Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Man For All (Basketball) Seasons

This post was meant to be written shortly after the BYU-UNLV game a couple of weeks ago. As this blog isn't something I do for a living, a lot of things managed to get in the way of writing the last two weeks. In the meantime, what was perhaps not completely obvious has become more readily evident. That said. . .

I was happy to have Steve Cleveland at BYU. I will be forever grateful to him for resurrecting the BYU basketball program. The game that perhaps stands out as an example of the best of Cleveland's coaching ability was the 2000 conference tournament victory ending a 12-game losing streak against the University of Utah. Cleveland and his assistants went over several scenarios into the early hours of the morning on how to beat Utah, and nothing clicked. Finally Cleveland determined that Eric Nielsen, a steady but generally unspectacular player, could beat Utah's best player, Hanno Mottola, off the dribble. Three new plays were drawn up for Nielsen. He finished with a career-high 17 points, and the rivalry was back.

But although the team got back to a respectable level, there was always something lacking. Perhaps the best team under Cleveland was the 2003-2004 version with a future NBA first-round pick in Rafael Araujo. That team beat Oklahoma State (which later made it to the Final Four) and had then-USC coach Henry Bibby saying that BYU was one of the top three teams in the West, along with Stanford and Arizona. As much talent as that team had, however, they were inconsistent. They also continued a trend under Cleveland of losing their only game in the NCAA tournament. You could blame the latter two losses on getting matched against teams that were used to tournament-level play (UConn and Syracuse), and maybe that was just bad luck. Nevertheless, BYU's loss to Syracuse came despite many thinking that the Cougars would take the Orangemen out. That Cougar team was the aforementioned group that beat a future Final Four entrant.

Last year saw BYU take a major step backward, and, after leaving for Fresno State, Cleveland said he had accomplished everything that he felt he could at BYU. Enter Dave Rose. What I see with his team this year is passion and toughness. After a loss at Utah that seemingly stopped BYU's momentum, the Cougars jumped all over UNLV at home. Then the Rebels fought their way back and took the lead. I suspected that, as in years past, BYU would not be able to pull this one out--they wouldn't be mentally tough enough. To my very pleasant surprise, BYU turned the tables on UNLV and were the tougher team down the stretch. Since that game, they've won twice on the road and beat San Diego State at home, pulling away at the end by making all eight of their free throws in the last 53 seconds.

As most know, Dave Rose played for the "Phi Slamma Jamma" Houston Cougars team with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. As talented as that team was, they lost in the championship to North Carolina State, a team that kept winning close games. Rose has taken that lesson learned and applied it to his philosophy of coaching. He says that he won't be the one to tell his team they can't win. That right there, I believe, is the difference between Dave Rose and Steve Cleveland. Steve Cleveland felt he had done all he could at BYU. He didn't feel he could do any better with the talent pool he could get there. Dave Rose doesn't feel that way. He believes the "better" team doesn't always win, and that, even if his team isn't "better", what's to stop them from playing better than the other team in any given situation? That succinctly illustrates why he is likely the right man to coach BYU for a long time to come.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Man Who Would Be Star QB

BYU once recruited an all-state quarterback who was 6'4", had gone undefeated his senior year, and was going to receive not an athletic scholarship but a Gordon B. Hinckley scholarship--the most prestigious awarded at BYU. If that combination of athletic success and smarts wasn't enough to make you figuratively drool over his prospects as a BYU quarterback, surely you would after hearing that his father had made it to the NFL as a quarterback.

Jump ahead a few years. The new starting quarterback has a great first game, but plays poorly thereafter and gets benched in the middle of the year. The man who should be next in line, a sophomore with some game-time experience the previous year, shows in live action that he isn't ready to step up. Not only is he not ready to play, but he isn't even able to beat out a redshirt freshman a few months removed from his mission. He gets some playing time in a few games that year and the next, but in his highest-profile appearance it is obvious he doesn't have it--he throws more than twenty passes, with only 20% being completed (along with an interception). It appears that he has been instructed to look downfield as often as he can to try for quick scores since the team is way behind, but he is seldom even close on his throws. During his junior year, he isn't seriously considered in the running to start, even though the player who eventually won the starting job the year before was inconsistent, and another player being considered is fresh off his mission with no college football experience. Due to injuries and lack of experience, the team struggles.

Of course the quarterback in question is the same one who looked fantastic coming out of high school. So what was the issue?

This quarterback maintained his perfect grades in college, graduating summa cum laude. He also was gifted musically, to the point of composing and producing a piano album. He pursued a Rhodes scholarship, and was a national finalist (with two others) for the $21,500 Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship. Getting perfect grades is uncommon in college, and exceedingly rare for the student with the additional demands of sports. Being able to compose and produce one's own album as well is altogether unheard. I think the issue for this student-athlete, who by all accounts was a stellar human being, was one of spreading himself too thin with pursuits outside of football. I can't fault him for wanting to get the best grades possible; there is life after football, and very often life without football regardless of how good the player has become if injury or bad luck gets in the way. But, he was taking a scholarship spot on the team despite his being based on academics rather than athletics. He was one of only a handful of quarterbacks--the most important position--on the team. As such, he should have recognized the importance of, and obligation to, devoting all the attention he could to the success of the football team. That means he needed to become the best quarterback he could reasonably be.

College football only lasts four to five years, and then it's over. Other endeavors can wait. This quarterback's time passed without him becoming the star that I expected, and the team needed, him to be. If another quarterback with similar credentials comes to BYU, I hope he will realize his importance to the team, and direct his energy accordingly.