Observations from a weekend of sports …
How impressive is it to see the Missouri Tigers evolve into what should be a pretty good bowl team and a darn good team next year? Despite losing starting left tackle Elvis Fisher before the season started, and losing Big 12 leading rusher Henry Josey to a season-ending knee injury, Gary Pinkel’s Tigers have found a way to win three in a row and finish a 7-5 regular season.
James Franklin doesn’t have great first halves, but rebounds nicely. After throwing three interceptions in the first half against Kansas, Franklin bounced back with two beautiful touchdown passes in the second half of a 24-10 win over the Jayhawks.
After allowing 1,730 yards in games against Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor, the Tigers rebounded against Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas, allowing just 837 yards in their season-ending three game winning streak. The Tigers were able to overcome early season special teams misadventures to become bowl eligible. One could argue that Mizzou was only two plays: a missed field goal at the end of regulation vs. Arizona State and a missed tackle on a touchdown run by Baylor’s Terrance Ganaway from being 9-3. But, 7-5 is where they are. And next year, they’ll have a more mature Franklin, a returning Josey, a stout defense led by the improving Sheldon Richardson and cornerback E.J. Gaines, and linebacker Andrew Wilson. Despite numerous senior losses, guys like Dan Hoch, Jayson Palmgren and Austin Wuebbels on the offensive line, Terrell Resonno, Dominique Hamilton and Jacquies Smith on the defensive line, and key skill position players like Michael Egnew, Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson, the Tigers are well-positioned for their move to the SEC. They have to upgrade their overall talent level. But we’ve seen that when things are going bad, they have the coaching to overcome many of the issues they face.
Ron Zook is a good guy, but in a bottom-line business, you can’t go 6-6 after starting 6-0 like the Illini did. Zook took the hit after his club became the first since 1903 to start 6-0 and finish 6-6, with the only other team to do that being another Illinois edition. The losses at Purdue and at Minnesota were devastating. If the Illini had beaten those two woebegone teams, they would have finished 8-4 and the wolves could have been kept at bay. Where does Illinois turn? One of their first calls should be to Jim Leavitt, the former South Florida coach who now coaches the linebackers with the 49ers. Leavitt started the Bulls program and got it all the way to No. 2 in the nation at one point. He was accused of striking a player at halftime of a game (he said it was more like a shove) and was fired. Illinois has to be big enough to give a guy like Leavitt a second chance. He’s a terrific coach with a superb body of work beyond that indiscretion, and should get another opportunity. He would be a great fit in Champaign.
How much fun are the Blues to watch these days? When Ken Hitchcock said, “Welcome to the 200-foot game” when he was hired, he wasn’t kidding. On Friday night at Scottrade, the Blues continued to fly up and down the ice, with defensemen pitching in on offense and forwards coming back on the back check with great effort and speed. Add in that the Blues are getting superb goaltending from Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, and that’s a recipe for winning. There are a lot of people, me included, that believe winning games is all about players. But sometimes a different coach or manager is needed to get the most out of the talent on a team. It seems pretty clear that Hitchcock was the right guy at the right time for the players the Blues have now.
Speaking of the Blues, I’d love to see Brett Hull as part of an ownership group. He loves the franchise, and the franchise’s fans love him. If Hull joins the Tom Stillman ownership group and they get the team, I would love for Hull to be a part of it. However, John Davidson, Doug Armstrong and Hitchcock have a good thing going right now. I’m not sure the Blues need a president or general manager at the moment. No disrespect intended toward that group, but if Matthew Hulsizer can close his deal, it would greatly benefit this franchise to have an owner with the ability to go out and spend a few bucks. Hulsizer is a billionaire, and we just don’t know if Stillman’s group is ready to play in that league. And, Hulsizer appears to be someone prepared to be more of a hands-off owner. I’d like to see this management group get an opportunity to win.
Finally, it was fun to listen to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin before his team’s Sunday night game at Kansas City. When Michele Tafoya asked him about the division race with Baltimore, he said, “We aren’t a big picture outfit here.” Every coach is laser-focused on the next game on the schedule, and he was thinking about Kansas City. But when Tomlin says things, he boils it down so honestly and intensely, I really appreciate it. Having lost James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Willie Colon and key defensive end Aaron Smith, the Steelers would have good reason to struggle. But they just keep going, and Tomlin is a huge part of that.
And for me, back to Tebowing.