The Kickoff Classic, which debuted in 1983, was created to match
the two best college football teams from the previous season.
Although that goal was never precisely realized, the first three
editions did lure the defending national champ. But since '86,
when Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer chose to open his season at
home in Norman rather than at the Classic site of East
Rutherford, N.J., the matchups have often been less than
marquee. Only twice in the past 11 years have two Top 10 teams
faced each other, and only once--when Penn State battered USC
24-7 last year--has there been a sellout in 77,716-seat Giants
Stadium. On Sunday, No. 17 Syracuse routed No. 24 Wisconsin 34-0
(page 34) before 26,531 empty seats.
A variety of circumstances have conspired to render the Kickoff
Classic--as well as another preseason matchup, the
eight-year-old Pigskin Classic--not so classic. In an attempt to
spread the wealth that teams accrue from playing a 12th game,
both events forbid schools from competing more than once every
four years. Thus, many powerhouses are frequently unavailable.
Moreover, the SEC strongly discourages its members from
appearing in either Classic because, with the advent of the
conference's championship game, a team could end up playing an
alarmingly long 14-game schedule (including a bowl).
Though teams competing in one of the Classics are allowed to
begin practicing a week early, and though they also get an extra
payday ($675,000 for Sunday's Kickoff teams), coaches of
national-championship-caliber teams often don't want to risk a
loss. What makes the Pigskin Classic an even tougher match to
make is that one of the teams gets to host the game.
Sixth-ranked Nebraska was happy to play in Lincoln, but it
wanted no part of No. 20 Clemson, and no other quality opponent
was willing to face the Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. So in a
tussle between unranked teams last Saturday, Northwestern routed
Oklahoma 24-0 before a crowd of 36,804 at Chicago's Soldier Field.
This Thursday a third preseason game debuts, the Eddie Robinson
Football Classic matching Wyoming and host Ohio State in
Columbus. Let's hope it lives up to its title.
BACK IN THE SHADOWS
Last year, when Tiger Woods was winning his third straight U.S.
Amateur title, 14,000 spectators trampled the rough at Oregon's
Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, while 14 million viewers tuned in to
NBC's coverage of the finals. By contrast, the 1997 Amateur, won
last weekend by Georgia Tech sophomore Matt Kuchar--while Woods
was playing with his fellow pros at the World Series of Golf in
Akron--couldn't even disturb the routine at the Cog Hill Golf &
Country Club, a 72-hole public facility in Lemont, Ill.
As Kuchar teed off against Stanford junior Joel Kribel in
Sunday's 36-hole final on the Dubsdread Course, duffers
chili-dipped down the interwoven fairways of Cog Hill No. 2. At
the driving range, business was off only a little. "The first
four days, the range was closed because we had 312 competitors,"
said assistant manager Paul Lacny. "Otherwise, it's been
business as usual."
It was anything but for Kuchar, the ACC freshman of the year.
"I'm just out here for the experience," he bubbled after
destroying Walker Cup veteran Randy Leen, 6 and 5, in the semis.
"This is unbelievable. I'm floating on cloud nine."
By mid-afternoon against Kribel, Kuchar was 7 up with 10 holes
to play. But Kribel, a loser to Woods in last year's semifinals,
suddenly found his game, winning five of seven holes. The match
didn't end until the 35th hole, where Kuchar, with a smartly
played par 4, closed out Kribel, 2 and 1.
That accomplished, he raced off to O'Hare Airport to catch a
flight, thrilled that his is the first name on the Havemeyer
Trophy under that of the three-time winner who will be his
playing partner next April. That's when Kuchar, as the '97
Amateur champ, will tee it up with the defending Masters winner
in the opening round at Augusta.
A month ago Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf justified
his team's dumbfounding decision to give pitchers Wilson
Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin to the San Francisco
Giants for six little-known minor leaguers by saying, "Anyone
who thinks this White Sox team will catch Cleveland is crazy."
That was a pretty bewildering statement, considering that the
White Sox were all of 3 1/2 games behind the slumping Indians at
the time. Now Reinsdorf--who denies he made the deal to cut
costs--has bewildered trade analysts even further. Last week,
White Sox slugger Albert Belle issued a mea culpa, taking blame
for the team's struggles, which supposedly led to the deal. Said
Reinsdorf, "Albert shouldn't worry. We would have made that
trade even if we were five games up."
From the cheap seats--if such a term can be applied to a chair
that costs $22 to rent--taking in the U.S. Open's brand-new,
$254-million Arthur Ashe Stadium is like viewing the Colorado
River from the lip of the Grand Canyon: The experience can be
vertiginous, overwhelming, even awe-inspiring--but you sure
don't get much sense of the rapids. "It's extraordinary," said
1994 Open champ Andre Agassi after a hike to the top row. "But
the problem is that there are 8,000 bad seats up there."
The U.S. Tennis Association's new showcase isn't about picking
up the fine points of anything. It's about being the biggest,
most complete and most expensive tennis stadium in the world, a
red-white-and-blue explosion of brick and steel, and in that it
succeeds on all counts. It's a beautiful monster of a place, and
most players consider it an improvement over its predecessor,
Louis Armstrong Stadium, which now serves as Stadium No. 2. On
Monday the players walked the revamped grounds in dazed
disbelief. Suddenly the Open, an event in its 118th year, felt
new. "The facility is much better, the locker room's better,
they've got the [luxury] suites now," says world's No. 1 Pete
Sampras. "It's about time we stepped up and built a nice place."
There's no doubt that American tennis now has a showpiece that
can stand--in efficiency anyway--with Wimbledon's Centre Court,
le Court Central at Roland Garros and Melbourne Park. Just
because it's state-of-the-art, though, doesn't mean it's better
in every respect. Say what you want about the rickety, rattling
confines of old Louis Armstrong, but the place forced the cushy
world of tennis through a maddening wringer that stunk of
cooking food, clanged with the couplings of subway cars and
dripped gunk from the steel beams. It had an angry soul, a New
York soul. Its replacement feels like everyplace else. Only
ALIVE AND KICKING
In 1980, when Tom Simpson was in medical school at UC San
Francisco, he would spend his evenings on a 10-by-15-yard plot
of grass near the married students' housing complex, kicking
around a soccer ball with his two young sons and the other
neighborhood kids. As the kids grew older, many of them
continued to play under Simpson on youth-league and amateur
teams, from the Toreadors to San Francisco United to the All
Blacks and now to the San Francisco Bay Seals of United Systems
of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL), whose level of play is
equivalent to baseball's Class AA. "This is just one of those
stories of a guy who goes and coaches kids and hangs on
forever," says the 51-year-old Simpson, now a San Francisco
Lately the story has seemed like a fairy tale. Over the past
month the Seals have toppled a pair of MLS teams, the Kansas
City Wizards and the San Jose Clash, by 2-1 scores to advance to
the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Modeled after soccer
competitions throughout the world--most notably the F.A. Cup in
England--the 84-year-old event allows any club to enter, giving
amateurs who survive the qualifying rounds a chance to take on
the pros. In the heyday of the now defunct North American Soccer
League, its teams seldom risked competing. MLS, to its credit,
has made the Open Cup a priority, creating the opportunity for
homespun teams like the Seals, whose annual budget is roughly
equal to MLS's $24,000 minimum salary, to soar.
Against the Clash at San Jose's Spartan Stadium on Aug. 20, San
Francisco trailed 1-0 until the 77th minute, when Simpson's
24-year-old son, Shani, angled a shot past goalkeeper David
Kramer. Forward Shane Watkins, 24, who joined up with Simpson 12
years ago, netted the game-winner in the 86th minute. "I was in
that zone where I wasn't thinking," Watkins says. "I had to look
at it on film to see how I scored."
Reigning Cup and MLS champ D.C. United looms as the Seals' next
opponent on Sept. 3. "It's not realistic for a team of our
stature to believe we can compete with MLS teams," Simpson says.
"But you know how players are: It doesn't matter where they
start, they always think they can advance."
AND WHAT ABOUT O.J.?
The 22-member Black and Hispanic Caucus of New York's City
Council honored boxing promoter Don King at City Hall last week.
The group presented the shock-haired convicted killer with a
proclamation that read, in part, "Don King is by far the most
noted and cherished American celebrity of African-American
descent alive today." Guess that rules out Colin Powell, Toni
Morrison, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington,
Magic Johnson, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali....
NO PASSING FANCY
At meetings preceding Monday night's ArenaBowl XI showdown
between the host Arizona Rattlers and the Iowa Barnstormers, the
Arena Football League's owners did what the bosses of successful
leagues do: They discussed expansion and sat back while ESPN
made a pitch to retain the broadcast rights to their games. Fox
has also shown keen interest in the AFL because of its chief
demographic--the league appeals mainly to 18-to-35-year-old
males. After debuting with four teams in 1987, the league now
has 14. It has also lasted longer than the American Football
League, the World Football League, the U.S. Football League and
any of Liz Taylor's marriages.
Two Arena teams had average attendance this season of more than
15,000; seven others averaged more than 10,000. Though the game
at times seems like something a junior high gym teacher
concocted on a rainy day, it has an undeniable, manic appeal.
Arenaball has phone-booth-sized fields (50 yards by 85 feet) and
bare-bones rosters (20 players per team). There are eight
players to a side, and seven of them are required to go both
ways. The four-foot-high, foam-rubber barriers--this is football
in a padded cell--make it tough to head for the haven of the
sideline. "In our game, there's nowhere to hide," says Rattlers
wideout-linebacker Hunkie Cooper.
Ticket prices average $12, and the venues are, for football,
intimate. "There is no sport where the fans are as close to the
players," says commissioner David Baker. That's true in a number
of ways. Stars and veterans earn around $40,000 a season; foot
soldiers make $600 a game, plus another $200 for a win. Players
hold down second jobs and often sign autographs for a half hour
after games. Because quickness, stamina and durability are at a
premium, the players aren't as outsized as in the NFL. "Guys who
are injury-prone, who can't play with pain or who are timid
about contact--maybe they can play in the NFL, but we can't use
'em," says Rattlers coach and general manager Danny White.
Arenaball people have no difficulty looking down on the NFL.
White, a Cowboys quarterback for 13 years, expresses disgust at
the recent cavalcade of malfeasance perpetrated by his former
team. "The players are making so much money and get so much
attention, they lose track of reality," he says. "These [AFL]
players work and hit just as hard, but they do it because they
love the game. They don't make enough to do it for any other
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER A pointed question: Kevin Johnson's TD kickoff return for Syracuse was a classic, but does the Kickoff Classic live up to its name?
COLOR PHOTO: JOE PICCIOLO With no Tiger to tail, fans all but ignored Kuchar's title run at the U.S. Amateur. [Matt Kuchar golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: FRED KAPLAN [Hank Aaron]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [Eddie Murray]
COLOR PHOTO: SHEEDY & LONG [Al Kaline]
B/W PHOTO: LEE BALTERMAN [Ron Fairly]
B/W PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN [Tony Taylor]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Arthur Ashe Stadium, the cavernous and costly new home of the U.S. Open, is long on amenities but short on character.
COLOR PHOTO: AUSTRALIAN PICTURE LIBRARY/ALLSPORT [Susie O'Neill wearing swimming cap with built-in goggles]
FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: MEL LEVINE (4) [Grant Hill candy bar; Brett Favre candy bar; Reggie White candy bar; Brett Hull candy bar]
Games played in NFL history.
TV viewers, on average, who tune in to the NFL each weekend.
Miles of completed passes by the Dolphins' Dan Marino, the NFL's
career passing yardage leader.
Pages in Miami's media guide, the most of any NFL team.
Consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins for the 49ers.
Consecutive games started by San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice.
Straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons by both the Lions' Barry
Sanders and the Bills' Thurman Thomas, who were teammates at
Oklahoma State in the mid-1980s.
Packers who have their own television shows.
Sticks of gum chewed per game by the Broncos.
Career punts by the Chiefs' Louie Aguiar.
Punts of Aguiar's that have been blocked.
Eddie Murray's 21-year career has been one of top-level
consistency. When the first baseman joins the L.A. Dodgers next
week, he'll try to add to a lifetime home run total that is the
highest of any major leaguer who never hit 40 homers in a year.
Here are the players who have the most career dingers without
reaching certain single-season standards.
NEVER HIT 50
CAREER TOTAL: 755
BEST SEASON: 47
NEVER HIT 40
CAREER TOTAL: 504
BEST SEASON: 33
NEVER HIT 30
CAREER TOTAL: 399
BEST SEASON: 29
NEVER HIT 20
CAREER TOTAL: 215
BEST SEASON: 19
NEVER HIT 10
CAREER TOTAL: 75
BEST SEASON: 9
LIFE ON MARS!
Maybe there is and maybe there isn't, but what's pictured here
is no extraterrestrial. It's Australian swimmer Susie O'Neill
wearing a revolutionary, Speedo-designed cap with built-in
goggles to cut down on water drag created by the eye sockets.
O'Neill, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the 200-meter
butterfly, plans to wear the cap at the world championships next
January in Perth. Of her headgear, she says, "It feels like I'm
in my own private world."
The Brett Favre Bar, which was unwrapped last week, is one of
four chocolaty treats featuring athletes and made by Michigan's
Morley Candy Makers. We sampled the sweets. Here's our gut
[Grant Hill bar]
Thick rice bar is pretty rich, though not as rich as its namesake
[Brett Favre bar]
Just caramel inside, but wrapper inexplicably warns: May Contain
[Reggie White bar]
Peanuts in this one! Could serve as traction aid in snowy Green
[Brett Hull bar]
Pecan bar due out in October; maybe it would taste better on ice
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Professional participants in "Magic: The Gathering," a fantasy
card game played at tournaments and in comic book stores, have
formed a players' union.
They Said It
Former Detroit Lions coach on how to relate to today's players:
"The key to this whole business is sincerity. Once you can fake
that, you've got it made."