Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Gridiron Genius (2018)

By Michael Lombardi

Even in the highly competitive world of pro football, there are some coaches who figure out a way to find that edge that helps them win games consistently.They might not be smarter than everyone else, although brainpower doesn't hurt, but they mix it with a strong work ethic and good organizational abilities.

Michael Lombardi has worked with two of those "geniuses" in Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. You could argue that he also spent time employed by a third, Al Davis - who certainly is proof that the word unique describes someone who is one of a kind.

Lombardi, who had a number of jobs in pro football including a stint as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, was smart enough to take notes along the way. Now he's put together a book on why those football men were successful. He's called it "Gridiron Genius" - and no, it's not an autobiography.

Lombardi (no relation to that fellow who did pretty well with the Green Bay Packers) rips through the various parts of a football organization, chapter by chapter. The chapter headings are: The Organization, the Coach, Team Building, Special Teams, Offense, Defense, Game Planning, While I Have You (my biggest peeves), WWBD, and Fearless Forecast.

If there's one point that gets hammered home, it's that the best head coaches are prepared for just about anything to happen in a game. That's not by chance; it's because the staff covers just about every possible contingency before a game. You want to know why football coaches are legendary for sleeping in their office? It's because there's always something to do. Belichick would do things like assign a staff member to full break down each player on an opposing team, looking for tendencies and facts that might be helpful. There are some good stories told along the way, like the one about how Malcolm Butler happened to be in the right place in the right time to make the most famous interceptions in Super Bowl history.

A couple of interesting points come out right away in this book, which mixes general observations with personal experiences. Let's look at one that covers my part of the football world, the Buffalo Bills. Lombardi was assigned to come up with a tentative list of people who might be good picks to be a head coach if a team decided to make the change. He eventually discovered that the best coaches often had been somewhere else first. Someone like Bill Parcells had some success, while Belichick's record in Cleveland was mixed. But the odds improve with a good coach who has learned lessons along the way.

Interestingly, this was a list made up in the 1990s - and one of the names on the list was Chan Gailey. Bills' fans might remember that Gailey came on as head coach, and left after a rather undistinguished run in Buffalo. Perhaps he wasn't up to the job, or perhaps he wasn't able to push the organization as a whole in the right direction. Judging by the team's play in that era of the early 2000s, the latter may be more likely. By the way, Lombardi is quite critical of the Bills' hiring of Rex Ryan, saying that his research indicates that coaches who specialize on one side of the ball usually fail. Ryan might be the poster boy for that type of philosophy.

Speaking of coaches, Lombardi's chapter on the coach has a long, long list of interview questions for potential coaches. The one that made me laugh was "What do you do with fat guys?" But most are very serious, and all touch on a wide variety of aspects - from discipline to salary cap structure to time for the media. The pay to be an NFL head coach is good, but do you really want to try it? You have to be obsessed with it, apparently.

Lombardi might do his best work in going over the Patriots' run-up to a playoff game. The Baltimore Ravens were coming to town, and the author takes us through the day-by-day preparation of the Pats as Belichick stresses certain aspects of the game. Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan during a football game - as they say about warfare, plans get thrown out when the bullets start flying - but Belichick and company figure out a way to get it done.

Lombardi obviously had a vision for this book when he started writing it. It's fair to say he fulfilled it. Maybe the bigger question about it is, will you want to read it?

That's a tougher one. The book certainly has the ring of authenticity to it. But it's tough to say if this book will appeal to those who are rather casual about their support of their favorite football team. It's not a dull book for the most part, but it has its dry spots. For those who want an true "inside look" at the NFL and a couple of its best coaches, this will do nicely. Just be warned that it's not for a general audience.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review: Lucky Bastard (2016)

By Joe Buck

It turns out the Joe Buck is something of a smart aleck.

I realize that's an outdated phrase, dating back to the 19th century. It's short for smart Alexander. I realize that most people probably would use the phrase "smart ass," including Joe Buck himself. But, since I'm really sick of that slightly naughty word and so many try to use it in as many ways as possible, I'll stick to my old-fashioned ways.

How about wise guy? And who knew he was like that, anyway?

Joe Buck is one of the nation's best sports broadcasters. He seems to be on Fox constantly, whether it's baseball, football or golf. As a top play-by-play man, he concentrates on the action and only reveals his personality in bits.

What's more, he's a more interesting person - funny and smart - than he reveals on the air. That might be the major discovery from his book, "Lucky Bastard."

Speaking of slightly naughty words, the title deserves a little explanation right from the start. Most people who follow sports realize that Joe Buck is the son of Jack Buck, the legendary broadcaster from St. Louis. Buck was a very public figure in his home town as the veteran voice of the Cardinals, and he also did some national work on radio and television. "Beloved" doesn't do justice to the relationship between town and voice.

It seems Jack Buck had a relationship with a woman who wasn't his wife. That led to the conception of Joe, a divorce of the Bucks, and a second marriage for Jack. Therefore, Joe really can call himself a lucky bastard and be more literal than most.

Joe ended up following Jack into sportscasting, and that would prove to be a tough act to follow. I get the impression that Joe could have followed Jack into a spot as the Cardinals' long-time broadcaster, and no one would have complained too much ... eventually. (There are always those who will yell out, "You're not as good as your dad!") Instead, Joe went the national route when the opportunity came along, and it's tough to argue with a choice with a career filled with World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

Still, there's always a little angst involved when a child takes a similar path to a parent. Perhaps that's why Joe Buck became friends with Kate Hudson, the actress who is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. Kate dole him, "Americans love a good success story. They're just not sure what to do with the success story that comes out of a success story." That sounds like the start of a good book on its own.

As you'd expect, Buck has plenty of stories about his adventures, good and bad. He's not afraid to take a poke at himself or at a few others, but it's generally a good natured story. Joe jokes a few times about his battles against a receding hairline, which has included some hair plug operations. Ouch. But he can serious too, talking about his divorce. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but he does it well.

"Lucky Bastard" goes by pretty quickly; you'll finish it in a jiffy. It's a bit of a surprise that he wrote it at this stage of his career (he has lots of tread left on the tires), but it reached the best seller lists so Buck's timing remains sharp. Most people will come to the conclusion after reading this that Buck can handle the written word as well as the spoken version, and that he'd be a fun person to be around. Missions accomplished.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Hard Labor (2017)

By Sam Smith

For those of you under 40, the National Basketball Association always has seemed like a place of unmatched riches. The stars are everywhere, the games on television constantly, the money involved is enormous. The league's biggest problem seems to be at times is figuring how all of this cash should be split up. That's not to say that distribution of funds isn't an issue, but we all should have such problems.

It wasn't always like this, as Sam Smith points out in his book, "Hard Labor."

Smith is best known as the newspaper reporter who became the most closely associated with Michael Jordan's era with the Chicago Bulls. His book, "The Jordan Rules," will be associated with that era forever.

Here, though, Smith takes a step back. The focal point of the discussion of when the NBA turned the corner toward permanent prosperity was not because of the arrival of a certain player or two, although that didn't hurt. A court case became the fulcrum.

In 1976, the NBA players and owners settled the legal action known as the Oscar Robertson case, since the all-time great had his name on top of the lawsuit as the head of the players' association at the time. It set up some new rules that led to free agency in the NBA and other benefits. It took some time to fall into place, but Smith's key point - and it's a good one - is that it's nice to look back and nod at your predecessors for their contributions.

Smith does that here by finding many of the people involved in that struggle. What's more, you can tell he had a ton of fun doing so. For the record, the 14 plaintiffs in the case were Robertson, Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Archie Clark, Mel Counts, John Havlicek, Don Kojis, Jon McGlocklin, McCoy McLemore, Tom Meschery, Jeff Mullins, Wes Unseld, Chet Walker and Dick Van Arsdale. McLemore is the only one to have passed away. Smith spoke to several other people for the story, including legal representatives from both sides. 

All of them are filled with stories about those days that, in hindsight, are worthy of a good head shake or two. Even in the 1960s, players were often more money to work for company teams like Phillips 66 than to be in the NBA. (Some of the guys who did that, by the way, are multi-millionaires now.) Players often had to take part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet, and owners were barely getting by in some cases. Although Smith does touch on the 1950s and early 1960s, he spends plenty of time on the competition with the American Basketball Association. That really was the Wild, Wild West of pro hoops, a league that broke all the rules - including coming up with generally fair contracts - and was filled with characters. 

And remember, racial attitudes in basketball still hadn't come around by the 1960s. The Celtics were the first team to start five blacks, and that came in the mid-1960s. The Hawks might have won some titles in the 1960s had they chose to keep a talented roster of African American stars together. Instead, when they moved to Atlanta, they signed Pete Maravich to a huge deal that helped grease the skids for others to depart. 

Still, there's plenty of fun along the way. Mullins tells about how he received something of a full-court press from the entire state of Kentucky when he was thinking about a college choice. He went to Duke, which didn't exactly go over well. The shooting guard had a nice career and played a key role in the Robertson settlement as a moderating influence. And you'll love reading about the Van Arsdale identical twins, whose careers in basketball were almost - you guessed it - identical. 

The biggest flaw here is that the story does jump around a bit. This isn't a straight line to the settlement and its effects. That may not go over well with some readers. The manuscript also has trouble with the usage of "its" a few times. That's a personal pet peeve; someone once said that the use of that word is the single biggest way to determine if someone knows the language or not. 

But Smith accomplishes his goal of paying tribute to those who helped make the success of today's players and league possible. "Hard Labor" will leave you entertained and informed about that history lesson - no easy task.

Four stars

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Football for a Buck (2018)

By Jeff Pearlman

"Football for a Buck" received plenty of attention shortly after its publication for a somewhat strange reason as these things go.

The President of the United States plays a relatively good-sized role in its story. Donald Trump doesn't exactly come out as the hero of it either.

The book is about a football league that lasted three years and went out of business with something of a whimper. It was a labor of love for author Jeff Pearlman, who had no idea when he was planning this book that Trump would become an occupant of the Oval Office.

So it's a happy coincidence that Trump finally did something good in the world of sports. Because "Football for a Buck" is fabulous and fun for more than 300 pages.

Author Jeff Pearlman has written a variety of good books over the years, and never steered away from controversy in the process. This effort, though, is a little different. Pearlman admits that he had something of a crush on the United States Football League when it was formed in 1983 - when the author was in school - and he obviously had a ball doing the research (something like 400 interviews) and writing for it.

For those who are too young to remember, here's a refresher course on the USFL. The idea was to form a nice little football league in the spring - when there would be no pressure to compete with the NFL, and give the nation's football fans something to watch. Remember, the NCAA basketball tournament was just starting to grow in the early 1980s, and the same could be said for basketball and hockey playoffs. In other words, it was easy to picture a niche for the new league.

It's a rather typical story for the a new sports league. Some teams were well financed and professionally run, and did fine. Others had poor ownership and very limited talent. It set up something of the haves and have-nots when it came to on-field play. Sometimes the teams folded up their tents and moved quietly to the next city. While there was a plan to keep budgets in place in order to slowly build a winner, rich owners quickly decided to violate that rule when they had a chance to win. For example, the Michigan Panthers signed some expensive offensive lineman in the league's first season, and the move produced a champion.

It's the stories that make the book come alive, and Pearlman collected bunches of them. There are tales of fights and drug use. A tale about two busloads of prostitutes greeting a football team that had just moved to a town, handing out business cards to their new potential clients. Stories about missed payrolls and players who invent new reactions to being cut from a pro team - like punching the coach. Since the league was in business more than 30 years ago, everyone seems free to open up to everything that went on. It's all great reading, and frequently hilarious.

Trump certainly gets plenty of attention in this story, and it's fair to say that many blame him for the demise of the league. Trump spent wildly and foolishly on his New Jersey Generals, couldn't control his ego, frequently lied, and alienated himself from practically everyone - according to the accounts here. Anyone going to his  New York City office for an appointment - anyone - had to sit through an eight-minute video explaining how wonderful Trump was. I particularly liked the story about how Trump disguised his voice slightly and called reporters as "a public relations man" to leak stories out. this sort of behavior may sound familiar if you've been reading newspapers in the past couple of years.

More than that, Trump urged the league to move to the fall and compete with the NFL head on, probably in the hopes of getting into the established league one way or another. He also assured his fellow owners that the USFL would win an anti-trust suit against the NFL that would change everything. The new league did win the suit, but only award $1 in damages - times three, because it was an anti-trust case. The USFL was instantly dead, and legal analysis indicated that Trump's own testimony was a major reason why the upstarts did not win the case.

The USFL may not have survived past three years, but its influence was felt for quite a while. Players like Jim Kelly and Reggie White became Hall of Famers, while executives such as Carl Peterson and Bill Polian became major players in NFL executive circles. It also helped push the NFL toward such rule changes as replay challenges and the two-point conversion.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for books on new leagues - I've tried to read them all. "Football for a Buck" is right up there with "Loose Balls" (an oral history of the American Basketball Association) for entertainment value. Don't miss this one.

Five stars

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