Friday, July 17, 2009

Of Steve McNair, the Flying Dutchmen football team and the long-lost innocence of the fall of '94

A different time, long ago.

Among the very last possibilities on the list of things I expected to say to my wife on July 4th was “Honey, I think I just heard that Steve McNair died.” But there we were, enjoying a cookout at my aunt’s house when my ears caught a radio report that referred to McNair in the past tense, and I knew a weird month of celebrity deaths had just gotten a little weirder.

Unfortunately for those McNair and his girlfriend Sahel Kazemi left behind, things got a lot weirder in the subsequent days. But before the tawdry details of the murder-suicide became national news, I thought of the fall of 1994, when the fortunes of McNair—the star quarterback at Alcorn State—and the Hofstra football team were intertwined despite the campuses being separated by 1,300 miles.

Just about everyone believes their collegiate days were a simpler and better time, but in this case, 1994 really was, in just about every way, a more pure and innocent time, on and off the field.

Back then, an underdog had an opportunity—a small one, but an honest one nonetheless—to, in the words of Joe Gardi, run with the big dogs. A school from the SWAC, which has never won a I-AA playoff game, and an independent in just its fourth season at I-AA were not supposed to crash a tournament typically reserved for the established and the elite.

The 16 schools that qualified for the playoffs in 1994 combined for 49 playoff appearances between 1990 and 1994 alone—well more than half of the total bids awarded in that time. Only one team in the field (North Texas) had not already reached the playoffs in the ‘90s. Almost half the I-AA national championships (15 of 31) have been won by schools in the ’94 tourney, an especially impressive figure given that six of the 16 participants in ’94 have since moved to Division I-A.

There was no room at the cool kids table for an Alcorn State or a Hofstra. But McNair, via the strength of his record-setting right arm and two legs, and the Flying Dutchmen, via sheer will and determination and the coaxing of a coach who saw lots of himself in the players who were overlooked and underappreciated by the powerhouse programs, forced their way into the I-AA consciousness.

They did so methodically, in the days when the Internet was in its infancy, ESPN consisted of two networks and Sports Illustrated could still shape sports conversation in America. It was still possible for SI to put an unknown player on the cover of the magazine that landed in mailboxes Thursday and turn him into a household name (and Heisman Trophy candidate) by Friday.

It was still possible for a cover subject like McNair to continue building a following over several weeks and months, to have his feats chronicled by word of mouth and wire reports in the newspaper and his legend grow via a modern game of telephone. By the time news of his accomplishments reached the coasts, it was hard to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Of course, McNair did more than anyone else to blur the line: He threw 47 touchdowns in 1994 on his way to a third-place finish in the Heisman voting and remains the all-time I-AA leader in career passing yards (14,496 yards) and total offense (16,823).

Hofstra didn’t get nearly the publicity McNair received, but its emergence from obscurity was no less compelling. With their unimposing schedule and lack of national profile, perfection wasn’t enough if the Flying Dutchmen wanted to make the playoffs. They had to score style points, too, as they learned when the 24-7 upset of previously unbeaten (and playoff-bound) New Hampshire Oct. 1 merely lifted the Dutchmen to the top of the “others receiving votes” category in the I-AA top 25 poll.

So six days later, the Dutchmen destroyed Central Connecticut, 62-7, and it wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. Afterward, Gardi was asked why the Dutchmen—who pulled their first stringers after three quarters—poured it on.

“We needed to earn respect and get into the top echelon,” Gardi said. “If that meant scoring a lot of points, that’s what we had to do. I got word from a lot of people [who] count around here that we should do it.”

And he was right: 62-7 looked a lot better in a newspaper than, say, 42-14, and so the Dutchmen surged into the top 25 at no. 22 the following week.

Hofstra’s pursuit of perfection ended on the Friday before Halloween against Towson State, but the Dutchmen finished 8-1-1 and harbored enough hope for a bid to the tournament to invite fans and supporters to Margiotta Hall for the I-AA selection show the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I remember the audible groan going up from the crowd when it was revealed Alcorn State would visit no. 1 Youngstown State in the first round.

I didn’t write a story about it for The Chronicle because we didn’t publish Thanksgiving week, but I remember Gardi saying he knew Hofstra wasn’t going anywhere once Alcorn State appeared in the bracket. And truthfully, nobody at Hofstra had a problem with it.

Sure, Hofstra deserved a bid and it would have been awesome to make the tournament as a non-scholarship independent, but Alcorn State also had a really good case for a bid and its national notoriety—the Braves had a handful of games televised on ESPN2—was impossible to ignore for a tournament that needed all the attention it could get. This wasn’t a George Mason-level screw job, just a matter of Hofstra having the 17th-best candidacy in I-AA.

The selection show marked the last time the football fates of Alcorn State (which lost to Youngstown State 63-20) and Hofstra would converge. The arms race that began in 1991—when the NCAA ordered all Division I schools that played Division III football to upgrade their gridiron programs to D-I—made it impossible for anyone else to follow the Alcorn State/Hofstra blueprint into national relevancy.

The SWAC decided following the 1997 season it made more sense, financially and otherwise, to excuse itself from consideration for the I-AA playoffs and limit its postseason play to a championship game between the conference’s top two teams. Even if the SWAC wanted to remain eligible for the tournament, the success enjoyed by McNair would have made it just about impossible to compete for the title.

One thing that was not better in 1994 was the perception of the black quarterback. It’s funny, and not in the ha ha sort of way, to read some of the things national commentators said about McNair in 1994, as if he chose to go to Alcorn State and toy with the opposition instead of playing quarterback at a I-A powerhouse.

McNair’s brilliance at Alcorn State, and his subsequent impressive career in the NFL, helped a lot of football people find religion. The big-time schools and the NFL alike became interested in finding the next McNair, and nearly a decade-and-a-half later, he remains the last quarterback selected in the first round of the draft out of a historically black university.

Schools that offered non-scholarship football in the mid-‘90s have largely either upgraded the program—as Hofstra began to do in 1995, when it made the first of its four playoff berths—or pulled the plug on it, a la Iona and most other MAAC schools. The number of schools still playing non-scholarship football has declined to the point where most of them now reside in a single league and harbor little hope of reaching the tournament.

Hofstra is now in the most elite I-AA conference in the land, but with ex-football players no longer holding positions of power within the university, it feels as if the Dutchmen have a better chance of joining a non-scholarship league—or worse—than of remaining in the CAA for the long term.

The newspapers and magazines that introduced most of America to the likes of McNair and the Flying Dutchmen are obsolete today. Instant media has hastened the timetable of the phenom or out-of-nowhere success story.

Sports Illustrated is dated by the time it is printed and dwarfed on the sporting landscape by ESPN and its various tentacles—one of which, ESPN The Magazine, produces an annual “Next” issue in which it identifies several “Next Big Thing” candidates. When SI put 16-year-old baseball phenom Bryce Harper on the cover of its June 8 issue, it didn’t feel newsworthy, it felt manufactured—as much by the Harpers as SI—and desperate, a tacit admission that a story such as McNair's can no longer develop organically.

It’s unintentionally ironic that the cover story in the July 13 SI—the first issue produced since McNair’s death—is the annual “Where are they now?” issue. The magazine’s story on McNair clocks in at just 726 words, a measure less of the impact of the story than of how ESPN had already tackled the story from multiple angles by the time SI could chronicle it.

To read such stories is more jarring now than it was then, as well. To be 20 or 21 and hear of a recently retired athlete dying in his mid-30s is to be saddened by the death but also distanced from it, to remember him only from flickering television images or yellowed newspaper clips.

But to be 35 and hear of the death of an athlete born in 1973 is to remember what it was like—as an observer, and, in the grandest sense, a peer—to watch the arc of his career unfold, and to recall the days when athletes who died young still seemed so much older than us.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com. And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bits and Bytes: Waiting For The Sun edition


Not sure how much longer I'll be able to play off the one Jayhawks song I know...

Pardon my absence the last few weeks. I just figured I wouldn’t return to posting until the sun returned from behind the clouds.

Seriously, sorry for the protracted hiatus and very sorry I didn’t have something on the OOC up earlier. I intended to post a Bits and Bytes last Sunday night, but the hotel my wife and I were staying at had wireless Internet straight out of 1998. Then I spent a couple days in Connecticut and boom, it was almost July 4.

I’ve also been busy at my Red Sox blog, especially now that my book is out (cue trumpets). If you like the Red Sox and/or you like me—and even if you don’t!— please consider buying yourself a copy or 500 so that I can put off getting a Real Job a little while longer. Seriously, I think it turned out pretty well, so if you’re interested in the Red Sox and the media, check out the book as well as the blog and let me know what you think.

That’s enough self-promotion for today. Here’s some other Bits and Bytes that have piled up:

—On the list of lame clich├ęs, marveling at how fast time is flying ranks just below talking about the weather. So now I’ve done both! Hooray for me! Hard to believe, but as of this morning we are officially less than two months away from the football opener. And as of late this week, we’ll be more than halfway through the basketball off-season. Whoohoo.

—My good friend Tommy the KU Grad has been checking the blog lately and talking all sorts of trash. What a bully. Dude is 15 months removed from watching his team win a national championship—its first one in 20 years, he suffered so much—and he’s flexing his muscles by picking on innocent Hofstra fans like us who never ever said anything mean about the Jayhawks, nuh-uh, not once.

I gotta give him credit, though, for reading the blog enough to actually identify three Hofstra players other than Speedy Claxton! Look forward to much more banter between Tommy and I over the next 130 days (again, not that I’m excited, or anything).

—Tommy should be careful how much he chirps, because the Jayhawks already look vulnerable thanks to a spate of dysfunction and dissension! That’s the New York spin on the news that Xavier and C.J. Henry, the hotly hyped brothers who chose to leave Memphis for Kansas once John Calipari bolted to Kentucky with NCAA investigators bearing down on Memphis, almost left Kansas after a Kansas City Star story in which they were portrayed—in their own words—as having no interest in academics and looking at college as a one-and-done situation.

A basketball factory like Kansas may have student-athletes who aren’t at all into the first part of the equation? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! Self has apparently mended fences—though, reading between the lines in the first link in the above graph, it sounds like he has no use for Carl Henry, the father of Xavier and C.J. and a former KU star himself. And quite frankly, it’s hard to blame him, given how Carl Henry seems to be doing a bang-up job of essaying the controlling, overbearing stage dad.

But hey, as a Hofstra alum, I encourage Carl Henry to bug the hell out of Self between now and Nov. 13! Maybe he’ll pull his kids out of school and a bunch of the Jayhawks’ other All-American candidates will follow and Self will have to send out the student manager to fill out a starting five! This is just the beginning of the crumbling Jayhawks empire, Tommy!!

—Speaking of controversial recruits, Lance Stephenson finally landed somewhere: Cincinnati. The Bearcats signing recruits with more baggage than Samsonite? Did Bob Huggins go back there when nobody was looking? Seriously, I can’t think of a bigger red flag than St. John’s—which is in screaming need of a local star to raise its fortunes and national profile—passing on the chance to sign Stephenson at a discount (pun possibly intended).

The Daily News wrote about Stephenson’s meandering journey two weeks ago Sunday. At the end of the lengthy feature, former Adidas guru Sonny Vaccaro implores Stephenson to go somewhere, even a local school off the big-time D-I path. “Manhattan, Seton Hall, Hofstra,” Vaccaro said. I picture Hofstra officials cringing at that line and wondering how politely and pointedly they can tell Vaccaro to mind his own business.

—Hofstra’s future conference affiliation is touched on directly and indirectly in this interesting story from The Providence Journal about the future of athletics at the University of Rhode Island. URI’s outgoing president, Robert Carothers, says he expects the Colonial to eventually add Charlotte, that Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz “…wants to get out of the Colonial altogether” and join the A-10, which is a move Carothers would support. Carothers also expressed hope that a travel-friendly all-sports Yankee Conference could be formed.

Of course, Carothers’ opinion is now as valuable as the rest of ours, but it’s interesting that the idea of blowing up the D-I landscape isn’t unique to bloggers like me. Also notable is that URI AD Thorr Bjorn wonders what will happen to the northern-based CAA football schools once Old Dominion and Georgia State join the league and expand it to 14 members.

Asked if the northern schools might form their own league, Bjorn said “…as of right now, we have no immediate plans to change,” which sure sounds like it’s being pondered for a few years down the road. Stay tuned.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com. And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!

In which I finally comment on the OOC being Ben Seavered

When it's time to CHANGE, it's time to re-ARRANGE...oh wait, wrong sitcom.

If you’re like me (once again, I’m very sorry), then Growing Pains was a staple of your weekly television viewing in the mid-to-late ‘80s. And if you’re like me, you no doubt remember the overnight transformation of little brother Ben Seaver, who went from pipsqueak little runt to Barry White during a Very Special Two-Part Episode in 1989.

Ben’s emergence into manhood occurred, quite literally, in the middle of the season finale/cliffhanger and overshadowed the drama of Mike asking the family nanny to marry him. Alas, Mike decided he couldn’t marry her because Julie posed for Playboy and would thus go to hell, or be Left Behind to guest star as a heathen car thief on Beverly Hills 90210. I can’t remember.

(Things that I never would have guessed: This season finale aired immediately after The Very, VERY Special Episode in which Carol’s boyfriend, Sandy, dies after he gets into an accident while driving drunk. Mike telling Carol that Sandy died while Carol and her parents were on their way back from the hospital—where Sandy appeared to be recovering—and Carol’s subsequent hysterical “what about his second chance?” reaction remains one of the biggest “holy crap” moments in TV history. And much like Julie, Sandy’s portrayer went on to guest star on 90210 too!)

Where in the hell was I? Oh yeah.

Anyway, I was reminded of Ben Seaver when looking at the Flying Dutchmen’s 2009-10 OOC. Geez. Talk about rapid maturations. Last year’s OOC was so spindly and pimply-faced, it wasn’t even released until mid-September. This year’s OOC is so grown up that Hofstra couldn’t even wait until July to release the OOC, and really, who can blame folks there for puffing their chest out a little bit over this?

Actually, a better pop culture analogy might be this: Last year’s OOC is to this year’s OOC what Scott Scanlon was to David Silver—hopefully sans Scott’s self-inflicted gun wound—in season two of 90210. They’ve got some history together, but other than that, the two have irreparably grown apart.

Hofstra has gone from playing a New York version of the Big Five to playing the Real Top Five, all in one off-season. After visiting Kansas to open the season Nov. 13 (not that I’m looking forward to it or anything, but it’s only 130 days away), the Dutchmen head to the pre-season NIT in Storrs, CT a mere three days later, where, according to this post on the CAAZone, they’re expected to face either Yale or Colgate with the winner to face UConn the next night. My apologies for jumping the gun last week and declaring Hofstra was actually scheduled to play UConn.

As many as four games in the pre-season NIT is a pretty good upgrade on the three games in the Charleston Classic, which last year featured exactly zero ranked teams. And it’s not the only tournament for the Dutchmen: They’ll be part of the Holiday Festival at MSG Dec. 20-21 and will open play against St. John’s, which apparently thinks it has a chance to beat Hofstra after ducking the Dutchmen the last two seasons, before facing Cornell or mid-major golden boys Davidson in the final. That’s right. I’m calling a win over St. John’s RIGHT FREAKING NOW.

The last time Hofstra played in two pre-season tournaments was 2006-07, when the Dutchmen were still riding high off the publicity generated by The Great Screw Job and were the overwhelming favorite to win the CAA.

There’s only three ’08-09 opponents on this year’s schedule: Manhattan, New Hampshire and Fairfield all visit Hofstra after hosting the Dutchmen last year. Iona and Fordham are off the schedule after two straight years while long-standing relationships with St. Francis (four straight years) and Stony Brook (nine straight years) have been interrupted, if not outright severed.

Even given the bad feelings engendered by The Lacrosse Incident, the lack of a game with Stony Brook surprises me, and is the most telling sign yet that the Cold War between the two schools is quite serious and not headed for an amicable resolution any time soon. This is going to get really compelling as the conference arms race heats up over the next few years.

The three metro-area OOC opponents are the fewest since 2006-07, and even then, the Dutchmen played Syracuse and Siena, both of whom have pretty sizable metro-area ties. Tom Pecora likes to engender camaraderie by playing fellow local mid-majors, so it’ll be interesting to see how Hofstra manages to straddle two worlds if this year’s OOC is indeed a sign that it is trying to position itself for a move to the A-10 or some unnamed, yet-to-be-founded offshoot of a fractured Big East.

From a purely personal point of view, as a Connecticut native, Hofstra heading up to UConn and playing at Gampel Pavilion—even if the Dutchmen don’t play the Huskies—is the greatest worlds colliding moment I’ve had in the last 16 years…an anti-Elaine and Susan moment, if you will. As loyal reader Matt, my best buddy since the mid-80s and a UConn fan since birth, asked last week: “Do you ask me for tickets or do I ask you for tickets?”

And from a basketball point of view, let’s hope this OOC quells the silly talk from last year that the creampuff OOC meant Pecora was ducking the big boys. He and the powers that be recognized the Dutchmen weren’t the type of team that could handle or withstand a rigorous November and December, so they decided to try and fatten up on some beatable opposition in hopes of building some confidence for the CAA season.

Given the Dutchmen won 21 games despite outscoring the opposition by a grand total of two points, I’d say Pecora and the rest of the staff knew what they were doing. Along those lines, this OOC indicates Pecora thinks pretty highly of the ’09-10 Dutchmen. There’s clearly a lot of confidence invested in the returning trio of Charles Jenkins, Nathaniel Lester and Greg Washington, as well as the likelihood that freshman Chaz Williams will be running the point.

It probably won’t always be pretty in November and December—and with the Dutchmen scheduled to play just two games in 13 days following the pre-season NIT final Nov. 26 and just two games in the first 19 days of December, Pecora will have plenty of practice time following the opening blitz of games—but this is one season in which it’ll be easy to subscribe to the notion of early (growing) pain(s) for late gain. Maybe come New Year’s Day, we’ll be singing along: “We’re nowhere near the end, the best is ready to begin…”

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com. And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!