Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Bleeding Orange (2014)

By Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum

It's a little difficult to be personally objective for me when it comes to a book about Jim Boeheim. He's something of a last link for me to Syracuse University, since his first season as a head coach was my senior year there ... way back when.

Heck, I covered the news conference for the student newspaper when he was hired as head coach. And if Boeheim's book is any indication, I remember his first win as a head coach better than he does. The longtime coach writes that it came against the Chilean National Team in an exhibition game; it was actually against the team from Peru. (Want to read my game story? Still got it.)

Boeheim finally has gotten around to writing an autobiography, and "Bleeding Orange" works quite well as a stroll through 50 years of basketball at the Central New York school.

Boeheim has become part of the furniture at Syracuse. After growing up down the road in Lyons, he was the backcourt partner of the legendary Dave Bing in the mid-Sixties there, stayed on after graduation to work on the basketball staff, and eventually was promoted to head coach in 1976. The program has gone ever upward, more or less, since then. Boeheim is now second on the all-time list of coaching victories, and home games average almost 30,000 fans per game at the Carrier Dome.

The fun part of the book comes exactly when you'd expect - descriptions of memorable Big East battles in the Eighties. That's when almost every game seemed like an event, and great coaches with unforgettable personalities - John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun, Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino, etc. - roamed the sidelines. Boeheim won more games in the conference than all of them. There are stories about games from the past, and stories about relationships off the court. They all loved to win, especially against each other, whether it on the scoreboard or at the offseason league meetings.

You'd figure stories about the big moments would be here, and they are provided. Syracuse has gone to three Final Fours under Boeheim (one more with him as an assistant), winning the national title in 2003. They are well described, as are such other games as the six-overtime game in the Big East Tournament with Connecticut. Boeheim has done a lot of winning over the years considering he's only had four players with truly otherworldly talent - Dwayne Washington, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Carmelo Anthony. The veteran coach also gets some thoughts down on serving as an Olympic assistant basketball coach twice.

Boeheim and co-author Jack McCallum, one of the best in the business, also make some good decisions along the way. Portions of the book are something of a diary of the 2013-14 season, which are used as something of a launching point at times to discuss the state of the game and other matters.That prevents the book from getting too bogged down in the past.

More importantly, Boeheim comes across as personable, thoughtful and frequently funny. Some times his barbs are directed at opposing coaches, sometimes at his own players, and sometimes at himself. There are insights into decisions made along the way of his career, comments on his personal life, and tangents about transfer rules and age restrictions on turning professional. He may have even crossed a line once. The paragraph of the book that has received the most chatter so far was how Boeheim revealed Anthony's grades in his first semester at Syracuse; not sure that was the best idea.

By the way, the situation surrounding former assistant coach Bernie Fine, who lost his job during the 2011-12 season in something of a scandal, receives some coverage but not a great deal - probably due to pending legal matters.

"Bleeding Orange" isn't great literature, but it's one of those books that's simply a breeze to run through. I found myself picking it up at times, turning to a page and getting caught up in some anecdotes. The book should work for just about anyone who is a fan of college basketball. However, if you have some orange in your wardrobe, you probably shouldn't miss this surprisingly candid look offered by a Hall of Fame coach.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2014

Edited by Christopher McDougall

The full review is on the Buffalo News website. You can access it here.

Cliff Notes version: This is another very good collection of sports stories as the series turns 24. It's interesting that no newspaper articles or Sports Illustrated stories didn't make the final cut, which might be a first. But the stories that are included are generally very well done.

Four stars

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (2014)

By Scott Pitoniak

Triumph Books has come up with an idea in recent years that's pretty much fool-proof. Pick a team or university, select 100 aspects of the history and tradition involved, research, bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, and serve to a hungry fanbase.

The author, or cook if you prefer, of this particular version is Scott Pitoniak. He's well suited for the job, having written other books about Syracuse University athletics and covered many events there in his former job as a sports columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He has whipped up "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."

Stretching the cooking analogy a little further to close to the breaking point, the recipe has become more or less standard. Most of the 100 topics jump out rather quickly. It's just a matter of researching the obvious ones, and then adding a few obscure items that even the biggest of Syracuse diehards might not know. That's more challenging than you'd think.

As you'd expect, football and basketball dominate the proceedings here. Jim Boeheim, who has been on the campus essentially since the fall of 1962, gets the leadoff position as the first item in the book. He's followed by Jim Brown, football uniform number 44, Ben Schwartzwalder, the 2003 basketball team, Ernie Davis, the 1959 football team, Dave Bing, Floyd Little and the Carrier Dome fill out the top 10. As you can see, this is a flexible list in mixing players, coaches, teams, a building, and some laundry.

Other sports don't get overlooked, though. There are some lacrosse items, and some tributes to champions in some of the other sports. From there, Pitoniak jumps into such items as the team colors, mascots over the years, restaurants, and even a movie. You might argue about something else that deserves to make the top 100, but there are no obvious omissions. Some items overlap a bit, but it's not much of a problem.

The surprises might not be many to students of all things orange, but there are a few. Who knew that the man who designed the New York Yankees logo went to Syracuse? Or that actor/producer Sheldon Leonard was a member of Syracuse's swim team? The trip to Lockerbie, Scotland, by the lacrosse team after the plane explosion over that city is also relatively unknown. Several Syracuse students died in that terrorist act.

With 100 chapters, there's hardly time to become bored with any of the subjects. Yes, whole books have been written about some of the players and championship teams, but the goal here is to give quick looks at each subject. Pitoniak obviously knows what he's talking about, and he keeps things moving right along. There are a few sidebar stories, charts and photographs with some of the chapters that are useful.

Obviously, books like this don't carry much interest to non-fans of the particular team. In other words, you might have trouble finding this at the bookstores of Georgetown or Duke. But for those in upstate New York looking for a quick course on Syracuse University's athletic history, "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" should work very nicely.

Four stars

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Game Plan (2014)

By Bill Polian with Vic Carucci

The number of football executives - and let's exclude coaches from that description - who have been become relatively well-known for their work to the sport's public at large is extremely small. The names of general managers may pop up frequently in hometown stories, but few make the jump to national figures.

There are only a few exceptions, and the biggest is Bill Polian. Football writers have awarded the NFL Executive of the Year title since 1993, and Polian has won it four times. Only a couple of others have won the award more than once.

Mix that fact with the fact that Polian currently works as an analyst with ESPN, and you have a nationally known figure on the sports stage. Even though he might not be done working for a team, this seems like a good time for him to write a book. Apparently even Polian agreed, as he has written a book on his football experiences called "The Game Plan."

The story essentially concentrates on the football portions of Polian's career. Don't look for many stories about his family, because they aren't there. While there are references to Polian's career before he arrived in Buffalo, the story essentially begins there. But there are, naturally, plenty of references to football philosophy - as promised by the subtitle - along the way.

As an example, Polian outlines what he wanted when he went searching for a head coach. The needed skills include organization, leadership, communication, emotional stability, vision, strategy, flexibility, ability to judge talent, public relations, earning player respect, and character. That's a long list, and Polian adds plenty of related questions under each area. But you've have to say the formula works for him. He did pick Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, among others. Levy is in the Hall of Fame and Dungy probably will be.

There are other insights into building a football team here. There are some good examples at how important it is to find players who fit into specific systems, and how salary cap management is far more important than many would have thought. For example, quarterbacks can make staggering amounts of money in a given year, particularly a veteran like Peyton Manning. They are worth it, but sometimes a team gets lucky with a young and thus cheaper quarterback. Think of Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, who surprised everyone with his play. Wilson isn't making superstar money yet, and thus Seattle had extra dollars to spread around the rest of the roster. That was crucial in its Super Bowl season of 2013-14, and will be helpful until Wilson starts to get the paydays he no doubt deserves.

Still, football fans want to read behind-the-scenes stories about their favorite game, and Polian has plenty of them here. A good portion of the book (more than expected, really) is devoted to his time in Buffalo. If there had been an executive of the year award back then, Polian certainly would have added to his hardware collection for his work with the Bills. He tells about working his way into the general manager's job in 1985, when the franchise was in even worse shape than most thought, and putting together the pieces for the team that went on to appear in an unmatched four straight Super Bowls.

It's great fun to reach at length about negotiations with Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who had started his career in the United States Football League. Kelly wasn't anxious to come to Buffalo, and the talks were difficult. But eventually the quarterback landed with the Bills and went on to 10 great years there. There's also some good details about the trade for Cornelius Bennett, part of a three-way swap that sent Erik Dickerson to the Colts. Polian got one look at Bennett at a practice upon the linebacker's arrival in Buffalo, and told a friend that Bennett was "Mickey Mantle in football cleats."

The Bills never did reach their final goal of being Super Bowl champions, but Polian certainly writes as if he loved the building process immensely. He hands out plenty of credit to other staff members in the Bills' organization along the way - names that will be remembered in Buffalo but in few other places. Just as an example, Kay Stephenson is not exactly an icon because he took over as head coach just after Chuck Knox had left after the 1982 season and the team was headed into a serious decline. Polian joined the Buffalo front office, and he credits Stephenson for some lessons he learned along the way - including one that says it's always correct to do what's best for the franchise, even if it's not strictly in your best interests.

After an unexpected departure from Buffalo - Polian admits he could have handled the internal politics better there - it was on to a brief stop in the NFL office and then to start up the Carolina Panthers franchise. That team decided to try to be respectable in a hurry, and it succeeded in part because it could attract quality free agents.

Then it was on to Indianapolis. Considering Polian's time with the Colts was long and successful, the stories in the book are a little underplayed. However, the most fateful decision in recent football history is well covered. That's when the Colts had the top overall draft choice and needed a quarterback. The decision came down to Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Polian and his staff got that one right, as Manning became an all-time great and Leaf washed out in no time.  In the initial interviews, Manning arrived with a number of questions for the Colts' staff. Leaf didn't even show up.

The book can be a little technical in a few spots, and it's easy to wonder why the departures from Carolina and Indianapolis are reviewed so briefly. Still, Polian comes off as an interesting and gracious character thoroughout. You can see why he was so good at what he did.

I was looking forward to reading this even before my old friend Vic Carucci came back to Buffalo to be a co-worker with me at The Buffalo News. I won't give this a rating here now because of that connection. Still, I believe most football fans will find what's between the covers of "The Game Plan" to be quite a interesting peak behind the curtain of how a football team is really run. And if you followed the Bills during the glory years when Polian was running the team, you'll be riveted.

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