December 28, 2008

In Rotation: Finishing It Off for Another Year

The end of the Christmas season is always the most brutal here in retail land. Between December 13th and January 8th, I have three days off. Thirteen hours is the average shift length. And, everybody is in such a fabulous mood.

We close early December 24th, around five o'clock. I run out of the store, jump into my already packed car (or, in this case, my brother's already packed car that I borrowed), and head north to the family holiday rendezvous point in Brown County. I stop just over 10 miles up the road at the Love's truck stop in Memphis to change my clothes and grab two 16 oz. Red Bulls. On the way up I listen to Christmas music on the radio. This year, I actually enjoyed the music. Old age is turning me into a sap.

I get a little burst of energy when I get to camp to see my family, but by eleven, I'm usually out on one of the couches. Next day is a flurry, and too early it's over.

39 hours after close on Christmas Eve, I'm back on 65 South, on my way into work. From there, it's straight through to New Years Eve, then work on New Year's Day. Finally, by the 8th, it's over, and I sleep for two days.

Anyway, I hate to foist another damn playlist on y'all, but here's another damn playlist. It's what I have time for right now. More cool stuff in the near future (I gots plans!).

Sunn O))) – White 1 and Black One
Debussey – La mer and "Clair de Lune"
Mono – Under the Pipal Tree
Sun Ra & Walt Dickerson – Visions
Prisonshake – We’re Really Fucked Now
Rush – “Bytor and the Snow Dog” (from All the World’s a Stage)
The Flesh Eaters – No Questions Asked
John Coltrane – The Impulse Years
Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages and Guitar
Marnie Sterne – This is it . . .
Teodoro Anzellotti – Erik Satie Compositeur de Musique
Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky
Jimi Hendrix – First Rays of the New Rising Sun and Live at the Fillmore East
Gun Club – Fire of Love
Cecil Taylor – The Cecil Taylor Unit
Malcolm X – “There’s No Such Thing as a Non-violent Revolution” (from Words from the Frontlines: Excerpts from the Great Speeches of Malcolm X)
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (sides 3 and 4)
Faur̩ РRequiem
Harry Partch – “A Dream"

Bonus irrelevance: there was a punk rocker tonight on House. He supposedly makes "horrible, ugly music". In one scene, House is listening to the punk rocker's music to try to figure it out, and it turned out to be Pussy Galore's Dial M for Motherfucker ("Dwda", I believe).

Just so you know.

December 19, 2008

The 48th Revolution

I'm toasting my birthday with a 750 of La Fin du Monde. As per usual, I spent the whole day working . . . which, unfortunately, means I didn't make it over to the Vietnam Kitchen for my traditional birthday meal. Oh well - at least the boss let me off an hour early.

Nothing big to report today, no life-contexts pushing at my consciousness for articulation. I read the post for my birthday last year, and things are more or less the same: a wee bit better financially (for the time being - that's changing for the worse as we speak), sipping beer instead of whiskey, the Cavs and the Nuggets on the 13", listening to Hendrix and Christmas music instead of Freddie King . . .

To characterize this year, I would use the word "pleasant". It's been a nice year. A little extra money allowed us to get a low-mileage car (and one I really like!), to pay our debts, and to not pinch pennies on our August vacation. I got to go and visit Kim and Jim in Cali, and see the ocean for the first time (not counting the Gulf of Mexico around New Orleans and Houston). I got to re-connect with my old friend Rob in San Fran. We got a president that's not an asshole. I was, on balance, in a good mood all year.

My age-shock came a couple years ago, when I went to the doctor for the first time since I was in my twenties. I've adjusted to the middle-aged routine: I got used to my bifocals, I take my blood pressure meds every day, I lost 35 lbs. (I need to loose 30 more), I take my cholesterol meds, I go to the gym, I quit smoking. I'm actually in better shape than I have been since I was in my 20's. My legs are strong, I'm never short of breath, but I'm still a little over-shapely in a tight T-shirt.

My 48th year was pleasant, and nice is nice. It was, however, only prelude. My 49th year will be, without question, the most eventful of my life.

In the meantime, I raise a glass: to you, my friends, each and every one of you. To you, my family. To you, my loved and loving wife. Y'all make it worthwhile . . . and beyond that, interesting and fun. Love to all y'all.

December 17, 2008

The Death of Meaning Pt. 2: Whopper Virgins

From Burger King, the people who brought you the advert with the hidden camera footage of people freaking the fuck out when they couldn't get Whoppers, as if that was a good thing:

Calm folk who look (at first glance, I've only seen the ad once or twice) indigenous to the mountains of Peru are pulled into a septic beige room in front of a cheap video camera. Cheap furniture and bad camera angles re-enforce the verite motif of the commercial. The idea is that these folk, who have never had fast food burgers before (hence "Whopper Virgins"), make ideal judges for a fast food taste test. Of course, they choose the Whopper over the Big Mac.

Flawless logic, that. It's just like the last time I watched Throwdown with Bobby Flay, he was challenging this cake master in Brooklyn to a red velvet cake bake-off, and the judges they brought in were diabetic Eskimos in New York for a funeral. Or the time I watched Iron Chef Symon take on Chef Rubino in Iron Chef America's "Battle Rabbit", they brought in a bunch of vegans with the understanding that their fresh taste buds unsullied by animal flesh would be the best palate on which to judge rabbit dishes. It seems that Alton Brown was particularly graphic with his discussions of the various operations performed on the deceased coneys that night - sadist!

Beyond that absurdity, there's the blatant overtones of cultural imperialism: "Here, eat this, it's so much better than all that grain and grass you people eat every day! I mean, on the days you actually do eat, since all you poor people are starving all the time!" It's unbelievable how shameless the ad is - the "moderator" administering the "test" is less a disinterested social scientist than he is drug pusher. And, there is that whole "Whopper Virgin" consignment, which implies that, like a virgin experiencing sex for the first time, the juror/victim is entering a titillating world of pleasure and wonder with his/her first bite of Whopper.

When I first saw it, the image that popped into my mind was the pox-ridden blankets the US government gave the indigenous Americans. Indeed, that beige room, with its simulated distance from the perpetrators of the fraud, is a site of infection, and one imagines that the only way to keep the disease (be it simply fast food, or the whole of American culture) from infecting the juror/victim's culture is to cut out the damaged tissue, or remove the victim from his home.

Perhaps most the appalling thing about these commercials is the cold heart of cynicism which engenders them. We have already declared meaning dead; these hucksters introduce credulity as a replacement for meaning - "we have constructed situation x with internal logic y, and who better than us to know, since we are the ones on your TV?" The Burger King takes the destruction of meaning (the only rebellious act left to the masses) as license to divorce truth from meaning once and for all . . . "see, the room is beige, the camera work is crap, these people are wearing their native costumes, so obviously this is true, even if it is not real" . . .


If you are writing ads for a fast food joint, you obviously can't say "hey, we know you're a lazy bastard with an appetite and an absolute disinterest in your health, so you may as well stuff your pie hole here", even though that's more or less the clientele you are trying to cultivate. Most Americans are going to eat fast food once in a while, but try to avoid it as much as possible; so in order to come out on top you must reach that clientele that has fast food as their major dietary staple, and make those folk your die-hard customers. There isn't a lot of differentiation in the quality of food between fast food places (barring a few unique items, like the RALLY'S DOUBLE BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER!), so the only way possible to separate your client from that mess is to promote the fetishization of his/her product.

Arby's takes the direct route in their latest commercial: a late-twenties looking guy is laying on his bed in a darkened suburban bedroom, enveloped in an air of giddy anticipation. From behind the bathroom door comes a female voice: "I'm only doing this because it's your birthday" . . . the reference here being sexual, as in the old saw about married guys getting sexual favors from their wives on their birthdays. Anyway, out of the bathroom pops the wife, a cute-in-a-fresh-faced-middle-American-way brunette, wearing a full Arby's uniform and carrying a tray with an Arby's meal to the bed. "Ta-da!" she says, and shoots her hip out almost imperceptibly. A lascivious smile spreads across his lips, he says "Whoa! Me likey!", and a Arby's logo hat springs, boner-like and complete with a "boing!" sound affect, over his head.

Here the confusion between food and sex is much more playful, especially since it doesn't have the subtext of cultural imperialism. The food/sex intertwining is amplified by the American male fetishization of female fast food workers: the woman in the ad is very girl-like and could easily pass for a teenage Arby's worker. A significant portion of the American male population worked at a fast food joint in their teens, and probably had a crush on very similar co-worker at the time. Here the sexual overtones are focused on lost youth and confused with the food on every level possible, making a case for the fetishization of Arby's. And finally, since the sexual overtones of the commercial are so blatant, they subject themselves to the scrutiny of the audience, thereby involving the audience in a decision process, as opposed to burying a Trojan Horse (subtext) in a unidirectional edict (as in the Burger King example above).

Not that Arby's is as pure as the driven snow, but the ad is more like a harmless slightly off-color joke, and less like a cynical attack on the sensibilities of the audience. I actually get a kick out of the ad. Still doesn't make me want to eat at Arby's, but at least it doesn't make me want to boycott them.

December 14, 2008

In Rotation: A Christmas Playlist

There is little as cloying as the forced sentimentality of Christmas music, unless it's the brain-dead witticisms of anti-Christmas music. Still, the putative birthday of our savior is what keeps the capital flowing, so you will be faced with Christmas music. I will prepare you for a defensible fall back position vis a vis Christmas music with the following playlist:

John Fahey - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen Fantasy
Johnny Mercer - Winter Wonderland
Fats Waller - Swingin' Them Jingle Bells
Kitty Wells - Away in a Manger
Dean Martin - I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
Django Reinhardt/Stephan Grapelli - Christmas Swing
The Cats and the Fiddle - Hep Cat's Holiday
Sons of Heaven - When Jesus Was Born
Mahalia Jackson - Bless This House
Oscar Peterson - A Child is Born
Leonard Bernstein - A Carol of the Bells
The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
Leadbelly - The Christmas Song
Elvis Presley - Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)
Louis Armstrong - Cool Yule
Louis Prima - What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin')
Willie Nelson - O Little Town of Bethlehem
Country Gentlemen - Silent Night
Loren Connors - Silent Night Pt. 1
Roy Orbison - Pretty Paper
Billy May - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo
Peggy Lee - The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)
The Pretenders - 2000 Miles
Merle Haggard - Silver Bells
The Carpenters - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Leo Kottke - Accordion Bells

Remember, like your favorite burger, it's better with cheese.

December 12, 2008

Free Download: New Hoosier Pete Live EP

"In St. Louis things didn't seem to be so good, and he got into a row with a hooker he picked up on Market Street who tried to roll him, so as a guy told him there were plenty jobs to be had in Louisville he began to beat his way east. By the time he got to New Albany it was hot as the hinges of hell; he'd had poor luck on hitches and his feet were swollen and blistered. He stood a long time looking into the swift brown current of the Ohio, too tired to go any further. He hated the idea of tramping around looking for a job. The river was the color of gingerbread; he started to think of the gingercookies Lizzie Green used to make in his mother's kitchen and he thought he was a damn fool to be bumming around like this. He'd go home and plant himself among the weeds, that's what he'd do."-- John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

Listen to (and download) the new Hoosier Pete EP, Swirling Gingerbread River: Live at Lisa's 9-12-2008.


1. Dwell.mp3

6. Another Day.mp3

Recorded at the release party for Portland, Swirling Gingerbread River is a rough & ready live document of the Hoosier Pete sound.

Hoosier Pete wrote & played it
Dan Willems recorded it
Hoosier Pete salted it

December 11, 2008

Rain Ankle Deep

Ah, what a bitch of a week. First the cat loses an eyeball (and his mommy & I lose $500 in the process).


Worse for him, I suppose. You can tell he's pissed.

And then, there was that new job. I thought I had it wrapped up for sure: I had to do so many sleazy things to get it, and in the end, I had to swallow my pride, make some promises I didn't want to keep, and really PAY THE PIPER, as they say. Not that I was really looking forward to it, but you know, I can only be in sales for so many more years, especially with the economy going to hell like it is.

But NO, my job broker had to go and get greedy on me. As if what he wrung out of me wasn't enough, he had to go and double and triple park on the same job. What an asshole. And then he's calling me back, like "I'm not sure you're qualified, are you sure you're qualified?" and I'm like "sure, I've been to Chicago at least ten times in my life, what more do you want?" And then the jerk goes and tries to give my job to someone else, and then gets himself busted by the fed on top of everything. So now, I'll be punching the clock again on Saturday, just like I have been for the past twelve years.

Oh well. It would have kinda sucked to be the junior senator from the state of Illinois anyway. Good riddance.

Here's a poem. It's old, but it's what I got. Sometime within the next couple days I'll post a new Hoosier Pete EP for download here.


Rain ankle deep
soaks through holes in shoes.
They're dealing morphine at truck stops in Clarksville -
it's not news, friend,
nothing surprises, and little lives here.
This, then, is the promised land:

cancer as connective tissue,
a facile denial of what is, followed by the
disappearance of is:
a map spread across the passenger seat . . .

here, by this cigarette burn,
an anonymous junction of Interstate 65.
Hell is there, or hell is not.
Stories are told, rich at a dime a dozen:

and a filmist’s manufacture,
an oncologist's atmosphere . . .

and this, the promised land,
blurred with opiates
dispensed like potato chips in the Bigfoot.


December 8, 2008

Detritus of the Aristocracy, or the 94th Running of The Falls City Handicap

Churchill Downs, Thanksgiving, 2008

Hello friends. 'Tis, of course, retail season, though it's not as bad as it has been in the past. They cut the hours back at work a bit (35 hours in three days, down from 43), and being in better shape helps too (especially having stronger legs). Jimmy Smith's Home Cookin' helps soothe the jangled nerves on the ride to & from work - no longer does the Coltrane/Ayler heavy duty mental chiropraction seem necessary.

A few years back, I finally stopped trying to make the family rounds at Thanksgiving. Not that I wanted to skip out on family, but the six or eight hours of driving, the two stops for just a few hours each, all sandwiched between a ten hour work day and a fourteen hour workday (the second one starting at 4:30 am) with stampedes of insane shoppers . . . well, it was time to turn T-day into a day of rest & watching the ritual destruction of the Detroit Lions.

But this isn't about retail. This is about the track. First, a little prelude, courtesy BUS HUS:

17 - Track About the Track.mp3

Virtually to the end of the Fall meet, a long way from the bonnets & juleps of spring: it's Thanksgiving at Churchill Downs! We woke up leisurely (late) and pulled out what qualifies as our "best" clothes & headed out to the track. We had scored some box seats from one of Sharri's co-workers and decided it would be better than watching Detroit loose again (though, admittedly, their beyond-mathematical-suckitude is staggering & somehow has a sick attraction). And, there was the promise of a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner! Well, we were off.

Churchill Two

We rolled up on Churchill in the Maxx, Johnny Cash humming through the speakers. Americana, you know. Seemed appropriate. After parking and strolling through the gate, we found out pretty quickly that we would indeed have been treated to Thanksgiving dinner IF we had made our reservations in advance. Oh well. That free dinner thing seemed too good to be true anyway, so I wasn't too disappointed.

Churchill Three

We found our seats easily among the almost empty boxes. We had made it on time for the second race: Emily, Michael and Ellie's Thanksgiving Day Run. The day was sunny and beautiful, and we were virtually alone.

First priority: beer. It was still early, so it seemed wise to start with beer, and maybe throw down some Woodford Reserve later. Sharri asked if I wanted to bet. My reply was simply "beer". So, beer it was - two frosty golden lagers in clear plastic cups. Now, I was expecting St. Louis pisswater lager (a.k.a. Budweiser) since it seemed that Budweiser owned all the major beer concessions in town, but I had forgotten about the Belgian takeover, and indeed! The golden lager in my plastic cup was Stella Artois, not Budweiser. Actually, it was probably a simulacrum of the bottled Stella Artois I normally get, which is itself a simulacrum of the thing itself available in Belgium. Still, the first sip elicited that usual "hmm, this is damn good Budweiser" thought that I have every time I take a sip of post-Budweiser Stella from the tap.

A beer or two down, Sharri wanted to start betting. I told her I had no interest in giving Churchill money unless I got booze in return, so she was on her own with the betting. She told me she had a system. I told her EVERYBODY has a system, and the doors are still open on this old rat hole, so I'm guessing not many systems are much good. Seems she was betting $2 Trifecta boxes based on the jockeys, not the horses. All day I was subject to a bunch of yelling, then the inevitable lamentation "Ah, hell, if (insert random horse number here) wouldn't have slid into the top three, I would have hit my trifecta! I had three of the top four! I'm getting so close!". The money lost was not significant, unless you consider it lost booze!


Thanksgiving dinner not forthcoming, we had to fend for ourselves. Back past the betting windows, there was a (horse-themed, natch) food court. Based on the food at Slugger Field (barely edible on the best of days), we had low expectations, hoping only for gut filler. We ordered double bacon cheeseburgers which were, to my amazement, actually pretty good: the bacon was nice and crispy, and the burgers had a swell charcoal braze to them. The garlic Parmesan fries were pretty tasty as well . . . and at $6.25 each for the burgers and $3.25 each for the fries, I didn't feel totally ripped off.


The American subcultural understanding of Churchill Downs is Hunter Thompson's 1970 Scanlan's Monthly essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved". Thanksgiving Day at the track is a long way from the Kentucky Derby, or even the Oaks or Breeder's Cup, but I still think it's clear that Thompson's fevered vision is more transformative than it is descriptive. Certainly here today, in the radiant late fall sun, Thompson's phantasms are far away. For most of the afternoon our only neighbor was the track furniture in the background of the shot of me in the boxes (above). Strolling through the paddock and past the betting windows, there was a muted earth-toned kaleidoscope of post-social Bluegrass dwellers. There were the usual proletariat players, sporting mid-length leather jackets and jeans, smoking Marlboro Lights and swilling beer (St. Louis pisswater lager, I'm guessing). There was the dispossessed of Louisville, out in windbreakers & clutching Racing Forms. There was the detritus of the aristocracy, the bluebloods of Louisville faded down to a washed-out gray. Little girls with white elbow gloves eating Thanksgiving dinner. Thirty-something bachelor daughters in eighties throwback wool tweed skirt suits (a little tight at the hips, perhaps). Doughy divorce lawyers with expensive suits, once well-tailored, now ill-fitting. The thing itself, copied and degraded to a simulation of itself.

Not that I'm letting myself off the hook. I have two dress shirts: one that fits through the body and chokes at the neck, and one that fits through the neck and squeezes my gut. The wife, stylish in her new suit, wouldn't mind moving a couple buttons. I am here with my people.


We live on a cultural scrap heap. In some places the strata is more visible than others. Churchill downs is so rich in layers it's like a rock formation which has had an interstate blasted through it . . . but, unlike the fresh highway cuts, the layers have degraded from exposure. Everything is the same here, it just means something else.


As the afternoon wore on, we began to consider dinner. Our money was about gone, so eating at the track again wasn't really an option. There was no food at home, so we would have to swing by the grocery to pick something up. We decided on our traditional stay-at-home Thanksgiving dinner: huge shaved turkey breast sandwiches moistened with turkey gravy and topped with colby jack cheese, Ruffles ranch potato chips, and cranberry/vanilla vodka Thanksgiving cocktails. I remembered the Kroger in Clarksville was closing at 5 pm, so I assumed all of them were (turns out I was wrong, but oh well). It was just after four, so we had enough time to get to the car and swing by the Kroger by the track to get our fixings. Besides, we had a relaxing day soaking up the sun at the track, and I had a 3:30 am Black Friday alarm to answer.

We grabbed our programs and headed down to the gates, taking a few moments to linger at the paddock. As we strolled back to the Maxx, the 94th Running of the Falls City Handicap was just getting ready to go off.


11/30/08 revised 12/7/08

December 7, 2008

In Rotation: Three Left Merges Across Traffic

Riding around in the Maxx, mostly to and from work.

Jimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys
Sir Richard Bishop - Polytheistic Fragments
The Roots - Rising Down
The Mothers of Invention - Freak Out!
Meshuggah - Destroy Erase Improve
Rory Gallagher - Deuce and Rory Gallagher
Half Japanese - Loud and Horrible
Bus Hus - Expectations About Big Cities
Robert Johnson - Steady Rollin' Man
Joseph Spence - Bahamanian Guitarist
Nas/M F Doom - NAStradoomus
Rope - Heresy, and Then Nothing But Tears
MX-80 - We're an American Band
Albert Ayler - Bells/Prophecy

December 4, 2008

Indiana, Our Indiana

This is my brain on sports, so we may as well get it out of the way.

Indiana finally filed away the Bob Knight era with the hiring of Tom Crean, after two false starts with Mike Davis and Kelvin Sampson. Davis had the unenviable task of following the legendary, popular coach pushed out against his will. In spite of having the support of his players, Davis was in no way ready to take over a major college program, much less one as high profile as Indiana. After the merciful end of the Davis reign, IU went for a high profile coach in the form of Kelvin Sampson. Sampson was a go-getter (he had made his mark previously at Oklahoma) with a reputation of "doing what it takes" to win. He was hired in spite of being under investigation by the NCAA for recruiting violations. He was sentenced for those violations upon taking the job at Indiana. And (surprise!) he was caught again while at Indiana. The specifics aren't important; suffice to say that Indiana got what they bargained for, and in the process, sullied the squeaky clean reputation the University has built over the course of becoming one of the top 5 (or at least top 10) all-time college basketball programs.

Facing stiff penalties, Indiana responded by imposing stiff penalties on itself. Oh, and by buying out Sampson. New coach Tom Crean, a Tom Izzo disciple and native Michigander, was hired soon thereafter. Crean, besides being associated with Izzo and Ralph Willard (Western Kentucky), distinguished himself as both a recruiter and strategist: Izzo gave him a large role running the team, and Crean is credited with tipping the recruiting balance in Michigan from Michigan to Michigan State. IU gave Crean a fairly standard five-year contract, but Crean found that the mess Sampson left behind was a bit more substantial than originally thought. After immediately (but quietly) getting a contract extension to 10 years, Crean decided to dump the entire team and start over again completely from scratch (well, almost - he had two non-scholarship players left from Sampson's squad). This fall, after reviewing the Sampson violations, the NCAA decided not to impose any further sanctions on IU, letting their own self-imposed sanctions stand along with three years of probation. Apparently, the NCAA felt the comprehensiveness of Crean's house cleaning was enough. Sampson was not as lucky: the current Milwaukee Bucks assistant was hit with a five-year "show cause" order, which means any team hiring him within that period would have to show that he has served a reasonable punishment for his transgressions.

The actions taken by both Crean and the NCAA were proper in this case. Crean had standards for which none of the returning players were being held accountable, so he decided to start over with players that were down with his program. The NCAA didn't hold IU blameless, since they hired Sampson with their eyes open, but did realize that they had cleaned up the mess on their own, so no new penalties were imposed. So here's Tom Crean, with a fresh 10 year contract, a fresh start, and an elite program. Sure, he's starting from the bottom, but he's won over the IU faithful, and the world is his oyster.

Or is it? In a recent ESPN sports panel bitchfest, Skip Bayless and L Z Granderson both opined that Tom Crean was not going to bring IU back to the elite level which it enjoyed previoulsy under Everett Dean, Branch McCracken, and Bob Knight. The reasons? Well, they were foggy (logic is a rare commodity on these shows), but they seemed to organize roughly this way: Tom Crean is a decent though not great coach, he has not caught up with the times and can't deal with the modern college game, he does not have a fertile recruiting ground to work (that was L Z Granderson, urban hoops maven, on that one). Hmm. Let's think about this for a minute.


In reverse order: He does not a have a fertile enough recruiting ground. Hmm. Allow me this: ???!!! OK, so I'm a bit of a homer, but surely Indiana would qualify as a fertile recruiting ground. Do the names Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Luke Harangody, Josh McRoberts, Rodney Carney, Tyler Zeller, Eric Gordon, Robbie Hummel, Courtney Lee, Dominic James, or George Hill mean anything? You guessed it - they were all recruited out of Indiana high schools within the last five years. This list is far from comprehensive: a couple of minutes with Google would triple this list. Let's not dwell on this: not only can you get decent players from Indiana, but you could put together a championship squad completely from Indiana players.

How about "he can't deal with the modern game"? Now, this is interesting code. Essentially what they are saying is that Crean doesn't seem likely to deal with the new breed of "one and done" players (players who do the required minimum one year college before moving on to the pros) be they big ego "questionable character" guys like Gordon or O J Mayo, or "character" guys like Oden and Conley. Crean hasn't really addressed this issue publicly, but there is plenty of evidence that he is an old school coach who wouldn't recruit a player without at least a three year commitment. Obviously, character is an issue with him as well, but we are a little too quick to dismiss flashy, sometimes immature high school kids as "questionable character" guys (O J Mayo, for instance, in spite of the shady dealings that surrounded him at USC, is probably a decent kid). I'm sure that more than a few people dissed Crean's Marquette star Dewayne Wade in a similar fashion, but nothing was further from the truth. It's also true that even the most rigid of coaches will flex their game a bit to accommodate uncommon talent, as Crean did with Wade, or as Knight himself did with Isiah Thomas.

The second assumption encoded herein is that the only way you will have a shot a the biggest prize is with a collection of high level talent that needs to be, at least to some degree, rented and coddled. Let's call this the Memphis Theorem, with its antithesis being the Butler Theorem (or the Gonzaga Theorem, if you object to my homerism). Now, once again, it doesn't pay to associate "questionable character" with the Memphis subset (I'm a big Derek Rose fan), but there is a different modus operandi at work here, which also translates to different methods, though not as different as it may seem on the surface - witness this year's experienced Notre Dame squad, without a lot of elite talent, who doesn't ever see a shot it won't take. The Butler Theorem describes a team-oriented style which calls for the players to sublimate their games to the greater good. Once again, this is an orientation, not necessarily a rule - Memphis actually played together very well as a team most of last year.

Actually, the whole distinction is a bit bogus. Good teams win, period. Some teams have a higher level of athleticism, can run a faster game, and afford a few more mistakes. Other teams have to rely more on schemes and discipline to maximize their potential. The bottom line is that a national champion needs a good coach, dedicated players, good schemes, and a pretty fair level of talent. The thing that separates teams is how they utilize the talents they have. One way is to get the absolute best players available and more or less turn them loose in a scheme that has defined limits, but room for improvisation within those limits. The other is to build a team that has experience, interchangeable parts, and a good collective basketball head that cuts down on errors. Either way works, and like I said, a truly great team needs a good dose of both approaches.

Back to the coded comments of our goofball commentators. The assumption here is that the Memphis Theorem is ultimately the guiding light toward a national championship, and that Crean ascribes to the Butler Theorem, so he doesn't have a chance. Well, in the next year or so, we will see a Matt Painter Purdue team crash into Final Four with a real chance to win the whole thing. With the exception of Butler itself, who better delineates the Butler Theorem than Matt Painter and Purdue?

On top of that, Bayless tossed out a comment along the lines of "well, he'll compete for the Big Ten championship on a consistent basis, but not for the national championship". The Big Ten has been down a bit in the tournament lately, but since when is the Big Ten champ not a contender for the national title?

Which leaves us with the first point: Crean is a decent though not great coach. This indictment would include his ability to motivate, his ability to recruit, and his ability to scheme. Oh, and his ability to deal with the alumni (see Davis, Mike and Sampson, Kelvin for marvelous negative examples). Last point first: so far he has the alumni eating out of his hand. He's brought the former stars back in for the first time since Knight's departure, and they have been loud public character witnesses for him. As far as his ability to scheme, he has shown fair talent in that area with some of his Marquette teams. He also seems to be a master motivator, although even the best can see their messages go stale if they are not adaptable. As far as recruiting, the publications like what he has done so far, but the ultimate test of recruiting is on the court, not in the papers, so that remains to be seen. He seems to have everything to be a good college coach, but can he be great?

I used to think that Crean's bud Tom Izzo was a good-but-not great coach. I was clearly wrong about that. And, as an added bonus, it seems that Crean was a major contributor to the effort that changed my mind about Izzo. Finally, there is no coach he resembles (physically, even!) as much as Tom Izzo. Obviously the jury is out on Crean, and will be for at least three more years, but I like what I see, even (especially?) if what I see is a lot of Tom Izzo.

December 3, 2008

Cheer, Cheer . . .

Between the first draft and publication of this post, Notre Dame confirmed that it would retain the services of Charlie Weis for at least one more year. Originally the decision was not to be made until at least 12/8, but instead new AD Jack Swarbrick decided to fly out to the West Coast to talk to Weis yesterday. In so doing, Swarbrick showed decisiveness and savvy: he knew Weis was out west recruiting, and the last thing Weis needed on a recruiting trip was ESPN deliberating his fate on air ad infinitum. So, on with the show . . .

As a Notre Dame grad, it is not simply my right, but my duty (like voting) to weigh in on the football program. And friends, these are not the best of times for said program. Please allow me the conceit of actually taking this seriously for a short time. Thank you.

Notre Dame football has not been consistently relevant since Lou Holtz left after the '96 season. Under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Weis, Notre Dame has compiled a record of 84-62. All three have moved consistently in and out of the top 25 and even the top 10, but never have they been a legitimate threat for a national championship (in spite of hype saying otherwise at various points during these three regimes). At most schools, especially schools of a theoretically scholastic bent, that would be plenty good enough. But not at Notre Dame. You see, before Notre Dame was an academically ranked school, it was a football school - home of Knute Rockne and the Gipper, Frank Leahy and "The Four Horsemen". There was once a time, during Leahy's tenure, that Notre Dame was so dominant and brutal that they had trouble filling their schedule - teams were tired of getting thrashed by them, and also more than a bit put off by their win-at-any-cost arrogance.

It is hard to understand just how dominant ND was at the time. There were always one or two other schools who could challenge, but really no more. In current terms, think if you took Pete Carroll's USC teams, Jim Tressel's Ohio State teams, and the Hawkins/Peterson Boise State teams, and then eliminated every other team that played better football than this year's Indiana University squad. You would have one school that was dominant (USC), two schools who could provide varying degrees of challenge (OU, Boise State), and everybody else being essentially non-competitive. Maybe you would get the occasional upstart to catch the big dog off guard (like Stanford actually did to SC last year), but everything was more or less preordained.

That was, of course, a long time ago. Such dominance is currently not possible. But even now, in the modern era of football factories and NCAA administration, Notre Dame has had more than its fair share of success, starting with Ara Parseghian and continuing through Dan Devine and Lou Holtz. And while a vocal minority of ND grads will never be satisfied (Devine was continually hounded by a "Dump Devine" campaign, even during his championship season, in spite of a record that ended up 53-16-1), it is achievement at the level of a Devine or a Holtz that the faithful expect . . . even at the same time others question whether such a goal is possible, or even desirable, given Notre Dame's stated goals and expectations as an elite academic institution.

On December 12, 2004, Charlie Weis stepped into the post-Holtz ennui of Notre Dame football. He carried with him a pedigree, a Notre Dame degree, and an arrogance that had its source in both. He boldly announced that Notre Dame would return to the glory days, and do so without the kind of compromise on character and academic issues that some (most notably ex-Golden Boy Paul Hornung) mused aloud might be necessary. Weis proclaimed that he could win "the Notre Dame way", and proceeded to use his fistful of Super Bowl rings to bulldoze his way from Bill Belichick's side into the world of college football. Along the way he patronized his fans and incensed his opponents, much as his role models (Belichick and Bill Parcells) still do. At first, this was tolerated, even expected, from a "winner" of the Parcels/Belichick school. When Weis managed to take USC to the final play in his first season (the Irish had not beaten USC since 2001, and had not been competitive with them in that time), he pushed AD Kevin White into a ridiculous contract extension based on his self-proclaimed genius and the "decided schematic advantage" the ex-Patriots coordinator offered ND. From there, Weis failed to fully capitalize on his various advantages and talents (both his and his players) the next year. In his third year, the bottom fell out: a 3-9 record that saw the Irish be competitive only in the games they won. His fourth year, the one just now closing, was only marginally better: while the team was more competitive than the previous year, the Irish nonetheless looked even worse than their 6-6 record indicated. Weis's job was clearly on the line.

Weis's personality and arrogance, especially towards the press (another Belichick/Parcells trademark), contributed to his somewhat hostile treatment by the media - those that you step on when going up will not hesitate to kick you on your way down. Vocal critics such as ESPN's Mark May (who hates Notre Dame, not just Weis) and's Pat Forde (who has a history of publicly grinding his personal axes - see his treatment of Bob Knight) had a heyday even as more middle of the road reporters continued to stoke the fires with continuous commentary. But there are other issues as well, most of which are out of Weis's control.

First, there are the haters. There will always be haters. Success breeds opposition, it is that simple. No one really pays serious attention to schadenfreude, so that, at least, isn't really worth discussing. Second, there is the tradition of arrogance at Notre Dame, which we've seen already in reference to Frank Leahy. This is exacerbated by Notre Dame's status as a private, elite academic university with a lofty tuition price tag. Third, there is the monster television contract Notre Dame signed with NBC through 2010. While I understand that having one contract with Notre Dame and one contract with every other team in college football can seem arrogant to some, it's an arrogance I think the University should live with, given the insane amount of money that contract pours into the general scholarship fund (it should be noted here that Notre Dame has one of maybe five major football programs which puts money back into the school rather than draining the scholarship fund to the tune of millions of dollars). Fourth (and most problematic for Weis) is the mishandling of Tyronne Willingham.

Notre Dame always had an unspoken policy of giving every coach five years to prove his worth on the football field. In that regard, though their standards were very high, their coaches at least had a little time to reshape the team in his own image, so if indeed he did not achieve, at least it would be his own fault. Gerry Faust, for instance, struggled to follow the unpopular Dan Devine, and resigned in his fifth season when it looked clear that ND had every intention of firing him. Bob Davie had 5 years to get the team back up to the level of his predecessor, Lou Holtz. He didn't do it, so he didn't get a sixth year. Willingham started with promise, but like his predecessor Davie, did not get the team back near the top. The problem is that Willingham, who is not adept at building networks and alliances, was dismissed in his third year, rather than his fifth. This was made even worse by the fact that Willingham was one of the criminally few African-American head coaches in major college football. Add to that the same AD (White) who bungled this situation is responsible for the knee-jerk contract extension handed to Weis, and the animosity toward the University's questionable policies understandably swallowed up Weis as well. So now, here is Weis in his fourth year, and the very first point his critics use as evidence that he needs to go is a won/loss record that is worse than Willingham's was when he was fired.

No one claims that Willingham was doing a good job at Notre Dame, at least on the field and the recruiting trail. Very few believe Willingham would have turned in a fourth or a fifth season that would have saved his job. Indeed, he only lasted four years at his next job, Washington, and seemed to have learned very little from his downfall at Notre Dame. It was the simple principle of fair treatment: Weis's record wasn't any better than Willingham's at the same juncture ND gave Weis a raise and an extension. Weis's record was actually slightly worse than Willingham's was when Willingham was fired. And there is less reason to expect a successful fifth campaign out of Weis than out of Willingham (given the roster Willingham was returning). What possible reason is there for bringing back Weis?

Allow me to be the new AD for just a moment. First, I'm not the guy who bungled the Willingham situation, and I'm not the guy who panicked and gave Weis a ridiculous contract after almost (almost! how far we've fallen!) beating USC. I look at the old school ND tradition of giving a coach five years to get his act together on the field, and I think it's a good idea, so I stick with it. Weis is in his fourth year. End of discussion. I will not be bound by the idiocy of my predecessor. Discussion ended, decision made. Furthermore, I hear the endless grinding on Weis in the media, and I step up imediately to announce his retention, to help recruiting, if nothing else.

Additionally, I see that Weis has done a reasonable job as a recruiter. And his teams have managed to keep their noses clean off the field, as well: this was not a forgone conclusion in the Holtz/Davie era, and Willingham's most important legacy was shining up the team's reputation a bit in this area. The graduation rate is top-notch, and the actual grade point average of my football team is over 3.0, a tick better than it was under Willingham. All this tells me that there is nothing here to fire him over except his on-the-field performance, and for that he has five years to earn his stripes.

The next step I take is to set expectations with my coach: "Given next year's schedule, anything less than a 10-2 record will show you the door. Didn't you once say you would never again loose to Michigan State? Live up to it. Michigan State will not be one of your two losses if you expect to hang around for another year. And as far as USC is concerned, if you are not in the game in the fourth quarter, then pack your bags, because you're leaving South Bend, and not for a bowl game. And speaking of the bowl game, win it. Period. If not, go ahead and extend your vacation as long as you want, because it is no longer paid by me. So far you're doing a great job in other aspects of your job: keep it up, because it is absolutely the only reason you are still here. Any slippage there and even a national championship may not save you. Now, if you manage a 10-2 or better record, you beat Michigan State, you take SC down to the wire, and you win your bowl, then we have another year to work together. A national championship will win you two. Are we on the same page? Good. I'll announce the good news to the media forthwith."

And then, I start my lists. First is a list of alumni buyout donors, so the University doesn't take the hit for Charlie's buyout. Second is my list of potential replacements for Weis. Until such time that Weis is actually gone, that list only has one name on it: Tony Dungy.

Dungy will leave the Colts at the end of this season or next - the wheels on that move are already in motion. Dungy is leaving to do something with his life beyond football. The very reason that he will probably be impossible to get is the reason you really need to get him, above everybody else. As big as football is in Dungy's life, he knows that there is a bigger picture, and that how you win is even more important than winning - but, if you don't win, then there is no such thing as how you win, so it becomes a moot point for a losing team. Dungy has high standards for everyone around him, and he will hold everyone accountable to those standards. If you fail to live up to expectations, he will give you every opportunity to succeed the next time. If you do not suceed the next time, then he will move you to a position in which you can suceed, which may not actually be the position you joined the team for. If you don't try to live up to those expectations, then you are gone in the blink of an eye. Dungy has always been at the same time quick, decisive, and compassionate. Dungy is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the pro game - only Belichick has acheived more. But above all, Dungy has always carried himself with a dignity that transcends the game of football. This is exactly the coach Notre Dame football needs.

I ask my coach, whoever that may be, to reach for the ultimate prize. I should expect nothing less of myself. The ultimate prize for Notre Dame football would be Tony Dungy as coach. I should be willing to pay whatever price necessary to get Dungy in South Bend. The problem is, with people like Dungy, it's not just cash that gets the job done: every man has his price, and sometimes that price can't be written with dollar signs. What is Dungy's price?

Well, now I'm down off the soapbox. There are plenty of other issues here, including a very real sense that it may be time for Notre Dame to de-emphasize football (it's a hell of a lot easier for academic schools to put up a basketball program - just ask Duke and Stanford), but this has already gone on way too long.

You may now stop pretending football matters.