Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spring Pro Football

Northwestern has extended Coach Fitz through 2015 in an effort to extend the fist pump gap against Big Ten opponents. The deal is a no-brainer; Northwestern fans cannot think of anyone else in the country they want in charge of the program, and Fitzgerald says he does not want to go anywhere. That Wildcat fans believe him when most college football coaches are a combination of treacherous snake oil salesman, glad-handing, corrupt good ol' boy state congressperson, and poet/warlord speaks volumes to what he means to the program. Things did get a bit convoluted late last year with swirling Fitz to Notre Dame rumors no doubt cooked up by the Sun-Times and the sort of conniving papist agents that Dan Brown really wants to exist, but those have dissipated.

Coach Fitz gets his ceaseless energy from NU fan enthusiasm and by traveling
around the country decapitating lesser coaches who stand in his way

In other Northwestern news, three former NU players have been drafted by the new USFL league tentatively scheduled to begin play in February 2010 and fold sometime in March. C.J. Bachér has been drafted by the as-yet-unnamed New York team, and Prince Kwateng was chosen by San Francisco. Tim McGarigle has evidently turned in his badge to St. Louis after growing disgusted with the due process involved with their special teams and decided to tackle ball carriers himself after the brutal stiff-arming of his partner just one week from retirement, but failing that, he has been drafted by the Orlando USFL team.

"You're a loose cannon, McGarigle"

Look also for the return of Dennis Green, who coached the Wildcats in the 1980s and has evidently been punching at the microphone to return to coaching. Other notable players include Michigan's Chris Perry, Wisconsin's Brooks Bollinger, and someone named "Fred Bledsoe."


There are few things more prone to a tragic romantic failure than an attempt to start an alternative spring football league. These operations fail for a number of reasons: for one, the sports landscape becomes crowded in the spring, with basketball and hockey playoff races heating up, March Madness, and the childlike joy of the first images of corpulent relief pitchers waddling around some complex in Florida or Arizona practicing a nineteenth century stretching regimen followed by the arrival of new players and the first sweet crack of the bat heralding the beginning of baseball season that will inevitably end with disappointment or searing heartbreak because your team hasn't won anything since the Kaiser menaced Europe and Yugoslavia was born and collapsed and never will for some mystifying cosmic reason.

Planning the next professional spring football league

The other reason is because these spring leagues are inevitably bereft of solid franchise ownership and constantly plagued by teams moving, bad management, and comically bad ideas. For example, the World Football League, as shoddy a fly-by-night sports organization as any that had ever existed, where players feared visits by both the Turk and the repo man, nearly implemented a special color-coded system for players' pants based on position including featuring stars on the pants for quarterbacks. The World Football League did become a pioneer in ridiculous team names including the Birmingham Vulcans, the Memphis Southmen, and the Shreveport Steamer, which will escape further comment.

The original USFL lasted from 1983-1985 and managed to lose $163 million. Few teams lasted from season to season, and at one point Arizona and Chicago somehow traded franchises. According to the widipedia page, the San Antonio Gunslingers simply stopped paying players, some of whom "were forced to move in with sympathetic fans." The UFL did attract NFL-caliber talent including MVPs Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker as well as the venerable Doug Flutie, but, much like the World Football League, it could not remain stable enough get a grip on fans and ended up inevitably pursuing an anti-trust suit against the NFL.

The most spectacular bust in recent memory is Vince McMahon's XFL, that sought to bring the understated sophistication of professional wrestling broadcasts to football.

Vince McMahon

On paper, the XFL had many advantages: it owned all of the franchises, preventing the squirrelly management that hurt the WFL and USFL, it secured the participation of Dick Butkus, snagging him from the set of "Hang Time," and it promised the type of tawdry gimmicks that inevitably come from using the letter X to stand for "extreme."

The X-treme phenomenon taken well past its logical limit. My
review of
xXx: State of the Union can be summed up by the
sentence "Xibit has lines."

The XFL did debut to massive hype and made a number of small contributions to sporting lore: Rod Smart's inexplicably brilliant "He Hate Me" jersey, the return of Rashaan Salaam, the questions raised about the duties and responsibilities of a sitting Minnesota governor, and the possibility that Maniax might be the most inane name of any sports team ever, including the Paraguayan soccer team named after Rutherford B. Hayes.

Even a spring league officially sanctioned by the NFL was destined for failure. Granted, NFL Europa was designed to foster interest in football in Europe as well as develop talent, but American fans largely dismissed it as a curious punchline, and as its existence facilitated a chain of events that led to Jonathan Quinn starting games for the Chicago Bears, I am forced to agree.

NFL Europa employed some minor stylistic differences from NFL
football to make it more palatable in Europe

The financial chaos of the WFL and USFL are actually seductive; that is, owners think that if they can get a business model that does not involve moving teams in the manner of military commanders pushing tanks around those giant table maps with those special tank pushing croupier devices, actually pay players to play, and maintain stable leadership, the leagues could succeed. Instead, the new USFL should consider whether there is a natural saturation point in interest in football and if it is possible to create fan interest in teams after they have already invested so much attention in college football and the NFL. It's impossible to see any spring league rising above the level of niche league beyond appealing to absolute football fanatics and fans of novelty sports leagues.

The odds are against the success of the new USFL, but it is in the hands of Commissioner Michael Huyghue, who boasts an mystifyingly unpronounceable name, but also an uncanny ability to manipulate the shape of his head.

These are two images of Huyghue taken from the USFL site, from his blog index
and then an actual post. I refuse to support the USFL until it resolves this
crucial issue of the exact grade of Mr. Huyghue's head pointiness


Earlier this evening, Cubs closer Kevin Gregg served up a walk-off two run homer after a fantastic shot by Micah Hoffpauir off of Joel Zumaya put the Cubs ahead. Gregg has an above-average ERA+ of 110, a fairly average WHIP of 1.33, and 11 saves, which conventionally means that he's not a terrible pitcher (although Fangraphs calculates a more damning Fielder Independent Pitching stat of 4.59 on an ERA scale). A rational person might argue that it is his tendency to walk batters and occasionally melt down that creates an anti-Gregg furor among Cubs fans; the fact that he replaced Kerry Wood does not hurt although Wood's recent performance has mollified those feelings. Instead, I argue that the invective against Gregg has as much to do with his stupid goggles as his occasional incompetence on the mound.

The Kevin Gregg experience

In fact, I posit that goggled relief pitchers inspire a unique ire in baseball. In other sports, especially basketball, Rec Specs added a certain charm: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Horace Grant, BYCTOM favorite Antoine "Big Dog, damn your eyes Glen Robinson" Carr all were accepted with their goggles. Basketball fans even embrace those face protector masks that Rip Hamilton wore that make it look like they are the only things preventing them from launching into a Lecter-esque cannibal frenzy.

Goggled relief pitchers, however, tend to have sordid reputations-- Francisco Rodriguez, whose wild gesticulations recall the spasmodic reaction to an unexpected encounter with a Portuguese Man o'war or the celebration of a lesser Gramatica, Eric Gagné, the portly department store Santa implicated in the Mitchell Report for all but writing "steroids" on a check memo, and Kyle Farnsworth, baseball's greatest brawling pitcher who started wearing goggles most likely as a way to conceal a shiv and is guaranteed a job in the majors for fear of a Shawn Chacon incident that would turn an executive into a crater and a damp wingtip.

The Legion of Goggled Relievers

By donning the goggles, Kevin Gregg willingly joins this evil legion. I imagine that they gather in a bullpen in a hollowed out volcano, coming up with plots to blackmail the UN into forcing umpires to enforce a looser strike zone, owners to increase the dimensions of their parks, and someone else to give them a card promising a lifetime supply of Chicken McNuggets. Unfortunately, their plan, developed by Farnsworth, involves writing the words "Space Lazer" on a giant sheet of cardboard covered in tissue paper and festive streamers. Gagné prepares the "Good afternoon, gentlemen" speech in front a rasterized portrait of Ricky Vaughn, while Rodriguez practices a series of enraged fistpumps to show the depth of his seriousness and Kevin Gregg, I'd imagine, merely runs back and forth after accidentally setting himself on fire.

The Legion of Goggled Receivers is less
effective than other master criminal legion

The new USFL presumably has a more competent organizational structure behind it than a set of rogue goggled relief pitchers. It, however, faces a long struggle to become a relevant sports institution, stepping over the bloated corpses of myriad failed opportunities to extend the football cash cow into the spring. Even if it does not work out, perhaps it can keep Bachér, Kwateng, and McGarigle in the football limelight long enough for them to catch on with an NFL team. In the meantime, the USFL owners will leave Commissioner Huyghue tilting at the windmills, dreaming the impossible dream, and somehow adjusting his head.


Anonymous said...

You've confused the new UFL with the USFL.

But the UFL will play in the fall, not the spring.

NorthwesternHighlights.com said...

Nice McGarnicle reference.