GUNS OF JANUARY
Although almost everyone knows that the new U.S. Football League exists, nobody is quite sure yet just how genuine it is. Signing up George Allen as coach of the Chicago Blitz bolstered the league's credibility, but the fact that two USFL teams still didn't have coaches when the league held its first college draft last week kept things a bit on the dreamworld side.
Even so, Allen gave the USFL a mighty push toward being recognized as a functioning, substantial sports enterprise three days after the draft when he signed the Blitz's No. 1 choice, Ohio State Running Back Tim Spencer. Spencer is an outstanding football player, the Big Ten's rushing leader in 1982. He's the kind of solid, if underpublicized, performer who might have been offered a substantial contract by an NFL team. Yet he signed instead with the USFL. Why would he take a chance with a new, untried league?
Well, making it, for one thing. It's not easy breaking into the NFL. But as a prize catch in the USFL Spencer will be given every chance to come through; the competition for jobs won't be as intense, and it seems likely that at least his first year's salary (he signed a four-year contract with the Blitz for a reported $800,000) is guaranteed.
Moreover, if he makes it big and plays out his four-year contract in the spring-and-summer USFL, he'll miss only three NFL seasons and, conceivably, could jump to the old league in 1986. Instead of signing now as a promising but unproved talent, he'd be signing then as an established player who could command much more advantageous terms. Also, because NFL teams will be reluctant to waste any of their 12 draft picks on players already signed by the USFL, Spencer might be a free agent who could sell his talents to the highest bidder.
Certainly, other top college players are aware of all this, and if there's to be a war between the NFL and the USFL, the signing of Spencer may be its Fort Sumter. In short, the new league has served notice that it's serious about going after and getting good players. Sure, putting good teams on the field doesn't guarantee crowds in the stands. For that, a struggling new league needs glamour: 60 years ago the NFL needed a Red Grange, 18 years ago the AFL needed a Joe Namath. The Spencer deal may be the first step toward a showdown a year from now—when an unsigned comet named Herschel Walker appears on the horizon.
THE HOCKEY GAP
The Russians have come. Again. For the ninth time in recent years, NHL players tested themselves against their Soviet counterparts, and for the seventh time, the NHLers failed. To many hockey fans, these meetings, especially when they take the form of midseason exhibition series as did the one concluded last week, have become a kind of pointless self-flagellation on the part of the North Americans. Not since the 1976 Canada Cup has a team of NHL players won a tournament or series against the Soviets; not one of the six midseason competitions has ended with the North Americans on top.
This year's format, pitting a Soviet all-star team against some of the best NHL clubs, appeared designed to favor the Soviets. That the well-oiled Big Red Machine won four of the six games played at Edmonton, Quebec, Montreal, Calgary, Minnesota and Philadelphia, then, was no surprise. The superiority of the Soviets isn't news.
The real lesson of this series was in its exposing the NHL's ballyhooed offensive firepower for the trigger-happy, defense-oblivious style of play that it is. The fact that the visitors outscored the home teams 24-11 demonstrated that NHL scoring, which has increased dramatically over the last five years and reached a 38-year high last season with an average of 8.03 goals per game, is less attributable to the good aim and quick wrists of today's players than to the dearth of defensive play in the league. The Soviets played six of the top seven offensive teams in the NHL, including the top two, Edmonton and Montreal. These teams have averaged 4.42 goals per game in the NHL this season; against the U.S.S.R., they scored only 1.83. All but four of the NHL's 11 goals came on power plays with a one-man advantage.
Granted, the Soviets' goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, who had back-to-back shutouts against Quebec and Montreal, was a factor. But the visitors' defense, which relentlessly impeded the NHLers' movement, repeatedly took the North Americans out of the action at center ice and denied them decent shots, showed that scoring can be controlled.
The point is, the art of defense isn't dead. It has simply been exiled to Russia.
NO HANGOVER SO FAR
Thoroughbred Trainer Merritt Buxton had a filly a few years ago that finished first or second in 12 of 24 starts during her three years of racing and won more than $150,000. A daughter of Three Martinis, she was named One Is Enough. Buxton liked One Is Enough so much that he purchased another Three Martinis offspring, this one a colt. "After I bought him," Buxton told Art Grace of The Miami News, "I went home and had a couple martinis. I figured why not name him Two's A Plenty?" Two's A Plenty went on to win 14 races and $282,653. Now Buxton has another Three Martinis colt. "After I bought this one," he said, "I got into the martinis again. After the third one, I decided I'd had enough. So we named this colt Three's The Limit."
Early in the 1981 NFL season, when the Cincinnati Bengals were just beginning their drive to the Super Bowl, a bunch of Bengal fans sitting in the red section—the least expensive seats—at Riverfront Stadium began an exultant, rhythmic cry: "Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?"
Denton Marr, program director of WEBN, a Cincinnati rock-'n'-roll station, was, as he says, "sitting in the cheap seats, as I normally do, when a dozen or so fans started the chant. I fell in love with it." The next day at the station, Marr rounded up several people, taught them the words and recorded them in full cry, using a multitrack setup to get the effect of the stadium crowd. WEBN then popped the tape on the air with NFL scores or at almost any mention of the Bengals. In no time, "Who dey" was all the rage in Cincy. The entire crowd at Riverfront began roaring it at games. The words were flashed on the scoreboard. "Who dey" was heard in bars, at concerts, even in Cincinnati's huge old Union Terminal, where one day a group gathered to listen to it echo from the building's lofty rotunda.
Naturally, "Who dey" was seen and heard at the Silverdome last January—in the form of buttons, T shirts, banners, hats and chant—when the Bengals lost to San Francisco in the Super Bowl. It was back this year, before and after the strike, and at the end of the regular season there was an added fillip. The Hudepohl Brewing Company, which makes a popular beer known locally as Hudy, tries to stay in tune with the city. In 1976, for example, it put out a special commemorative beer can to honor the Reds for sweeping the Yankees in the World Series. Because "Hudy" sounds a lot like "Who dey," last year Cincinnati beer drinkers wondered if Hudepohl would create a special Super Bowl can for the Bengals.
The brewery didn't, for various reasons, and when the football strike threatened to wipe out the 1982 season, the chance that Cincinnati would have a beer for the Bengals seemed to be slim or none. Then came the poststrike games, the revival of Bengal hopes and the realization that the team once again had a shot at the Super Bowl. Without fanfare Hudepohl worked up beer cans decorated with black-and-orange Bengal stripes and a tiger's head, printed "Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals" on the cans, called the brew Hu-dey and, just before New Year's, distributed the brew in the Cincinnati area. There was no advertising, no promotion, but the results were astonishing.
"The beer is flying off the shelves," says Lee Oberlag, a brewery representative. More than 15,000 cases (100% more cans than Hudepohl usually sells) were sold the first week, and as the Bengals headed into the playoffs, demand continued to outstrip supply. Last Sunday the Jets knocked off the Bengals 44-17 (page 24), but at the brewery folks couldn't be blamed for feeling that nobody was gonna beat dat Hudepohl.
EVER SEE A DREAM WALKING?
Commercials have been running on Philadelphia's WTAF-TV, the station that will telecast Phillie games, pushing season tickets. Players have appeared on the spots, and one that aired last week featured Pitcher Mike Krukow saying how great it has been for him to play baseball. One of his lines: "I'm living a dream."
So, apparently, is everybody else. A month ago Krukow was traded to San Francisco.
Ralph Sampson looms very large on the campus of the University of Virginia, and the pun, if it is one, is intended. Not only has the 7'4" Sampson led Virginia to the heights (it's hard to avoid these words) on the basketball court, but his presence also permeates the lovely environs of The Grounds in Charlottesville. RALPH bumper stickers are everywhere. Basketball Coach Terry Holland has referred to University Hall, the school's sports arena, as "the house that Ralph built." Sculptor Michiel van der Sommen, who has a studio at the McGuffey Art Center in town, has worked up a preliminary study in clay for a life-size bronze of Sampson. (Edgar Allan Poe, a Virginia student of considerably earlier vintage, had to settle for a local tavern, called Poe's, as his monument—and Poe's closed down in 1981.)
Sampson's impact on the college community may have come to a head in an on-campus dispute that boiled up in November. One of Virginia's traditions is Easters, a huge party weekend held each April that seems to occupy the thoughts and energy of every student on campus. Dean of Students Robert T. Canevari recommended that Easters be banned from The Grounds, and student leaders reacted negatively. In an effort to forestall the demise of Easters, all sorts of proposals and counterproposals were made. One of the more interesting was a suggestion by three students in a letter to The Cavalier Daily, the college paper, that Sampson go on strike, refusing to play basketball for Virginia unless Easters was retained. That would force the administration to change its tune, the students argued.
The administration refused to change its position in the face of such massive, if hypothetical, retaliation. "Our decision remains," Dean Canevari said. "This whole thing is bigger than any one person." Even if he's 7'4".
MAYBE YOU COULD LOOK IT UP
Speaking of the Cavaliers, Lefty Dreisell, Maryland's colorful basketball coach, sounded a little like Casey Stengel the other day as he discussed the reasons for little Chaminade's startling upset of Virginia, then No. 1 ranked, in Honolulu during the Christmas holidays. The Cavaliers were on their way back from Japan when they stumbled over Chaminade, and Dreisell explained their defeat this way: "Well, you know, they probably went over there to Japan and ate a lot of squid. Then the kids went in those bath houses and let those girls walk on their backs. Then they got to Hawaii and lied out on the beach and got all tan and ate a lot of pineapple."
Anything else you'd like to know?
THEY SAID IT
•Joe Barry Carroll, Golden State's 7-foot center, on what it's like to grow up tall: "As a kid, I was big for my age. As I got older, I got big for anybody's age."
•Molly Brennan, Rhodes scholar from Michigan State, on sports at Oxford, where she's active in track: "I have to get used to the British system. So far, the track team hasn't had any practices, but we've met three times in pubs to get to know each other."
•Jack Sikma, Seattle SuperSonics center, after a career-high 25 rebounds against Kansas City: "I knew I had quite a few rebounds because I spent most of the night rebounding my own misses."
•Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the touring Soviet national hockey team, watching the cheerleaders at a Viking-Cowboy game: "Tell me. These women—are they wayward?"