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

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Chuck_Berry_1958

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.

IMG_2443_1

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)!”

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Which Team Wants It More? December 16, 2015

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 Who wants it more?  More to the point, which team is happier to be there?  That is the most important question in determining the outcomes of the upcoming bowl games.  It is not easy, but it will be the make-or-break factor.  It affects the performance of the team.  If they are not that motivated to be there, but the underdog team is, the actual odds favor the latter.  Therefore, the real question becomes, which team will show up to play?  To create a better understanding of this condition, allow me to offer Exhibit A:

The season was that of 1998.  Kansas State was rising up in the polls throughout the year.  They defeated mighty Nebraska (yes, the Cornhuskers were still very vaunted then) for the first time in three decades.  The Wildcats went undefeated for the regular season, and were poised, at the No. 2 national ranking, to go to the first ever championship game of the Bowl Championship Series, which that year would be the Fiesta Bowl.

Kansas State’s only hurdle to clear to make that coveted berth was the Big XII Championship game, in which they were naturally favored.  Yet underdog Texas A&M had other plans, and managed to upset K-State that game.  Gone were the Wildcats’ national championship hopes, but it was worse than that:  other teams had already secured major bowl slots, so K-State was demoted all the way down to the Alamo Bowl.  Coincidentally, they would play Purdue, which was the team I was on as a freshman staff member.  We were happy to be there:  Kansas State, however, was disappointed to be there.  Come game time (Dec. 29, 1998), it showed.  Even though the Wildcats were still ranked at a feared No. 4 while we were unranked, we nevertheless led them throughout most of the game.  Despite a late 4th-quarter touchdown that put them temporarily in the lead, we answered by marching right down the field for a game-winning score with only about a minute remaining.

On paper, K-State should have beaten us by at least two touchdowns.  But the final, actual score said otherwise.  Why?  Though, the Wildcats were clearly the better team on paper, we wanted to be there more than they did, and by a considerable margin.

Such a scenario has played itself out many times in the years since then (and no doubt in the years before), which is what makes bowl game prognostication for more unpredictable than just comparing regular season records and major stats.  The upcoming line-up of bowl games asks this very question more than a few times.  To wit:

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 19, 3:30 PM EST, ABC

BYU (9-3) vs. No. 22 Utah (9-3)

The Utes are the higher-ranked team.  At one point they were ranked as highly as No. 3 in the nation.  Surely they must have had higher bowl aspirations.  On the other hand, the Cougars are dealing with coaching turmoil since their head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, just bolted for the Virginia job.  My conclusion is to therefore not out-think things, and go with the odds, which slightly favor the Utes.

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Dec. 26, 2:00 EST, CBS

Miami (FL) (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)

Beware the deception of identical records.  For whereas the Cougars have had Mike Leach in place for a couple of seasons now, the Hurricanes are going through coaching changes, having fired Al Golden mid-season, leaving assistant coach Larry Scott to serve at the helm in his temporary stead.  Incoming head coach Mark Richt will watch from the stands.  The Miami players claim they’ll show up motivated, but can these kids overcome the coaching transitions while the Washington State players will enjoy stability?

Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 26, 9:15 PM EST, ESPN

UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7)

The Bruins surely had much higher bowl aspirations as the season began, and at one point enjoyed a top-ten ranking.  Getting upset at home to Arizona State did not help their campaign, though, neither did losing to Washington State, either.  The losses to both Stanford and a resurgent USC can be excused.  Be all that as it may, they’re in this particular bowl, which lacks the prestige of bowls in the days that follow.  Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers are one of those lucky dog teams who, at 5-7, are very fortunate just to get a berth.  Why?  Because Big Ten fans travel in DROVES.  Expect a sea of red in Santa Clara, Calif., and a closer game than the records suggest.  You might even take the under on Nebraska.

Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 29, 5:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 10 North Carolina (11-2) vs No. 17 Baylor (9-3)

On paper, this is a very marquee matchup between two very good teams.  The problem?  Both teams feel as though they deserved better bowl games.  Last year, the Bears were in the Cotton Bowl, for goodness sake.  Meanwhile, as strong as a team as the Tarheels have been, one would think they would have grabbed a more prestigious berth, too.  What therefore makes this scenario unique is that BOTH teams will likely come in under-motivated (we’re dealing with 19/20 year-old kids, after all).  The question becomes, which team will be less under-motived than the other?  Since UNC started out with lower aspirations, they might end up making this game very, very interesting.

Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 30, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Auburn (6-6) vs. Memphis (9-3)

Tigers vs. Tigers?  That alone is intriguing.  But the War Eagle variety surely had higher bowl aspirations (they started out the year ranked No. 6) than the variety from Memphis, who turned out to be a surprisingly strong team.  Auburn likely views this bowl berth as both a come-down and a quasi-home game at the same time.  But Memphis might be glad just to make it to a bowl game, since their postseason appearances have been far fewer than those of their opponent.  The Vegas odds favor Auburn by 2.5.  That is enough of a margin of error for Memphis to win by a close one, provided they appear with just enough motivation.

Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, 10:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 25 USC (8-5) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)

Late enough for you out east?  Regardless, there are varying degrees of motivation with these two teams.  If you’re Wisconsin for example, who would not be happy to spend late December in beautiful San Diego?  If you’re USC, you’ll be glad to be there after all the coaching and leadership turmoil with which you had to contend earlier in the season.  The kicker?  That particular turmoil is now behind the Men of Troy.  New head coach Clay Helton has clearly righted the ship, and the program is headed in the proper direction again.  That’s good.  But, he just fired 4 of his assistant coaches.  That’s bad, especially when the Trojans only have a handful of practices to prepare for a game with a depleted coaching roster (using grad assistants to fill in some of the roles) while Wisconsin lacks this disadvantage.  The Badgers, furthermore, always show up well to bowl games:  they are one of the most reliable programs in that regard.  The odds-makers in Vegas still give USC a 3-point advantage, meaning that there is potential for an upset.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 18 Houston (12-1) vs. No. 9 Florida State (10-2)

The Seminoles likely see having to play the lowly Cougars, while the latter will likely feel honored to play in such a relatively prestigious bowl game.  Should this scenario play out, the respective motivational levels are to be adjusted accordingly, giving us potential for one of the biggest upsets of this bowl season.

Rose Bowl Game Pres. By Northwestern Mutual, Jan. 1, 5:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 6 Stanford (11-2) vs. No. 5 Iowa (12-1)

Since when would a team show up to the Rose Bowl under-motivated?  It is the Granddaddy of them all, folks!  But in the case of Stanford, they likely had the goal to make it to the playoffs instead.  Meanwhile, Iowa is going to their first Rose Bowl in 25 years.  To the Hawkeyes, this is a once-in-a-generation Super Bowl.  Granted, Iowa is a good team, but Stanford, on paper, is much better.  Under normal circumstances, Stanford should win by two touchdowns.  But with Iowa being especially focused and disciplined, expect a tough, close game that could go either way.

Taxslayer Bowl, Jan. 2, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)

This used to be the Gator Bowl, fyi.  Georgia seems to be the stronger team on paper, but they just lost their head coach and will be coached by assistants in this bowl game, while Penn State has stable leadership in James Franklin.  Expect the Nittany Lions to therefore pull off the upset, unless the interim head coach at Georgia can effectively rally his troops.

2012-2013 Bowl Game Awards January 10, 2013

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What, you’d think I’d be lying down on the job just because the regular season is over?

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Charlie Strong, Louisville

Wouldn’t be bad to be him, either:  Nick Saban, Alabama

Glad I’m not him: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Lucky guy:  Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Poor guy: Patrick Higgins, Purdue (interim coach)
Desperately seeking a clue (long-term, notwithstanding the win):  Mack Brown, Texas
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Bill Blankenship, Tulsa

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Lane Kiffin, USC

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Texas A&M (beat No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4, 41-13)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Florida (see below)

(Dec. 15-31)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Purdue (see below)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t: Louisville (see below)
(Jan. 1-7)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Alabama

Thought you wouldn’t get your butt kicked, you did: Notre Dame

Dang, they’re good: Alabama (and Texas A&M!)
Dang, they’re bad:  Purdue

They can’t be that good:  Oklahoma State

Dang, they’re overrated:  Notre Dame

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Mississippi State (lost to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, 34-20)

Did the season start? USC
Can the season end?  West Virginia
Can the season never end?  Louisville (or Clemson, though really, Louisville more so!)

GAMES
Play this again (Jan. 1-7):  Outback Bowl – No. 10 South Carolina 33, No. 18 Michigan 28

(Dec. 15-31)

Play this again:  Peach, I mean, Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

Also, play this again:  New Mexico Bowl – Arizona 49, Nevada 48
(All Bowls)

Never play this again: Heart of Dallas Bowl – Oklahoma State 58, Purdue 14
Don’t bother with this one again, eitherIdaho Potato Bowl – No. 22 Utah State 41, Toledo 15

What? Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

HuhHoliday Bowl — Baylor 49, No. 17 UCLA 26

Are you kidding me? Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech 21, USC 7

Oh – my – God: Sugar Bowl – No. 21 Louisville 33, No. 3 Florida 23

Wow, dudeBCS National Championship – erstwhile No. 2 Alabama 42, erstwhile No. 1 Notre Dame 14

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Cal Sport Media / AP Images

That’s why you line them up and play.  My father repeated this mantra to me as I was growing up.  Going in to the BCS National Championship game, it seemed as though Notre Dame and Alabama were rather evenly matched on paper.  The Fighting Irish had some rather impressive wins on their resume this year, far more impressive than the mediocre schedule they had played in recent years.  Beating a tough Stanford squad at home, going on the road to humiliate Oklahoma, and then closing out the regular season on the west coast to beat USC, all in the same year, is no small feat.  With such a record, it looked like Notre Dame was back, ready to butt heads with the big boys for national prominence.

Moreover, it was supposed to be a down year for the SEC, remember?  Michigan played South Carolina down to the wire (though seriously, the overall outcome was as predicted, if not by a slightly truncated margin of error), and an underachieving Nebraska challenged a, well, underachieving Georgia squad.  Mississippi State, for what a great regular season had – by MSU standards, at least – came for naught when they coughed it up to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.  The most striking example of building the case for a SEC down year was the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.  No way, under normal circumstances would LSU lose to Clemson, though to be sure, the ACC team has been known to pull one over on the SEC team in that bowl game (remember the 2001 Peach Bowl between Auburn and North Carolina?).  No. 3 Florida inexplicably losing to No. 21 Louisville can also add fuel to that fire (not that U of L’s win is something to be rued outside of SEC country!).

Forget that the SEC had three losses going into this game.  The conference was 5-3, to be exact; still a winning record.  Look at the Bama team itself.  They had graduated tons of talent to the NFL.  Quarterback A.J. McCarron was not a transcendent player at that position (as one often expects on a team that would be in the running for the national title).  The offensive line was young and inexperienced.  The Crimson Tide’s defense was not overwhelming, either, especially when compared to the smothering D’s of recent champion squads.  When paired up against the other team, one could readily predict some clearly potential mismatches.  After all, Notre Dame’s receiving corps was big and talented, and proved to be a game-winning factor throughout the season, as the Irish’s opponents had no answer for that part of their offense.

But there was more.  What gave the Irish the strong look of national viability was that Coach Brian Kelly had done an amazing job of massively upgrading the team’s defense.  At a school this is much more academically rigid as ND, certain recruiting restrictions tend to put the defensive side of the ball at a disadvantage.  One can recruit smart linemen, quarterbacks, tight ends, and receivers, after all, and they are out there.  Defense is another issue.  Never as well-choreographed as offensive, players on that side of the ball tend to be a bit more reckless, and often have to be to make key stops.  Making good grades and doing what defensive players have to do to succeed on the field is oftentimes an incompatibility.  Yet Kelly somehow made it work.

So how did things turn out they did?  Even yours truly predicted a close game, at least until some time in the 3rd quarter.  Turns out, in hindsight, we all made the same mistake we made going into the 2007 BCS game.  That year, Ohio State was the undefeated, No.1  team.  Florida got in the game almost as an afterthought.  Yet despite a touchdown by the Buckeyes on the opening kickoff, the Gators dominated from then on, leaving many viewers in a state of shock and disbelief, and also to ask each other:  how did we not see this coming?

The answer comes in two parts.  The simplest part is, they are SEC teams.  Florida then and Alabama this year played in the most brutal of all college football conferences.  Anybody who emerges as the conference champion is battle-hardened, battle tested, and ready and able to go toe-to-toe with anybody else in the country.  If one does not believe that the SEC, despite its down year this year, is still not the best conference in the country, you are both blind and detached from reality.  For one, SEC teams have won every national title since the 2006-’07 season; that’s seven consecutive years and counting.  But even more to the point, the NFL is the ultimate truth serum when it comes to who produces the best players in college football.  One NFL team general manager once observed that you could field a competitive team in the pros just by drafting players out of the Southeastern Conference.  Lots of money, along with people’s mortgages and livelihoods, rest on making such key decisions – think about that.

So Ohio State then, and Notre Dame this year, were frankly NOT consistently playing the same level of competition that SEC teams face week in and week out.  It’s fine for Notre Dame to beat Oklahoma on the road, but to turn right around the struggle at home to Pittsburgh the next game should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did.

The other part to explain how Bama ended up dominating Notre Dame is that Nick Saban is the best college coach in the business.  He learned his grinder’s work ethic from his father growing up in West Virginia, and learned how to be detail-oriented as an NFL assistant under Bill Belichick.  Being detail-oriented is a transferrable skill that works well at either the college or the pro level.  Saban knows how to prepare.  Alabama might have seemed relatively weak (compared to recent teams) having to go from one tough game to another (LSU then Texas A&M, for example).  But give Saban a full month to prepare, and the team’s true potential shines through.  Pay no attention to the Tide getting humiliated to Utah in the 2008 Sugar Bowl; pay attention to Saban’s, and the team’s, more recent body of work, that being three national titles out of the past four years.  They say that hindsight is 20-20, and in this case, it most certainly is:  Bama played better competition throughout the year, had even better overall athletes, and are guided by the best coach in the business.  Sometimes, you have to line them up and play just to be able to see those things with sufficient clarity.

Bowl Game “Categories” December 11, 2012

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COACHES: (following Week 15)

Lucky Guy:  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

Poor Guy:  Rich Ellerson, Army

TEAMS:

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t:  Navy

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Army

UPCOMING BOWL GAMES:

Ticket to die for:  No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship, Miami, Jan. 7

Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: Nevada vs. Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 15

Best non-Big Six matchup: East Carolina vs. Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, Dec. 22

Upset alert: No. 16 Nebraska over No. 7 Georgia in the Capital One Bowl (formerly the Citrus Bowl), Orlando, Fla., Jan. 1 (the reasons for this possibility are to be explained in a subsequent article).

Old Rivals Reunite:  No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Dallas (Arlington), Jan. 4    Also:  West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, Bronx, N.Y., Dec. 29

Home Field Advantage:   Vanderbilt vs. North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 31

Must win:  Pitt vs. Ole Miss (both 6-6) in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 5

Offensive explosion: Baylor vs. No. 17 UCLA in the Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27

Defensive struggle: possibly none.  Then again, possibly TCU vs. Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 29.

Great game no one is talking about: Mississippi State vs. No. 20 Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Jan. 1

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Ken Niumatalolo of Navy vs. Todd Graham of Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29

Intriguing Lack-of-Coach matchup:  No. 25 Kent State vs. Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, Mobile, Ala., Jan. 6

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, Jan. 2               Also:  See next item below!

Why are they playing? No. 15 Northern Illinois vs. No. 12 Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Miami, Jan. 1

Plenty of good seats remaining: Rice vs. Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 29

They shoot horses, don’t they?  USC vs. Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31

ArmyNavy2012-1When it comes to the bowl games themselves, plenty more humorously-talented writers than I have taken their stab at wryly skewering most of the matchups.  Perhaps the best example of this would be the talented folks at everydayshouldbesaturday.com, who have done just that regarding the aforementioned skewering.

Having said that, a brief pause is in order for the Army-Navy game this past weekend, for it was a viewing pleasure.  The game was the best of this storied match-up in recent memory; big plays on both sides, a close score throughout the game, and lots of heart and extra efforts on both sides of the ball.  It was a darn shame one of them had to lose, especially Army, who lost in heartbreaking fashion after fumbling the ball with only 15 yards and a minute to go before scoring a touchdown to otherwise win the game.  Instead, the Midshipmen have triumphed over the Black Knights for the 11th year in a row (!).  But the game was also a viewing pleasure from a uniforms aesthetics standpoint, too.  The gold in Army’s helmets was a true old gold, and harkened directly back to the glory days of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.  Why don’t they use that gold in their helmets all the time today?  The WWII maps in their jersey numbers and black helmet stripe was a way-cool touch, too!  Meanwhile, Navy’s tri-tone white helmet was awesome to behold.  Chrome-gold on blue on white is something never before seen at any major level of football; congrats to the Middies for this new innovation in artistic helmet design!