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College Football Awards Week 4 (2017) September 24, 2017

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 4] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Gary Patterson, TCU

Glad I’m not him: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Lucky guy: James Franklin, Penn State

Poor guy: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Will Muschamp, South Carolina

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

Desperately seeking … anything:  Barry Odom, Missouri

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Ohio State (defeated UNLV 54-21)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Tennessee (defeated UMass 17-13)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Kent State (lost to No. 9 Louisville 42-3)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Louisiana Tech (lost to South Carolina 17-16)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Utah State (defeated San Jose State 61-10)

Dang, they’re good: Michigan

Dang, they’re bad:  San Jose State

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Michigan State

Did the season start?  Florida State

Can the season end?  UTEP

Can the season never endGeorgia

GAMES
Play this again:  Texas A&M 50, Arkansas 43, OT

Play this again, too:  No. 4 Penn State 21, Iowa 19

Never play this again: Utah State 61, San Jose State 10

What? Miami (OH) 31, Central Michigan 14

HuhArizona State 37, No. 24 Oregon 35

Are you kidding me??  No. 16 TCU 44, No. 6 Oklahoma State 31

Oh – my – GodNC State 27, No. 12 Florida State 21

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 4, pre-week 5)
Ticket to die for:  No. 2 Clemson @ No. 13 Virginia Tech

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: Eastern Michigan @ Kentucky

Best non-Power Five matchup: Memphis @ UCF

Upset alert: Vanderbilt @ No. 21 Florida

Must win: No. 11 Georgia @ Tennessee

Offensive explosion: No 5 USC @ No. 16 Washington State

Defensive struggle: No. 24 Mississippi State @ No. 13 Auburn

Great game no one is talking about: No. 14 Miami @ Duke

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Todd Graham of Arizona State vs David Shaw of Stanford

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 11 Ohio State @ Rutgers

Why are they playing? Troy @ No. 25 LSU

Plenty of good seats remaining: San Jose State @ UNLV

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  New Mexico State @ Arkansas

Week 4 Take-aways:

One conclusion after today:  Michigan is good, and while Purdue is both exciting and improving, they are still not strong or far along enough in Coach Jeff Brohm’s turnaround campaign for the Boilermakers to be able to effectively take down the heavyweights of the conference.  Purdue was continually outmanned on both sides of the line of scrimmage due to the Wolverines’ obviously superior talent.  That said, at this rate, Purdue will eventually get to the point where they can upset if not defeat Michigan and the like.  Just not today.

This week has been characterized not so much by surprises or upsets as it has by narrow escapes.  That is to say, teams that were favored almost getting upset by underdogs, only to narrowly escape in the end.  To wit:  Tennessee only managed to eke out a 17-13 win over lowly UMass, at home.  South Carolina defeated struggling Louisiana Tech by only one point, 17-16.  After a dismal start to the season, under-performing Baylor briefly led No. 3 Oklahoma in the second half before eventually losing by only eight points, 49-41.

Oh, but it gets better.  No. 4 Penn State had to score a touchdown in literally the last second of the game to triumph over Iowa, 21-19.  Then, unranked Kentucky was leading No. 20 Florida throughout a good chunk of the game, but gradually gave up the lead to the Gators in the 4th quarter, allowing the Gators to win, 28-27.  Let’s face it:  if you’re Kentucky, you blow 4th quarter leads to Florida.  It’s what you do.

Last note:  how on Earth did Stanford lose to San Diego State last week?  Yes, SDSU is currently ranked No. 22, but Stanford would have been ranked higher than that had they not allowed that notch in the “L” column.  Did losing to USC take that much out of the Cardinal?  Speaking of SDSU and narrow escapes, the Aztecs did beat unranked Air Force today, but only by four points.  But that might be more of a commentary on the Falcon’s ball-control, option-oriented offense and less on possible consistencies on the part of the former team.

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College Football Awards, Week 3 (2017) September 17, 2017

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 3] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Glad I’m not him: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Lucky guy: Jim McElwain, Florida

Poor guy: Jim Mora, UCLA

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Will Muschamp, South Carolina

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: David Cutcliffe, Duke

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Ed Orgeron, LSU

Desperately seeking … anything:  Matt Rhule, Baylor

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Oklahoma (defeated Tulane 56-14)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Auburn (defeated Mercer 24-10)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: East Carolina (lost to No. 16 Virginia Tech 64-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Vanderbilt (defeated No. 18 Kansas State 14-7)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Purdue (defeated Missouri 35-3)

Dang, they’re good: Clemson

Dang, they’re bad:  UTEP

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Kansas State

Did the season start?  LSU

Can the season end?  Rice

Can the season never endDuke

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 4 USC 27, Texas 24

Play this again, too:  No. 24 Florida 26, No. 23 Tennessee 20

Never play this again: Arizona 64, UTEP 16

What? No. 24 Florida 26, No. 23 Tennessee 20

HuhMemphis 48, No. 25 UCLA 45

Double HuhNorthern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

Are you kidding me??  Vanderbilt 14, No. 18 Kansas State 7

Oh – my – GodMississippi State 37, No. 12 LSU 7

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 3, pre-week 4)
Ticket to die for:  No. 16 TCU @ No. 6 Oklahoma State

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: UCF @ Maryland

Best non-Power Five matchup: Ohio U @ Eastern Michigan

Upset alert: No. 17 Mississippi State @ No. 11 Georgia

Must win: Notre Dame @ Michigan State

Offensive explosion: Toledo @ No. 14 Miami

Defensive struggle: Pitt @ Georgia Tech

Great game no one is talking about: Duke @ North Carolina

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Jim Harbaugh of Michigan vs. Jeff Brohm of Purdue

Who’s bringing the body bags? UNLV @ No. 10 Ohio State

Why are they playing? UMass @ Tennessee

Plenty of good seats remaining: Florida International @ Rice

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Georgia Southern @ Indiana

Week 3 Take-aways:

The Clemson-at-Louisville game was the game of the week, and on paper, such a designation was obvious.  But sometimes these “games of the week” become lopsided affairs.  This was sadly such a game, whereby the Tigers triumphed over the host Cardinals, 41-27.  Did the game’s outcome have to weigh so heavily in favor or Clemson?  No.  The problem for Louisville was a combination of a few things.  For one, the Tigers’ offense had incredible speed in their skill positions that kept Louisville’s secondary on their toes the whole night.  The second was their powerful offensive line opened up huge gaps up the middle, allowing their runningback to gain lots of yardage between the tackles.  Much of that could have been cancelled out had Louisville’s offense been allowed to fire on all proverbial cylinders.  Why the hindrance?  Because head coach Bobby Petrino seemed bent on trying to mold Heisman winner Lamar Jackson into another Aaron Rogers, when he is clearly another Michael Vick instead.  Petrino is apparently so bent on micro-managing his quarterback that he has forgotten that an artist needs to be allowed to be, well, an artist.  Let Jackson play to his strengths, and Louisville’s offense shall rise to the level of its potential.  But as long as Petrino continues to micromanage the offense the way he currently is, the Cardinals’ offense shall continue to stagnate.  The choice is that simple.

Meanwhile, what a game in Los Angeles.  The 2005-2006 BCS National Championship game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was the greatest college football game of my lifetime.  This was the first time Texas and USC had played each other since, and like the previous game, it did not disappoint, with plenty of drama and big plays on both sides.  Despite the unranked Horns’ eventual loss, the moral victory is theirs in that they took the No. 4-ranked Trojans into overtime and only lost by a field goal.  For the first time this year, Texas finally played up to its potential.  Even though moral victories are not counted in any statistic or record book, this is one that Coach Tom Herman can build upon if he is smart about it.

That said, the moral victory for Texas might have been an actual one had it not been for the Longhorns’ four turnovers that game.

Meanwhile, what a difference an offseason and change of coaches can make.  Purdue was a gutter team last year.  Then, out with previous head coach Darrell Hazell, in with new head coach Jeff Brohm, and the difference in team performance is as stark as night and day.  The Boilermakers have grown into a team not to be taken lightly.  Their only loss was to a strong Louisville team.  The following week they won, handily, over Ohio U, one of the best teams in the MAC.  This week, they journeyed to Missouri to take on the Tigers, whom the Boilermakers rolled, 35-3.  This upcoming weekend, they play No. 8 Michigan.  On paper, the odds heavily favor the Wolverines, but do not be surprised if Purdue takes Michigan to the wire just like Texas did with USC this week.

As an aside, Kentucky has beaten South Carolina for the fourth straight time.  The past two times, Will Muschamp has been at the helm of the Gamecocks.  How many more times are the fans going to tolerate such an embarrassing loss to a team that barely belongs in their conference before they run Muschamp out of town on a rail?

College Football Awards, Week 2 (2017) September 11, 2017

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 2] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

Glad I’m not him: Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Lucky guy: Kirby Smart, Georgia

Poor guy: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Dino Babers, Syracuse

Desperately seeking … anything:  Matt Rhule, Baylor

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: No. 19 Kansas State (defeated Charlotte 55-7)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Kentucky (defeated Eastern Kentucky 27-16)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: San Jose State (lost to Texas 56-0)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Nicholls (lost to Texas A&M 24-14)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Duke (defeated Northwestern 41-17)

Dang, they’re good: USC

Dang, they’re bad:  Baylor

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Ohio State

Did the season start?  Texas A&M

Can the season end?  New Mexico

Can the season never endOklahoma

GAMES

Play this again:  No. 15 Georgia 20, No. 24 Notre Dame 19

Play this again, too:  Utah 19, BYU 13

Never play this again: Utah State 51, Idaho State 13

Close call:  No. 3 Clemson 14, No. 13 Auburn 6

What? Middle Tennessee 30, Syracuse 23

HuhNew Hampshire 22, Georgia Southern 12

Are you kidding me??  Eastern Michigan 16, Rutgers 13

Oh – my – GodNo. 5 Oklahoma 31, No. 2 Ohio State 16

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 2, pre-week 3)
Ticket to die for:  No. 3 Clemson @ No. 14 Louisville

Also:  Texas @ No. 4 USC

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: Oregon @ Wyoming

Best non-Power Five matchup: Utah State @ Wake Forest

Upset alert: No. 10 Wisconsin @ BYU

Must win: No. 23 Tennessee @ No. 24 Florida

Offensive explosion: Tulsa @ Toledo

Defensive struggle: No. 12 LSU @ Mississippi State

Great game no one is talking about: Purdue @ Missouri

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Bobby Petrino of Louisville vs. Dabo Swinney of Clemson

Also:  Randy Edsall of UConn vs. Bronco Mendenhall of Virginia

Who’s bringing the body bags? Georgia State @ No. 4 Penn State

Why are they playing? Mercer @ No. 15 Auburn

Plenty of good seats remaining: North Carolina A&T @ Charlotte

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Morgan State @ Rutgers

Week 1 Take-aways:

This week leaves us with more questions than answers.  For one, Louisville had fewer penalties against North Carolina than they did against Purdue.  All well and good, but is that enough improvement at this rate to be ready for Clemson at home next week?  Regarding the TCU-Arkansas game, are the No. 23 Horned Frogs that good, or are the Razorbacks that mediocre?  The Auburn-Clemson game was a surprising defensive struggle.  What was the bigger surprise:  that Auburn’s defense held the Tigers to only two touchdowns, or that Auburn’s offense – supposedly a specialty under head coach Gus Malzahn – could only muster a measly six points?  Moreover, what does this portend for Auburn’s offense during the rest of the season?

The shocker of the week was Oklahoma’s upset over Ohio State in Columbus.  The question becomes, are the Sooners that good, or are the Buckeyes overrated?  Ohio State has plenty of NFL-potential bodies on both sides of the ball.  What accounts for their lackluster offense this game, and their defensive collapse in the 4th quarter?  Actually, there is an answer.  The Buckeyes are currently experiencing an identity crisis on offense.  Until they get that cleared up, they’ll continue to fail to play up to their potential this season, and that will be a genuine shame.

Questions aside, let us take a glance at the Big XII Conference.  Simply put, they’re looking good right now.  The Sooners are rolling after their huge win over the Buckeyes.  Oklahoma State has two wins with impressive margins.  TCU embarrassed Arkansas on the road today.  Kansas State won convincingly, even though it was a body bag game.  West Virginia is playing quite strongly right now, though a body bag game against Delaware State next week will obviously be meaningless.  It all adds up to a conference that is playing well and giving the rest of college football cause for notice.  The ironic weak links are Baylor and Texas.  Concerning the Bears, it would only stand to reason that Matt Rhule has not forgotten how to coach.  The turmoil surrounding the player sexual assault scandals, the sudden firing of Art Briles, and the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey have all combined to take a serious toll on the program.  Baylor looks shell-shocked right now, and it will be interesting to see if Rhule, who brought Temple to respectability, can keep things afloat at a program with greater potential but higher expectations, too.

Speaking of Hurricane Harvey, that might also account for Texas A&M has not been playing up to their potential, as well as for Texas’ gigantic miscue against Maryland last week.  After all, many players for these two programs, as well as for Baylor, have come out of the Houston area, which is still reeling in the wake of the hurricane damage and the residual flooding damage.  The latter of which alone has for longer-lasting implications than the former.  Let us all pray for those who have been afflicted by that terrible storm, as well as for those who are being afflicted by Hurricane Irma in Florida.  As the floodwaters recede and the area rebuilds and moves forward in general, perhaps the morale of the aforementioned Texas teams shall improve, along with their performances.

Speaking of Hurricane Irma, that storm shall leave implications long into the season, given all the games that have already been postponed.  One notable example is No. 16 Miami vs. No. 10 Florida State.  That game would have been one of the best of the upcoming week.  Little doubt lingers that they’ll find a time to reschedule such a matchup that is A) a heated, in-state rivalry, and B) a game with conference standing implications.  If both teams keep playing to their potential, perhaps both will be ranked even MORE highly by the time they finally butt heads.  Let us stay tuned the rescheduling on Oct. 7!

One final note about an overlooked game for the upcoming week:  Ole Miss at Cal, which kicks off at 10:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time.  While both teams are currently unranked, it does not matter, for it’s always a treat to watch SEC vs. Pac-12 matchups!

College Football Awards, Week 1 (2017) September 11, 2017

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 1] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Nick Saban, Alabama

Glad I’m not him: Matt Rhule, Baylor

Lucky guy: Jim Mora, UCLA

Poor guy: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: D.J. Durkin, Maryland

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Tom Herman, Texas

Desperately seeking … anything:  Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did: No. 14 Stanford (defeated Rice 62-7)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Pitt (defeated Youngstown State 28-21)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Akron (lost to No. 6 Penn State 52-0)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Buffalo (lost to Minnesota 17-7)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Colorado State (defeated Oregon State 58-27)

Dang, they’re good: Ohio State

Dang, they’re bad:  Akron

Can’t Stand Prosperity: 

Did the season start?  Texas

Can the season end?  Rice

Can the season never endAlabama

GAMES
Play this again:  UCLA 45, Texas A&M 44

Play this again, too:  No. 16 Louisville 35, Purdue 28

Never play this again: No. 14 Stanford 62, Rice 7

Close call:  Kentucky 24, Southern Miss 17

What? Tennessee State 17, Georgia State 10

HuhJames Madison 34, East Carolina 14

Double-Huh? Howard 43, UNLV 40

Are you kidding me??  Maryland 51, No. 23 Texas 41

Oh – my – GodLiberty 48, Baylor 45

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 1, pre-week 2)
Ticket to die for:  No. 7 Oklahoma @ No. 2 Ohio State

Keep an eye on this one:  No. 15 Georgia @ Notre Dame

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: Western Michigan @ Michigan State

Best non-Power Five matchup: Buffalo @ Army

Upset alert: No. 16 Louisville @ North Carolina

Must win: No. 14 Stanford @ No. 4 USC

Offensive explosion: Nebraska @ Oregon

Defensive struggle: Buffalo @ Army

Great game no one is talking about: TCU @ Arkansas

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Gary Patterson of TCU vs. Bret Bielema of Arkansas

Who’s bringing the body bags? Louisiana-Monroe @ Florida State

Why are they playing? San Jose State @ Texas

Plenty of good seats remaining: New Mexico State @ New Mexico

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  UAB @ Ball State

Week 1 Take-aways:

What is wrong in Austin?  Tom Herman, supposedly a fine, young offensive mind (and Urban Meyer protégé), has not started off his tenure at Texas well.  The Longhorns lost, at home, to Maryland, 51-41.  The Terps are hardly an offensive juggernaut, either.  The loss frankly stinks.  What accounts for this?  It could be perhaps that Herman has yet to bring in the recruits that he needs to compete at a top-ten level.  But perhaps the most likely reason of all is that the Horns were simply looking past Maryland, devoting all their relatively limited practice and preparation time to USC, a marquee matchup that will take place two weeks from now.  How else to account for such an embarrassing debut?

Let us admit this without hesitation:  notwithstanding their close loss today, Purdue’s turnaround performance is quite impressive.  Jeff Brohm debuted as the Boilermakers’ head coach in a less-than-ideal match for one’s inaugural game.  In this case, it was against a formidable Louisville team, at Lucas Oil Stadium (neutral site) in Indianapolis.  On paper, the Cardinals should have made mincemeat out of a Purdue team that, theoretically, would still be recovering from the Darrell Hazell malaise.  Luckily for Purdue, that was not the case.  The Boilers’ performance has markedly improved on both sides of the ball.  Moreover, they played consistently hard throughout the game, and – with the luck of three turnovers by the Cardinals – kept the game close and interesting throughout regulation.  If this impressive performance is a harbinger of what is to come, then Purdue shall have a comparatively respectable record despite a semi-brutal schedule.

Meanwhile, how rare a treat it is that fans can enjoy a top-five matchup to kick off the season!  That is exactly what we the fans enjoyed when No. 1 Alabama took on No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta (played inside the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, no less).  Speaking of great games, another fine example was No. 11 Michigan playing No. 17 Florida in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  Once again, we the fans got our money’s worth.  Sure, there were lots of throwaway games today, especially in the Noon Eastern Time slot.  But these two games, along with the Louisville-Purdue game (all three of which were, interestingly, played in NFL stadiums), more than made up for that, and it all adds up to a great start to the 2017-2018 college football season.  Let the games begin, and the good times roll!

Postscript:  Bobby Petrino won an engaging game.  Why is he thus “desperately seeking a wake-up call”?  Simple reason:  his team had three turnovers that game, which were a contributing factor to why the game’s score was so close (seven points difference in the end).  Two of those turnovers are at the goal line.  Mistakes like that will cost the Cardinals dearly as they delve into the conference part of their schedule.  Remember what happened in November of last year?  ‘Tis best to fix and pre-empt those mistakes NOW.

Speaking of wake-up calls, put Texas A&M down for an honorable mention.  There is no excuse to blow a 37-10 lead like that in the second half, with the Aggies allowing the bulk of the scoring in the 4th quarter.  For shame, Aggies.  Yet, at the same time, good on Bruins’ head coach Jim Mora and QB Josh Rosen for engineering such a comeback.

Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” Turns 80 July 6, 2017

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Eighty years ago today, on this day (July 6) in 1937, Benny Goodman and his orchestra recorded the legendary instrumental version of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”.  The song originally came with lyrics, written by none other than Louis Prima, who also wrote the song’s music in 1936.  Indeed, Prima cut the first version of the tune that same year, along with his New Orleans Gang band.  Fletcher Henderson cut his own version with his band shortly thereafter.

But it was Benny Goodman who elevated the song to legendary status.  In typical Goodman fashion, they started performing the song during live gigs before eventually recording a studio version for record sales.  Of further interest is that Goodman seemed to waste little time to cover Prima’s song, as his band began performing his own version during the band’s second trip to the Palomar Ballroom, which was in 1936.

Goodman’s band finally cut the famous studio version on July 6, 1937 in Hollywood, Calif.  The location for the recording was likely influenced by the band either doing a West Coast tour, or the fact that they were finishing up their roles for the film “Hollywood Hotel” from the same year.  Naturally, the hit record featured in this article is also featured in the film!

Regardless, the band line-up remained largely intact from the core that helped launch the Swing Era two years earlier.  Red Ballard and Murray MacEachern were on trombones.  The two tenor saxes were played by Art Rollini and Vido Musso.  The two alto saxophones were played by George Koenig and Hymie Schertzer (Toots Mondello must have taken an hiatus, as he was largely a mainstay with the band through the end of the decade).  The rhythm section consisted of Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother) at bass, Allen Reuss at rhythm guitar, and Gene Krupa, arguably the “g.o.a.t” of drummers.  Goodman’s trumpet section was the only part of the band that had changed, and arguably for the better, as it boasted an all-star roster of Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, and chaired by Harry James, who enjoyed a lengthy solo during the second half of the record.

Speaking of which, the track was unique for its length.  Most Big Band Era recordings were restricted to three minutes, thirty seconds or less (usually about three minutes and several extra seconds) on account of the spatial and timing constraints of the 10-inch records played at 78 RPM.  “Sing, Sing, Sing”, conversely, lasts eight minutes, 43 seconds, thus taking up both sides of a 12-inch 78 RPM record.

Whereas most of Benny’s swingingest hits were Fletcher Henderson arrangements, Jimmy Mundy arranged this legendary cut.  Not that this was necessarily an anomaly, has he also arranged the great Goodman killer-diller “Bugle Call Rag” from late the previous year.

To be sure, many other artists over the years have covered Louis Prima’s catchy melody, from the Andrews Sisters to Goodman to Bunny Berigan to Teresa Brewer.  Even Paul Anka issued a cover version in 1958.  But clearly, Goodman’s version stands out above all the others.  Appropriately, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982, as the tune reached the age of 45 years.  Now at 80, let us all take the time to celebrate and appreciate its timeless appeal, its perpetually youthful vigor, and its everlastingly positive contribution to American popular culture!

Steven Holcomb: Olympian, American, Friend May 15, 2017

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Note:  all photos by author unless otherwise stated.

TeamNightTrain2012

Steven Holcomb and his 4-man team, piloting the “Night Train” sled during the second of four runs at the 2012 4-man Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Holcomb and the team proceeded to reign victorious in this event, thus further cementing his legacy as the greatest American ever in the sport.

Steven Holcomb, the greatest bobsledder in the history of Team USA, died on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He was only 37 years old.  Friends found him in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.  An autopsy, which was conducted the following day, gave preliminary indication that the likely cause of death was pulmonary congestion.  He likely died in his sleep.  Toxicology reports indicated zero drugs in his system, as well (hear that, Russia?).

Needless to say, this sad and sudden news has shocked not only the men’s and women’s bobsled and skeleton teams, but also the sliding sports community around the world and the entire U.S. Olympic community.  We have all lost a friend.

His achievements, by the numbers alone, are staggering.  Three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze); three world championship gold medals (five counting mixed team events); five other World Championship medals; eight overall World Cup trophies (including four outright overall championships); sixty medals in toto.  Since 2009, he was acknowledged as one of the best bobsled drivers in the world.  More interestingly, though, he came to the sport from an unlikely background, and overcame a debilitating physical condition that almost ended his career before it took off in earnest.

Most bobsled athletes come through the track and field ranks.  As long-time bobsled broadcaster John Morgan has often noted, “[Y]ou can teach someone to drive a sled, but you can’t teach speed.”  Within the ranks of track and field, decathletes are prized above all others for their ability to both sprint (e.g., the 100 m sprint and the 110 m hurdles) as well as their ability to throw around weight (e.g., discus and shot put events), which are both key skills when pushing a sled that weighs almost 400 pounds.  The U.S. and Canada also enjoy another sport from which to recruit that most other countries lack – American football.

Ironically, Holcomb followed neither path to the sport he came to love.  A native of Park City, Utah, he was first an alpine skier, starting competitive ski races at the tender age of six, and continued to race for the Park City Ski Team for 12 years.  In this, he was in good company, as the late, legendary bobsled driver Eugenio Monti of Italy (double-gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble) also was a skier before he took up bobsledding.

To be sure, as Holcomb advanced in age, he participated in other local youth sports, such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball, and track and field.  So suffice it to say, he was a formidable all-around athlete.  In 1998, at age 18, he went to a local try-out for the USA Bobsled team, and scored enough points to where he was invited to stay and train with the national team for an additional week.  Though he finished eighth place in pushing competitions, he was passed over for the national team due to his young age and his short stature (he was only 5’-10”, which is roughly my own height!).

An injury on the team later that year led him to be invited back onto the team, where his involvement steadily grew.  He participated as a push athlete for four years, and served as a forerunner for the Olympic events at Park City in 2002.  By 2006, his seven-year stint as a combat engineer in the Utah National Guard had concluded with an honorable discharge, and he then committed himself to the sport full-time.

Not a moment too soon, either.  The men’s bobsled team was shut out of the medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics.  In fact, Holcomb, who piloted the USA-2 team sled, finished sixth in the 4-man event, ahead of Todd Hays in the USA-1 sled.  The overall showing was very disappointing, considering that both Hays’ and Brian Shimer’s sled teams won silver and bronze, respectively, in the 4-man at Salt Lake in 2002, thus ending a 46-year medal drought in the sport for Team USA.  The showing in 2006 was thus a major let-down.

Hays retired from the sport after the ’06 Winter Games, thus passing the torch to Holcomb, known as “Holcy” (holl-key) to his friends.  His full-time devotion to the sport paid off quickly.  At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 World Cup season, he won the 2007 Two-Man World Cup title, the 2007 Combined World Cup title, and finished second in the World Cup standings in the 4-man.  Suffice it to say, the U.S. men’s team had found its leader to take them to the proverbial promised land.

But just when Holcomb’s career in the sport was about to blossom, it almost ended.  He suffered from a degenerative corneal disease called keratoconus.  Basically, he was slowly going blind, and obviously did not want anybody to know.  Ironically, this condition gave him a competitive advantage, up to a point.  His eyesight continuing to decline, he learned to navigate the narrow, icy tracks of the sport more by feel and increasingly less by sight.  But if one went totally blind, not even one’s exceptional ability to feel would be enough to compensate.

As his sight got ever worse, he feared he would be forced to retire, but he still kept it a secret from the team.  Disgusted with his self-deception and depressed with the prospect of his career in bobsled soon ending, he felt like ending it all.  Then, in a Colorado Springs hotel room, after an evening of schmoozing with Olympic team donors, he almost did.  That night, he shoved 73 sleeping pills into his mouth – yes, he counted – and downed them all with the rest of a fifth of whiskey he had been drinking.  He gradually went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, not even leaving so much as a note.

Miraculously, the next morning, he woke up anyhow.  Holcy was the first to acknowledge this miracle, and instantly got the message that he had been given a second chance.  He started by coming clean with everyone about this keratoconus, telling the story about his battle with the disease, raising awareness of it in so doing.  Then, the following year, opthamologist Brian Boxer Wachler corrected his condition with a revolutionary, new treatment that did not even involve surgery.

His eyesight restored, Holcomb’s success on the frozen track continued.  By the 2008-2009 season, things really came together.  For one, the USA-1 team of Holcomb, pushers Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler, and Curt Tomasevicz truly gelled.  For another, they used the season to gradually break in a brand-new sled that the BoDyn program had designed and built for them, a sled that quickly became the envy of the top national teams everywhere.  With its intimidating flat black primer coating, the guys of USA-1 dubbed it the “Night Train,” and with it, they won the FIBT 4-man World Championship, the first time an American team accomplished that feat in literally 50 years (1959).

Team chemistry aided in this great feat, and that too must be credited to Steve Holcomb. His friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp explained the dawn of Holcomb’s innovation.  “A few months before the 2002 Olympics, we were [competing] at the ice house push track in Calgary, trying out new combinations of pushers.  I said [to the coach] ‘[P]ut Steve over there with me, and I’ll show you what we can do!’  We were ‘lightweights’ at the time.  We only weighed 205 pounds each, but we pushed together so well mechanically and we had such good chemistry that we were still able to out-push other combinations….the only reason we didn’t push together in the Olympics that year was because the team coaches kept re-shuffling the teams even after all the push tests.”

Sharp continued:  “Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”  According to Sharp, if a change then needed to be made, they would switch out one pusher and then test the new combination over a number of races to ascertain the effectiveness of the move.  The fact that the coaches listened and enacted this recommendation has shown with the improved start times, of which the late, storied driver was also a part.

It was shortly after Holcomb and his team were world champs for the first time (2009) that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area about 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates who had pushed together often in the same sleds and were usually roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

It was at this time that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  His former teammate, Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area around 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates, and were even roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

By the Spring of ’09, I had gathered the courage to reach out to Steve via Facebook, and he quickly responded to my outreach by stating “[A]nyone who’s a friend of Doug’s is a friend of mine!”  Such was the graciousness of Holcomb that he would quickly accept the friendship of a fan he had never met.

In any case, the 2009 World Championship was only a warm-up act.  Not even a drunk driving arrest later in ‘09 could halt his and his teammates’ training focus for what was to come.  The following year, at the Winter Games in Vancouver (specifically the sliding track at Whistler), Holcy and Team Night Train won Gold in the 4-man, ending a 62-year drought at the top of the podium for that event.  Team USA was back as a forced with which to be reckoned in the sport of bobsled.

The significance of this feat was not lost on Holcomb.  Katie Uhlaender, the 2012 Women’s Skeleton world champion and good friend of Holcy noted after his death that on one occasion, he told a fan who asked to see his gold medal, “[I]t’s not my medal, it’s America’s medal.”

Whosever gold medal it was, it made him a Winter Olympics star.  In the months following the huge win, he met with Barack Obama; he golfed with Charles Barkley; he even hung out with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who, yes, were still a couple then.  He threw out a ceremonial pitch at a Cleveland Indians game, visited the New York Stock Exchange, and attended the 2010 Indianapolis 500 (not surprisingly, he was a huge racing fan).

Also in the wake of winning Olympic gold, he published an autobiography:  “But Now I See:  My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Glory”.  It was in this book that he first confessed to the world about his suicide attempt in Colorado Springs that blessedly failed.  He used the story as a way to help others who might have been contemplating something similar, to show them that there are always better solutions.

Though he was a focused, humble, grinder, he was always cheerful.  Bobsledding is a fraternity.  The men and women who compete from different countries may always try to out-race each other on the track, but there remains a respect for everybody – to varying degrees – throughout the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton.  Competitors throughout the world admired Holcomb for the aforementioned qualities he possessed.  He even came up with the “Holcy dance” around 2009, a less-than-rhythmic shuffle that he did at each race of the World Cup circuit to make fellow competitors laugh and to keep everyone loose while competing.

After having reached the pinnacle of success in his sport at the 2010 Winter Games, it was only natural to anticipate a slump in performance, a let-down.  But despite his drunk driving arrest in ’09 (the judge sentenced him to 180 hours of community service), a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the publicity and endorsements that came with it, even with teammate Steve Mesler retiring after said Olympics, Holcy and Team Night Train continued to maintain their diligent efforts and forge ahead.  They even won bronze at the FIBT 2011 World Championships at the Koenigssee track in southern Germany.

It did not hurt that Steve Langton replaced pusher Steve Mesler upon the latter’s retirement.  Langton worked his way up the team ranks and soon pushed for the USA-2 sled.  By the time he joined Team Night Train, he was considered one of the best push athletes in the world.

As well as Holcomb’s performance continued to be for the 2010-2011 season, he still maintained focus and diligence, as he felt there were still key things yet to achieve.  For one, the United States had never won a world championship in the 2-man event, and he was still out to prove that he could continue to win in the 4-man.  No doubt these were some of the biggest motivating factors as he and the rest of Team Night Train tackled the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in the world championships at a home track, Lake Placid.

As a long-time fan, I saw this serendipitous occasion as my opportunity to travel up there to watch (and photograph) Holcy and the boys in action.  It helped a ton that my friend, Doug Sharp, joined me up there and provided me with insider access that I shall forever treasure.

The weekend prior to my arrival in Lake Placid – home of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – the 2-man world championship had already taken place, and Holcomb, along with brakeman Steve Langton, had already made history with the U.S.’s first-ever world championship in that event.

But now it was Feb. 25, 2012; time for the 4-man event, the marquee event of all sliding sports.  Holcomb and the rest of the USA-1 team finished the first of four runs in second to Germany-1, but put themselves in the lead after the second run.  As incredibly eventful as the day was, it was far from over after those two runs.  Doug Sharp took the opportunity to visit with his friend and former teammate, and brought me along over to the Olympic Training Center for this blessed opportunity.  There, in a small, garage-like building at the complex, the two of us entered, and there they were.  Despite having two strong runs earlier that day, there was no time to be complacent, as three of the four guys were there, Holcomb included, polishing their sleds’ runners as part of preparations for tomorrow morning’s final two runs.

Naturally, I wasted little time introducing myself in person to Holcy and to everyone else, thanking them for honoring our great nation.  To my amazement, Holcomb actually remembered me from Facebook!  The gratitude I offered to these fine fellows was very well-received, too.  Bobsledding is obviously a niche sport, one that does not attract the massive fan following of NFL or college (American) football, of the NBA, of Major League Baseball, or top-tier professional soccer in Europe and South America, for that matter.  As such, these fellows treasure the relatively few fans they have, and it shows.

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On the evening of Feb. 25, 2012, two old friends caught up on things.  Holcomb, ever the grinder, was visiting with his friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp, while he is polishing one of his sled’s runners for the last two runs of the 2012 4-man World Championship the next morning.

What immediately struck me about Steve Holcomb when I was able to converse with him was how humble he was in his achievements.  Here he was, the most decorated American bobsledder of all time, whose achievements have been without parallel despite a long tradition of American success during earlier eras of the sport.  Yet he acted as if they were no big deal:  what mattered was what he achieved lately, as he kept his nose to the grindstone, maintaining an unshakably calm demeanor all the while.

 

The following morning, Holcomb and Team Night Train picked up where they left off, and maintained their lead through runs 3 and four, winning the world championship in the 4-man event convincingly.  Naturally, many a set of congratulations and ‘atta boys showered upon the team.  Holcomb was on top of the world for his sport, having won the world championship for both the 2-man AND 4-man (again, an unprecedented feat in the history of American bobsledding).  Indeed, he had just won his third gold medal/world championship in the 4-man in a span of only four seasons.

Yet through all the victory celebration and awards ceremonies immediately following the race, what amazed me was Holcomb’s persistently even keel and humility.  Here was a consummate “grinder,” an incredibly focused, diligent person, refusing to let this success or previous successes go to his head.  Naturally, his easy-going demeanor, his understated happiness, and approachability persisted as well.

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Holcomb, flanked by the author and our mutual friend, Doug Sharp, as he hoists the Martineau Cup, the trophy his team won upon winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  Even in victory, Holcomb remained as humble, gracious, and approachable as ever.

Even with this latest pinnacle of achievement, he and his team remained as diligent as ever.  There was always still some other new feat to achieve, some mountain left unclimbed.  A medal at World Cup races at the legendary St. Moritz track in Switzerland (the only natural ice track left on the circuit) continued to elude him, despite his record of success elsewhere.  It just so happened that the World Championships were to be held at this Mecca of a track in 2013.

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Friends, both brand-new and old, together for a group shot during a VIP luncheon in celebration of Holcomb and Team Night Train winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  L-R:  Frank Briglia, the engineer who designed the cowling for the Night Train sled; Brian Shimer, the coach of the team and driver for the Bronze-winning USA-2 4-man team from the 2002 Winter Olympics; the author; Steven Holcomb; Doug Sharp and Mike Kohn, who together with Shimer won Bronze in 2002.

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The legendary “Night Train” 4-man sled, with which Steven Holcomb and his team won both the 2009 and 2012 World Championships, Bronze in the 2011 World Championship, and Gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver.

That medal continued to elude Holcomb in the 2-man event of the 2013 “Worlds”, putting even more pressure on him in the 4-man event.  But this time, he and Team Night Train came through, winning Bronze.  Another mountain was finally climbed, this one far more personal than previous feats.

The 4-man USA-1 team remained intact since the 2010-’11 season.  What changed following the 2012 world championship were two things.  One was that Christopher Fogt eventually replaced Justin Olsen in the line-up.  The second was a new sled, also provided by the BoDyn project.  Naturally, the team immediately dubbed it “Night Train II”.  Whereas the previous sled was built to take advantage of the unparalleled speeds on the Whistler track for the 2010 Winter Games, this one had different aerodynamic qualities built to better-negotiate more complicated tracks, such as the one at Sochi.  Whereas the Whistler track remains the fastest sliding sports track on the planet (top 4-man speeds have been known to reach 95 mph), the Sochi track was one of the slowest.

The Sanki Sliding Center was the track for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  Its first world cup race was held following the 2013 worlds at St. Moritz to cap off the 2012-’13 season.  Like Lake Placid, it too was a “driver’s track,” but complicated in a very different way.  Teams were lucky to reach 80 mph.  Those “in the know” pointed out that you didn’t make any time at all on this track.  You just tried your best to minimize the time lost.  Holcy and the boys did not even place in the first 2-man and 4-man race at the Sanki Center.  They obviously had their work cut out for them come the 2014 Winter Games.

In other words, there was yet another mountain yet to climb, all the more incentive to keep grinding away as always.  This time, he and Steve Langton had a new weapon at their disposal.  BMW took over the design of the 2-man sleds, and unveiled a new prototype by 2013.  Some tests and tweaks throughout that year ensured that it and other 2-man models were ready for Team USA – both for men’s and women’s events – for the 2013-2014 Olympic season.

By the time the Winter Games at Sochi rolled around, Holcy and the boys were ready to go.  One achievement that eluded him and Team USA was medaling in the 2-man event.  The United States had not done so since 1952.  This time, Steve Holcomb rose to the occasion and won bronze in that event.  Amazingly, the two came back from 5th place starting the 3rd run and made up the deficit in the last two runs to medal.  In so doing, he and Steve Langton quenched another 62-year medal drought for USA bobsledding.

The 4-man event was agonizingly close between the top five finishers.  But Holcomb piloted Night Train II on the fourth run to maintain a .03-second lead over Russia-2, thus guaranteeing the team Bronze.  With that achievement, Holcomb double-medaled in the 2-man and 4-man events at the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1936.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso is so fond of saying, “That’s a ‘yo’!”

More amazingly, he achieved this playing through pain.  He strained a calf muscle during the second run of the 2-man, which slightly hobbled his push-runs at the top of the track, and possibly compromised the team’s start times on a track where that was more crucial than most.  Yet he pulled off the double-bronze anyhow.

Obviously, bobsledding was what he did well above all else, which is why he stuck with the sport after the rest of the 2013-’14 iteration of Team Night Train retired, and Justin Olsen would eventually go on to start piloting a sled of his own.  Still recovering from his lower-leg injury during the 2014-’15 season, and leading an all-rookie team of pushers, the team’s performance understandably suffered, and continued to do so the following season as Holcomb’s full strength gradually returned while the team struggled to find its inner rhythm.

But Holcomb’s leadership through persistent diligence started to pay off once more, as the team did find its inner rhythm just as the storied pilot returned to full strength.  The 2016-’17 World Cup season ended with Holcomb finishing third in both the 4-man standings and in the combined 2-man and 4-man standings.  Obviously, Team USA was making a comeback.  Clearly, Holcomb was expected to lead the U.S. men’s bobsled team to and through the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang.

“Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”

-friend and former teammate Doug Sharp

But now, all of a sudden, not anymore.  In the wake of the shock, eulogies have poured in within Olympic circles throughout the United States.

“USA Bobsled and Skeleton is a family and right now we are trying to come to grips with the loss of our teammate, our brother and our friend,” U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said.

“The entire Olympic family is shocked and saddened by the incredibly tragic loss today of Steven Holcomb,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “Steve was a tremendous athlete and even better person, and his perseverance and achievements were an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family and the entire bobsledding community.”

Teammate Nick Cunningham, the driver for USA-2 and who inherited the first Night Train sled for the 2014 Winter Games, reminded us of who and what we have lost:

“The only reason why the USA is in any conversation in the sport of bobsled is because of Steve Holcomb.  He was the face of our team. He was the face of our sport. We all emulated him. Every driver in the world watched him, because he was that good at what he did. It’s a huge loss, huge loss, not just for our team but for the entire bobsled community.”

During a recent celebration of his life, held in Lake Placid on May 11, Mike Preston, who has worked at the OTC in Lake Placid since 1985, summed it all up nicely:  “He won gold, and he had a heart of gold.”

No surviving friend or family member could ever disagree.  Yes, he made the occasional mistake, but we all do from time to time in our lives.  Moreover, they must never obfuscate the importance of the man, or how he touched so many lives so positively.  He was not only the greatest American bobsledder of all time, but he was an unabashed patriot as well; a humble, cheerful, ever-diligent teammate, and an example for all to follow.  In short, he was not only a great (nay, superb) American athlete, but more importantly, a great American.

General George Patton once admonished, “[I]t is foolish and wrong to mourn the dead.  Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

As shocked and saddened as we all are at this most sudden passing of a friend, exemplar Olympian, and fellow patriot, we must always be grateful to the Lord our God that he was here on Earth to apply his talents in such a unique way.  With his gold medals, we shared great joy in the honor he brought to our country.  As a person, we shall always remember the gold in his heart.  On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, my friend, and rest in peace.

Amicus noster nobis reliquit multam nimis cito mane et mortua est in vita.  Sed perpetua laus Deo sumus qui sciebant eum esse beati atque in perpetuum sui memoriam.

What Happened to Brazil? April 1, 2017

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What happened to Brazil (economically-speaking)?  In previous articles, I have already spelled out the problem in so many words.  Brazil did enjoy economic growth for a while, which made them appear as though they were ready to join the grown-ups table of commerce-oriented countries.

But then Brazil hit an economic downturn from which it has failed to recover.  Even in 2009, it was still able to display a facade of prosperity, and thus successfully sold the International Olympic Committee on the idea of becoming the first country and city [Rio de Janeiro] to host the Olympic Games.  All those sports venues, built by government money, are now vacant and deteriorating, by the way.  So much for governmnent “stimulus”.

But do not take my word for it.  Now, Felipe Moura Brasil, a native Brazilian, offers his perspective on the systemic problems that have brought Brazil to this sorry pass (video at the top of the article).  Watch, listen, and learn.

Among the points he cites are:

  • Government transferring money from the rich to the poor.  Funny who the poor never got any richer as a result.
  • Those who did get richer by the aforementioned government actions of legalized theft were — surprise, surprise — Lula da Silva (Brazil’s then-president) and his corporate cronies.
  • The Socialists increased government spending, deficits, and debts, calling it “Stimulus” (e.g., all the Olympic venues that are now abandoned).
  • The same Socialists also increased the salary and retirement benefits of those in the civil service, euphemistically calling it “investing in the future”.
  • Handed out thousands of jobs in state-owned companies to political allies, euphemistically spinning such corruption as “good governance”.
  • Government spending kept going up, causing the economic growth to eventually collapse.

Fortunately, the Brazilian journalist in question cites some good news in the wake of this government-begotten economic wreckage.

One is that, according to Brasil, more Brazilians are starting to see capitalism and limited government as the way out of their national malaise.  As we have already pointed out on this blog, da Silva’s successor, Dilma Rousseff — also a Socialist — has been impeached and removed from office.  Her successor, Michel Temer, has already been leading some important economic reforms.

As Brasil himself points out at the end of this video, it will take a long time for his native country to recover economically from the havoc wrought by the Socialists.  This is to be expected for a country that was still on the upper end of the “developing country” spectrum, and whose corrupt government policies preempted it from being able to fully emerge as one of the truly grown-up, commerce-oriented nations (e.g., the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc.).  Brazil’s only hope to be able to recover so as to emerge as one in the future is through, again, limited government and free enterprise.

Just as socialism wrecked Brazil’s economy and continues to wreak apocalyptic havoc in Venezuela, it can also cause America’s prosperity and social order to also collapse.  Bernie Sanders supporters, take note.

Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

On NASA “Boilerplates” March 16, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Science.
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Usually when you think of the word “boilerplate”, you might think of some sort of insincere, hackneyed statement from a public relations person or a politician.  But when it comes to the history of space exploration, the term takes on a much more important meaning.

Boilerplate spacecraft are simulations of the real spacecraft, having the size and shape of the real thing on the outside, but are not actual flight articles.  Their use is for simulation and testing without putting an actual, flight-ready spacecraft at risk to damage, etc.  The video above offers a more thorough explanation with some excellent examples of how such mock-ups were utilized.

I have had the privilege of encountering lots of genuine NASA spacecraft over the years, but I’ve encountered a few interesting “boilerplates” as well.  Indeed, by interest in space was kindled by frequent encounters with a boilerplate.  As a Louisville, Ky., native who lived the first 6 and a half years of his life in that city, my parents often took us to what is today called the Kentucky Science Center (back then it was the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science).  From about 1980 (the year I was born) to about 1996, they had an impressive space gallery on the first floor, with all sorts of cool space artifacts.

I can still see them all as a kid, walking along and viewing the amazing vestiges of “vintage space”.  There was a test pilot’s helmet from the 1950s; various astronaut gloves, an astronaut suit (whose specifically I cannot recall); a 1:4 scale model of an Apollo Lunar Module; an old Gemini simulator that you could actually sit down inside; part of an old rocket engine; 1960s-era NASA mainframe computer panels (no joke – these made up a mini-corridor all their own); a scaled down model of an Apollo Command Module, pre-launch, hence its white exterior (about 1:8 scale, give or take).

But the obvious crown jewel of the exhibit was Apollo BP-1102A, a water egress-training module.  After Apollo 13’s “successful failure,” NASA removed the interior of that used spacecraft and moved it into this particular boilerplate for investigation purposes.  The shell of the Command Module Odyssey was eventually put on display at the Air and Space Museum in Paris (yes, France), while Odyssey’s interior and newly wed BP-1102A somehow found their way to the museum in Louisville.  In that same room, there was a photo of all three astronauts from that mission on hand for an exhibit inauguration ceremony in front of the museum’s façade along Main Street in downtown.  Since this was around the time I was born, it was a fortunate thing that all three astronauts — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise — were able to be together again, as Swigert died of cancer roughly two years later, ironically just after getting elected to Congress.

As a very young boy, I did not know about “Boilerplates”:  all I understood was that the Apollo 13 was in my hometown.  As I got older, it gradually dawned on me that the authentic part of the display was the capsule’s interior, while the exterior shell was a mock-up.  The copper-colored paint job was to make the boilerplate look like the Block II Apollo Command Modules during splashdown, after they burned to a golden-brown color during re-entry on account of the massive fraction of Earth’s atmosphere.

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As a Louisville native who visited the Kentucky Science Center as often as I could growing up, encountering this distinctive Apollo boilerplate at the Udvar-Hazy Center was like seeing an old friend.  (C) photo by the author; Nov., 2014.

But all good things come to an end, sooner or later.  By the latter half of the 1990s, the whole spacecraft was gone.  The popular 1995 film Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and the late Bill Paxton had apparently made the local spacecraft landmark too valuable a commodity to be tucked away in Louisville.  What I heard at the time was they reunited the interior with the exterior shell, but the “restored” spacecraft’s whereabouts were unclear to me, until I later found it that it was on new display at the increasingly famous Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Ks. (Of all bloody places!)  Moreover, the space hall was moved up to the second floor of the museum, and by that time, it was already a shell of its former self.  Presently, the whole exhibit has been phased out, sadly, but the Gemini simulator is still on display there, thankfully, ever inviting guests to sit down inside and experience a hint of “vintage space” for themselves.

But one thing I did wonder for the longest time was, whatever happened to BP-1102A?  Only in recent years did I learn of NASA spacecraft boilerplates, and that is when I “put two and two together” and realized that I had many a hands-on encounter with such a test model while growing up and did not even realize it at the time.  Convinced I would never see it again, I was eventually proven mistaken.

A past job fortuitously took me out to the East Coast for a month in November of 2014.  While there, I seized the opportunity to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center (a remote annex to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum) near Dulles International Airport.  While there, I came upon a boilerplate that looked eerily similar to the one I always ran to the old space hall in Louisville as a young boy.  Further research afterwards indicated that I had indeed seen an old “friend” for the first time in almost 20 years.  In addition to being given a much more prominent venue for display (it does not get any bigger or higher-profile than the Smithsonian), it has also been fitted with the flotation collar and balloons from the Apollo 11 – talk about an upgrade!

Not too long after this reunion of sorts, I came across another Apollo boilerplate (29A), this time at the immense Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  Obviously, it is but a small side-show to the main attraction, but it is intriguing to encounter nonetheless.  Much like BP 1102A, the purpose of Boilerplate 29A was to test the systems that helped the Apollo capsules stay afloat during splashdown in the ocean.

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Another Apollo Boilerplate (29A) that I encountered while visiting the massive Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  (C) photo by author; May, 2015.

The lesson of this story – such as there is one at all – is to keep your eyes peeled for these interesting space artifacts during your sojourns, as you never know when you might encounter them.  After all, as the video at the top of the article reminds us, they have their own special place in the history of space travel and the development thereof.

Time to Re-think “6 AM’s” March 1, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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There is an oft-overlooked part to college football that has gotten out of control.  As a former Big Ten football team staff member, I had to endure what are, in the industry, known as “6 AM’s”.  The simple definition/description is that they are winter conditioning sessions for college football players, usually starting in late January and lasting until Spring Practices begin.

They are also a royal pain in the backside.  College kids have a hard time getting enough sleep as it is.  Now imagine having to get up no later than 5 in the morning and trudge yourself into the football facilities.  Show up for work all dressed in normal practice garb no later than 5:30 in the morning so you can set up the equipment for these early morning conditioning sessions.

At least we did not have to run through all those grueling drills:  that was for the players to do.  Good luck being able to maintain consciousness in your classrooms for the rest of the day.  If you miss class because you are too tired, coaches typically cook up special penalties, such as more running.  At Purdue during the Joe Tiller era, the penalty was for players who missed class to start running at 5:30 – meaning we would have to get things set up prior to that time – after which they had to join the rest of their teammates for the 6 AM B.S.

As bad as they have been, coaches have gone too far with these “6 AM’s”.  One recent example is of several Oregon football players needing hospitalization during such a session, which included an hour of push-ups and “up-downs.”  An hour, seriously?  Some of these hospitalized players were diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, which basically involves the soft muscle tissue breaking down, then leaking into your blood stream.

But that was just earlier this year.  Back in 2011, 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized for the same problems following one of their winter conditioning sessions.

It is perfectly reasonable for coaches needing their players to be in shape.  Moreover, it make sense that they already be in shape for spring practices, so that the coaches can properly ascertain what sort of talent they have to work with for the upcoming fall season that year.  But treating these winter conditioning session as “gut checks” is horribly antiquated, and arguably abusive.

The problem is that coaches too often use these “6 AM” drills (some coaches smartly schedule them in the afternoon, but not enough of them do) as a symbolic gesture to remind players that they are under said coaches’ thumbs, so to speak.  Coaches also too often use these drills as an excuse to put them through “gut-checks”, testing their manhood so as to earn the coaches’ respect and earn their right to stay on the team.  Again, this is not always the case, but incidents like those mentioned above give that impression.

By all means, have conditioning sessions, but coaches, be both sensible and reasonable and have them in the afternoon…like sane people.  There is nothing holding coaches back from implementing these sensible solutions:  only ego and antiquated thinking.  It’s just a matter of coaches having the good sense to be practical and realize that they can get their players in good enough shape without sleep-depriving them, ruining their entire days of class, and fatiguing them to the point of needing hospitalization.  This is not the Marines, let alone the French Foreign Legion.

Give the players a break, schedule the conditioning sessions in the afternoon, and focus on getting them in shape without having to put them through daily gut-checks.  After all, they should have earned your respect by their willingness to show up in the winter to go through such hell before even putting on helmets and pads later in the springtime.  For those coaches who already honor this ethic, kudos.