January, 1, 2009- Liberty Bowl on Beale Street
By Kerith Burke
Fans in town for the Liberty Bowl are not afraid to show their colors.
Downtown on New Year's Eve, it was 1/3 Purple Pirates, 1/3 Wildcat Blue, and 1/3 shivering co-eds in slinky party dresses.
The atmosphere on Beale Street was unlike anywhere I've ever been and the players seemed in awe too. The Wildcats coach said he pushed curfew back from midnight to 1am on New Year's Eve and I think Skip Holtz must have done the same thing. Packs of players---in team sweats no less--perused downtown Memphis with their cell phone cameras out to capture the midnight moment.
We spent the New Year at the Rum Boogie Cafe, where throngs of ECU fans congealed---they seem to sniff out their own kind--and no kidding, chants of PURPLE! GOLD! bounced off the bar walls.
Holtz said no one missed curfew and everyone was bright-eyed today for the team walk-through at Tiger Stadium. Again, cell phones out and plenty of clowning around, which Coach encouraged. Before the bowl games, ECU's tradition is to pit the Offensive Coaches versus the Defensive Coaches in a cutthroat battle of middle-aged man-speed.
Holtz won the fashion show---he dressed in a Sleeveless Wonder (It's sleeveless...and you wonder why! It was only 40 degrees at the Stadium and the man rocked a cut-off tank!). Holtz completed his outfit in a playful mockery of player trends: area codes on his shoes to rep his hometown, plenty of eye-black and extra wrist bands. Defense won the battle for the third year in a row. That's according to the defense.
Game time is 5pm EST and Chris Johnson will be there. CJ was the star RB for the Pirates who moved on to Sundays to be the star RB for the Tennessee Titans. Holtz told me he'd love to suit up CJ. I bet he'd don some purple for old time's sake.
ECU is after it's 10th win of the season tomorrow and it's second straight bowl win. We'll be there live to see how it unfolds.
December 28, 2008- Wolfpack fans arrive
By Mark Armstrong
For a couple days it seemed like it was just us and the team -- but today the Wolfpack fanbase showed up en masse. Although truth be told - the Rutgers brigade has been here longer and appears somewhat larger.
It's a bit discombobulating - both teams, and consequently, their fans are out in red.
The result is a sea of the same looking folks. The only way to differentiate is to get up close enough to see whether they're rocking the Block S or block R.
It's made for lots of friendly "get to know ya" conversations and lots of friendly trash talk. One Rutgers fan made a huge point of telling us yesterday that NC State was the easiest school in the country, that all you needed for admittance was a pencil. And furthermore - that the greatest coach in State history - Jim Valvano was actually a Rutgers grad - so there.
My favorite State fan - a slightly dazed looking guy with bleached blond hair and a State toque on. I asked him what Rutgers block R stood for.
His response: "aaaaaahhhhhh. Real losers?". Good stuff. The State marching band got the official pep rally going, followed by TOB and a selection of his players. Andre Brown tried to get things going by asking - check that - screaming, "Is the WOLFPACK WAS IN THE HOUSE?"
That was followed by Willie Young getting the crowd involved with a "WE CAN'T......BE STOPPED" chant.
After Greg Schiano and Rutgers did their thing - it was up to the Velvet Teddy Bear himself - Ruben Studdard to take us into the evening. They're proud of him here in Birmingham. BTW - special hello to some folks from yesterday - Robbie Leonard's family is out in force - nice people. My man Louis and his clan helped make the Embassy Suites cocktail hour especially fun.
I'm now forgetting his name - but it was a treat to meet the 90-year-old Pack fan we had in our story tonight. He was the team trainer back in 1939! While he was taping ankles, WWII was just heating up. Incredible. Thanks also to the countless Pack fans who said hi as they passed our truck or our liveshot location. It's always nice to see friendly faces from back home.
All that's left now is the game - and it should be a doozy. The players looked ready yesterday - the field looked a mess, but that's another story. Lemme just say that if you're gonna continue to use a legendary field - try to keep it up a little better. It's kind of sad to see Legion Field looking the way it does.W
ill the Wolfpack win? Not sure. I do think they'll need to score at least 30 to have a chance. Mike Teel, Kenny Britt and the Knights are just too powerful on offense to completely shut them down. I'll close with Tom O'Brien's words. "I just want us to play hard, play smart and we'll see if we're good enough."
December 27, 2008- PapaJohns.com Bowl
By Mark Armstrong
There are experiences unique to every bowl game and every host city. In Birmingham, that experience is getting to visit the Civil Rights Institute.
The Pack headed over there this morning, we were in tow. I went there to do a story and left feeling lucky that I'd been able to visit the place myself.
We all learn about the civil rights fight in school, but getting to stare down the barrel of history like this place allows you to do is another thing entirely.
I was dumbfounded by the posters for Minstrel shows, the multitude of Jim Crow artifacts and the rest of the multi-media displays.
What makes things extra intense is the knowledge that these kinds of overt racism were the norm even just 40 years ago. The museum also featured pictures from sit-ins in Raleigh.
Tom O'Brien said the visit was probably entirely different for him than for his players, since he was actually alive during the time period in question. I interviewed Owen Spencer, Alan-Michael Cash and Jake Vermiglio afterwards. The one word they all used --humbling.
December 26, 2008- PapaJohns.com Bowl
By Mark Armstrong
There was no wasted time our first day in Birmingham.
Straight off an early flight from home, photographer Tres Bruce and I headed directly over to the PapaJohns.com Bowl kickoff luncheon.
Only a few wrong turns, mostly because our GPS system has a small glitch. We learned the hard way that when the robot lady says to turn right in 200 feet --that means turn right IMMEDIATELY.
A few death-defying brake locks later we were at the Sheraton. A nice event, full of sponsor speeches and "Welcome to Birmingham's".
Tom O'Brien tripped all over himself complimenting Rutgers and Greg Schiano and Schiano responded in kind. It was touching, but I found myself wishing football luncheons were more like boxing press conferences. O'Brien and Schiano chest to chest, some insults and then a staged fight that's quickly broken up. That would be cool.
Vince Dooley was the keynote speaker, you can tell he's done these speeches a hundred million or so times --lots of good stories. The only hitch, the bowl director proudly welcomed the "North Carolina Wolfpack". I joked with Tom O'Brien after practice later that those mistakes --even inadvertently-- won't happen if they keep winning over the next couple years.
We were allowed to watch and shoot the first 20 minutes of practice, the Pack is working out at Birmingham Southern College. Rutgers is doing their thing over at Hoover High School. For the MTV fans out there, that's the high football team featured on the show "Two-a-Days". The show where all the guys have the ridiculously swept over haircuts (Bama bangs). To me, it looks like an unnecessary comb-over for people who aren't balding, but hey, the chicks seem to dig it on the show, so what do I know.
The evening activity was loud, lots of music, lots of laughing and lots of pins falling. The Pigs and Pins showdown was a combo BBQ feast/bowling extravaganza with both teams. Rutgers won the team bowling competition.
Russell Wilson taunted us with another display of his freakish natural abilities. We watched him throw two strikes, then I asked if we could mic him up and let him give a tutorial on how to throw a strike. He laughed, but said okay. First take, blam, all pins down. RW just steps up in pressure situations whether it's the football field, or the lanes.
December 24, 2008- How's Yow? The question that made a story
By Kerith Burke
Here’s an example of how a story grows into a phenomenon, and an example of how questions become the story itself sometimes.
Kay Yow coaches the NC State women's basketball team. She's a breast cancer survivor and her recovery captivated the community. People like to follow her condition because she's a local inspiration.
She did not go to State's road game versus Columbia. The News and Observer caught wind of her absence and asked a State spokesperson, how's Yow?
The paper ran this two paragraph story with the answer:
"The status of NC State women's basketball coach Kay Yow remains uncertain after she missed her team's 78-58 victory over Columbia on Monday night in New York because she wasn't feeling well."
"Yow, who returned to Raleigh with the team, had not missed a Wolfpack game since taking a 16-game leave of absence during the 2006-07 season after suffering a re-occurrence of breast cancer. She is expected to meet with her doctors today, NC State spokesman Mark Kimmel says."
The story made me think, "Huh, okay, she missed a game, I can see why that's something to keep my eye on."
WTVD’s executive producers noticed it too since the paper had it. One producer said: "why don't you run a little something on it?"
Alright, quick mention, why not. I e-mailed the spokesperson to see if there was a brief, official update on Yow's status. I didn't hear back for about two hours.
In that time, I imagine the spokesperson was pestered by other media wanting to give Yow a mention as well. He issued this statement before our 6 p.m. newscast:
"Coach Kay Yow missed the NC State women's basketball game at Columbia on Monday, December 22, after a 5-day road trip in the New York City area. She was on the bench Saturday, December 20 at Seton Hall. Coaching with metastatic breast cancer since late 2004, Coach Yow felt the more severe cold in New York City worsened symptoms that normally are more tolerable.
'I feel better now that we are back home [in Raleigh] and have every intention of coaching on Monday, December the 29th, Lord willing, said Yow.'"
Well then, this is a story about a woman, who used to be seriously ill, who sat out a game for feeling somewhat ill, and now she feels better.
I wonder. Is reporting a woman feels fine a story?
Given the context and her history with cancer, I can see people watch her condition because she's loved in the community. But what did media stir up now that we know she's okay?
I went on the air with her "I feel better" statement. I did a 20 second story, and I guarantee the other stations did too.
I checked the paper online after my show and there were her comments in an updated version of the original blurb the paper had.
Following the spokesperson’s e-mail with Yow’s statement, the story showed up on the AP sports wire - a collection of stories national sports reporters can see.
Wow, this thing grew legs.
Would it have been more responsible not to report "I feel better" and save the Yow mention for a time when something is truly newsworthy with her condition, or was this story a harmless reaction to a good observation by the News and Observer?
If Yow was in fact ailing, the paper would have broken the story first. Kudos to them in that event. But once the media learned Yow is fine, doesn't the story end there? Is reporting "Yow feels fine" a necessity? In the end, I don't think so. So here I am, guilty.
Everyone jumped on it, turning one question - how's Yow? - into a butterfly effect that ended up bothering a woman on her day off.
November 20, 2008- A few words on rivalry
By Mark Armstrong
College sports fans love like no others and they hate like no others. It's a painful fact to admit - but we the devout are as much defined by whom we adore as by whom we despise. You can't be a true State fan without hating Carolina. You can't be a true Tar Heel without feeling your heart turn black at the sight of Wolfpack red or Duke blue. I can't be a real Ute fan without breaking out in a feverish rash at the mere mention of Brigham You....dang - getting itchy. It's the great yin and yang of the sporting universe - to borrow a phrase from Anchorman - "it's science". Think about it - do you like blondes or brunettes? Country music or Hip Hop? Parrots or Bengal tigers as house pets? You can't enjoy them all equally.
Of course - the tricky and squiggly line to navigate (squigglier with each successive beer) is making sure that you live for your own team proportionately more than you wish sporting death upon your rival. In the message board and general fan culture, there's no lower form of life than someone who just hates without an appropriately larger dose of love going back the other way. Carolina fans call it the ABC syndrome, Duke fans call it the rest of the country. Whatever form it may take - that's just being stupid. Thankfully - I don't know anyone like that - although there is a great deal of false accusation out there. Great mountains of internet ink are wasted each day by rival fanbases pingponging back and forth about who's more obsessed with whom. Here's an idea - take your ping pong paddle and smack yourself over the head. You're both interested in seeing your own teams win and the other teams cast into a poison-spiked jungle trap.
It's probably time I clarify some of the language I've been using. Words like despise, sporting death and poison-spiked jungle trap might seem a bit over the top. If you're a sports fan though - they probably sound just right. Where would sports be without hyperbole? As long as everyone's keeping their head on straight. No violence, no scaring the children. Civility and sobriety are wonderful things. After all - those other people are people too, misguided and horrible as they may be. Fiercesome glares and playful taunting - you have my blessing. Punching, kicking and spitting - leave it in the octagon. Lying and rumor-mongering - have at it. Half the fun of being of fan of Team A is coming up with and perpetuating wildly general and, if done right, grossly unfair stereotypes of Team B's fans (and vice versa). The more you hear and read it - the more you believe it. Kids are raised on these so called "truths" and that's a great thing as far as I'm concerned.
Which brings me to perspective. A terrible thing happened while I was living and working back in Utah. One of the unfortunate side effects of my chosen profession back there is that I was forced to speak to both the athletes I enjoyed (Utah) and the ones I wished leprosy upon (BY...nope....can't do it). It turns out that the players at that vile blue institution in Provo were pretty much the same kind of guys as at my Red bastion of awesomeness in Salt Lake City. Yeah - some jerks mixed in, but that went for both sides. When you talk to the enemy - you put a human face on them. I had trouble building up the same venom I used to. Don't get me wrong - I still wanted Utah wins more than a pulse, but I couldn't hate with the same white hot purity. I had lost my innocence. It was sad. Thankfully - now that I've been away for years - I'm back to my old self. Go Utes! Kick the Cougs till their mothers are crying in the stands!
One quick PS. The other great thing about rivalries? It doesn't matter who else cares. Who cares if the nation is caught up in State-UNC? Who cares if most folks don't know a lick about the Holy War. I don't need Dick Vitale or Kirk Herbstreit to tell me that my rivalry matters. I know it does. To me.
November 18, 2008- QB question
By Mark Armstrong
On the heels of the Heels mucky loss at Maryland, Butch Davis made it public Monday that he has not decided on a starting QB for the NC State game. To me -- that means he has decided -- and the man is TJ Yates. If Cam Sexton was getting the call - there would be no announcement, just business as usual. It's the right thing to do -- Yates is the better QB and Cam has earned the right to "compete" for the starting job this week based on his competence in Yates' absence. Cam Sexton did his job admirably, and in one case (Miami) superbly -- but his job is backup QB.
If there is one tiny silver lining from Saturday in College Park, it's that Butch is no longer obligated to ride the "hot hand" with Sexton. Conventional coaching wisdom dictates that you don't replace a winning QB -- even if he's not the guy principly responsible for the winning. And coaches are nothing if not conventional (see: prevent defense) All due respect to Sexton -- but the ballhawking play of the defense, the emergence of Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston and the all-around dominance of Hakeem Nicks have had a lot more to do with Carolina's victories than #11. In his time behind center - he facilitated the team's playmakers - but now he needs to step aside for a playmaker. Yates has more game -- period -- and Yates gives the Heels a better chance to win Saturday and for the rest of the season.
October 31, 2008- Hamilton high to Hansbrough low
By Mark Armstrong
What a Thursday night -- Josh Hamilton's big moment at Athens Drive was great -- but then -- whammo. An email from UNC across my desk at 9:40pm "Hansbrough out indefinitely with stress reaction in shin". What a "stress reaction" is -- who knows -- we'll find out more tomorrow. The crazy thing is that while injuries are such a commonplace element of sports - the idea of Tyler Hansbrough actually succumbing to one seemed beyond the realm of possibility. The man has played in 108 straight games, participated in countless practices and plays -- as you know -- employs the most physical style this side of a road grader. Still -- losing Hansbrough for any period of time never entered any media conversations I've ever had. Without knowing much - clearly - anytime you hear the word "indefinitely" attached to an injury that doesn't mean good things. Stress injuries are usually wear and tear type deals that just require some time on the sidelines. Ask Marcus Ginyard -- who hobbled through last year, before finally deciding enough was enough and having surgery on his foot. Reality is -- there's only one goal for Carolina this season - a national title. If Tyler Hansbrough needs to sit out 2 months to recover - that's what he needs to do. Perfect season, preseason....none of that matters. Get him back and ready for ACC play....get him back and ready for the tournament. No one wishes injury on anyone else, but I can't imagine better news for the rest of the ACC.
Obviously, there isn't a deeper team in the country than the one Roy Williams throws out the each night -- so he'll have plenty of options to turn to. Deon Thompson must become the man in the middle now. Frosh big men Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller don't have time to apprentice. They need to get growed up in a hurry. Guys like Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson (who told me his main offseason emphasis was working on a Chris Paul-like floater in the lane) will now become options 1, 2 and three (in some order). The NBA folks will be watching to see if they can handle that kind of scoring responsibility. Against lesser teams - it'll be no problem. Against the likes of Kentucky and the clubs they'll run into in Hawaii, we may learn something. With Tyler Hansbrough -- the Heels are the heavy favorites to win it all. Without him - they're still one of the top 10 teams in the country.
Of course -- it could just be a hiccup -- and he'll be ready for action November 15th.
I spent the earlier part of the evening checking out the taping of ESPN's new "Homecoming" series. In this case - a standing room only gymnasium of Josh Hamilton's best family, friends, former teammates, coaches, scouts - you name it. The premise of the show is basically to feature a famous athlete past or present and take them back to their roots - walking through each step of their life, in front of, and with the participation of the folks who shaped it. Pretty good idea. I talked to host Rick Reilly before the event. He had only met Josh a couple days ago, but judging by the depth and breadth of the interview had clearly done his homework. My first question for Reilly: You more Oprah, Larry King or Ron Firestone? After a long hummmmm....Rick said he liked Firestone's sports interviewing capabilities and that his goal wasn't to necessarily dig up new information, but rather allow Josh to tell his entire story, in his words. If you follow sports - you know the Hamilton tale by now - but there were some memorable moments. None more so than when the show's producers surprised Josh with his long lost Rookie League Championship ring that he had once sold for crack money. That's the closest Josh came to warbling. The crowd was great. It wasn't a short taping, and it wasn't cool in that gym. The only humorous part - listening to the stage director pleading w/ the crowd to "pleassssse stay seated" during every break in the taping.