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Monday, July 3, 2006
Page 2 Quickie: June 30, 2006


 
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
COACH.  WALKER.

When a coach performs the impossible, you begin to think he is untouchable.

Randy Walker's death is a stunner -- and that reaction shouldn't be limited to super-intense Northwestern football fans like me. (Frankly, I'm devastated.)

Winning football at Northwestern used to be the biggest oxymoron in sports. Gary Barnett broke through; Walker took it to the next level:

Consistency.

By the end of last season, when Walker led Northwestern to its 3rd bowl appearance in his 7-year tenure, one stat stood out:

He was the first NU coach to lead the program to four seasons with at least six wins since the turn of the century -- the 19th century.

That might not sound like much to a fan of Notre Dame or USC or Oklahoma or Penn State, but to long-suffering Northwestern fans, simply being a perennial contender for bowl eligibility was like becoming a national power.

After the high of Barnett's tenure, Walker delivered year-over-year stability, even as he imported a wild, high-octane spread offense that produced endless dramatic, you-never-know finishes.

That offense was showcased in one of the most entertaining games of the last decade (2000: NU 54, Michigan 51) and in the 2nd-best bowl game last season (Sun: UCLA 50, NU 38); and was even analyzed by some of the top programs in the country (Urban Meyer has called it an influence).

Year after year, Walker had college football's longtime laughingstock in the hunt for a bowl game; week after week, he kept the team in games.

How could a coach whose heart carried a historically horrible program to the fans' bliss of weekly competitiveness die of an apparent heart attack?

It's a result as impossible as his on-field accomplishments.

Red Sox Win (Again!)
What was the most impressive thing about Boston's win over the Mets on Thursday:

(a) 12th Red Sox win in a row
(b) Sox swept NL's best team
(c) Crisp: Catch of the year?
(d) Schilling wins 10th of '06
(e) Papelbon sets Sox rookie saves record (already)

How about all of the above:

(a): Helped the Red Sox maintain their position in the AL East in a season in which only one team in that division will make the playoffs.
(b): Provided the best symbolism for the AL's interleague dominance over the NL. The AL is 127-75 against the NL this season.
(c): Quite simply, yes. (Too late for an ESPYS nomination?)

(d) and (e): Showcased the two Red Sox most worthy of making the AL All-Star roster, even though 3-4 position players will be voted starters.

More worthy than Manny? Before you scoff, I found a loophole:

Manny reportedly might skip the All-Star Game with his tricky knee. As a leading vote-getter in the AL OF, he would need a replacement. I nominate Toronto's Vernon Wells (.313 BA, .985 OPS, 20 HR, 62 RBI)

Meanwhile, the Pirates win (finally!) Snapped that franchise-worst 13-game L streak behind the NL's leading write-in All-Star vote-getter, Freddy Sanchez, who hit a game-winning HR in the 9th and took over the lead in NL batting average.

NBA Free Agency
"I'm not here waiting for Santa Claus to come save us." In yesterday's Quote of the Day, Isiah Thomas might as well have been talking on behalf of all GMs about the NBA's Free Agent Class of 2006.

The most intriguing names in the FA season that opens Saturday: Ben Wallace, Jason Terry, Bonzi Wells, Joel Przybilla ... can I stop now?

Wallace is obviously the biggest name in the group. The Pistons should have the inside track. Most teams with cap room (Bobcats? Raptors?) aren't close to being contenders, which is the appeal of re-signing with Detroit.

So that's what makes the Bulls so interesting as a suitor. Chicago is a Big Ben away from being one of the East's top 3 teams. And if it can manage to get both Wallace and KG (via trade)? Wow.

(In addition to trade rumors swirling around KG, the weekend's deal to watch, obviously, is whether the Sixers unload Allen Iverson. Heading to the Celtics?)

More Isiah Lunacy
After picking Renaldo Balkman (in the lamest first-round draft pick since Freddie Weis by the, well, Knicks), Isiah defended the pick, saying the Suns were about to snatch him up.

The Suns mocked that idea:

"That's funny," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni flatly told a local radio station. "He wasn't even on our radar."

All the more reason to wonder what reality Isiah is living in.

World Cup Bracket
Set up your office pool yet? Here are quarterfinal picks to help you get through the bracket's weekend games:

Italy over Ukraine

Subplot: Will Italy keep getting the suspiciously good calls, even against the WC's remaining Cinderella? (But root for Ukraine!)

Argentina over Germany

Subplot: The host usually enjoys a substantial home-field advantage, but not against the team playing the best of any in the tournament.

England over Portugal

Subplot: The Three Lions will advance, more because Portugal is missing star midfielder Deco than because England deserves it.

Brazil over France

Subplot: Rematch of the '98 WC final, when France stunned Brazil in front of a rabid Paris home crowd. Motivated Brazil gets payback.

Keep up via Davies' blog!

No March "Addness"
Apparently, the NCAA didn't like my plan to expand the NCAA Tournament to include every team.

(Even though as many as 50 percent of Quickie readers "totally" thought it worked rather than laughing me off their computer screen.)

Although I'm all for expansion, the plan to double the field from 64 to 128 was doomed to fail -- which it did -- because the stodgy fools at the NCAA were never going to mess with success.

I'm betting the naysayers applied the same logic back when the first person suggested they expand the tournament from 48 to 64. Change? It would never work! (Yeah, right.)

Tour de Lance?
No Lance, no chance: The absence of Lance Armstrong after years of dominance makes the Tour de France field as wide open and competitive as ever.

Yet, ironically, its not being the "Tour de Lance" means the vast majority of fans in the U.S. won't be watching. In fact, I'll bet more fans watch Lance host the ESPYS than watch the race.

There's no shame in saying it: You tuned in for Lance. He gave the Tour a cachet that made it OK to admit that yes, you were spending your days watching a French cycling event on TV.

If there is a compelling Tour de France subplot, it's that '97 winner and 5-time runner-up Jan Ullrich won't be participating, suspended by his T-Mobile team after being named in an emerging doping scandal that involves almost 60 riders and threatens to implode the sport.