Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not so little sisters

The scenario is a common one. A college football team gains some respectability, but has not quite broken into the sport’s top echelon. They go through their season undefeated, although critics maintain that their schedule is weak. Despite their record, they are not invited to the championship game.

Sound like Boise State? TCU? Try Colgate in 1932.

Not only did the Red Raiders go undefeated that year, they did not allow a point—which no Division I team has done since 1939, and would be inconceivable in today’s college football world. Nevertheless, they were not invited to the Rose Bowl (the de facto college championship at that time), which instead chose twice-tied Pitt, which was blown out by USC.

To use one of writing’s worst (if often appropriate) clich├ęs, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For all the talk about the BCS system, it hasn’t changed anything. Every year, questions and controversy surround the champion.

Now comes E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, and his remark that teams such as Boise State and TCU don’t deserve to play in the BCS Championship Game, implying that they play “Little Sisters of the Poor.”

While Boise State and TCU play in conferences that are, generally, a step below the Big Ten/11/12 or whatever you want to call it now or the SEC, I would be hard-pressed to call any of their opponents “Little Sisters of the Poor.” One reason for their weaker schedules is that the big boys don’t want to play these schools.

Why? Ask Virginia Tech, beaten by Boise State earlier this year at FedEx Field—neutral, but much closer to Blacksburg than to the Broncos’ blue (do not adjust your set) turf.

Ask Oklahoma, beaten by Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

And, while I am an OSU fan who will be cheering them on as they destroy Michigan Saturday, let’s talk about the Buckeyes’ “Little Sisters” for a minute.

The scheduling of non-conference mid-majors early in the season amounts to an Ohio State tradition. Note that the following teams have been on the Buckeyes’ recent past and future schedules:

2008: Youngstown State, Ohio U., and Troy.
2009: New Mexico State
2010: Marshall, Ohio U., Eastern Michigan
2011: Akron, Toledo
2012: Miami (Ohio), Alabama-Birmingham

None of these schools are literally “Little Sisters of the Poor,” but they are mid-major programs similar to those played by Boise State and TCU. The Buckeyes have the additional advantage of playing all of them in Ohio Stadium (except Toledo, which will be played in Cleveland). Not sure why, but I imagine it has to do with logistics—the opponents’ stadiums would have trouble handling the size of a crowd that the Buckeyes would attract.

Gee is certainly smart enough to know who’s paying him to make statements such as this—but “Little Sisters of the Poor”? Even a Buckeye fan like me has to give him 15 yards for piling on.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Horse of the Year? It's no contest

So now the controversy begins.

As far as the Eclipse Award voters are concerned, the result of Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic could not have been worse.

First there is Zenyatta, who has not won Horse of the Year despite going 19-for-20. She did almost everything asked of her throughout her career, although there were disputes in the racing community as to just how good she was. Many said she faced soft fields of fillies and mares that were far inferior, and that her greatest triumph—the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic—came on a synthetic surface.

Then there’s Blame, who Daily Racing Form is already describing as “the probable Horse of the Year” based on his head victory in yesterday’s race. It’s hard to take anything away from Blame, as he was clearly the best older male horse of the year. His only loss in five starts came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Haynesfield was able to slow the pace down and come home with an easy win. Since Blame beat Zenyatta yesterday, Horse of the Year should be a lock, right?

It’s not so easy. Zenyatta did win five of six races this year, one of them on dirt, so it would be misleading to say that she could run only on synthetic surfaces. If you want to argue about track surfaces, note that three of the biggest wins of Blame’s career came at Churchill Downs.

But the criteria for Horse of the Year should go beyond statistics this year. Zenyatta did something for horse racing that hasn’t been done in a long time—she captured the imagination of the fans and had people who don’t know a furlong from a fetlock talking about racing. She became a superstar in a sport that’s needed one for decades.

I’ve never heard crowd noise at a horse race like I heard on yesterday’s telecast as Zenyatta was being led to the paddock. There were 72,739 in attendance, all betting on different horses, but they all agreed on one thing—this big mare with her unique demeanor, pawing and dancing for the crowd, is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds in history.

Zenyatta did more than win a few races. She gave new life to a sport that, depending on who you ask, has been in any one of several degrees of decline.

How can she not be rewarded with Horse of the Year?