Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shooting themselves in the wheel.

Another Tour, another big name rider caught up in a doping scandal.....

Tour de France rider Schleck fails doping test. AP via

The RadioShack Nissan Trek team pulled Frank Schleck, one of the biggest names in pro cycling, out of the Tour de France on Tuesday after he failed a doping test, threatening to overshadow Bradley Wiggins' bid to win the three-week race in Paris this weekend. The 32-year-old rider from Luxembourg, who was third in last year's Tour, left a police station in Pau where he had discussed the case with authorities after cycling's governing body announced the positive test.
The drug that he tested positive for was Xipamide, which is a diuretic and a known masking agent for steroids.  Of course, Schleck claims innocence and claims that he was poisoned. He has requested his "B" sample be tested as per normal procedure.

For those of you unfamiliar with the procedure, the "B" sample will be tested and it it comes back negative that's it, case over.  If it comes back positive then Frank Schleck will have a right to state his case in front of the UCI (Cycling's governing body) which will then vote on his guilt/innocence and issue his penalty, probably a fine and ban from racing for a period of time.

Not really mentioned in the article is the very real possibility that Schleck will face criminal prosecution in France, which has passed a passel of tough anti-doping laws over the years in response to illegal substances being found in it's biggest sporting event.

With drug testing, under WADA standards, the standard assumption is "guilty until proven innocent".  It's very rare for an athlete to present a good case that he didn't inject the substance unknowingly (i.e. 'poisoned') or through benign methods (i.e. tainted meat) at a level that will convince the anti-doping board they're clean.

It's another black eye for cycling, which is not a huge sport in the US but which is very big in parts of Europe. I know I'll be watching le Tour coverage tonight on NBC Sports if only to watch the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the commentators.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Ranking Texas' D-1A Athletic programs

Using no metric other than how I feel the schools are currently positioned.....

1. UT-Austin - Like 'em or not, the horns are the top dog in the State of Texas in regards of overall athletic program.  They have great facilities, and bring in a TON of money through the Longhorn Network (even IF no one will carry the thing)  Yes, their football luster has dulled recently (and I believe that will carry into the next few years, until they can find a solid QB/RB/WR trio again) but they've got more resources than any other school in the State, by far.

2. Texas A&M - For all of the screaming and yelling, aTm did the best job of any of BIG state schools improving their position.  The jump to the SEC was a smart move, and will provide them with money and recruiting resources for years.  Outside of Kentucky, it's a conference that doesn't care much about basketball, so aTm should do better than expected there.  It's football where the big advantages will be found.  Not initially, as Coach Kevin Sumlin and crew will find out, but over time possibly.  To me their ceiling is Georgia.  That ain't too bad.

3. TCU - A surprise here, but not really.  TCU has been working diligently on their athletic program for years now with one goal in mind: making it into the Big ten elven Twelve whatever and they're now there.  They should do well in football, use the money and recruiting to get better in basketball, and surprise some teams in baseball and the other non-revenue sports.  TCU has good (not great) facilities and a leadership team in place that seems to understand what's needed.  I see good things for them in the future.

4. Baylor - Say what you want about the little college in Waco, they've parlayed some friendly government intervention into a decent run in the Big XII and are getting a new football stadium and a host of upgrades for the rest of their facilities.  With quality men's football and basketball teams to complement the Ladies basketball juggernaut the Bears are slowly building a competitive sports product to compete with the big boys.  Ultimately, I feel that their lack of a donor base and other limitations will cap them out here but man, what a ride.

5. Texas Tech - That "West Texas school" has been on a bit of a since the Mike Leach debacle took some steam out of their momentum.  Right now they have the feel of a moribund program whose prospects for future greatness are well.....Football is sliding, as is basketball, and may or may not have reached their low points.  Something needs to change in Lubbock, and fast.

6. SMU - I realize that I'm going to get killed for this by UH fans but the facts here speak for themselves.  SMU has better facilities, better current programs, and a better financial base on which to continue building than do the Cougars. They are in the same conference and have the same problems with that conference that UH has.  The difference is SMU is rising, UH is falling.

7. Houston -  Houston is a school that's fallen way down my rankings over the last few years.  Five years ago they may have been ranked as high as four on the list.  Unfortunately, despite having some measure of success on the football field, the Cougars are still suffering under the immense weight of unfilled potential.  They have a new, on campus, football stadium coming, maybe. Their basketball stadium is an aging relic and every other facility on campus is average at best.  For the Cougars life seems to be a steady stream of "wait and see", meanwhile other schools are moving faster and bumping them down the list. If they can sustain some measure of success on the field, get a new football & basketball stadium up and running they can move back up again.

8. UT-El Paso - It's hard for me to rank any school in the UT system (not named UT-Austin) too high.  Ultimately they have to answer to a board of directors who want to make sure the children don't surpass the parent.  UTEP does have some decent facilities however and some good coaches that they claimed off of the scrap-heap.  They're in a dog conference, and are limited on what they can accomplish due in part to geography.  Still, they are currently a lot better than they were previously.

9. Texas State - You have to like what Texas State is doing.  They're on the cusp of moving to D-1A in a conference (The WAC) that's very weak and which should allow them to make some competitive inroads. However, they couldn't dominate weaker competition in the Southland conference. They have decent facilities and an administration that seems to be committed to making them a D-1 competitive school.  Time will tell.

10. Rice - Due in large part to their tiny alumni base, and the fact that they don't place great value on the revenue sports, Rice is what Rice is, a small private institution who will always be known for academics than athletics.  This is a good thing, because this is what Rice values.  It's not a good thing for the purposes of this list however.  That said, they have a great, if aged, football stadium and the recently renovated Autry at least gives them a workable basketball facility.  Wayne Graham is a genius in baseball.

11. North Texas. - Saddled with a conference affiliation that's terrible (the Sun Belt) North Texas is moving along under the sports radar albeit, with a very large donor ("Mattress" Mack) in their corner.  They recently completed a nice little new football stadium and they have a pretty nice campus up in Denton, I just don't think they will ever have the resources to really challenge anyone above them on this list.

12. UT - San Antonio - Look, I appreciate what they are doing but there's really nowhere else you can put this school but at the bottom considering where they are today.  They've not played a down of football at the D-1 level although they could improve given the dearth of college sports in the San Antonio area and the fact that their WAC affiliation is better than the Sun Belt or C-USA.  I'd say this grade is "incomplete" but, for now, I think this is where they must rank.

Stop the Linsanity

With today's news that the Houston Rockets are making a contract offer to Jeremy Lin I think it's time to step back, take a breath, and say something that needs to be said:

The Rocket's off-season is starting to look like a slow-motion car crash.

If you think you've seen this movie before, you're probably correct.  At the beginning of the off-season it was obvious that the Rockets had developed a plan "A".  Make small trades for draft position and picks, and then bundle up Kyle Lowery and a bunch of other stuff in a trade for Dwight Howard.  What they got stuck with (after everything fell through) was Omar Asik and another Darell Morey inspired beg-a-thon to Jeremy Lin.  What's worse, the guy who they thought was going to be their starting point guard, Goran Dragic has said "thanks but no thanks" to what is rumored to be a low-ball offer and is now certainly going to sign elsewhere.

This leaves the Rockets with...well....not much really, again.

As I said previously, you've seen this before from Morey and co.  Remember "plan A" Chris Bosh?

The problem for the Rockets is that there is never a plan B.  And there should be, because Houston is, despite locals protests to the contrary, not a destination city for most athletes. Because of this luring "A-list" free agents is never a done deal.  There are many reasons for this, the least of which is the Summer heat, since most sports (excepting baseball) are off for the Summer so athletes can live wherever they want, I'll just touch on a couple here.

1. Houston is a bad, bad sports town. - I'm sorry, but it just is.Yes the Texans have a broad fan base, but it's not very deep.  And they're the best positioned team in the City. Remember 1/2 full Reliant Stadium when the Texans were missing the playoffs?  How about having to change tailgating policies because people would rather stay outside than go into the stadium?  There's no driving passion for sports in Houston, not as a whole.  Yes, you have a few Texans fans who paint their faces and compete every year for some mythical "Superfan" prize but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Houston will turn out to see a winner, but that's about it, and they're very, very quick to turn on a player if they feel somehow "dissed".

2. Houston has a terrible sports media. - Even worse, it's a sports media that the National media all but ignores.  What this means is that what happens in Houston, from a sports perspective, usually stays in Houston.  Even Yao, who was a marketing success, didn't have near the options that other national athletes have.  While salaries are equal, endorsements in the "destination cities" are certainly going to be much, much higher.

3. Houston's just not that good of a market. - This follows up on the point I made above, the endorsements just aren't going to be there.  A lot of (rightfully) proud Houstonians like to point out that they live in the "4th largest city in the USA" (some would argue 3rd largest right now)  which is true, but it's also the 10th largest media market.  In the world of sports and sports money, that's pretty small change.

The thing is, there's not much that Houston can "do" to change any of this.  Most of the population is imported and has long-standing ties with other teams (I fall in that catagory growing up rooting for Michigan & Oklahoma State in college sports, the 49ers in football -although I did grow up an Astros fan and I'm not a fan of the NBA so there's that- the Red Wings in Hockey the Irish in rugby and the Scots in footy) they may pull for the local teams but they have no real connection to them.  The media is falling all around the country and, for some odd reason, local sports talk really doesn't take off in Houston, especially if the teams are bad. In comparison, you should hear the talk shows when teams in New York, Philly or Chicago are bad.  Do you think the Cubs are not a hot topic on Chicago radio right now?  Meanwhile the Astros are almost a non-entity, treated as a joke when mentioned, almost with a wink and a "yeah, we get it, you don't want to talk about them" nod.

It's bad enough that most of Houston's sports news coverage is of the Rah! Rah! variety, which refuses to address the real problems facing teams, because that leads to fan apathy.  Even though they're not passionate, Houston sports fans (except for most UH & UT-Austin fans that is) are fairly educated and fairly honest with themselves about the states of their programs.  When what's written in ChronBlog doesn't sync up with what fans are seeing on the field, they just tune out.  The resulting silence can be devastating for a team.  Especially a team that's doing poorly.  One can only wonder how long it will be before you can hear a baby cry in Toyota Center during game action?

If next season is as bad as this off-season portends, it could be a very short time until Houston tunes out on the Rockets liked they've tuned out on the Astros.