Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Stress test

The surprising resignation of UNLV basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour for stress-related health reasons has the school and its boosters scrambling for a successor. Finding a coach with the bona fides to meet the expectations of the boosters in advance who can then deliver a top-tier program on the court may be impossible. Spoon did a fine job restoring the program -- if not to prominence at least to respectability. After all, when he took over, the team was under NCAA sanctions and scholarship limits, and now the program appears to be clean for the first time ever. And each of his two teams won 20+ games. But fans who think a return to the glory years of Tark and the Shark Tank are a mere hire away are fooling themselves.

Listen, the Mountain West Conference is awful. It was lucky beyond belief to have landed and kept coaches of the caliber of Utah's Rick Majerus (who also resigned earlier this year for health reasons) and Jerry Tarkanian. The schools aren't good enough to attract the sort of talent who would normally go for a top-flight program. They don't offer anything approaching the academic and big-time college sports experience you get at schools like Stanford, Duke, Cal, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA, Notre Dame, Michigan. Nor do they offer the sort of immersion in campus life you get at the next tier of schools: Wisconsin, Miami, Florida State, Ohio State, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, NC State. Instead, you're competing with other "mid-major" schools -- the Louisvilles, Daytons, Memphises, Charlottes. And the schedules you play will reflect that. You may be able to convince a school from a major conference to play you once or twice a year, but chances are, it'll be a second-tier program in that conference (Missouri, Cal). Most of the time, you'll play your conference foes and a bunch of other mid-level schools, or worse. That doesn't get you on national TV often; nor does it make an NCAA berth easy to obtain. So the top recruits, unless they're local (see Utah, BYU, who competed for the Mormon talent pool), or have academic or other off-the-court concerns, will typically pass you by. (Another reason Majerus's record is so astounding; at one point, Dean Smith had hopes Carolina would name Majerus his successor. Looking back, we Tar Heels are lucky that didn't happen.)

That's also most likely why, before Spoonhour was hired, big names such as Rick Pitino and Bob Knight demurred. Why not instead choose a school with Louisville's storied traditions, or try to build a legacy at an unknown program (Texas Tech) in a monster conference?

Some boosters talk of luring Steve Lavin or Lon Krueger, currently out of coaching, to UNLV. Could happen. According to my neighbor Rich, who's a UCLA fanatic, Lavin would be a mistake. He's a latter-day Bobby Cremins: Great recruiter who can't teach his way out of a wet paper bag; players never improved under his tutelage. Krueger might be an excellent hire, if he'd take the job. But if I were involved in the selection process, I'd look for a young guy from a mid-mid major who's successfully dealt with those recruiting challenges and might be willing to stay for a number of years as he builds his own program. (Carolina bias: What about Jeff Lebo at Tennessee-Chattanooga?) Another option would be to pluck a top assistant from a top program and let him build a reputation here. (Coach K has several on his bench, but it's unlikely the locals would ever welcome a Dukie; Rebel fans have memories longer than elephants). My guess is, if the university picks a big name, he'll either flounder and be forced out after a handful of seasons ... or he'll succeed and take a better job after a handful of seasons.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Moneyball goes Hollywood

If you're a Dodger fan (I'm not), the team's hiring of Paul DePodesta as general manager should be cause for celebration. DePodesta, as this Rob Neyer column suggests, was the brains behind the wildly successful Oakland front office the past few years, when the team consistently made the postseason, even though it had one of the sport's smaller payrolls. (Take that, Mr. Steinbrenner.)

DePodesta and his former boss, Billy Beane, are honor students from the Bill James school -- where numbers rather than hunches (provided by tobacco-chewing scouts) offer the best measure of on-field talent. Beane won with tightwad owners; fellow sabremetrician GM Theo Epstein won at Boston with deep pockets; DePodesta should also have a liberal budget in L.A.

In a way, DePodesta is the latest extension of the longtime Dodger tradition launched more than a half-century ago by Branch Rickey, who ran the sport's first "scientific" front office. DePodesta may not deliver the brass ring right away, but one thing is certain: While he's in charge, you'll never again see speedy Dominican middle infielders who get on base less than 30 percent of the time using up outs at the top of the Dodgers' order.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Da trade

So A-Rod's going to the Yankees. As a card-carrying Yankee-hater who really likes a lot of the players on that club, I actually think this deal is pretty cool. I mean, only baseball would allow this sort of transaction to take place -- allowing the game's highest-paid player, who may end up being the best at any position of all time, in the prime of his career, to go to the team with the biggest payroll. This could happen in no other major professional sport. The all-consuming obsession for "parity" shared by basketball and football -- and the accompanying necessity for salary caps to make that happen -- is ruining those sports, leading to the constant roster churning which causes fans, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, to "root for laundry."

Not in baseball. If The Boss wants to spend six times as much in player salaries as the owners of the Brewers or the Pirates, so be it. And the beauty part is, there's no guarantee the Yankees will actually win anything, even with A-Rod on the hot corner.

This column by the AP's Paul Hagen points out some of the Yanks' potential pitfalls. Here's my take: The Yankees have an aging, inflexible roster. Aside from second base, where the job is wide open, and third (A-Rod's 28), by the All-Star break, the Yankees will start someone who's 30 or older at every position. Three starters will be on the far side of 35. The catcher will be 33. So will the first baseman, who hasn't played defense regularly in years. The bench is suspect, at best. The minor leagues are thin on prospects. And as Hagen points out, the pitching staff has undergone a major transformation (but I do like Vasquez a lot).

Since the typical position player's physical skills start to decline about age 30 (according to Bill James), the Yanks are playing with fire. They'd better win this year.

Misty-eyed moment

Driving in to work today, XM's Americana station was broadcasting a tribute to June Carter Cash, who died May 15 last year, exactly one month before my dad passed on. One of the songs played was "Church in the Wildwood," from her final (Grammy-winning) recording Wildwood Flower. The song happens to be one of Dad's favorites ... the choir at the Wilkesboro United Methodist Church sang it at his funeral last June. It's been a week to reminisce. My mom passed away 15 years ago last week, and last week Lola and I enjoyed a brief visit from two of my best friends from Chapel Hill -- poker buddies from way back -- and some of their family members, too.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Weasel alert

A story in today's Review-Journal reports that, surprise, surprise, the record-setting, $833-million tax increase enacted by last year's Legislature is causing banks and small businesses to scramble. Non-banking businesses are chafing at the 0.7 percent payroll tax (which replaces the $100 annual per-employee "head tax"). Banks are reeling from both the new 2 percent payroll tax and the new $7,000 per-branch licensing fee. Hit particularly hard are Nevada's smaller, private banks, some of which may have to lay off employees or close branches in the more-isolated hamlets in the state.

While no one who lives in this universe should be shocked, the response of pro-tax Democrats (sorry, I repeat myself) to the news is downright disgusting. Assembly Taxation Committee Chairman David Goldwater and Senate Minority Leader Dina "Cross of Gold" Titus are feeling the pain of hard-hit businesses ... a little. Both lawmakers say the taxes they preferred would have hurt much less -- but that if companies want to gripe about the structure of the tax code, they should look in the mirror: "(W)e fought like crazy to keep (the payroll tax) out, but it's what the businesses wanted," Goldwater mewled, noting that the state's nongaming businesses screamed to high heaven about imposing an alternative, a gross-receipts tax. "They got what they wanted, and now they're complaining about it." Titus said that if businesses would have lined up in lockstep with the big casinos and backed the GRT, they'd have nothing to complain about.

Wait a minute. If a robber holds a gun to your head, demanding your money or your life, and offers alternative payment plans, you'll pick the one that's less onerous, even though you really don't "want" either option. It took one regular and two special sessions of the Legislature to jam this tax package through, and the notion that any business owner eagerly embraced the final plan is pure fantasy.

Asserting that the GRT would be the only tax that would have applied to businesses is also a lie. Kenny Guinn's initial proposal would have tripled the head tax to $300 a year, which would have more thoroughly pummeled companies that pay modest wages. (The payroll tax was suggested by business groups as a way to ease that tax bite.) The tripling would have amounted to a 2.3 percent payroll tax on businesses that pay $6.25 an hour. You have to offer a salary of $43,000 a year, or roughly double the average pay statewide, before a $300 head tax would be less burdensome than a 0.7 percent payroll tax.

The final outrage is that the entire tax hike was unnecessary, as Assemblyman Bob Beers and anti-tax activists pointed out. Before the session convened, revenues were expected to grow by more than $300 million over the budget cycle. Those projections have since been scrapped, as taxes are flowing at a higher-than-expected rate into state and local coffers. But, of course, the political establishment has no interest in taking a mulligan and repealing the entire lot.

Meet the principals

Today's R-J also includes interesting and informative profiles of Southern Nevada's three most prominent critics of expansive government: Knight Allen, the somewhat reclusive "Jeffersonian Democrat" who's constantly armed with facts and figures underscoring official profligacy and abuses of power; Dan Burdish, the openly gay, self-described GOP bomb-thrower who's a relentless critic of big-spending Republicans and a thorn in the side of the religious right; and George Harris, the publicity-hungry Republican crusader whose e-mail fusillades (which can play fast and loose with the facts) annoy friend and foe alike. The package is well-done and, from my limited contacts with all three, seems to capture them all fairly. It's a useful way to discover what makes these men tick.

Also ...

Las Vegas Councilwoman Lynette Boggs McDonald offers her views on the debate over public employees serving in the Nevada Legislature. Money quote:

The only successful arguments to declare the separation of powers position moot is to argue either that the Nevada Constitution does not apply to local governments or its employees or that city employees are somehow members of the legislative branch.

Read it here.