Behind the Mic: A Look Back on 30 Years of Sports

Today’s “Behind the Mic” blog is written by long time RCN personality Scott Barr. He has covered a wide range of sports, including kick boxing, track and field, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, football, and baseball. Most of our viewers, of course, will know him for his work with District XI wrestling. Fans across the valley have heard him call “Give him six!” after a pin, while working with three legends of Lehigh Valley sports—Gary Laubach, Ray Nunamaker, and Jim Best. Outside of RCN, Scott helps small businesses set up retirement plans for their employees, and lives in Macungie with his wife, Melissa, and their four children.
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In about six weeks, at the PIAA Baseball Championships, I will wrap up my 30th season on the air.  Most of the hundreds of broadcasts melt together, with a few exceptions.  Gary Laubach has been there for most of the “exceptions”, and we talk about them often.

I thought today I would take a look at those 30 years and share some of those moments.  Some are on the air, some are not.   Some of the details are fuzzy, and some have been enhanced over time, I’m sure.  Regardless, it makes me excited about the next thirty!

Best individual performance—I was on the sidelines for the 1995 AAA football championship.  In that game, James Mungro was ridiculous.  My recollection is that he gained around 320 yards on about 20 carries.  He returned the opening kickoff to the 40-yard line, and on the first play from scrimmage, took care of the rest.  East Stroudsburg won 35-14, and Mungro went on to a long NFL career.

Luckiest TV assignment—I was assigned to be the sideline reporter for the 1990 AAA football championship at Cottingham Stadium.  I forget who was supposed to be the game’s analyst, but he had to cancel at the last minute, so I spent the broadcast in the booth with Gary.  During the game, no kidding, more than four inches of rain fell.  It would have been miserable down there.  Easton won that game over Stroudsburg 41-10.

Longest broadcast, Part 1—Gary and I were broadcasting DXI boys’ volleyball under the old double-elimination format without “rally” scoring.  Easton came out of the loser’s bracket and beat Emmaus in a long, five-set match (which we called).  This forced a winner-take-all championship, which Emmaus won—in ANOTHER long, five-set match.  We were on the air for around five hours.

Longest broadcast, Part 2—Again with Gary, we were covering the Allentown Ambassadors on a getaway game night with the team from Maine.  They absolutely HAD to fit the whole game in, and despite a long rain delay—a really long rain delay—they did.  We finished at around 2:30 a.m.  There were, maybe, 30 fans left at the end of the game.  Team owner, the late Pete Karoly, gave Ambassador t-shirts to everyone who stayed.

Sports event I would watch again, right now—Easy.  The 2012 NCAA Division II baseball championship.  West Chester beat Delta State 9-0, becoming the northernmost team to ever with the title.  The dogpile at the end is one of my fondest memories, since my son John is at the bottom of it.  If I die with a smile on my face, it’s because my final thought was about that moment.

Best finish—Nazareth was way behind in their annual wrestling rivalry with Easton.  They needed pins in the final three weight classes, and got them all.  Fans swarmed the mat, and referee Gene Waas had to be rescued from under the pile by Nazareth principal Vic Lesky.   It’s a scene that could only happen in District XI.

Coolest TV related event—RCN scored press passes for Jim Best and me to the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Philadelphia.  Jordan Oliver won his first championship, and the atmosphere was electric.  This event convinced me that if I have the chance to attend ANY national championship—any sport, any division—sponsored by the NCAA, I will do it.  They put on a great show.

Most offbeat assignment—I actually did play-by-play for a kickboxing card in Mountainville around 1990.  In the final bout, the heavyweight competitor stood up in his corner for the third round, and promptly fell over, face first.  It was weird, and scary.  It took a good twenty minutes for the medical staff to get him into an ambulance, and I heard that he was unconscious for a day or so before making a full recovery.

Most fun season—Gary and I had a great time getting to know the Allentown Ambassadors.  A bunch of talented kids playing for the love of the game, with big league dreams, and coach Ed Ott who was just a great guy to hang out with.  He even let Gary put together the batting order when they were in a slump one night.  I think they still lost.

Favorite assignment—I really, really enjoyed being on the Lafayette football sidelines, and hated when my personal situation forced me away.  The Leopards’ staff is professional and super friendly, and Frank Tavani might be my all-time favorite guy to interview.

Regrets—None.  Absolutely none.  It’s been one hell of a ride.

Behind the Mic: 2015 Division 1 Wrestling Championships

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 4.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s Jim Best to guest blog.  Viewers should recognize Jim from RCN-TV’s coverage of high school wrestling.

St. Louis, MO…home of the Gateway Arch, the Cardinals, riverboats, ribs, Budweiser beer, and in 2015 the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships. The Scottrade Center, a beautiful facility which plays host to a variety of indoor athletic events, was the site of the championships this past March. If you are a passionate wrestling fan like me, the Scottrade Center was the place to be for some of the most action-packed wrestling in my memory.

The storylines heading into the tournament were numerous. For one, a young man from Ohio State, Logan Stieber, was taking aim to win his fourth consecutive title. Up to this point in time, only three other wrestlers in the history of the tournament were able to achieve the status of “4-timer!” (Pat Smith from Oklahoma State, Cael Sanderson from Iowa State, and Kyle Dake from Cornell). This particular storyline hit home with many local fans because Stieber’s first championship (his freshman year) included a very controversial win in the finals over Jordan Oliver from Oklahoma State. Jordan is a product of the great Easton wrestling program. In addition to the Logan Stieber story, the team championship title was “wide open” because any one of approximately eight teams had the potential to earn enough points to win the team title. The traditional powers like Iowa, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Penn State were certainly in the mix. However, the contenders this year also included Cornell, Ohio State, and the tiny Pennsylvania wrestling power of Edinboro. Last, but certainly not least, the seedings of individual wrestlers in certain weight classes left many diehard wrestling fans scratching their heads and saying, “How did this happen?” For example, at 125 pounds (the lightest weight class in NCAA competition), the two-time defending champion, Jesse Delgado from Illinois, entered the tournament unseeded! Granted, he had missed most of the competitive season due to an injury, so his win-loss record was less than stellar, but for a defending champion to enter the tournament unseeded…that is one tough weight class! Another head scratcher occurred at the 149-pound weight class as Josh Kindig, a Blue Mountain product now wrestling for Oklahoma State, also entered the tournament unseeded. Josh was a runner-up in 2014, and, adding insult to injury, not only was he unseeded, but he was also paired against the third-seeded wrestler in the first round! All of the seeding quandaries made for a high level of fan anticipation for the first round of wrestling.

The tournament unfolded over a three-day time period. Similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, brackets for each of ten weight classes are pre-determined by “seeds”. Each weight class has 32-35 qualifying wrestlers, and the first round of wrestling begins on a Thursday morning. Unlike the March Madness basketball tournament, every competitor who qualifies for the tournament has the chance to wrestle at least two matches due to a full consolation bracket. In each round, with the exception of the Saturday morning round (that round is all consolation bracket matches), a championship round is contested, and at least one consolation bracket round is contested, with the exception of the championship finals on Saturday evening. Local wrestlers who qualified for the tournament this year included Zeke Moisey (Bethlehem Catholic/West Virginia University), Ethan Lizak (Parkland/Minnesota), Zach Horan (Nazareth/Central Michigan), Randy Cruz (Bethlehem Catholic/Lehigh), Josh Kindig (Blue Mountain/Oklahoma State), Mitch Minotti (Easton/Lehigh), and Elliot Riddick (Bethlehem Catholic/Lehigh). I am sure that I missed a few names in that mix, and I apologize greatly to those wrestlers, mainly because I know, from personal experience, how hard it is to qualify for that tournament, and every wrestler in the tournament deserves special recognition!

Of the local wrestlers, Zeke Moisey was the Cinderella story of the tournament. As a true freshman, Zeke entered the weight class unseeded at the 125-pound weight class. After upsetting three highly seeded wrestlers in the championship round, and bringing over 18,000 cheering wrestling fans to their feet in the process, Zeke made his way into the championship finals. In the finals, he ran into a familiar foe, a redshirt freshman from Ohio State, and Zeke fell just short of becoming an NCAA champion when he lost a hard-fought battle in the finals. Mitch Minotti also achieved All-American status at 157 pounds with an eighth-place finish. Mitch wrestled through injuries for the entire tournament, and ended up have to forfeit his final match, for seventh place, due to medical reasons. All of the local wrestlers competed well, and all are continuing to maintain District XI’s reputation as one of the “toughest wrestling districts in the country.”

At the conclusion of the tournament, Logan Stieber did make wrestling history by winning his fourth title, and Ohio State walked away with their first ever team title.  As I have described to some of my non-wrestling friends and colleagues, attending that tournament is the equivalent to a football fan attending the Superbowl, or a college basketball fan attending the Final Four-it just doesn’t get any better in terms of action and atmosphere. For three days in March, approximately 18,000 diehard wrestling fans converge at the site of the championships to watch the best college wrestlers in the country compete against each other, and then we get to meet at the local eating establishments, in between the rounds of wrestling, to discuss and relive the most exciting moments over a burger and some cold beverages…it truly is a “live, eat and breath” wrestling experience! Next year, the Big Apple (New York City), will play host to the tournament when wrestlers, coaches and fans will flock to Madison Square Garden to grapple in the garden for an NCAA championship. I’m counting down the days!

 

Behind the Mic: Of Sports and Integrity

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 4.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.
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Another season of March Madness has come and gone and we were again reminded of why so many are so attracted to The Game. While it may not completely explain the meaning of life, when it is played right and for the right reasons, it certainly offers some useful clues. How sad that, at least in some corners, the real “Madness” had as much to do with the sudden finality of a season spent as it did with those elements on the periphery of the game that threaten its core and its fabric. Basketball purists may be the first to take my point, but I fear that in the prevailing culture “purist” means “old”, and the underlying message is bound to be lost in an age of mass media, mega money, and me-first mentality. In the current climate, it’s hard to recall a time when programs were simply teams, when events were games, and when all of it was less for the ESPN highlight reel and more for the real love of it all. The underpinning of integrity that makes the game at all worthwhile is weakening, and in danger of becoming as obsolete as a perfectly executed bounce pass.

Of course, none of the national attention for the game is a bad thing except for the perspective that is invariably lost as succeeding generations of coaches and players have come to believe that “the game” is an end unto itself, leaving untapped the vast reservoir of learning that once accompanied it. After all, haven’t we been told that it’s all about the journey?  There was a time when losing the right way had almost as much value as winning. This loss of perspective has diminished the value of both. As the stakes have risen, the cost of losing and the rewards of winning have, in many cases, driven coaches and players alike to do whatever it takes to engineer an outcome, eliminate risk, and compromise their own integrity to achieve the only prize that matters: win on the scoreboard, and win the adulation and dollars that follow. I am still old-school enough to believe that winning right matters and winning right can still happen even on the largest of stages.

The game itself, when played right, is a thing of beauty that can invoke the same visceral reactions that one might find in a ballet or musical score – choreography, timing, spacing, imagination and creativity, speed and grace, power and skill. We should trust it, embrace it, and allow it to nurture young lives the way it once did – through the same lessons that both winning and losing teach. Any worthy endeavor that engenders the kind of emotional and physical investment that The Game does deserves better than what it’s becoming. There may be a place outside of the current structure for the power conferences and “programs” that choose a different course, but the NCAA needs to reexamine its futile attempt to regulate the basketball fiefdums that have been created on major college campuses nationally. The days of the letter sweater and the mantra of being “true to your school” are as dead as Julius Caesar (thank you Officer Jim Malone) and those concepts, to the likes of Kentucky and Syracuse, are lost in a paradigm of pseudo amateurism.

Too much of a good thing has caused a kind of basketball indigestion that has sullied the college game, and in response, the NCAA is using a garden hose to try to extinguish a forest fire of rules violations that are neither entirely enforceable, nor really apropos given the big business that major college basketball has become. There was a time when a fully subsidized college education awarded on the basis of basketball skill would be compensation enough for a college player. But it’s a tougher argument to make these days when at least a couple of the starters at Kentucky will use their time in Lexington as a springboard to an NBA salary of between $1 and $3.5 million after one semester-plus on the campus, and their presence there in real time helps the school bring in millions more.

The Coach as teacher, mentor, and role model is another staple of the game that is an endangered species. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to give this some perspective a few years ago when admonishing his power conference coaching peers: To paraphrase Coach, don’t let it blow your mind to know that there is some guy out there at a Division III school (or maybe an Ivy or Patriot League school) who can outcoach you seven days out of the week.  The system has evolved in a way that has given rise to coaches who more resemble Gordon Gekko than Norman Dale. The sad part is that had Coach Dale not won in 1952, we may never have heard of him. Would losing that Indiana State High School title have rendered his lessons any less valuable or valid? Would the experience have had less meaning for his players?

These days, in a no-holds barred effort to land the next great high school player, coaches and their staffs seem increasingly willing to shelve their personal integrity and engage in tactics that would make DC politicians blush. Too many of the nation’s academic institutions have become warehouses for basketball aprenticeships that are too often one or two years in length and that have little or nothing to do with academic integrity. In fact, circumventing the rules governing academic progress has become a modus operandi on far too many campuses. Coaches and the institutions that hire them know – or at least should know – the rules by which they are willing to play. When the proverbial stuff hits the fan, it’s almost comical to hear administrators suddenly turn into Casablanca’s Louie Renault, shocked to learn anything underhanded may have been going on.  I was born and raised in Syracuse. I enjoy SU basketball. I admire and respect Duke and what those teams have done on the court, along with North Carolina, Kansas, and the rest. I don’t blame John Calipari – not one bit – for his way of winning championships at Kentucky. The system is what it has become, and as Albert Einstein once said, “you have to learn the rules of the game, and then you have to play better than anyone else”. Unfortunately, the “game” in this case has become recruiting, and the rules stretched beyond recognition.

Jim Boeheim recently stated that he isn’t a policeman, he’s a basketball coach. It’s a statement that sadly presumes that the game has passed him by, and that is more an indictment of the game at that level than it is of the coach. The NCAA responded by saying it wants him to be a policeman. My takeaway: the state of the art resembles little of what it once was, and continues to move in the wrong direction.

As for the purity and beauty of the game, it seems someone has scribbled a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And Diogenes is still a 16 seed.

Diogenes
Diogenes searches for an honest man. Painting attributed to J. H. W. Tischbein (c. 1780)

Behind the Mic: Grandview Racing

Gary will be returning with a new blog post on May 4.  This week, he’s asked race announcer Randy Kane to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize Randy from the Grandview Speedway broadcasts airing April through August each year.  Click here to read Randy’s bio from the RCN-TV “Our Broadcasters” page.

With the arrival of the month of April, it’s finally time to say, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” on the local level.

In Bechtelsville, PA, it’s time to begin the racing season on the high-banked, third-mile dirt oval known to all as Grandview Speedway. For Grandview it is the 53rd consecutive season of promoting racing events. For RCN TV, it is the 15th consecutive season of covering the racing at the track. That marriage, in simple terms, has been a very good one.

RCN TV has covered local racing for many years, starting out with local competition at the now-gone Nazareth Raceway back in the early seventies. It was a marriage that lasted some 17 years. From there they mixed in events on the now-also-gone Nazareth National Speedway, as well as races at the Pocono Speedway.

Eventually, RCN TV headed south to racing asphalt coverage at Flemington Fair Speedway, but that track also closed up after only about three years of television programming. From there, it was on to Berks County along Route 100 and the racing at Grandview.

The years have just clicked off quickly and it hardly seems like 15 years have passed. Over those years award-winning RCN TV coverage has offered viewers a lot of different divisions to watch. Big and small block Modified racing, Sportsman, Sprint Cars, Midgets, Late Models and much more. All rolled into one, it sure has developed into a very popular program.

Drivers love to watch the racing coverage. Fans love it. Potential sponsors, too. Race teams use the subject of television coverage to try to attract potential sponsors. A sponsor sees television coverage as a great selling point to spit out the word about their business. It gets the potential sponsor’s name into the conversation and just the mentioning of the sponsor’s name gives them the reward that was sought in the first place.

On television these days, you can watch drag racing and NASCAR coverage and all sorts of racing, actually. Racing truly has blossomed. The thing is that RCN TV has been doing it for a long, long time and RCN TV is one of the first in the country to offer it to their viewers. You don’t find local short-track dirt track coverage anywhere on your channel choices, unless it is a special, tape-delayed event. RCN TV has found a formula that works. Roughly six events a season, bringing a good sampling of what the track has to offer. The program offers news, driver interviews, replays of dramatic moments, lap-to-lap coverage, all the feature races, plus the qualifying events. Just enough to give everybody a taste, get the viewer interested and, hopes are, that they make it to the track a time or two and watch in person.

With the weather improving, tracks all over the area, asphalt or dirt, are on schedule to swing open the gates and get the season started. Grandview, though, it is special. Grandview is old school. It’s dirt track racing and it is not a lot of flash or confetti. It is just good, close, competitive competition. It gets your blood pumping. Gets your heart racing and gets everyone watching awfully excited. The cars kicking up large chunks of clay into the air. That smell of racing fuel. The roar of the high-powered racing engines. Cars going at it, trading paint in each corner as they race wheel-to-wheel. It goes on unmatched.

There’s so much there to offer the viewers and you can watch it all, while it unfolds right before your eyes on RCN TV. Local auto racing’s been there and available now for over 30 years. That’s a lot of laps and a lot of coverage throughout the years.

It’s April and time to get those engines started. This year marks a total of 15 years at Grandview Speedway and that’s only a small part of the story. Local auto racing and RCN TV, it simply has been a long and also a very successful marriage. Indeed.

The SportsTalk Shop: 2014 Year-in-Review (Part 2)

A very merry season’s greetings and happy new year to everyone!  Chris Michael is on vacation for the next week, so “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joseph Lynnwood Craig will be manning the “SportsTalk Shop” around the holidays.  Joe gives his weekly views on the Thursday night show and this time, he gives his views on some local high school sports issues over the past year.  Don’t forget, you can get more views and opinions on the top teams, players, games, moments and other special highlights over the past 12 months by watching the “SportsTalk: 2014 Year-in-Review” program that will air on RCN-TV several times before and after New Year’s Day and is also available to watch at anytime for free on RCN On-Demand!

Now, here’s “Joe’s Take” on local championship teams and other outstanding programs in the Lehigh Valley area.

As 2014 comes to a close, a few observations about high school championships seem to be in order.  Keep in mind that last school year’s winter and spring seasons combine with the fall season of this school year to form the 2014 lineup.
First of all, 22 high schools in District XI have won team championships in the year 2014.  There have been 52 champions crowned in 21 sports; 10 boys sports, 10 girls sports and one co-ed sport (golf).
Parkland has overwhelmingly crowned the most champions with 11.  The following list contains the schools with the number of team champions from each school:

Parkland – 11                          Allentown CC – 2                Mahanoy – 1                Pius X – 1
Beth. Cath. – 5                        Notre Dame G.P – 2           Salisbury – 1                Saucon – 1
Emmaus – 4                             Minersville – 2                    Nazareth – 1                 Whitehall – 1
Southern Lehigh – 4              Marion Cath. – 2               Tamaqua – 1                Pine Grove – 1
Moravian Acad. – 4               Easton – 2                            Sch. Haven – 1
Northwestern – 3                  Notre Dame ES – 2             Pen Argyl – 1

A person would wonder how does one school win so many championships as Parkland has?   Surely the athletes are not any bigger, stronger, faster, or more skilled than their counterparts at other schools.  I’m sure that they eat similar foods, drink similar water, dress the same way and enjoy the same activities as any other teenagers. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with off-season preparation, camps, and facilities available to them, along with the community support that is provided in feeder programs across the board. Whatever it is, the other schools and communities better take note.  They all need to step up if they want to compete with Parkland.

Another comment would be to notice the number of championships that a small school like Moravian Academy has won.  They’ve won four championships while many other schools have won none.  That’s amazing when you think about it.  Granted they have won in small school classifications but in three of their titles they beat many schools in the AA classification.  Those sports were Boys Tennis, Golf, and Girls Tennis.  They also won in A classification Boys Soccer.  By the way, they were the champs in that category.  I think that is noteworthy.

There have been some great teams from District XI this past year, so here are a few that come to mind.  The following teams have won State championships this past year: Bethlehem Catholic in wrestling (AA), Parkland Girls Volleyball (AA), and Moravian Academy Boys Soccer (AA).  There will be a lot of discussion in local media over the next  few weeks regarding great games and great performances by teams and individuals and we sure have had our share.  District XI has plenty of great high school athletes this year and a history of some of the best in the state.  Perhaps we will get into these in the future.
Until then, that’s Joe’s Take!

The SportsTalk Shop: Joe’s Take — Greatest LV Football Players

First of all, a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving Day holiday to all of our faithful “SportsTalk” viewers and blog readers.  We’ve gotten some wonderful feedback about the show and our blog the last few months and appreciate all the positive responses. We hope to continue earning your interest and attention as we transition to the winter sports season very soon.  Chris Michael is taking a few days off for the holiday this week and in his place is “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig manning the “SportsTalk Shop.”  Joe gives his commentary on a variety of sports issues for each edition of the “RCN SportsTalk” show on (what is suppose to be a short) segment, entitled, “Joe’s Take,” which you can see every Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV.  Here, Joe gives his opinions on who he thinks are the top ten football players—EVER—in the Lehigh Valley area.

Picking the top 10 football players to ever play in the Lehigh Valley is absolutely the toughest assignment I could have undertaken.  There’s no way anyone is going to agree with me because there have been so many worthy choices.  Now, before you jump all over me, remember that I’m not very bright.  But I will put up these 10 guys against anyone’s list.

Here goes!  The list is not in any particular order but I do believe the very best player ever is Chuck Bednarik of Bethlehem Liberty.  How can anyone argue with this choice?  Following Chuck is Jim Ringo of Phillipsburg.  Both of these men played in the Lehigh Valley, went on to play professional football, and are members of the Hall of Fame.

So far, I have listed two great linemen.  Now for two great backs.  How about Bobby Pilz of Easton, 1968.  Pound for pound he may be the best ever.  In three years at Easton, they went 28-1-1 and that 1968 team is considered by many to be the best team ever to play in the Lehigh Valley.  Pilz had a stellar career at N.C. State under Lou Holtz.  Another back has to be the great Artie Owens of Stroudsburg.  He played in the early 1970’s and went on to become an All-American at West Virginia under Bobby Bowden.

No list of linemen would be complete without the next two greats:  Mike Hartenstine of Bethlehem Liberty and Matt Millen of Whitehall.  Hartenstine was All-State and an All-American in high school who went on to play at Penn State under Joe Paterno.  He went to the pros and had a great career with the Chicago Bears.  Neshaminy All-Stater Bruce Traney called Mike “the scariest player I ever faced.”  Now, Matt Milen was also Mr. Everything at Whitehall and became an All-American at Penn State again under Joe Paterno.  Matt went on to become an all-pro linebacker at Oakland and finished his career with the Washington Redskins.  He was a five-time Super Bowl champion.

Two more backs:  actually Andre Reed of Dieruff became a Hall of Famer in the pro ranks as a wide receiver with the then-great Buffalo Bills.  He played in four Super Bowls.  A Kutztown graduate, Andre excelled at receiver and quarterback at Dieruff.  That brings us to James Mungro of East Stroudsburg.  James held the state record for rushing yards for many years.  He went on to play at Syracuse and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts where he had a fine career.

The last two members of my top 10 are both from across the Delaware River.  How about Dick Lynch from Phillipsburg Catholic and the great Ned Bolcar of Phillipsburg.  Dick Lynch played for coach Mickey Frinzi at the now-closed P’burg Catholic.  Dick went on to Notre Dame University.  While at Notre Dame, he scored the game-winning touchdown that beat Oklahoma and broke the Sooners’ 54-game winning streak.  He was then drafted and played for seven years for the New York Giants as a defensive back.  He was an all-pro during this time.  Ned Bolcar was best known as a tough linebacker at P’burg.  He played for Phil Rohm and Tom Dominic from 1983-1985.  Ned was a two-time All-Stater in New Jersey.  He went on to Notre Dame where he started at middle linebacker for three years.  In 1988 he captained the Irish to a national championship.  He then was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks and finished his career with the Miami Dolphins.

Well, there you have it.  I know what you’re thinking:  “How could Joe miss ______________ (fill in the blank)!”  Yeah, there are plenty of other great players that we have been blessed to see play right here in the Valley.  And while you could make another deserving list, I think you’d agree that at least some of my top 10 transcend time.  Let me know what you think by emailing us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and who you would include in your top 10.  Until next time, that’s “Joe’s take”.

Behind the Mic: My Rust Belt Romance

Gary will be returning with a new blog on August 11. This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog. RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.
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Only those who have ever earnestly invested themselves emotionally in the life of a chosen major league sports franchise will understand the following. Others need not indulge me. I’m not talking about the weekend warrior here. I’m talking about those loyalists who pass along their rooting legacies to their young children, who risk otherwise happy marriages, whose palms sweat in the late innings of innocuous game number 86 sometime in July, or during final fourth quarter drives in late September. I’m talking about those for whom the major national and religious holidays include the first day of spring training and the start of OTAs in the middle of summer. I’m talking about those of us for whom the line between healthy diversion and debilitating vice has become dangerously blurred. How debilitating, you ask?

I have been a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns for the past half century.

Those of you who’ve read this far may be old enough to remember a time when such loyalties could be deemed well-placed. Younger folks, on the other hand, will have the sense that the author here is the Marquis de Sade. But remember, we’re talking cornerstone franchises here – Rust Belt cities where these respective sports were born and whose roots run deep. These were franchises that represented the best in us – blue collar players who bled for blue collar towns with a blue collar effort…and yes, an occasional championship. These were franchises that actually did have glory days. To underscore such history, the Browns are likely the only franchise that has ever effectively traded its owner. When Art Modell took his collection of football paraphernalia to Baltimore, a city revolted and fought the good fight to keep its soul at home. I mean, who are “The Ravens” anyway? The name, the colors, the records, and the memories are where they should be – with the Cleveland Browns. But I digress.

Once the NBA Syracuse Nationals left my hometown in 1963 for greener pastures in Philadelphia, I became the very young resident of a city without a major sports franchise. In retrospect, I was in essence a free agent fan lured not by big contracts and perennial championships, but rather by the enticements that all kids gravitate toward – cool team colors, gaudy box scores, a first trip to a big league stadium, and extended family influences. How could I have known that the two teams of my choosing would represent rival cities, 90 miles apart, and whose fan behavior toward one another on game day would make the Bloods and the Crips blush?

But how I arrived at this precarious place – a die-hard fan of two franchises whose decades-long run of ineptitude has been nothing short of epic – is a story for another time. My younger friends and even my own children have come to look at me with a mixture of sympathy and incredulity. Why would an otherwise normal person, not a resident of either town, actually choose to follow these teams? Only recently, the Pirates set a DiMaggio-like record for franchise futility, failing to reach .500 during a streak spanning two full decades. Be aware, that includes all franchises from all major professional sports – not just baseball. But even by the Browns’ more recent standards, the Pirates have been in a good place.

Remember, this is a franchise (the Browns) whose failures have been classic. So iconic have their heartbreaks been that they’ve christened them in a sort of morbid remembrance. Even casual NFL fans know of them by name. So while the Steelers have “The Immaculate Reception,” the 49ers, “The Catch,” and the Titans (who are they, anyway), “The Music City Miracle,” we Browns fans are left to ponder “Red Right 88,” “The Drive,” and “The Fumble.” Even our stadium has been unofficially dubbed, “The Factory of Sadness.” I could go on, but you get my point.

And still, fully aware of my own fatal attraction, as my Pirate summers would all too soon inevitably melt into baseball oblivion, I could always turn to Cleveland’s football-version of Christmas morning: Draft Day. And like most gifts on Christmas morning, the newness and glitter of the next promising draft class would soon fade, as the promising packages of highly-touted future stars invariably represented as so many lumps of coal. And just as quickly I’d be back to the Bucs, trying to keep up with which veterans they’d jettison to contending teams at the trade deadline for more promising prospects – again, and again…and again. Perennial sellers.

And so the cycle would go: year, after year, after excruciating year. My children are grown now. As heirs to my Browns-Bucs plight, they’ve witnessed and lived through the years of frustration. And if I’ve failed to teach them anything worthwhile, at least loyalty and persistence haven’t been among the lessons lost.

None of my kids are named Job, (though my wife, Julie, is most certainly the female equivalent) but maybe, just maybe, they are about to experience the Biblical lesson for which he is known.

Clint Hurdle has at long last energized the baseball ghosts of Clemente and Mazerowski in Pittsburgh. And anyone who still believes that “there’s no crying in baseball” wasn’t witness to the Bucco’s wild card win over the Reds last October. One TBS broadcaster’s eloquence captured the moment that night. As the camera panned the packed stadium and the hysterical crowd, I heard him say, “Now I know what 20 years of frustration, unleashed and dressed in black and gold, looks like.” How can you not love the romance of baseball?

And even Cleveland’s (new again) football front office has NFL followers taking notice with the drafting of Johnny Manzeil. That gift hasn’t been opened yet, but there it sits. And if nothing else, Browns football is relevant again and hope springs eternal.

So you’ll please excuse me if I guffaw at the plight of the Cubs or the Curse of the Bambino. Pittsburgh football fans have had the Steelers, and Cleveland’s baseball folks have at least sniffed success with the Indians (and, of course, the “Return of the King” this NBA season). But for a fan whose enduring loyalties forever shift with the seasons between the castaway teams of these two cities – summers in Pittsburgh and autumns in Cleveland – a new standard has to have been set for, well, I’ll let you fill in the blank. My family and close friends have given up trying.

Gotta run. The Pirates are on the west coast, so it’ll be a late night. And the Browns are into their first week of training camp. Have to see how the QB competition between Hoyer and Manzeil is going.

Finally, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!!

 

 

 

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Baseball Trade Deadline

With Chris Michael taking a few vacation days off this week, we ask “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joseph Lynnwood Craig to offer his opinion on a hot issue going on in the sports world. Joe has his own 30-second segment on the TV show (in which he usually runs well-over his time limit) in which he sounds off on a local or national sports issues each week, and he’s been chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to express his views on the “SportsTalk Shop” blog.


The baseball trade deadline is this week and so far there has been no movement from the Philies. This is not surprising. The Phillies should just sit pat until the season is over. At that point, they need to make changes at the General Manager, scouting, and player development level. Once new people are in place, then player changes can take place. Trust in the present G.M. and staff is non-existent and changes in decision-makers have to take place first. And that’s Joe’s take.

What do you think of “Joe’s Take” on the plight of the Phillies and the trade deadline? Post a comment below on whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Craig’s opinion.

 

Behind the Mic: Dollars and Sense in the Age of Major College Athletics

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 19.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.


Pay college athletes. There, I said it. Of course, it’s certainly not nearly that simple, and after a long discussion with my lawyer daughter, well, there are more than just a few minor wrinkles that would need to be ironed out, not the least of which are legal and ethical. But it can – and many believe should – be done. Time and space preclude a detailed discussion here, but I’d like to offer a starting point. After all, dealing with a few legal and ethical details should hardly distress the NCAA. Their rulebook, after all, makes the Affordable Care Act read like “The Cat in the Hat.” I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, careful to not upset them too much. My plan will require their support. And in fact, it may make life a good deal easier for them.

My high school math teacher is somewhere, cringing as I write this. But even I can calculate that the money is there to support a more palatable system. Consider that the first television contract with CBS paid the NCAA $1 billion for the rights to the national tournament. Yes, that’s with a “B.” And did I mention that was a generation ago? The latest deal (2010) was a 14-year agreement for $10.8 billion, generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. And, bear in mind that is for the tournament only. And you thought that “March Madness” referred only to the action on the court! Factor in the revenues generated throughout the regular season from concessions, parking, gate receipts, sponsorships, and yes, even more TV money, and suddenly we are talking about serious capital. That’s big business. That’s a professional system.

The true crux of the issue here lies with the NBA and the NFL and their inability, unwillingness, or more likely their lack of incentive to create a viable minor league system. But then, why should they? They have the major college programs serving the same function, and doing so free of charge. In the meantime, the impulses created by mega dollars have littered the straight and narrow pathway of college athletics with all kinds of land mines, exploding notions of academic integrity, amateurism, and in far too many instances, the broader college experience. The stories of young athletes lured to a campus where they may not belong, nor would they want to be but for the promise of an athletic proving ground, read like so many proverbs. Many colleges housing major basketball and football programs are little more than athletic incubators for youngsters whose primary – if not sole – aim is to make it to the professional level. If, as in most cases, those aims fall short of the intended target, the youngster is left with little on which to fall back. It has become a false promise, and far too many academic institutions, enticed by the exposure and tempted by the potential financial windfall for their schools, have become compliant in this charade.

The time, talent, and treasure now spent by the NCAA in its attempt to herd the cats of big- time programs into their amateur cages and preserve the slightest element of academic integrity has become the epitome of throwing good money after bad. My apologies to Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, and the scores of other major programs for whom the pun applies, but it may be time to rethink the approach, and take some creative steps to save these major sports at the college level. If not, the college game as we know it will soon cannibalize itself at the altar of its own largesse. The advent of the “made for TV” sports of college basketball and college football have given the NCAA an opportunity to take real and effective action in the best interests of the games, the interests of its own mission, and most important, in the interests of so many young men and women misplaced on campuses throughout the country.

Of course, not every college would desire – or for that matter be required – to follow the new blueprint. The NCAA already has different rules for its different divisions, so why not simply establish one more classification? Clearly, there will be some hard decisions for those major college programs that still cling to the “student athlete” ideal. But within the parameters and rules governing the new division, schools will have the flexibility to do more or less – depending on their own interests and philosophical stance. Disparities will exist, but will they be any more pronounced than those which now separate, say, Prairie View A&M and Kentucky or Cornell and Georgetown?

For whatever system to work in favor of intercollegiate athletics and in the best interests of the young people involved, there will have to be serious and honest cooperation between the institutions and the governing body. The fallacy of academic integrity has permeated too many programs. Who among us thinks first of “academic learning or achievement” when we hear the word “scholarship”? On the contrary, the word has come to preclude most notions of higher education for so many of the athletes in question. A CNN.com article published in January underscored just how pervasive the problem might actually be.

Still, the college athletes will have to be tethered to their respective schools in some fashion. This is not only possible, but perhaps it tills fertile ground for real creative thinking. Would they be “employed” as independent contractors? Might they take courses for which they pay out of their own pocket, thereby having some “skin” in their own academic future? Perhaps some would benefit most by taking courses in basic life skills and money management. Possibly pursue a trade? In short, a system could be established to fit the needs and skill sets of the athlete, as opposed to the square-peg-and-round-hole paradigm now in play.

It is no secret – or it shouldn’t be – that the financial windfall from major college athletics largely supports all programs along the vast food chain of intercollegiate athletics everywhere. It’s an honorable end, but the means have caused significant angst and drawn more than a little well-earned cynicism from intellectually honest observers.

It may be time – especially with the kinds of dollars now pouring into the system – to take a lesson from my friends at The Rotary Club and build a system that meets their four way test. Create a system that is truthful, fair to all concerned, builds goodwill and better friendships, and is beneficial to all involved.

That’s an exam that anyone can pass.

 

Behind the Mic: Running


Today’s “Behind the Mic” blog is written by long time RCN personality Scott Barr. Scott’s on-air career began in 1984 with the District XI Girl’s Tennis Championship, won by Monica Yurkonic. Since that debut, he has covered a wide range of sports, including kick boxing, track and field, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, football, and baseball. Most of our viewers, of course, will know him for his work with District XI wrestling. The 2013-14 season was Scott’s 30th season covering “the nation’s best high school wrestling.” Fans across the valley have heard him call “Give him six!” after a pin, while working with three legends of Lehigh Valley sports—Gary Laubach, Ray Nunamaker, and Jim Best. Outside of RCN, Scott helps small businesses set up retirement plans for their employees, and lives in Macungie with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, ages 6 to 22!


I got an odd voicemail a couple of weeks ago. It was my dental hygienist, saying, “Scott—please give me a call in the office when you get a chance.” I thought, “Shoot. This is bad. I missed an appointment, or they want to do something to my mouth that will hurt.” I took a deep breath and called back.

She wanted to know the name of the store where I get my running shoes, because she knew I was a “real runner.” Pleasantly surprised, I told her. Then I hung up the phone and laughed out loud. Just three years ago, that call could not have happened.

Dozens of RCN TV viewers have seen what has happened to me over those three years, and sheepishly asked if I was “OK”. They’ve seen my weight loss—about 40 pounds, and thought, “Maybe he’s really, really sick.” I’m not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’ve never, ever been healthier.

I was exactly like a lot of those same viewers. I “used to be” in shape, and I certainly wasn’t out of shape. Basically I was getting through my years of parenthood, career, and life in general—and not feeling badly about it. One night, I read a Facebook post from a work friend of mine, who happens to be a 40-something year old mother of two. She posted that she was going to Montana to participate in a triathlon! I thought, “Good for her!” Then, I thought, “Why am I reading about this?” The next day, I bought a new pair of sneakers,and took off.

I remember my first “run” well. I knew I should start slowly, so I targeted just one mile. I didn’t make it. After a slow, shuffling jog that lasted three minutes, I started looking around for anyone who looked like they had knowledge of CPR. I walked for three minutes before I started shuffling for another three. Back to walking, then three minutes of shuffling. After 21 minutes, I was done. I may have covered that mile but it was ugly. Really, really ugly. It was June 30, 2011.

The next day, I did it again.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next three years, unless you ask me in person—in which case you may regret asking. There were MANY aches and a few pains. I learned a lot about running equipment, nutrition, hydration and my body. I discovered that Lady Gaga is a really great artist to accompany my runs. I learned that I wasn’t alone in this journey. I met Bart Yasso. I chatted, during a race, with 1992 Olympian Summer Sanders. I got a high-five, during a training run, from a bride in her wedding gown! I found out that I could run a 5K. Then a 10K. I ran four half-marathons of 13.1 miles each, and now I’m training for “the full”—a 26.2 mile marathon that starts at the Lehigh Valley Hospital and ends in downtown Easton. And I want to do it in 3 hours and 30 minutes. How crazy is that?

You can do it, too. You will look silly at first, but really—nobody cares. You will hurt, but after you learn how to stretch, and get the right shoes, it will be a “good hurt.” I prefer to run alone, but there are lots of groups you can join to keep you motivated. Most importantly, you will discover something inside that has been hiding since high school. My mantra, early on, was, “I’m taking it back.” I’ll soon be 52 years old; I am just now discovering that I had no idea what this old set of bowed legs can do.

The toughest stretch of every run, even today, is from the couch to the front door. Conquer that stretch, and start taking YOURS back. It’s worth it.