Monday, November 27, 2006

End of Season News and Notes

Alas, the 12 Saturdays of Christmas are behind us, leaving only a few dozen meaningless bowl games, including one that likely will prove what we already know: Ohio State runs this joint and everyone else is just furniture. But vultures like me love to pick the bones of this season’s carcass to try to make some Brunswick Stew out of it. So, without further ado …

The Coaching Guillotine: Alabama, Miami, NC State, North Carolina and Arizona State have all rolled heads. Am I leaving anyone out? Due to recentness and regional bias, I’m going to give special focus to Alabama.

I agree with Paul Westerdawg that, generally speaking, what’s good for Bama football is good for Georgia as well. Like Georgia, they annually play and recruit against Auburn and Tennessee. And, unlike Auburn and Tennessee, we don’t have to deal with Alabama every year. By posting 1-3 and 0-4 marks respectively against the Vols and Plainsmen, our man in Tuscaloosa has done us few favors.

But hubris and an itchy trigger finger have been crippling to the Capstone since Bear Bryant’s retirement in 1982. A program that’s gone through six head coaches in 24 years hardly screams “job security,” so firing a coach in what is already a seller’s market for top-tier coaches was an ill-timed maneuver. And for all its tradition, support and resources, pitching Alabama in 2006 is like pitching Pitney Bowes, Western Union or Kodak: what made them dominant back in the day now threatens them with obsolescence. In Alabama’s case, that asset-turned-liability is its culture of overly involved big-money boosters, which would be intimidating to any coaching candidate not named Steve Spurrier, and I don’t think he’s going anywhere.

Now with that said, there’s plenty to recommend the Alabama gig over the other vacancies, particularly now that UNC has got their man. Like Alabama, Miami, Arizona State and NC State all have competitive in-state rivals. And they’re all in conferences with plenty of parity. I don’t know what their athletic budgets are like (although I know Miami’s is paltry and its bottom line is a seven-figure number in brackets). But I think it’s a safe assumption that Alabama will throw more money and support at a winner than will the other bidders in this year’s coaching auction.

Last words on this: Shula was clearly a desperation hire. The only thing that made him a better hire than Ray Goff is the fact that Georgia had pretty much the entire 1988 season to find Dooley’s replacement and Goff, sadly, was still the best we could come up with. The Bama gig fell into Shula’s lap in the shadow of two-a-days after … (must … resist … lame quip about laps, Mike Price and strippers) … anyway, you get the point. Having posted the opening right after Thanksgiving, Alabama ought to have enough time to get the hire right this time.

On to Georgia. Well, we closed it out with the now perfunctory Reggie Ball implosion. At halftime, a friend called to take my temperature on the game. “Well, it’s a tight game and Reggie is still healthy,” I replied. “So I’ve already lit the cigar.”

As Stafford & Co. lined up in the victory formation to salt away the final 60 seconds, CBS’ camera panned over to the Georgia Tech bench, where Ball was patting the shoulders and helmets of his team mates. There could not have been a lonelier image. Not a single player so much as glanced in his direction. In the waning seconds of his final regular season game, Reggie’s teammates accorded him less attention they would have to a fart in the breeze.

Ball is one of the more curious characters in the history of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate. I really can’t think of another rival player for whom I’ve felt so much distaste that it’s caused me to feel outright compassion for everyone else associated with his program. By being such a honking embarrassment for four years, he managed to humanize a program Dan Magill termed "the eternal enemy." If you’re a Tech fan or player, what do you make of a guy who picks fights with an opposing team’s trainers, loses track of downs and single-handedly squanders the greatest receiving talent in your program’s history – all against your hands-down biggest rival? And how does one muster optimism for a program that, in four years, failed to put anyone more consistent under center than a guy whose football IQ is the same as his jersey number?

The last shot I saw of Reggie (and it may well be one of the last times any of us ever see him on camera, unless he shows up on “COPS”), he was separate from his teammates, surrounded only by two state troopers, as “Reg-gie, Reg-gie!” chants rained down on him from the Georgia students, whose derision didn't stop there. And yet it was likely from Tech fans that he needed police protection. If it were anyone else – say, Steve Taneyhill, Casey Clausen or George Godsey – I might have felt pity. As it was, I feel only bafflement.

I know the stats say otherwise, but you could almost argue that Tech was one player away from a win Saturday. And that player would be the hothead with the ridiculously overcompensating sleeves of tattoos on his arms. Note that I said almost, because if you’ve got Paul Oliver’s back, I’ve got yours. In the admittedly rare instances when Ball was on target to Calvin Johnson, Oliver intervened to heroic effect. When a 6’5”, 235-pound All-American receiver who runs a 4.3 40 leaves the field with two catches for 13 yards and no touchdowns (in spite of a first-and-goal), you have to awe the guy who was covering him.

I was pleased to read that Mike Bobo was calling the plays Saturday and that play-calling will be a new part of his job description. As Paul notes, the view from the booth is superior to the view from the field, and it is high time Richt gravitated away from the minutiae of toss sweeps and out routes and developed the holistic perspective of a head coach. And while Bobo’s playcalling only netted 8 points, it also produced Georgia’s most memorable drive since David Greene’s two-minute drill against Tennessee in 2001. And, unlike last year’s Tech game (in which we had a veteran QB and greater talent across the offense), Georgia dominated every meaningful offensive stat – time of possession, first downs, third-down conversions, total yards and turnovers.

So, with an 8-4 regular season in the can and a presumptive trip to the Peach Bowl ahead, where does that leave us? In pretty good shape, I think; a helluva lot better than where things were headed in October. Matthew Stafford has figured out how to drive Richt’s and Bobo’s offense someplace other than into a telephone pole, his receivers have learned what to do when he points his Howitzer their way and Richt’s evolution as a head coach has progressed with some much-needed delegation of playcalling duties. As might be expected of a defense coordinated by a former DB coach, our rushing defense remains suspect, but we closed the season by bowing up in a pair of rivalry games, allowing less than 200 yards and 20 points in each. Our OL will lose depth, some of which will be missed, some of which … eh, not so much. Regardless, help is on the way. Really. EDIT: Cavalry's still comin'.

In the meantime, here some final thoughts on the season that was. As is probably the case for most Georgia fans, the final ledger was far less of a surprise than how we got there. Losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, bookended by a shutout of Spurrier in Columbia and a mauling of Auburn on the Plains: Not exactly what anyone was dialing up in August. Other than in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, we weren’t shown to be tangibly inferior to anyone and most of our wounds were of the self-inflicted variety. A sub-par year, yes, but, as 8-4 years go, this one points to more of an upside than 2000 and 2001 did.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Georgia-Auburn 2006: Anatomy of a Pantsing

Beating Auburn is like pouring the new Beaujolais. It’s not nearly enough to merely consume this seasonal treat. You must savor it fully; really give the palette a workout and make sure you capture the full bouquet.

This year’s edition – Georgia’s 700th win all-time – was a 37-15 undressing, capped by Georgia taking a knee at the Auburn 7 with just under three minutes remaining. Georgia’s triumph on the so-called Loveliest Village on the Plains was the Bulldogs’ most emphatic thrashing of a top-five team in 64 years.

And yet, while Mark Richt has shown a penchant for last-minute wins that shred Larry Munson’s vocal chords, Richt is usually good for one of these types of wins every season as well. By “these types of wins,” I’m talking about an out-of-the-blue, lightning-in-a-bottle asskicking of one of our biggest rivals. These are historically competitive series on which commentators typically pile on the “throw out the record books” clichés, yet are shockingly over by halftime.

In 2002, it was hanging a half-hundred on a beleaguered Tech. In 2003, Richt hit a trifecta: 30-0 at Clemson, 41-14 at Tennessee and 26-7 against Auburn. In 2004, it was the 45-16 Greene-to-Gibson clinic against LSU. Boise State, which Georgia pounded 48-13, wasn’t a rival, but they were the preseason’s most fashionable upset pick.

Unlike last year’s track meet edition, in which the winner was the last team with the ball, this year’s tilt was a grinding affair defined by scoring drives that seemingly took weeks to complete, punctuated by a few Stafford smart bombs to Martrez Milner A.J. Bryant, Kenneth Harris, Mohamed Massaquoi and Mike Moore.

That the winning team posted 227 rushing yards should come as no surprise, given the schools’ output of tailbacks such as Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Stephen Davis, Garrison Hearst, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Terrell Davis. Still this statistic is immensely gratifying to Georgia fans, who have been lectured ad nauseum by Auburn fans and their coach about our supposed lack of commitment to running the ball.

Indulge me with a few more game stats, because, if you’re like me and grew up in West Georgia during Bo Jackson’s blitzkrieg, the pleasure that comes from this kind of demolition is ecstasy. And, really, any Dawg fan who’s suffered through this season is going to be swishing numbers like these around in his mouth for a while:

Georgia ran 66 offensive plays, compared to Auburn’s 37. Georgia held the ball for 38 minutes and 12 seconds, compared to Auburn’s 21 minutes and 48 seconds. Georgia racked up 446 total yards to Auburn’s 171.

In a sense, Georgia did to Auburn what Auburn usually does to its opponents: sits on the ball for an eternity and smothers the opponent during the infrequent lapses when the ball isn’t in their possession.

Auburn? Auburn! You got knocked dafuggout!

But there was a lot more sweetness to this win than Georgia merely drowning Auburn in its own medicine, although that alone would’ve been plenty.

For starters, we got the best glimpse yet of the arriving promise of Matthew Stafford, the full-bodied Texan who flicks the long ball and peels off long runs with deceptive ease. We saw yesterday Matthew Stafford do the things in a Georgia uniform that we drooled over him doing in a Highland Park uniform. In place of interceptions, Stafford hit his own receivers with the touch and authority of an underclassman who’s finally growing into his silver britches. After one long run was marred by a fumble, he showed his learning on a subsequent run by diving after crossing the first-down marker. Sure, he left a few yards on the table, but, almost veteran-like, he knew when to leave well enough alone. Along those lines, while humming along to a 70% completion rate, Stafford had the poise to “burn it” by throwing one out of the end zone instead of forcing it. He scored on the next play. The growing up in public of Matt Stafford appears to have reached its apex.

Of course, Stafford was helped considerably by a patchwork OL (led by the injured, but sucking it up heroically Ken Shackelford) that treated Auburn’s DL like a Zen rock garden, pushing around a blitzing-off-the-bus Auburn defensive front to allow the passing and running games do whatever they chose.

Hamstrung all season by brick-mitted receivers, Georgia’s offense looked Saturday as though it had wrapped the field in flytrap tape. That goes for defense, too, given the pick party that Tra Battle and Paul Oliver threw at Brandon Cox’s expense.

After Georgia stoned Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in Columbia, I said I was done complaining about Willie Martinez. And that lasted about a week.

Well, it’s funny how good your defense looks when your offense isn’t turning the ball over five times a game, and I don’t mean that to sound like faint praise. Holding an Al Borges-coached offense to less than 200 yards is a hell of an accomplishment, particularly when that offense includes former Heisman hopeful Kenny Irons, who probably accounted for more offense by himself against us last year. Right now, Brandon Cox is making Ray Gant a sandwich and ironing Tra Battle’s shirts.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Vietnam Joins WTO; Intel Invests $1bn

Somewhat overshadowed by the latest steps by Russia to join the World Trade Organization, tiny but fast-growing Vietnam has joined the international trade club after coughing up about 900 pages’ worth of concessions.

This is a significant development for Vietnam (pop. 84M), whose textile- and agriculture-driven economy has resembled ours about a century ago and whose population is still shaking off the ill effects of “The American War” and life under communist government and all its attendant corruption.

But it’s a milestone in US history as well. The “domino theory” that cost us 58,000 lives (and that cost Vietnam 1.5M lives) on the premise that military force was the only way to turn back the Red Tide has been further debunked. A chapter has ended.

It may also be a milestone for a global economy that is increasingly beholden to intellectual property and copyright, which have been speed bumps in the path of China’s booming economy. While I believe concerns about the impact of globalization of the U.S. economy and the American worker are valid, I recognize that the toothpaste is already out of the tube. Going forward, efforts should coalesce around protecting the underlying value of companies that participate in Asia’s growth.

Currently or recently communist states like China, Vietnam and Russia have poor track records of protecting any kind of property rights, much less the intellectual variety. When China acceded to the WTO, a bevy of IP laws were passed but rarely enforced.

As Sherman Katz, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment think tank, told the Financial Times: “The experience with China was that although 3,000 laws were passed, we didn’t get the enforcement we hoped we would. It was doubly disappointing because during the accession process there were pretty specific statements from China about enforcement.”

With each new member, joining the WTO entails higher hurdles. While China was allowed to join by promising to change its laws in the future, Vietnam had to make massive legal reforms in advance. It also had to swallow nearly 900 pages of documents obligating it to slash trade barriers, end many subsidies, allow foreign companies to buy Vietnamese ones and protect intellectual property rights. Additionally, in labeling Vietnam a “non-market economy” for up to 12 years, it will be easier for the WTO to impose emergency tariffs to block Vietnamese imports they deem to be subsidized or sold below cost.

A little over 18 months ago, I was traveling in Southeast Asia with a team of fellow MBA candidates, consulting for an American textile marketer that was looking for a manufacturer in the region. After sizing up opportunities in Malaysia and Singapore, we recommended a partner in Vietnam. Along with our recommendation, we included the caveat that our client wait until Vietnam joined the WTO, as it would be difficult for them to summon the legal resources necessary to enforce a contract in Vietnamese courts, where the chances of getting an unbiased incorruptible judge were dubious at best.

Yet with new laws come new means for corruption. A perfunctory part of daily life in cities like Ho Chi Minh is “tea money,” an expression used for payoffs demanded by chronically underpaid police. But it’s also a proxy for the economic lubricant that determines which laws get enforced in whose favor and which deals get approved. The WTO must still rely on Vietnam to enforce its own laws fairly.

Still, the big win for Vietnam and the rest of the world is the increased confidence in doing business with the country and the prospect of Vietnam joining its neighbors in the Information Economy. Foreign firms committed almost US$6.5bn in new investment in the country in the year to October, a year-on-year increase of 41.4%, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment.

Notable among those firms investing in Vietnam is my former employer, Intel Corp., which today announced it would deploy $1bn to expand its assembly and test facility area now under construction in the Saigon High-Tech Park to 500,000 square feet from 150,000 square feet. That would make it the largest single factory within the firm’s assembly and test network.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bret Bielema’s mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.

This is so spectacularly loaded with schadenfreude that I am having a full-on Hedley Lamarr moment:


Why do I love this so much? First and foremost, because it exposes an irrevocable flaw in the new clock rules, which were designed to correct something that no one thought was a problem to begin with: Long games. Long games mean more football and thus more reason to drink more beer while watching more football. And as games go longer, particularly in overtime, they become that much more compelling television, which would imply greater value for advertisers.

Conversely, the problem with shorter games should be self evident: They’re shorter. Duh. Less offense. Less excitement. The two-minute drill begins somewhere around the five-minute mark.

But the NCAA rules committee, operating squarely under the thumb of the networks, instituted new rules to make the clock run when the ball is not in play – the latest step in a grand conspiracy to place the outcome of the college football season further in control of advertisers.

So Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema takes a colossal step outside of Barry Alvarez’s shadow with this bit of pre-halftime special teams genius. On first viewing, I was left so speechless I could do little else but wish him the best of luck shopping for trousers massive enough to accommodate his considerable brass. God help anyone behind him in an airport security line.

Also, I’m in a small but growing minority of people who have tired of Joe Paterno’s never-ending farewell tour. He’s been careening towards his Woody Hayes moment for several years now and this was another step in that direction. JoePa could’ve fought smart with smart by taking the five-yard penalty at the end of the run-back, which he had two opportunities to do (granted, doing so would’ve put him as far back as his own 15). Instead JoePa was reduced to the now familiar – yet still futile – tactic of excoriating the refs, cameramen and anyone else within spitting distance.