Monday, March 24, 2014

Two Bears, Butkus and Halas from the University of Illinois Got Help from Older Brothers

In this post let's look at two Bears with older siblings. As a young kid in the neighborhood of Roseland in Chicago, Dick Butkus was working on his game.  Like Michael Jordan tossing endless free throws, Butkus kicked the football over and over and over again. 

Butkus had older brothers who must have been pretty tough guys.  As a young teenager, Butkus moved furniture with them.  Can you imagine, Dick Butkus and his brothers tossing couches and tables around? Younger siblings often get involved in difficult things earlier.  Sometimes they become exaggerated versions of older siblings. They become tougher, bolder, and more aggressive. 

Butkus of course, paid his dues and then some on the playing fields of the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears.  The celebrity he earned playing football gave him a second life after football as a TV star and celebrity spokesman.  He played pro football for 9 seasons.   He did light beer commercials with a cast of sports characters for much longer.  And as an actor, he made 150  TV appearances over a long career.  His football celebrity gave him an earning power in TV as the prototype tough guy.

Butkus's boss with the Bears, George Halas, also had some tough older siblings.  Halas was Bohemian.  His mom and dad were entrepreneurs.  His dad died when George was young and his mother and brothers looked after young George and encouraged his involvement in sports.  His brother Walter preceded him to the University of Illinois and went on to coach.  George followed.

Halas was a man with no small ambitions.    He was interested in baseball, but he couldn't hit the curve.  He was a skinny kid who had an appetite for tough play and competition.  His brothers did their best to encourage weight gain.When he built up enough weight he made a solid contribution to the University football, basketball, and baseball teams.  He got a taste of professional football when he played for a semipro industrial team. 

There was something special about George Halas.  The Staley Starch company sensed it and they hired him to build and develop a football team that could outshine all comers.  He put together the Staleys that became his Bears and then the Monsters of the Midway and eventually one of the best teams in NFL history. 

Both Butkus and Halas were achievers who were helped along the way by older siblings.  They both played at the University of Illinois and then moved on to the Chicago Bears and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey. Pillars looks at the top 10 coaches in NFL history.

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Figure Skating Might Give Your Child

Parents often wonder what they can nudge their kids into that might help them build character, get plenty of exercise, and perhaps improve their habits and judgments.  Figure skating is not for everyone, but if you are one of those "in for a penny, in for a pound" type parents willing to sacrifice much of your time and money for something really outstanding in your child's life, you might want to take a look at the sport.

I have a friend who was not a skater herself, but one of her daughters took to the sport in a big way and a son followed.  It was a struggle.  Getting up very early and going to the rink for lessons and practice with her kids; odd hours and the occasional trip to a contest;  volunteer work at the rink; and living through various injuries--and perhaps most difficult for her, the huge drain on the family budget;  were part and parcel of her experience.  At times, it just didn't seem worth it.  And as she saw her kids grow and she experienced the battle of the wills with her kids in teen years and other difficult times that all parents experience--she would ask herself:

 "Is it all worth it or was I foolish to go along with this?  What difference has it made?" 

One thing she knew for sure, her kids loved the sport and it kept them in tremendous shape.  She also knew that they cared more about their diets than most kids, although there were still the occasional battle about bad food choices. They also managed their time well and had decent sleeping habits. 

If your child becomes a serious competitive skater, time management is another skill they learn.  Homework is not something to leisurely approach, competitive kids often attack it with determination and get it done quickly.  In fact they aggressively take on many activities--they are driven. At least many of them are. 

Of course, at some point in time, 99.999999999% of kids move on and leave the competitive arena.  It's no different than kids who play baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis, track, or football--or most any sports--there is only so much room at the top.  But parents who have been "in a for a penny in for a pound" with kids in competitive figure skating, often have invested tens of thousands of dollars in the effort.  Oh, I am sure there are some who have figured out a way to reduce such costs, but the costs can be substantial and are substantial for many people who have kids in the sport for many  years.  That's not to say that you can't have a kid in skating who goes to the rink through a program that allows them to exercise at reasonable cost, but if your child is a serious competitive figure skater, the costs typically run high. Talk to a parents who have had kids involved for substantial periods of time and get the scoop yourself in your area.  Find out for yourself before you get started.

If you have ever seen a child who was in ballet for a long period of time--you know that they are poised, their posture in excellent, and they often they carry themselves very confidently.  There is something special about a child who has had ballet.  I look at figure skating in the same way.  The child who skates and has a good positive experience from it, carries certain positive characteristics for the balance of his or her life. (That's not say that other sports don't offer great outcomes as well--good programs produce good results, but today, we are looking at figure skating.)

But there is a intensity in competitive figure skating that burns a little warmer than most sports in that so much focus is on the child's own performance. Typically, it is not a team sport, although there are skating teams who perform synchronized skating routines.

Getting back to my friend, I know she was very concerned about the huge expenses and investment that her family had made in skating.  Her daughter showed promise and was certainly committed, but she was never a top skater.  Yet through thick and thin, Mom and Dad had paid the price for her training--not just in dollars, but in their own investment in time.  My friend saw her daughter grow in maturity that the young student expressed in positive ways in college.  Like my friend, her daughter devoted time to charitable causes.  Her mom's example was critical and outside the sport, but her daughter's time management skills helped her make time for tutoring poor disadvantaged kids through her college days.   Her skating routines and practice taught her about self sacrifice and knowing what her parents and coaches had done for her, she wanted to follow their example.   She did many things to help others. And she started to look towards a career that she would find fulfilling and make use of her talents.  

As she was wrapping up her undergraduate degree she applied for one of the most sought after scholarships for graduate work in the world.  She went through an intense application process--she was interviewed multiple times. As she looked back on her life, the one constant  activity that helped her stay disciplined and goal orientated was her skating. It was one activity that seemed to pull her towards a disciplined approach to everything she did. Her intelligence, her parent's example, and other family values and faith were important in determining what she would do.  Her athletic activity that she dedicated herself to early in her life helped her get those important things done that she wanted to accomplish.  She received the scholarship.  

Her mom no longer looks back at skating wondering whether it was worth it for her.

As the publisher at Sporting Chance Press, I've seen how people can integrate their athletic efforts into their everyday life in healthy ways--in spiritual ways as well.  For a figure skater, the family makes a huge investment and parents need to work hard to make sure the program works for their kids.  The child who receives all the extra attention and sacrifice needs to appreciate  that others around have made a great sacrifice on the athlete's behalf.  We receive and we give as well.  If the child grows up to believe that they exist to receive from others, this is obviously a poor outcome.  The parents have to make sure this does not happen.  Developing self absorbed individuals is not a good sports outcome!

How do kids come to understand figure skating?  Well, they just do it and learn first hand, but reading helps as well.  We published a great book on the subject, after all that's what we do.

When we published Maddie Takes the Ice by figure skater and international ice dancer Nicolette House, it opened  up the figure skating world for me.  It is a book that not only shows the daily activities and lifestyle of a young competitive figure skater, but through her eyes, we also see how her family and others around her are impacted.  How does competitive figure skating change a child's life?  Maddie has been called a book that provides a good read for kids and a realistic view of the sport.  It has been a very popular book with libraries and schools.  It was named an America's Battle of the Books selection for two different scholastic years.  We've had orders from Japan, Sweden,  and Mexico.  This middle grade novel is a great read for young girls and it is highly recommended for kids during this Winter Olympic year. 

Of course, my friend would want me to mention that  parents are not replaced by books, neither are teachers, coaches and friends.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sid Luckman and the Mighty Chicago Bears Thrilled the Nation with the Modified T Formation

In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the top 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  By now most of their approaches and ideas are in some ways standard throughout the NFL.  But understanding the approach of one great coach and matching it are two different things.  In this post, we look at George Halas and his great quarterback Sid Luckman who was able to thrill the nation with the modified T Formation in the 1940s.

The Bears really did "thrill the nation with the T Formation" but it was a modified new version of the old one that been popular decades before.   But Bears' owner and head coach George Halas needed the right people to put it all together.  Handsome and intelligent, Sid Luckman from Columbia University, was the quarterback Halas neededBrooklyn born Luckman took up the game at an early age encouraged by his father, a Jewish immigrant from Germany.  Luckman was gifted physically--an excellent passer and runner.  Perhaps like many college men of the day, Luckman was not predisposed to play professional football.  For many, the game did not show much promise as a secure career choice.  But George Halas convinced him it could work for him and he signed on to the Bears.

The Hall of Famer would play 12 years for the Bears; lead in most every passing category for at least one season; and hold many Bears’ passing marks for the second half of the 20th Century.  In fact, decades after the great quarterback's retirement, Bears fans could still answer most any question on leading quarterback statistics with "Luckman." 

Halas and some of his gifted coaches set about developing the new modified T Formation and once Luckman was under center, they continued to perfect it.

In sports, teams have peaks and valleys.  As the 40s approached, Halas began planning a new offense and “retooling” his team by acquiring new players.  Knowing the tough nature of the game first hand, Halas certainly signed on more than his share of hard men.  But at the same time, the engineer George Halas had a penchant for innovation and he knew that he needed both physical toughness and intelligence in his players to carry out the new complexities.  And when it came to developing the plays and strategies needed to move forward, what Halas could not develop himself, he sought from the best minds in the game.  

Although the T Formation had been one of the oldest formations in football, Halas and his coaches had been experimenting with modifications in the 1930s.  Halas was a friend of Clark Shaughnessy who had been coaching at the University of Chicago.  Halas hired Shaughnessy as a consultant.  Shaughnessy helped design and implement a version of the T Formation that would make use of man in motion and other elements that made it much more difficult to defend.  Heading into the 1940 season, Shaughnessy was hired to coach the Stanford team and was preparing for the modified T Formation there.  Shaughnessy helped Halas prepare the Bears before he left for the west.   

Ralph Jones who was at nearby Lake Forest College would also involved deeply.  Jones role was also critical.  Because new variations like the man-in-motion made the formation a much more complex offensive scheme, it was not something put together overnight.  Hunk Anderson a contemporary of George Halas in his playing days, was one of the most innovative coaches in football--and a terrific strategist on both sides of the ball.  His blocking techniques and schemes helped further improve the Modified T formation for many years.

The T Formation uses a quarterback directly behind the center, a fullback behind the quarterback and two halfbacks on either side of the fullback all forming a “T” behind the line of scrimmage.  With four men in the backfield, the formation allowed for a seemingly infinite number of variations on handoffs, fakes, pass patterns from the backfield, etc.  The quarterback in other formations was often the play caller and director, but with the T Formation, the quarterback would also hold the central position as ball handler and passer.  In other formations, the halfback was often the passer.  The T Formation would challenge defenders more than other formations to hold their position to make sure they understood where the play was headed because any one of four backs might be getting the ball. The essential weakness in the T Formation had been the fact that defenses could focus on the center of the field; the T Formation was not as effective outside the opponent’s ends.

The new version of the T Formation was wildly successful and elevated the game of football.  Halas, Shaughnessy, and Jones  published a book on their new formation called  The Modern “T” Formation with Man-in-Motion in 1941--essentially a no-frills coach’s manual with 70 diagrammed plays and brief explanatory information. By adding a man in motion and other elements that spread the field, Halas and others were able to shore up the formations' weaknesses while still taking advantage of its strenghts.

On the threshold of the 40s, Halas was also improving his roster.  In addition to Sid Luckman, he added a tremendous fullback, Bill Osmanski in 1939.  Hall of Famers center and linebacker Clyde “Bulldog” Turner and George McAfee were acquired in 1940 prior to the season.  Turner played center on offense, but also played guard and tackle as needed.  As a linebacker on defense, Turner showed great speed.  McAfee was a halfback, kick returner, and a defensive back.  McAfee was a break-away threat who scared the opposition every time he touched the ball.  Halas called him “one of the best players to every wear a Bear uniform.” With a powerful lineup and new offense, the Bears were commanding, but not invincible.  During the 1940 season they were 8–3, good enough to win the Western Division and battle the Washington Redskins for the championship.  

1940 NFL Championship Game 

The Bears clobbered the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game.  Three Bears’ scores in the first quarter, including a Bill Osmanski 68-yard touchdown run, set the tone for the game.  In the second quarter, Sid Luckman hit Ken Kavanaugh on a 30-yard scoring play to give the Bears a 28–0 lead heading into the half.  Ray Nolting scored on a 23-yard run in the third quarter, but the Bears wowed the Washington crowd when they scored three more times that quarter on interceptions.  Three rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter gave the Bears a final 73–0 win—the highest score in NFL history. 

Bears' Greatest Period 

The rest of the NFL flocked to the new T Formation thereafter.  From 1940 through 1946, the Bears with Sid Luckman and many other great players were the best team in football.  They won championships in 1940, 1941, 1943, and 1946. Sid Luckman would play for 12 seasons.  He completed 904 of 1,744 passes for 14,686 yards for a completion rate of 51.8 with 137 touchdowns and 132 interceptions.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Read more about George Halas and the other nine pillars of the NFL in Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Pittsburgh Steelers Phenomenal Drafts of the 1970s

In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the top 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  By now most of their approaches and ideas are in some ways standard throughout the NFL.  But understanding the approach of one great coach and matching it are two different things.  In this post, we look at Chuck Noll's phenomenal draft selections with the Steelers.

Normally no one owner, coach, or scout is responsible for success in drafting.  But when Chuck Noll came to Pittsburgh he believed ne knew how to build a championship team through the draft.  Art Rooney Sr. made sure Noll had the authority to manage the Steelers draft in his direction.  That’s not say that Noll did not get plenty of help, but the draft and development of players had to be centered around this head coach.  Noll also believed that the Steelers had not shown enough patience in developing players.  So he was going to pick players he believed would deliver and he was going to give them more time to develop. 
When Noll came to the 1969 Steelers’ draft, he had one player on his candidate list that he insisted the team acquire that year: Joe Greene.  Noll saw Greene as a leader and someone who embodied the kind of team he wanted to build.  The staff agreed.  In many ways Greene gave the Steelers the super-hard defensive edge that came to dominate the NFL in the 1970s. 

Noll’s first year was awful.  After the 1969 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears were tied for dead last in the NFL with identical 1–13 records.  Perhaps the highlight of the season for both teams was the coin toss to determine which team was to select first in the draft.  The Steelers won and picked the much-coveted Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech.  

Bradshaw was a test of Noll’s patient approach.  He was not a superstar right off the blocks, but Noll knew that he had more talent than any other quarterback.  Noll and his staff had to develop Bradshaw’s abilities and skills and it took a few years.  While Noll was patient in retaining Bradshaw, he was no pushover in the development process—he worked his quarterback very hard.  In the 1970 draft, along with Bradshaw came Mel Blount.  Green, Bradshaw, Blount—all Hall of Famers --not a bad start for Noll’s team building!
More great picks followed.  Jack Ham was selected up in 1971 and Franco Harris in 1972.  Harris could give the Steelers offense a punishing back who ran as tough as the defense tackled. And as good as the draft was for the Steelers in Noll’s first few years, it got even better in 1974.

The Steelers had a phenomenal draft in 1974.  Wide receiver Lynn Swann, who would play for nine seasons, was Noll’s first round draft choice.  Linebacker Jack Lambert, who was Noll’s second round choice, would play for 11 seasons.  Another wide receiver, John Stallworth, who would play for 14 seasons, was the third selection.  Center Mike Webster was picked in the fourth round and he would play for the Steelers for 15 seasons.  Remarkably, all of these players would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  With Swan and Stallworth, Bradshaw made tremendous strides in his game, which improved his confidence. 

 It’s hard to imagine a team having a better series of drafts than the Steelers did in the early to mid 70s.  Pittsburgh picked up Pennsylvania and Ohio talent going back to the early days of the franchise.  Other early NFL teams also focused most on local talent especially for teams that resided in areas that were known as fertile areas for football talent.  In time, a local focus could hurt teams when the competition searched larger and larger areas.  When the Steelers got serious about picking the best talent available from any part of the country, they were able to build a winner.  

No one wins them all.

But football like any sport can be a humbling pursuit.  Noll and the Steelers built a dynasty by looking everywhere for players with great potential.  They moved away from the local focus that had in time stymied many a pro team.  Still, a momentary lapse that might favor a local boy might have been helpful in the 1979 draft when a quarterback from Monongahela named Joe Montana was not drafted until the 82nd pick.  The “lapse” did not take place! 

Noll and the Steelers' staff had phenomenal drafts in the early-to-mid 1970s, but at the same time.  They acquired potentially great players, but the players had to work at a super high level for the team.  When players like Greene made those around them better, everyone’s game was taken up a notch or two.  And when the team performed so well, those Hall of Fame performances were delivered. 

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Professor Swift's Counsel on Bullying

We are approaching the  baseball season and that brings to mind for me a baseball book that we published on the Fred Merkle. On several occasions, I have written about the lessons that can be communicated through Mike Cameron's book: Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle. In Cameron's book, the story of Fred Merkle's life unfolds in the historical context of the 1908 baseball season and then in the aftermath that showed how Merkle and his family continued to be bullied in a sense by the American public and the press for doing something that was not wrong or uncommon.

If you follow education developments today, you know many people are constantly discussing the bullying problem in our schools and society. Although we live in a diverse society, it seems like kids from all kinds of backgrounds are bullying other kids who are somehow different.

I thought I would once again ask my old friend and educational guru Professor Johnny Swift of Dublin for help. I wanted to share my recent line of inquiry with Swift here:

SCP Larry: Professor, you've probably heard about bullying here in the states and what a big problem it is for students and educators. Is it new or did it exist in your time.

Professor Swift: Well, people have probably set out to hurt other folks who are somehow different from them since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden. In my day, people like myself had pasty-skin and wore funky wigs. You know this if you have looked at any of my portraits. I can tell you that if I happened to walk by a pub after a poetry reading on a Saturday night dressed in my best outfit, it could get nasty.

SCP Larry: So what did you do?

Professor Swift: Well, I moved to London. I may have looked like an odd ball in Ireland, but I fit right in with the London crowd. Besides you could whistle for a cab or copper in London. In Dublin, if I whistled someone would just think I was trying to play street music and make a few pence.

SCP Larry: Well, I guess that might have worked for you back in the day, but do you have any advice for people today?

Professor Swift: Well, as a teacher, I can make a few comments for them. First, if you need to use your stick, make sure your aim is very good--it's never good to hit the wrong kid. If you hit the wrong kid, it's bullying. Second, make a lot of tall friends and hang out with horses.

SCP Larry:  You can't be serious, Professor. 

Professor Swift: Not really.  To all my teacher friends and others in authority, I'd say this: "power is no blessing in itself, unless used to protect the innocent." And to those bullied I'd remind them regardless of how it feels at time, you are never alone,   And remember, "when a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him."

And to all my friends in the 21st Century let me just say: "May you live all the days of your life."

(Written in the spirit of A Modest Proposal.)

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

 Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.

As Draft Approaches, Remember Bill Walsh's Idea on Talent

In Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL, the football lives of the top 10 coaches in NFL history are explored.  By now most of their approaches and ideas are in some ways standard throughout the NFL.  However, there are still a few differences that might be discerned by another look at how they operated.  In this post, we look at one.

When Bill Walsh began building the 49ers, he wanted a mobile quarterback who could make good decisions and throw accurately.  In the third round of the 1979 draft, Bill Walsh drafted Joe Montana.  Montana was a superb quarterback for Notre Dame, but he was thin and he was inconsistent.  Scouts ranked several quarterbacks ahead of Montana in the draft.  Walsh was able to snag the Hall of Famer in the third round.

What induced Walsh to draft Montana?  

 At the age of 47, Walsh became head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers on January 9, 1979.  The 49ers were 2–14 the previous season and they had several poor seasons prior to that.  Walsh constantly developed his roster and built his team with draft choices.  He was selective and he was not afraid to trade several draft choices to put him in a position to get the one or two players he wanted.

At the same time, Walsh earned a reputation for making the most of his players’ talent.  His teams were disciplined and well trained—often thought to be overachievers.

Walsh wanted to construct an advanced football system that used a large playbook and precise movements and contingencies.  He needed players who were physically skilled and had the intellect to carry out his plans.  He acquired many remarkable players over his seasons in San Francisco.  

But one thing that led him draft Joe Montana was Walsh's idea that inconsistency in college was not a game breaker.  Rather than look at a top talent and walk away because the player was not the best every game, Walsh was more likely to assess the players talent and visualize how that player would perform as a 49er consistently.  He saw Montana's talent, his competitive spirit, his desire to win and Walsh thought ahead.  Walsh could do this because he also had confidence in his own abilities to get the best out of his quarterbacks.  Was he gambling when he drafted Montana--sure, but he was a third round acquisition.  Walsh was a very smart man. His selection of Joe Montana was one of the greatest draft choices of all time.
Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press