What to think of Rivals

For Tuesday’s Herald, I wrote that Aarin Smith, a linebacker out of Fresno, Calif., verbally committed to play for the UND football team.

The significance was that he was a Rivals three-star recruit, the highest-rated recruit the Sioux have ever landed.

From what I can tell, it may be the first three-star player to go to any of the four Division I Dakota schools ever. The lone exception I’ve found is Kyle Sheehan, who was a three-star recruit in 2005. Sheehan originally went to Purdue, then transferred to South Dakota State.

So the real question is: “Is the Rivals star stystem a bunch of garbage?”

I would say it’s too early to tell. But I think as the Sioux continue into Division I, the Rivals rankings will be brought up more and more.

The Sioux have had roughly five two-star recruits in the past two years, including Cordero Finley, Marcus Binns, R.J. McGill, Trey Demler and Dwayne Pecosky.

We still haven’t seen how this group has panned out, but it already has a mixed bag. Binns already left the program, while McGill saw the field often as a wide receiver and kick returner as a true freshman.

The Rivals rankings are worth noting as a jumping-off point, but it’s important to remember the Sioux have had more success with walk-ons and local talent than big-time transfers or highly touted recruits.

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I’ll pile on the excessive celebration hate

I realize this is a little late to the party, but I’ll give the dead horse another boot.

Before the beginning of the college football bowl season, I was laughing about the ridiculousness of the name of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the perfect ammunition for the too-many-bowls lamenter.

After the Pinstripe Bowl, I’m laughing at the irony of the name.

Watch the youtube video, and you’ll know why the pinstripes botched the Pinstripe Bowl and continued the trend of outrageous excessive celebration calls at the NCAA and NFL levels.

I’ll keep the play-by-play to the bare bones. Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn caught a 30-yard touchdown pass with 1:13 left in the fourth quarter to cut Syracuse’s lead to 36-34.

 As Hilburn broke free into the end zone, he saluted the Yankee Stadium crowd in New York with what’s been dubbed a bronx salute. If you saw Terrell Davis and the Denver Broncos in the 1990s, it’s the same thing.

 Hilburn was flagged for ‘excessive celebration’.

 Hilburn didn’t get in the face of his opponent, he didn’t pound his chest or dunk the ball on the goalpost. He saluted the crowd. Briefly, at that.

 As a result, K-State had to attempt the potential game-tying 2-point conversion from 18 yards out after the 15-yard enforcement. Predictably, KSU QB Carson Coffman’s pass fell incomplete.

 If the initial call on the field wasn’t poorly handled enough, the NCAA came out with the icing for the cake in the days following. Dave Parry, NCAA’s national coordinator of officials, told media that the call was correct, citing that a penalty is required when one “brings attention to yourself.”

 Hmm. You know what other kind of celebration “brings attention to yourself”? Oh, just them all. The fist pump. The first down signal. The safety celebration every defensive player seemingly loves to give. If anyone still raises the roof, I suppose that brings attention to yourself, too. The Daunte Culpepper getting your roll on celebration or the Tecmo Super Bowl run-into-an-offensive-lineman-who-lifts-you-up celebration? Yep, attention-seekers.

 This isn’t the only time the absurdity of a football league’s “excessive celebration” penalty has come into the national spotlight this season.

 In the NFL in October, Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Marc Colombo was penalized 15 yards after teammate Jason Witten scored a touchdown and allowed Colombo to spike the ball in the end zone. After the spike, Witten and Colombo chest-bumped. Colombo, the light-footed athlete that he is, accidentally did a backwards somersault. He received an excessive celebration penalty, because the NFL rulebook states that players can’t go to the ground to celebrate a play.

 It’s why Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen was told earlier this year that he can’t go to one knee to do his signature calf-roping celebration. He still does the celebration, just gets in a crouch. Whew, thank goodness the NFL nipped that in the bud, right?

 How about some common sense.

 Here’s the rule the NCAA pointed to after the K-State fiasco.

 Make sure you push up your spectacles before reading this one. Rule 9-2-1d: “Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed action by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself or themselves.”

 Hilburn’s salute wasn’t delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed. The kid was being a kid. I don’t want to watch football robots.

 Some people like to quote Vince Lombardi who said “Next time you make it in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

 Well, you know what? Hilburn had never been there before. The senior scored his second career touchdown in his first-ever bowl game.

 I can understand those who don’t want to see KeyShawn Johnson rip off his helmet and whip it out the back of the end zone. I don’t really need to see Joe Horn stash a cell phone in the goalpost padding or watch Terrell Owens pull a sharpie from his sock. I’ll even go as far as to say, although funny, maybe John Randle shouldn’t get on all fours after a sack and mimic a dog peeing on a fire hydrant (pains me to say).

 But as more of these not-so-excessive excessive celebration penalties get called, I’m starting to say we go back to days of the old Miami Hurricanes.

 ”If you don’t like us dancing, don’t let us get in the end zone.”

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Sioux football schedule draws criticism

When the UND athletic department emailed out the official release of the 2011 Sioux football schedule, the headline read ‘North Dakota football fans treated to six-game home package in 2011′.

Treat? Sioux fans are crying trick.

The angst comes from a schedule that features three games against opponents either at the NAIA level or freshly transferring out of the NAIA and a season opener against a non-scholarship Division I school.

The fury over the schedule is understandable. It’s certainly not pretty.

It’s also not catastrophic. If there was no Big Sky on the horizon, flipping cars and rioting in the streets would be reasonable. The good news for the school and its fans is that this is the final year of an unattractive slate. In 2012, the Sioux will finally have the luxury of filling out a full conference schedule as a member of the Big Sky Conference.

If you take a quick read of fan reaction via siouxsports.com, UND athletic director Brian Faison and the athletic department as a whole are coming under considerable fire.

Personally, I can’t pretend to know the rigors of scheduling for a Division I independent with a patchwork five-team make-believe conference. If the schedulers-that-be say nobody attractive wants to come here in the heart of conference season, I’ll buy that. 

So to me, Sioux fans are misdirecting their hate. They should concerned with two things with the 2011 schedule: 1. Will it put butts in the seats and make some money; 2. Will it prepare UND for 2012, a season the program has been building for during the entire transition.

Attendance will be tied to performance on the field. Sioux fans will support a winner, or at least one showing exceptional promise against FBS opponents. If UND shows signs of life against Idaho and Fresno State, the Sept. 24 game against Black Hills State won’t be a disaster.

But if the Sioux are unimpressive in the season opener against Drake and post back-to-back 45-0 beatdowns against Fresno and Idaho, those contests against Black Hills State, Montana Western and Sioux Falls are going to have tumbleweed and crickets aplenty.

What would seem to be even more concerning is the schedule’s ability to prepare the Sioux for a full-on Big Sky schedule in 2012. If things go as expected (I’m stretching a little bit here to make a point), there are six games on the 11-game 2011 slate that won’t be within 20 points. That’s going to make the 2012 schedule a real smack in the face.

And there’s actually a third angle Sioux fans need to worry over: 2009 UND vs. Sioux Falls Version 2.0.

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If anyone still needed a reminder why these games need to happen…

When 10,000 fans show up at the Fargodome on Saturday to watch UND and NDSU renew their rivalry for the first time in a major sport, it should be a wake-up call to administrators that these rivalry games need to be scheduled in every sport, every year.

It doesn’t matter whether UND or NDSU needs the game more. It doesn’t matter how bitter the breakup was for the two schools when NDSU first made the move to Division I. (After all, we’re talking about two pretty revamped administrations.)

What matters is that 10k-plus want to see a dog of a game. The Sioux will play the Bison in a nonconference tilt that pits a team 305th in RPI against a team ranked 57th. A record-breaking crowd wants to watch a game not many in the stands think will be close.

It all seems so simple. How many athletic departments have the luxury of scheduling a nonconference game that will probably be the second-most attended basketball game in the history of the state of North Dakota. (No. 1 being Kansas vs. UND in 2001 at the REA)?

When UND announced its move to join the Big Sky Conference, NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said renewing the rivalry between the Sioux and the Bison was probably on UND’s back burner at the time, considering all of the rigmarole involved in joining a new conference.

I’m pretty sure no one at UND saw that as the case. Why then aren’t the Sioux and Bison playing in women’s basketball? Why can’t some setup be concocted for football to work?

No matter what’s to be said about the politics of scheduling, everyone needs a moneymaker. That’s not even getting into the collatoral money-making involved, with the amount of buzz and interest generated by the games.

All you seem to hear lately about the rivalry is ‘who needs the game more?’ Well, you could say every college athletic department in the country needs this kind of game.

Just yesterday, I was reading this column on ESPN.com, which reads: “Recently the NCAA reported that only 14 Division I-A programs clear a profit, while no college or university in the United States has an athletic department that is financially self-sustaining. Nobody in Division I — not Alabama, not Auburn, not Oklahoma, nobody — has an athletic department that pays its own way.”

So we could all use the money. So let’s put petty grudges aside, or any other insignificant holdup, and get these games in the books.

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NCAA needs to lead moral upheaval, not Heisman voters

Last week, one of the 926 ballots for the 2010 Heisman Trophy award arrived at my mailbox.

With a Dec. 6 deadline, voters usually spend this time making sure they watch and critique the top candidates as they play in meaningful late-November games.

Not this year. This year, voters are checking the news wire to find the latest nugget on the ballooning scandal(s?) of the clear on-the-field favorite, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

Investigators of many realms are looking into Newton’s involvement in a pay-for-play allegation that he was shopped to Mississippi State for a six-figure amount during the recruitment process. In addition, there are reports that Newton left the University of Florida in 2008 because of three instances of academic cheating.

So the dilemma is not whether Newton is the best player in college football. It’s pretty safe to say that’s the accepted belief around the country.

The predicament is in the voter’s role as a moral trailblazer.

One voter summed the line of thinking in this way: “Sooner or later, we have to send a message about what’s right and what’s wrong,” Chuck Hathcock, the sports editor of the Grenada Star in Mississippi, said. “People tell me that the kinds of things we’re hearing about with Cam Newton are just part of college football now. But I say it’s not a part of college football, and if it is, we need to stop it.”

That may be all quite noble in theory. I just find that path flawed.

The Heisman trophy voters should not be the ones grabbing the flaming torch and leading the mob to take on the morally corrupt college football super stars. It isn’t our message to send.

I understand the moral-responsibility feeling. It comes from the vacant 2005 Heisman trophy that went to Reggie Bush, which was eventually returned after it was learned he and his family received nearly $300,000 in gifts and money from a sports agent.

So you say you don’t want a Reggie Bush Fiasco again? Well, what’s a voter to do this year? Say don’t vote for Cam Newton. Ok, the second best player? A case could be made that’s Oregon’s LaMichael James.

James, the same player who was arrested in Februrary on a domestic violence charge. The same player who the NCAA investigated after he swapped his 2000 Mustang for a 2003 Range Rover, with the little help from his uncle. OK, when the ‘uncle’ was pushed for further details, it’s discovered he’s just a ‘family friend’. But he’s not an agent, so the NCAA says its all on the up and up.

I’m not incriminating James. I’m saying if I can’t vote for Cam Newton because he’s engulfed in a crapstorm of allegations and I can’t vote for James because he’s got some sketchy characteristics, I’m starting to get pretty far down the ladder. Do we vote the squeaky-clean Boise State standout every year?

It’s rather obvious to say, but the NCAA should be in charge of squelching the apparent rampant wrongdoings amongst its elite players. It’s fostered an atmosphere that has Heisman voters doing more background checks than stats analysis. We’re looking at what cars they’re driving and not what kind of offense they’re operating.

Fault lies in years of NCAA incompetence. Heisman voters, although cute in theory, can’t put out that fire.

O.J. Simpson earned his Heisman on the field. So did Johnny Rodgers (At 18, was at the wheel of a gas station robbery getaway car) and Billy Cannon (counterfeiting) and Billy Sims (failure to pay child support).

Let’s let this Heisman be decided on the field. Let’s leave it up to the NCAA to make sure we don’t have another tainted pool of candidates in the future.

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Sioux-Badgers basketball thoughts

After UND’s 85-53 loss to Wisconsin on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, it’s pretty clear this team is still a ways away from pulling off an upset of a nationally ranked opponent.

On the other hand, the Badgers are going to make a lot of teams look bad this season. The versatility of their posts is incredible. Jon Leuer, the preseason all-Big Ten selection, is 6-foot-10 and might be Wisconsin’s best perimeter shooter. The Sioux had no match for that kind of size and athleticism.

UND’s youth was also evident. Junior Patrick Mitchell, at times, appeared to be the only confident player on the floor for the Sioux. UND’s uber-athletic freshman, Troy Huff, played confident offensively, as well, but almost to a fault. Huff forced a number of shots, especially in the first half. On the other hand, Huff remained effective and led the Sioux in points and drew praise from Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan in the postgame press conference. Huff may have been unable to beat Big Ten defenders right now, but you could definitely see that he’s going to be a handful for Great West Conference opponents. Huff’s explosiveness is unmatched in recent Sioux history.

UND’s offense this season revolves around pick-and-rolls on the perimeter and the ability of Sioux guards to drive to the basket, draw defenders and kick to the open shooter. The problem against Wisconsin was that the Badger defenders were so strong in one-on-one situations. Sioux dribblers couldn’t drive past their defenders, preventing any need for help defense and therefore eliminating any kick-out passing options.

UND’s game against Sacramento State on Friday will be a much greater barometer for this season. The Hornets of the Big Sky are also young and are coming off seasons of two wins in 2008-09 and nine wins in 2009-10.

Just as you have to take UND’s blowout win against Waldorf College with a grain of salt, you also have to be tempered in reaction to a blowout loss to No. 25 Wisconsin. We’ll know much more come Friday.

And yes, I realize the top of my blog now has a picture of a guy walking into the woods. That header reflects a blog with far deeper thoughts than mine possesses, so I’ll get around to changing that eventually.

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Sorting out USD swap

On Thursday, the University of South Dakota made it official, announcing it will spurn the Big Sky Conference and UND for a home in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Is it surprising? Certainly.

Is it disastrous to UND? Certainly not.

Lots has been discussed in the past 24 hours about the ramifications of such a move. What is being lost in the discussion is this: What was most appealing about the Big Sky Conference to UND yesterday is still true today.

It still affords football a stable home. It still provides automatic qualifying status for the postseason. It still gives Sioux coaches firepower on the recruiting trail.

UND’s vision of the Big Sky is still strong. Perhaps how some Big Sky members view UND sans USD is a little less appealing, but that’s not a problem for UND exactly.

You can’t blame USD for making the move it did. Anyone in a similar position would have. UND was never in that position.

MVFC commissioner Patti Viverito told the  Associated Press that once she found out that UND and USD weren’t a package deal, that she made a buzzer-beating move to woo USD in an effort to restrengthen FCS football in the Midwest.

When UND announced its move to the Big Sky, the MVFC had made no movement on their stance opposing expansion from their nine-team league. And the idea that UND hastily accepted this BSC offer and didn’t have the patience and vision to see this opportunity is crazy.

Not to take credit away from USD, but it got a little lucky while its Board of Regents mulled whether the BSC was worth a hefty buyout clause in the Summit. USD never used the Big Sky as leverage. It’s a fun storyline and a great talking point. It just didn’t happen. The MVFC offer fell in their lap and it turned out to be a great opportunity.

It was a smart move on Viverito’s part, too. MVFC and the Summit would have been very thin.

USD’s move also has nothing to do with renewing or rejecting rivalries. Reports speaking to the rivalry aspect of this are a bit puzzling.

The maintenance of a rivalry has never hinged on conference affiliation. Look all over the country. I think Florida-Florida State and Iowa-Iowa State are doing just fine.

In fact, you could argue being in separate conferences is beneficial to rivalry schools. Instead of scheduling a ho-hum nonconference tilt, you can replace that with a money-maker against the Bison.

If the Sioux and Bison rivalries fail to continue it will have more to do with lingering bad feelings from the first time these two split up almost 10 years ago when the Bison went Division I. But keep in mind, the Sioux have found plenty of ways to schedule NDSU and SDSU in a number of sports while competing in the Great West and Summit, respectively.

Long story short — USD has put itself in a fantastic position. UND did, too. Success of the latter wasn’t so directly tied to the moves of the former.

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Big Sky leftovers, UND WBB opener

The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center was a busy place yesterday.

First, came the biggest news: UND’s inclusion into the Big Sky Conference.

There’s not much to say to defend UND’s move to the Big Sky. It was a no-brainer. You have to take care of your football program and the Summit League didn’t allow that opportunity. This era of college athletics is no time for patience to allow a Missouri Valley/Summit football partnership to develop. It’s as simple as that.

South Dakota football coach Ed Meierkort said it best in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader today: “Independent football is the same as the death penalty.”

USD didn’t announce its move to the Big Sky on Monday, although it appears the move is in its final stages. The Big Sky has signed off on it and apparently the Coyotes athletic department has signed off on it. It’s awaiting the approval of the board of regents, which, as I take it, is the South Dakota equivalent to the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education.

As far as what this might mean to the Dakota rivalries between UND-NDSU and USD-SDSU, that shouldn’t be a major issue as I see it. They’re already scheduled to play in most sports this season, except football. Without looking up all of the matchups, baseball, soccer and volleyball all come to mind as programs that have played recently and men’s basketball is on the way. The only hangup is football. But UND reiterated yesterday that Bison-Sioux football can happen in different leagues. There are examples all over the country of rivals playing in separate leagues. My opinion? Sioux-Bison football will happen. It’s just a matter of time. Past dramas will eventually be put to rest under new administrations.

Now on to the second action at the Betty yesterday. The Sioux women’s basketball team opened the season with an exhibition against Jamestown College. With the Big Sky craziness lately, I never had a chance to blog about media day, so I’ll throw out some first impressions now.

UND started against the Jimmies with Charnay Mothershed, Nicole Smart, Mallory Youngblut, Corey Lof and Katie Houdek.

Coaches and players raved at media day about the improvements of Houdek, a Grafton, N.D., native. She had eight points and three rebounds against Jamestown College. After the game, Roebuck said she’s been practicing like the team’s second-best player and she just needs to translate that into the game now.

I think Houdek will be challenged, though, to keep her starting spot because 6-foot-4 freshman Allyssa Wall was impressive. She had 13 points and 10 boards against JC. She was strong and confident. Looks to me like she’ll see a lot of minutes this year.

Another impressive freshman was Megan Lauck, who had six points and six rebounds last night. At 6-1, Lauck will create matchup problems at the wing.

Roebuck indicated at media day that freshmen Madi Buck, Siri Burck, Emily Evers and Kylie Vatthauer will all redshirt.

Roebuck’s team has nine newcomers, so it’ll take some time, but the Sioux looked like a team that will compete again for a Great West Conference title.

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Big Sky news heats up

We’re less than a week away from Summit League officials arriving at UND for an official site visit — often the final step before a conference offer is extended.

Yet, news of Big Sky expansion dominated the news yesterday.

It seems to me that the ball is in UND’s and USD’s (and I suppose SUU’s) court when it comes to joining the Big Sky, even though when I phrased it that way to UND athletic director Brian Faison, he was adamant that that was not the case. But it seems clear to me that the Big Sky has expressed its desire to add UND, USD and SUU to become a 12-team league for all sports and a 14-team league for football.

Faison, though, has probably been around these sticky conference situations long enough to be very guarded in his comments.

However, there are some telling comments from others:

Doug Fullerton regarding USD:

“They need to look at their obligations and their situation,” Fullerton said Monday night. “The ball is in their court now. They will have to get back to us and let us know where they feel like they are. There is no deadline, but we’d like to move forward soon. The interest here is absolutely real and if a deal would get done, that would be when a formal application would come about.”

Fullerton on UND:

“That discussion is ongoing. There’s no offer and nothing to report. A lot of it is really going to depend on what the University of North Dakota wants to do. Some of it depends on (UND President Robert Kelley) and ‘what’s your vision of you and your future?’”

USD AD David Sayler:

“There is no option of football-only,” Sayler said while attending Summit League meetings in Indianapolis. “The consideration by the Big Sky is for all sports. We are continuing a dialogue – a very good dialogue – with them at this time.”

Faison also mentioned that UND will “express our particular interest” after the conclusion of the Summit meetings.

Fullerton mentioned that UND president Robert Kelley was out of the country, and I originally thought that might be holding up talks. I guess it still might be, but Faison said he has been in contact with Kelley, although Faison said he had to navigate an interesting conversation with a Chinese-speaking operator.  

Whatever happens, will happen in the next two weeks. It makes for an interesting time.

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South Dakota AD talks football conferences

Jeremy Hoeck of the Yankton Press and Dakotan posted this interview to his twitter account this afternoon. If you’re too lazy to watch the short clip, I’ll pull out the highlights

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pTYHxgwqk0

  • USD AD David Sayler, newly appointed, talked to Summit commissioner Tom Douple this morning.
  • “I’m very committed to the Summit League in terms of what they’re trying to do with the Missouri Valley in some semblance of a conference that splits into two divisions or whatever it might be,” Sayler said. “The Summit has moved up its site visit to North Dakota by a couple of weeks. It’s earlier than planned  and some of that is to get North Dakota into the league in order to have serious discussions with the Valley. Right now, there’s not a third team to approach the Valley with and hopefully North Dakota will be that team and Southern Utah will stay and that will be the group we move forward with.”
  • Sayler said he and Faison had breakfast together in Yankton before the UND and USD football game. The two talked about staying committed to each other.
  • Sayler also essentially says he’s trying to sort the truth from the bull when it comes to conferences. “No one’s really telling the truth totally,” he said. “There are lots of agendas out there.”
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