Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thoughts on the inaugural college football playoff

It's been over a week since it ended - congratulations are in order for the Ohio State Buckeyes - and I'm finally getting around to gloating writing about how successful it was. So successful, in fact, that it made believers of former skeptics:
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spent the better part of two decades pooh-poohing any talk of a possible college football playoff. He wasn’t alone. When his SEC counterpart Mike Slive first proposed a four-team model at the April 2008 BCS meetings, it never even reached a vote.

On Monday night, however, Delany struck a much different tune as he stood on the AT&T Stadium sideline watching Ohio State and Oregon warm up for the first College Football Playoff National Championship. Beyond the fact his conference’s school would soon hoist the trophy, the postseason event he and his colleagues finally approved in June 2012 exceeded even their own expectations in terms of fan interest, the selection process and the on-field drama itself.

“You’d have to say those who advocated for it early on were right,” Delany told FOX Sports. “You’d have to say it was great that we all came on board with it.”

That Ohio State, the No. 4 seed and most debated participant, wound up winning the tournament served as a fitting testimonial for why the sport needed to scrap the BCS. All those years we were so sure who the No. 1 and 2 teams were? This year it would have been Florida State and Alabama.

“[The playoff] certainly matched my hope for it, which is teams get to prove it on the field rather than through some of the measures that were used to select the [BCS] top two teams,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. “It certainly fell in the right direction to validate the playoff this year.”
Emphasis added. Oh, and it was the highest-rated event in ESPN history as well. Those of us who have been advocating for a college football playoff for years feel rather vindicated, especially now that the defenders of the previous BCS system have been proven to be utterly full of shit.

While the very first college football playoff was a success, there are still some adjustments that could be made to make it even better. Stewart Mandel argues that, while the playoff made the regular season more exciting (playoff opponents had argued that it would ruin the importance of the regular season), it “rendered almost everything else irrelevant:”
A year after recurring epilepsy put his coaching future in doubt, Jerry Kill led Minnesota to its first winning Big Ten record since 2003 and the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl since 1962. It should have been one of the best stories of the season. But Minnesota’s success mostly got mentioned only because it impacted the playoff resumes of two Gophers opponents -- TCU and Ohio State.

But Minnesota got Alabama-like coverage compared with the Group of 5 schools. Marshall, which finished 13-1, and Boise State, eventual 12-2 Fiesta Bowl champion, might as well have been playing in the FCS for as far as they flew off the radar. And you can expect the sport’s focus to only narrow further in coming years as the playoff increasingly dominates all college football conversations.
I’ve afraid I’ve come to terms with the fact that the Power Five (aka the "superconference") and the Group of Five are in the process of splitting apart. That’s neither fair nor good for the sport, but at this point the momentum is unstoppable. The only hope for Group of Five schools with higher aspirations (the University of Houston included) is that the Power Five's current makeup of 65 schools is not set in stone and that another round of conference realignment will occur in the future. (In that regard, I’m glad Houston replaced Tony Levine before he could drag the Cougar program down any further during this critical time.)

Mandell also praises the way in which the four playoff teams were selected:
TCU and Baylor fans might not agree, but somebody had to miss the cut. More important is that the 12-member committee fulfilled its intended purpose of performing a more nuanced evaluation process than the simplistic AP and coaches polls. Florida State became an unwitting poster child for the new model, with the committee continually ranking the undefeated Seminoles lower than the traditional polls due to their repeated struggles against largely mediocre competition.

“Forever in college football, its been about wins and losses -- you win, you move up, you lose, you move down,” said Hancock. “It wasn’t that way with the committee, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted that deeper dive and we got it.”

Also encouraging, though possibly accidental: The committee delivered an important message about non-conference scheduling with its exclusion of No. 5 Baylor, which intentionally played all cupcakes. While Ohio State’s extra game, a 59-0 Big Ten title game rout of Wisconsin, ultimately gave the Buckeyes an edge over both Baylor and TCU, a source with knowledge of the discussions said the Bears might have fared better if they had beaten even one decent Power 5 foe.
Yes, it was fun watching Art Briles whine because his Bears, whose out-of-conference schedule consisted of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, and whose conference is the only Power Five that doesn't play a championship game, were excluded from the playoff. The strength-of-schedule issue, however, may in fact prove to be yet another nail in the Group of Five coffin, as Power Five schools avoid scheduling schools from perceived "lesser" conferences in order to burnish their credentials.
Perhaps the best bigger-picture gauge of the playoff’s success is the collective mood of the public coming out of it. For so many years with the BCS, the day-after discussion was full of angst and vitriol, of columnists, talk-show hosts and politicians screaming to burn the thing down.

While plenty of people had gripes with various stages of the process, and while the calls to expand to six or eight teams have already begun, for the most part, college football fans generally seem . . . dare we say it? . . . pleased.
Which brings us to the big issue regarding the playoff: expansion. As it stands, the folks running the playoff claim that they have not even discussed expanding the current four-team format. And I'm certain that we'll see the existing four-team format for at least a few more seasons. Oliver Luck, the former West Virginia athletic director who was on the playoff selection committee, believes that four is the right number because "it should be hard to get into the playoff." He has a point: four out of 120-something teams is a high hurdle to clear, and there's something elegantly simple about a four-team, two round playoff.

That being said, I think an expansion of the playoffs to eight teams is inevitable. This is because the current arrangement requires that at least one of the Power Five conferences be left out of the dance (it is simply a coincidence that the champions of the other four Power Fives made the playoff; it is theoretically possible for the four playoff teams to come from a single conference); this season the odd conference out happened to be the Big XII. I don't think this arrangement is sustainable, given the stakes involved; sooner or later they will decide that all five conferences need a guaranteed place at the table. Furthermore, both the Power Five conferences as well as ESPN have to be looking at the television ratings this playoff generated and be seeing dollar signs flash before their eyes. More playoffs equals more money, and money talks.

If it were up to me, it would go to eight teams, and this is how it would work:
  • The participants would be the champions of the five Power Five conferences (provided they reach a certain ratings threshold; the playoff should not be forced to accept a conference champion that is exceptionally weak), and three at-large berths. Ideally, one of these at-large berths would be reserved for the highest-rated Group of Five school (again, provided they reach a certain ratings threshold); if this format ever actually came to pass, however, I doubt the Group of Five would be included.

  • The first round games would continue to be the "New Year's Six" (Rose, Fiesta, Cotton, Orange, Peach, Sugar) bowl games. This will increase from two to four the number of  these bowls with championship relevance, which is something both the bowl's organizers as well as ESPN will like. 

  • Second round (semifinal) games will be played at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team. This is to combat the travel fatigue that would result by requiring fans to travel as many as three times in a row to playoff games. This would also give more importance to the seedings (as well as the regular season results that decide playoff seeding); right now, all the games are neutral-site games, which creates little advantage for a higher seed over a lower one. 

  • The final would be a neutral site game, as it is now. It would just be a week later - likely the weekend before or evening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 
There are some drawbacks: this schedule may bleed into the spring semester for some participating schools - as it is, classes at Oregon resumed the week before the championship game and at Ohio State the day of - which creates issues for the players as well as students who want to attend. Furthermore, there may be a conflict with NFL playoffs, especially if they, too, expand their field from 12 to 14 teams. An alternative is to play the first round games at the home of the higher-seeded team a week or two before the new year and then use two of the New Year's Six bowls for the semifinals (as is the case now), but that would have an impact on the earlier (pre-holiday) bowl games and negatively impact the other four New Year's Six bowls (who would have to feature matchups of schools outside the top eight) And, of course, if the playoffs did expand from four to eight, there would immediately be people demanding that it expand further, to 16 or even 32 teams.

Okay, so a 32-team college football playoff would probably be a bit too unwieldy; even a 16-team field presents complications. Eight is probably enough for a playoff; going back to Oliver Luck's comment, the playoff should be hard to get into, and I think eight is where you draw that line. Anything larger than an eight-team playoff, furthermore, and you begin to have an adverse impact on the traditional bowl system which I don't think college football is ready to do away with just yet.

At any rate, we're still a few years away from an eight-team field. Right now, I'm just enjoying the fact that college football finally has a playoff of any sort.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples likes the four-team format for the time being, but hazards a guess as to what an eight-team bracket would have looked like this season. ESPN's David Hale has an evaluation that is worth reading as well.

Finally, while I am going to miss college football, there are two things the playoff gave us that I am not going to miss: the endless repetition of "Centuries" by Fall Out Boy, which ESPN (unfortunately) chose as the "theme song" for the playoff, and those truly annoying Dr. Pepper commercials featuring Larry the soda vendor.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is a real thing

As an unrepentant night owl, I can relate to this problem:
No matter how early she went to bed, Maggie couldn’t fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. Though constantly exhausted, Maggie (she asked that I not use her last name) got good grades in high school, but she'd frequently get in trouble for coming in late and napping during her morning classes.
Maggie dreamt of going to medical school. Unfortunately, she couldn't concentrate during early morning science classes in college, and she had to switch her major from biology to literature. Her post-grad situation was no better: Waking up for her 8:30 a.m. teaching position turned her into a zombie, and she lost her job because she lacked enthusiasm. She switched career paths to take on a marketing position that was supposed to be afternoon-only, but once her boss started requiring her to come in mornings, it didn't work out—and she's now unemployed.

Maggie isn't lazy; she suffers from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS)—a disorder that affects one in 750 adults that causes them to be somewhat nocturnal. By that estimate, DSPS affects over 40,000 Americans. Essentially, DSPS means a person's internal clock is set differently. These clocks, called circadian rhythms, are innate and often change over the course of a person’s life—which is why little kids wake up so early, and teenagers prefer to sleep in.

DSPS sufferers have internal clocks that run at least two hours slower than normal, giving them "social jet lag" which is pretty much what it sounds like: They’re out of sync with the rest of society. They struggle to keep their eyes open during morning business meetings because their bodies are convinced it's the middle of the night. DSPS can wreak havoc on their health and careers, causing depression, anxiety, brain damage, heart disease, drug addiction, and a myriad of other afflictions due to sleep deprivation.

DSPS is often confused with insomnia, perhaps because sufferers seem sluggish and tired during the day. But the two disorders are actually very different: Insomniacs have trouble with the actual process of falling asleep, often due to anxiety or other factors. People with DSPS sleep perfectly fine during the hours their bodies tell them to. And DSPS isn't simply the preference to be a “night owl”—DSPS sufferers can’t fall asleep early even if they want to.

All of this amounts to bad news for DSPS sufferers in the world of work. According Cary Cooper, a psychologist and professor at Lancaster University Management School, when people who have DSPS wake up early for work, they become sleep deprived which causes them to be less efficient, innovative, and creative at the office. People with DSPS have trouble finding positions that allow them to work hours that let them get enough sleep. This also results in more stress, and can cause workplace accidents. A 2010
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study found that sleep deprivation costs companies an average of $2000 a year per worker.
Sometimes I wonder if I might be among those 40,000 DSPS sufferers: I regularly struggle to fall asleep at night and barely manage to make myself wake up and get to work in the morning. I do manage to stay alert during the workday – thank you, Mother Nature, for coffee – but I make up for lost sleep by sleeping in until noon or even later on weekends, something which annoyed my ex-wife (indeed, perhaps it is one of the reasons why she is now my ex) and perturbs Kirby on weekends I have him (I will wake up to make his breakfast and then go back to bed, only to have him come into my bedroom and pester me a short while later).

This is the way it’s been for me since I was a teenager. Going to bed earlier does not work for me: I simply toss and turn and stare at the ceiling. Taking sleep aids like melatonin or Tylenol PM don’t really seem to work that well, either. Perhaps I should see a sleep specialist, if for no other reason than to be officially diagnosed, but even if I am found to suffer from DSPS there really doesn’t seem to be much that can be done for it, at least medically:
"It's easier to treat someone with straight-up insomnia," said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist at The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Nothing works particularly well except getting a night job." Furthermore, if night owls and DSPS sufferers force themselves to live by the dawn to dusk schedule, they deprive themselves of their most productive hours.
I, too, feel like I am more productive and creative late at night. 
This isn't to say that I am worthlessly unproductive during the day; it just feels like the late evening is when I'm at my best, especially in terms of writing. Which is why readers will notice that almost all of my blog entries bear late-night timestamps.

The best thing for DSPS suffers, it seems, is to find a job that works with their schedule:
DSPS and work-related sleep deprivation would be unfortunate but unavoidable if our society had to choose one timetable for everyone to live by. Fortunately, that's not the case. Cooper notes that the U.S. has migrated from being a manufacturing-based economy to being a knowledge and service based economy—but our jobs haven’t evolved with this shift. “Come in early. Stay late. That’s always been the American way,” says Cooper. “Managers like to see bodies in the office.”
The fact is that our society is biased towards early birds and against night owls: think of all the clich├ęs that either extol the virtues of early wakefulness (“the early bird gets the worm,” “early to bed, early to rise…,” etc.) or denigrate those who stay up late (“nothing good ever happens after midnight”); in our culture, somebody who rises early is seen as a ambitious self-starter, an achieving go-getter. Somebody who sleeps in late, on the other hand,  is considered to be an apathetic slouch: decadent and indulgent, lacking ambition and drive. Trying to argue against these biases by saying “I suffer from DSPS” is unlikely to earn you any sympathy, either: there doesn’t seem to be a lot of general awareness about DSPS, especially since it only affects 1 out of every 750 people, and there will always be those who insist that DSPS is nothing but a hoax, an excuse for lazy people to slack. 

This mindset is beginning to change on the other side of the pond:
Flexible work schedules are already very common in Europe. A 2009 study by the European Commission found that flexible working hours is "relatively widespread." Workers with access to flexible schedules in the EU ranged from about 62 percent in Denmark to about 7-to-10 percent in Bulgaria—with most EU countries in the range of 20-to-40 percent. According to Cooper, most U.K. employees will be working half from home in five years.
Traditionally, managers tend to think more people in the office equals more output, but new research shows that people who work flexible hours are more productive and more likely to stay with their company because they are happier and healthier. Thanks to these findings, the U.K. passed a law in June giving every worker the right to apply for a flexible work arrangement.
My previous consulting job, in fact, did oftentimes allow me to work until the wee hours of the morning: for most of the time I was with that employer, I was the only person in my sector who worked out of the Houston office, which meant I rarely had to show up at the office at eight AM sharp. This arrangement is not available with my current employer, so I cope. Did I mention how thankful I am for coffee?

There could come a point, sometime in the future, when I return to an employment situation that allows me to work a flexible schedule in tune with my body's schedule. In the meantime, I’ll drag myself into work on the weekdays and use my off Fridays and weekends to sleep in. If Kirby will let me.

Monday, January 19, 2015

One last time on Joe Paterno's legacy

As of last Friday, the late Joe Paterno is once again officially the winningest coach in major college football history.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman, the lead plaintiff in the case, offered dueling interpretations at separate news conferences Friday, both announcing a settlement in a lawsuit stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University. Pennsylvania officials brought the suit against the NCAA and Penn State, challenging the validity of the consent decree they signed in 2012 that assigned unprecedented punishment to the school for its failure to act on information years earlier regarding Sandusky.

That consent decree is no more.

The settlement restores 112 victories to Penn State, 111 of those to Paterno, the legendary coach who died three years ago this month. And it directs $60 million — a penalty the school agreed to pay in the consent decree — to programs serving victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
It is interesting how a package of sanctions that was supposedly so harsh as to be "worse than the death penalty" (turns out that the Penn State football program might not have even been facing a suspension of play to begin with) and was to have crippled the Nittany Lion program for years (I wrote at the time that "it could be a decade, if not longer, before the program recovers") has completely unraveled in less than three years. Penn State went bowling last December after serving only two years of what was originally a four-year bowl ban, the scholarship limitations imposed against the PSU program have been rescinded, and now the erasure of 111 of Joe Paterno's victories from the record books - a functionally-meaningless but symbolically-significant sanction - has been reversed as well.

While it might be easy to restore Paterno's record, restoring his legacy as a coach and a person will be much more problematic:
Whether the NCAA's latest giveback to Penn State is viewed as another step toward Paterno's vindication or a failure by the one organization that had the ability to hold the coach accountable for his failure to do more to stop Sandusky is in the eyes of the beholder. One thing is for certain: The number 409, like Paterno's legacy, will never be looked at quite the same way again.

"Assessing Joe Paterno's legacy is something that is well-suited for documentary film or other long form journalism because there are no tidy answers," said director Amir Bar-Lev, whose film "Happy Valley" was released in December. "Closing the book on Joe Paterno on having been a phony all of his life or being completely without any blame in this matter or this kind of third way, this sort of Jekyll and Hyde hypothesis that we heard variations on, are all too simple."

For more than four decades, Paterno was not only the embodiment of Penn State football, he was the face of college football. He was revered in State College, Pennsylvania, and widely respected as a coach who won 'the right way.' Penn State was a football powerhouse that played by the rules with players who were both top-notch students and athletes. That was the story told over and over and there were facts to back it up: high graduation rates, national championships and a clean bill of health from the NCAA.

He was Saint Joe to many Penn State supporters in Happy Valley and beyond and always will be.

That he was dragged down by the Sandusky scandal, and fired unceremoniously by Penn State's board of directors a few days after his longtime defensive coordinator was arrested in November 2011 is still hard for many to reconcile. Paterno died of lung cancer just a few months later. When the NCAA sanctioned Penn State and Paterno based on a scathing report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that accused the Hall of Fame coach and other top Penn State officials of burying child sex-abuse allegations against Sandusky to avoid bad publicity, it shattered JoePa's virtuous public image and infuriated those close to him.
Paterno's supporters, including his family, have hailed the settlement. Others are, needless to say, very disappointed:
It's a disgrace to the victims.

What are the victims thinking today? They are thinking football makes the rules, as usual.

Every day, the lessons of Sandusky and Penn State are eased or brushed away. The bowl ban lifted, scholarships restored early, the wins restored. Soon, the Paterno statue will be rolled back out to its place at the football stadium. It won't be like nothing ever happened. Sandusky, after all, is in jail for a long time, and that won't change.

Still, Joe Pa catches a break. History books will have his name, for the time being, on the top line.

The big message is the victims are discounted. Here is the second message…wait long enough and a scandal's scorn will subside and all will be made well. 
A Penn State alum agrees:
We've cheated the system, bullied our way back into the record books. And we've told the world once again that in Happy Valley winning is more important than anything. All those boys who were raped? Well, that's not our problem. What's important is making sure coach Paterno's 409-136-3 is restored.

"The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth," said Mister Mann Frisby, a Penn State alum, and track coach for more than 11 years.

"The NCAA sanctions athletes for the smallest things -- you take a parent to lunch, it's a violation. You help a student-athlete pay for airfare for their parent to see a game, it's a violation. Students lose eligibility, sports programs are punished. And now, the NCAA is lifting sanctions after boys were molested and raped on his watch and he did little or nothing to stop it. This sends a terrible message," said Frisby, who was the first person in his family to graduate from college.
I have mixed feelings about all this. Joe Paterno was a tremendous football coach, but in my mind his legacy will always be tarnished by what he did - or more accurately, did not do - to prevent Jerry Sandusky from abusing children. In an effort to preserve his and his program's reputation, he essentially looked the other way while these horrors occurred, and he should always be remembered for that.

That being said, history cannot be changed. As a head coach Joe Paterno won those 111 games, regardless of what the NCAA's official record book might say. Those 111 victories, furthermore, were not just his but also those of hundreds of Penn State student-athletes who had absolutely nothing to do with the scandal; they did not deserve to be punished along with Paterno by having their victories officially wiped from the record book. Finally, as I noted before, this was a purely symbolic gesture that did nothing to materially assist Sandusky's victims in their quest for justice.

What I find to be most significant about all this is the increasing impotence of the NCAA and its ability to effectively sanction athletics programs for wrongdoing; in their rush to appear proactive and punish Penn State, they left themselves open to the lawsuit that resulted in this settlement.

See here and here for my previous thoughts on this topic; this post will be my final word on Joe Paterno and whatever his legacy might be. He is dead; Jerry Sandusky will die in prison. I hope that his victims are able to find healing, comfort and peace in their lives.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

A miracle comeback: Houston 35, Pitt 34

The Cougars were unmotivated and played like absolute crap for three quarters, and were trailing by 25 points after Pittsburgh running back James Conner scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. It was, by all appearances, just another lackluster bowl loss for the University of Houston, and the handful of UH fans who actually had made the trip up to Fort Worth to brave the cold weather and see the Coogs play began tricking out of Amon Carter stadium.

Kenneth Farrow muscled his way into the endzone with 10:43 remaining to make the score look a bit more respectable for the Coogs. But the Panthers answered with a field goal, and Houston trailed 13-34 with 6:14 left in the game. In order for the Cougars to even tie the game, they’d need to score three touchdowns in a row and that would require a miracle.

And then, the miracle occurred:

Consider all the improbable things that had to happen in order for this amazing comeback to occur:
  • The Cougars recovered two consecutive onside kicks. In all my years of watching football I have never seen that. Ever.

  • Greg Ward threw a perfect pass to Demarcus Ayers in the corner of the endzone on 4th and 13.

  • On the two-point conversion attempt after Deontay Greenberry's touchdown to bring the Coogs within a point, Ward scrambled on what appeared like a busted play to find him in the endzone, and Greenberry held on to the ball even as a Pitt defender smashed him to the ground.

  • In the game's final seconds, Pitt's star WR Boyd got open and dropped a perfect pass that would have put Pitt in FG range.
ESPN said that Houston had a 0.7% chance of winning that game after Pitt's last score. So you can argue that this outcome was a fluke, an anomaly, a statistical outlier.

And you might be right. But I don't care. Because the University of Houston now holds the title of "biggest fourth-quarter comeback in bowl history." This bowl victory - only the program's third since 1980  - also takes some of the sting off a disappointing season that started with an ignominious loss to Texas-San Antonio in the inaugural game at TDECU Stadium and ended with the head coach getting fired. If nothing else, last Friday's miraculous win is something the UH faithful will always happily remember.

So now, it's on to the offseason. Tom Herman continues to put a coaching staff together even as he prepares Ohio State's offense for Monday's national championship game, and we're sure to see a lot of changes in the program between now and the beginning of September. I eagerly await the next era of Houston Cougar football.