line was dominated by Alabama and Arkansas' defensive fronts; and the quarterback play has been increasingly erratic.
      (And we root for the QB, a kid from the area and high school -- Parkway -- in Bossier City where we used to live.)
      The early successes of Miles' tenure, and the continued success, raised the high expectations. Alabama's success, under Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings and the current reign of Nick Saban, makes it tough on LSU and all the other SEC programs.
      About Saban: LSU fans should be grateful for his five-year stay (2000-04) as the Tigers' coach. Under him, the program revived after the mediocrity of most of the 1990s. But when he left for an NFL head coaching job -- he previously had been in the league as an assistant for six years -- it was no great surprise.
       Two years later, he took the Alabama head coaching job and became a nuisance, and reviled by many LSU people. And now one of the big raps against Miles is that LSU has lost five games in a row to Alabama.
        Let me remind you: At one time, Miles' LSU teams were 5-2 against Alabama, 3-2 against Saban. Here's what else: It took Alabama last-minute drives to beat LSU in 2012 and 2014. Two of Saban's wins against LSU were in overtime. The 2013 game was tied 17-17 late in the third quarter when a fake Alabama field-goal try that worked for a first down turned the momentum. This year's game was 10-10 in the last minute of the first half.
       It's not like it's been total domination. Saban, at Alabama, is difficult for any coach to beat. He's ruining the SEC.
       Here's what else, for those with long memories: Charlie McClendon, LSU's coach for 18 seasons (1962-79), the only LSU coach to win more games than Miles, was 2-14 against Alabama and Bear Bryant (his own college coach).     
       I liken Miles to McClendon because, no question, they are the most criticized LSU football coaches in history. From the time Charlie Mac succeeded the sainted Paul Dietzel after the 1961 season, LSU fans were always ready to "Help Mac Pack." Any loss to Ole Miss -- and the Rebels were so good in McClendon's time -- was distressing.
      Miles is seven seasons and 26 victories behind McClendon's 18 and 137. After what happened the past few weeks, it's hard to see Les at LSU past next season.
      Like Charlie Mac, who had one losing season, Les has never convinced a lot of LSU people (and likely never will). Like Charlie Mac, Les will never have an offense that pleases a lot of LSU people. Tough running games, between the tackles -- no matter how many games it helps win -- isn't what they want.
     Charlie Pevey was McClendon's quarterbacks coach/play-caller. "Too conservative" was always the criticism. Cam Cameron has been LSU's QBs coach/offensive coordinator/play-caller for three years, and the last two years he's been "too conservative."

       It has been strongly suggested -- and perhaps Miles has agreed to this -- that coaching-staff changes be made. Les has done it before; the coordinators (Cameron, Kevin Steele) are the fourth he's had in each position. Some of the coaches might leave on their own.
       It also has been strongly suggested -- by everyone -- that he find a way to open up the offense.
       I strongly suggest LSU win its bowl game. An indication of how the Miles era has slipped -- the Tigers won their first four bowl games under Les; they've won two of six since then.
        If they lose this bowl game, there will be more dissatisfaction. But here is a thought: What if another school -- more impressed with Les than the "anti" faction at LSU -- offers him a deal? You wouldn't blame him for accepting, and that would make a lot of people happy. Not likely to happen.
        He has shown much more loyalty to LSU than has been shown to him.
        Obviously, it will take a much more competitive LSU team in the SEC next year to soften the anti-Miles rhetoric. Could happen because many of the young players (sophomores, freshmen) of this year's team will return. But they have to improve -- and arguably so do their coaches.
        So Les Miles in a sense is a "lame duck" coach. That is not going to help him in recruiting and maybe -- as one of my columnist friends wrote -- it is a bad situation. But Les, as we know, isn't easily deterred.
        His program has bounced back before, from 8-5 and 9-4 records in 2008 and '09 to 11-2, 13-1, 10-3, 10-3. Yeah, some (many) of those wins were ugly and agonizing, and maybe that gets to Joe Alleva and those really smart football minds -- with deep pockets -- on the LSU Board of Supervisors.
         They can keep their money, for now, or put it to better use. They can keep thinking that Jimbo Fisher or some other superstar coach will just -- snap -- jump at the LSU job.
         So they can gripe -- and plot -- for another year or, if Les Miles can be the perfect coach they want, they can jump back on the bandwagon. Hold on because if nothing else, it's a bumpy ride.