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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Mister Answer Man:  Special Sports Edition!

Dear Mister Answer Man:  How come you taught at the University of Illinois for twelve years but you haven’t said anything about the fact that the Illini are undefeated this year and have been ranked #1 in both polls since December? --D. Brown, Urbana

Mister Answer Man replies: College basketball has never been my strong suit.  I almost won one of those March Madness betting pools fifteen years ago, but that was the year I determined all my picks after the Sweet Sixteen by coin toss.  (True!  I was the only person in the pool who picked UNLV that year, but I finished fourth nonetheless.) But I do have something of a connection to the Illini.  When I arrived in Champaign for my campus visit, sixteen years ago this month, I was informed by two basketball fans on the English Department faculty that they were foregoing the Illinois-Michigan game in order to have dinner with me that evening.  “Is Illinois-Michigan a big game, then?” I asked.  Deadpan, one of them replied, “Well, when the number two team in the country plays the number six team, yes, many people would consider that a big game.” “No kidding,” I gushed, “you’re number six?” There was a three-second silence.  “No,” he replied, “we’re number two.”

Remember this anecdote, ye hapless academic job candidates!  I was so embarrassed I spent the next few weeks learning all about the Flying Illini– Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Marcus Liberty, Steve Bardo and company.  The Illini went to the Final Four that year, and some commentators thought they could win it all– but they lost in the semifinal 83-81 to Michigan, thanks to one of those clever Michigan freshmen pushing off Anderson in the final seconds, picking up a key offensive rebound, and putting it home.  I think you could call that a big game.

So I’ve been watching from afar this year, waiting for last night’s game against Wisconsin, where the Badgers had won 38 straight . . . until the Illini erased an eight-point deficit with twelve minutes to go, pulling away 75-65!  And I played a crucial role, turning on the television with the score 56-48 Badgers, watching the Illini clamber back and take a 61-58 lead on Jack Ingram’s surprise pair of threes.  Then I got too nervous to watch, and channel-surfed for five minutes; when I came back the Badgers were up 64-61.  Quickly sensing the pattern at work, I watched the rest of the game, and the Illini practically ran the table.  By the final buzzer, then, the tally was this:

Me not watching: Wisconsin 62, Illinois 48
Me watching: Illinois 27, Wisconsin 3

I think any sports fan knows what I’m talking about here (and it’s much worse when your team can’t win unless you don’t watch).  Go Illini.

Dear Mister Answer Man:  Do you have any words of wisdom about the Super Bowl?  Can the Eagles win without Terrell Owens? —T. Brady, Foxboro

Mister Answer Man replies: Yes, and no.  Owens first: clearly, the thing to do is to fit him with a futuristic liquid-metal-alloy ankle.  He doesn’t actually have to catch any passes– all he has to do is get out there in the secondary and make the Patriots worry about him.  This gives all the other receivers a couple of yards more space.  And they will need it.  Otherwise, we will all suffer through the dreary spectacle of yet another parochial, tedious Boston-area celebration of trivial matters like sports victories.

But as long as we’re talking about Super Bowls, I would just like to point out after all these years that Scott Norwood’s famous “wide right” FG attempt in 1991 has become so undeservedly infamous that it has obscured a truly terrific game, in which the Giants, thanks in part to well-over-their-heads performances by Ottis Anderson and Jeff Hostetler, managed to hold on to the ball for forty minutes and actually outgain the faster and more talented Bills offense.  Now that was a game worth celebrating.

Besides, and this is more important (particularly in the light of the Jets’ Doug Brien’s pair of last-minute misses in Pittsburgh two weeks ago), everyone should finally, really, once and for all, get off Norwood’s case.  I mean, sure, the long-suffering people of Buffalo have a complex about these things, I understand that, and the 1991 Super Bowl was as close as they got.  But as I was saying to my son in the course of dropping him off at the airport two weeks ago (the airport drive being the time in which fathers and sons discuss the truly important things in life), people must be smoking crack if they think of 47-yarders, on grass, as gimmes.  “Do you know the longest field goal ever hit at Heinz Field?” Nick asked me.  “Nope,” I said.  To which Nick replied, “Forty-six.  And Brien was kicking on a windy day.  It’s amazing he hit the upright at all.” Quite true!  The real question is why he was sent out there to attempt the unprecedented in the first place.  “Someone ought to do a little research on this,” Nick continued.  “How many times has someone made a kick from over 45 yards, on grass, to win a playoff game?” (Note that this leaves out-- deliberately-- Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yarder off the carpet in New Orleans in 2002.)

“Good question,” I said, deciding that maybe some of my readers would do the research on this instead of me.  “And why don’t Buffalo fans say to themselves, ‘Holy Mother of Moloch, we took it all the way down to the Giants’ 30 in about a minute, and gave ourselves a 40-60 shot at an amazing final-drive comeback?  Instead, all we hear is this nonsense about how Norwood is ‘the biggest sports goat of all time.’ Please.”

This humble blog therefore declares 2005 to be Scott Norwood Amnesty Year.  Let there be no analogies, in the next ten days, between Norwood and Bill Buckner or Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams or Donnie Moore or Ralph Branca or Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters or Arnold Palmer in the 1966 U.S. Open.  Personally, I hate it when people compare Norwood to Arnold Palmer in the 1966 U.S. Open.  This sort of thing has got to stop.

Dear Mister Answer Man:  You’re awfully fond of telling us that your hockey team is doing well and you’re scoring this, that and the other critical goal.  Don’t you have any stories about screwing up and losing, like Arnold Palmer in the 1966 U.S. Open, when he lost a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to play? --R. Turek, Calgary

Mister Answer Man replies: Why, yes!  What a timely question.  Just this past Sunday night, my A-league team, CCM, played the Blues, and jumped out to a 3-0 lead (I scored the second goal).  Then the Blues picked up a fluke goal on what was either a badly-timed defensive change or a hideous neutral-zone turnover on our part; then they scored a real goal; then they scored a lucky goal that deflected off our defenseman’s stick, and before we knew it we were tied 3-3.  With ninety seconds left, though, I took my final shift, and my line peppered the Blues’ goaltender as if we were on a power play.  The puck never left their zone, and with about thirty seconds left I picked up a beautiful pass from behind the net that gave me a point-blank shot all alone.  I was going to Win the Game and Be a Hero!  I tried to go low far side, but the goalie did the butterfly splits and got a pad on it; I reached for the rebound, got it, but couldn’t shoot high enough, burying it in the goalie’s left pad a second and then a third time before getting hammered.  When I picked myself up off the ice I saw the Blues hustling out of the zone with the puck; I hauled my sorry carcass after them, checking the clock, thinking that fifteen seconds wouldn’t be enough for them to mount a real rush.  And I managed to wind up only an arm’s length from their center as he picked up a weird bounce off our defenseman’s shin pads and put the puck over our stunned goalie’s shoulder with three seconds to play.

Did I lose the game for us?  Well, let’s put it this way: had I made that little chip shot, which really should have been a gimme, there wouldn’t have been any last-second Blues rush down ice, now, would there.  There would have been a perfunctory face-off at center ice with fifteen or twenty seconds left, and the score 4-3 CCM.  So as far as I’m concerned, I am the biggest sports goat of all time.

Dear Mister Answer Man:  How are you doing in the Koufax voting? --D. Drysdale, Los Angeles

Mister Answer Man replies: Like Scorsese at the Oscars, man!  Six nominations so far, heading pretty clearly for six decisive shutouts from the finals.  Details later!

Posted by Michael on 01/26 at 11:31 AM
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