Monday, June 07, 2010

Wisdom from Westwood

John Wooden would have made a great Rabbi

We've been focusing a lot lately on the incoming freshman class for this fall.

That makes a lot of sense. We're all fans of Ivy football and we clamor for news on the newcomers mostly because we're still in the middle of a 300-day fast from actual Ivy football games.

But news of John Wooden's death late Friday brought to mind my strongest personal regrets about all the recruiting hype in college sports these days.

Coach Wooden was as great a teacher and coach of character as much as he was a great coach of basketball.

Maybe greater.

And it says so much for a man who was blessed with so many talented players that he is known best for not only his own personal humility, but the humility he passed on to his players.

I once heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a perfect 4.0 GPA all four years at UCLA. I wouldn't be surprised if that was true.

Bill Walton never missed a practice no matter what antiwar protest he was going to or coming from.

Walt Hazzard stayed out of the mental ward his entire collegiate career.

How the heck did Wooden do it?

He taught humility, that's how.

My favorite John Wooden quote is this:

"Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."

To me, the most dangerous thing about all the hype devoted to high school athletes today is it makes conceit so hard to avoid for some very, very young American men. I try to balance all that with a regular point about incoming Ivy frosh that I make on this blog all the time. That is, that even 17-year-old kids in America deserve serious credit for achieving a great combination of good grades and athletic success. I realize the same can't be said for many of the big time college athletes, and their "success" rate post-college speaks for itself.

But it's not the young college athletes that worry me most these days. It's the coaches.

Could a coach with the undeniable scruples of a John Wooden succeed in big time college sports?

I don't think so.

And recruiting is a big example of why this is so. Successful recruiting today seems to me to be a lot about pumping prospects with a lot of bunk about how they all could be the greatest of all time. Otherwise, why the heck would the anti-John Wooden, Lane Kiffin, be signing 13-year-old kids to scholarship deals at USC?

I'm sure there are a few things even Ivy League coaches do on recruiting trips that I wouldn't love. But I do love how every Ivy coach I've ever heard of always stresses the education and non-athletic future of each prospect first in his recruiting pitches.

This is truly what makes Ivy football my favorite sport. The games are exciting and fun, yes. But the athletes are people I can feel good about knowing on and off the field, and before and after their playing days are over.

So many of my friends look at me in puzzlement when they learn of my total devotion to Columbia football and Ivy League teams over all other sports. The examples that John Wooden set are the reason why I am the way I am. I want to root for athletes who I can be happy seeing my children rooting for as well.

As Wooden said:

"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."

I just don't know how a decent parent can't think of that lesson when he or she takes his kids to sporting events, especially big time college sporting events today. Do you really want your kids idolizing and rooting for young men and women not much older than they are who are not getting one iota of instruction when it comes to character? I think that's a risk you run when you go to BCS games or the major college basketball conference games.

Professional sports? Forget about it.

And yet, there is another danger the more civilized world of Ivy sports presents us with year after year. The danger of complacency. John Wooden had something to say about that too:

"I'd rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent."

Too many Ivy coaches are not pressured into showing results. I think it becomes clear pretty early on who has the talent and simply needs more experience, and who has little talent and won't get much better with or without more time on the job.

True, the measure of coaching success should be a little different in our league. But consistent losing, year after year, cannot be tolerated in the Ivies any more than it is at Michigan. I think some of the Ivies more inexperienced, and untalented, coaches are being given way too much time to fail year after year.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want the 1980's version of George Steinbrenner running our Ivy athletic departments. But too many times lately I've been hearing people say that it doesn't matter so much how many games some Ivy coaches win. It does matter. So does building character. The two are not mutually exclusive.

More from Coach Wooden:

"You can't let praise or criticism get to you. It's a weakness to get caught up in either one."

I meet and work with way too many people these days who seem a lot more worried about what is said about them or their institutions on the blogs than anything else.

Anger at Internet chatter, other than vile racism or dangerous physical threats, is very silly. Every second worrying about what people say about you is a second you could have used improving yourself or your job that you just wasted. Conversely, those who only have nasty anonymous criticisms to make are really wasting their time.

Finally, Coach Wooden said this:

"Never mistake activity for achievement."

That quote by Wooden pushes me to try to show some humility of my own.

This blog may seem like a lot of work, but try being a coach or a player for an Ivy football team these days.

Now try being a GOOD coach or a GOOD player for an Ivy football team these days.

Me? I just write mostly what comes to my mind. I am greatly aware I bring little "breaking news" or X's and O's football brilliance at any given time.

I can write "new" stuff about Columbia football 5-6 days a week because it is not my job to write about any other sports. And, this blog is more like an editorial column than anything else. I hope my readers, and I, always remember that.

(And on a personal note. It's remarkable how much Torah there is in so many of John Wooden's famous quotes and philosophies. His quotes read so much like the Ethics of the Fathers it's uncanny).


For some reason, blogger has killed off all the posts I wrote for June before this one on Wooden. So I am republishing them below:

June 4th

Glastonbury HS, home of the Ghergurovichs

I'm swamped today with a visit from the parents, so just some quick notes:

-The question has been asked about incoming frosh Joe Ghergurovich and whether he is related to former Penn line John Ghergurovich. It appears the answer is yes... both Ghergurovichs attended Glastonbury HS in Connecticut. They are most likely brothers. I assume we'll find out for sure when the full write-up on the incoming frosh is released on

-Ivy League recruiting has to be the toughest task for a new coaching staff. Yale's Tom Williams seems to be having some trouble as the Eli class of 2014 seems a little thin. That said, he did score two transfers and Williams may be hoping to fill gaps via the transfer route for years to come. In the end, however, he's going to need to sell the Yale degree a little better than he is now.

-Columbia comes into 2010 with just six QB's on the roster. But just one, Paul Havas, is a senior and despite that low number, this Lions team is still relatively deep at the position since Sean Brackett and Jerry Bell have a lot of relative game experience. Contrast our QB situation with Princeton and you might as well title that tale of the tape: "Rich Man, Poor Man."

June 3rd

This is becoming a very busy day.

Yale has released the names and bios for it's class of 2014.

26 players are on the Elis list, including the son of Yale Associate Head Coach Richard Flanders.

June 3rd

Jimmy Yukevich

Here are some of the things I've been able to gather about the three new names on the Columbia football roster that I did not know about previously.

T.C. Williams OL Luke Dorris seems like a great get. At 6-4 and 275 pounds, he's the second biggest kid in the class. He was listed as one of the nation's top offensive line prospects by expert Jim Stefani.

Dorris is one of those great Ivy prospects who becomes more available to our league after a junior year injury. Dorris broke his foot his junior year.

LB Zac Olinger comes from a very competitive high school conference in Alabama. It seems like he had a knack for recovering fumbles in big games.

OL Jimmy Yukevich was his high school team's captain and was also on Dartmouth's radar before choosing Columbia. He's listed as 6-6 on the Columbia roster right now, but most other reports have him at 6-7 which would put him in a three-way tie for tallest on the Lions with Jeff Adams and Scott Ward.

As far as the still missing Tyler Kirkland and James Valeiras go, the fact that their names are not on the roster now does not mean they won't be on the team in the fall. They may not have been officially recruited players, or the list may not even be complete yet, etc. Every summer around the time training camp starts, we see new names added to the roster.

Some other quick facts about the class of 2014 so far:

-16 of the incoming frosh come from high schools where Columbia has successfully recruited players in the past. 15 are from new high schools on my feeder school list. At least two players also went to postgraduate programs, one at a school that was already on the feeder list and the other at a new school to add to the list.

-Two of the incoming players rejoin former high school teammates who are upperclassmen on the Columbia roster. They are Paul Delaney, who rejoins Alec Kosminskas from Loyola Academy and Griffin Lowry, who rejoins Ben Evans from St. Louis University HS.

-On their high school rosters, the incoming frosh were often listed at multiple positions. But the Columbia roster keeps them to one position. So here are the players who have been cut down to just one position:

Chris Alston-DB (was WR/DB in high school)

Marquel Carter-DB (was a QB/DB in high school)

*Hunter Coleman-DL (was a TE/OL in high school)

Bruce Grant-WR (was a RB in high school)

Eddie Hitchcock-LB (was a LB/FB in high school)

Brad Losee-DL (was a DE/TE in high school)

*Mark McClain-LB (was a WR/S in high school)

Zach McKown-TE (was a TE/LB in high school)

Jeremy Mingo-DB (was a DB/WR in high school)

Joe Raimondi-DL (was a DL/OL in high school)

Maurice Rothschild-WR (was a WR/DB in high school)

*Coleman and McClain appear to be slotted in positions they did not play in high school.


June 3rd

I can't confirm that the list of freshmen on the Columbia football roster is complete, but 31 new names are now posted.

Two of the names on my incoming frosh list do not appear, (at least not yet), while three new names do.

The missing players are Tyler Kirkland and James Valeiras.

The new names are:

Luke Dorris, Zach Olinger, and Jimmy Yukevich.


June 2nd

Is Sean Brackett about to run or pass? (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Anyone who watched Sean Brackett play last year had to be impressed with what they saw.

Brackett started the last four games of the 2009 season, and recorded a 2-2 record. But he really played the equivalent of about three and a third games because he was pulled in the first half from the Harvard game and in the late third quarter of the Cornell game.

In other words, a third of a season.

I admit this is hardly scientific, but if you take Brackett's actual stats and project what they would be for a full 10-game season, you get the following:

Completions: 102

Attempts: 189

Pct. 53.9%

Yards: 1,374

TD: 12

INT: 9

Rushing Attempts: 159

Rushing Yards: 861

Avg. per Carry: 5.4

Rushing TD: 3

Okay, okay. I realize some of these numbers sound crazy. For example, I don't think we'll see Brackett running 15-16 times per game even if he plays every down of all 10 games in 2010... not if the coaches don't want to see the kid killed that is.

On the other hand, I think we'll see bigger passing stats as Brackett gets more comfortable in the pocket.

Imagine if Brackett does turn in these kinds of numbers. A QB who could turn in nearly 150 yards passing, 86 yards rushing, and 3 TD's for every two games would be a great asset.

But these imaginary numbers only tell a small part of the story. A QB who can really hurt a defense as a runner and passer is worth his weight in gold, (at $1,200 per ounce these days, that's a REAL compliment). When M.A. Olawale was healthy last season, and it turns out he was only healthy through the first four and half games, the Lions offense was about as good as we've seen it in 30 years because of his dual threat abilities.

That said, there are things that Brackett does better than Olawale, most notably running the option play to perfection. I think he also has the good fortune of already having some wins under his belt, which should give him good confidence over his next three years at Columbia.

Of course, this all indicates how important it is to keep Brackett healthy. This is not only because he's so talented, but because the also very talented QB Jerry Bell is such a different type of player. I don't want to see the Columbia offense forced to change so radically on a dime if Brackett is hurt. Going from a running-gunning QB like Brackett to a pure passer like Bell might confuse opposing defenses, but it seems like it would require a whole new playbook for our offense as well. In case you haven't noticed, Ivy football players actually go to class and take it seriously, so an added bit of studying at midseason doesn't sound too appealing.

Remember that while the Lions had to adjust to Brackett in midseason, he was relieving the injured Olawale, who was also a QB who liked to run both by design and on improvised plays. Brackett's running style is different from Olawale's, but not that different.

My ideal scenario for Brackett is for him to follow in the footsteps of fellow #10 Fran Tarkenton. Brackett throws and runs like Takenton, for those of you old enough to remember him. They're even the same height, more or less.

Anyhoo, over Tarkenton's NFL career his typical passing box score was about 15 of 26 for 191 yards. His running stats were impressive for the NFL with 32 career TD's and a 5.4 yards per carry (which is exactly the same yards per carry average that Brackett logged last season).

Tarkenton's best year as a pro was 1975 when he completed 65% of his passes and threw 25 TD's to just 13 INT's. But 1975 was the year his heavily-favored Vikings fell to Dallas in the stunning "Hail Mary" divisional playoff game at Metropolitan Stadium. I you look closely at the video I linked to of that game above, you can see Vikings RB and Cornell great Ed Marinaro watching the play on the sidelines. But here's a better link with a lot more of the story and much better quality video.

Of course, Tarkenton has a good New York connection having played five seasons with the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, just a few minutes from Baker Field.

June 1st

They won't have AK to try to kick around anymore

For four years, we were dazzled by Columbia's once-in-a-generation wide receiver Austin Knowlin.

For four years, we loved seeing him get open even when everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be the intended receiver.

For four years, we loved hearing how Knowlin's presence on the field "drew a crowd," allowing the other receivers to go up against single coverage or even no coverage.

But now, Knowlin is gone and the question is: how much will the Columbia offense suffer?

You could be optimistic and say the Lions will either make up for "AK's" absence through the running game, or simply by spreading the ball around to a wider array of receivers.

You could be pessimistic and say Columbia will struggle, especially in obvious passing situations.

The good news is two of Columbia's better passing threats in 2009 return this fall in TE Andrew Kennedy and WR Mike Stephens. The even better news is that they both return as co-captains and you know they're 100% invested in the teams 2010 success.

The bad news is someone could argue that both Kennedy and Stephens benefitted greatly from Knowlin's presence on the field, and there's no telling how strong they'll be on their own.

The good news is the receiving corps is unusually large. There are already eleven WR's on the current roster, (if you include Kurt Williams and Brian DeVeau who are switching to WR), and another eight WR's that we know about already in the freshmen class, (or eight players with WR experience). Basically, we're looking at a bumper crop of about 20 wide receivers for 2010 and the chances of another one or two being top quality are pretty good.

The bad news is 20 wide receivers may be a bit too many for the coaches to get a good quick read on the best weapons available.

Of all the discussions about the variables for the upcoming season, this one may be the most important. So I'm asking my readers to answer the following question:

"What will Columbia do this season to overcome the loss of Austin Knowlin?"

You know where to write your answers.

One More Thought...

How funny/odd is it that Dartmouth's shortest road trip in 2010 is the October 23rd game at Columbia?

It's funny and odd because Dartmouth is Columbia's longest road trip in the Ivies.

Last fall, I published a list of all the distances between Ivy teams and it turned out Yale and Columbia have the shortest average trip mileage while Cornell and Dartmouth have the longest distances to travel in any given year.

It pays to be centrally located.


Visits to this blog in May were up 26.3% year over year! Thanks!


At Tue Jun 08, 06:05:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you ever listened to coach Wooden speak for 30 minutes you would NEVER forget it. He was truly inspirational in the way he lived and the way he treated other human beings.

At Tue Jun 08, 07:39:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Wooden and Jack Rohan were good friends.

At Tue Jun 08, 08:02:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...


did you cover jack seidelcki baing named as assistant coach at wesleyan?

has anyone done an analysis of social mobility of ivy head coaches let go by their teams? there seems to be very little opportunity.
why do you think this is the case?

--steve tosches (princeton) became a human resources consultant.
--his successor became an assistant with the new pro league team in nebraska.
--norrie wilson's predecessor became an assistant coach at i think umass

At Tue Jun 08, 10:53:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Jake:

Your "editorial column" is informative and a good read, and I take it for what it is. You are correct in that winning at an Ivy League school is important. I know the overwhelming majority of these young men and women will never become professional athletes. They value their educational opportunities, and their athletic opportunities. All these athletes want to win, and their determination is shown by their academic achievements and their ability to be accepted into an Ivy. That does not mean this determination does not translate onto the field. They make great time sacrifices to participate while carrying the same course load. Winning makes the time sacrifices worthwhile and fills them with pride knowing they can accomplish great things after college with the same work ethic they display each year in college. Thank you for your post on Coach Wooden. The world has lost a better man than coach.

At Thu Jun 10, 12:22:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger brian said...

Coach Wooden was friend of mine..while having lunch one day he told me that his father taught him most of the lessons you speak of here and most of all.."do not try to be better then anyone else, just be the best that you can be"

What a wonderful man and a wonderful life lived


Post a Comment

<< Home