Saturday, May 30, 2015

Legion ball, part 2: On the road to the majors

Seth Morehead, his last year
in the majors -- 1961
      Seth Morehead might have laughed at this description, but it's my opinion: He was an icon of baseball in Shreveport, La.
      In 1952, he was the star pitcher -- a hard-throwing left-hander -- for the Seven-Up Bottlers, the only Shreveport team to win the Louisiana state championship in American Legion junior baseball.
      Five years later, he became the first Shreveport Legion baseball player to reach the major leagues.
      He wasn't a star in his five-year MLB career; it wasn't easy to star in those years (1957-60) for the Phillies and Cubs and he got in only 12 games for the '61 Braves. But he was an example -- you could be a major leaguer -- for the kids that followed him in Shreveport's Legion program.
      One of those kids, just four years behind Seth, was another Byrd High School pitcher, Dick Hughes. He, too, was the star of a state championship team -- the 1956 Byrd Yellow Jackets.
      Like Morehead, Hughes also pitched in the majors. It took him longer to get there (eight years) and he stayed only three years (1966-68) with the St. Louis Cardinals before a torn rotator cuff injury ended his career. But he was a star, at least in 1967.
      On a Cardinals team that won the World Series, he was the top winning pitcher -- 16 regular-season wins ... more than Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles (14 each) and even Bob Gibson (injured much of that season, 13-7 record, but Series wins in Games 1, 4 and 7).
      Morehead and Hughes -- from the Shreveport (and Bossier City) Legion program to the majors. But, as I noted in the previous blog, the last ones to make that jump for 23 years.
World Series champion, 1967
     (That's an unofficial count. If you're reading this, and you know better, let me know.)
      If I have this correct, the only player in that time to play Legion ball for a Fourth District (Northwest Louisiana) team and make the majors was Lee Smith -- who came out of tiny Castor, La., about 35 miles from Shreveport, and pitched only a couple of games for the Minden team in 1975 before he was drafted into pro baseball by the Chicago Cubs.
       You might've heard of him. When he finished his 18-year major-league career -- he got to the Cubs in 1980 -- he was the all-time saves leader (478). And he's still No. 3, and still waiting for his Hall of Fame call.
        Another pitcher from North Louisiana -- and Legion baseball -- who reached the majors played in the Fifth District (Monroe area). George Stone was the stylish left-hander from Ruston High and the T.L. James Contractors, the star of two Legion teams that came close to state championships. He went on to Louisiana Tech and then to the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets (and the 1973 World Series).
        An infielder from Monroe, Wayne Causey, came out of Neville High and Legion ball as a "bonus baby" to make the majors at age 18 and had an 11-year career with five teams.
         But some explanation is needed here. There were several players from North Louisiana who made the big leagues, but did not play Legion ball.
        One was Cecil Upshaw, George Stone's cousin, who grew up in Spearsville, moved to Bossier City and starred in basketball and baseball for Bossier High and Centenary College. However, Bossier did not have a Legion team at the time; most of Cecil's development as a pitcher came at Centenary and on area semipro teams.
        Then there was this: segregation. Black players could not play Legion ball in the 1960s. So that wasn't a step to the majors for outfielder John Jeter (Coushatta and Shreveport ties, Grambling College), third baseman/pinch runner deluxe Matt Alexander (Bethune High), the National League batting champion and blazing "Roadrunner," outfielder Ralph Garr (Ruston, Lincoln High, Grambling), and some North Louisiana pitchers you might know -- Vida Blue (DeSoto High, Mansfield), James Rodney Richard (Vienna, near Ruston, Lincoln High) and Don Wilson (Monroe) -- and one who made one September appearance for the 1969 World Series champion Mets, Jesse Hudson, who was Blue's teammate at DeSoto.
         When schools and Legion ball integrated in 1970, first baseman Wayne Cage went from Ruston High and the T.L. James Contractors to an MLB career.
---
         Another to reach the top level of professional sports was the coach of the 1952 Seven-Up Bottlers: the then-young Scotty Robertson. If you are familiar with North Louisiana sports, you most associate him with basketball.
         For almost 25 years, after he left as basketball coach at Louisiana Tech, Scotty coached (or scouted) in the NBA. But he was a baseball man, too. 
        Scotty played high school and college baseball, played a year of pro ball, and began coaching Legion ball -- the Byrd-based Bottlers -- when he was the Vivian (La.) High School basketball coach, even before he returned to his alma mater (Byrd) as the basketball coach/football assistant in 1955.
         At a time when Shreveport had only two Legion teams -- Seven-Up and the Fair Park-based Waltrip Tire/Optimist Club (because I don't have the records/research I had access to decades ago, I'm not sure of the sponsorships) -- Scotty had many competitive teams.
         And if you knew him, and knew how competitive and driven/detail-oriented he was, you knew those teams were well-coached. But the 1952 team succeeded like no other.
         I don't remember much about the team, but it won the best-of-three state championship series, and I think it also won the regional tournament to reach the Legion World Series. There, it lost its first two games in the double-elimination tournament, one as I recall to a Sumter, S.C., team whose shortstop was Bobby Richardson (in a few years, a star second baseman for great New York Yankees teams).
         Even Seth Morehead couldn't get the Bottlers through in the nationals.
         Scotty coached Seven-Up through the 1950s, but then left baseball coaching. And as he left, Shreveport's Legion program began to change.
---
          In the 1950s, the Byrd players were on one team, the Fair Park players were on a team, and the private-school St. John's High players good enough for Legion went with the team in the district where they lived.
         Shreveport teams did well in high school ball; the Byrd '56 and Fair Park 1957 teams won Class AAA state titles; the St. John's 1957 team was the state runner-up in a hard-fought Class AA best-of-three series. The 1960 Fair Park team was maybe the best team of the decade; it got a raw deal in the playoffs (long story).
         But in Legion ball, except for 1952, the Shreveport Legion teams could not top the traditionally strong New Orleans Catholic-based Legion teams, and occasionally a strong team from Baton Rouge.
         Then, and for the next few decades, there was a distinct difference: In New Orleans, the high school baseball coaches -- in most cases -- were also the Legion coaches; their teams were much the same. Maybe that was true in the Baton Rouge area, too. Not in Shreveport.
         That began to make even more of a difference when, beginning in 1961, I believe, the Shreveport program expanded from two teams to eight. The Legion teams were based not only the high schools, but on the junior high districts.
         That gave many more kids a chance to play, but it also watered down the teams. Byrd players made up three teams (Broadmoor, Youree Drive, Hamilton Terrace); Fair Park had three teams (Lakeshore, Midway, Linwood-Caddo Heights area); and Woodlawn, opened in the fall of 1960, had two (Oak Terrace, Linwood-Cedar Grove area).
         Fair Park won Class AAA state high school titles in 1963, 1965 and 1970, and the '64 team made the semifinals. If those teams had stayed together to make up one Legion team -- especially the 1963 team -- they might've dominated the state; there was that much talent.
        Jesuit won Class AA in 1964; four of its best players played for one of the Woodlawn teams (Industrial Sheet Metal).   
         As it was -- and as I recall -- the 1962 Royal Crown Cola team (Fair Park/Midway) was the state runner-up; the 1963 Optimist Club team (Fair Park/Lakeshore), the 1964 Industrial team; and the 1965 Cobbs Barbecue team (Byrd/Youree Drive) all made strong challenges for state titles.
         But no Shreveport-Bossier teams got close again until the 1977 Bossier team lost in the state-finals series, and another mid-1980s Bossier team also was the state runner-up.
         As new high schools began opening, Legion franchises in Shreveport-Bossier began shifting districts and changing sponsors in the late 1960s/early 1970s when I covered the program. Integration meant a couple of teams for black players, and Jesuit High finally got its own team (sponsored by Ricou-Brewster).
         But I have spent much of these two blog pieces telling you how good the baseball was for all those kids, and I'll stick to that. I was told that by the mid-1980s, Legion ball had become bigger than high school baseball ... at least for a time.
---
         There were talented Legion players from Shreveport who went into pro ball after Morehead and Hughes, and some got close to the majors. Among those getting to Triple-A: third baseman Bill Hancock (Byrd '60/Seven-Up/Texas A&M); infielder Buddy Nelson (Fair Park '64/Optimist); first baseman Wayne Burney (Fair Park '66/RC Cola/Northeast Louisiana University); and two Northwestern State pitchers Don Shields (Woodlawn '66/Industrial) and Jimmy Stewart (Doyline '67/Minden Legion team).
         Another Triple-A player who wrecked a knee on the night he got a major-league call-up was Ike Futch, the "man who never struck out" out of Spearsville, La., who played for a Legion team in nearby Farmerville.
         One of Shreveport's great 1950s high school athletes (Fair Park) and later a longtime coach there, Jimmy Orton, was an infielder for five years in the loaded New York Yankees farm system.
         The gap of MLB players who came from the Shreveport Legion program ran from 1966 (Dick Hughes) to 1989. That's when outfielder Albert "Joey" Belle (Huntington High/LSU) began his tempestuous but highly successful career in the majors; he is, in my estimation, the best player to come out of Shreveport-Bossier. We're not talking attitude.
         For second-best, an old-time choice would be Willard Brown, the Negro League outfielder/slugger who played briefly in the majors (St. Louis Browns) in 1947. He's in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The modern-day choice is second baseman Todd Walker (Airline High '91/LSU), now the baseball coach at Calvary Baptist. He got to the majors in 1996 and, like Belle, was a 12-year player.
        In the last 26 years, by my count, nine Shreveport-Bossier high school players have gone on to the major leagues.
        Other than Belle and Walker, here's the list (with high school/college and team-year  they reached the majors:
       -- outfielder Shawn Jeter (Woodlawn '85, White Sox '92)
       -- third baseman Josh Booty (Evangel '94, Marlins '96)
       -- pitcher B.J. Ryan (Airline '94, Reds '99)
       -- pitcher Scott Baker (Captain Shreve '00/Oklahoma State, '03, Twins '05)
       -- first baseman Michael Aubrey (Southwood '00/Tulane '03, Indians '08)
       -- pitcher Sean West (Captain Shreve '05, Marlins '09)
       -- pitcher Josh Stinson (Northwood '06, Mets '11).
         I know that Belle, Walker and Jeter came through the Legion program. Not sure about the others.
         Seth Morehead, an affable man who returned to Shreveport and had a 36-year career in banking, died in 2006 at age 71. He always enjoyed coming to the ballpark and he would have been proud of these young men who followed his path.
        Like me, he would have said that Legion baseball was a part of his life he treasured.
 ---
        (Thanks to John James Marshall -- former Legion player, coach, sportswriter -- for providing information for this blog.)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Legion baseball was our foundation

     It is the last weekend in May and my thoughts turn back to a few decades ago when this was the start of the American Legion baseball season.
     For 12 years (1963-75), that was a big deal to me. It was worth waiting for, that first Saturday of games -- four games at old SPAR Stadium in Shreveport.
     Man, those were fun years.
     This topic might not interest many of my blog readers. You can stop here. But looking at my mailing list and Facebook friends list, I know there are about 100 once-young men who might like this brief history of junior baseball in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana.
     I was involved as a scorekeeper, public-address announcer, newspaper writer, foul-ball chaser. For more than half of those 13 seasons, I was in charge of Legion ball coverage -- in the Fourth District league -- for The Shreveport Times
     So I saw, easy estimate, more than a thousand kids play baseball in the summer. Saw some darned good players and great games. Saw some mediocre players and badly played games.
     For some players, it was part of the road to college scholarships and/or pro contracts. For most, it was just a chance to keep playing a game they'd played for years.
     For me, in the summer of 1963, it was the start of a career in newspapering. And I actually got paid to do it. (It also was the start, I was reminded this week, for several others who wrote sports in Shreveport.)
     Loved it all. In the neighborhood, we played wiffle ball in the heat of the day. At night, for me, it was off to cover doubleheaders at SPAR Stadium or Centenary Park, Cherokee Park,  Blanchard, or one game at an out-of-town location (Mooringsport, Minden, Springhill, Homer, Ruston).
     Except on Saturdays. Then it was that four games-in-a-day fiesta at SPAR Stadium ... at least in the mid-'60s years when there was no pro baseball in town. Long days, great days.
---
      Here are two facts that might surprise those who followed Legion baseball in Shreveport-Bossier:
      (1) The only team from our twin cities to win a Legion state championship was in 1952 -- the Seven-Up Bottlers (the Byrd High team);
      (2) to the best of my knowledge, no Shreveport-Bossier Legion player from 1957 through the mid-1970s -- in other words, no one in the time I was involved -- played in major- league baseball. There were a couple of area kids who made it (I'll get to that).
       Amazing, because we had a very competitive eight-team league in Shreveport, and some talented players and teams.
      Shreveport-Bossier has had a dozen kids make the majors in the past three decades, So maybe the game -- and the opportunities -- improved, and the interest in baseball -- which some people think has declined over the years -- is still there.
      As I was thinking of writing this piece, I was wondering: Do they still play Legion baseball? Because I haven't seen anything on it in years. Had to Google it.
       The answer is yes -- nationally. They still play for state championships, and the champions go to regional tournaments, and those eight winners go to the Legion World Series, which has been played annually since 1928 and after being moved around the country from year to year has been based in Shelby, N.C., for several years.
       The answer is also yes for South Louisiana, the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.  In fact, a New Orleans team won the national championship in 2012 (another won in 2006).
       However, a sportswriter friend from there told me that the league is not nearly as competitive as it was decades ago. Many coaches -- who also coach the high school teams -- now choose not to play seniors (who just graduated from high school), preferring to play the kids who will return to high school this fall.  
       But, no, they don't play Legion ball in North Louisiana anymore. Interest waned in the early 2000s, and the program folded 6-7 years ago.
       That's not necessarily a negative. There are plenty of baseball chances for kids these days -- the Dixie Seniors program (which always existed in Bossier City), select teams, travel teams. If parents are willing to pay, and kids are willing to invest their time, they can play a lot.
       For at least half a decade, Shreveport's program was backed by the American Legion post -- Lowe-McFarland Post No. 14 -- which underwrote the program (with the various team sponsors). I only knew a few of the veterans at that Legion post near Cross Lake, but I thank all the men there for their service, period, and their service to baseball (and many other ventures).

---
     I already loved baseball when I saw my first Legion game in late summer 1962 -- Royal Crown Cola, the Shreveport city champion and one of the Fair Park High-based teams, vs. the Tulane Shirts, the Jesuit of New Orleans-based team that two years earlier (with a lineup that included Rusty Staub and future LSU quarterback Pat Screen) had won the Legion national championship.
      I went with Dad to SPAR Stadium to watch the first game of a best-of-three series for the state championship. R.C. Cola won that night -- fireballing Tommy Chiles pitched and big Frank Neel hit a home run, which was incredible to me, that a high school kid could hit one over the right-field fence (hey, I was 15, a little naive). But Tulane won the two games in New Orleans and advanced to the regional tournament.
      The next summer, after my sophomore year in high school, I was the scorekeeper for Industrial Sheet Metal -- one of the two Woodlawn High-based teams (the Linwood Junior High district), but not the team based on my junior high (Oak Terrace).
      Explanation: The Industrial coach was a Legion legend of sorts, a somewhat crochety, wrinkled, older man -- Milo Whitecotton, who came to every Woodlawn home game and some practices to scout his potential players. He also talked the scorekeeper into joining his team. 
      (He also "recruited" the sophomore Woodlawn catcher, who like me lived in the Oak Terrace-based district, to play for his team that summer. Not sure how that worked, but I saw a box score on a clipping I saved and the Industrial lineup had "Prather CF." Trey Prather was in the outfield because the Woodlawn football coaches -- thinking of their starting quarterback that fall -- preferred that he not catch that summer.)
      Milo was known among Legion followers to some as "the sage of Cedar Grove." The kids also called him -- not to his face -- "Limo Quiterotten." He loved his ball; he enjoyed working with the kids, and he coached some wonderful teams.
      Guarantee you that if I asked my friends from that time and that area what they remember about Legion baseball, the first thing they will say is "Milo Whitecotton."
---
     Over the years, I learned to appreciate the other dedicated Legion coaches in the city; they all worked at regular jobs, but summer baseball was their passion.
     Woodrow McCullar became "the dean" of Shreveport Legion coaches and the most successful of my era (five city championships). He had the Broadmoor/Byrd-based B&N Barbers for a few years, then switched to the Youree Drive/Byrd (later Captain Shreve)-based Cobbs Barbecue team and then used his own company's money, Glenwood Drug Store, as a sponsor.
     Other Legion coaches with a good number of years in the program: Bill Zeigler (Optimist Club, the Lakeshore/Fair Park team), my Shreveport newspaper artist buddy Ron Rice (Cobbs, then B&N in a swap with Mr. McCullar); Gene Stevens (Kay's Cookies, the Linwood/Fair Park-based team); Don Farrar (R.C. Cola); Harvey Johnson (the Oak Terrace/Woodlawn team); Pat Looney (the Hamilton Terrace/Byrd team); Butch Williams in Minden; Matt Martin in Homer.
      Some of them -- Coach Zeigler, Stevens, Farrar -- won city titles. Ron Rice was the organizer of one city playoff championship team.
       It was really neat for me to see some of the players I had covered later coach teams, guys such as Ronnie Warren, Sonny Moss, Don Birkelbach and Perry Peyton.
      But the most successful Legion coach in North Louisiana -- and the most successful team -- was Billy Henderson and the T.L. James Contractors of Ruston. The James Co. sponsored that Fifth District team (Monroe area) for 19 years and was a state-championship contenders often, finally winning in 1972 -- only the second North Louisiana to do so. Ruston was the spoiler for several Shreveport contenders.
     The umpires became familiar to all of us, too: Bob Molcany, Lloyd Boyce ("Sarge"), Jack Ferrell (the Colonel), Phil Risher, Bob Brittner, Alex Huhn and, starting in the 1970s, my good friends John W. Marshall III and Clyde Oliver "T-Willie" Moore (the "snake doctor" pitcher for Cobbs when we were in high school). Also, Mike Bonner and Jerry Carlisle -- two North Caddo High athletes of the '60s.
---
      But perhaps the most legendary Legion figure of the 1950s and '60s was the man in charge. Most everyone who ever played or coached a kids' sport in Shreveport knew him: Marvin "Hoot" Gibson. He was the commissioner of baseball in the Fourth District.
      Hoot was a small man, white-haired by the time we knew him, wore thick glasses because he had terrible eyesight, and had a nasally, high-pitched voice that was widely imitated.
      He had been a team manager at Centenary College in the 1930s when Centenary was a football power, and had been the head of the Shreveport Parks and Recreation (SPAR) department for a couple of decades.
      He had officiated some sports, which left many people wondering because he clearly couldn't see clearly, and so he was always protective of the referees, umpires and officials who worked games. Don't know if he was an American Legion member, but he represented Lowe-McFarland in the sport and he was proud -- and rightly so -- of the Legion baseball program.
       His "Recreation Ramblings" column was a Sunday sports staple in The Times, and I can tell you that Hoot was good to a young sportswriter, who after some years even dared to offer mild criticism. Don't think he was too fond of me suggesting that the Legion program be integrated once the area high school integrated in 1970.
       But we all should have gratitude for the job Hoot did all those years.
      And once he retired, Russell Neely (who was a Legion member) and then J.R. Heflin did fine jobs as the Fourth District baseball commissioners.
---
       I mentioned Phil Risher in the umpires listing above. He had another distinction: He was an infielder on the 1952 Seven-Up Bottlers, the state Legion champions. And in Part 2 of my mini-history, I will begin with two legendary names linked to that team: Seth Morehead and Scotty Robertson.



     
    
      

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Memorial Day, we always remember

Trey Prather: His LSU football bio photo; his and his parents' gravesite
     This is a day to remember. Memorial Day always is a day to remember.
     We remember Terry Cross. That will mean something to his friends from Oakdale, La., and Louisiana Tech University.
     We remember Gene Youngblood. That will mean something to his friends from Fair Park High School in Shreveport, and all the friends he made afterward.
     We -- those of us from Woodlawn High School -- remember Glenn Ogburn, Edward Cox and Harold O'Neal ... and, of course, Henry Lee Prather III. Trey.
     All were military servicemen who died in action in the Vietnam War.
     Obviously, Memorial Day encompasses much more than those killed in Vietnam. It covers all those who died in the service of our country while in the military. As several Facebook friends have pointed out, this is not a day to honor all servicemen; that's Veterans' Day (Nov. 11).
     All wars are horrible, and we all suffer. And we can debate the merits, or non-merits, of U.S. involvement, which is what happened on my Facebook page this past weekend -- and I didn't ask for that.
     Every war stirs our passions. We know looking back that it was crucial for the Americans to help save the world in World Wars I and II. We're not so sure about the Iraq and Afghanistan involvements; those are being questioned, second-guessed even today.
     For people of my generation, Vietnam -- and those who died there -- is the one with which we most identify. And it remains a contentious topic even now.
     We know that the American government -- led by the big man from Texas with the big personality and the big ears -- and the military leaders misled us, misguided our troops, and we question all those wasted lives, those young men with all their promise gone.
     More on this below. Here's what doesn't change: The permanence of those names on the Vietnam Wall; our memories of those young men; our grieving for them. I think of them most of all on Memorial Day.
     I have posted blog pieces over the past 3 1/2 years on Trey Prather and the other Woodlawn kids. Here are the links: 
http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2014/05/this-knight-was-right.html
http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/05/memorial-day-memory.html
http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/05/special-salute-to-fallen-knights.html
http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/02/fallen-warrior-trey.html
     Now about two other young men ...
---
USMC 2nd Lt. Terry Cross
     I did not know Herbert Terrell (Terry) Cross very well. He was from Oakdale and was on the track and field team at Louisiana Tech, a sprinter known for his explosive starts, according to a friend (and conference discus champion), Tim Hall.

     To be honest, he wasn't one of our front-line runners. He was just on the team. But he was an outstanding student. I remember him, in 1967, as a dormitory monitor on the floors where the athletes roomed -- a quiet guy, nice guy, seemingly always reading, always studying.
     He was at Tech an extra year working on a master's degree in mechanical engineering. He graduated in December 1967.
     I did not realize, or had forgotten, that he was in the ROTC program at Tech. So when he graduated, he joined the Marines, and quickly was a Second Lieutenant ... and was off to Vietnam.
     Four months after graduation -- April 8, 1968 -- he was killed in action. He was 24. Here is the link to his page on the Vietnam Virtual Wall: http://www.virtualwall.org/dc/CrossHT01a.htm.
     I was a junior at Tech; I do remember getting the word that he had died. He was the second person (and athlete) killed in Vietnam that I had written about; it made an impact because he died three months after Trey Prather.
     I don't think Tech did much, or anything, to honor Terry. But two years ago, some of his former teammates, the Tech track and field program, and people from Oakdale put together a Terry Cross memorial service prior to the annual Jim Mize Invitational meet at Tech. 
     From a story in the Oakdale newspaper: His family was presented a service portrait painting of him and a copy was given to the Louisiana Tech Alumni Center. The Jim Mize Invitational's first running event, the 4x100 relay, was named the Terry Cross Memorial race.
     Great touch. Long overdue.
---
Army Sgt. Gene Youngblood
     I did not know Gene Youngblood at all. I wasn't even aware of him until a couple of years ago. 
     But his younger brother, Tommy Youngblood, was a star athlete at Fair Park High, a Class AAA All-State defensive end the same year Trey Prather was the All-State quarterback. Like Trey, Tommy signed a football scholarship at LSU and he was Trey's teammate -- and a friend -- for two years.
     After I wrote a couple of articles on Trey, Tommy -- who lives in Highland Park (Dallas suburb) -- contacted me and wanted to meet. He had known several Woodlawn kids, dated a few Woodlawn girls, and wanted to talk about Trey and LSU. 
     We've become friends, and Tommy told me that not only did Trey's leaving LSU and joining the Marines and his subsequent death hit him hard, his older brother died in Vietnam only a month after Trey.
     "He was always an ROTC guy, a military-type guy," Tommy recalled. "Fair Park had a really good rifle-drill marching team."
     When Gene got out of school, knowing he was about to be drafted, he enlisted in the Army and went to Officer Candidate School (OCS). But that didn't take, so he wound up in basic training in 1966, served at Fort Polk and Fort Benning, earned a sergeant rank, and  went to Vietnam in 1967.
     Charles Eugene Youngblood -- Gene to his family and friends -- was one of 10 men in his platoon killed in a Tet offensive battle in the province of Hua Nghia on Feb. 12, 1968. The cause of death listed: multiple fragmentation wounds. He was 23. A page link:
http://army.togetherweserved.com/army/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=75609
     "He was a fun guy, an interesting guy, a good guy," Tommy remembers. "He knew people from everywhere -- Fair Park, Woodlawn, Marshall (Texas). He had girlfriends from everywhere."
---
     On my Facebook home page, Sylvia Pesek of Haynesville, La. -- the hometown of Trey Prather's mother and maternal grandparents -- posted a few paragraphs from one of my previous blogs (this was from a story written 20 years ago by someone else).
     Here is a portion of a remark made in response by a person whose name I am not going to publish here:
     "Maybe we should forget their names and tear down their monuments and quit memorializing their acts of war, whether they be 'voluntary' or 'conscripted.' The whole idea has to end somewhere, and as long as we keep making heroes of the victims, it will never end."
     There's more, but you get the idea. And there might be people who agree. But I don't, and others don't.
     Tom Dixon's reply to this person (and I don't know Tom): "Memorializing the person who gave their life in military service is NOT memorializing the cause. Any man who dies or risks death to protect or save the life of his fellows (and here, I primarily mean his brothers in arms) is a true hero. The 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds who served with me in Nam didn't start, understand nor promulgate that (bleeping) war. They 'served' as best they knew how."
     And here was Sylvia's reply: "You do not forget the names of friends or family. You do NOT. ... And they were ALL somebody's friends and family."
     Yes, they were. Prather, Cox, Ogburn, O'Neal, Terry Cross, Gene Youngblood, thousands and thousands of others. They gave their service; they gave their lives.
     Bless them all. Honor them all. We always remember.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Welcome to the neighborhood: It's Colonial week

      Each May, our neighborhood turns into a fortress. Fences are put up, tents are pitched, roads are closed, and we are practically in lockdown mode.
      It's not as bad as you might think. In fact, it's quite good.
      The PGA Tour is back at Colonial Country Club, which is just across the Trinity River from where we live. Fort Worth has much going for it, and the tournament at Colonial -- note how I am avoiding the corporate name -- is one of the city's biggest assets.
      It is one of the PGA Tour's biggest assets, in my opinion. Other than the Masters at Augusta National, no tournament on tour has been played on the same course annually as long as Colonial. When you see it describes as "historic" Colonial, it's true.
       It is a beautiful old course, a beautiful setting, built into the TCU-area neighborhood, next to the river, a course designed with lots of dogleg fairways and challenging carries over water, and shorter by today's standards (only two par-5s). So the long-drive bombers have to compromise and don't always prevail.
      And we are right here. The fourth green at Colonial -- the dastardly tough 247-yard par-3 hole which has never been aced in tournament history -- is about 100 yards (if that much) from the apartments where we live.
      Only a river, and a bridge, is between us and the golf tournament. Oh, and a ticket to get in the place. I usually manage to find one.
      We have lived in the Colonial neighborhood for nine years, and tournament week is exciting ... and it can be a traffic mess. But starting last year, the PGA Tour and Colonial officials -- with security in mind -- rearranged access to the course.
      The main entrance to the course, which used to be at either the front of Colonial or on Colonial Drive near the second-hole tee box and first green, now is just down the street from us.
      The open field across the street from the fourth fairway/green now is the site of Frost Park, and a huge stage-like base on which is built the "entry" pavilion. I knew tournament time was nearing when they began construction about five weeks ago.
      This week, they close off the street here at the bridge. Fans cross the street from the pavilion to enter the course midway down the No. 4 fairway.
      So, from there, it is quite a walk to either the No. 1 or No. 10 tee boxes, where players begin their Thursday-Friday rounds. But for me, it's a shortcut for walking all the around the fence to the previous entry spot.
      Besides, I don't mind the walk. I walk for exercise just about every day and go past No. 4 several times a week, and I have walked the Colonial course regularly during most of the nine tournaments since we've lived here. (Had to miss a year or two because of conflicts, family matters.)
      Love walking the course. Watching golf isn't easy, but it is easier if you prefer to sit at one hole -- or two, if it's within range of vision -- and watch all the groups come through.     
David Toms' children celebrate with him after his
2011 victory at Colonial (Getty Images photo)
      I'd rather follow a group all the way around, and enjoy all the course. It gets harder as we get older, but I can find the shortcuts, such as not walking the length of the 611-yard, par 5 No. 11 ... unless my guy is in contention and I need to take a closer look.
      The people who know me know that my guy -- years ago -- was Hal Sutton. Followed him in many a round here, in Memphis, in Shreveport (obviously not as part of the PGA Tour), even in Honolulu, and at The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
       My guy now is David Toms, like Hal a resident of Shreveport. I don't know David personally, although we've met and I've written about him. I do have long-ago connections with his father and stepmother, and I know several of his friends.  
       I have followed David's rounds here every year I've been, and my favorite Colonial was four years ago when he finally (finally) won this tournament.
       He had been close several times, and he often has said it is one of his favorite courses and tournaments. One reason is the course suits his game; he's not among the long drivers on Tour but one of the best iron players.
       Another reason: He always has a strong following here, LSU fans and people from North Louisiana who make the drive over or the Metroplex residents with Louisiana/LSU ties who like to see him play.
       I'm in that group, and one of the reasons I so enjoy the Colonial crowds is there are always longtime friends I see there.
       We can only hope it will be as much fun as it was in 2011 when David posted his 13th career PGA Tour victory -- and a thrilling one, considering his wife and children were there and that he had met with disaster the week before, losing The Players Championship in playoff with K.J. Choi after leading most of the day. That had been his sixth runner-up finish since his previous victory (in 2006).
       In the first two rounds in 2011, David was on target -- 8-under 62 both days. I had to miss Saturday's round (out-of-town trip) and David faltered to a 4-over 74.
       On Sunday, as we were all nervous all day, he came through beautifully with a 3-under 67 and a one-shot victory. So he was 19 under for the three days I was there. Dang right, I was his good-luck charm (don't tell me otherwise).
       It was almost as much fun last year. After a 72 on Thursday, he shot 66-65 and we had that nervous feeling again Sunday. He had the lead at 9 under when he went to No. 10, but faltered and finished two shots behind Adam Scott (playoff winner) and Jason Dufner.
        Undaunted, I plan to follow David to another victory this week.
        I am not a golfer, never have been, never covered a golf tournament until I was in college, rarely had been to a golf course. But I always liked watching the big tournaments on TV, watching Arnie and Jack and the other greats and non-greats.
        My appreciation for the game -- and its difficulty -- has grown over the years. This observation will be no surprise to the millions who have played (or tried to play). I've seen some of my friends hack their way around the course. I've seen some who can really play.
        Still, what I know about the game -- technically -- would not fill the cup on the No. 4 green at Colonial. I do know some tournament history and know some of the players, and I have been on coverage teams for the Colonial and The Players Championship.
        Because we lived in the Jacksonville area and I worked for The Florida Times-Union for a half decade, I got to see some great golf on what I think is an outstanding and challenging course, the Stadium Course at PGA Tour headquarters. 
        Loved seeing the players up close, interviewing some of them and writing what little I could contribute. Even Greg Norman -- Bea and I were such fans, and he let us down quite a few times -- dominated The Players one year.
Three symbols of victory at Colonial: The Marvin Leonard
trophy, the plaid jacket ... and David Toms. (PGA.com photo)
        I usually try to watch The Players on TV, and it was great theater two weeks ago when the "overrated" Rickie Fowler won in a playoff (and birdied No. 17 three times on Sunday ... wow).
        Love that course, although I don't especially love the island hole, No. 17.
        If you made me choose between the Stadium Course and Colonial as my favorite, I'd have to split the vote. How's that for being decisive? I do think that getting around Colonial might be a bit easier than the hills and contours of TPC; both are easier than walking Augusta National.
        What I love most, though, is being near the golfers, and the caddies, and the media ... and the crowds. It's a fine place for people watching, and seeing old friends. 
         At Colonial, I particularly enjoy watching players take on the "Horrible Horseshoe," Nos. 3-4-5, as tough a three-hole stretch as any on Tour (similar to Nos. 16-17-18 at the TPC Stadium Course). I also enjoy all the par-3s here -- the long No. 4, then 8, 13 and 16 (the last two with carries over water, just as on Nos. 9 and 18). 
         I also know to stay away from No. 13 -- The Party Hole -- on Saturday and Sunday when crowds are large and especially rowdy there (it's bad enough on Thursday and Friday).
         That was the scene of the "caddy races," when bets were placed on which caddy will step on the green first. It was silly and wild, and the PGA Tour finally put a ban on them.
         Still, I want no part of No. 13. I'll watch from a distance, thank you. But if David Toms is playing well, and in contention, I might pay closer attention. Let's hope that's the case.
         The neighborhood is rocking, and I'm starting my walk toward to Colonial. I expect it will be a fun week.             
        
     

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Late Night, Late Show ... it's too late for me

A Letterman appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny
(from usatoday.com)
     Except for one month in 1994, I never watched David Letterman regularly. So what's all the fuss about these last few months?
    Was Letterman the greatest late-night talk show host ever? Ha! Are you kidding?
     Even he will tell you he's only No. 2 ... if that. Because it has been obvious over the years that he revered Johnny Carson -- the all-time King of late-night television.
     As I said in a blog piece almost 2 1/2 years ago, a year after I began this blog, Johnny was -- is -- my favorite entertainer ever.
     Shows how "old school" I am. Because Letterman, only two months and four days older than me, should have been my guy. But while I watched the Carson show as many nights as I could, and now I revisit the many Carson highlights out there (especially on YouTube), I don't often visit with Letterman.
      He was too hip for me, too contemporary maybe, too crazy, too weird. I wasn't into stupid pet tricks or throwing things off buildings, or his often sharp-edged comments and interviews.
      My bad perhaps?
      After Carson left, indeed, I watched Jay Leno on NBC, on The Tonight Show, much more often. Of course, Jay had become a semi-regular during Johnny's infrequent absences (yes, that's a joke).
      Then in the summer of 1994, I had nothing to do ... no regular job, just baseball and scorekeeping a lot of nights. And one night in the press box, the discussion turned to Leno vs. Letterman, which was then a hot topic, NBC having picked Leno to succeed Carson permanently (although Carson had publicly stated he preferred Letterman).
      So David went from Late Night on NBC to Late Show on CBS ... with a mega-deal, of course. The guys in the press box kept touting how much fun and how funny Letterman was.
      For the next month, the post-baseball routine at home for me was to watch Letterman. If baseball ran long, I recorded the show, then watched.
     I liked him, but not that much. The music was too loud, Paul Shaffer was too zany looking and acting. Doc Severinsen (loved him) dressed weird, but what a band he led, and I can't even tell you who Letterman's announcer was (or is). He was no Ed McMahon; that I can tell you.
     And nothing ever will equal The Tonight Show theme music. Period.
     I found Letterman's Top Ten lists funny at times, but too often a reach. Much preferred Carnac The Magnificent (but not necessarily Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo or Aunt Blabby).
     I thought many of his stunts also were too wacky. And, yes, I know Carson had many skits that were duds.
     As for Leno, he was -- and many people still think he is -- a funny, witty stand-up comedian. I was not particularly impressed with his interviewing skills and he often was stiff/contrived doing skits. As he aged, I thought the humor in his monologues became too hard-edged.
     Eventually, I did not watch Letterman or Leno very often, except when I was aware -- through promos or TV listings -- of guests I wanted to watch. But I will say that I began to appreciate Letterman's poking fun at himself or being the butt of the jokes.
     His personal life, his flaws, his stalker, his health issues ... he didn't hide from it. Carson might've joked about his divorces, but we never really learned much about his private life and ways.
Our last live look at Johnny Carson on TV: A cameo, non-
speaking bit -- May 13, 1994 (www.people.com)
      Unlike Carson, who was almost always classy with his guests on the air but -- as we came to find out through stories and TV features -- could be dismissive with people he felt crossed him (good-bye, Joan Rivers), Letterman could be short with guests. But anyone who can put down Bill O'Reilly regularly or make fun of Sarah Palin is OK.
     One other comparison: Carson rarely, maybe never, turned serious about political and national matters on the air. I saw Letterman make some statements, after national tragedies such as 9-11, that were timely and inspiring. He hit the right tone.
      I think Letterman also is correct in making his exit. He realizes that the men in the 10:30 p.m. Central late-night spots -- Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon (our daughter's favorite) and Stephen Colbert (taking over for Letterman) -- are terrific entertainers and comedians ... and today's guys.
       Letterman has been humble as guests make their final appearances and offer tributes. And while the recent tribute show to him on CBS had many highlights, you can guess my favorite portion -- the Carson-Letterman relationship.
       Maybe we'll see more of Letterman in the future than we saw of Carson after his retirement. Johnny was on TV only a couple of times afterward, just cameo spots on the Letterman show. The audience response when he appeared unannounced on the May 13, 1994, show was one to remember.
       We kept hoping, but ... no more.
       So for those who'll miss Letterman, good for you. He had many, many great moments, and he was a great one, I suppose. He wasn't Carson.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Louisiana Tech a stepping stone? Yes and no

     The search is on for the next head coach in men's basketball at Louisiana Tech University. This will be interesting.
      Here is another situation where we see if Tech, as has been the case so often in the past, is a "stepping stone" place for head coaches. Take the job, have some success (or not) and move on to a supposedly bigger, better job.
      Frankly, because it is the place where I went to school and whose athletic program I've paid attention to since the early 1960s (although I am not a die-hard fan like I was way back) --  I don't like the "stepping stone" perception.
      Unfortunately, it does have merit.
      Michael White built an exciting, conference championship-level men's basketball program in four years at Tech. We all sensed he would be moving on soon, and last week he was announced as the new head coach at the University of Florida.
      With that, he joined a long line.
      In the "modern" era of Tech athletics -- the post-World War II era -- I count a dozen head coaches in football, men's basketball and women's basketball who took off and (immediately or eventually) became head coaches at "bigger" programs.
       In football, Sonny Dykes (to Cal), Derek Dooley (to Tennessee), Gary Crowton (to the Chicago Bears as offensive coordinator, then Brigham Young head coach), Carl Torbush (to North Carolina as defensive coordinator, then head coach), Billy Brewer (to Ole Miss).
       In men's basketball before White, Jim Wooldridge (to Chicago Bulls-NBA as an assistant, then to Kansas State head coach), Tommy Joe Eagles (to Auburn), Andy Russo (to U. of Washington), J.D. Barnett (to Virginia Commonwealth), Scotty Robertson (to the NBA).
       In women's basketball, Kurt Budke (to Oklahoma State) and Sonja Hogg (eventually to Baylor). (And that's not counting Kim Mulkey, the assistant coach who couldn't reach terms on the head coaching job succeeding Leon Barmore and then went to Baylor.)
       Mulkey, by far, is the most successful of that group, with national-title fame and fortune. Others had only moderate success ... if that.
       Yes, money is an issue to keep coaches at Tech -- maybe the most important issue.
       But prestige is a factor, too. Football bowl bids and at-large NCAA Tournament spots are hard to come by for the "mid-major" schools.
---
       As fine a university as Louisiana Tech is, and I don't want anyone telling me differently, it does have its financial limitations. I'm not versed enough on the subject to write with authority on the overall university needs, but it's obvious that meeting a budget for athletics is always going to be a challenge.
       The days of receiving state-government to fund athletics is decades past; once upon a time fund-raising was not a need. The powers-that-be at Tech have done a commendable job raising financial standards.
       Moving to Conference USA two years ago was a necessary and positive step for Tech. It is a good fit there, in my opinion, better than its years in the old Gulf States Conference and then its wandering -- in sports other than football -- through a maze of conferences -- Southland (1971-87), American South (1987-91), Sun Belt (1991-2001) and the wide-spread, travel-weary Western Athletic (2001-13).
        C-USA is a fit; the level of opponents is a fit. Tech teams can win, and win big, in this league. The football team played for the conference title last season; Mike White's basketball team won the regular-season title.
       And yet -- and I don't have the figures -- but Tech probably ranks low in the league in athletic finances -- operational expenses, recruiting budget, coaching salaries.
       It's called a "mid-major" conference for a reason.
       The Louisiana Techs of the world are not equal to the so-called "majors" -- not in facilities, not in attendance, not in financial status, not in prestige. 
       I know Tech people hate seeing that in words. They don't want to be "less than," say LSU. Great ideal ... but not realistic. 
       I use LSU because I have friends -- good friends -- who chide me for being an LSU fan. And last week, after my previous blog post, I heard from a couple of Tech faithful that I don't know. 
       But it's the same unreasonable view people have from the pretentious school in Lafayette, La., which is not the University of Louisiana. UL-L people are dreaming, too.
       LSU plays before 92,000 people every time it tees up the football in Baton Rouge. Tech, or UL-L, are happy to draw 30,000 at home ... when that happens. Basketball, baseball, track-field, I'm sure LSU attendance -- and interest -- far surpasses the mid-majors.
       And then there's this, from the financial standpoint: If La. Tech or ULL have 15 big-money boosters -- and I'm just throwing out numbers here -- LSU has triple that. And Texas, Florida, even Tennessee and Oklahoma might have double what LSU has.   
       Sure, a team from Tech can beat a "major" team and can compete with the majors. White's teams had a good number of significant victories over majors. Tech beat a Big Ten team in its football bowl game. But to do it year after year, that's tough.
       We have seen football programs located in small towns or playing at mid-major levels rise to power status; Clemson and Virginia Tech come to mind. We've seen mid-major basketball programs -- examples are Gonzaga, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, George Mason -- reach "elite" status. Some stay there; some fall back. 
       Could it happen for Louisiana Tech? Reaching a BCS football game or an NCAA Tournament Final Four? I would never say never, but I would say highly unlikely. Competing well with the majors is the desirable goal.        
       Point is, when it comes to matching coaching salaries for a successful coach such as Michael White, there is a ceiling for La. Tech. So in this case, it became a stepping stone.
---
       For Leon Barmore, Louisiana Tech was not a stepping stone; it was home. Certainly as one of the nation's greatest women's basketball coaches, he had chances to move. But he grew up in Ruston, played basketball at Tech ... and he never left. He retired after 25 years of coaching at Tech.
       Joe Aillet coached football at Tech for 26 years, stayed four more years as athletic director. Maxie Lambright coached football at Tech for 12 years. Cecil Crowley was the men's basketball coach for 21 years, Scotty Robertson for 10 years. Jim Mize was a football assistant and head track coach for nearly three decades. Berry Hinton and Pat Patterson each coached baseball for 23 years. 
       You could say the days of the longtime coach at Tech are long gone, except ... Gary Stanley has been coaching track and field at Tech for three decades, and still is.
       Tech has had head coaches with some tenure, such as Jack Bicknell and Joe Raymond Peace, eight seasons each in football, Keith Richard (nine seasons in men's basketball) and most recently Teresa Weatherspoon (six seasons in women's basketball).
The common denominator: Each had moderate success, but not great success, and eventually their contracts were not renewed.
       There are those who feel that having a Tech graduate -- and ex-player -- as coach is an advantage, that the home ties will help keep them in place. But it didn't keep Eagles or Wooldridge from jumping from the basketball job.
       Now Skip Holtz has the football job, preparing for his third year. Is this a stepping stone for him, too? He's 51 and he headed up three "major" programs -- Connecticut, East Carolina and South Florida -- before Tech.
       The hope is that his tenure will be a lengthy one; that success, such as last season's vast improvement over his first season, won't bring other offers or that he won't go looking for them. We'll see.
---
       So where does Tech turn in men's basketball?
       Move up the top assistant coach, bring in a highly recommended assistant coach from a major program; find a successful coach from a smaller school or a junior college coach with a great record; bring back one of the school's great players; try a high school coach making the immediate big jump?
       I can cite examples of each type in Tech's major sports. Some worked out well;  some only worked short-range, then their programs faded rapidly; and some were outright disasters.
      If athletic director Tommy McClelland, Tech president Dr. Les Guice and the other people in on the search -- including the omnipresent "search committee" -- do as well as they did hiring a women's basketball head coach two years ago, it will be a success.
      Tyler Summitt -- son of Pat -- was a home-run hire, in my opinion.
      That is, in terms of national publicity and exposure for La. Tech. Success on the court might take longer. The Lady Techsters aren't what they used to be, haven't been for a while now, but at least there is hope it could happen.
      With Tyler came the return of one-time Tech player Mickie DeMoss as associate head coach, and she has years of head coaching/assistant coaching/national recruiting success. So it was home run ... and another extra-base hit.
 ---
       The top men's assistant coach now being touted by players and some boosters is Dusty May, a six-year staff assistant who was close to White and handled his share of coaching and recruiting. He hasn't been a college head coach, but his hiring would mean continuity in the program. Is that enough?
        My choice, and I'm sure others will agree, would be Mike McConathy, one of Tech's greatest players (mid-1970s) who has been the successful head coach at North Louisiana neighbor, Northwestern State, for 16 years and was at Bossier Parish Community College for 16 years before that.
         Perhaps twice before when the job came open and Mike was available, the connection could not be made. Now he and his family -- his real family and his basketball family -- are well-established in Natchitoches, he's 59 and likely unwilling to make the move.
         But, look, it's not me doing the search job ... and thank goodness for that. Nor am I even remotely closely involved. 
          I'm just hoping the best for Tech, and I trust Dr. Guice, McClelland and Co. will make a great hire. And if it turns out to be a stepping-stone choice, and it's as popular as Michael White was, that's good. 
       

       



Friday, May 8, 2015

This coach moving on really was just a matter of time

This was the collage of photos posted on the Louisiana Tech Bulldog
Basketball Facebook page after the announcement that Coach Michael
White was moving on to take the Florida job.
     Those of us with Louisiana Tech ties knew that what happened Thursday was inevitable: Michael White, the successful and bright men's basketball coach, took a bigger and better job.
     Well, better if -- if -- he wins big at the University of Florida. He is following one of the nation's most successful and brightest coaches -- two national championships and three Final Fours for Billy Donovan.
     When Donovan finally made his move to the NBA two weeks ago, and didn't change his mind as he did several years ago, I told several friends that Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley would be interested in hiring White.
     My wife likes to say that if I throw enough "predictions" out there -- like I do --  some of them will stick. Dang, I don't like being right this time.
     I am not close to either program, although I lived near Louisiana Tech for 30 years and went to school there, and we lived close to Florida for seven years and attended (or did newspaper stories) a dozen Gators games in various sports.
     Just had a feeling, though, that Michael White would be Foley's kind of hire. The Florida AD is one of the best in the country and White reminds me (and obviously Foley) so much of Donovan when Florida hired him in 1996.
     There is a star quality there -- a smooth, clean image, humble, dedicated to his school, administrators, assistant coaches, players, fans ... and most importantly, to his family.
     And a great basketball background, as a player and then as a coach whose teams are well-drilled, pressure all over the floor defensively, shoot a bunch of 3-pointers ... in sum, are exciting to watch ... and win most of their games.  
     OK, there is a sticking point in Michael White's career as a head coach.          
     In four years as head coach at Louisiana Tech, his teams won outright or shared three conference regular-season championships. Their success -- 101-40 (.716) record and renewed interest in the program, a great atmosphere for games at Thomas Assembly Center -- made him attractive to other schools.
     But he never took a team to the NCAA Tournament. So there's that; not all the goals were fulfilled.
     Florida is not aiming for three consecutive National Invitation Tournament (NIT) appearances, as Tech had to settle for. But like Missouri and Tennessee -- which each tried to hire White a year ago -- the Florida people thought he was a great candidate for their open job.
     We all knew it was just a matter of time when the right job would open, the money would be too great, and he would move on.
     And the contract offered this time -- six years, $2 million a year -- was far, far out of Louisiana Tech's reach. The reported $600,000 a year Tech paid White this past season was probably a stretch for a mid-major university that doesn't have the financial clout most of the majors do.
     As several friends have commented, we can't blame him for moving on up.
     If you are an ambitious, relatively young (38) coach, you aim higher. Billy Donovan, going to the NBA, is aiming higher.
     Same for Michael White, going to the SEC, a league in which he played and was an assistant coach (Ole Miss), and going back to a state where he spent much of his youth and where he has recruited regularly (five Tech players are from Florida).
     So we wish him well. I actually like the Gators ... in basketball. But as an LSU partisan and with a daughter and son-in-law with Tennessee degrees and a home in Knoxville, not too much luck, Michael.

          

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shaq and Dale: It's not just about basketball

from ESPN.com
      "Shaq and Dale is a film about basketball, but it's a film about a relationship, a really special relationship between a huge megastar that we all know now in Shaquille O'Neal and his college head coach, Dale Brown, that dates back to when Shaq was quote/unquote a nobody in Germany on an Army base struggling with the decision to whether or not to even play basketball.
      "It's a story about love. It was a relationship that proved to Shaq there was one person who would always stand up for him regardless of what happened on the court and also off the court. And it gave this young man so much confidence. Shaq says that he wouldn't have become the player he did without Dale Brown. And I believe that wholeheartedly."
      -- ESPN anchor Hannah Storm, on the film she directed
---
      I have watched Shaq and Dale twice now, once to make notes for this piece. I have been thoroughly entertained.
      I recommend this film -- an hour, with commercials -- to anyone who likes a feel-good story. Sure, it's better if you are a basketball fan and/or an LSU fan. But if you are a fan of human beings with character, this fits.
from YouTube.com
      This is one of the newest in the ESPN Films Presents productions, an extension of the excellent  30 for 30 series, now developed for the SEC Network's SEC Storied features. I've seen a half dozen -- all wonderful, but none better than It's Time -- Chucky Mullins (of Ole Miss). That one, poignant and sad, brought many tears.
      Shaq and Dale is poignant, too, but joyful.
      Oh, there's controversy. Wouldn't be Dale Brown if there wasn't. Or Shaq, for that matter.
      Both are outspoken and honest (maybe to a fault). Part of the celebrity status they've had for decades is that the description controversial comes with it.
      I'm sure their critics will find something to knock in this film. Sorry, I can't find it.
      What I did find was a lot of humor; that's what Shaq is known for. Telling his stories, acting them out, talking about life on campus, finding his old dorm room and, after slowly opening the door, barging in and diving on his old bed, yelling, "It's still here; it's still here." Yes, 7-foot-1 and 350 pounds (or so) diving on this bed.
      And Dale, repeatedly, is seen laughing at the Shaq antics/stories. You will, too.
      What also comes through is Dale's earnestness and the fatherly guidance he gave to Shaq and so many others. Daddy Dale, indeed.
      And his motivational methods -- in so many ways. As Shaq points out early on, from right after he met Dale at age 13, he received a letter (or more) a week from the coach and still receives an e-mail regularly.
      I know; I've been on the mailing list for years. As I was writing this Tuesday night, an e-mail from Dale hit my inbox. From the time he became the LSU coach in 1972, those of us around the state received the messages from Dale -- notes complimenting a story he liked, encouragement on non-sports matters, the printouts such as "The Man in the Mirror" (I still have that one).
---
      My opinions:
      (1) Other than Charlie McClendon and Les Miles, Dale Brown is the most criticized coach in LSU history. Charlie Mac and Les, because it came with their position as the longest tenured Tigers football coaches of the past 70 years; Dale, because he was being Dale.
      (2) Dale Brown is the most interesting coach in LSU history, a man of the world. Maybe Skip Bertman (baseball guru) was in the ballpark and maybe Miles, the often hard-to-figure-out guy, will be his equal given another 10 years of news conferences and sound bytes and social media posts.
      But if you dealt with Dale, if you interviewed him, you weren't always sure where it was going.
He might talk about world hunger, or visiting the Taj Mahal or the rain forests in South America or the Himalayas; he's concerned about Middle East politics; and I can assure you that he is very much an American patriot.
      He was always willing to criticize the NCAA's investigative methods and its archaic rules concerning humane needs for players. He wanted to recruit Arvydas Sabonis from behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-1970s; he knew a great player when he saw one.
      OK, so maybe it's eccentric, maybe it's unlike how most coaches think and act. How many times have I heard Dale criticized (by my friends, coaches and sportswriters) for that?
      Plus, how much criticism have I heard of his coaching? Plenty.
      Couldn't coach really talented teams; did better with undermanned, underrated teams. Wasn't a good in-game coach. Couldn't get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament with the 1990 Shaq-Chris Jackson-Stanley Roberts team (a focal point early in this film). Couldn't beat Indiana and Bob Knight (0-3 in the NCAA Tournament).
      Lost a 31-point lead (with 15 1/2 minutes to play) and the game to Kentucky in February 1994 -- the biggest blown lead in NCAA Division I history to that point.
      I have to be honest -- I was among the early critics. My wife will tell you that. She reminds me of it often.
      It took Dale six seasons at LSU (1972-78) before one of his teams had a better-than-.500 record in the Southeastern Conference. And when I met Bea in the mid-1970s, I was not enamored with the LSU basketball program. Few people were.
      But she had worked with some LSU boosters, and Dale boosters, and she kept telling me how much those people respected Dale and his program.
      So when many thought he was on the verge of being told to leave this coaching job, his program turned for good. In 1979, LSU made the NCAA Tournament (as SEC champion) for the first time in 25 seasons. Two years later, LSU made the Final Four.
      Here is opinion No. 3: Dale Brown is the main reason people care about LSU basketball.
      Yes, Bob Pettit is a legend, and those 1952-53, 1953-54 teams he led to a combined 27-0 SEC record (and one Final Four) are legends. Yes, Pete Maravich is a legend -- the greatest scoring machine many of us have seen -- and the Assembly Center is named for him.
      But Dale lasted 25 years in the job, he coached more games (749) than any LSU basketball coach, he took 13 teams to the NCAA Tournament, he coached four SEC regular-season and one SEC Tournament champions; he took two teams to the Final Four; and -- although it didn't happen -- he set a goal: LSU winning the national championship.
      Some of us -- not going along with the thought that LSU doesn't care about basketball -- have always thought that should be an achievable goal.
      Anyway, LSU won 448 times with Dale coaching, and consider this -- 18 of those victories came against Kentucky. How significant is that?
      LSU was 0-19 all-time vs. Kentucky before a 1961 victory. Then it was 1-35 before a 1973 victory -- the last victory of Press Maravich's coaching stint at LSU. It took Dale only three games to beat Kentucky. OK, so his teams were 1-10 vs. Kentucky before they won six of eight from the Wildcats.
      And then his Tigers beat them 11 more times, including that memorable 1986 Elite Eight (NCAA Regional final) in Atlanta -- maybe the greatest victory of the Dale era. After that one, Dale was shown leaping in the air and racing off the floor toward the dressing room -- similar to his sprint off the Superdome floor when his team's first Final Four trip was assured in 1981.
      In '86, that was a totally surprising LSU Final Four team. Think about how many great coaches never took even one team to a Final Four? This so-so coach took two.
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      So, yes, the 1989-90 team -- which Dale on this film said had "unlimited potential" -- didn't get it done. One reason: Shaq really wasn't the force he would become the next two years. Chris Jackson, as exciting a shooter as LSU ever had other than Maravich, wasn't enough. Stanley Roberts wasn't a good enough all-around player. There wasn't enough cohesion, or quality depth to overcome the shortcomings.
      "Great expectations ... maybe too great," says the film narrator, country-music star Tim McGraw (who grew up in Northeast Louisiana).
      "Disappointing. I could have recruited better. I could have motivated them better. I could have done this; I could have done that," Dale said of the season and the second-round NCAA loss to Georgia Tech on Tennessee's home floor. (Tech made the Final Four).
      No excuses. You wouldn't expect that from Dale.
      The film covers the many highlight (and lowlight) games of Shaq's three years at LSU. It was a spectacular era, not all it could have been, but it's worth seeing the clips from the games, and for the LSU faithful, there are many scenic shots of the campus ... including Tiger Stadium and the PMAC.
       For those of us with Shreveport ties, there's the play-by-play sounds of Jim Hawthorne and a couple of quick shots of longtime LSU basketball sports information man Kent Lowe. Those are from 25 years ago; we go back with those guys for 40-plus years.
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      Shaq and Dale aren't the only controversial people in this film. Jerry Tarkanian is in there as the UNLV coach, but even he pales in comparison to ... David Duke and Bob Knight.
       The less I write about David Duke, the better.
       He makes even Bob Knight look decent. But I don't want to write much about Knight, either. Did not approve of his coaching style -- or any coach that thrives on intimidation --  and detest his mean-spirited public presence. Especially didn't like his criticisms of Dale Brown.
         Sure, he was a great coach; few have been better in terms of defense and motion offense, and knowledge. He has many devoted followers; he's been giving to the game in many ways and to people he considers loyal and friends. But few top him in arrogance, self-importance.
         I can tell you that I would rather deal with Dale more than Bob Knight 101 times out of 100.
         Enough negativity. Dale would not approve of it. But just for the record, there you have it.
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         When we were at the Shreveport newspapers, we knew that if we called Dale, he would return the call. Maybe if he was busy, or off to practice or not in the office, it might take 24 hours for the callback, but you could count on it.
          Some big-name coaches, it was impossible. Eddie Sutton at Arkansas was either too busy or did not deem the Shreveport Journal important enough to talk to by phone; the return call several times came from his assistant, James Dickey.
          But Dale would give you something. When I was in Shreveport, in the '70s and '80s, we did not cover LSU daily; we didn't have a Glenn Guilbeau type on the scene. We would -- to use one of Dale's favorite expressions -- "parachute in" to cover games (and do interviews).
          Personally, I rarely covered LSU basketball. In fact, I never attended a game Shaquille O'Neal played for LSU. The only game I saw him play was his rookie year in the NBA for the Orlando Magic, the first time he faced the Boston Celtics and Robert Parish. And I wasn't there to see or talk to Shaq.
          I always thought Shaq was a man-child, an often silly, goofy guy who was serious only about winning basketball games. He was good at that at LSU, but much better in the NBA.
          When he joined the Inside the NBA panel on TBS (and other networks), I thought at first he wasn't a good fit; working with the irrepressible Charles Barkley and sidekick Kenny Smith is a formidable task. But, as Shaq points out in the film, he isn't one to be intimidated -- not since he was an LSU freshman -- and so he has (pun here) grown into the role. He's a big man on the show now.
          With this film, my admiration for him has grown. And while others can still be critical of Dale Brown, I'm not going there. The man proved long ago that there's much more depth there than just being eccentric and outspoken.
         Watch the film. You might agree.