Monday, March 4, 2013

Andrew Knapp...and the Two-Minute Drill

Baseball is in Andrew Knapp’s blood. He’s been around it all his life.

Andrew in last year's game against
Stanford. Photo by Michael Pimentel,

He kids that he was a suitcase baby, moving around and living in hotels until he was five years old. That’s when his dad, Mike, retired from baseball.
Mike spent 11 seasons catching in the minors, seven of them in AAA. He was drafted by the California Angels and finished with the Seattle Mariners, playing in numerous cities along the way including Midland, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Andrew hopes to continue to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He already plays the same position, catcher. He attends Cal, just like his dad. The next step is being drafted, but for right now he is focused on the season and his team.

Andrew, a junior, was named first-team Preseason All-American by Baseball America. The last Cal Bear to receive this honor was Brett Jackson in 2009. Brett is with the Chicago Cubs and is slated to start in AAA this season.
Andrew has spent his last two summers playing the game he loves. In the summer of 2011 he led the Northwoods League in hitting with .500 and drove in 33 runs. And, last summer he played in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Chatham Anglers. In 40 games, he batted .293 with 13 doubles, 8 home runs, and 29 runs batted in.

In the season opener he hit the game winner—a bases-loaded single up the middle to defeat Michigan 5-4 in extra innings.
In game two of the series he hit a two-run homer to left field.
And, on Sunday, March 3, against Houston he went 4-for-5 with a double, home run, and three RBI.
I sat down with Andrew recently and he shared his story.

PJ: Your dad played baseball at Cal. Was this the only college you wanted to attend?
Andrew: My dad played catcher here in 1985, 1986. He transferred from Sacramento City. Growing up I went to a lot of Cal baseball and football games. I never saw myself wanting to go anywhere else. Through high school I was not highly recruited. So, I started looking at other places a little. But, in my junior year I played good…hit around .500 and got an incredible offer from Cal. It’s the school I always wanted. My dad’s dad went to Cal; my brother is coming next year. It’s in my family.

PJ: How long have you been playing catcher?
Andrew: Since my freshman year in high school. When Devon (Rodriguez) went down last year, I played first base and outfield. I was behind Chadd (Krist, all Pac-12 catcher who holds Cal’s all-time doubles record with 65 and was selected by the Cubs in the ninth round of the 2012 draft), a four-year starter. I learned from watching him. It’s where I am most comfortable and where I will thrive later in baseball. One of the things I take pride in is my handling of the staff. I have guys who want to pitch to me and enjoy throwing to me. We have chemistry and they trust me. With me back there they have more confidence in their pitches and have faith that I will catch and block them.

PJ: Last year was tough…losing one of your key players in Devon Rodriguez. What was it like facing this challenge?
Andrew: When Devon went down, we lost a huge part of our team. He’s a team leader on and off the field, definitely. It was a big blow to us, but it’s not like this team hasn’t dealt with adversity. It took a full team effort last year. That experience and what we learned from it will help us this year. Playing in different positions and now being back in our regular positions just gives us a different perspective. And, with Devon back we will be that much better.

PJ: Tell me a little more about the adjustment you had to make to play other positions last year.
Andrew: It was tough as I never really played first base. I like to see myself as an athletic guy…just knowing how to play, where to throw the ball. I was out early before every practice and every game taking ground balls and fly balls under the lights. I had to fill a big spot with Devon gone. I was just trying to fill some of the void.

I have more confidence and am a much better catcher now. Now we have a catcher being a catcher, a first baseman being a first baseman. Last year was a stretch and there was always that little question of is this going to work? Is he really a shortstop if he’s never played shortstop?

PJ: What are your goals for this season?
Andrew: If the team has a good season, I have a good season. We need to get back into the playoffs and win the Pac-12 championship. We have the hardest conference in the nation. If you end up on top you have a good chance going to the College World Series. I want to be a leader on and off the field. Whatever it takes for the team to succeed is what I’m going to do.

PJ: When did you decide to become a switch hitter?
Andrew: My dad was a right handed hitter in the minors and was told that he would have gone further if he had been a switch hitter. So, it was my mom who turned me around and told me to hit left handed. In little league I hit right handed, but when I was 13 I made the change. Now it’s 100% natural and it even feels more natural left-handed. It took two to three years to get good. It takes a lot of commitment to stick with hitting left handed. I have to hand it to my dad because he kept me going.

PJ: What are your overall baseball goals?
Andrew: I would like to pursue a professional career. I am always getting better. I’m going to ride it as long as I can. Going to Cal I am getting a good education and will earn my degree. I will end up in baseball no matter what, even if it’s on the business side. Baseball is my life now and in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Devon Rodriguez...and the Two Minute Drill

When Cal baseball player Devon Rodriguez said he was at full strength and ready to play, he definitely meant it.

After sitting out last season because of a knee injury and blood clot in his calf, Devon, a redshirt junior first baseman and designated hitter, wasted no time in showing what the team was missing last season without his bat in the lineup.
Devon at AT&T Park during a 2011 game against Rice.
Photo by Kelley Cox,
In the home opening series of the 2013 campaign, he went 8-for-11 with 4 RBI and helped the Bears sweep Michigan.

In Friday afternoon’s game Devon hit a game-tying single in the ninth, picking up where he left off in 2011…
…he went 5-for-5 and hit three doubles against Rice.

…he went 2-for-4 hitting a double, a home run, and driving in two runs against Ohio State.
…he went 4-for-5 crushing a home run and driving in three runs against USC.

And, while he put up good numbers during that season finishing with a .408 slugging percentage and a .341 on-base percentage, it was the Houston Regional in June that will be forever linked to Devon.
On June 6, 2011, in one of the most exciting games in the program’s history, the regional finals against Baylor, Devon went 3-for-4 with a home run and 4 RBI, and had his biggest hit ever…which Cal Coach David Esquer has called the “most famous hit.”

He lived every little kid’s dream…ninth inning, down by one, bases-loaded, two outs…and it’s all on you. Devon stepped up to the plate and got the hit that brought in two runs to beat Baylor 9-8 and move Cal into the next round. He was 8-for-18 for a .444 batting average, and collected 6 RBI in five games to earn the Most Outstanding Player Award for the Regional.
Cal did the remarkable during the postseason, battling back from six elimination games, going through the losers’ bracket and winning four straight games in that Houston Regional, and winning both games in the Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Of course it was a remarkable season off the field, as well. On the brink of elimination as a sport due to budget constraints, the boosters and alumni raised $9 million to save the program.
And, the team just kept grinding away and winning…finishing the ride tied for fifth at the College World Series with a 38-23 record.

I sat down with Devon Rodriguez recently and he shared his story.
PJ: 2011 was quite a season. Baseball was cut and then it was brought back and through all of this you kept winning and made it to the College World Series. What was it like playing not knowing if Cal baseball would see another season?

Devon: 2011 was a rollercoaster ride. So many ups and downs, we were never sure of our future. We wanted to prove to everyone that they were wrong to cut us. We played for us with a chip on our shoulder…for the guys to the left and right of us. I have never played with guys who were so unselfish…not thinking about their personal stats, just trying to get a win.
We never thought they would cut baseball as it is one of the oldest sports at Cal. We were like Band of Brothers…we went to war every day trying to make it last. There was no complacency the whole season. This really helped us get to the College World Series.

PJ: You had a big hit in the Regional finals that season. Tell me about the hit.
Devon: The game…the best game I’ve ever been part of. We were down in the 9th by four runs. Everyone was getting on base anyway they could. I knew the whole season was in my hands. You dream of this growing up. Playing in the backyard…you play this scenario. I was blessed to get a hit. It wasn’t for me…it was for my team and for all those who fought for us and brought us back.

PJ: Last year you injured your knee and ended up sitting out for the entire season. What happened?
Devon: In practice I dove for a ball and landed wrong and hurt my knee. I was only supposed to be out six weeks, but got a blood clot in my calf and was out the whole season. It was devastating for me. I felt like I let the team down, but I knew the guys behind me would pick it up. We’ve been through lots of adversity and they gave their best effort every game, but didn’t make the playoffs. I am excited to get back on the field again and battle with these guys.

PJ: What was rehab like?
Devon: Once I got the blood clot there was no physical activity. I was out two months. Once that got cleared up I had great trainers and medical staff that helped me back to full strength. Every day we strengthened all the muscles in my legs. There was no stopping once I got clearance…it was full go. I just knew how I felt and how much I could push myself.

PJ: What was it like getting back onto the field?
Devon: The first time playing in a game this year I was nervous. It had been so long since I played. But, it was fun. I will not take this game for granted. This injury tested me as a person and a player. My support system is strong…my coaches, friends, and family. I am back at full strength and excited for the season, for the team to do things the right way and have a great season.

PJ: What are your goals for this season and beyond?
Devon: My goals personally are to do everything to help the team win. If it means I hit certain numbers, so be it. But, my goal is to help this team win and get to the College World Series.

I’d like to play baseball as long as possible. After that I’d like to go into law.

Friday, February 8, 2013

NASCAR's Enhanced Course...Driving Fan Engagement

NASCAR is the second most-watched sport in America, yet TV ratings were in decline from 2005 to 2011. In 2011 ratings increased 10%.

In an attempt to continue to boost TV ratings and take better control of its message NASCAR has brought its interactive, digital, and social media in-house. Prior to this Turner was in charge.

Daytona International Speedway,
home to The Sprint Unlimited.
The other significant piece of this is that NASCAR wants to focus on fan engagement…relating to its fans in a new way. And, it’s re-designed website is a bold step on this new course.
The site re-launched January 3, 2013, and will always be in the development-phase based on fan feedback. According to Marc Jenkins, vice president of digital media for NASCAR, the site is all about the fans. “This digital experience is meant to constantly evolve based on user feedback, with the goal of creating a better digital experience for our fans.”

With a heavy focus on races, the site will include videos with in-car camera shots and driver commentary. The new website is also heavy on vertical scrolling, large photos, and interaction.
And, on race day the interactive live leaderboard will provide fans with in-depth information in real-time on each driver.

I sat down recently with Pat DeCola, who is Editor/Producer, Content at NASCAR, and who is an integral part of this new website.
PJ: The first thing I notice on your new site is the images are big and things seem a little more spaced out. Was this your intention?

Pat: Yes, the visual is going in a completely different direction. Before, the homepage was busy. I think this is very effective. It’s a completely different strategy from other sports sites. Eventually other teams and leagues will probably follow suit.

From what I’ve heard the old site wasn’t as user-friendly or streamlined. NASCAR wanted to simplify the site. Now it is clear, crisp, and huge images. The big pictures are called Hero images because they are big, hi-quality, hi-resolution images. They are vibrant. You are directed to click on these images. Compare these to ESPN and other sites…their images are kind of small. These are so big they take up the entire screen.
PJ: What is your overall strategy for the content?
Pat: If people are looking for information on NASCAR we are making it as easy as possible for them…easy to get to…easy to get directed. We are providing expanded coverage with four ex-beat writers, including Kenny Bruce. We want to be the source for all NASCAR…to find stories, even breaking news. This has been done with the fans in mind. We want to be a one-stop shop.

Stayed tuned for all the exciting things we have in store for this season. We will have fresh content, consistently…including features and power rankings. We will be more interactive as we get closer to Daytona. In fact, the Sprint Cup Unlimited fans are currently featured in a poll…either through text or our re-launched NASCAR mobile app. They can change the format of the race…how many laps…20, 40, or 60 and how many pit stops.
To see the changes check out the new NASCAR site

Friday, February 1, 2013

NFL + Concussions...Stuck in the Neutral Zone

We’re hearing a lot of talk about concussions in football through TV pieces on shows such as Outside the Lines on ESPN, E:60 on ESPN, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO; and magazine and newspapers pieces in ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and others.

There is the pending lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 4,000 former players and more than 1,500 of their families.
We’ve all heard about the suicides most notably of Andre Waters, Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau.

Al Toon 
during his NFL playing days.
With it being Super Bowl week many folks have been weighing in on concussions.

A lot of talk…that’s all it is. And, as my dad used to say talk is cheap.
We won’t be moving from this talking stage to something credible…making major changes in the game of football anytime soon.

There is no outrage.
No outrage for Jim McMahon, a 53-year-old man and former NFL quarterback who had four documented concussions, has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He gets ready to walk out of the house to get the mail and can be found 20 minutes later at the kitchen table struggling to remember where he was going. And, he is not the only one.

No outrage for Leroy Hoard, 1989 Rose Bowl MVP for Michigan and 10-year NFL running back, who is facing post-concussion syndrome…with headaches, dizziness, depression, and sensitivity to light. Every day he writes notes to himself and writes three names on his notebook…Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau…to remember their trials and that they committed suicide. And, most importantly to be thankful to the three folks who helped him…former NFL players Robert Smith and Keith Byers, and his wife, because he knows he “could’ve been one of those three guys.”
No outrage for Ray Easterling, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau and what they have faced…changes in their personalities…depression…and a sense that there was no way to re-gain what they had lost, so they took their own lives.

No outrage for Alex Smith, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who followed the new rules for players who have concussions, and lost his job. That’s right, Alex, who was having the best season of his career…a top qb rating of 104.1%; completed 153-of-218 passes for 1, 737 yards; led the league in completion percentage of 70%; did what he was supposed to do and lost his job.
Note to the NFL: this rule change won’t help going forward. In fact, Greg McElroy, third-string quarterback for the New York Jets, did not inform his team of his concussion until days later after what happened to Alex. I wonder how many other players forgot to tell their teams what was going on with them this season.

Until we are moved to outrage the NFL will only continue to make minor rule changes that may or may not make a difference.
It all comes down to the fact that America loves pro football just the way it is. We love the hitting…the violence…the gladiator aspect of it. We really don’t want it to change.

President Obama came out this week and said that if he had a son he doesn’t think he let him play football. And, based on this statement, others think that in two to three decades there will be fewer people playing football.
This sentiment is not new. Football has always been a violent, dangerous sport. Back in the 1970s (when there were fewer rules to protect the players) two of my older cousins played football in Racine, Wisconsin at Horlick High School…Dave Katz and Jeff Kaufman. Both were good players…Dave had the option to play at the University of Wisconsin, but chose not to…and I believe Jeff could have played at the next level if he wanted. Both faced many injuries that still linger today. Based on the sight of their injuries my mom would not let my brother play football. I’m sure she is not the only parent who has felt this way…

And, yet three decades later there are still plenty of guys who want to play…and the NFL is the most-watched sport in America.
We have always known football is not a safe sport. If we haven’t witnessed the injuries, we’ve seen their results former players who hobble around or worse.

Who could forget Jack Tatum’s hit on Darryl Stingley in 1978…the one that left Darryl paralyzed?
Or what about the hit in 2010 that left Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand paralyzed?

This past high school football season in San Jose, CA, there were three incidents where players had to be carried from the field on a gurney all strapped in. I witnessed one of these in a semi-final playoff game. And, yes, I would have to say that in all my years of covering high school football I have never heard of three incidents like this within five weeks of each other. It is quite disturbing.
However, major injuries like this, as well as concussions, could be reduced by simply teaching players the correct tackling technique.

And, this week we don’t have to look far to find someone who does it the right way…San Francisco 49er Dashon Goldson.
Dashon Goldson making a tackle.
Yes, he is a hard hitter, and he was fined in December for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (this is his only fine for this during his career), but he has 346 tackles since 2009. And, he has only had one concussion throughout his career, while he was playing at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas and missed only two games in the NFL due to a knee injury. He’s is doing something right.

He was taught his heads-up approach by Bobby Hosea, a former UCLA cornerback, and Pop Warner coach. Hosea, who is known as the tackling guru, is a consultant for USA Football, the governing body for the sport at the youth and amateur level. He has also started a “Heads-Up Tackling” program for USA Football, along with director Peter Berg and former NFL lineman LaVar Arrington, to give youth coaches a standardized way to teach proper tackling…trying to change the game from the beginning, where kids learn how to play.
While the NFL is focusing on kickoffs, new helmets, protecting quarterbacks (and what about other players like the ones tackling) it is not looking at the cause of the concussions…the hits.

“I don’t think a helmet is going to keep you from getting a concussion,” said Goldson. “You can do it by playing clean football−hitting people hard, but doing it clean.”
Football isn’t going away anytime soon. The fans and the players love the game too much.

When asked this week about his views on the game, Ravens free safety Ed Reed said he knew the dangers of the sport when he got into it, “Some days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did my memory go?’ But I signed up for it.”
“Football has been like this for ages,” he continued. “It’s going to be a violent sport. You are going to have repercussions from that. But every player that plays this game and will play this game signed up for it. We signed up for it. We know what could happen. That’s the life we choose to live.”

He did go on to say he would not encourage his son to play, however if his son wanted to play, he would educate him on the sport.
And, he is not the only current or former player who feels this way.

Al Toon in a classic pose.
Al Toon was a former Wisconsin Badger standout and New York Jet wide receiver for eight seasons…a three-time Pro Bowler, who walked away from the game in 1992 after suffering at least nine concussions. He suffered post-concussion syndrome…sensitivity to light, irritability, nausea, and lapses in concentration and memory, among other things. In the middle of the day, Al could be found lying in the dark with sunglasses covering his eyes. It took three years for these side effects to go away.
Although all of them have not subsided…he still has some lingering issues…strobbing (bursts of light and dark), difficulty concentrating and retrieving information.
Al was afraid of what the next hit…the next concussion would bring, so he retired from what might have been a Hall of Fame career…he caught passes in 101 consecutive games, had 517 total receptions, and averaged 12.8 yards per catch.
Remember, this was back in 1992…yes, we know more about concussions today, but we’ve known that players have been feeling the impact for years…this is not new.

A player walked away from the game like this and the NFL, the fans, and others did not take notice.
Where was the outrage for Al Toon?
His son, Nick, is following in his footsteps. He also plays wide receiver and was drafted by the New Orleans Saint and spent the year on injured reserve with a foot issue.

It is important to note that Al has not joined the legions of other players suffering from after-effects of their concussions in their lawsuit against the NFL.
Al understands the nature of football, “Even if my career hadn’t ended that way, football is a violent sport,” he said.

And, he wasn’t about to stop his son from playing a game he was passionate about.
While Nick has seen the results of numerous concussions up close, it hasn’t stopped him from playing.
“With what happened with my dad, you don’t wish that on any player,” said Nick. “It’s part of the game. It’s going to happen. I think it’s something that you realize, accept, and go out and play.”
Players still want to play…even though they know the possibilities.

Major change doesn’t come quickly in the NFL. They knew about concussions and the after-affects for years and did nothing about it. Only in the last few years have they admitted this exists.
Addressing this issue with the thoughtfulness and seriousness that is deserved will only come with outrage…or more likely with a court ruling or settlement in favor of the players. Money will make the sleeping giant, NFL, wake up and take notice.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the current and next generation of players…like Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, RGIII, Greg McElroy, Nick Toon, and others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Jorell Woodward, Diabetes, and Training for a new Journey

He was a physical education coach, taught after-school programs.

He started teaching boxing two years ago and now teaches boxing and TRX at Stanford.

He’s a personal trainer and runs a kickboxing boot camp on Sunday’s with his friend Jonathan Hoskins for their company, Pound for Pound Fitness.

Jorell standing on the ball
 in the gym.
And, he used to have a training company with his brother Tory and a childhood friend, Teddy Gaines. This is how I met him…at the gym more than a year ago.

On the side he competed in kickboxing and Jiu -Jitsu.

It couldn’t happen to him…right? Not to a guy who’s whole life revolved around fitness.

But it did…and, in his own words, it was...“Boom…you have diabetes.”

These are the words Jorell Woodward heard nearly two years ago. Three words that have changed his life completely.

He used to work out…a lot, and was in great shape…yet it still happened to him. It could happen to any of us.

I sat down recently with Jorell and he shared his story.

PJ: What were the signs that you had diabetes?

Jorell: I was competing in a Jiu-Jitsu competition and needed to make weight. I need to be less than 167 pounds and was between 175 and 180 at the time. So, I layered up [on clothes and ran] and lost 17 pounds in 2 days. I was used to cutting weight, but this worked fast, too fast. It was weird. I never lost that much that quick…17 pounds in 2 days! After the competition I couldn’t gain the weight back.

And, when they say frequent urination, they mean it! I couldn’t stop. At night, every 15 minutes I’d have to go. I didn’t want to go to sleep because the moment I laid down I had to get up. I also was thirsty for sugary stuff. I’d drink a two liter root beer in less than two minutes.

PJ: What happened when you were diagnosed?

Jorell: It was like Boom…you have diabetes. I was diagnosed between a year-and-a-half and two years ago. I saw the doctor’s mouth moving, but when she said diabetes, I just shut down. I was just listening to voices in my head. My dad was diagnosed when he was 42. I saw it coming down the road, but thought it would be much later. At first they thought I had Type 2 and gave me some pills. They worked for six months and then stopped working. I got sick again.

I got a second opinion and I liked how that doctor approached it. He was straight forward and told me…whoever said you had Type 2 lied to you. He showed me the chart of my insulin levels and the only reason the meds worked for a while was because I was working out so much. I took it hard, but I’m taking care of myself and got in better shape. I’m not happy I got diabetes, but I’m happy it opened a new door for me.

Jorell ready to swing the hammer.
PJ: What helped move you from that shock of finding out you had diabetes to the place you are now?

Jorell: My dad was very supportive and my mom, too. But, Dad could relate to it…it was not the end of the road. I did the research on athletes with diabetes…NBA player, Adam Morrison, who played at Gonzaga, and in the NFL, Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, have it. You think if this dude has diabetes, I’ll be all right.

PJ: What is your routine medication-wise these days?

Jorell: I take two insulin shots a day. Humalog, a fast-acting one in the morning, and Lantus while sleeping. If I don’t take Lantus I find it’s not that effective and my blood sugar goes up. I know now that I have to use both insulins. If I lose weight out of nowhere, I check my sugar. It’s just about finding a pattern. Certain foods make your sugar go up…like a dinner roll. Subway doesn’t do anything. And, yeah, it can get frustrating thinking you have your pattern going…and then…uh oh! But, then you figure out the problem and you fix it.

PJ: How has your nutrition changed?

Jorell: I indulge at times, but it’s more of a privilege. Taking insulin is not a green light to eat whatever you want. If you do this, you could become an amputee, you could have issues with your eyes, and problems with other parts of your body. Diabetes affects your whole body.

I eat way more protein now. I was a bread eater. I’m that guy who would sit down with a French baguette and butter and eat the whole loaf. Now, I eat way more vegetables…spinach like crazy. Think Popeye! I have a problem with cooked vegies…I don’t like them soft. I need a crisp, so I eat a lot of raw vegies. You save more nutrients by not cooking them. I cut out 90% of my bread intake. The diet is still a work in progress.

PJ: How has your training changed?

Jorell: I keep sweets close so I don’t fall into hypoglycemia [when his blood sugar gets too low]. I run a lot and sweat. So, I need to start with my sugar over 200. I need to start high to work back down. If I’m at normal levels before running, I eat a cookie. I sweat a lot, so I always make sure I check my levels. Sugar is still burning after a workout. Just like a car is still hot after you turn the engine off. You need to let it cool down. I carry sweets everywhere…right now I have 6 granola bars in my car.

I think it would be awesome to reach out to diabetics about fitness. Yes, there are pre-cautions you have to take, but if you take care of yourself it will be way better.

PJ: How has your diabetes affected you and those around you?

Jorell: At first I didn’t like it when people thought I couldn’t be around anything with sugar in it. People were like…you can’t eat that. I had a chip on my shoulder. But, then I looked at it from a different perspective. They cared and didn’t want me to get hurt or sick. I gained 16 pounds in three days once I started with insulin. Once I started taking care of myself I was in 10 times better shape. This all brought my family closer. It made me appreciate things more.

This has all been for the best, in so many ways I can’t explain. It’s my life’s journey. I wouldn’t change a moment.

PJ: What advice would you give others who have been diagnosed with diabetes?

Jorell: It’s not the end of the road. With proper nutrition and the right workout you can live life to the fullest extent. Yes, it is overwhelming at times. But, keep your head up. Fitness has helped me have a more positive outlook on life. Keep running with it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema...and observations

I am a Barry Alvarez fan.

He turned around the Wisconsin football team.
This is a team that under John Coatta in the late 1960s went winless for two seasons, with the streak ending in a tie.

After going to three bowl games in the early 1980s, the team only won nine games from 1986-1990.
Fans like me were used to losing. The fact was that the best part of the game was the 5th quarter when the band played.

Under Alvarez things changed. Wisconsin started winning and being competitive on a consistent basis.
He coached for 16 years and finished with a 118–73–4 record, going 8-3 in bowl games−the best in college football history (among coaches with at least 11 bowl appearances). He is the only Big Ten coach ever to win the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons (1999 and 2000); was named national coach of the year in 1993 and Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1993 and 1998; and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

When the team captains asked Barry, the legend, to stand on the sidelines once again and coach them in the Rose Bowl, after Bret Bielema took the job at Arkansas, many fans were thrilled. In fact, some had even started online campaigns to enlist him to coach the game.
However, I was one fan who did not jump on this bandwagon.

Yes, what he has done for Wisconsin football is remarkable, but his time as a coach has come and gone. I just thought it was time for him to step back and let the assistants do their thing.
And, while everyone was remembering his three Rose Bowl victories, his winning record, and what he means to Wisconsin football−putting us on the map and close to being in the discussion year in and year out−fans continued to dis Bret, as they had throughout his time at Wisconsin.

How quickly they all seem to forget…it took Barry three years to build a winning season with a record of 10-1-1 and go to the Rose Bowl. In his first three seasons there were plenty of losses. He went 1-10 in his rookie year as head coach and 5-6 the next two.
Bret, on the other hand, just won…and won a lot−right from the beginning going 12-1 in his first season as head coach and earned the Big Ten Coach of the Year award along the way. And, in seven seasons he was 68-24. It’s all about winning in college football and you can’t argue with those numbers. Sportswriters started talking about Wisconsin more and more.

Bret’s Badgers went to a bowl game in each of his seven seasons. In his first two seasons as head coach, he led the team to 21 wins. Only two other men in Big Ten history have guided their teams to 21 wins or more in their first two seasons−Michigan’s Fielding Yost won 22 and Ohio State’s Jim Tressel won 21.
In addition, he took the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls. The only other coaches to do this were Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. I don’t know about you, but any Wisconsin coach who can be mentioned in the same sentence as those two all-time greats, is not just another guy. We will all look back on the Bret years and realize we were witnessing something truly special.

Last season the Badgers were two plays away from going undefeated and in the discussion for the national championship. Many national sportswriters acknowledged that it was the “what if” season for Wisconsin.
This season the Badgers were the best five-loss team to ever make the Rose Bowl. Three of those losses came in overtime and the other two losses were by three points. It was a tough year…having to replace a quarterback with the skills and leadership of Russell Wilson. Wisconsin had never seen a quarterback of this caliber…a guy who is up for NFL Rookie of the Year after being drafted in the third round.

The Badgers replaced numerous assistant coaches and it took a while for everyone to get adjusted. And, Montee Ball’s early season concussion slowed down this touchdown-scoring machine for quite a few weeks.
The other reason I was concerned with Barry on the sidelines was his conservative offensive philosophy. I remember not knowing if the team would win and counting down until 0:00 was left on the clock. Too many loses at the end of a game on fumbles against Northwestern and others…just not being able to finish.

And, for this Rose Bowl whose offensive plan would they use? The one that got them there with a 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game, with an innovative style of play. Or, going back to the old plays that worked with a big back like Ron Dayne, but are not the same with Montee Ball or James White or Melvin Gordon?
Stanford, on paper, was by far the superior team. But the Badgers were in it, surprising everyone.

Barry threw out much of the scheme and played Barry Ball…running the same (conservative) plays over and over. The play calling was suspect all game. I won’t even go into the non-touchdown in the first half and using James White in a Montee Ball situation.
The third quarter turned into a field position game, the defenses were playing tight. The Badgers were down by three and had a 4th and 1 just about midfield, and they punted.

Even Barry still questions his decision to punt. He knows that in a tight game whoever can break through the defense and score wins. So, take a shot and do the unexpected. Play to win.
Bottom line, they did not do this and came up short for the third consecutive year. As I heard someone say, ‘the Badgers are the Buffalo Bills of the Rose Bowl.’

Barry Alvarez was a remarkable coach. He took an under-performing program and turned it into a competitor. He is a legend and deserves the statue.
Bret Bielema grabbed the torch and pushed even closer to consistently being a Top 10 program. He, too, was remarkable. And, it’s time he got his due.

Gary Andersen, you’re next. You have a lot to live up to. You inherit a program that wins the right way. It’s up to you to raise the bar once again.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

SportsLab...Where Sports and Technology Intersect

Sports have embraced social media and technology to engage and inform fans. Everything from Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to streaming video and TV shows.

And, teams have been using the latest technology for dynamic pricing and secondary ticket markets for quite some time.
A football play.
However, when it comes to technology and the actual game, we haven’t seen much advancement up to this point. Yes, players and coaches have used film for ages to break down certain aspects of the game−both theirs and their opponents.

Who can forget Jon Gruden and Andrew Luck at QB Camp going over Spider 2 Y Banana?
Well, we are starting to see some movement in this area. Volleyball coaches are using ipads during matches. And, this past season, the Rose Bowl champion Stanford football team put their playbook on an ipad. And, this is a big step forward…as last season the Stanford players had to learn more than 200 new plays each week. Imagine having to print out 200 plus pages for 80 players, not including the coaches!

SportsLab is right at the heart of this new movement, changing the landscape of how playbooks are created and shared. The co-founders, Norman Ahmad and Monty Mitra, started by creating an easy-to-use mobile app for high school and college football coaches and athletes to collaborate and share plays.
In addition to making the creation of plays easier and more cost-efficient, this product really helps players on the field−as their studies have shown players retain 30% more strategy and are more prepared. It helps players become more engaged and understand the plays and their roles within those plays much better.

And, as Curtis McCauley, the football coach from McClymonds High School in Oakland, CA, said, “When it comes to x’s and o’s and the mental part of the game, that’s where it gets really complicated. That’s where games are won and lost. If we had a tool to communicate this better to the kids, we’d be that much better. I used to give the kids playbooks…they don’t read them…this is a wonderful tool for us…this is taking us a step in the right direction.”
Recently, I sat down with Norman to learn more about SportsLab.

PJ: Where did you get the inspiration for this product?
Norman: I grew up in Oklahoma with a passion for sports. My co-founder, Monty, is from Texas. And, sports are woven into the fabric of the culture in Texas. We’ve always been technologists and tried to dream up ways that technology intersected with sports. My nephew is playing high school football and I see the challenges he faces. What SportsLab is doing is trying to help players get better for their team.

PJ: How did you get started?
Norman: We launched the web app in August of 2012 in a beta test with 100 teams using and engaging with it. They wanted to see an ipad app, but we didn’t have the funds to do it. We have the prototype completed, but do not have full funding to test it, road map it…finish it and get it in the AppStore.
PJ: Tell me about this project with a high school in Oakland, CA, to test pilot your ipad app.
Norman: We’re making a difference in the local Oakland community. We have a test pilot with McClymonds High School. We believe it’s a compelling story. Technology usually goes to the highest earners. But, we are bringing this to under privileged, challenged areas. After hearing about this Oakland High School and Lincoln High School in Southern California both wanted to be involved. It’s interesting, they are going after it.

Editor’s note: Oakland High School jumped onto the project after this interview took place.

PJ: For this project with McClymonds High School, you are using a crowd-funding site to raise funds. How does this work?

Norman: indiegogo is great. It draws attention to the community to drive entrepreneurs to deliver the wanted platform. It helps develop a following and the community doesn’t allow you to have tunnel vision. It opens your spectrum and vision to make the best possible product available.
When talking to coaches and athletes, it’s not about the features, it’s about the experience. This is why we decided to get up on a crowd-funding site.

PJ: Tell me about the competition you face in this space and how your product is different.
Norman: We have a few competitors, but they are focused on BCS teams and the pros. We focus on high school and college, which is unique. The way we do it, helps save cost and time. We facilitate the creation and sharing of plays. It’s about collaboration and gaining feedback to develop great features focused on the players instead of having a massive playbook.

We can really win against our competition by focusing on developing the tool we want to deliver…easy to use, but allowing powerful things to happen. In my background, there are a whole bunch of things that need to happen on the front end to make it easy for consumers. Just like Apple and Google do it.
PJ: What’s next for the product?
Norman: With the pilot we’ll figure out what things the athletes and the coaches want to do with it. We’ll expand out and deal with platforms that are accessible today and roadmap…getting information to help athletes get better. Our big vision is for self-empowerment…really the ability for athletes to make better decisions on their own time.

We’re focused on more adoption and traction…and a bigger presence by next football season.

For more information on SportsLab
For more information on the McClymonds project and to invest