Born To Be A VandyBoy (via Baseball America)

donnyCLARKSVILLE, Tenn.—Cars never drove down the street in front of Forney Abbott’s house.

Born in Houston and raised in 1940s Palestine (No, not the Middle East. Palestine, Texas. Pronounced PaleSTEEN), Abbott’s formative years came before cellphones and Xboxes and color TVs. He didn’t even have a diamond nearby to play on, no chalky foul lines or fertile grass, just the white lines and the hot, black asphalt of a mostly deserted street.

When he was 7, 8 years old, Abbott would take a baseball and march onto that street like he was Joe DiMaggio and it was Yankee Stadium. Instead of throwing from foul pole to foul pole, he’d go light pole to light pole, hurling the ball as far as he could over the power lines that stretched above his head and aiming for the pole 100 yards away.

He did this every day, until one day, a car did drive down the street in front of Forney Abbott’s house. And inside that car were two scouts for Major League Baseball teams, one for the Pirates and one for the Cardinals. Abbott, now 77, doesn’t remember their names—a few too many blows to the head in the boxing matches of his youth sapped him of those memories. But he remembers them stopping their car, on their way to some recruiting mission in nearby Houston or Tyler, and talking to this 7-, 8-year-old kid out on the street and watching him throw. That car would continue to stop, usually once every month or so, and the Pirates scout—who lived in a small town about 15 or 20 miles away—would give the young Abbott pointers. OK, here’s how to throw a baseball.

The scout kept coming by until Abbott was 11 years old. For that, he’s always been thankful. Still, as a teenager, playing for his high school team and summer league teams, Abbott would draw criticism for the way he threw. Other kids would always tell him he was throwing the wrong way. But he knew they were the ones who were wrong. He knew he threw hard. He didn’t have a radar gun to prove it, but he always felt as though God had granted him the ability to throw a baseball with velocity.

Abbott never had the chance to test his arm in the professional ranks. He joined the Army. Served in the Korean War. And when he returned, he moved to Clarksville, Tenn. He turned his attention to coaching kids, just like that Pirates scout once coached him. He felt, again, as though God had given him this gift for a reason. God wanted him to share it.

Over his adult life, Abbott has helped thousands of kids—and some of those kids’ kids. At any time, he could have several 11- or 12-year-olds out in his front yard—instead of in the street like he was—working on drills to strengthen their bodies, arms and minds.

There was one kid, among those thousands, who was different. One kid that no uppercut to the jaw could ever jostle free from his memory.

Abbott will never forget Donny Everett. … Read More

(via Baseball America)

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Analyzing college football coaches’ favorite musical artists

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ESPN conducted a survey of all 128 Division I college football coaches, asking them to name their favorite musical artist. The full list of responses is here. My cursory analysis is here:   Continue reading

Vanderbilt vs. UGA: A day to be reckoned with

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As promised, we were in Athens last Saturday for Vanderbilt-Georgia, a game in which the homecoming Dawgs were favored by more than two touchdowns. Instead, the Commodores eked out a one-point victory on the road. Although it probably wasn’t too exciting on television, this was an entertainingly tense game to attend in person.

Two game notes, and then I’ll turn it over to the Vandy football video crew:

  1. The Vanderbilt defense is excellent against the run, which happens to be Georgia’s offensive strength, but they were helpless against the pass. UGA should’ve called nothing but pass plays until VU forced them to do something else.
  2. This was Vandy head coach Derek Mason’s first conference win, which is nice, but it probably should have come sooner. Like, maybe the week before in Lexington? Neither Georgia nor Vanderbilt are making much football sense in 2016.

ALDLAND goes live to the Battle of Athens

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We will be in Sanford Stadium tomorrow when Vanderbilt, based in Nashville (i.e., the Athens of the South), faces Georgia, based in Athens, in a game that will decide which city will retain its Southern Athenian identity and, maybe, third place in the SEC East.

Thus far, this season has been a disappointment for both schools, but tomorrow’s game should at least allow fans a nice look at each team’s stars. For Georgia, that means the return of the combined running attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michele. For Vanderbilt, it means the return of the SEC rushing leader, Ralph Webb, who, I am told, will play tomorrow after suffering an injury during last week’s loss at Kentucky.

The star power of Webb distracts from the Black & Gold’s numerous deficiencies and, in some sense, Webb reminds me of Earl Bennett, a Vandy wide receiver who, ten years ago, became the SEC all-time reception leader. Following the exciting and brief James Franklin era, the Commodores have regressed under Derek Mason to a team reminiscent of those overseen by Bobby Johnson: above-average defense that worked hard to keep the team in games while the offense, with its lone leader (then Bennett, now Webb) tried to keep pace on the scoreboard until the overworked defense eventually gave out and the opposing team ran away with the game. Mason and his assistants have better resumes than Johnson and his assistants did, but the results have been the same.

During the last ten years, though, Vanderbilt has played Georgia close and even stolen a few wins. Those have tended to come in home games for the Commodores, though; the Dawgs typically have routed them in Athens. Vanderbilt nevertheless goes on the road tomorrow in search of its first conference win of 2016. Kickoff is at noon on SEC Network, and we’ll be there. Follow along here for live updates.

2016 College Football Kickoff: Vanderbilt in search of hope and change in opener

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Once again, the Vanderbilt Commodores will help open up the college football season, this year by hosting the South Carolina Gamecocks tonight at 8:00 pm on ESPN, and they’ll be looking to exorcise some debut demons.

Vandy played in the first Thursday night season opener back in 2012, which also saw them playing the Gamecocks in Nashville. Vanderbilt lost that game, 17-13, as the result of a very bad officiating call, although they missed opportunities to secure a victory for themselves. The Commodores were part of the opening Thursday night in 2013 as well, again losing by four at home, this time to Ole Miss. They nevertheless were called upon again in 2014 to play on the first Thursday, losing so badly at home to Temple, 37-7, that I and a significant majority of our readers wondered whether VU should fire then-first-year coach Derek Mason. Vandy didn’t fire Mason, and the NCAA didn’t fire Vandy from the season-opening Thursday slot, where they again appeared in 2015, hosting Western Kentucky. That was a stupid game the Commodores lost by two points.

Which brings us back to tonight. Vanderbilt is seeking its first opening Thursday win in Nashville, and they’ll have to beat South Carolina, their original opponent in this series of sorts, to do so. The SEC Network’s analysts, including former Vandy QB and Bachelorette star Jordan Rodgers, predict a win this evening. They also predict a 5-1 start and a 7-5 overall record, though, which some may take as a sign of excessive optimism.

At this point, VU fans have every reason to expect a disaster in this game, but I think it’s fair to expect that Mason, in his third year in Nashville, will have his team better prepared to start this season than the Gamecocks under new coach Will Muschamp. One of these teams is going to secure an SEC win in the first week of the season, and, in my estimation, it’ll be the Commodores. Paul Finebaum agrees. If you want to place a bet, maybe take the under– it’s tough to envision these two teams combining for more than forty-two points.

The Dansby Swanson Era has arrived in Atlanta

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On June 8, 2015, the Arizona Diamondbacks used the first overall draft pick to select Vanderbilt University shortstop and 2014 College World Series Most Outstanding Player Dansby Swanson. One of three Commodores selected in the first round of the 2015 MLB draft, Swanson spent little time in the Arizona organization before the Diamondbacks sent him, along with Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair, to Atlanta in exchange for Shelby Miller in the consensus worst (for Arizona) trade of the offseason and one of the most lopsided in recent memory.

For his part, Swanson was happy with the trade. A Marietta native, he considered his move a homecoming. After appearing in 105 minor-league games this year, the Braves called him up to the big club, and he made his MLB debut last night in a home game against the Twins.

Just three years older than Turner Field, Swanson’s first MLB appearance came in the soon-to-be-demolished park where he watched baseball games as a child. When he came to the plate in the second inning for his first big-league plate appearance, wearing a batting helmet reminiscent of Jason Heyward’s (Swanson was hit in the face with a pitch in his first onfield practice with the Diamondbacks), the rookie received a warm ovation from the home crowd. Continue reading

Madness: The NCAA Tournament’s structural flaw

The organizing principle of a competition arranged in the fashion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is that better teams should have easier paths for advancement, the goal being for the best teams to meet as late as possible. Tournament organizers therefore employ a seeding system that awards teams believed to be the strongest with the best seeds (i.e., the lowest numbers) and first pits them against teams believed to be the weakest.This is sensible, logical, and good. Anything can happen once the games begin, of course, but if Michigan State and Kansas, for example, are the best teams in this year’s tournament, the tournament should be designed such that those two teams are most likely to face off in the final, championship round. Generally speaking, this is how the NCAA tournament is organized.

From 1985 until 2000, the tournament’s field held steady at sixty-four total teams. In 2001, it expanded to sixty-five teams, adding a single play-in game to determine which team would be the sixteenth seed to face the number one overall seed. In 2011, the tournament field expanded to sixty-eight teams, its current size, with four play-in games.

Many people dislike the fact that the tournament has expanded beyond a seemingly optimal sixty-four-team field, but all should agree that, however many teams and play-in games are included, the tournament should be organized such that the projected difficulty of each team’s path through the tournament is inversely proportional to its seed position. As currently constructed, however, the tournament deviates from this basic principle.

All play-in games are not created equal. Two of the four fill sixteenth-seeded positions, while the other two fill eleventh-seeded positions, and the latter grouping is the culprit here. The NCAA and its broadcast partners no longer refer to the play-in games as the “first round,” thankfully, but, however labeled, these games constitute a significant structural hurdle for their participants. It’s difficult enough to win five consecutive games against the nation’s top competition; adding a sixth game places the play-in teams at a major disadvantage.

If a tournament organized in this fashion is to proceed with sixty-eight participants, play-in games are a necessity. The heavy burden of participating in an extra round of competition should be apportioned in accordance with the tournament’s organizing principle, however. In this instance, that should mean applying it to the lowest-seeded (i.e., highest number) teams. Using two of the play-in games to determine eleventh-seeded positions inappropriately and adversely distorts the degree of difficulty for those two positions.

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This year, the unduly burdened teams are Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Michigan, and Tulsa, which are competing in play-in games for eleventh-seeded spots in the tournament’s first full round. Each of these teams would be better off as a twelfth, thirteenth, or even fourteenth seed (to say nothing of an eleventh seed in the West or Midwest regions, where eleven seeds are not similarly encumbered) than they are as participants in eleventh-seed play-in games.

If the tournament committee really believes each of those four teams belongs in the tournament and is deserving of an eleven seed, or thereabouts, it should pick one from each pairing– Vandy/WSU and Michigan/Tulsa– to be the eleventh seed, make the other the twelfth, bump the remaining lower seeds in the region down by one, and have the existing fifteenth seed play the existing sixteenth seed in a play-in game instead. (This wouldn’t be a clean fix in the East region, which already has a Florida Gulf Coast/Fairleigh Dickinson play-in game for the sixteenth seed, but the Midwest region has no play-in games, so one of Michigan/Tulsa could be moved to the eleventh or twelfth seed there, bumping Hampton and MTSU into a play-in game for the sixteenth-seed position in that region.)

Two of the eleventh-seed play-in participants, Vanderbilt and Michigan, likely were two of the last teams to earn at-large bids to this year’s tournament. Even if that’s true, though, it shouldn’t matter. The in/out decision is binary: a team is either in the tournament or it isn’t. Once the field is determined, the committee then should seed the teams based on their basketball merit. If the committee thinks so little of Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Michigan, and Tulsa that it wants to put them through the paces of a play-in game, it should have seeded them lower than eleventh.

The current arrangement of the NCAA tournament play-in games constitutes a structural flaw not because those preliminary games exist, but because of the seed positions they involve. If the NCAA insists on using the play-in-game arrangement to include sixty-eight teams in the tournament, it should use those play-in games in a manner that aligns with the tournament’s overall organizing principle of strength-based seeding. In practice, no tournament of this sort will be perfectly balanced in its initial arrangement, but the current structure clearly is contrary to that fundamental organizational principle and unnecessarily distorts the balance of the entire tournament.

Vanderbilt Football Coach Derek Mason is Coach Klein from The Waterboy?

After consecutive nine-win seasons capped by victories in the Music City and Compass Bowls, James Franklin parlayed his success at Vanderbilt into the Penn State job he always wanted, turning the reins in Nashville over to Derek Mason, who promptly flopped his way to a three-win season that included no victories against conference opponents. Despite a relatively easy 2015 schedule, things weren’t looking too good for Mason’s second season either.

All that changed on Tuesday, however, when the Nashville Post published a report on the Commodore coach that remains equal parts startling and encouraging:

“I had a sheet that I had been looking for for the last 18 months,” Mason said. “Lo and behold, about two weeks ago, it popped up. I found it in my library of football books.”

What he found was a detailed list of game situations and what he should do in each of them. According to his timeline, he had it when he accepted the job at Vanderbilt last January (or shortly thereafter). He was without it, though, when the Commodores went 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game for the first time in five years.

He noted that the ‘gameday checklist’ he has produced for this season includes 65 items “and it covers everything I need to know.”

Continue reading

Everything’s Coming Up Black & Gold: A Remarkable Night for Vanderbilt Baseball

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Last night might have been the second-best night in Vanderbilt baseball history, surpassed only by the evening nearly one year ago when they won their first national championship. On the fourth birthday of Grantland.com, a sporting internet website named for VU’s second baseball coach, the Commodores completed their super regional sweep of Illinois and secured a spot in the 2015 College World Series.

Soon after the game ended, three Vandy starters– Dansby Swanson, Carson Fulmer, and Walker Buehler– were selected in the first round of the MLB amateur draft, with Swanson as the first overall pick.

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As they make their way to Omaha, here’s hoping this team has a few more good nights left in the tank.

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Previously
Vanderbilt wins the College World Series

Ohio State claims the first College Football Playoff championship

Following a hot-knife-through-butter opening touchdown drive for the Oregon Ducks in last night’s national championship game, the Ohio State Buckeyes took over the game and never relinquished control. OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and it felt like more than that in the second half, when Ohio State called the same counter run play seemingly on every down and repeatedly executed it successfully. Elliott was so hungry for more yards that he tried to eat confetti after the game.

After that initial Oregon drive, the Buckeye defense, lead by coordinator and former OSU head coach Luke Fickell, found the answer, though, and Oregon’s bucket of tricks soon ran dry. Even in the second half, when Oregon’s defense produced a couple of turnovers, Marcus Mariota and the offense couldn’t make any progress.

Oregon accumulated its twenty points with two touchdowns, that opening-drive score and a one-play, seventy-yard TD pass early in the third quarter, and two field goals. Those two field goals, along with a white-flag punt with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, felt uncharacteristic of a school that, in recent years, lead the charge of pedal-to-the-metal offense.

In the end, Ohio State ended up knocking off Oregon by nearly as wide a margin– 42-20– as the one by which Oregon defeated Florida State in the semifinal round.   Continue reading