Saturday, December 31, 2011

#236: Year in Review - 2011

---SSL Broadcast #74---

As one year dies and another is born, let's take a quick look at some of the stories in Pittsburgh-area sports.

January:  The Steelers march through the playoffs, riding home field advantage to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history and third in six years.  The Penguins lose their captain, Sidney Crosby, for what would end up being the rest of the regular season and playoffs.

February:  The Steelers fall to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, thanks mostly to losing the turnover battle three-to-none.  Battle lines are drawn in the NFL Labor dispute.  The NHL, and especially the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders, embarrass themselves in a major brawl that turns attention to trying to fix the out-of-control fighting in hockey.

March: The Pitt Panthers go oh-fer in the Big East Tournament, then lose in the Big Dance to Butler in a foul-shooting fiasco.  The city of Pittsburgh welcomes its newest professional team, the Pittsburgh Power, of the arena football league.  Pens forward Matt Cooke is suspended for a dirty hit for what turns out to be the rest of the season.

April:  The Penguins are eliminated in a 7-game thriller by the Tampa Bay Lightning, blowing a 3-1 series lead in the process.  UConn wins the NCAA tournament as Butler comes up short for the second year in a row.  The Pirates start the year off in promising fashion, thanks mostly to their pitching.

May:  Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall makes some controversion comments on his Twitter account regarding the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Penguin fans wait to find out of their team will bring back Jaromir Jagr.  We prepared for the Rapture (Part One).

June:  The Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup.  The Dallas Mavericks win the NBA title.  Closer to home, the Pirates are putting forth a consistent effort and starting to draw fans.  The wife of injured catcher Chris Snyder is attacked at a gas station.  Sidney Crosby is cleared to begin off-season workouts.  The Steelers take another look at wide receiver Plaxico Burress after his release from prison.

July:  The Pirates reach first place in July, and ultimately send three players to the All-Star game (two participate).  Then, the "safe call" in Atlanta begins their demise.  The Pittsburgh Power, in its inaugural season, is in shape to qualify for the playoffs.  The NFL ends its lockout, but not before Steelers linebacker James Harrison airs some dirty laundry in a magazine.

August: The Steelers lock up key parts of their defense.  The Pirates draft and sign their top two draft picks while the major league club enters free-fall.  The Pitt Panthers and West Virginia Mountaineers are picked to finish as the top two teams in the Big East in the preseason polls.

September:  Pitt football introduces its "high-octane" offense.  Super Bowl XL referee Bill Leavy officiates the Steelers/Seahawks game at Heinz Field, causing Seattle fans (and Pittsburgh haters) continue to spout their ignorance of football.  Pirates fall completely flat and seal their 19th consecutive losing season.  The Civic Arena approaches demolition.  The Pitt Panthers (along with the Syracuse Orange) prepare to depart from the Big East to the ACC.

October:  The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in seven games after overcoming two late-inning deficits in Game 6.  The West Virginia Mountaineers prepare to depart for the Big 12 conference, then sues (and is sued by) the Big East Conference.  Sidney Crosby finally cleared for contact drills.

November: Scandal rocks Penn State as former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is indicted on multiple child sex abuse charges, and long-time head coach Joe Paterno is fired in the fallout.  The Steelers are swept by the Ravens, setting the stage for the rest of the year.  Sidney Crosby returns to the Penguins line-up, scoring twice in his return.  Pitt basketball loses to Long Beach state, snapping a 58-game non-conference winning streak at the Petersen Events Center.

December:  After just 7 games, Sidney Crosby is off the ice again with post-concussion symptoms.  The Pirates sign third baseman Casey McGehee as insurance for Pedro Alvarez.  Pitt head coach Todd Graham bolts for Arizona State - the Panthers then hire Paul Chryst, formerly offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

As a sports broadcaster, I can only hope that 2012 has as many ups and downs.  As a human being, I could deal with fewer downs.

Happy New Year to Allah Yinz (you didn't know that was Allah's last name, did you?)!

On today's show:

- Steelers have one more chance to "steel" the division.

- Penguins lead the NHL in a key statistic.

- WVU needs to focus on shutting down Clemson's RB Andre Ellington.

- Deja vu. 1-1 again on my NFL Picks (15-16-1 overall).


Saturday, December 24, 2011

#235: All I Want for Christmas 2011

---SSL Broadcast #73---

I'll admit, my list is a pretty tall order this year.

For the Steelers:

- 1 Healthy Franchise Quarterback for the playoff run
- 2 More Regular season Wins
- 1 Baltimore Ravens loss
- 1 New England Patriots loss
- 0 more injuries/suspensions to key players

Failing all that - I'll settle for one New England Patriots playoff loss

For the Penguins:

- 1 Healthy, resilient and symptom-free Captain
- 1 conistent "franchise" goalie, esp. vs. Cup-contenders

For the Pirates:

- (I ask for this every year) An ownership group that recognizes that money needs to be spent on quality starting pitching, then acts on that when the players are available, overpaying if necessary.

For the Pitt Panthers:

- Stability at the head coaching position, and failing that, instability at the athletic director position

For the West Virginia Mountaineers:

- A convicing win against the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl

For myself:

- The ability to correctly pick NFL games against the spread with high consistency.

Also on today's show:

- Steelers miss out on a chance to control their own destiny

- Penguins on a 3-game roll entering the Christmas break

- Pitt gets its 4th head coach in the last year and a half.

- Yet another 1-1 week on myNFL Picks (14-15-1 overall).


Saturday, December 17, 2011

#234: Dangerous Precedent

---SSL Broadcast #72---

For the first time, I think that Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison is a visionary.

Last year, football fans, including Steeler fans, had a laugh with Harrison threatening to retire because of fines levied against him last October. At the time, he said, "I'm going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective. If not, I may have to give up playing football."

Now, a little over a year later, the National Football League may drive him to it.

This week, Harrison was suspended for one game without pay for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. The suspension means he will miss the Monday Night Football showdown between his 10-3 Steelers, and the 10-3 San Francisco 49ers.

On last week's show, I agreed with the penalty being assessed, but didn't think a fine should be levelled. A suspension for that hit never crossed my mind.

As of this writing, you can still find video of the play in question on YouTube and can watch it for yourself and judge if you see the same two things I do.

1) Harrison pulls up considerably.

2) The hardest contact is actually done by Harrison's arms, shoving McCoy to the turf.

In no way, shape or form was this a reckless/dirty/cheap hit. Because it was helmet-to-helmet, it was going to draw a penalty. I reiterate that I am not arguing that.

To say that this is along the lines of, say, either of his hits in last year's game between these two teams at Heinz Field that saw Joshua Cribbs and Mohammad Massaquoi leave the game (that resulted in the fines that led Harrison to consider retirement) is asinine.

By levelling this punishment for this offense, what Roger Goodell and his underling/disciplinarians (who refused to even hear an appeal, by the way) have done is pretty much said this: If James Harrison is involved in any helmet-to-helmet contact, he will be suspended, regardless of circumstance.

If that's the case, then it might be said that Harrison (unlike several quarterbacks - Colt McCoy excluded) saw it coming all along.

Also on today's show:

- Panthers football head coach Todd Graham bolts for Arizona State.

- Sidney Crosby, when he's ready again, needs to come back to stay.

- The Pirates bring a third baseman on board. Do they really need him, even as insurance?

- After a bogus pass interference call on Adam "Pacman" Jones that set up Houston's winning touchdown, it's another 1-1 week on the NFL Picks front (13-14-1 overall).


Saturday, December 10, 2011

#233: The President's Team: A Review

---SSL Broadcast #71---

Attention on deck.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a copy of the book The President's Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game & The Assassination of JFK.

It is a must-read for anyone who is at once a history buff and an afecianado of collegiate football, or who is a past, current, or future member of the United States Naval Academy.

Even if neither of those specifically apply to you, I still recommend it.

In his preface, author Michael Connelly confesses that he had only intended to shape this work to frame the two-week period beginning with the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and ending with the Army-Navy game, which was played with the blessing (or, perhaps, insistance) of the fallen leader's family.

Through his research and the interviews he conducted, however, Connelly discovered a much more involved story, from multiple angles.

This work first details Kennedy's own involvement with the United States Navy and his heroism during World War II, his family's traditional games of touch football in New England (as well as the family's history in politics), then flashes forward to his election to the presidency in 1960.

At that time, the football team that represented the brigade boasted its first Heisman Trophy winner in Joe Bellino, who led the Midshipmen to their second win in as many years against the archrival Cadets of Army.

From there, Connelly interweaves the stories of the President with his favorite collegiate team, including Kennedy meeting with Bellino and some of his teammates while he was President-Elect.

The 1961 season is a blur in the scope of the book, but it's given enough of a mention to help flesh out Navy's fiery head coach Wayne Hardin, cover their third straight win over Army, and identify a certain "plebe" who was destined for great things of his own beginning in 1962. That plebe's name was Roger Staubach.

From there, Connelly describes in riveting detail how Staubach rose to become Navy's starter early in his sophomore year and how he took the sports world by storm. He also deftly profiles the teammates that helped make Staubach even greater.

Every so often, Connelly leaves the team briefly to pen a parallel storyline, relating what was happening in the world with regard to Kennedy's Presidency, and how he was still keeping an eye on the Academy and finding time to attend the Army-Navy games.

Naturally, most of the book focuses on the 1963 season, which was winding down when Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas.

Connelly's choice to start the story in 1960 helps to maximize the emotional impact on the Midshipmen when their focus was abruptly torn away from prepping for their clash with Army.

Connelly chronicles the classic Army-Navy game that took place two weeks after its originally scheduled date, and follows that up with Navy's attempt to secure a national title.

A couple of wonderful elements are included in the book. There are two sections with an array of black and white photographs of the people involved, and another section that gives the current whereabouts (as of the book's publication) of the players who were on the 1963 team.

I have a couple of criticisms, of course. One is that while the editors did well to ensure the book was virtually free of any ugly punctuation and grammatical errors, there were some facts that were needlessly repeated, some in close proximity to each other.

The second is that the book's subtitle: "The 1963 Army-Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK" only makes up a portion of the book. That was the intial scope of the project, as Connelly mentions in his preface, but the book is far more than that.

Something more along the lines of "The Story of Navy Football During JFK's Administration" would have been more accurate.

Still, if the subtitle as it stands is enough to get you to crack the cover, the "bonus coverage" is a terrific (and necessary) surprise.

The President's Team is available at major booksellers, or online at

Mr. Connelly is my guest on this edition of "Steeltown Sports Live."

Also on today's show:

- A couple of wins against Ohio opponents in less than a week for the Steelers.

- Sidney Crosby on ice...or rather, off ice...I mean... whatever...

- WVU wins the Big East, and Pitt still makes a bowl game.

- The Pirates make some moves at the Winter Meetings, but nothing that's going to improve the team.

- The pattern continues on the NFL Picks after another 1-1 week (12-13-1 overall).


Saturday, December 03, 2011

#232: Light Work Ahead for Steelers

---SSL Broadcast #70---

If the Steelers make the 2011 NFL Playoff field, whether or not they're able to win the AFC North, they're not playing a favorable warm-up schedule.

On one hand, this could be a good thing in order to get healthy; with a weaker schedule down the stretch, it will be less tempting to play the major players when a backup could be just as effective.

On the other hand, entering the playoffs after a relatively light schedule could be like playing the card game "War," then finding yourself in the finals of a poker tournament.

Cincinnati, this week's opponent, is certainly no pushover this season, but being at Heinz Field should help them get through this one. Cleveland twice and the St. Louis Rams at home should all be wins (if they're not, I will be forced to seriously question head coach Mike Tomlin's preparations). As for the currently 9-2 San Francisco 49ers, by the time that game rolls around, the 9ers will have wrapped up the NFC West and, likely, the number two seed in the NFC playoffs. They will have less to play for than Pittsburgh.

The Steelers need this schedule to have a chance to overtake Baltimore and win the the AFC North and, possibly, the top overall seed in the AFC. The light end-of-the-regular-season schedule - plus a bye week - could result in a shock once they would host their first opponent in this hypothetical situation.

Nothing short of convincing victories over the remaining slate of opponents should give Steeler fans confidence heading into the postseason.

On today's show:

- Lots of college football talk, particularly possible solutions (or starts of solutions) to the college postseason system.

- The Penguins remain in the top 10 most valuable franchises in the league.

- Maybe a Pitt loss to Syracuse wouldn't be all that terrible.

- A mistake, stating that Cincinnati and Louisville are playing today. As I write this, let me say they're not.

- Back to the usual on the NFL Picks after a 1-1 week last time out (11-12-1 overall).