Monday, December 29, 2014

Let's Salute the 2014 Steelers


Unlike the long 162 game grind of a baseball season, an NFL season consists of only 16 games, but, played out over four months, it is still a long season in its own way, and what we have learned from the Steelers in 2014 is that one should never jump to conclusions early or mid-way through a season.  The players who should have been cut and the coaches who should have been fired  back in early October, are looking pretty good and pretty smart now sporting their AFC North Champions t-shirts.

Back on December 1, following another inexplicable loss, this time to the Saints at home, the team stood at 7-5, and I wrote the following in The Grandstander:

The best thing the Steelers have going for them is the fact that they play the division leading Bengals twice.  Simply put, they HAVE to win both those games.  If they don't, it probably won't matter what they do in the games against the Falcons and Chiefs

Pretty prophetic, huh?  Going into last night's game, I had full confidence that the Steelers would take care of business against the Bengals, who once again proved that there are few things more dependable in pro sports than the Bengals imploding and losing a game that they had to win.  Turns out that the NFL schedule makers did the Steelers a huge favor in having them play Cincy twice down that final stretch.

To me, one of the most encouraging things I saw in the Steelers' final two games against the Chiefs and the Bengals was the fact that the Steelers defense showed up strong in both games and played a major role in those victories.  Whereas before that, I felt that while the Steelers "Killer B's" offense could match up to any team in the post-season, and that the defense would be their downfall, now I see a ray of hope that the Steelers might be able to sustain a deep post-season run.

Of course, the negative to last night's game was the injury to Le'Veon Bell.  One quarter is a small sample size, of course, but we saw last night that Josh Harris and Dri Archer do not equal one Le'Veon Bell.  His teammates voted him their MVP for a reason.  And was I the only one last night whose mind flashed back to the 1976 AFC championship game against the Raiders when Reggie Harrison tried (and failed) to replace the injured Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier?

We'll see, as they say, how this all plays out against the Hated Ravens on Saturday.

Some other "quick hit" thoughts....

  • Yes, they finished well, and won 11 games, but those losses to the Bucs, Jets, and to a lesser extent, the Browns and Saints, will be forever inexplicable in my mind.  I guess that that is - say it with me now - why they play the games.
  • Speaking of the Browns, remember how they strutted and preened after beating the Steelers?  I hope that they, and their fans, enjoyed that one week in first place.
  • And for gag job of the year, how about the San Diego Chargers yesterday?  All they had to do was beat a non-playoff team that as playing with their back-up QB, and they blew it.  Of course, long-time watchers of the Chargers and Phillip  Rivers should not have been surprised.
  • And how about the act that Ndamukong Suh did up in Green Bay by stepping on Aaron Rodgers?  As you know, this is not the first time Suh has done this stuff, and now the NFL has suspended him for the Lions playoff game.  I'll bet his teammates really appreciate that.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Absent Friends of 2014

It is time to take a final look back at all those Absent Friends who were noted in this space in  this year that is rapidly drawing to a close. As I always do, I give credit to the late, great sportswriter Red Smith who would use the term "Absent Friend" whenever he wrote of the passing of someone in the sports world.

Before doing so, I want to comment on the passing in January of this year of my younger sister Patty.  She was the youngest of my parents' five children, and the first of us to die.  She was the closest to me in age of my four siblings, and, as such, we pretty much grew up together.  As life went on, relationships change, and family relationships can sometimes be complicated, and the one between my sister and I had its share of ups and downs.  While sitting in Church on Christmas Eve, I found myself thinking of Patty, and thinking of those ups-and-downs, and finding it still somewhat hard to believe that she is gone.  The Grief Journey that we take when we lose someone never ends, and no two are alike.  You have to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of, and sometimes it can be very difficult to do either one.  

Thanks for listening.

Now for a list of those 41 Absent Friends who were important historically, socially, culturally, or who I just found to be interesting people with interesting life stories.

Phil Everly
Russell Johnson
Dave Madden
Tom Gola
Maximilian Schell
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ralph Kiner
Shirley Temple
Sid Caesar
Ralph Waite
Cannoball Butler
Harold Ramis
Porky Chedwick
Dr. Frank Jobe
Glennn McDuffie
David Brenner
Charley Feeney
Ralph Wilson
Mickey Rooney
Bill Nunn, Jr.
Bunny Yeager
Chuck Noll
Tony Gwynn
Gerry Goffin
Jeb Stuart Magruder
Howard Baker
Johnnie Waters
Jim Brosnan
Louis Zamperini
Red Klotz
James Garner
Robin Williams
Lauren Bacall
Sophie Masloff
Anna Mae Gorman Lindberg
Sally Kalson
Bob Kasperik
Ben Bradlee
Mike Nichols
Joe Cocker
Joseph Sargent

RIP to all Absent Friends.

Pitt Gets Its Man, and Other Selected Football Topics

The University of Pittsburgh ended its search for a new head football coach by announcing on Friday that current Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will be the Panthers next coach.



It seemed from the outset that Narduzzi was the guy that Pitt wanted, and I am glad that they went the route of an up and coming, younger coordinator.  He has all of the credentials that you would want in making such a hire, and he certainly seems enthusiastic and excited to be here, but no matter the background and how well a guy has done in working his way up, you just never know how he will perform when given the job of head coach.

I always think about a quote from Art Rooney Sr. when he talked about hiring Bill Austin to be the Steelers coach in 1966.  No one had better credentials to be an NFL head coach at the time than did Austin.  He came highly recommend by no less than Vince Lombardi himself!  We all know what happened.  The next guy, Chuck Noll, arrived with little acclaim and no expectations, and we all know what happened with THAT hire as well.

Let's just hope that Pitt, finally, gets lucky with a football coaching hire.  One thing for sure, though, is that Narduzzi will not be putting anyone to sleep during interviews and press conferences.

********

Speaking of the Narduzzi press conference, I have to note that I listened to it on the radio.  How quaint is that?  I had assumed that Root Sports, which proclaims itself as the center of sports media in Pittsburgh,  would be televising this press conference, so imagine my disappointment when I tuned in and saw that Root was televising a replay of a HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAME that was played six weeks ago.  

Root could have given its audience its first view of Pitt's new football coach, but, instead, they thought we would be better served by hearing Craig Wolfley make up new words as he goes along.

********

Allow me to recommend to you, highly recommend, in fact, two recent articles fro  Sports Illustrated.

In the December 22 issue (Jon Lester on the cover): "Bundle of Questions" by L. Jon Wertheim.  This is about how sports are delivered to us via cable TV providers and networks and how that model may (will?) be changing in the future.  

For example, because so many cable networks are bundled by the service providers, we are forced to take and pay for networks that many never watch.  Many, myself included, have often said that they wished you could select your cable networks a la carte, but be careful what you wish for.  The average charge for ESPN in your monthly cable bill is about $6 (higher, way higher, than things like TNT, NFL Network, USA, Disney, CNN, or Fox News), but if such things were unbundled, and you could pick and choose, ESPN might cost you as much as THIRTY dollars a month just for ESPN to keep up with the financial commitments that they have made to the NFL, NCAA, MLB, etc.  Believe it or not, and sports fans may not get this, research shows that fully two-thirds of all cable subscribers do not watch ESPN.  Would you be willing to pay thirty bucks a month to watch Chris Berman and Around the Horn?

The second article is in the December 29 issue (Cardale Jones on the cover) and it is about the 1974 Steelers, the team's first Super Bowl winner.  As the lead says, that team "revived a franchise, enlivened a city, and reshaped the NFL."

********

Like many of you, I am anxiously awaiting the four team college football playoff, but at breakfast yesterday, friend Dan Bonk made the point that the Committee couldn't have picked a more loathsome four teams if it tried.  Start with the Alabama and Ohio State and their dour coaches, Oregon and their unlimited bankroll from Nike, and Florida State and their looking the other way with their quarterback and what you've got are reasons to hope all four of this teams would lose their games.

However, I will no doubt be watching all of the games, so, as I have said so often, that makes me a part of the problem, doesn't it?

********

It appears that after the conclusion of today's NFL regular season, Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49'ers will part company.  Harbaugh has proven that he can coach. The 49'ers have played in three straight conference championship games and one Super Bowl under his leadership, but it all seems to have come apart in 2014.  The team is 7-8 going into today's finale and will not make the playoffs.  I mean, wha' happened out there?

From what you read, Harbaugh has a personality that grates upon players and, more importantly, his employers, so his welcome has a very short shelf life.  Don't cry for him, though, because the University of Michigan appears to be ready to shower him with $48 million, and they will probably be competing with other NFL teams for his services as well.  Set the alarm clocks for 2018 or so for the implosion to come at wherever Harbaugh lands this time.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

To Absent Friends - Joseph Sargent

In another one of those news obituaries that maybe only I find fascinating, I note today the death earlier this week of director Joseph Sargent at the age of 89.

Sargent was a one time aspiring actor, appearing in bit parts in shows like "Gunsmoke" and "The Twilight Zone", but at some point he found his niche as director.  He won four Emmy Awards for directing made-for-TV movies, including one called "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" that served as the pilot episode for television's long-running series, "Kojak".

He also directed about a dozen feature films, the most famous being "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" in 1974 which starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.  The movie was about the hijacking of a New York City subway train, and it was and remains a terrific movie.  If you've never seen it, make it a point to do so, and soon.

To whet your appetite, here is the trailer from that movie:



People like Joseph Sargent are not all known to the general public, but they sure serve to make our lives more fun by providing such entertainment to us.

RIP Joseph Sargent.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

TO ALL LOYAL READERS....


A Merry Christmas to all this year.  My wish is for love, peace, and tolerance among everyone. 

And to all those who may celebrate in other ways, may you all have a joyous Holiday Season.  There is room in The Grandstand for everyone.

Monday, December 22, 2014

To Absent Friends - Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker
1944-2014


I will admit that I was not a particular fan of Joe Cocker, yet whenever one of the large stars of the "Woodstock Generation" leaves us, it does give one pause to reflect, does it not?

As I said, I am no authority of Joe Cocker, but I would suppose that Cocker's signature number was he Beatles'  "With A Little Help From My Friends", which also served as the teem music for the sitcom, "Wonder Years."

Rather than that classic, let us commemorate Joe Cocker with one of his appearances with John Belushi on Saturday Night Live.





RIP Joe Cocker.

Big Break Myrtle Beach Finale

SPOILER ALERT:  This post will talk about the winner of the Big Break Myrtle Beach.  If you  are waiting to watch this on your DVR stockpile, you may want to skip this and come back later.



The twenty-second edition of Golf Channel's signature program, The Big Break, concluded last week in a match between 31 year old Jimmy Brandt and 28 year old Toph Peterson.  It was the conclusion to an interesting season that began with six men ands six women squaring off to achieve their Big Break.  The most interesting part of the season was that one contestant, 19 year old Anthony Quezada, might have been the most loathsome person to ever appear on the Big Break.  All shows such as this need a "villain", and Anthony fulfilled this role by violating every tenant of sportsmanship on which the game of golf prides itself.  He made it to the Final Four, and fell to to the eventual champion.

In that championship match, Brand defeated Peterson on the seventeenth hole, 3 and 1. It was a ragged match that at times it was a match that neither guy seemed to want to win.  Winner Jimmy defied golf's oldest cliche that you "putt for dough" by butchering almost every opportunity he had with the flat stick.  Still, he prevailed, and in addition to his cash and prizes, his Big Break will come in the form of an entry into the PGA Tour's Valspar Open which will be contested March 12-15 this coming season.

I will be tracking and reporting on Jimmy's performance in that event, but I will predict now that, based on how he performed on BBMB, he not only will not make the cut, he will be in the bottom five of those "missed cut" players.  For his sake, I hope I'm wrong because he seems like a nice kid, but professional tournament golf is the ultimate meritocracy, and I fear that a cruel fate awaits the young man.

All that aside, he is a Big Break Champion, and no one can take that away from him, so big CONGRATULATIONS to him.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Chryst Legacy


What will be the legacy of Paul Chryst at the University of Pittsburgh?

Some wags have already suggested that his greatest legacy will be the fact that his departure brought about the firing of Steve Pederson, but let's put such cynicism aside for the moment.

When you think of what Chryst came into three years ago following the thief-in-the-night departure of Todd Graham, which was preceded by the Wannstedt firing and the Heywood fiasco, it seemed as though Chryst was put into a hole six feet deep and told to dig his way out.  Given that he stayed in Oakland for three seasons, his tenure seems to have brought some - not a lot, but some - stability to the football program.  It was low bar to clear, and his departure, while not as odious as Graham's, does leave a bad taste in the mouth.

He managed to recruit two bonafide super stars in James Conner and Tyler Boyd.

His teams in his second and third seasons were laden with a lot of freshman and sophomores, which promised hope for the future.

His teams went 19-19 over three seasons.  

He lost games to Youngstown State and Akron.

Under Chryst, Pitt won exactly one game against what I would say was a clearly superior team (Notre Dame in 2013).

And of course, if we wanted to really nitpick, we can all find strategic decisions that may have cost Pitt a win here or there (remember the Duke game this year?), but that isn't really fair, and you can find those kinds of things with ANY coach.

As a fan, I really hoped and wanted Paul Chryst to succeed at Pitt, and perhaps the groundwork for such success had been laid over these last three years, and the Panthers were ready to bust out big time over the next two seasons.  However, Chryst is now gone to America's Dairy land, and will never know what would have happened.  Or, as 19th century poet John Greenlief Whittier, who was an early advocate of the spread offense, would have put it:

"For all sad words of tongue and pen, 
The saddest are these, 'It Might have been.' "

Years from now football historians not yet born will look upon Paul Chryst and the early 21st century Panthers and say, "Well, he was no Jock Sutherland, but he was a hell of a lot better than Dave Hart."



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pitt Merry-Go-Round Continues

Later today it will become official:  Football Coach Paul Chryst is leaving Pitt to become Head Football Coach at the University of Wisconsin, and the all too familiar process, to Pitt fans, of selecting a new football coach  at Pitt will begin, has already begun, in point of fact.

Pitt fans know the sad litany of Harris-Wannstedt-Haywood-Graham-Chryst-and Whoever the Interim Guys were, so let's not rehash that.  So, what are we faced with at this point?

I have read enough and heard enough from people whose opinions I respect to come to the conclusion that AD Steve Pederson should be kept out of the loop in deciding who should be the next football coach at Pitt.  For all the good Pederson has done at Pitt, and he HAS done a lot of good there, as even some of his detractors admit, Pederson's history of hiring football coaches both at Pitt and Nebraska, has been a disaster, and Football, for better or worse, is the engine that drives the athletic train at major universities.  You screw it up with football, and pretty much everything else doesn't matter.

Should new Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher fire Pederson, name a new AD and let the New Guy hire the coach?  A lot of people are clamoring for that, but if Pederson got the boot today, how long would it take to find candidates, screen and interview them, and hire one of them as the new AD?  And how long would it take that guy to find, screen, and hire a new football coach?  A month or so?  You do that, and an entire year's recruiting class would be lost, and the new coach would be starting in hole that would take at least two to three years to dig out from.

Or, you form a Blue Ribbon Committee to hire the new coach, and then fire Pederson, and bring in a new AD.  At that point, the new AD would have a football coach who is not "his guy", Pitt goes 5-7 next year, and this whole cycle begins all over again.

Or, someone other than Pederson hires a coach, Pederson stays, and nobody is happy.

Leaving aside the whole situation with the Athletic Director, my own thought is that Pitt needs to bring in a younger guy, some hot young OC or DC at a power school, as head coach and hope that you get lucky and that he does the job, and turns Pitt into a serious contender for ACC Championships.  Of course, when and if that happens, this guy will walk whenever another school with a higher profile, in a "better" conference, and with more money comes calling.  Look what happened with Christ, and he only went 19-19 during his tenure.  Like it or not, this is what the Pitt job is - a stepping stone.  Lots of Pitt fans don't want to admit that, but that is the way it is, and has been since the early 1980's, and that's over thirty years ago.  Pitt got lucky a long time ago with Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill (both of whom, it should be noted, left Pitt for "better" jobs), and some extraordinary players (Dorsett, Green, Marino, e.g.).  

One can only hope that they can get lucky again with this next hire, and that this new guy will build something that will make Pitt a desired job for those who will follow.  I am not so sure that Chryst and his 19-19 record did that.

We will see.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The First College Football Playoff


There hype and feeding frenzy over which teams would comprise the final four for the first ever College Football Playoff culminated this past Sunday with the announcement that The Committee That Condoleezza Rice Is On had selected, in order, Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, and Florida State.  Left out in then cold were the Big 12 (which has nine teams, btw) powers Texas Christian and Baylor.

You can argue - and many have - that (a) Baylor for screwed, (b) TCU got screwed, (c) the Big 12 got screwed because they don't play a conference championship game, (d) Ohio State doesn't belong because the Big 10 stinks, and (e) the whole thing was orchestrated to include the teams that ESPN wants in the Playoff.  Well, I am not here to argue any of that, and in my opinion, for what that is worth, I think that The Committee got it right with the four teams that they chose.

Be all that as it may, one thing cannot be argued:  The Playoff format and the weekly rankings issued by The Committee was a rousing success for this simple reason - it has gotten the sports world talking and thinking about College Football and then upcoming Playoff to a degree that no one probably envisioned.  The Sugar and Rose Bowls on New Year's Day will become must see television to a degree never seen before.

On Pardon the Interruption yesterday, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon got into a discussion centered around "should the Playoff include eight teams" so as to avoid situations such as Baylor and TCU this year.  Wilbon put forth the interesting premise that it was better to have only four teams so as to have seemingly deserving teams still standing once the music stops.  This way conversation, controversy, and argument can still be ginned up even after the results were in.  With eight teams in the party, there would have been no such conversation as the Baylor/TCU/Ohio State arguments that led up to last weekend.  

I tend to agree with them, but I also face the inevitable conclusion that Mike Wilbon came to:  The Playoff will go to eight teams whenever ESPN decides that it SHOULD be eight teams.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

MadBum, Hodges, and....Peter Pan and Social Media

Selected Short Subjects.....


Sports Illustrated announced yesterday that San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner will be its Sportsman of the Year for 2014.  Regular readers know that I stand in awe of the post-season performance, and in particular, the World Series performance of Bumgarner throughout this past season's MLB Playoffs and World Series.  I made a case that Bumgarner is the greatest World Series pitcher, over the course of a career, in all World Series history, and I got very few arguments when I did so.

This is one year where Sports Illustrated most definitely got it right.







********

The Golden Era Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame made their long awaited announcement yesterday, and the results were somewhat surprising: Nobody was elected by the Committee to the Hall of Fame.  Not Jim Kaat, not Richie Allen, not Minnie Minoso, and not Gil Hodges. Nobody.

Just as I predicted, Facebook erupted with rancorous posts and comments from the legion of Gil Hodges supporters out there.  As for me, I am going to try to follow the advice of friend Joe Risacher and stay out of Hall of Fame debates.  To those in despair over this, I say, as might Aaron Rodgers, Relax.  The sun will come up tomorrow, Obla Di Obla Da Life Goes On, and be very thankful that the biggest problem in your life is whether or not some ball player is or is not in his sports's Hall of Fame.

********

Like many of you, I watched NBC's live telecast of "Peter Pan" last Thursday evening.

It was a pleasant enough experience.  Allison Williams, with whom I was completely unfamiliar, was charming enough in the title role, Christopher Walken was miscast as Captain Hook and seemed to phone it in, and there was the cachet of seeing a live performance on television that made it intriguing to watch.

All in all, as I said, a pleasant viewing experience.  Like so many things on TV these days, NBC promoted different hash tags in the corner of the screen throughout so that viewers could Tweet, Facebook, and use other forms of social media as they watched the show.  Out of curiosity, when the show was over, I went to Twitter and entered some of the hash tags to see what people said, and I was shocked, although perhaps I shouldn't have been, over the viciousness and meanness of the comments made.  I didn't tote them up, but if I had to guess, I would say that barely one in twenty comments had anything good to say about the show, and no one stopped with a simple "I don't like it".  Their comments had to be mean, vicious, and snarky to the nth degree.  I mean, if the show is THAT bad in your eyes, why are you even watching it in the first place?

It made me resolve to be a lot more cognizant of some if the things that I put out there on Twitter, Facebook, and, yes, The Grandstander.

Oh, and one last comment on Allison Williams.  In addition to being attractive and talented, she has to have the most beautiful set of teeth that I have ever seen.  Honest to God, her teeth were absolutely dazzling.  Beautiful choppers!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Murder for Two" at the CLO

We took took a break from the Sunday tradition of Chaining Yourself To The TV Set And Watching The Steelers today.  Instead, we went into downtown Pittsburgh to check out the Christmas Village that has been set up in Market Square, and to have lunch and catch the matinee performance of "Murder for Two" at the CLO Cabaret.


First off, we were surprised at just how many people were in downtown Pittsburgh at Noon on a Sunday afternoon.  It was beautiful day, quite cold, but clear and sunny, but the number of people in Market Square still surprised us.

Secondly, the CLO's Cabaret Theater is a terrific venue.  Comfortable and intimate, and perfect for the types of shows that the CLO stages there.  You can even dine there before the show, which we did today.

Thirdly, "Murder for Two" is quite a fun little show.  Only two performers, one of whom played all ten "suspects" in this musical murder mystery.  Two very talented actors in a rather clever show.  If you are looking for a fun and entertaining night out during the Holiday season, you could do a lot worse than taking in this show.

A(nother) Gripe About ESPN

Last Wednesday night, I tuned into ESPN to catch a few minutes of the North Carolina - Iowa basketball game, and just as I did, announcers John Saunders and Dick Vitale launched into a commentary into the academic scandal that has recently come to light at UNC.

(I know that it has become a stale cliche to rip on Dicky V, so bear with me.  Thank you.)

Both Saunders and Vitale said how awful it is that such a great University as North Carolina should have something like the happen to them, and what a terrible shame it is.  They, and especially Vitale, went on to stress that  (a) athletes weren't the only students to go through these phantom classes, and (b) none of the coaches, and certainly not Roy Williams or Dean Smith, would have had ANY IDEA that any of their athletes would have benefited from such fraud.  Vitale went on to say that coaches don't and can't concern themselves with the academic progress or status of any of the athletes in their charge.  Really?  Man, have I been deluded over the years if that's the case.  Or perhaps just hopelessly naive.

They also went on to say that past UNC football coaches Mack Brown and Butch Davis, who were at Chapel Hill when these events were occurring, also had NO IDEA that such things were taking place. 

It should be noted that both Brown and Davis are currently employed as talking heads at ESPN, and as for Vitale, well, the day when he will ever say anything even remotely critical of any college basketball coach will indeed be the day that the earth will stand still.

I should also say that I hate to see something like this happen at the University of North Carolina.  I have always liked the school, have usually rooted for it's basketball teams, and have a family member for whom I have nothing but the highest regard who is a UNC graduate.  I am guessing that she and her husband, also a UNC grad, are probably as appalled as anyone over this whole situation.

Steelers 42 - Bengals 21, and Other Football Thoughts

There are very few absolutes in life - the sun will rise in the east, the Pope will always pray for peace, the Yankees will always spend vast amounts of money.  That's about it, but there is another one that you can take to the bank with as close to absolute certainty as there is in professional sports, and that is this: with rare, very rare, exceptions, the Cincinnati Bengals will almost always revert to being, well, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Facing the a home game against the Steelers wherein a victory would just about put a death knell on the Steelers playoff aspirations, and increase their own playoff possibilities, the Bengals took a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter and proceeded to allow the Steelers to score 25 straight points in the space of about nine minutes.  That ain't easy, but if any team has shown a historical propensity for such happenings, it is the Bengals.  I don't want to sell the Steelers short here.  They thoroughly earned this victory in what, for three quarters anyway, was a close, hard fought, and pretty good football game.

The Steelers are a flawed team, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  They give up too many long plays, often for scores  - it happened twice today - but the offensive unit sure seems to be peaking at the right time of the season.  Ben Roethlisberger continues having one of his best seasons ever (despite some inexplicably bad games this season), Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are having Pro Bowl seasons, and the offensive line appears to be among the best in the league.  Can they make a deep run in the NFL Playoffs?  Given the weaknesses of the defense, probably not, but the trick is to get into the Playoffs.  To do that they will need to win at least two of their remaining three games, with one of those wins coming in the season finale against the Bengals.  Once you get into the Playoffs, anything can happen, as the KayCee Royals can tell you.  I know, I know, different sport, but still a good analogy.

********

Because Marilyn and I went to a play this afternoon, I only watched the Steelers game via my DVR recording, beginning at around 4:45.  Did you realize that you can watch an entire NFL game in about ninety minutes or so this way?  Terrific.

Anyway, this circumstance meant that we listened to the radio broadcast of the game for the twenty or so real time minutes of the fourth quarter that transpired during our drive home.  It would take a writer much, much, MUCH better than I to describe just how incredibly bad the radio team of Bill Hillgrove, Tunch Ilkin, and, yes, Craig Wolfley is.   On the long incompletion  that Andy Dalton threw to A.J. Green with Cincy down 28-21, Hilgrove described it as, and I may not have it exactly here, but the gist is correct: "A guy came and knocked the ball away, pushed Green out of bounds and another guy almost intercepted the ball."  The two "guys" in question were, I might add, Steelers with whom, presumably, Hillgrove is familiar and should be able to identify by name.  I might also add that Tunch made no effort to step in a identify who those two Steelers defenders were.

Awful, and the Steelers and their broadcast partners should really move onto some fresh blood next season.  The glory days of "turn down the TV sound and listen to Fleming and Cope on the radio" are long gone.

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I see that the college football playoff committee has settled on Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State as the first ever college football final four.  I think it's a just line-up.  All the pre-weekend hype centered on whether or not TCU should be ranked ahead of Baylor if all teams held serve over the weekend.  All teams did hold serve, and all but still undefeated FSU won in blowouts, including fifth ranked Ohio State.  It seems to me, and to some knowledgeable football people out there, that as the season progressed, it became apparent that Ohio State, despite playing in a weak Big Ten, was certainly among the four best teams in the country, and maybe even the best team.  The advanced metrics crowd will surely argue that this is not the case, but they passed the "eye test" to me, and, apparently, the twelve person committee, so I like the line-up.

I also like that Alabama and Ohio State will be matched up in one of the semi-final games.  With two such cheerful, outgoing, and likable coaches like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer going head to head, gosh it's going to be tough to decide which guy you would like to win more.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: "The Hidden White House"


A few weeks ago, I wrote about a book in this space called "FDR's Funeral Train" by Robert Klara.  Shortly after I finished reading that book, the good folks at Amazon recommended another book by Mr. Klara, "The Hidden White House", which I purchased and immediately read.

This one, as you can see from the subtitle above, is about the reconstruction of the White House that took place during the Administration of President Harry Truman.  "Reconstruction" is putting it mildly, because, essentially, the White House was pretty much torn down and totally rebuilt.  Only the outer walls and the roof were left standing as the iconic building was totally disassembled, gutted, and rebuilt.  I was aware that such a "remodeling" job took place back in Truman's days, but was unaware of the enormity and the scope of the job that was done.

The White House was built in the 1790's, was rebuilt following the burning of the building by the British Army in the War of 1812, was remodeled yet again in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and yet again in during the Coolidge Administration.  During WW II, it fell into a state of disrepair to the point that, by the time the Trumans moved in, the place was, quite literally, falling down upon the staff and residents.  The only way to save it, was to complete gut the place and rebuild, and there were some folks who felt that one alternative at the time was to completely level the place, outer walls and all.

Like most things involving the government, there was political bickering, cost overruns, and delays.  A job that was to be completed in 660 days, or slightly less than two years, took three years and three months to complete. Part if the reason was the politics of the time - the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the President's plummeting approval ratings - and part of it was just a good old-fashioned government boondoggle. Author Klara has done an unbelievable amount of research into every thing that went into the entire project, some of it is mind-numbing (right down to how many cubic yards of concrete were poured during the reconstruction), but it really is a fascinating story.  

Here's my favorite part of the tale. The project was dragging on so long, that it began to look like the Trumans were never gong to get back into the White House.  The President had decided that he was not going to seek reelection in 1952, and, by God, he wanted to spend his last year in office living in the White House.  So, in January of 1952, Harry called all parties involved in the project into his office and "gave 'em hell".  He was tired of deadlines not being met, so he, the President of the United States, was now going to set one.  The Queen of the Netherlands was going to make a state visit to the USA on April 2, Truman had invited the Royal Family to stay in the White House, so the project had to be done by then.  No ifs ands, or buts.  It was impossible, everyone involved said, but guess what?  The Trumans were back in the White House by the last week of March.

The lesson is that when someone in authority wants something to happen, really WANTS it, it can and does get done.

So, Robert Klara is now two-for-two in writing interesting books about Presidential history.  I can't wait to see what he's going to write about next.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Saints 35 - Steelers 32...Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on yet another Steelers loss to a team with a losing record....

  • If you watched the game, you know how misleading that three point deficit in the final score really is.
  • I was sure glad to see Ike Taylor return to the line-up.  Made you realize how little you missed him in his absence.
  • Yep, the QB had a bad game yesterday.  When that happens, others, particularly your defense, should step up to compensate. They didn't.
  • There sure is a huge drop off at the WR position after Antonio Brown.  Martavis Bryant has shown flashes that he can become an elite receiver, but yesterday showed that he ain't there yet.
  • This season is going to come to a close and the Steelers are going to find themselves STILL in the position of having to replace veterans Keisel, Polamalu, Harrison, and Taylor.  This will be at least the third season in a row that those needs have to be addressed.  Will it finally happen?
  • The best thing the Steelers have going for them is the fact that they play the division leading Bengals twice.  Simply put, they HAVE to win both those games.  If they don't, it probably won't matter what they do in the games against the Falcons and Chiefs.

This season the Steelers are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of their first Super Bowl Championship team, and good for them.  Yesterday, they had a reunion of surviving members of that team. There were two notable absences, QB Terry Bradshaw and LB Jack Lambert, both Hall of Famers.  Despite the fact that he has a job with Fox Sports that requires him to work on Sundays, Bradshaw will no doubt be criticized severely by Steelers faithful for not being there.  Lambert will get a compete and total pass from those same people.

Make of that what you will.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pitt 35 - Miami 23....What Lies Beyond?

A few weeks ago, after watching Pitt get outscored by North Carolina, and watching Miami come this close  to beating Florida State, I would not have given Pitt a chance in Hell of defeating Miami, but - drum roll, please - THAT'S WHY YOU PLAY THE GAMES!!!!  Getting in the car after the James Taylor concert last night, I was, well, not exactly stunned, but pleasantly surprised to hear of Pitt's defeat of the 'Canes down there in Coral Gables.  I had the foresight to record the game and have already watched the first half.  

All in all, a great end to what in all honesty has been a disappointing regular season, but the possibility of what could happen in the over-abundant Bowl Season has a lot of people in this corner of the college football world frothing at the mouth in excited anticipation.


The Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium scheduled for December 27 has ties to down the track finishers in both the ACC and the Big Ten.  Both Pitt and Penn State finished their seasons with 6-6 records, the very definition of "down the track", so what could be more natural than matching up these long time traditional rivals in the fabled Pinstripe Bowl?  I know for certain that Pitt fans would love to see this, and I can reasonably assume that Penn State loyalists will want to see it played as well.

Two long time eastern rivals, playing in New York City after Christmas.  You'd have to believe that alumni of both schools would travel to NYC to attend. The TV ratings would probably be pretty good, too. It would add some real meaning to what would be yet another meaningless bowl game amongst the glut of meaningless bowl games.

In fact, it makes SO much sense to pair these two teams together that I have full confidence that the Bowl officials, the ACC, the Big Ten, and ESPN will somehow manage to screw things up and NOT arrange for this match-up.  The wild card here is the fact that the Pinstripe Bowl, like so many others, also has a tie-in to Notre Dame.  What are the odds that some suit at ESPN or the NYC based Pinstripe Bowl will jump at the chance to take a 7-5 Notre Dame team over Pitt and thus prevent what would be a dream game for the fans of Pitt and Penn State?  Let's face it, ND moves the needle in a way that Pitt and a post-Paterno PSU does not.

We'll see how this played out.


James Taylor Still Sweet

My memory can sometimes be a failing thing, so last night was either the fourth or the fifth time that Marilyn and I saw the great James Taylor in concert.  


The venue last night was the Consol Energy Center, and what can you say?  Taylor and his terrific All-Star Band delivered everything that a fan would want and could possibly expect.  "Fire and Rain", "Up on the Roof", "You've Got a Friend" as well as over a dozen other Taylor standards?  Yep, they were all in there, along with a couple of new songs (a great country blues love song called "Today, Today, Today", for example), some lesser known tracks from old albums, and an old (hundreds of years old, according to JT) Scottish ballad called "Wild Mountain Thyme" to close the night two hours and forty minutes after it began.

We loved the way Taylor talked to the audience throughout the show.  Self-deprecating and humorous, these riffs made the Consol seem like an intimate place.  He told a great story about how back in 1968 he auditioned for some executives for a new record company in London.  The record company was Apple, and the "executives" were Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who immediately signed the twenty year old Taylor to their new label.  He told about how he hung around the Abbey Road Studios that summer recording, while "the lads" were recording what came to be know as the White Album.  "I wish I could remember everything that happened, but I'm sure we all had a great time", he said.

Taylor is now 66 year old.  He has aged very well, and his voice sounds exactly the way it did when you first heard it back in your college days - or my college days, anyway - in the early Seventies.  And what a professional.  How many times do you suppose James Taylor has sung "Fire and Rain" or "You've Got a Friend"?  Thousands? Tens of thousands?  Do you suppose that there might ever be an occasion when he might just go through the motions on stage and phone it in sometime?  Well, he sure didn't last night.

We first saw James Taylor live at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio back in 1976 or -77 when we were living in Cleveland.  I know that we also saw him at Star Lake Amphitheater back in the early '00's, and sometime I believe a performance at Heinz Hall or the Benedum was sandwiched in there, so as I said, last night was either the fourth or fifth time we've seen him, and I can pretty much guarantee that we will see him again whenever the "Country Road" leads him back the Western Pennsylvania again.

A word on the Consol Energy Center.


This was only my second visit to this "new" arena, and it was Marilyn's first.  It really is a nice place.  It was the first time we saw a concert there and the sound, the acoustics, and the sight lines were wonderful.  The blackout curtains were drawn over the upper bowl of the Arena, so the place seemed quite intimate for a huge sports arena.  Very impressive as a concert venue.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

The Grandstander is thankful for, among many other things, all those Loyal Readers out there.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday, one and all!


Sunday, November 23, 2014

"The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh"

I had mentioned earlier today that Marilyn and I were headed down to the William Penn Hotel for Sunday Brunch and to be  apart of the studio audience for the performance of a radio play of Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man".

It was fun experience.

Right off the bat, I have to tell you that attending an event at the William Penn Hotel is really a cool experience.  For those readers outside of Pittsburgh, the William Penn Hotel was built in 1915, and it really epitomizes old style class and luxury in a way that just isn't done any more.

For example, do they build hotel lobbies like this these days?



I don't think so.

Sunday brunch in the hotel's Terrace Room - very nice.  By the way, I am convinced that opulent brunch buffets in fancy hotels is one of the reasons why the rest of the world hates America, but I digress.






We had some time to kill after brunch, so we enjoyed the stylings of a piano player in the lobby while we sat there and enjoyed the atmosphere.


We then proceeded to the Three Rivers Room where the radio "studio" was set for the performance.


Pre-show entertainment was provided.


And then the radio play version of "The Thin Man" was presented.  



The script for this play was adapted from the Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich screenplay for the 1934 film version of "The Thin Man".  The trick here was that this radio script was adapted for a Pittsburgh setting.  For example, Nick and Nora were in Pittsburgh in 1934, not New York, and were staying at the William Penn Hotel.  Professor Wynant did his scientific research for the Mellon Institute. Gilbert Wynant was a student at Duquesne University. The story was interrupted a few times for "commercials" featuring products that played upon Pittsburgh stereotypes (Yinzer Beer, for example).  You get the idea.  The actors played multiple parts, and changed or added small articles of clothing - a scarf or a hat - when they changed characters.  One of the actresses even played Asta!  However, unlike the true old time radio days, all sound effects (ringing phones, doors slamming etc) were provided by the stage announcers lap top!

If you're familiar with the William Powell-Myrna Loy movie version, then you could follow the story.  Like the movie, it was not as gritty as Hammett's original novel, but it was a fun,  breezy, and entertaining show.  A new and different experience for us.

I was able to get this picture of Nick and Nora, as played by husband and wife Chuck and Jeannine Lanigan.


Special kudos go out to Chuck Lanigan as well as he both wrote and directed this play for live radio.

A great start to the Holiday Season!!!


Sunday Plans

Marilyn and I officially kick off our Holiday Season today when we head on down to Pittsburgh's tres chic William Penn Hotel 



for Sunday Brunch,  which will then be followed by being in the audience a performance of a radio play version of Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man".  


The "performance" of the radio play will also take place at the William Penn.

I am thinking that this experience will be kind of like stepping back in time to "cafe society" days when Radio was King.

Should be a fun experience.

A Follow Up on Mike Nichols

I just want to make an addendum to my "Absent Friends" post of three days ago about the death of Mike Nichols.



First, a correction.  Nichols won nine Tony Awards, not six. Wow.

As for the addendum, four of those Tony Awards were for directing the following plays:

  • Barefoot in the Park
  • The Odd Couple
  • Plaza Suite
  • Prisoner of Second Avenue
What do those played have in common? They were all write by the incomparable Neil Simon.


This raises the question: Could  there ever have been greater convergence of talent in the American theater than the collaborations of Neil Simon and Mike Nichols?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Absent Friends - Mike Nichols

 Mike Nichols
1931-2014

One of the great show biz talents of the last fifty or so years left us yesterday with the passing of Mike Nichols.

His greatest legacy will be that of the twenty-two movies that he directed, some of them truly landmark films such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "Catch-22", and, of course, his Oscar winning "The Graduate" (one of my own all-time personal favorites).  The last movie he directed was the very fine 2007 "Charlie Wilson's War" with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Nichols was much more than that, of course.  He is one of a very select few who have won an Emmy, Tony, Oscar, and Grammy Award.  He was the founder of the legendary Second City Comedy Troop of Chicago.  He has won six Tony Awards, five of them for Directing.  He began as a comedian, and his teaming with Elaine May produced one of the great comedy teams of all time.  Many people have posted YouTube clips on Facebook today of some classic Nichols and May comedy routines.  You could do worse things with your time today than searching some of those out for yourself today.

RIP Mike Nichols.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Steelers 27 - Titans 24


Lesson learned from last night's Steelers game:

Football games are sixty minutes long.

Yeah, it was not a great performance, and yeah, they came very close to losing to another NFL bottom feeder, but, in fact, they WON THE GAME.

Another lesson learned: 

Don't make withering posts on Facebook about the performance of any given team until the given game is over.

And three cheers and a Game Ball for this guy:


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Selected Sports Subjects

A Whirl Around the Wide, Wide World of Sports on a Sunday Morning.....

The Pirates were much in the news this week with the trade with the Yankees that brought Francisco Cervelli  

to the Bucs, and which I commented upon earlier in the week.  Somewhat more surprising, was the signing, or should I say re-signing, of free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett.  



It is surprising that Burnett, who spoke so longingly of retirement two years ago, would forgo a Player's Option with the Phillies that would pay him $12 million and re-sign with the Pirates for "only" $8.5 million.  Maybe he is the rare athlete who means it when he says, "it's not about the money".

The real question is, can he help the Pirates in 2015?  No question of the value that Burnett brought to the Pirates in his two year stint here in 2012-13, but he is now 38 years old and coming off a year in which he lost 18 games, albeit with a lousy team, and posted am ERA in excess of 4.50.  I suppose that there is no great risk in signing him, especially if you feel that Francisco and Liriano and Edinson Volquez will not be back with the team.

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I heard Neal Huntington in a radio interview earlier in the week, and found him to be quite forthright and not spilling the usual line of obfuscating b.s. that is his wont.  Most interesting thing I heard was his flat out statement that among three first baseman, Pedro Alvarez, Ike Davis, and Gaby Sanchez (yes, he included Alvarez as a first baseman), only two would be with the team next year.  

Been nice known' you, Ike.

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So what else is knew?  Pitt scores a ton of points against North Carolina yesterday, and loses.  Pitt has now scored 111 points in their last three games, and have lost all three of them.  

We keep hearing how Pitt is a young team, that they start lots and lots of freshman and sophomores.  Okay, I'll give you that Paul Chryst had an uphill battle when he arrived here three years ago, and that he has to get the building blocks in place, but this is Year Three, and that line of reasoning (or is it excuse making?) is wearing thin, and it will not be the least bit tolerable in 2015.

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As hard as it can sometimes be watching the Panthers play football, the play of James Conner


and Tyler Boyd



make it worth your while to tune in.

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I watched the entire Florida State-Miami game last night.  The inevitability of an FSU victory became apparent when Miami began the second half playing to protect their lead rather than trying to build it further.  They completely stopped playing in the manner that gave them that big lead in the first place.  Why do coaches do that?

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Best line on Facebook yesterday came courtesy of friend Fred Egler.  In commenting upon Wisconsin laying a 35 point beatdown on Nebraska in snowy Madison, WI yesterday, Fred said that "Bo Pellini looked like a German general at the Battle of Stalingrad."

Classic.

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Speaking of unwatchable performances, I went to the Sewall Center on Friday night to see Robert Morris tip off their Hoops Season, and suffer an 77-50 thrashing at the hands of Lafayette University, and trust me, the game was nowhere near as close as that 27 point spread indicates.  Be that as it may, I trust that Andy Toole will work with his team and coach 'em up to the point where they will be a contender for the Northeast Conference title once again.

What I did find interesting at the game was that fact that a video board has been installed in front of the Media Table that sits court side at the Sewall Center, and that RMU has been able to sell advertising on said board that scrolls throughout the game.  Sponsors ranging from a Moon Township ice cream parlor to PNC Bank to the Allegheny Heath Network are now are getting their messages across to patrons attending the basketball games.  

RMU has indeed entered the Big Time!

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The Steelers take on the awful 2-6 Tennessee Titans tomorrow night.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.