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Bad Start for College Football in 2019 (And What to do About It) September 19, 2019

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While there have been several great matchups these past few weeks (e.g., Auburn vs. Oregon, LSU @ Texas, and this upcoming weekend, Notre Dame @ Georgia), there have been lots of dud contests.  Simply put, it is difficult to recall in recent memory where so many pointless “body bag” games have been scheduled.

The first week began with such dreck games as UCF playing Florida A&M; Arizona State played Kent State; Maryland played Howard; Nebraska played South Alabama; Temple played Bucknell; Penn State played Idaho; Tennessee played Georgia State…and lost…at home!  Moreover, Texas Tech played Montana State; Kansas State played Nicholls; Washington State played New Mexico State, and TCU played Arkansas Pine Bluff.

The only really good matchup for week 1 was Auburn playing Oregon.

Week 2 was better, but not by much.  Horrid matchups still prevailed with Arizona State playing Sacramento State; Kansas State played Bowling Green; South Carolina played Charleston Southern; Indiana played Eastern Illinois; Georgia played Murray State, while Alabama played New Mexico State; Oklahoma played South Dakota; Auburn played Tulane; you get the picture.

Ironically, what was a bad matchup on paper turned out to be a nail-biter, as Michigan had to struggle to beat Army.  That said, Texas A&M put up a strong, valiant fight against No. 1 Clemson, and LSU @ Texas proved to be the best game of the year thus far.  Though the Longhorns lost, they acquitted themselves in that they demonstrated that they’re still a legit top-10 team.  LSU, on the other hand, has a real quarterback and probably the most potent office since at least the 2007 team, if not since the 2003 team under Nick Saban.  Watch out, SEC; the Bayou Bengals are deadly this year.

Even in week 3, it did college football no service to put on body bag games like Miami (Fla.) playing Bethune-Cookman, Tennessee playing Chattanooga, or Texas A&M playing Lamar.  The majority of the games thus far have demonstrated the need for a college football commissioner like no other season beginning in memory.  Such a commissioner’s main job would be to ensure that good and decent teams played each other in the regular season to keep college football both interesting and engaging.  As Alabama has learned the hard way, even a team with devoted as fans as those of The Tide will be loathe to attend such boring games when they know that their team will walk away winning by at least four touchdowns.  If head coaches and their respective athletics directors are too timid to risk a loss by playing good teams, thus making for good, interesting games, then a college football commissioner shall have to force the issue for them.

No sport can flourish with hard-core fans along, (see:  Soccer, Major League).  Conversely, one of the biggest reasons why the NFL is the most popular sport league in America by far is because, in addition to its legions of hard-core fans, it’s practically everyone else’s second-favorite sport.

Over the past 25 years, we college football fans have witnessed dramatic growth in the game we love.  That prosperity is now potentially in peril when so many teams schedule boring, pointless, body bag games.  Want to slowly wither away into relative obscurity?  Start by turning off the casual fans with insufficiently engaging games.  The three stellar games I have already mentioned in this article are not enough to maintain that.

Yes, week 4 shall be an improvement, but much work needs to be done to prevent such a spate of pointless games from showing up on major teams’ schedules.  A commissioner of college football would be the quickest, most efficient, and most decisive instrument to ensure a critical mass of engaging matchups throughout the season.

To keep the game we love from dwindling into irrelevancy, more people in the sport need to be willing to take these necessary risks.  Lest we have to hold our collective breath before enough coaches and AD’s wise up to this, a college football commissioner could wise up for them and compel enough, er, compelling games to take place.  The question thus becomes, do the powers that be in the NCAA HQ recognize such urgency, and if not, why not?

 

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College Football Awards, Week 3 (2019) September 19, 2019

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COACHES
Wish I were him: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Glad I’m not him: Clay Helton, USC

Lucky guy: Dan Mullen, Florida

Poor guy: Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Chris Klieman, Kansas State

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech

Desperately seeking … anything:  Jeff Brohm, Purdue

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Notre Dame (defeated New Mexico 66-14)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Virginia Tech (defeated Furman 24-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Arkansas State (lost to Georgia 55-0)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Temple (defeated No. 21 Maryland 20-17)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Tennessee (defeated Chattanooga 45-0)

Dang, they’re good: Oklahoma

Dang, they’re bad:  South Alabama (honorable mention: Indiana)

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Maryland

Did the season start?  Purdue

Can the season end?  Georgia Tech

Can the season never endLSU

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 9 Florida 29, Kentucky 21

Play this again, too:  No. 18 Iowa 18, Iowa State 17

Never play this again: Louisiana 77, Texas Southern 6

That will leave a mark:  Miami 63, Bethune-Cookman 0

What? Kansas State 31, Mississippi State 24

HuhTemple 20, No. 17 Maryland 17

Double HuhCitadel 27, Georgia Tech 24

Are you kidding me??  BYU 30, No. 24 USC 27

Oh – my – GodArizona State 10, No. 18 Michigan State 7

NEXT WEEK                                                                                                                             (rankings are current AP (post-week 3, pre-week 4)

Ticket to die for:  No. 7 Notre Dame @ No. 3 Georgia

Best game of the week (second choice):  No. 8 Auburn @ No. 16 Texas A&M

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: No. 23 Washington @ BYU

Best non-Power Five matchup: Air Force @ No. 22 Boise State

Upset alert: No. 23 Washington @ BYU

Must win: No. 10 Michigan @ No. 14 Wisconsin

Offensive explosion: Oklahoma State @ No. 12 Texas

Defensive struggle: Boston College @ Rutgers

Great game no one is talking about: Louisville @ Florida State

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Mario Cristobal of Oregon vs. David Shaw of Stanford

Who’s bringing the body bags? Charlotte @ No. 1 Clemson

Why are they playing? San Jose State @ Arkansas

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

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Southern Illinois @ Arkansas State

Week 3 Thoughts:

Too many body-bag games to in the first three weeks for college football in 2019.  At least next week starts with a bang with Michigan vs. Wisconsin in the noon time slot, and we are treated to an early Big XII quasi-rivalry with Texas vs. Oklahoma State in the evening, which will be an intriguing distraction from the game of the week, in which the Notre Dame Fighting Irish venture down to Athens, Ga., to take on the Bulldogs “between the hedges”.  Oh, and Auburn plays Texas A&M in the 3:30 EDT time slot, so prepare for an engaging Saturday come the 21st!

Also, belated shout-out to an incredible game the previous week with LSU at Texas.  Had the Horns done a slightly better job of stopping the Tiger’s passing game, they might have triumphed.  As it is, LSU seems to be a top-flight QB this season, and, based on their stellar performance in Austin, could end up vying for the SEC West divisional title.  Mark you calendars for November 9 now.

“In the Mood” and the 1939 Context August 1, 2019

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August 1 of this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the recording of one of the most legendary records of all time.  Of course, I mean “In the Mood”, which Glenn Miller and his Orchestra cut on this day in 1939.  It would become the most famous record that this notable musician and his band would produce, and would also become part of American culture itself.

The song did not emerge out of a vacuum.  The iconic melody itself was based on a pre-Swing Era hit jazz instrumental by Wingy Joe Manone called “Tar Paper Stomp” from 1930 (re-released in 1935).  Arranger Joe Garland adapted that melody to the iconic one now famous for eight decades.  That said, Miller did not even produce the first version of “In the Mood”, which earned the new title from lyrics by Andy Razaf.  Rather, Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra released the first version of the song the year prior (1938).

But Miller’s version is the most famous by far of any versions, before or after.  Is it the most swinging record of all time?  Certainly not, but its pep and rhythm are enough to appeal to all ages throughout the decades.  Many jazz players and scholars have had problems with Miller’s overly cautious approach to swing, and one can feel a touch of this constraint even in this rather jumpy tune.

Nevertheless, there is an energy that is enough to give the record a timeless feel, constrained or not.  Moreover, dueling saxophone solos between Tex Beneke and Al Klink are one of the most famous duets of that era, followed not long afterwards by a memorable 16-bar trumpet solo by Clyde Hurley.  Then, Miller’s use of undulating volume, from a pianissimo chorus to a fortissimo at the end with a crescendo on the coda all lead to very satisfying, even triumphant finish.

The buying public certainly took well to the song.  Released in early 1940, it topped the charts for 13 straight weeks.  Not even Elvis Presley’s legendary single of “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” could match that in 1956 (11 weeks).

One irony of note was that RCA Bluebird stablemate Artie Shaw took an earlier crack at that tune, with Jerry Gray arranging.  But his version was over six minutes long, too long to fit on one side of a 78 RPM record, and the audience response was lackluster.  Nevertheless, Shaw did a produce fine, live version of the song which has been captured and thoroughly circulated among swing aficionados.

Though the song was recorded in 1939 and certainly belongs in that vintage, as noted earlier, it peaked in record sales the following year (1940).  That same year, Miller and his band starred in the movie Sun Valley Serenade, (released in 1941) where they perform a live rendition that’s even more energetic than the famous studio version.

To zoom the proverbial lens out further, though, 1939 itself was a banner year for big band and for American popular music as a whole.  For starters, little-known singer named Frank Sinatra made a strong debut with Harry James’ band, most notably with “All or Nothing at All”.  When James was not utilizing the young crooner for ballads, he was tearing up some hot swing music in his own right, with “Ciribirbin”, and, even better, “Two O’Clock Jump.”

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, would cut one of his most famous records early that year with “And the Angels Sing”, a collaboration between his then-first chair trumpet player Ziggy Elman and exalted, legendary American lyricist Johnny Mercer.  It would also be one of the last records on which Martha Tilton would contribute her vocal talents.  Later that year, Goodman left RCA Victor to sign with Columbia, as his good friend, John Hammond, was the A&R man there (and, three years later, Hammond would also become Goodman’s brother-in-law), making 1939 nothing if not a very transitional year for His Majesty of Swing.

Meanwhile at RCA Victor, Goodman’s chief rival, Tommy Dorsey, made some fine contributions to that vintage, in very different ways.  One was with a two-side semi-upbeat instrumental ballad in “Lonesome Road”, which offers some very precise, refined reed section performances, among other things.  The other is the swinger “Stomp it Off”, a guaranteed toe-tapper.

Miller’s RCA Bluebird stablemates also made their contributions, such as Charlie Barnet, who cut his most famous record in “Cherokee” that year.  Bob Crosby — brother of Bing — and his Bobcats produced one of that band’s finest records that year, “Over the Rainbow” (tastefully cashing in on the Wizard of Oz hoopla).

Back to Artie Shaw;  although his best vintage was the previous year (1938), he made indelible contributions to the 1939 vintage that range from the powerful businessman’s bounces such as “Deep Purple” (with Helen Forrest, in her young prime, contributing the vocals) to the strong swingers like “Prosschai“, to the unfathomably energetic “Carioca” and “Traffic Jam”, the latter of which to this day, evokes imagery of cartoon characters Tom and Jerry tearing around the house with reckless abandon!

If “In the Mood” were not enough for Miller himself in 1939, earlier that year he recorded his own breakout hit with “Moonlight Serenade”, the record in which he allegedly discovered his own distinctive sound, that of the double-tenor sax lead on the clarinet.  That same year he also cut perennial favorites for his repertoire, such as Moonlight Serenade’s hit follow-up, “Sunrise Serenade” and also “Little Brown Jug”.  “Ain’tcha Comin’ Out” showcases both the vocals of Marion Hutton as well as his lead tenor sax player, Tex Benecke, and “Stairway to the Stars” proved to a breakout record for vocalist Ray Eberle, as well as one of the finest versions of this Tin Pan Alley standard.  Other fine records by the band in question that year include “Blue Evening”, “Pagan Love Song”, the appropriately upbeat “Runnin’ Wild”, and Miller’s take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Blue Orchids”.  All these and more add up to the conclusion that 1939, in addition to being a banner year for the Swing Era, was also, arguably, Glenn Miller’s finest vintage, too.

All this said, while Glenn Miller may have ‘owned’ “In the Mood” with his legendary version, he did not produce the swingingest.  That distinction belongs to Goodman, who performed his own rendition in November of ’39 on a Camel Caravan broadcast for NBC, and is yet further proof as to why he was the King of Swing.  If that is not enough, he also outdid Miller earlier that year on other Camel Caravan radio shows with peppier versions of “Moonlight Serenade”, and “Blue Orchids”, proving that whatever Miller could do, the King could do better.

All in all, 1939 proved to be a very fecund, banner year for Swing and thus for American culture.  It would also be the last of the high-energy years of the big band era, as recordings would transition into smoother, more polished-sounding tunes starting in 1940, but that is for another article at another time.  Suffice it to say in the meantime, though, that Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was arguably the most iconic record of a key year/vintage in the high watermark of American culture.

An Open Letter to Coach Patric Morrison of Madison, Indiana, (and all other parties concerned) May 23, 2019

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Dear Coach Morrison and hiring committee:

                As a Madison [Ind.] Consolidated High School football alumnus (Class of 1998), allow me to congratulate you on your recent promotion to associate athletics director.  I also wish to extend congratulations on a job well done as head football coach, within the context of that with which you and the community have had to contend.  You have shown good vision in your player development; you have demonstrated that you deeply cared for your players; you were also forward-thinking in your team-building measures, too.  In my day, for example, it would have been unheard of for a head coach at Madison or some place similar to take his team all the way up to Canton, Ohio to engage in some team-building/skills-building drills.  It remains a surprise to me that such creative measures did not translate better into the wins column come that season.

Be all that as it may, I have observed the progress from afar of Madison football off and on as any concerned alumnus would for his former team.  During my college years, I served for three seasons as a staff member on the Purdue football team, and I learned through working with Coach Joe Tiller and his able assistant coaches about what it takes to build a winning program.  Over time I have come to some conclusions with regard to the challenges the program continues to face and what sort of coach it would take to effectively address them.  This is to build on the firm foundation you, Coach Morrison, have diligently set in place.

As most of us are aware, Madison faces one systemic challenge of being the smallest school in the Hoosier Hills Conference.  Moreover, while some rival schools are in conferences with growing, more dynamic populations (e.g., Floyd Central and Jeffersonville), the town (pardon me, “city”) of Madison’s population has been stagnant, if not gradually declining, for the past two decades.  Bottom line:  our pool for talent is already limited compared to the competition.  Other environmental factors – too many, too complex to list for now — on top of that stack the proverbial deck even further against us.  Can we even win at all in such a situation?  I believe we still can.  Here’s what we need:

As is the case in college football, it all starts with the coach.  In the high school and college games, the coach plays an outsized role in program success compared to his factoring into success in the NFL (though the head coach is still vitally important there, too).  At those levels, players first have to want to play for the coach (indeed, in college, the players literally choose to play for him and his assistants).  Moreover, at the high school level (and yes, college, too), the coach, in addition to being sufficiently adept at the X’s and O’s, also needs to be the team’s spiritual leader, for lack of a better term.  That is, he must be ever-vigilant in keeping the team motivated and keeping its morale high.  Superior morale is an absolute must-have for Madison football.  The boys need to be amped-up and excited to take the field more so than the other team.  It is one of the few advantages they can leverage.

That means a coach capable of lighting a huge fire under the team’s collective arse.  It means giving extra-rousing motivational speeches in the locker room before kick-off and at the end of half-time.  That also means a coach who will encourage the guys on the team to celebrate on the sidelines during a successful series.  Not only will such things sustain good morale, but it will create a fun environment that everyone can see – including able-bodied male students in the stands who would come to realize they want to be a part of that, and contribute to the team in so doing.

MadisonFootballLogo

This logo, only several years old, is one befitting a good high school program.  What Madison [Ind.] Consolidated High School needs to do is find a coach to match; one who is sufficiently dynamic and has a singular vision to create a winning culture.

Snazzy uniforms also help for good morale at that level.  To that end, I must once again commend Coach Morrison, this time for the neat-looking uniform image he has crafted during his tenure (they’re light years better than the generic rags my teammates and I had to play in).  His successor must keep this good look going, and the only changes he should be making there, if any, should take things even further, provided they do not exceed the bounds of good taste (no need for the Oregon unis of 2007 with the anti-skid patterns on the knees and shoulders, please!).  Yes, that means it is important to press candidates on their uniform-styling philosophy.  If the potential new hire confesses in the interview that he is a “Penn State uniforms kind of guy”, that’s an automatic deal-breaker.  He’s gone; next candidate.  Period.  Why?  Because a predilection for such generic uniforms shows that he is unimaginative and rigid against change.  What we need is a coach who is the exact opposite – very imaginative and willing to pivot on a dime in terms of offensive or defensive strategy.  I know this from experience.  We failed to win a single game my junior-year season (1996) because the head coach and his staff were too inflexible to make changes that desperately needed to be made.  Such changes ranging from re-shuffling the offensive line to strategic offensive changes that would have played to the strengths that we had at the time would have minimized our weaknesses and actually would have put us in the position to win games, which is a coach’s number one job, lest we forget.

These two things would be a solid start.  But what about the deficit of talent?  With limited practice time, talent on the field often becomes the deciding factor, after all.  Herein thus lies the core challenge.  In addition to being good and keeping up team morale in all its facets, the next head coach at MCHS must have a combination of boundless energy and a Messianic complex where he is bent, in part, on maximizing the turnout within the school.  To accomplish this, he’ll need to win over the support of the community – not an easy task for a town susceptible to complacency.  He’ll have to attend every community function, every community festival (e.g., Old Court Days, the county fair, the Madison Regatta, etc.), every local church cookout, and spread the word about the new mission of the team.  He’ll have to kiss a hundred babies and shake thousands of hands as if he were running for high state-wide office.  In this process, he will have to sell as many folks as possible on his new, winning vision for the program, and how this new, winning vision will help put the town on the map.  Such is what it will take to win over supporters within the community and thus build up the support infrastructure – support that in turn will encourage an improvement, and ultimately, a maximization of turnout that the team desperately needs.

This aforementioned Messianic complex will also be necessary to withstand blowback from parents who might be incensed that their son would be utilized less or in a different way.  If you have to replace a drop-back QB for an option QB, for example, because therein lies the opportunity to start winning games, you’ll have to brush aside the ruckus raised by parents as so much background noise irrelevant to keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize of winning games.  Vince Lombardi was right:  winning isn’t everything, but it is the only thing.  Otherwise, why put in all the effort?  Yes, a more detailed exploration of this side-issue merits another article for another time.

The next step after that would be to continue the change in organizational culture.  All currently-available evidence shows that Coach Morrison made great strides in changing the team culture towards a supportive one.  The next head coach needs to take that and translate it into a winning one.  This is arguably the toughest challenge of them all – changing an organizational culture from a losing one to a winning one.  Where to begin?  Those in charge of hiring need to look at coaches who have turned around organizational cultures in the past.  A great example is what Barry Alvarez did at Wisconsin.  For years, they were a doormat of the Big Ten Conference.  Nowadays, they are perennial conference contenders and routinely win bowl games.  You and the hiring committee need to study what he did, then ask your coaching candidates if they would enact similar things.  You could also provide necessary guidance-as-support to ensure that you are on the same page and are pursuing the same goals together.

Lastly, it almost goes without saying that if you are truly committed to building a winning program at MCHS, you must consider what you need to do attract such a candidate, and make any accommodation necessary to bring him in. Given the unique dynamism that a head coach will have to exhibit at MCHS to build a winning culture, is the hiring committee willing to make the necessary accommodations to attract such a leader that the football program needs?  Are you willing to pay a little extra?  Are you willing to clear whatever path is necessary with regard to his teaching skill sets?  Are you willing to create an environment at school that gives the new head coach ample opportunity to interact with this players/students?  Shoving him off to the side as a junior high study hall monitor like you did with Coach Getts back 2001 is not going to cut it.

That might mean twisting a few arms and cajoling a few members of the school board to see it your way.  But this might be the only way to bring in the coach you need who will reliably win games.  This will take political competence and the power of persuasion on your part to accomplish, but it’s also important that you do so.  Sell them on the idea of this being the opportunity we’ve been looking for to put Madison “on the map”.  The last thing we need is for some narrow-minded warm body to foul things up because they cannot see past their own complacency.

                To summarize, here are the bottom-line guiding suggestions for Coach Morrison and all others who have a say in the hiring decision of his successor:

  1. Ensure the coach is proven to boost and maintain high morale on the team, within all facets of the game, from game-time celebrations to sufficiently-stylish uniforms (the latter of which is already headed in the right direction, and good on Coach Morrison for this).  Can he light a fire under the team and keep it lit all season-long?
  2. Ensure the coach is both imaginative and flexible.  Is he willing to change offensive strategies mid-season if that’s what it takes to win games?  Is he willing to think creatively in what that new offensive strategy might entail?
  3. Does the coach have the necessary tunnel vision to withstand or brush aside blowback and keep his, and the team’s, eyes on the proverbial prize?
  4. Gauge the level of the coach’s energy.  He will need maximum energy to campaign as if he is running for political office so as to maximize the team’s turnout.  Once hired, guide him on all possible opportunities in the community to spread his message and thus his vision.
  5. How good is the coach at changing organizational cultures?  More than anything, this could help him build a lasting legacy of program success.  Can he cite examples he knows of regarding what other coaches have done to convert losing cultures into winning ones (see:  Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin).
  6. Lastly, are you and the powers that be willing to do your parts in creating the environment the head coach needs to succeed in his mission?

Does this all sound like a tall order?  Initially, yes.  But the further one implements this list, the more doable it shall appear.  All of this is necessary to overcome the systemic challenges that Madison football faces.  If the hiring committee is not committed to the last point, then then they will fail in passing muster with the previous five points, for it shall prevent the attraction of the uniquely dynamic coach you need to properly build on what Coach Morrison has already put in place.  Either you are committed to doing what it takes to bring in this sort of head coach, or you’ll end up settling for some guy who seems nice enough and enjoy being a whipping boy of the HHC on a weekly basis in the fall.  The choice is yours.  Let’s choose to build on Coach Morrison’s supportive legacy and do what it takes to create a wining culture.

CFB Recruiting Class Random Observations for 2019 February 8, 2019

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In the previous article, I made observations on the potentially changing competitive landscape in the SEC based on the recruiting class rankings this year.  But those observations in no way cover the entire intrigue that these recruiting class rankings offer to college football fans.

For example, it’s quite clear that the SEC teams have dominated these rankings.  But other teams merit attention, too.  Take Michigan, for example.  They are the lone Big Ten representative in the top ten of said rankings, at No. 8 this year, interestingly one ranking position ahead of Florida (No. 9), who, er, chomped the Wolverines 41-15 in the recent Peach Bowl.  Meanwhile, Ohio State, who have been the most dominant force in the conference during Urban Meyer’s six-season tenure, only made it to No. 14 in the rankings this year (down from No. 2 last year).  Certain programs have proven they can do more with less (Kentucky under Mark Stoops is a wonderful example of this).  New Buckeye head coach Ryan Day will be put to the test to see if he can do the same thing and continue to contend for the national title.

That said, defending national champion Clemson’s recruiting class is at No. 10 (their 2018 class was No. 8).  Yet they have a young quarterback with a transcendent talent that is sure to lead the Tigers to the Promised Land this year as well, so their king-of-the-hill status remains unthreatened, for now.

One of the most-improved recruiting classes is Purdue.  Ranked only No. 49 in 2018, they have jumped to the No. 25 class for 2019.  Perhaps this could portend further improvement in their performance, allowing Coach Jeff Brohm to do more than just employ smoke-and-mirrors, as he had no choice but to do with such a bare cupboard his first two years in West Lafayette.

An intriguing stat to share:  Purdue’s recruiting class for 2019, at No. 25, ranks ahead of Wisconsin (No. 27), Michigan State (No. 30), Indiana (No. 38), Iowa (No. 40), Minnesota (No. 42), and Northwestern (No. 50).  That said, do not underestimate Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (especially Fitzgerald!) or even Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck in their abilities to develop players.

Another interesting improvement in recruiting rankings is that of Oregon.  At a respectable No. 13 last year, this year’s recruiting class has merited a No. 7 ranking.  Meanwhile, Washington at No. 17 is clearly not going anywhere.  A reasonable prediction from these figures is that an interesting border rivalry between the Huskies and Ducks could quickly emerge.  Add a steadily-performing Stanford to the mix, and on can easily foresee an increasingly competitive Pac-12 North division.

Rounding out the top ten in recruiting rankings are two Big XII teams; Oklahoma at No. 6, and Texas at No. 3.  The latter is coming off huge momentum with their dominating upset over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.  Their quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, combines talent and grit for a winning synergy that could potentially help the Longhorns contend for the playoffs this upcoming season.  This No. 3 recruiting class certainly cannot hurt the Horns in this endeavor, and surely enforces the mantra that “Texas is back.”

Again, player development can sometimes compensate for lack of ranking in player recruitment.  Just ask Northwestern.  But also ask Alabama for Georgia (No’s 1 and 2, respectively) how their perennial top recruiting rankings work out for them to see the potential significance of said recruiting class rankings.  Such is the biggest reason why it’s so easy for college football fans to geek out about this subject!  It should add up to a more interesting college football season for 2019 compared to the one just concluded.

On Changes in SEC Competition February 8, 2019

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They say that a college football team’s potential for high rankings and even playoff contention is predicated on the ranking of its recruiting classes.  Alabama’s persistently top-ranked recruiting classes seem to demonstrate this.  Yet while some things remain the same, others seem to be changing.

For several years, the SEC appeared to consist of Alabama and everybody else.  The Crimson Tide had Nick Saban, who has proven to be the best college head coach in the business, while almost all other programs in the conference – with some exceptions – having been led by glorified gym teachers.

That now seems to be changing.  Kirby Smart at Georgia, for example, has proven to be a most capable Saban protégé.  He learned Saban’s modus operandi while defensive coordinator at Alabama, and the Bulldogs’ performance for the past two seasons shows that he has successfully transplanted a critical percentage of this erstwhile master’s methodologies into Athens.  Indeed, the 2017-2018 season culminated with Georgia playing Alabama for the national title.  At the send of the 2018 season, the Bulldogs once again played the Tide down to the wire during the SEC championship game.

While Georgia has emerged as Alabama’s toughest competition for conference supremacy, other intra-conference competition now gradually emerges, too.  Take Florida, for example.  Dan Mullen is such a skillful coach that his previous program, Mississippi State, was briefly the number one team in the country back in 2014 (Dak Prescott sure helped with that, to be sure).  Now, with far more resources at his disposal, he has brought the Gators back to strength.  Their 41-15 trouncing of a solid, Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan team in the Peach Bowl has demonstrated this.  Both Georgia and Alabama ought to be on notice that there is a new up-and-comer on the block.

As things currently stand, Alabama has the top-ranked freshman recruiting class for 2019, and Georgia is right behind them at No. 2.  But Florida is now at No. 9 (up from No. 17 the previous year), and their on-the-field improvement was clearly noticeable in the aforementioned Peach Bowl.  With such a bump in the recruiting rankings, one can only imagine how highly their team rankings could improve come the Fall.

While Georgia needs to start looking over its shoulder at SEC East and border rival Florida, in the west, the competitive pressure is intensifies for Saban and Bama.  Texas A&M caught lightning in a bottle with Johnny Manziel under the leadership of Kevin Sumlin (who went 51-26, not bad for an overall average program).  While it remains my contention that Aggie Nation was a collective fool in jettisoning Coach Sumlin just a few years post-Manziel, they nevertheless seem to have upgraded with Jimbo Fisher, who previously had revived Florida State.  Fisher did not disappoint in his first year (2018), going 9-4, winning the Gator Bowl (52-13 over NC State…ouch!), and finishing the year at No. 16.

Further improvement for the Aggies seems imminent.  Last year, they finished at No. 16 in the recruiting rankings, but this year have risen to No. 4.  Nick Saban’s dominance of the SEC West is about to become considerably more difficult.

It gets no easier from there.  Just behind A&M (who, again, is No. 4) in the recruiting rankings at No. 5 is SEC West rival LSU.  All head coach Ed Orgeron needs is a more creative offense, and they could very well contend with the Tide for divisional supremacy.  Until he does, Orgeron might still merit the “gym teacher” category placement.

One other proven coach of note is Mark Stoops at Kentucky.  A program at considerable disadvantages compared to other SEC programs not named Missouri, Stoops has built the Wildcats up to their strongest level since the Fran Curci era.  Barring some major scandal, he shall have done so through considerably more ethical means at that!  His 2018 recruiting class was only at No. 30, and this year at No. 34.  Yet the Wildcats finished the 2018 season at 10-3, including a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, and with a ranking at No. 11.  Mark Stoops thus deserves a serious award for the SEC coach to have done the most with the least.

Yes, the SEC still has its fair share of “gym teachers”, but there are others who are clearly talented and have what it takes to seriously threaten Saban’s legendary dynasty.

Look out for Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and possibly LSU as they look to start campaigns that should make for a very interesting 2019 season in SEC football.

 

 

Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” at 60 December 19, 2018

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Sixty years ago today – Dec. 19, 1958 – more music recording history was made.  Specifically, Bobby Darin cut his biggest hit, “Mack The Knife”.  Released first as a single and later on his career-defining album “That’s All”, it was a song that would help define an era just as said era was coming to an end.

The song itself was not new.  For that matter, neither was the musical style in which it was recorded.  This alone would be an odd juxtaposition in a time when newer car styles and newer technologies were rapidly entering society.  Yet this record would go on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year for 1959; in the fall of 1959, it stayed No. 1 on the charts for nine consecutive weeks.  Some polls hold it up as the fifth-ranked song of the 1955-1959 Rock Era, despite the song clearly not being rock.  And it all started with one legendary recording session 60 years ago today.

The actual, written song was already 30 years old when Darin recorded it on the Atco label, which was an Atlantic Records subsidiary.  Indeed, the record’s producers were Atlantic’s usual suspects of Ahmet Ertegun (its founder), brother Neshui Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler.

Kurt Weill wrote the melody and poet/writer Bertold Brecht wrote the original lyrics for “Moriat” (its original title) as part of their musical drama “Die Dreigrosschenoper”, or “The Threepenny Opera” in English.  In the musical play, an organ grinder sings the song which tells the tale of Mackie Messer, a murderous criminal who in turn was based on the Macheath character from John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” from 1728.  So yes, it’s all very derivative.

The word “Messer” means “knife” in German, hence the easy transition from Mackie Messer to Mack the Knife.  And yes, the original lyrics to “Moriat” were indeed auf Deutsch.

An English-language version of the opera was first offered to the public five years later (1933), with translated lyrics by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky.  The production had a run of only ten days.  In 1954, though, another English-language production of the Threepenny Opera was staged, and it enjoyed an off-Broadway run of six years.  Mark Blitzstein used his own English translation of the murder ballad of Mack the Knife, and these lyrics became the standard we know and love today.

Louis Armstrong actually beat Darin to the punch in having a pop hit with this song, recording his rendition in 1956, and giving it his typical Dixieland-inspired flavor.  But despite Satchmo’s first-mover advantage, the song today is associated with Darin, and rightly so.

This is not to say that the song’s success came easily.  Recording it was not even an easy sell.  Dick Clark advised Darin not to record the song because he feared its perception as an opera song would alienate rock n’ roll-oriented audiences.  But rather than repel such audiences, it attracted them instead.  Moreover, while Darin’s traditional young target demographics embraced his more mature music, the parents of the young audiences were reassured by the record’s strong Big Band sound (shouts to Richard Wess, who directed the orchestra for this track and indeed, the whole album), and enjoyed the record, too, as a result.  In short, this timeless track appealed to a massive range of the buying public, which clearly was a leading factor in its stunning success.

Other notable names soon jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions of “Mack the Knife”, such as Ella Fitzgerald recording a live rendition in 1960, and Dean Martin doing a nice, live version the previous yearFrank Sinatra recorded it with Quincy Jones as part of his 1984 album “L.A. is My Lady”, yet he himself confessed that Bobby Darin did the better version.  Other notables offering their respective takes on the tune include Tony Bennett, Brain Setzer, Kevin Spacey, and, not surprisingly, Michael Bublé.  Bill Haley and His Comets recorded an instrumental version of the tune in 1959, which would be the last track the legendary singer and group would cut for the Decca label.  Other notable acts have recorded variations and instrumentals of the song over the years.

One sterling example of the song’s timeless appeal:  superstar music judge Simon Cowell once named “Mack the Knife” as the greatest song ever written.  That is a stretch, to say the least, considering the bodies of work of Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern, to say nothing of George and Ira Gershwin.  But on the other hand, it’s refreshing to hear a current superstar with a credibly discerning ear remind us of what a great song “Mack the Knife” is.  It might not be the best ever, but it surely ranks up there.

Cool trivia:  both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin give a nod to actress Lotte Lenya in their respective versions.  Lenya was Kurt Weill’s wife, and she introduced the song during the first productions of Die Dreigrosschenoper.

 

These three Christmas records are 60, and they still sound great! December 19, 2018

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This year, 2018, marks three Christmas songs that have become classic hits over the decades.

The Chipmunks Song

One of the three is “The Chipmunk Song”, the title alone sounding confusing to those unaware of its context.  First of all, let us be clear on who The Chipmunks were.  No, in this case, they are not Chip & Dale (that was always my default assumption regarding The Chipmunks back when I was, say, five years old!), rather the other Chipmunks, Simon, Theodore and Alvin.  They were the brainchildren of one David Seville (which was his stage name:  his mother knew him as Rostom [Ross] Bagdasarian), a singer-songwriter, the latter part through which he had hits spanning the whole 1950s.  For example, he wrote “Come On-A My House” in 1950, which Rosemary Clooney had a million-selling hit with the following year and launched her career in the process.

By 1958 he had come up with an idea for a novelty record after experimenting with different playback speeds on a tape recorder.  That idea manifested itself into a No. 1 hit in the Spring of that year with “Witch Doctor”.  Liberty Records released it under Bagdasarian’s new stage name, David Seville.  The tune is a duet consisting of Seville’s real voice and an accelerated version of it, the latter being the genesis of The Chipmunks characters.  “Witch Doctor” went on to sell 1.5 million copies in 1958, and Seville realized he had the opportunity to expand his chipmunk character into a trio.  The names for the three new characters all came from the names of the executives at Liberty:  Simon (Waronker), Theodore (Keep), and Alvin (Bennett).

This new trio debuted with an even bigger smash hit, “The Chipmunk Song”, which sounds generic on the surface, until you hear it and realize how timelessly familiar it is (“We can hardly stand the wait; Please, Christmas, don’t be late”).  So yes, the title might not suggest it, but it’s a timeless Christmas classic.

Such a status came almost instantly: it was released on Nov. 17, 1958, and was No. 1 in America by the week of Dec. 13, and would remain at the top of the charts for the rest of the month, selling 4 million copies in this inaugural run.  At the first-ever Grammy Awards in May of 1959, it won three such coveted awards; Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Non-Classical Engineered Song.

Seville himself reaped an outsized share of the benefit of such a huge hit, since he wrote the song, provided all of the vocals, and even produced the record itself.  Its success allowed for him to launch an entertainment franchise based on this rodent trio.  Indeed, Seville/Bagdasarian founded and owned Chipmunk Enterprises, which was the business end of said entertainment franchise, which in turn allowed for him to scream at Alvin (on his records) all the way to the bank until his premature death in 1972 from a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at age fifty-two.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Unlike the first entry, the second entry leaves nothing to confusion from a generic title, for it makes no bones about what it is and the season for which it is intended.  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” By Brenda Lee, a.k.a., Little Miss Dynamite, a nickname she earned because of her short stature – 4’-9” – and her 1957 hit “Dynamite”.  She had already started recording Country hits on the Decca label in 1956 at age 12, and in December of that year, had a minor Christmas hit with “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus”.

The years 1958 through 1962 were her peak period of fame and recording success, having two No. 1 hits alone in 1960, for example (“I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted”), with other big successes coming with “Sweet Nothin’s” and “All Alone Am I” that same year.

But her biggest hit was, yes, a Christmas song, the aforementioned “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from sixty years ago this month.  The song was written by Johnny Marks, who already had “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to his name (written in 1949 ten years after his brother-in-law wrote the story about the red-nosed titular character as an assignment for the Montgomery Ward department stores) and four years later would write “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, which by Christmas of 1964 would forever be associated with Burl Ives.

Unlike “The Chipmunks Song”, which was practically an instant hit, “Rockin’…” was a delayed hit.  Despite the memorably twangy guitar by Grady Martin and the raucous-sounding sax by Boots Randolph, it only sold 5,000 copies upon its first release.  It was released a second time in 1959 and did not do much better.  Not until two years later (again, 1960), when Lee had her banner year with her aforementioned hits, did Decca re-release “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and it exploded as a hit, eventually selling 5 million copies.

It remains a perennial favorite by folks of all ages six decades later, and is obviously the record by which Lee is best known to this day, not to mention a favorite to sing in grade-school music classes for 60 years and counting.

Interestingly, the record is a deceptively seminal one.  That is, it was one of the first to use what became known as the “Nashville sound”, which at its core consisted of a string section overlayed with legato vocals, combined to make up the musical background of a recording.

Run Run Rudolph

Last but not least, the third entry is the hardest-rocking of all.  But this one is by Chuck Berry, so one would expect nothing less!  And yes, there is a tie-in with the previous entry, and not just with the year, either!  Just as Johnny Marks, who, as mentioned earlier not only wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949 and later wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas” in 1962, in addition to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958, also wrote “Run Run Rudolph” (well, the lyrics, at least) as a follow-up to his 1949 classic that very same year.

Musically, the credit goes to Marvin Brodie, and some of Berry’s signature, nay, inimitable guitar riffs on his Gibson ES-335 echo that of “Johnny B. Goode”.

More to the point, this rocking Christmas classic is actually a close musical copy of a hit Chuck Berry had earlier that year in “Little Queenie”.  Indeed, one could easily transplant the lyrics of the former and superimpose them on the latter.  Hear for yourself:

Ironically, “Run Run Rudolph” peaked at only No. 69 in 1958, but it remains a perennial favorite anyhow.  Its popularity does not manifest itself so much in record sales, as its appeal in other areas:  the numerous cover versions this tune has invited over the decades.  For example, Luke Bryan, Whitney Wolanin, and Justin Moore have all made cover versions of this timeless rocker within the past 10 years alone.  Other previous covering artists included Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Grateful Dead, Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Buffet, Dwight Yoakum, and that’s just the short list.  This (admittedly) random selection does nevertheless beg a question:  what do all these country artists within said list want to want to do with a 12-bar blues riff?  Food for thought.

So as we continue to enjoy these hits at this month’s Christmas parties, let us pause to appreciate their timelessness and how well they have endured over the course of six decades.  If nothing else, it’s further proof that, as Danny and the Juniors famously said, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”, especially at Christmastime.

College Football Awards, Week 13 (2018) November 25, 2018

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 13] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Glad I’m not him: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Lucky guy: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

Poor guy: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: David Cutcliffe, Duke

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard:  Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

Desperately seeking … anything:  Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Kentucky (defeated Louisville 56-10)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Texas (defeated Kansas 24-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: East Carolina (lost to Cincinnati 56-6)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  UTSA (lost to North Texas 24-21)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Ohio State (defeated No. 4 Michigan 62-39)

Dang, they’re good: Ohio State

Dang, they’re bad:  Louisville

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Washington State

Did the season start?  Wisconsin

Can the season end?  Arkansas

Can the season never endClemson

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 6 Oklahoma 59, No. 13 West Virginia 56

Play this again, too:  No. 22 Texas A&M 74, No. 7 LSU 72, 7OT

Never play this again: Temple 57, UConn 7

What? Minnesota 37, Wisconsin 15

HuhNo. 23 Boise State 33, No. 21 Utah State 24

Double Huh?  No. 16 Washington 28, No. 8 Washington State 15

Are you kidding me??  No. 22 Texas A&M 74, No. 7 LSU 72, 7OT

Oh – my – GodNo. 10 Ohio State 62, No. 4 Michigan 39

NEXT WEEK

Rankings are current AP (week 13)
Ticket to die for:  No. 14 Texas vs No. 6 Oklahoma also:  No. 1 Alabama @ No. 5 Georgia

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: Marshall @ Virginia Tech

Best non-Power Five matchup: UAB @ Middle Tennessee

Upset alert: No. 19 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Ohio State

Must win: Any conference championship game

Offensive explosion: inconclusive

Defensive struggle: inconclusive

Great game no one is talking about: Memphis @ No. 9 UCF

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern vs Urban Meyer of Ohio State

Who’s bringing the body bags? East Carolina @ NC State

Why are they playing?  Drake @ No. 25 Iowa State

Plenty of good seats remaining: inconclusive

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Akron @ South Carolina

 

 

College Football Awards, Week 12 (2018) November 18, 2018

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 12] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Glad I’m not him: Chad Morris, Arkansas

Lucky guy: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Poor guy: Jeff Brohm, Purdue

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

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Frank Solich, Ohio U

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard:  Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

Desperately seeking … anything:  Lovie Smith, Illinois

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Mississippi State (defeated Arkansas 52-6)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Ohio State (defeated Maryland 52-51 in OT)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: New Mexico (lost to No. 25 Boise State 45-14)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Middle Tennessee (lost to No. 17 Kentucky 34-23)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Ohio U (defeated Buffalo 52-17)

Dang, they’re good: Alabama

Dang, they’re bad:  Arkansas

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  West Virginia

Did the season start?  Michigan State

Can the season end?  Tennessee

Can the season never endNotre Dame

GAMES
Play this again: Oklahoma State 45, No. 9 West Virginia 41

Play this again, too:  Wisconsin 47, Purdue 44, 3 OT

Never play this again: Iowa 63, Illinois 0

What? Miami (Ohio) 13, Northern Illinois 7

HuhKansas State 21, Texas Tech 6

Double Huh?  Nebraska 9, Michigan State 6

Are you kidding me??  Florida State 22, No. 20 Boston College 21

Oh – my – GodOklahoma State 45, No. 9 West Virginia 41

NEXT WEEK

Rankings are current AP (week 12)
Ticket to die for:  No. 4 Michigan @ No. 10 Ohio State

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: BYU @ No. 19 Utah

Best non-Power Five matchup: No. 11 UCF @ South Florida

Honorable mention for above:  UAB @ Middle Tennessee

Upset alert: Auburn @ No. 1 Alabama  also:  Georgia Tech @ No. 5 Georgia

Must win: Purdue @ Indiana

Offensive explosion: No. 6 Oklahoma @ No. 9 West Virginia

Defensive struggle: Eastern Michigan @ Kent State

Great game no one is talking about: No. 23 Utah State @ No. 25 Boise State

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Chris Petersen of Washington vs Mike Leach of Washington State

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 17 Kentucky @ Louisville  Also:  San Jose State @ Fresno State

Why are they playing?  No. 15 Texas @ Kansas

Plenty of good seats remaining: Southern Miss @ UTEP

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