Monday, March 17, 2008

1992-1996: When College Sports In Boston Actually Mattered

It's bracket time and of course there are no Boston area schools represented in the field this year. There is really no need to delve into why Boston is not a major college sports town, but I would like to look back a bit. If you recall, for a brief time period in the early to mid 1990's, Boston and Massachusetts really did matter on the college scene. Of course it is no coincidence that that time just happen to coincide with the time when Tom Coughlin was coaching BC's football team, Jim O'Brien was coaching their hoops team and John Calipari was the man on the sidelines for UMASS' basketball squad. And then all of those guys left for better jobs, greener pastures, more cash, whatever and things have never really been the same. Let's look back though because I still have vivid memories of the marquis games and teams from that era.

You all remember the Christian Laetner game right? Well that almost never happened as Kentucky almost blew a monster first half lead to UMass. I remember going into that game thinking there was no way that UMass could hang with Kentucky because they were "Kentucky" after all and UMass was UMass. That was pretty much dead-on for the entire first half. And then Michael Williams drilled a desperation heave heading into the lockerroom and I remember telling my dad that that was going to be a momentum changer for the second half. Well it was and UMass made a game of it, but ultimately Kentucky won. Still though, this was the game that put UMass and John Calipari on the map.

The Notre Dam upset. 'Nuff said. This was a defining game of my childhood. Not only did BC go on the road to beat Notre Dame (back when ND was relevant), but they beat Notre Dame as Notre Dame was coming off a stunning upset victory of their own. (At Florida State in the peak of the Charlie Ward Era who for my money is still the most dominant college football player I have ever seen system QB or not.) And not only did BC pull out this victory, but they pulled out the victory by nailing a field goal as time expired after blowing a massive halftime lead. There was even a fortuitious dropped interception by Notre Dame on the game winning drive which would have sealed victory for the Irish - kind of like what happened with Asante...nevermind, I don't want to rehash. This was a huge deal at the time because back then, Boston teams did not win. Back then Boston teams blew huge halftime leads as road underdogs to rip the hearts out of their fans. That is how it worked then. The Red Sox had been to the playoffs twice and got swept both times since the Buckner Game, the Pats were in Year One of Bledsoe/Parcells and just learning how to not be a 1-4 win team each year, the Celtics were reeling from the death of Reggie Lewis and en route to becoming more or less irrelevant for the next almost 15 years, and while the Bruins still had my main man Cam Neely and were consistently good they still were not winning anything and seemed to get upset in the playoffs every single year. Bottom line, this was not a good time for Boston sports and a road victory at the number 1 ranked team in the country which just so happened to be Notre Dame was a huge, huge, huge deal. I can't describe it any better than I just have so if you weren't there you'll just need to trust me.

The postscript to this story is that in typical BC fashion they went out the next week and lost to West Virginia. Granted WVU was a top team that year, but they were on the doorstep of being a title contender and botched it. After the season, Tom Coughlin left to coach the Jaguars and since then BC has pretty consistently been an avergage to slightly above average team that could never win the big game or beat the name school. (And for the record I don't count the scrub Bowl Games they play in every year as "Big Games".)

This year was all about the tournament. After Joe Smith destroyed UMass to lead Maryland to a second round upset over them on a Saturday I felt that my local enjoyment of the tournament was shot as BC was certain to get slaughtered on Sunday by defending champs UNC. I was so distraught and flying off the handle so horrifically during the UMass game that my parents were legitimately worried. Scared too I think. And then BC with greats like Billy Curley, Howard Eisley, and the plus sized Danye Abrams pulled off the stunner the next day and went all the way to the Elite 8 where they got bounced by Florida and the loathesome Andrew Declerq but the lovable Dmitri Hill. You may remember him as Da Meathook. My rage towards Andrew Declerq never subsided from that game and I seethed every time Tommy Heinson lauded him for one of his hustle plays during his stint a few years later with the Celtics.

The other marquis college hoops game of this calendar year came during the next season when UMass played top ranked Arkansas at the start of the season in a primetime, Friday night ESPN game and absolutely destroyed them. It was all about TV Lou Roe.

After Oklahoma State and Big Country Bryant Reeves upset Tim Duncan and Wake Forest (the 1 seed in their bracket) it looked like UMass had a cakewalk to the Final Four. In fact, I even remember using that exact term when discussing this with my friends around that time. I mean Big Country couldn't handle Marcus Camby right? We couldn't have an awkward and ugly white big man undercut our local team's trip to the Final Four for a second year in a row right? Wrong of course. Bryant Freakin' Reeves.

Three funny things about Bryant Reeves though...
1) He was the Vancouver, now Memphis Grizzlies first ever draft pick in 1995.
2) He briefly held the scoring record for a pro game at the Fleet Center for a 41 spot he put on the C's in 1998. I say this mainly because I remember vividly watching the game where Iverson eclipsed him out of the record book as Tommy Heinson cackled in delight. I think his exact words were something like, "I'm so glad that this record finally belongs to a real player". Gotta love T.
3) Obviously his NBA career was a bust - item 2 not included - but you really can't crush Vancouver for the pick too much because check out the results from that draft. KG and Rasheed excluded, that was an awful draft. I mean Cherokee Parks was the 12th overall pick for chrissakes.

OK, next basketball season now. You remember the game. UMass vs. Kentucky. Primetime on ESPN. Kentucky jumps out to a 15-0 lead or something like that. UMass turns the tables and blitzes them the rest of the game. That starts their brief flirtation with an undefeated season which ends at the hands of Alexander Kuhl and GW.

Now here are some things that I bet most people who remember that team can tell you about them at the drop of a hat:

1) Marcus Camby won every major college POY award that year.
2) Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, the starting gaurds were both born on the same day in Puerto Rico.
3) Dante Bright was the second best player on the team.
4) Dana Dingle was loved by Dick Vitale because he would riff incoherently off of "Dingle" whenever he did something of remote substance on the court.

Same UMass team. I've already mentioned the GW loss. Now I want to mention their loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals AKA the Final Four. A few thoughts:

1) The great travesty of the tournament that year was that UMass and Kentucky were wire-to-wire the two best teams in the country and the brackets were set up so that they could not meet in the finals. Instead they were on a crash-course to meet in the semi-finals so everybody knew in their heart of hearts that the winner of that game was going to be the National Champ and the loser was the de facto runner up. In other words, it was exactly how people felt about the NFC Championship Game during the early and mid 1990s because whomever emerged from the Dallas/Green Bay/San Fran troika was inevitably going to trounce Buffalo in the Super Bowl.

2) Despite the early season victory over Kentucky I don't know a single person that actually felt confident with UMass' chances. UMass was one of those teams that would just squeak by their opponents while that loaded UK team (Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer) would absolutely steamroll them.

3) At the time, this was probably the biggest Boston sporting event of that decade to date and overall would probably only be eclipsed by the Patriots Super Bowl appearance in 1997 and Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS (Pedro v. Clemens).

In short, the game was a huge deal. UMass lost and it was never really that close despite a brief run by UMass in the second half. And with that the college sports scene in the area pretty much died. Marcus Camby skipped his senior year to enter the NBA draft and John Calipari left UMass for the Nets. I guess you could say that this was more a Mortal Kombat style fatality move to college sports in the area than an actual death. Not only did Calipari's exit bring about an abrupt end to UMass' brief run as a college basketball powerhouse, but Rick Pitino also walked through that door to run the Celtics into the ground. I'd say that had as much of a negative effect on killing the college sports scene in the area as anything else. We all bought into the hype of the slick talking, used car salesman uber-college coach and thought that he could turn the Celtics around. Of course he did not and left in disgrace after three and a half years.

These days you need the Rick Pitinos and John Caliparis of the world to bring your college programs to the next level and I really don't see the sporting community of Boston putting up with another one of their type even if it means making college sports in the area relevant again. It was great while it lasted and it's great to look back on but right now I think I'll take things the way that they are.

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