Friday, December 18, 2009

Conflicting Thoughts From Travel to Tennessee

First of to love free wifi in Salt Lake City. I'm so proud of our little home-away-from-home airport that they finally joined the pre-teens (what I've been calling the 2000-09 years) in time for it to turn into 2010. This certainly helps the myriads of folks cruising through the Southwest terminal in SLC.

I know a lot of folks (my wife included) think that travel is this really fun, awesome time. Now, don't get me wrong...sometimes it is, like being in downtown Los Angeles and having the bus drop my and Ryan Cromie the trainer off at the Staples Center and buying tickets to catch the Los Angeles Kings hockey game. But most of the time, travel is a grind....a real grind. Take this six day odyssey for example...this trip is four flights, two long bus trips, and a grand total of six cities (Pocatello to Salt Lake to Las Vegas to Sacramento to Portland to Boise to Poactello). Let's see mapquest figure that crap out.

Seriously...this is today's part of the itinerary....

8:00am Depart Holt Arena South Side

10:45am Arrive @ SLC Airport

12:50pm Southwest Airlines #3067 Departs for Las Vegas

2:10pm Southwest Airlines #2132 Departs for Sacramento

3:45pm Arrive in Sacramento

4:30pm Check into Larkspur Landing

7:00-9:00pm Practice at Sac. State (Small Gym)

The meals are of the figure it out variety....lunch in either the SLC airport before we leave, or during the layover in Vegas, and you can see there's no dinner, because that will be after practice ends at 9ish or whenever. This is the norm for most basketball trips.

I can tell you as a world traveler that the Salt Lake Airport is pretty good foodwise. The Dick Clark's cafe has a nice breakfast, and I'm all for the Sbarro's calzones. The Las Vegas airport has gambling, which is a plus, but the food is expensive, and the wireless wasn't working when I was there a few weeks back.

The Portland airport has wonderful food choices...I usually hit the Panda Express, but they have everything for the discerning food maven. Other good airports for food at Midway in Chicago (get the burger or chicken sandwich at the Illinois Pub and Grill....oh me), and Phoenix is fantastic. The coaching staff usually ends up at Chili's there, and they have an Einstein's bagels for those early morning flights.

If only Pocatello had an airport that could handle our flights....oh well.

Griz-Cat Redux

Tonight the Griz have another shot at the National Championship, taking on Villanova tonight in the FCS national title game in Chattanooga, and hence the conflict arises...who does a Bengal fan root for?

Now, I got a TON of flack back in early November from Griz fans on because I had the gall to state that in my poll (I'm a SportsNetwork voter), that I had Villanova #1 and Montana #2, despite the fact that Montana was undefeated. I liked my reasoning of why I had done that (basically 'Nova had a better schedule and I had them at #2 and they lost to #1 New Hapshire 28-24, and I didn't think that warranted dropping them based on the other scores that week), and with both Montana and Villanova in the title game, I do have a bit of pride that my top two in my poll are in the title game.

Being that in reality, the Griz-ISU game was the closest they've come to a loss this season, although South Dakota State had them dead to rights and somehow turned a 28-point lead with 20 minutes left into a 12-point loss. You would think my head says that Villanova would win, and honestly, I think their defense is superb, and I think they are probably better than Montana, and that's why my head says that Villanova will win their first Division I football title tonight.

But my head is one thing, and my heart is another, and honestly, how can Montana not feel like they are destined to win? The early season comeback in the fourth quarter against UC Davis got them started, but kicking the winning field goal with no time left when it hits Michael Wright's hand and then caroms off Dustin Tew's hand and still goes in? Scoreing 40 straight ot come back on South Dakota State? The snow against App. State? The clock running out with the Mountaineers at the 4-yard line? The HORRIFIC field goal attempts by ASU? And then throw in Marc Mariani, who honestly might not be the best Big Sky player I've ever seen, but certainly the scariest and the guy who is in my "Jordan Zone" (NOTE: The Joran Zone is that rarified air where a player does something so ridiculous, yet it's just not that surprising, kind of like Michael Jordan in his prime. Seriously, if someone tells you "did you hear about the Montana game? Mariani had to quarterback the final series to get them into field goal range and then had to kick the field goal" ... isn't that plausible at this point? Hence, Mariani is in the Jordan Zone).

I just don't see Montana getting to Chattanooga for a second straight year and losing. There is something to the magic of a destined team, and they look like it. They survived that ugly Bobby Hauck/Kaimin thing (I felt bad for their SID who was basically rendered inert during that whole preceeding), and I just think they will do it.

Of which, I read somewhere that Montana is in their seventh title game with seven different starting quarterbacks....that's impressive. Or Montana could go to the WAC and play in the Humanitarian Bowl against Bowling Green LOL.

Speaking of Bowls....
Former Voice of the Bengals Russ Eisenstein must be in a weird spot in his life....enjoying the fact that his Ohio Bobcats went 9-4 and are in a Bowl game, but it's the Little Caesar's Bowl, which has been derided by ESPN as the worst Bowls of the season (unless Christmas in Detriot is appealing to you). Russ is even enjoying a 6-3 men's basketball team and a Mid Major Poll ranking. (NOTE: Getting ranked in the Mid-Major Poll is not a national ranking. I've now seen two schools in the Big Sky use that term describing either themselves or an opponent about being nationally-ranked. Unless Kentucky is a part of that's not a "national" ranking).

I've been posted personal pics from some of our trips on Facebook, and you can find and friend me over there at I usually don't put weird things over there, unless you consider my family weird (which I do).

Monday, December 14, 2009

From Unknown Bengal to SI's Best

Last year at this time, Evan Dietrich-Smith was recovering from the end of Idaho State's 1-11 football season, and plotting how he was going to make a roster in the National Football League. It was a long-shot at best for the Bengal offensive linemen who couldn't even crack the top two all-Big Sky Conference teams his senior season. He wasn't drafted, but the Green Bay Packers took a flier on him as a free agent.

The chances of making an NFL team as an undrafted free agent are astronomical, but Dietrich-Smith beat the odds. The same versatility that allowed him to play all three line positions at Idaho State helped Dietrich-Smith to latch onto a roster spot with Packers. He's played in ten games so far, mostly on special teams. It was on the kicking team that a Sports Illustrated photographer captured the photo above of Dietrich-Smith (62) sending Tampa Bay linebacker Gene Hayes (54) rear end-over-tea kettle. It was selected as one of SI's best photos of the year. It also served as a fitting tribute to the determination of Dietrich-Smith, who is living the dream for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.

(Note to ISU's marketing department: what would make a better Christmas present for ISU fans than an autographed copy of this photo? It would also be a terrific item for the Bengal auction next spring -- I'd bid on it.)

What's Happened to Idaho High School Basketball?

As I was preparing for the ISU-Boise State basketball broadcast last week, I noticed that neither the Broncos nor the Bengals had a single scholarship player on their roster from Idaho. I did a quick check of the University of Idaho's roster and noted they do not have an Idahoan on scholarship, either. I'm sure there's no official stat on that, but I wonder if there's been a time when none of the state's three Division I schools had an Idahoan on scholarship at the same time.

When I first started covering prep sports in Idaho in the 1980s, the state produced more than its share of Division I basketball talent. Players like Donn Holston of Highland (an eventual ISU Hall of Famer), Tom Gneiting of Rigby (BYU), Richie Webb of Bonneville (BYU), Meridian's Scott Johnson (SMU), Danny Conway of Madison (Utah State), Teton's Gary Furniss (Utah State and BYU), Andy Toolson of Twin Falls (BYU and the Utah Jazz), Borah's Tommy Connor (Utah), Skyline's Cleve Lewis (Fresno State) and Pocatello's Wade Wyatt (Utah and Southern Utah) all made their marks in the 1980s. Just a few years before them, two of Idaho's all-time greats, Capital's Brian Welch (Stanford), and Aberdeen's Steve Hayes (my personal choice for the next member of ISU's Ring of Honor) came on the scene.

Today, there are a few Idaho-bred D-1 players (Pocatello's Nick Hansen at Weber State, for example), but not many. Idaho State's string of excellent in-state talent that included Logan Kinghorn, David Schroeder and Matt Stucki came to an end at the conclusion of last season. The Bengals looked at Hansen when he was at College of Southern Idaho, but had already filled their guard quota when ISU got a commitment from Kal Bay. (Given ISU's struggles hitting three-pointers this year, wouldn't Hansen look awful good in a Bengal uniform right now, particularly since Bay and his College of Eastern Utah compadre, Felix Caspari, have both left the program already?)

Bengal assistant coach Geoff Alexander was on our coach's show last night, and he said it's simply been a down period for Division I prospects in the state the last couple of years. He noted that the Bengals hope to refill the Idaho pipeline soon, and are currently recruiting a junior college player with local roots.

From the "Grass Isn't Always Greener" Dept.

Ardie McInelly and Jon Newlee were terrific women's basketball coaches at Idaho State who left for other options. You can't judge happiness solely by Ws and Ls, but you have to wonder if both ever second-guess their decisions to move on. Probably not, but this has been a difficult year for both.

McInelly, who entered this, her ninth season at Air Force Academy with a 54-174 mark is off to a 2-7 season this year. The Falcons have averaged only 237 fans for their home games.

Newlee, meanwhile, got off to a strong start at Idaho last year, lifting a moribund Vandal program to a 13-15 record overall, 10-6 in the Western Athletic Conference, one of the best turnarounds in the nation. The Vandals have slipped backwards this year, however, starting 1-10 and 0-6 at home, where they are averaging only 370 fans per game. They're 0-3 against Big Sky Conference teams, and Jon has had to suspend a couple of players for disciplinary reasons.

Both McInelly and Newlee are excellent coaches. Ardie is in a situation at Air Force, frankly, where victory is not expected. She's had two four-win seasons there and nobody is anticipating the Falcons to contend for an NCAA berth anytime soon. Newlee has a more manageable situation at Idaho, and I fully expect him to bounce back from this year's setback. But the experiences of both McInelly and Newlee after they left Idaho State speaks volumes about how good the situation is at ISU for women's basketball. Current coach Seton Sobolewski has already used those advantages to bring in seven freshmen this year, six of whom are making significant contributions. (The seventh, 6-3 C Ashlee Rigter, hasn't been cleared from a summer knee injury and may require surgery.)

I fully expect Sobolewski to be the next highly successful women's coach at ISU. And when he does, I wonder if he'll look at the experiences of McInelly and Newlee when other programs come calling?

A True National Champion? What a Concept

While all the BCS apologists continue to explain why it's not feasible to have a playoff, the FCS will quietly crown a true national champion in Chattanooga on Friday, when Montana and Villanova square off. I said it last year, and I'll say it again: I'm truly conflicted about who to root for in the national title game. As a Big Sky Conference fan, sure I want Montana to win another national championship. But again, it will only reinforce the notion that the Big Sky is a one-trick pony. No Big Sky school other than Montana has played in a national championship game since Boise State in 1994.

The Wildcats are an interesting team. Like Appalachian State, the team the Griz beat in the semifinals last week, they are led by a dual-threat quarterback named Chris Whitney. The 6-2, 230-pounder is Villanova's leading rusher with 885 yards and six TDS; he's also completed 64 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns against only 4 picks.

One of Whitney's leading targets is all-American receiver/kick returner Matt Szczur who lines up in the "Wildcat" and averages 7 yards a carry, as well as making 47 catches for 4 TDs. Szczur also averages 28 yards a return on kickoffs and 140 total yards per game.

'Nova really shines on defense, where they hold opponents to just 67 yards and 2.3 yards per carry on the ground. They are led by linebacker Terence Thomas (9 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks), and safety John Dempsey (11.5 TFLS, six sacks and two picks). And remember all those names, because everyone of Villanova's key players are juniors. No matter what happens Friday, Villanova will likely be a pre-season top five pick next year.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.