FROM THE JERRY SULLIVAN SHOW, BY JERRY SULLIVAN:
Expectations are rising for the Buffalo Bills. They’re generally expected to contend for the playoffs next season and have a winning record. Everyone in the media who comes on this show agreed the standard should be nine or 10 wins.
Yes, the Bills are becoming relevant again, with competent leadership, a strong defense and an exciting, athletic young franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.
But do you know who doesn’t think the Bills are relevant? The NFL. The football-football-watching public. The people who decide the marquee matchups on prime-time TV. NBC.
The NFL schedule came out Wednesday night, and once again, the Bills were not considered worthy of an appearance on the league’s elite prime-time slot — Sunday nights on NBC. That’s destination entertainment in this country, the game that caps off the big football Sunday in America.
In fact, the Bills were the only team in the league not given a prime-time night game — on Sunday, Monday or Thursday. They did get a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas.
I can’t say it’s a surprise. The Bills haven’t been on Sunday Night Football since 2007. They haven’t won on Sunday since 2000 — the first year of the drought. They haven’t won on Monday night since 1999. They’ve lost their last 11 games on Sunday night.
Look, people like big names and offense. The Bills still have a long way to go in that regard. Their passing game is consistently among the worst in the league. Over the last 15 years, they’re last in the NFL in passing yards. They were 31st in passing last year, 31st the year before that, 30th in 2016. You get the picture.
Josh Allen could become a star, a true franchise guy. He’s a dynamic runner, but he was 33rd in completion percentage a year ago. He didn’t pass for 250 yards in any game as a rookie. He didn’t complete more than 20 passes in any game.
The people who invest big money in TV games need more evidence than that. They need star power. Elite receivers certainly help. Do you think the average football fan in this country could name on Bills receiver? They certainly know who’s going to be catching passes from Baker Mayfield in Cleveland this season.
Still, it comes back to the quarterback. We know that. The last time the Bills were destination TV in prime time, Jim Kelly was the quarterback. They won 10 games on Sunday and Monday nights between 1990-1993, the four-year Super Bowl run.
Primetime loves big-name quarterbacks and marquee franchises. The big Thursday night opener on NBC? Aaron Rodgers at Soldier Field against the Bears and Khalil Mack. The Sunday night opener? Pats-Steelers. Brady vs. Big Ben. Week 2 on Sunday night? Carson Wentz and the Eagles at Matty Ryan.
Did I mention Baker Mayfield? He set a record for passing TDs by a rookie last season. He’ll be throwing to Odell Beckham Jr. this season. America wants to see more. In week 3, Cleveland gets its first Sunday night date in more than a decade. The Browns have FOUR prime-time night games. They also have increased pressure.
The Saints and Drew Brees vs. the Cowboys in Week 4 (the Cowboys matter no matter who’s the quarterback, America’s team). In Week 5, Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes go at it. Then it’s Big Ben and Philip Rivers. Rodgers and Mahomes hook up two weeks later. Brady and the Pats go to Baltimore to play Lamar Jackson in Week 9. Yeah, America is more interested in Jackson and the Ravens than Allen and the Bills.
Russell Wilson against Wentz, Brees vs. Ryan, Brady and Deshaun Watson, Wilson vs. Goff and the Rams, Mahomes at the Bears on the final Sunday night to cap it all off.
Can you blame the league for not wanting the Bills in prime TV position? Yes, Allen has great possibilities, and one day the Bills might again be a sexy option for the big national games. But they’re 2-19 in their last 21 big national appearances.
That includes scoring 3 points two Januarys ago in their only playoff game in 19 years, in what might have been the worst offensive show in modern NFL playoff history (Blake Bortles was the quarterback for the other team, remember).
They got a Monday night game at New Era last season against the Patriots, their first home game on Sunday or Monday night in 10 years. They lost 25-6 and didn’t score a touchdown. That makes two straight prime games where they didn’t score a TD.
Here’s what the Bills have scored in their last five appearances on Sunday nights: 0, 7, 5, 6 and 10 points. The last was here in 2007 against the Patriots. They lost 56-10. They haven’t been invited back. Again, can you blame the league for not taking a chance on a team that struggles to score 10 in an increasingly offensive game? They scored in single digits in five losses last year and lost by 19 or more points in all of them.
Buffalo fans are accustomed to seeing their team dismissed and disrespected. It makes the Buffalo Mafia even more resolute and committed, eager for that time when the Bills rise again and show the world what they’re missing, when the nation is clamoring to see the offensive stars on this resurgent football powerhouse.
America remains skeptical. Well, the Bills did get a game on Thanksgiving — for the first time since 1994. They’ll provide fodder for the Cowboys in their annual Turkey Day show. Maybe the league is trying to remind the Pegulas that they’re supposed to build a football palace like the one Jerry Jones has in Big D.
By then, maybe the Bills will be pushing for a playoff spot and be the talk of the NFL. But let’s be honest, it’s not Sunday night. Thanksgiving isn’t what it used to be. Otherwise, why would the Lions be on every year?
Well, as of tomorrow we’ll be one week away from the NFL draft, or the “annual selection meeting” as they like to call it.
I have to say, I can’t wait for it to be over. For me, it’s like waiting for the tax season to be over. I see it as a necessary annoyance. I love the draft so much I’m leaving the country this weekend. .
Brandon Beane had the Bills’ draft luncheon early this week, that annual exercise where the general manager fields questions from the media while not trying to lie even more blatantly than the President.
Beane acknowledged that predicting the draft, in which many experts pretend to have a strong opinion on guys they’ve never seen play, has become something of an obsession among fans and media.
“I know there is a lot of stuff out there. Everybody has a mock so you don’t know what people are making up and what their intel is,” Beane said.
Everybody doesn’t have a mock draft. I don’t do them. I leave that up to the “experts”. No one knows what the Bills are going to do, though sometimes it’s fairly obvious — like the fact that they had to get a franchise quarterback last year after deciding not to take a shot at Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson the year before.
At times, it seems like the flavor of the week with the Bills’ top pick. For awhile, it was a wide receiver. Then there was a run on mocks that liked them taking an offensive tackle, or a defensive lineman or edge rusher. Lately, there’s been a trend toward taking a tight end with the ninth overall pick next Thursday.
That about covers it. My educated guess? They’ll go for a defensive lineman — a 3 technique defensive tackle or a rush end. Beane said he’ll take the “best player,” which is generally the case. I don’t recall any GM ever drafting someone in the first round and saying, “We took this guy, but he’s not the best player.”
I could be wrong. If my predictions weren’t wrong close to half the time, I’d be gambling in Vegas for a living. But logic and observation leads me to conclude that the most likely pick for this franchise at this time is a young stud to fortify the defensive front.
More specifically, it’s the the right pick for this head coach. Let’s not forget, Sean McDermott was given the most power of any head coach in Bills’ history when the Pegulas hired him early in 2017, and it’s his football vision that drives this operation.
Remember, it was McDermott who ran the draft in 2017, when he was hired before a real general manager. It was McDermott who traded back to get extra picks and delay the quarterback decision for a year, and who took a young cornerback, Tre’Davious White, with the first pick. Every new head coach since Marv Levy has gone defense with the first pick of his first draft.
Last year, after grabbing Josh Allen, they moved up to get Tremaine Edmonds, a young and dynamic inside linebacker who could anchor the middle of the defense for a decade or more.
So McDermott, an old school coach who believes you can win with defense, has added a young stud to the back and middle levels of his defense. That leaves the front, specifically a tackle or end who can rush the passer. They haven’t taken a pass rushing three-technique tackle or defensive end in the draft since McDermott arrived. Not a first-rounder, but any pick at all.
This draft is loaded with those kind of players. It’s been called “off the charts great” by some experts, with the likes of Bama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Nick Bosa of Ohio State, Josh Allen of Kentucky, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat and Rashan Gary of Michigan all potential top 10 choices.
Beane wouldn’t concede the off-the-charts characterization. “I’d have to really go back and look,” he said. He admitted the defensive line group was “solid.”
The need isn’t urgent for the Bills. Beane said he has no “glaring holes” on his roster after spending the last couple of months filling them in free agency. The overwhelming majority of those acquisitions were to help the offense: The top nine in total salaries were on offense — three wide receivers, five offensive linemen and a tight end.
Come on, Brandon. It’s pretty clear what the plan is here. You spent almost all your resources in free agency on the offense. Now McDermott, whose vision of defense rules, gets to add another young jewel to his defense — this time, at the level which hasn’t yet been addressed since the “Process” got under way.
Kyle Williams, one of the best penetrating D tackles of his era, has retired. Jerry Hughes has been inconsistent in recent years; he’s 31 and in the final year of his contract at a cap hit of $10.4 million. Shaq Lawson is also in the last year of his deal and the Bills might not decide he’s worth an extension.
Keep in mind, Hughes and Lawson are two of the few remaining players from the Rex Ryan regime. McDermott and Beane have been methodically weeding those players out and constructing a roster of their own making, with defensive players chosen by the head coach.
It’s not glaring, but the one position yet to be addressed is a defensive lineman who can get after the passer, a high draft pick for the first level to go along with White and Edmonds.
McDermott will get his man. I have to think they have one or two players in this draft identified as franchise-changers for the D line. It wouldn’t shock me if they even traded up to get him.
As a transcendent sports story, it’s not quite Tiger Woods winning the Masters. But one day after the most amazing comeback in golf history, I watched the greatest one-game playoff comeback in the history of the NBA.
How great are sports right now? One of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, Tampa Bay, is on the verge of getting swept tonight in Columbus. Five teams that haven’t won a playoff series in years are leading their divisions in baseball. Both seventh seeds won openers in the NBA playoffs for the first time ever.
But what happened last night in Oakland was truly stunning. The mighty Warriors, two-time defending champions, had a 31-point lead midway through the third period and lost to the eighth-seeded Clippers, 135-131.
Basketball fans have come to see the Warriors as unbeatable, as a team that should cruise to a third straight NBA title — and fourth in five years — before sending Kevin Durant on to greater challenges as a free agent after the inevitable title.
It doesn’t seem so inevitable now. The Warriors are more vulnerable than in the past. They’re older, weaker on the bench. The rest of the West has gotten better. There’s a creeping sense of unease about the team. In a group interview Sunday as part of a 60 Minutes piece, they seemed sullen and disconnected.
They seemed that way on the court Monday night. “We stopped playing,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “We kind of disconnected (there’s that word again) kind of mid-third quarter, lost our defensive edge. They scored 85 points in the second half.”
Golden State led 73-50 at halftime. Early in the third, Draymond Green hit a 3-pointer to make it 86-58. The Oracle crowd went wild. Green, in typically self-aggrandizing fashion, gestured to the fans, waving his arms.
It looked like it was going to be easy, like so many games in recent years for the Warriors. They’re 16-2 in first-round games the last four years. It’s been one long shootaround. They played like a team that’s used to it being easy, that wants things to be easy. That’s the problem.
Doc Rivers’ Clippers weren’t going away. Rivers calls this team the most resilient he’s ever coached, and it showed Monday night. You could sense it, even when they fell behind by 31 points, 94-63 They were battling, playing defense, making things difficult for Golden State, which played along by making sloppy plays with the lead.
Rivers never got enough credit for winning in Boston. He’s a very good coach. This was his 163rd playoff game as a coach. If you don’t think he can coach, watch film of the Clippers playing defense. Watch Patrick Beverly jumping onto Kevin Durant and making his life miserable.
The Clippers are a tough, relentless team. They were tougher than the Warriors. They beat them on the boards and got 36 points from Lou Williams, one of the best pure scorers and sixth men the game has seen.
Lazy turnovers, indifferent post defense. The Clippers kept coming. Yes, the Warriors lost DeMarcus Cousins with a quad injury that could be serious, but he’s never been mistaken for a great post defender. You can attack Golden State inside and have your way.
Power forward Montrezl Harrell, one of the most underrated players in the league, dominated inside in the second half. He shot 9 for 9 on the night, scored 25 points and had 10 boards. He’s shooting 87 percent and averaging 25.5 points in series.
Williams made 7 shots in a row. The lead was cut to 23, to 19, to 16 on an amazing hanging three point play by Williams. The Clippers outscored the Warriors 31-14 in the last eight minutes of the third. The Warriors were getting tight, turning the ball over, forcing shots.
The Warriors went up 16. Rivers called time with nine minutes left. Harrell got an easy dunk out of the timeout. Coaching. Danilo Gallinari, the Italian sharpshooter who’s a force when he’s healthy, hit a 3 to cut it to eight. Steve Kerr looked stricken on the bench, like Francesco Molinari after hitting it in the water.
Harrrell scores again at the rim. Down to six. Steph Curry missed badly. Williams drove for a 3 point play. Three. It almost seemed a matter of time. Golden State tried to hold on, but was struggling to get shots in the half court. Durant’s 3 point play made it 128-123. But Williams wouldn’t be denied. He hit a ridiculous fallaway to tie it at 128. Curry buried a 3, his first basket in awhile. Then Williams scored again and it was 131-130, Warriors.
The Clippers got the ball back after a Klay Thompson miss. Rookie Shea Gilgeous-Alexander got the ball on top and found another rookie, Landry Shamet, who drilled a three-pointer to give the Clippers the lead, 133-131. Curry missed a 3, Harrell hit two free throws and it was over. Stunning.
Yeah, you wouldn’t have known it this season, with all the attention paid to the other team in the town, to LeBron James and the imploding Lakers. But that other LA team is pretty good, too. I don’t know if they’re capable of upsetting the Warriors. But one thing is for sure, they’re not going away.
Either way, the NBA playoffs got a lot more interesting. If the last few days are any indication, we’re in for a remarkable spring in the sports world.
I’ll admit, I didn’t think this was possible. Tiger Woods suffered through a decade of physical pain and personal embarrassment. Two years ago, after undergoing back fusion surgery, his fourth in four years, even he wondered if he would ever play competitively again. He could barely walk, sleep, or sit down.
Eleven years ago, I was at Torrey Pines when Tiger won his 14th major, on a bad knee in an epic playoff over Rocco Mediate in the U.S. Open. Passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors seemed like a formality at the time. Ten years later, it seemed unlikely he would contend in any tournament, never mind win a major.
But after what took place on Sunday in Augusta, who can doubt him now? Woods turned back the clock, winning a fifth green jacket and a 15th major title with a 13-under performance at the Masters. At 43, he again makes the extraordinary seem possible.
Hey, he’s the early betting favorite in the U.S. Open — the only man alive for a Grand Slam! And we can again contemplate whether Woods can catch Nicklaus in majors — if his back holds . I used to believe he would be the first to do it at 50 years old.
Woods’s victory was every bit as dramatic as Nicklaus’ win in 1986, when he won his final major and sixth Masters at 46.
I envisioned a memorable Masters on Thursday, when so many players in a packed field finished under-par. After Saturday, a record day for low scores, we were set up for a day of exceeding high drama — and the players didn’t let us down.
Even if Woods hadn’t won, it would have been a great Masters. They say the tournament doesn’t truly begin until the final nine on Sunday. During that final nine, many of the biggest names in golf were shuffling in and out of the leader board.
At one point, there was a five-way tie for the lead at 12-under par: Woods, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Xander Schauffele. Patrick Cantlay briefly took the lead with an eagle. Rickie Fowler made a birdie run to minus-11. Former champ Bubba Watson made a stirring late run.
Pro golf has continued to thrive without Woods, who inspired a lot of the young players who dominate the sport today. But it’s always more compelling when he contends. In the end, against a formidable field, he grabbed a major by the throat while the rest of the players fell away, like a bunch of impostors.
It was like watching a young Tiger again. This was the fifth time in 22 Masters that Woods entered the final round at 11-under or better. Every time, he won. As in past majors, he didn’t need to be great on Sunday because no one made a serious run at him.
All Woods needed to do was shoot 70 to win by a shot. None of his closest competitors could do better than a 68. Molinari, who had the lead after 54 holes, faltered to a 74. Tony Finau, the third man in the final group, could manage only a 72.
You could feel the Tiger mystique at work. He was his old steely resolute self on the course, never smiling or betraying his feelings until he tapped in the final putt on 18 and the pent-up emotion came pouring out of him. He kept grinding, and the guys in his group eventually cracked, just like the old days.
Molinari played 50 straight holes without a bogey at one stretch, but he was scrambling to save pars and never put together any kind of run. His undoing came at the par-3 12th — yes, the same hole where Jordan Spieth came unglued in 2016.
Molinari left his drive short in the water. He had this stricken expression, staring at his yardage book in disbelief. Then Finau hit his tee shot in the water, too. They never recovered. You could see Woods walking up the fair on 12 and spinning his club in his left hand, clearly relishing the shift in his rivals’ fortunes.
Players rarely were able to stare down Woods in a major when he was in his prime. In the decisive moments, it seemed that the Tiger aura was back, overwhelming some of the best golfers on the planet.
Woods was energized by seeing the other guys go in the water. He birdied 13, 15 and 16. On 15, he hit a laser from 227 yards to the middle of the green and two-putted for the outright lead. On the par-3 16th, he hit an 8-iron that nearly rolled in for a hole-in-one. He stood there and didn’t crack a smile, still locked in.
He was two shots up, and it was now a mere formality. There were no more heroics from the rest of the field. It felt like a submission, like the rest of the players were bowing to Tiger’s renewed legacy.
The fans loved it, too. All over America, people cried when Woods hugged his mother and his two children. He wasn’t the best husband as a younger man, or a very engaging personality, but his struggles have humanized him and his return to the top of the golf world is something for sports fans to treasure.
America loves a comeback, especially after a hero has fallen and gotten back up despite trying circumstances. This is sports, after all, and at their best they remind us of man’s ability to rise above his pain and tribulations and triumph once again.
Watching Woods win on Sunday, you were reminded of just how great he was at the very top of his game. You recalled a time when you learned never to doubt him — and you wanted even more.
Did I tell you early this week what I missed about the Stanley Cup playoffs? Well, the first two nights of the playoffs reminded me what I was missing. If the rest of the tournament is like this, we’re in for a heck of a two-month ride.
On Thursday night, I watched the Lightning shoot out to a 3-0 lead against Columbus, which has never won a single Cup series in its 19 years as an NHL franchise.
Tampa Bay, of course, had one of the greatest regular seasons in league history, piling up 128 points and setting countless records. So at 3-0 — and it could have easily been 5-0 — I flipped the channel and penciled them through to the next round.
What was I thinking? Had I forgotten that nine of the last 10 President’s Trophy winners had not won the Cup, and that the last three hadn’t even reached the conference finals?
The Bluejackets came back to win, 4-3. John Tortorella, who coached the Lightning when they won the Cup 15 years ago, had given his players a stirring pep talk beforehand about never stepping back in any situation. Afterwards, he came into the presser and started joking about someone’s body odor.
Game on. This is not the regular season, people.
So last night, when the Capitals went up on the Hurricanes, 3-0, I didn’t make the same mistake. I stuck with the game. Five minutes into the third period, Andrei Svechnikov scored to make it 3-1. Two and a half minutes later, Svechnikov scored again and it was 3-2 in Washington. We had ourselves a hockey game.
Svechnikov just turned 19, by the way. The Russian was the second pick in last year’s entry draft — yeah, right after the Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin. No playoff is complete, in the NFL or NHL, without us being reminded that our team isn’t involved.
Did any Sabres fan watching the game sigh and say, that could have been Dahlin, coming of age in his first Cup playoffs as a mere teen-ager?
By the way, Rasmus Dahlin turns 19 tomorrow. Wish the kid a Happy Birthday. Now, back to last night’s game.
You could feel the crowd buzzing through the screen from Capital One Arena, the palpable nervousness of a home crowd wondering if its heroes might be blowing a Game One that seemed in the bag, like Tampa Bay the night before.
Two plus minutes left, Carolina pulls Petr Mrazek. The Canes are pressing in the offensive zone. Szechnikov is out there, hoping to get a hat trick. Who’s the youngest player to score three in a playoff game, by the way?
The defending Cup champs are furiously trying to protect the lead. Players are dropping down all over the place to block shots. Niklas Backstrom, who scored two goals for Washington, blocks two shots in a span of about 10 seconds. This is what you see in the playoffs, guys giving up their bodies, feeling the pain.
Finally, the Caps cleared the puck. Twice, they barely missed the empty net. The crowd was going nuts, sensing the end. These final seconds seem like an eternity in these situations. Justin Williams, one of the great clutch players of his generation, a guy who played against the Sabres in the 2006 conference finals, is on the ice for Carolina, hoping for a chance.
Again, the Caps barely miss the empty net with 45 seconds to go. Finally, with 36.6 left, Lars Ellers takes the puck three feet inside his own blue line and finds the empty net to make it 4-2. The crowd exhales and exults.
The Hurricanes and Caps play against Saturday. On Monday, Carolina will host a Stanley Cup playoff game for the first time since losing the conference finals in 2009 — 10 full years.
I’ve argued with hockey fans over the years who tell me the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best in sports. I tell them I’ve been at NBA playoffs and they’re just as good. But hockey playoffs have a quality all their own, and there really is nothing like it, as I’ve rediscovered over the last two nights.
It’s great theater, as Buffalo fans, whom the ratings show watch more than any others, well know. But how much better would it be if games were being played in our town, not just on our TVs?
Half an hour ago in Augusta, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player began the 83rd Masters with the ceremonial opening tee shots.
This is the 60th anniversary of Nicklaus’ first time playing in the Masters, when he missed the cut by one shot as an e amateur in 1959. At 79, with a record 18 majors, the Golden Bear remains the most revered figure in the sport.
Nicklaus wrote a “A Love Letter from Jack Nicklaus” on the eve of the Masters:
“The drive up Magnolia Lane, even 60 years later, still gives me chills. So, thank you Augusta National. Thank you for a lifetime of memories. Thank you providing the perfect background for 60 years and six opportunities to feel the overwhelming satisfaction of slipping on the green jacket.”
“It has been and will continue to be the utmost honor to have won your great tournament and to be forever called a Masters champion.”
Sixty years. I’m sure Jack and everyone else in Augusta will dearly miss a man who had covered 68 straight Masters and loved it as much as anyone:
Dan Jenkins, the great golf writer and humorist, who died on March 7 at the age of 90. Jenkins, who was a very good golfer in his own right and played with Ben Hogan about 40 times, went to 232 major championships in his life. His first was the 1941 U.S. Open as a 12-year-old boy in his native Fort Worth. He covered his first Masters for the Fort Worth Press while on the TCU golf team in 1951.
Jenkins was admired by golfers, fans and writers alike. If you were a sports writer, you envied his enormous talent. His legendary editor in Texas, Blackie Sherrod, called him “the most effortless writer I’ve ever known.”
His daughter Sally, a fine sports columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in her eulogy, “He made the profession more honest, and more descriptive forever after. And he did so for a longer period of time than any other influential writer. “
As Sally said, her dad wrote for seven decades. I agreed with her that he was the greatest sports writer who ever lived. I read his account of the famous Oklahoma-Nebraska football game in Sports Illustrated when I was 16. I read his books and read him in Golf Digest right up until the end.
Jenkins made his early fame as an NFL writer and humorist. His novel “Semi-Tough” was made into a movie with Burt Reynolds. He wrote “Dead Solid Perfect” and “Baja Oklahoma” and a number of other books — my personal favorite, and the favorite of many sports writers, was a hilarious novel about a cynical, dissolute sports magazine writer called “You Gotta Play Hurt.”
Jenkins was a smoker who liked to have an occasional scotch. After a particularly rough night on the road, some of us fans of Jenkins might remark, “Hey, you got to play hurt!”
He was more than a sports writer. I considered him the funniest writer alive. Every time I read him, I laughed out loud. Go find “You Call it Sports, but I say It’s a Jungle Out There” and get back to me.
He once wrote about slow play in golf: “A round of golf should not take more than three and a half hours. Anything longer than that is not a round of golf, it’s life in Albania.”
Jenkins was best at golf, and that’s mainly what he wrote after leaving SI for Golf Digest in the 80s. He could also be dead serious and knew the sport. He had an ego and thought he knew more about the sport than anyone.
“I tend to go to major championships the way Dorothy Kilgallen used to go to murder trials,” Jenkins wrote in Golf Digest in 1986. “I don’t cover tournaments anymore. I preside over them.”
Jenkins knew Hogan and Nicklaus, but he might have admired Arnold Palmer most of all.
In his book, “The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate,” Jenkins wrote of the “nobility Palmer brought to losing.” He wrote of “the pure, unmixed joy he brought to trying. He has been, after all, the doggedest victim of us all.”
Yes, we’re all victims out there, that’s one of the sport’s endearing charms, that no matter how much you struggle, you know every other golfer has been though it, from Hogan to Woods on down to Jordan Spieth, who seems to have lost his game.
Jenkins could be the crusty old guy at times, a little politically incorrect. But he also changed with the times and took to Twitter with glee in his 80s. It was perfect for Dan. No one could be quicker or wittier in a few characters.
Three years ago, Jordan Spieth went to the 10th hole at the Masters on Sunday with a 5-shot lead. While the rest of us were declaring how for once, the tournament wouldn’t come down to the final nine on the last day, Jenkins tweeted
“I should remind folks that Jordan Spieth is five water holes from victory.”
Minutes later, Spieth hit two balls in the water on the par-3 12th, took a quadruple bogey and lost the Masters.
As usual, the master of the typewriter was Dead Solid Perfect.
Four years ago around this time, then athletic director Danny White was about 30 seconds into his introduction of Nate Oats as his new head basketball coach when White reminded a gathering in Alumni Arena that UB was “America’s next big-time college brand.”
I was skeptical at the time, saying that White had gone “generic” with Bobby Hurley’s successor, rather than reach out for another “brand” from a recognizable national power.
I called Oats a “virtual no-name” and said Quaker Oats had a bigger name in this town. In the space of six months, White had hired two relative obscurities to coach the teams — including Lance Leipold as head football coach from Division II Wisconsin Whitewater.
Yeah, no-names instead of big names, I said. But Oats said they were going to win and continue to build the program. No one knew who Brad Stevens was before Butler made its back to back runs to the NCAA title game, right?
Oats said that day, “we got the program to another level by playing int he NCAA Tournament. We can sell that now.”
White and Oats were right. The brand did continue to grow. The evidence was clear during the past season, the greatest in UB’s sports history. Leipold’s football team set a school record for wins and went to a bowl. Oats’ team won 32 games, a record for any local program, and won an NCAA game for the second straight season.
And let’s not forget the UB women, who went to a second straight NCAA tourney and won a game again, continuing a terrific four-year run under Felisha Legette-Jack.
Of course, White moved on to a major DI at Central Florida. Oats has left for Alabama. Legette-Jack is getting courted by bigger Division I schools. This is what happens when you make history at the “mid-major” level. People notice. They want to borrow from your success. Your coaches become targets. It’s a good thing.
So UB has hired Jim Whitesell from within to replace Oats. I’m not going to make the same assumption this time, not going to accuse UB of thinking small and not looking to find some coach with a big name from a high DI program.
Maybe it’s time to stop assuming that when successful people leave UB, they take the school’s success with them. Maybe Danny White was right. Maybe the new UB athletic brand is the real star here, not any individual coach or player or administrator.
It’s UB, not the Bills or Sabres, who have reminded Buffalo sports fans that success can be an expectation, not a hope, that competing for championships can be the standard, instead of hoping to simple be “relevant” and settling for merely average.
Jim Whitesell is a good coach, a veteran who began coaching in the early 1980s, before the three-pointer or the shot clock. He’s seen it all; he’s seen the game evolve over four decades. He’s been a Division I head coach (at Loyola of Chicago) and was a wise mentor for Nate Oats, who hired him as soon as he got the head job at Buffalo in 2015.
Whitesell will be 60 in December. So what? He’s younger than Marv Levy was when he became the Bills head coach. He’s younger than Joel Quenneville, the guy Sabres fans wanted to be their new coach. He’s 15 years younger than Jim Boeheim, and the same age as Bruce Pearl, who just took Auburn to its first Final Four.
Look, the Bulls aren’t going to win 32 games again. We’ll never see another season like the last one. Winning four MAC titles in five years is asking a lot. But UB had never won the MAC in men’s or women’s basketball before 2015. Competing for conference titles and NCAA berths is the new standard, and there’s no reason that can’t continue under Whitesell.
Alnutt said UB is more of a brand than it was four years ago. He had a list of 40 candidates for the job and pared that down to six worthy candidates. But in the end, he decided the best guy for the job was right in front of him — that continuity was a good thing when the man you’re hiring was a critical presence on the bench during the greatest run in the program’s history.
You don’t always have to look outside Buffalo for the answer. We found that out with Nate Oats. No name? Hardly. Ask basketball fans around the country about UB. Everyone recognizes it now.
Well, the Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tomorrow night. Once again, for the eighth straight year, the Sabres are not a participant. They have the longest playoff drought in the NHL, now that the Hurricanes have made it into the field.
There’s a lot of reasons to be upset with the organization, which is again looking for a new head coach. But at this time of year, Buffalo hockey fans are resentful because the Sabres stole playoff hockey from us yet again.
For the eighth straight year, I’ll find myself missing the playoffs, with the Arena silent in spring. Well, except for the Frozen Four this week. Sorry, but it doesn’t quite compare.
I miss the playoffs, and I know Buffalo fans miss them too, because the ratings here are generally the highest of any city without a team involved — even higher, in some cases.
Yeah, I miss hearing Rick Jeanneret get excited in moments when it really matters. I miss the team being “scary good.”
I miss playoff beards. I miss the Party in the Plaza, and having to weave my way through the crowds outside as I weave my way to the press entrance two hours before puck drop.
I miss that point in a series when Bucky and I would fight to see who could get the words “genuine disdain” into a column first.
I miss going down to morning skates, and chatting with players eight hours before the game
I miss the palpable buzz that goes through the crowd when overtime is about to begin, and the unbearable tension in OT when a team is pressing for a winning goal.
I miss Game Sevens, and Game Ones.
I miss seeing Sabres flags show up on cars on the cars, like flowers blooming in spring. Somehow, I can’t stand seeing them in the middle of winter in another losing season.
I miss checking out the other playoff scores around the league, thinking ahead to matchups in the next round.
I miss the resounding hit that sets the tone of a series. Remember Brian Campbell on R.J. Umberger in 2006?
I miss the Goo Goo Dolls singing “Better Days” on the video board in pre-game. I miss Doug Allen on the anthems.
I miss how the fans get crazed over an opposing villain, like Ray Emery, or Zdeno Chara or Sean Avery.
I miss traffic in front of the net, scrums in the corner, the dirty areas. I miss the handshake lines after a series, one of the very coolest things in sports.
I miss the edge in the coaches’ voices in press conferences as series go along and feelings get raw. Lindy Ruff was great in the postseason. Remember when Ken Hitchcock told him to F off that time after a blowout loss?
I miss the Canadien writers descending on our town, because Buffalo is supposed to be a really relevant place in their sport.
I miss the mad dash for the press elevator after a game. I miss hanging out until real late with the writers at the Swanee after a really big playoff game. I miss the road at playoff time.
I miss Chris Drury. Dixon Ward. Vaclav Varada. Michael Peca. A young Jason Pominville. The Dominator. Mike Ramsey. Rob Ray joking the room on off days between games. Afternoon playoff games.
I miss trainer Rip Simonick taking a shot at that Flyer from the bench one Sunday afternoon. I miss afternoon playoff games.
I miss playoff games, period. Please, guys, could you get the thing right this time? Before this feeling gets to be 10 years old?
For once, I have to give the Sabres credit. Admittedly, it’s a pretty low bar nowadays. But whoever made the call — and we’re supposed to believe was entirely Jason Botterill’s decision — they made the right call by firing Phil Housley on Sunday.
I had wondered if Terry Pegula might stick with Housley out of stubborn arrogance, to show the media he wasn’t going to be pushed around. Or maybe Botterill would bring Phil back on the proverbial “short leash,” keeping himself out of the firing line for the time being.
But they had to make this move. There was no denying that Housley as over his head, that the Sabres’ season was an utter embarrassment and that they couldn’t possibly sell a failed head coach to an increasingly disillusioned fan base. This is about business in the end.
When Pegula bought the team more than eight years ago, he said the sole reason for the Sabres’ existence was winning the Stanley Cup, or Cups. He said he wasn’t one for firing people. But the next coach will be his sixth since taking over. He hasn’t had a coach last more than two full seasons since becoming owner.
Now the pressure is squarely on Botterill, who is fortunate that Pegula didn’t execute a double firing as he did with Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray two years ago. He and Kim still believe in Botterill. They have to at this point, but where is the evidence?
Botterill was supposed to be some personnel genius. But he didn’t do Housley many favors. Look at the players he brought in: Vlad Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Conor Sheary, Carter Hutton. Not one of them exceeded or even met expectations.
Even Jeff Skinner, who was seen as some kind of coup. Really? Skinner scored 40 goals, yes, but what if they don’t re-sign him? Will it have been worth it to have given draft assets for a guy who was the top scorer on a team that collapsed and got its coach fired? Skinner left the Hurricanes and they broke the NHL’s longest playoff drought without him. Now, at least for the moment, he’s on the team with the new longest drought — Buffalo.
When you look at the players Botterill brought in — including Brandon Montour — and the miserable defense his team played in his two years running the roster, you have to wonder if the GM really respects the importance of defense in his sport.
Now we’ll find out what sort of hockey vision Botterill possesses, because the pressure is on him now. If the Sabres miss the playoffs again, he could be out of a job. Now it’s the GM who is on a short leash.
This disaster reflects badly on Botterill, on the Pegulas, on any fans who embraced the tank five years ago and were foolish enough to swallow the notion that losing on purpose for one player could change the fortunes of a franchise.
Do you know who else it reflects poorly on? Jack Eichel. This makes two head coaches who have failed to win in Buffalo with this young franchise player and generational talent. How long before Eichel gets the reputation as coach killer in the NHL?
Do you think any top coaching candidate would think twice before taking the Sabres job, knowing that Eichel was widely seen as a force behind Bylsma’s dismissal two years ago, and was a presumed leader on a team went totally to pieces in the second half of the season and got Housley shown the door as well?
Fair or not, this is what happens when you’re a superstar, the highest-paid player in Sabres history, a kid the franchise tanked to get. Every circumstance, good or bad, falls at your feet. And when the smoke clears, it’s still about Jack, it’s his legacy at work.
Eichel will always be linked with Connor McDavid, the real prize in the tank. Last week, McDavid talked about his mounting frustration after Edmonton — which at least has made one playoff in his time — missed the postseason for the third time in four years.
There are swirling reports that McDavid wants out of Edmonton. On a podcat, Elliotte Friedman said the Oilers need to realize that “that they have maybe two years to get this right or else there’s going to be a very unpleasant conversation where Connor McDavid says he’s done.”
Is it so far-fetched to imagine if the Sabres might soon be facing a similar issue with Eichel? The McDavid story reminds Buffalo fans that one presumed generational players guarantees nothing; the longer it goes the more pressure there is on everyone involved.
Five years after the tank, the pressure continues to mount for Botterill, for Eichel, for Kim and Terry Pegula.
If Botterill doesn’t get this one right, he could be the next one out the door.
Way back in 1992, an obscure young college basketball coach from LeMoyne got the head coaching job at Canisius. The Griffs, who were in a 5-year spiral that saw them average 10 wins a season and drop to the bottom of the MAAC, decided to take a chance on a Division II guy.
His name was John Beilein, who was a scion of a legendary Western New York coaching family, the Nilands, but had never been coached at the Division I level, or been an assistant anywhere.
It turned out to be the best move Canisius ever made. After one losing year, he turned them into the class of the MAAC and delivered the school its first NCAA tourney bid in 40 years.
During that run, I remember telling national writers that one of the best coaches in America was at a little school in Buffalo. John proved it. He left Buffalo and succeeded at every stop. He has taken four different programs to the Big Dance and got Michigan to two national title games.
Early this week, his son, Patrick, took the head job at Niagara He also arrives after a successful run at DII LeMoyne, where he took a .500 program and went 77-41, tying the record for most wins in a four-year period — his father’s record. He also reached the NCAA tournament in his three final seasons.
And Much like Canisius a quarter century ago, the Purple Eagles have fallen on hard times, coming off a six-year stretch where they averaged 10 wins and became the worst team in the MAAC.
Patrick Beilein is 36, three years younger than his dad was when he took the Canisius job. I’m not saying he’s as good as his father, or that Niagara will be competing for the MAAC title in two years. But he brings a renewed optimism to Niagara, and if he’s anything close to John, good times could be ahead on Monteagle Ridge.
If there are doubters, well, people have underestimated Patrick Beilein before. No one thought he could play at a high Division I level. But he became a very reliable contributor and clutch shooter for his father on a West Virginia that made the Elite 8 and came without an overtime of getting to the Final Four.
For one thing, Patrick understands this town. He’s a Buffalo kid at heart. He spent a chunk of his childhood here. I did a column on him during one of West Virginia’s NCAA runs and all he wanted to do was talk about the Bills and Sabres. When he was hired this. week, he said he was going to the Sabres game and going to bring them a win.
OK, so the guy isn’t a miracle worker. But his heart is in the right place, and he knows how to coach, and with his father’s help, I imagine he has the sort of contacts that can bring solid recruits to Niagara and lift them back to prominence.
“I promise you one thing: We are going to win at an extremely high level,” Beilein said at his introductory press conference. “We are going to do it the right way. We are going to win championships. As you come to games, you’ll see a team that’s fun to watch, with high IQ. We will not turn the ball over. And we are going to guard. … Our culture will hang a lot of banners going forward.”
John Beilein, who grew up in Burt and coached at Newfane, was in the seventh grade when he attended his first college game at the Gallagher Center. He called this a “no-brainer” and a “dream come true” for his son.
Niagara fans are hoping Patrick can be like another coach who took over after a long period of losing and brought the Purple Eagles to their greatest triumphs since the Taps Gallagher era: Joe Mihalich. Mihalich made Niagara a consistent winner and brought them to two NCAA tourneys in three years.
Mihalich got good players, and he got the best out of them. John Beilein is more of a technical coach, one of the best offensive minds in the sport. Both both are supreme motivators and both possessed their own special hoop genius.
Maybe Patrick Beilein can be a combination of both. Niagara basketball has a proud tradition that goes back to Taps Gallagher, Larry Costello, Hubie Brown, Frank Layden and Calvin Murphy.
Niagara and Canisius are Buffalo’s oldest, fondest hoop rivalry. Now Niagara is reaching into the storied past of its biggest rival — the Niland-Beilein dynasty — to restore it to new heights.
They could do a lot worse.
Well, the Sabres lost again last night, 3-2 to Nashville at KeyBank Center. Evidently, they didn’t get booed by the home fans. That was the takeaway afterwards on the TV broadcast that always sees the best of any Sabres performance.
That’s the standard now, with two games left in an embarrassment of a season. They played commendably at home in a loss and didn’t get booed off their home ice at the end.
But look on the bright side. They’re going to get another high draft pick. Yesterday, I saw a story that referred to the “Lose for Hughes” projections, you know, a tongue in cheek update on the teams scrambling to finish near the bottom of the NHL.
Instead of contemplating the first playoff series in eight years, and who they might match up with in the first round, Sabres fans are once again left to ponder their odds of getting the top pick in the drat for the second year in a row.
The Sabres, who first No. 1 overall in the league on Nov. 27, have 72 points in 80 games. They’re 28th, two points ahead of the Devils, three up on the Kings, with two games left. They could actually finish 30th, though that would mean losing at home to Ottawa — which has sewed up 31st — at home Thursday night.
I wonder, will Buffalo fans cheer for the Senators, root for their team to lose and get a higher draft pick, the way they did four long years ago, jeer when the home team scores a goal on Fan Appreciation Night.
Why not? Entering Tuesday night’s game, they had an 8.5 percent chance at getting the top pick in the draft lottery — and what was described in an ESPN story as “the next generational American forward, Jack Hughes.”
Generational player? Does that ring a bell? Do fans remember the campaign to tank for one of the first two picks, when they celebrated the runs to last place in 2013-14 and 2014-15, those 52 and 54-point seasons?
How does it feel now, four years later. Was it all worth it? Was Jack Eichel worth it? Would Connor McDavid have been?
The Sabres are 1-13-2 in their last 16 games and have not won in regulation in 18 games, since their Feb. 23 upset of defending Stanley Cup champion Washington. They haven’t won two games in a row since mid-December, or two in a row in regulation since October.
How could this have happened? Four years into the Eichel era, the Sabres are once again the worst team in the league. Generational player? Is it starting to hit home that one player rarely makes that great a difference in hockey, that we shouldn’t throw such a term around so loosely? Was Rasmus Dahlin generational?
There’s no way Eichel could have lived up to it. By tanking for him, the Sabres created enormous expectations that he couldn’t possibly reach. It required them to pay him superstar money when he wasn’t worth it, to make him captain when he wasn’t ready, to invest him with leadership qualities that weren’t really there.
It’s unfair, I guess, but this disaster falls on his shoulders. There was a belief that his disdain for Dan Bylsma led to Bylsma’s firing, which led us to a soft player’s coach in Phil Housley. So while the standard for Eichel is impossibly high, it’s also justified. He and the fans and organization have to live with it. They created it.
But it’s becoming clear that Eichel isn’t close to that standard. He’s a good, often very good, player but far from a great one. Eichel isn’t an elite goal-scorer or playmaker. He’s an average defensive player who has a tendency to float, which has been the case far two often the last two months.
There are 43 NHL players with 30 goals, the most in 13 years. Eichel isn’t one of them. He has 27 goals, the same as Ryan O’Reilly. If he better than O’Reilly, by the way?
As for leadership, Eichel doesn’t strike me as a very inspirational figure. Oh, he goes through the motions — the way he does on the ice at times. But if he’s such a leader, how could his teammates be so fragile, so quick to lose confidence and fall apart in games and yes, in seasons? Are they following him? Where?
Generational player? Go back over recent drafts? None of the last 10 No. 1 overall picks has played in a conference final. Only three have played in a winning Cup series. It’s hard for one player to carry the hopes of a franchise, to live up to the generational tag.
Eichel has fallen far short. In a way, I feel sorry for the guy. And you know who else I feel sorry for? Jack Hughes.
Do you remember the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie from 10 years ago about a man who ages backwards? Well, I think it’s happening to me. I feel like I’m 8 years old again — at least when it comes to baseball.
Yeah, I have no raging issues to address here this morning, no coaches to fire, no suggestions for the Bills in the draft. It’s April, spring, the best time of year. I know it’s the time when some people’s thoughts turn to love, or flowers. Mine turn to baseball, my first sports love.
When I was a boy, it seemed baseball was everyone’s first sport. Everyone played, no matter your skill level. It was a natural rite of passage. Baseball was still the national pastime. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Warren Spahn were still in the big leagues.
I remember putting the season schedule of our town league, “The Sunset League” on the wall next to the calendar when I was 8 … I’ve loved schedules ever since, the logic and order of baseball, how it carries you over a six-month season.
I remember going to the Sunset League games at Cardines Field in downtown Newport, which was right across the street from the big doors of the main fire station. My father was a fireman. On some nights, I could climb to the top of the first-base stands and see him sitting outside, the fire trucks looming inside.
Now and then, a foul ball would go rolling into the fire house. When the shaggers — we called them shackers — arrived, Dad might shrug his shoulders and pretend he hadn’t seen the ball go under the fire engines. Then he’d bring it home to me the next day.
I remember going to my friend Brian’s house for the first time. He was a batboy in the Sunset league and had a collection of bats and balls and gloves. He gave me a couple of bats that day.
I remember joining Little League for the first time, and wearing my uniform for an entire day, how my mother had to tell me to take off my cap at the dinner table. I recall waiting eagerly for those 6 o’clock games and being devastated when there was a rainout
I miss being 8 or 9 nine years old. I miss going to my kid’s games at Shoshone when I became a dad and he was 8. I miss the parade down Hertel Avenue on opening day; that’s why my oldest daughter, Emily, wanted to play softball. She sat on the porch watching the kids walk by in their uniforms when she was six and wanted to be on a team.
My second daughter, Abby, played tee ball for the Rebels. She thought she played for The Rubbles, you know, like from the Flintstones. I remember my son pitching for the first time, getting the final out in the rain.
I miss the feel of a baseball in my own hand, when you’re on the mound and imitating the action and maybe, in one of those zones where the ball goes right where you intend. I got to pitch games in that old stadium across from the firehouse when I was a teen-ager, by the way.
It’s Jack, who’s 21 and a senior at UB, who loves baseball the way I now, one of those father and son baseball connections. I think of him as old school, a millennial who loves baseball. We get bummed after the World Series and start counting the days to pitchers and catchers soon after Christmas. He joined my fantasy baseball league for the first time this year and helps with my Strat-o-Matic team. I remember my brother sitting him down for his first Strat game one summer when he was a little boy.
Did I tell you I’m like a kid again? Baseball grounds me, connecting my present to my past. It keeps me young. The first thing I look for every morning is the box scores. The universe seems right again when I can pick up a newspaper — ok, or on the internet — and see the boxes, those pleasing mathematical recreations of 3-hour baseball games the day before.
There’s plenty wrong with the game nowadays — not enough balls put in play, games too long, too many pitching changes, home runs and strikeouts at all-time highs. Critics say it’s too slow and boring and not engaging the younger generation.
But I still love it, and feel more alive in April. All right, so my Red Sox are off to a brutal start, with the starting pitchers getting lit up like Christmas trees. Well, the first full year I rooted for them they lost 100 games and were last in the AL in ERA. I’m aging in reverse, and baseball has come full circle …
The three Division I men’s teams with the most victories in the history of college basketball are Kentucky (2,263 wins), Kansas (2,248) and North Carolina (2,232). In NCAA Tournament wins, Kentucky is first all-time, Carolina second and Kansas fourth.
Auburn beat all three of them in its last three games to earn its first-ever trip to the Final Four next weekend. Bruce Pearl’s squad beat Kansas in its second game — after surviving by only one point against New Mexico State in the first round. The Tigers blew out North Carolina by 17 on Friday in the Sweet 16.
Then on Sunday, Auburn beat Kentucky and John Calipari in overtime, 77-71, to win the Midwest regional and a meeting with Virginia , which needed overtime to get past Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, next Saturday in Minneapolis.
In the other national semifinal, it’ll be Michigan State, which knocked out Duke on Sunday, against Texas Tech, another team going to its first-ever Final Four after beating Gonzaga — my choice to win it all, by the way — in the West regional final on Saturday.
There’s no Loyola of Chicago, VCU or George Mason this year, no Cinderella who struck a blow for all the mid-majors and the little guy. But it’s still a satisfying Final Four, with two schools going for the first time ever, Michigan State going after taking down Zion Williamsn and Duke, and only one No. 1 seed surviving — Virginia.
And it’s nice to see Virginia and Tony Bennett finally break through after become the first team ever to lose to a 16th seed a year earlier against Maryland-Baltimore County — and falling behind by 14 to another 16 seed, Gardner-Webb, in their first game this year.
But Auburn is the best story of all. With its most famous alum, Charles Barkley, cheering them on from the TV set, the Tigers have won 12 straight games and eight in the last 18 days, including a four-game run through the SEC Tournament.
On Sunday, they beat Kentucky, which had smoked them by 27 one month earlier. And they did it without their best player, 6-8 sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, their third-leading scorer and top rebounder and the only real elite recruit on the roster. Okeke tore the ACL in his left knee in the Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, he’s slated to undergo surgery Tuesday in Alabama.
Okeke wasn’t there when Auburn fell behind Kentucky by five at halftime, after a miserable shooting first half. The kid couldn’t bear to be at the game and unable to help his teammates. He told teammate Bruce Brown, “Emotionally, I’m in too much pain to come.”
So he stayed at the team hotel with family. But watching the Tigers on TV, he decided he wanted to be with them after all. So at the start of the second half in Kansas City, Okeke was wheeled into the arena and behind the Auburn bench, where he cheered his team on to victory. The team allowed Okeke to paste Auburn’s name on the Final Four line in the tournament bracket at center court after the game. Around his neck, he was wearing a net that his teammates had cut down from one of the baskets.
There are always great stories in an NCAA tourney, and Auburn is someone to root for. Pearl went there in 2014 after getting in trouble for NCAA violations at Tennessee. Auburn had gone a decade without reaching the NCAAs when Pearl got there and the program was an afterthought at a football school in the SEC.
So Auburn is a reminder of the corruption that exist in the sport. College basketball is currently involved in a recruiting scandal that’s still unfolding and involved such powers as Arizona and Oregon, an investigation that transcends basketball and has engaged the authorities at the Southern District of New York and even Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenati.
But the NCAA tourney is still a wonderful event; at its best, it remains a great sporting event that captures the imagination of sports fans and gives us some of our most indelible athletic memories. UB gave us a season to remember, winning a record 32 games under Nate Oats, who left to chase the big money.
I’ll be rooting for Auburn and Texas Tech, two teams in their first Final Four, to win next Saturday and reach the title game. Either one winning would be a terrific story. And if it’s Texas Tech, we can always say that UB lost to the team that won the whole thing.
Remember in November, when the Bills were struggling, had the worst offense in team history and Josh Allen was hurt? At the time, Buffalo fans were taking solace in the fact, well, at least we have the Sabres.
Seems to be the case a lot over recent years. When it got really grim for the hockey team, it seemed the football team was about to turn the corner. Or when optimism about the Bills proved to be inflated, the Sabres showed signs of coming around — or at least triumphantly tanking for the first or second pick in the draft.
Just think, if not for a miracle pass by Andy Dalton in the final seconds of the 2017 regular NFL season, we’d be on the verge of having the two teams with the longest playoff droughts in both the NFL and the NHL.
In case you missed it, the Sabres lost again last night, losing at home in overtime to the Red Wings. At least they got a point. They’re now 14-38 in their last 52 games and haven’t won two straight games since December. The last time they won two straight in regulation was in October.
Well, at least we have the Bills. People think I’m relentlessly negative, but like most people, I’m actually encouraged by what’s going on down at One Bills Drive. I’m not ready to put them in the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs, but the football team appears — and we’ll take appears — to be headed in the right direction.
Brandon Beane has cleaned out most of the salary cap burdens he inherited from the previous regime. It was painful, but necessary. Going back to Feb. 12, Beane has made 17 transactions to reshape a roster that was sadly ill-equipped to build on that fluke playoff run of two seasons ago.
He’s done a nice job of refurbishing his offensive line, getting a solid veteran center in Mitch Morse, the prize in free agency. He added flexible parts to his O line in Ty Nsekhe and Jon Feliciano, LaAdrian Waddle and Spencer Long. He added a promising tight end in Tyler Kroft and another in Jake Fisher.
Beane bolstered a sorry receiving corps with Cole Beasley and John Brown. He brought in veteran Frank Gore to back up LeSean McCoy. He reacquired cornerback E.J. Gaines. He grabbed a couple of special teamers in Maurice Alexander and Senorise Perry.
The thing is, he didn’t just open the vault and throw money at people. Beane was judicious with his deals, giving the Bills lots of flexibility in coming years and the option of moving on from some of these guys.
As Mike Rodak pointed out on ESPN.com, the Bills spent $77.25 million in guaranteed money on 11 signings in the first week of free agency. The Jets spent $103 million in guarantees to three guys – ($35 million), linebacker C.J. Mosley ($51 million) and wide receiver Jamison Crowder ($17 million).
Morse got 4 years, $44 million, but only $20 million is guaranteed. Only the first year of Brown’s deal is guaranteed — and I have reservations about him as a No. 1 wideout. The same goes for Beasley. Beane recognizes he need to show immediate improvement in Year 3, but he knows that ultimately you build an NFL contender through the draft, by nailing draft picks that become value pieces to supplement free agency.
It’s fair to expect this team to win nine or more games next year. But I think that in his heart of hearts, Beane thinks his team needs another draft to be truly ready. He and Sean McDermott wish fans would think of this as a four or five-year plan.
Beane is being careful, I imagine, to make sure he has the resources when it comes time to re-sign his own draftees who become stars in the league. That’s how any wise GM hopes to spend the big bucks, on guys they identified and developed.
They have promising core of kids in Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano. But there’s very little left from the drafts from before Beane and McDermott got here. They have 10 picks in the next draft and that’ll be critical in the continued attempt to rebuild the Bills into a real contender.
It still comes down to Allen’s development. If he doesn’t develop, Beane won’t be remembered for all the smart little tweaks he made to the roster, but missing on the most vital position of all.
But he has a plan, and that gives Buffalo fans legitimate hope. And at least they’re not the Sabres.
I figured it would come to this eventually, but it’s still tough to take. Three days after his team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament and two weeks after a signing a contract extension, UB head coach Nate Oats took the head coaching job at Alabama.
I’ve been telling people lately to enjoy this run while they can. Under Oats, UB became the most successful college basketball team in Western New York since the days of Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier. They made the NCAAs four years in a row, won 27 games last year and a game in the Dance, then a record 32 games this year and another first-round tourney win.
Yeah, it was a season to treasure. It doesn’t have to end, but I doubt we’ll ever see anything quite like it. UB can be a regular power in the MAC, but winning 30 games, being ranked the top 20 — I doubt we’ll see anything like that any time soon. Oats is that good, that special, a rare basketball coaching talent.
Good for Oats. He earned this — and I’m guessing he more than tripled the $837,000 he was given by UB in his extension. Most of the top coaches in the SEC make in the $3 million range. Avery Johnson was making $3.062 million at Bama. Rick Barnes is making $3.5 million at Tennessee. John Calipari, the highest paid coach in America, makes around $9 million all told.
Anyway, a mid-major state school like Buffalo can’t compete in that stratosphere. Let’s be honest, this is essentially professional sports, and this is really professional sports, and Alabama football under Nick Saban is at the very top of the pyramid of wealth and corruption in major American college athletics.
Do I have to remind you that one of the biggest scandals in college hoop history is unfolding at this very moment — so big even Stormy Daniels’ lawyer is involved?
The buyout on Nate’s recent UB extension was $750,000. Did anyone really believe that would be a major obstacle if a major power came calling? He told me a year ago it would have to be a “life-changing” offer to lure him away. I guess this qualifies.
Yes, you knew it was coming sooner or later. Bobby Hurley left after taking UB to its first NCAA Tournament. John Beliein left two years after getting Canisius to its first Big Dance in 39 years two decades ago. I have to wonder if Felisha Legette-Jack, who has taken the UB women to national prominence, will be next.
There’s a small irony here: One year after being fired by UB, Reggie Witherspoon became an assistant coach at Alabama. I remember Reggie telling me how astonished he was when he first visited the Alabama campus and saw the facilities there. Until you saw it up close, you had no idea the vast difference in resources between the UB’s and Alabama’s of the world. The riches.
He also knows about the pressure to win, too. Grant won 69 over 3 years. Two years later, in Reggie’s one year at Bama, the Tide won 18 and Grant was gone . Avery Johnson won a game in the NCAA tourney last year, faded to 18 losses this season. On Sunday, he and Bama parted ways. Johnson was earning $3.06 million and was set to receive an $8 million buyout should he be fired without cause prior to April 15 as stipulated in a 2017 contract extension that ran through 2023.
Yeah, Oats will be under pressure, too. But this is what happens in college basketball, which is basically a two-tiered enterprise. The power conferences get their way eventually. That’s why I love the two days of the NCAA tournament, because once in awhile the little guy rises up and slays the giant.
But I hate the fact that the giants have the money and the resources and they usually crush you in the end — and sooner or later, they’ll take away your coach.
Well, the Sabres lost again last night, 3-1 at the Devils. Silly me, I got my hopes up and was thinking they might win back-to-back games for the first time since mid-December. After all, the Devils are last in the Metropolitan and tonight’s foe, Ottawa, is last in the Atlantic Division.
That’s what we’ve come to — where winning two games in a row against two of the worst teams in the NHL is seen as some kind of achievement.
Watching that hockey game, I really began to miss UB basketball. After the loss at UConn on Sunday, Cierra Dillard was defiant, proud to have given UConn a scare but not content to have given the sport’s greatest program its toughest second round game in 20 years. The UB women EXPECTED to win
It was the same for the UB men. That’s what was so hard to take on Sunday night — the fact that we’d expected them to make the Sweet 16, to take the next step, or at least to put on a show that made WNY proud.
But in retrospect, the UB teams achieved something very rare in Buffalo sports nowadays. They raised the standard. They made winning an expectation, not a distant hope. Two years in a row, both teams didn’t just get to the NCAAs, they won a game.
UB basketball has become the competitive standard in a football and hockey town, where for far too long people have settled for second-rate, where long-suffering fans have come to see simply competing for the postseason an achievement, where getting there is the goal.
The Sabres were eliminated over the weekend. Carolina is now 20 points ahead of Buffalo — without Jeff Skinner — and will probably make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. That means the Sabres will have the longest NHL drought at 8 years.
Just think, if not for a miracle Andy Dalton pass at the end of the 2017 NFL season, Buffalo’s two pros franchises would have the longest playoff drought in their respective sports.
Thank heavens for UB, which reminded us that if you get the right coaches and raise your sights, and don’t accept mediocrity, you can rise faster than you even imagined. Winning can become commonplace. Your little town can become a destination, rather than a joke.
The Pegulas should pay attention, maybe go over to Amherst and take notes, meet some of the key people. They own the two major pro sports teams in town. But the two most successful franchises are the UB men’s and women’s basketball … actually three, if you consider the football team.
Over the years, Bills fans learned to despise Rob Gronkowski. The big reason, of course, was that Gronk didn’t play for them, that the best football players Buffalo ever produced wound up with the team that tormented Western New Yorkers for two decades.
But Buffalo people couldn’t deny that when healthy, Ground was the best tight end who ever lived, a rare combination of size, speed, agility and competitive toughness. Gronk was the perfect weapon for Tom Brady and the Pats. You never knew if they were going to come out with a relentless running game or tear you to shreds with a precise, persistent passing attack.
Either way, Gronk was right in the middle of it. He was a tight end who could dominate as a blocker or kill you by stretching the field like few guys who ever played the position. He had amazing hands and he always seemed to make the crucial catch at the big moment — whether it was against the Bills in an early-season game at the Ralph or in a Super Bowl in a heroic comeback.
Gronk retired yesterday at 29 — too soon, though it was time — with a pile of NFL records. It’s a long list, which includes most catches by a tight end in Super Bowl history (23), only tight end with 1,000 yards receiving in postseason history, most touchdowns by a tight end in a single season (18, 2011) and most seasons with 10 or more touchdowns by a tight end (five).
Imagine if he hadn’t been hurt so often. My favorite stat is TDs per game. Gronk is tied for 28th all-time with 79 touchdowns. He played 115 games in the regular season. That’s .687 a game. Jerry Rice, the all-time leader, averaged .650. Antonio Gates, the career leader for TEs, .491. Tony Gonzalez, who’s right behind Gates, had .411 TD average. You get the picture.
Gronk was no angel. He was a goofball and a party boy off the field. He took that terrible shot at Tre Davious White here a couple of years and ago and when he came back from a concussion before the Super Bowl that year, wouldn’t admit any empathy for White in retrospect.
But there was no real scandal, no drug arrests, no mistreatment of women, no driving 120 miles and hour. He was an endearing knucklehead, a guy who made you laugh and knew how to play the clown for the cameras. Remember “Yo Soy Fiesta” on Super Bowl Day? I love to party.
He was our knucklehead, though, and if he played for the Bills we would have seen him as the perfect Buffalo guy. I think what bothered Buffalo fans the most was what could have been — if instead of taking Torell Troup with the 41st pick of the 2010 draft, they’d pick the kid from Amherst. He went to the Pats at 42.
Anyway, it’s the first day of new show, but here’s hoping it’s not last day of a remarkable UB basketball season. The men and women finally get to play in the NCAA Tournament this afternoon, Nate Oats’s team against Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State squad in Tulsa at 4 and then Felisha Legette’s Jack’s women take on Rutgers in Storrs, Conn half an hour later.
I’ve railed about that fact that both our teams would be forced to play at roughly the same time, making it difficult for Bulls fans and administrators to fully appreciate both. But I suppose in the end we have to celebrate the fact that they’re playing at all.
This makes three times in four years that the UB men and women have both made it to the Big Dance. Last year, along with St. Bonaventure, they gave us the most memorable week of local hoops since Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy nearly half a century ago. The Bona men won a play-in game, the UB men stunned Arizona as a 13 seed, the UB women went to the Sweet 16.
I remember the days when getting any team in the NCAA Tournament was a triumph. I came to Buffalo 30 years ago as a national NBA writer from the Big Apple, and soon realized I had landed on the college basketball beat in what could well have been the worst basketball town of its size in the nation.
I waited seven years to get a team in. I can still remember the 1996 Canisius team, breaking a 39-year drought. Then it was Niagara going twice in three years. Bona had a great run in 2000. But this recent UB run with Oats and Jack feels like a hoop lover’s reward for all those years of waiting for Buffalo to be truly relevant again in hoops, like those Little 3 days I hear so often about.
So enjoy the day, folks. Treasure it, because you never know how long it’ll last. We can’t take the NCAA tourney for granted, like they do in place like North Carolina and Kentucky — or like Bills fans did back in the Super Bowl era.
Maybe UB will sustain it and become a little hoop dynasty, like Gonzaga in men’s hoops and UConn in the women (and can you believe UB will play Upon in the second game if they win). I have to admit, I never thought Oats and Legette-Jack would both be here after last year’s runs. I figured some bigger place would steal them away from us.
But Nate and Felisha say they want to stay in Buffalo, that they love it and want to build a mid-major empire. They really seem to believe it, and I want to believe it. Imagine that, after 30 years, working in a real, honest-to-goodness, basketball town!
Well, the NCAA Tournament began last night. Two games. The First Four, as they now call it, because the phrase “play-in” seemed unfair to the teams that landed on those lines, as if they weren’t really in the field.
But it’s still a 64-team tournament to me, and to a lot of people who will fill out their brackets today. Thursday and Friday are the best two days in sports, the 32 games that take out half the field and give us our best chance at those wonderful upsets, the little guy rising up to slay the giant — Princeton over UCLA and Valpo over Mississippi and Lehigh over Duke and Maryland-Baltimore County over Virginia and yes, Buffalo over Arizona.
For many of us, it’s the buildup that’s the real fun, though, filling out the office pools, trying to design the perfect bracket, trying to find the right upsets and the predictable favorites. Is there anything quite like an NCAA bracket. That wonderful rectangle, eight by eight … leading to the four names in the middle … 64 is the perfect number, isn’t it … four times four times four … every spot on the paper a tiny little piece of destiny
I’ve been making prediction in public for 30 years. I’ve had some high moments — like picking Loyola to make the Final Four — and a lot of embarrassing gaffes, like picking Houston in 1990 and seeing them eliminated in the first game of the day, before the afternoon paper had even arrived on most readers’ doorsteps with my fateful Final Four prediction waiting inside.
I love this tournament, despite all its flaws and commercialism and bias against the little schools in conferences that have to grovel for crumbs. Covering the Big Dance gave me some of my fondest memories — I was there when Christian Laettner hit the shot against Kentucky, when he led Duke over UNLV in the Final Four, when John Belein won as a 14 seed at Richmond, when that kid David Messiah Capers hit 3 free throws with no time left for St. Bonaventure to force a second OT against Kentucky, when UB stunned the world with a first-round blowout against an Arizona team that had the No. 1 pick in the draft.
It’s fun. Keep that in mind when you fill out your brackets. For me, the fun was seeing a huge upset under every rock, believing that any little school could do the impossible. After all, they shoot the 3 well! They have a good turnover ratio! They played tough against a major power in Maui back in November! They’re good at the line. Never mind that the school from the power conference has much better athletes, guys who will go to the NBA.
But what fun is it to pick the favorites? Anyone can pencil through all the No. 1s and 2s to the Sweet 16. You miss all the fun that way. You also miss some great upsets. Did you know that in each of the last five years, half the No. 2 seeds didn’t reach the Sweet 16? Did you forget what happened to Virginia last year? Remember some unknown school called Florida Gulf Coast reaching the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed a few years ago?
Go find this year’s Gulf Coast. I dare you. Reach for the stars. Ask the prettiest girl in school out on a date. Apply to the Ivy League school. Throw a hundred on that skittish horse running for the first time. Believe in miracles.
Enjoy the tournament, folks. I know I am.