Monday, March 30, 2009

RIP Lou Saban 1921-2009

Former University of Miami head coach Lou Saban passed away yesterday at the age of 87. All Hurricane football fans owe Saban a huge debt of gratitude. He coached only two seasons at UM. (1977 and 1978) His combined record in those seasons was only 9-13. So why was Saban special? He may have been the most important coach hired by UM at a very dark time in the program's history.

In the late 1970s, UM was dangerously close to dropping its football program. The Canes were a perennial loser and drew few fans. Prior to Saban's arrival in Coral Gables, UM had only one winning season in the previous ten years and zero bowl appearances. While many credit Howard Schnellenberger for rescuing the program, he couldn't have done it without Saban. It was Saban who recruited key players including Jim Kelly, Jim Burt, Fred Marion and Lester Williams. These players helped build the foundation of Schnellenberger's early teams which eventually blossomed into a national championship in 1983.

Saban was a football nomad. He had 18 different coaching jobs, ranging from from the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos of the NFL, to coaching UM, Army and Central Florida were among his stops. He even coached high school football and once had a job in the New York Yankees front office. His average stint at those jobs was only 1.3 years. But he seemed to leave a mark everywhere he went. In Buffalo, he made O.J. Simpson a record setting running back. At UM, he was somehow able to convince Jim Kelly of East Brady, PA, to pass up a scholarship offer from Penn State to play for the Canes. Of course, it also helped Joe Paterno made the mistake of recruiting Kelly as a linebacker. He was known for his fiery pregame and halftime speeches. One of his famous rants was permanently captured by NFL Films when he famously yelled "They're killing me Whitey!" from the sidelines.

The passing of Saban will make the sidelines a little more quiet. But without him, there may not be any football at the University of Miami.

Get Well Dontrelle!

I want to send my best wishes to former Marlins pitcher and current Detroit Tiger Dontrelle Willis. The Tigers placed Willis on the team's 15-day disabled list for an anxiety disorder. His career hasn't been the same since winning 20 games for the Marlins in 2005. It seemed like just yesterday the Marlins called up a fresh-faced lefty from Double-A with a high-leg kick and huge smile. Willis along with Miguel Cabrera were a pair of rookies who energized the Marlins in 2003 and played huge roles in the team's World Series championship.

Willis has always been one of my personal favorite players to wear the Marlins uniform. He's a class act and type of player everyone should root for. But since 2005, there's been very little success for Willis. I can't think of too many athletes who burst upon the scene so quickly and disappeared just as quickly. Injuries and health problems have plagued Willis since his departure from South Florida. After giving up 8 runs and 5 walks in his Tigers debut in 2008, Willis was demoted to Single-A Lakeland where he spent most of the season. He was called back up by the Tigers last September, but went winless in three starts.

At only 27 year-old, Willis should be entering the prime years of his career. But it's becoming more apparent his best days may be behind him. Hopefully it isn't too late to turn it around. Keep your chin up D-Train. Get well soon.

Taylor Cook and Damien Berry emerge as UM's Spring Heroes

Damien Berry

It is often said the most popular player on a football team is the backup quarterback. When the starter plays poorly, the backup becomes more popular--even if he hasn't done anything to warrant praise. But University of Miami football fans take this theory to another level. It doesn't end with the quarterback. Whenever any backup player, who has yet to see significant playing time and shows some semblence of promise in spring practice, that player is already hailed a savior on various fan message boards. This year's heroes of the spring are quarterback Taylor Cook and running back Damien Berry.

This past Saturday, Cook and Berry turned in impressive performances at UM's final spring scrimmage at Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium. Cook completed 11 of his 14 passes for 103 yards. At one point he completed 9 consecutive passes and led the team to one scoring drive. Meanwhile, starting quarterback Jacory Harris completed 9 of 16 passes for 141 yards. But none of his drives ended in a score. So naturally, if you look at various UM fan message boards, you will inevitably find posts touting Cook as the better quarterback. Don't get me wrong. I don't think most Cane fans think this way. But there is a noisy minority that subscribes to this absurd theory.

As good as Cook was, Berry was even more impressive. The sophomore from Belle Glade rushed for 114 yards on 14 carries, including a 54 yard touchdown run in which he showed great breakaway speed. And yes, there are those same crazy Cane fans who believe Berry should start the opening game against FSU.

Look, I'm not trying to put down Cook and Berry. It's encouraging to see them play well and they should both add much needed depth to the offense. But don't get carried away. I wouldn't be suprised if Berry gains fewer yards for the upcoming season than he did in the spring scrimmage. Berry, who was originally recruited as a safety out of Glades Central High School, redshirted last season and played the entire year on the scout team. He's a talented athlete whose father, Kenny Berry, was a former cornerback for UM in the late 1980s. But don't look for Berry to surplant Graig Cooper and Javarris James from the starting lineup just yet. Keep in mind UM also has talented freshmen Mike James and Killian High's Lamar Miller vying for playing time. Miller will arrive in the fall.

As someone who has watched spring scrimmages for several years, don't take too much from these performances. In the past, I can remember Derrick Crudup outperforming Brock Berlin in the 2003 spring scrimmage. In that same scrimmage Darnell Jenkins looked like a future All American. Well, we all know how that turned out. Spring scrimmages are supposed to simulate game situations. But in reality it's nothing like a real game. They are what they are--practices. The offensive and defensive schemes are simplified to a vanilla flavor. Defensive players are not allowed to hit the quarterback. I don't care how many passes you complete in a scrimmage. You really don't know how good a quarterback is until he gets hit.

I will say this, Cook is a better player than I originally thought. At 6-foot-7, he towers over the line of scrimmage and has the strongest arm of all the quarterbacks. But he is very raw and his technique still needs to be tweeked. To be honest, I didn't expect much from him. When he was recruited out of a small Texas high school (Rice Consolidated High), he wasn't highly rated and many thought he would be converted to tight end. Cook has shown some serious potential. But he's not ready to be the starter. The Canes will go as far as Jacory Harris can take them. He is the unquestioned leader of this team and he's only a true sophomore. Harris already has significant game experience and the trust of his teammates. Let's just hope he can stay healthy. At least Cane fans don't have to be as terrified if something were to happen to Harris.