Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The response on (and from) Weslye Saunders

If you're reading this chances are excellent that you've already read my post yesterday in which I urged Steve Spurrier to dismiss Weslye Saunders from the Gamecocks football program.  If you haven't, read it and come right back.

Let me say that the response on air, via email and on Twitter yesterday was big, and for the most part it seems people agree with me.  I knew going in that Weslye wouldn't actually be dismissed, but I wanted a way to gauge where Carolina fans were on this topic.  Those who didn't agree with me did feel he should be punished rather harshly for lying - twice - to his coaches about why he was so late for last Saturday's scrimmage, but they didn't want him removed for one main reason: he's a great player that can help win games.

As I've said repeatedly, that's true.  He is a great player.  Which is precisely why I continue to believe he should be dismissed.  He has a "me first" attitude and seems convinced that he should be allowed to operate under different rules solely because of his abilities.  I respectfully disagree.  That type of attitude, or the acceptance of it, is bad for business in my opinion.

Weslye has a Twitter account that he keeps private, but I'm told he put up two posts yesterday.  One thanked "real fans" who "know and support" him, while the other questioned the methods of journalists who call him a "bad guy."  I'd like to address both issues.

First, "real fans" of the University of South Carolina have paid for Weslye's college education.  They've cheered him and his teammates through good times and bad.  They deserve to know that players appreciate the opportunity they're given and that they show that appreciation through consistent effort.  

Basically I'm saying this: Gamecock fans have their players' backs.  They want to know that players have the fans' backs too.  With Weslye, they're not so sure.  That's on him, not the fans.

Secondly, Weslye, as the son of a journalist and a journalism major himself, ought to easily be able to distinguish between a made up, hatchet job "news" story and the real reporting of fact and the subsequent opinions those facts may spawn.  However, when it comes to his own case he is clearly having a difficult time of it.

Travis Haney of the Charleston Post and Courier first uncovered the facts of Weslye's latest incident.  I know who his sources are and they are impeccable.  My opinion, and those who share it, is based solely on those facts and the facts from Weslye's previous, non-NCAA related troubles with his team.  I guarantee that kind of journalism is taught somewhere at Carolina.

In the end this will die down.  I have no idea how long Coach Spurrier will keep Weslye away from the team and if he'll miss any games because of what he did.  Bear in mind that the NCAA may still have plenty to say about Weslye's playing time too.  Regardless, this is a young man who has shown a propensity to put himself ahead of his team.  At some point he needs to realize that.

Not having a team to put himself in front of may be the only way he'll actually learn.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It's hard to leave if they won't throw you out

By now, anyone who even remotely follows the South Carolina football program knows about the continuing - and quite often maddening - saga that is the career of tight end Weslye Saunders.  A highly touted talent from the Raleigh-Durham area, Saunders came to Columbia to make headlines on the field, get an education and prepare himself for an opportunity in the National Football League.

Saunders has made headlines, but most of them are due to incidents away from the field;  trips to exotic locales that may have been paid for by an agent that led to the NCAA investigating Saunders, living arrangements at a Columbia hotel that also raised NCAA eyebrows and now, lying to his coaching staff about why he was late for a scrimmage (although it's officially being described as the stock "violation of team rules," the reason will likely hack you off).

I understand as well as anyone that just making headlines doesn't in any way mean that someone is guilty of all the incidents that are talked about in the subsequent articles, but after a while, those headlines become a distraction that permeates the entire program.  Perception becomes reality.  Daily questions asked of coaches and players.  Daily conversation on talk shows.  Daily discussion on the web.  It gets old and causes everyone involved to be more tense.  When one guy is the source of the distraction it's even worse.

With Weslye Saunders, the line has finally been crossed.  It is, in my opinion, time for him to go.  Now.

I can hear tens of thousands of Gamecock fans screaming "Whoa, Philips, back up a bit."  They know as I do that Saunders IS a bona fide NFL prospect.  He has size, speed, hands, smarts and he plays in the SEC.  Those things make NFL scouts drool and help teams win games.  If only that were enough in life.

Sadly, during most of his time in Columbia, Weslye Saunders has put his focus too squarely on one thing above all others: Weslye Saunders.  I've spoken to a number of people in and around the program about this and the consensus on Saunders is that he's a great talent and makes sure everyone around him knows it.  From all I've gathered he truly feels that his team and his university need him far more than he needs them. That's not true, and it's not good.

At the beginning of training camp in August, head coach Steve Spurrier seemed genuinely enthused about Saunders' prospects for his senior year.  He was in the best shape of his career Spurrier told us, slimmed down and bulked up at the same time.  Even back in the spring Saunders himself said on his Twitter account that 2010 was going to be a big season and that people would be very happy with the results.  It's now a week from kickoff and we're not even sure Saunders will be eligible to step on the field.  Anybody that's a Gamecock fan happy about that?

Of the four tight ends on the Carolina squad there is no doubt that Saunders is the best.  Not all that long ago in Columbia talent would trump attitude simply because the football team didn't have enough good players on it.  Based on Spurrier's attitude this offseason that's no longer the case.  Carolina may not be Florida, Alabama or LSU, but the days of good starters and little else are gone.  Quality depth abounds at many positions, and while tight end may not be as deep as say, the receiving corps, it's deep enough that losing the top guy and replacing him with players who have better character, effort and attitude will be an addition by subtraction.

I'd love to see the Gamecocks finally get to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game.  I've often said that feat alone is the next true step for the program to take to prove it can play in this league.  That said, I'm tired of seeing players come through the program that use it for their own needs, play hard when they feel like it and move on with a wake of apathy trailing behind them.

Weslye  Saunders is the latest to fit that description.  His most recent transgression only reinforces that. Regardless of his ability or potential impact on the field, it's time for Steve Spurrier to send a message: we don't want those guys anymore.  Pull that bandage off now.  It won't hurt very long, and Carolina Football will be better off in the end.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Could the Gamecocks have more than 1 title? Maybe...

I caught some of the Steve Spurrier "In My Own Words" special that aired on SportSouth recently.  It was good.  Like my friend Travis Haney, I too wondered how they got Spurrier to sit still for that long, but whatever they did, well done.  That's not the point of today's post, however.

During the show Spurrier, as he discussed wanting to win the SEC at USC, brought up the fact that South Carolina has only one conference football championship.  That's true of course, but it dawned on me that it is also a bit misleading.

South Carolina, as is well documented, left the ACC after the 1970 - '71 school year.  Until it began play in the SEC in 1992, the Gamecocks football program was a 1A independent.  With Paul Dietzel's 1966 arrival, South Carolina finally began to take football more seriously.  They won the 1969 ACC title and began, in a relative sense, a good run of success.  Jim Carlen and Joe Morrison both had three bowl trips, and Carlen is responsible for both his teams' successes AND leaving behind a great group of talent for Morrison to build on.  (Richard Bell's one year doesn't factor in the discussion!)

During the 21 seasons the Gamecocks went without being in a conference, they played 93 games against ACC members, going 49-42-2.  For the sake of the discussion, and to get an even larger sampling, I'll throw Florida State in the mix and include the eight games Carolina and Georgia Tech played before the Jackets joined the ACC, which brings what I call a "potential ACC" record of 57-55-2.  (Note - SC and GT played from '71-'78, then stopped when GT joined the ACC.  The series resumed for four years from '88 - '91.)

In those 21 seasons, the Gamecocks posted eight winning records versus either actual or potential ACC opponents.  There was one season at .500, and the other twelve were obviously losing records.  The lists below include Carolina's record versus each school during that span, as well as the records of the eight winning seasons, plus the record of that year's actual ACC champion.  Here you go:

Records vs ACC teams from 1971 - 1991

Duke 10-5-1
Maryland 1-0
NC State 9-12 (only ACC school besides CU to play vs SC each year)
North Carolina 5-5
Virginia 5-2
Wake Forest 12-1
Clemson 5-15-1
Georgia Tech 2-2

"Potential" ACC teams (both were 1A independents)
Georgia Tech 5-3
Florida State 3-10

USC winning record seasons (w/ actual (A) record vs ACC, "potential" (P) w GT, FSU incl, plus ACC Champ)

1971 4-2 A, 5-3 P ... UNC 6-0
1973 2-1 A, 4-1 P ... NCSU 6-0
1975 4-1 A, 5-1 P ... Maryland 5-0
1976 3-2 A, 4-2 P ... UNC 5-0-1
1979 4-1 A, 4-2 P ... NCSU 5-1
1981 5-1 A ... Clemson 6-0
1984 3-0 A, 4-0 P ... Maryland 5-0
1987 4-0 A ... Clemson 6-1
(No games vs "potential" teams in '81 or '87)

While I'm certainly not here to tell you that South Carolina would definitely have captured the conference title in any of those years, (after all, they never actually played a full schedule) it is certainly realistic to think that in many of those eight seasons the Gamecocks would have been a real challenger, especially in 1973, '75, '79, '81, '84 and ''87.

Please understand this too: I am in NO WAY making this point to say South Carolina should be a member of the ACC.  In fact, there have been several times when I've had heated discussions with folks who believe that should be the case.  The SEC membership Carolina now enjoys is still the best thing that's ever happened to the school from an athletic perspective, and I'll do all I can to keep it that way.  That said, given the positive differences Dietzel made and the methods of Carlen and Morrison after him, my gut tells me that had Carolina remained an ACC member, they'd have won another title or two...or more.

Of course, if USC hadn't left the ACC in the first place, they wouldn't be in the SEC now, so it all worked out.  However, it's always fun to play "What If?".  So next time you hear someone say they only have one title, remember that for 21 years of relatively good football, the Gamecocks never had a chance to win one.  Something to think about, but it's not worth regretting.  If they can ever pull off an SEC title, a lot of people will forget Carolina was in the ACC at all.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Like sands through the hourglass...

Before I really get in to what I want to discuss, let me admit something: I used to be hooked on 'Days of Our Lives.'  My grandmother watched it when I was a kid, and by the time I was in high school I kept up as often as I could, especially during the summer.

Hope, Jennifer, Roman and Bo - not to mention the evil Stefano - were all part of the fun.  The show's still going strong even though I no longer pay attention, but that's OK because I've become enthralled with a newer and more intriguing soap opera right here in Columbia.  I'm calling it 'As the Offense Spins.'

The lead player in my drama is, of course, Steve Spurrier.  Part hero, part villain, Spurrier is the central figure around which everything else on his team revolves.  Stephen Garcia plays the role of the long suffering, always misunderstood bad boy.  He wants to be loved, but on his own terms.  Societal conventions don't fit him, even though he secretly wishes they did.

Connor Shaw is the new kid in town.  He's confident without being cocky, he's polished but unproven and does everything he should to be in his coach's good graces.  There's a storm brewing though, and the townsfolk (OK, the fans) aren't yet sold on his ability to weather it.

There are other storylines coursing through 'ATOS' too, like whether or not big time tight end prospect Weslye Saunders will actually be allowed to remain with his team.  He may surround himself with the wrong element from time to time.  The ladies may like that, but how will Spurrier react if the news isn't good.

Speaking of guys who catch passes, Spurrier has several wide receivers in the fold, but there are only so many guys who can legitimately play.  One of them almost transferred last week.  What happens when the depth chart is finally decided on?  Will we see harmony, or will bad blood and jealousy disrupt this team's run toward a conference title?

Running back also provides high drama stories.  From bruising senior Brian Maddox to heralded freshman Marcus Lattimore, the corps has more weapons than it's had in years.  Kenny Miles is a solid player and Jarvis Giles has the potential to be the SEC's next Dexter McCluster.  Only one can hold the ball at any given time though.  Who emerges as the real go to threat?

Lastly, the offensive line is in a tough spot in their development.  For years they've been put upon, struggling to break out of a funk that's made them the punching bag of the entire Gamecock nation.  Yet another coach is leading them this season, and early indications are that their struggles could continue for a while.  Only time will tell if they are ready to move out of the cellar of the SEC's OL units.

In the end, however, what people from Columbia to Fayetteville and Lexington to Gainesville will tune in to watch is the drama produced at quarterback.  In his day Spurrier was the nation's best QB, a hot shot Heisman winner who dated then married a cheerleader, spent a decade in the NFL and has become a coach credited with changing how football is played in the SEC and beyond.  High standards to be sure.

Will he finally have someone at South Carolina capable of living up to those standards?  Will he drive the veteran so hard that he throws his hands up in submission or will Garcia light up the scoreboard?  Will the rookie say and do everything right in practice sessions AND produce when he finally gets on the field, or will Shaw let the pressure rattle him and throw the team in a downward spiral?

Stay tuned, because based on how Spurrier currently feels, the writers of this show are going to be very busy the next few weeks.  No matter what though, millions will be watching.  We're hooked, and none of us wants to miss the next exciting episode of 'As the Offense Spins.'

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What if we all played for Bobby Cox?

I've been reading a lot this morning on yesterday's Braves/Cubs trade that sent Derrek Lee to Atlanta, and, while it's not surprising, I'm struck by how much Bobby Cox directly figures into the deal.

Much has been made of the fact that the Braves' skipper is in his final season of a Hall of Fame career, especially when he visits cities for the last time and gets cool gifts (the cowboy hat from the Astros being my personal favorite).  We've also heard how much players enjoy having him as their manager.  A lot of guys are considered "players managers," but often it's a cliche to reference a guy who lets his charges pretty much do what they want.  Not so with Cox.  He runs a tight ship.  It's his way or you're out - just ask Kenny Lofton and Yunel Escobar.

In my eight-plus years as a talk show host, and in the years prior when I was just a really big Braves fan, I've been perhaps the biggest Cox supporter I know.  Callers routinely blame Cox for the Braves' World Series failures.  In more recent seasons many fans have blamed him directly for the team's failure to make the playoffs, completely ignoring the massive failures of Time-Warner's ownership and the subsequent indifference Liberty Media has shown since they acquired the team.  Yet Terry McGuirk, Frank Wren and Cox have plugged along, corporate shackles and all.  The minor league system continues to produce fantastic talent, and free agent acqusitions like Tim Hudson and Billy Wagner have solidified key spots on the club.

As I read Ken Rosenthal's piece today on the Lee trade, I was so happy to learn just how much Cox's reputation and influence factored into not only Lee's choice to waive his no trade clause, but in the desire of Troy Glaus to VOLUNTEER to go on the DL, head to AAA Gwinnet and get some time in at third base, bad knees and all.

Guys on other clubs want to be in Atlanta, while the guys already in Atlanta look at Bobby like their dad and want to do all they can for him.  They feel that way because they know he'll always have their back, no matter what.  That's very special, and very rare, especially in today's world.

A lot of us are fortunate to work for good people.  A lot of us aren't.  We don't always achieve the goals we strive for or are capable of, but just imagine how much better off we would be if we all went to work for someone like Bobby Cox every day.

Here's hoping the Braves close out his career with the ultimate prize, but if they don't, they can rest easy knowing they went to work for a guy who genuinely strives to make everyone around him a little better every day.  That's pretty cool.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Day of School Eve

So my first post actually has very little sports in it, but that's because at the Philips house, my wife and I are celebrating.  Tomorrow is, for three of our four girls, the First Day of School.  The capitalization is no mistake - we treat it as a full-fledged holiday.  While we love our children deeply, they've been home for a while now, and, since they love school anyway (which they did NOT get from me), the time to send them back is at long last here.  A sixth grader, a third grader and yes, a kindergartener, all get going tomorrow.  It's not Christmas, but you get it.

The fun of First Day of School Eve actually began just after dinner during a really big thunderstorm that rolled over Columbia.  Lightning struck in our yard, close enough to the house that it blew a couple of circuits, but thankfully we didn't lose power.  The strike produced a huge white spark inside the house that pretty much freaked us all out.  With the girls already keyed up about the First Day of School, and with the storm already producing some fireworks, the level hit a big high.  Lots of parental reassurances that the worst had passed soon followed, and luckily the parents were right!

Like Christmas Eve, there is huge anticipation in our house.  The girls went to bed very excited about new grades and old friends.  Hopefully they'll sleep, especially now that the storm has passed and order's been restored.  I just finished watching the Braves beat Washington on Jason Heyward's game-winning single.  My wife is mixing some late night work with a hand of solitaire on her computer.  She's losing by the way.

Our "celebration" isn't going to leave us hungover, but that's OK.  For one thing, the alarm is on for the first time in months.  Most importantly, you realize how far you've come in life when you hit this point in the calendar each year.  The kids don't.  So Happy First  Day of School to everybody.  You've made it through another year of growing up.  That's worth celebrating.