Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thank You, Grantland.

The chalkboard on the outer kitchen wall is the first thing you see when you walk into our house.  We use it for mundane stuff, mostly.  Shopping lists, upcoming concerts, that sort of thing.  And at the top in faded white marker, ever since Aggie put it on the wall back in March:

"Let's assume that no pun is ever intended." - Alex Pappademas

We live here with our two kittens, Cat Summit and Sylvia Catchell, named after our two favorite women's college basketball coaches.  (Sorry Alex, those name puns were fully intended.)  It wasn't always this way, though.  When we started dating again after fourteen very complicated years, it was long distance.  Bridging the gap between Atlanta and Chapel Hill wasn't easy, but we made it work.  If you've ever been in that situation, you know how vital common conversational ground is to sustaining the relationship.  You need something to talk about when you call each other every night beyond "I miss you" and "I love you" and "how was your day?".  

Fortunately, we had a lot of that.  Always have.  But the biggest thing, the thing we spent the most time laughing over and dissecting and just plain adoring during those phone calls, was Grantland.  Or, more accurately, the people who made Grantland what it was and the works they created.

Like most fledgling websites, it took a while for Bill Simmons' vanity project to really get rolling.  The early months suffered from a lack of both content and focus, reflected most sharply in those dumb posts where they republished older long-form pieces with footnotes and editorial commentary.  Voices and personalities came and went as the site struggled to find an overarching ethos.  Honestly, it was kind of a mess.  But then something truly special started to take shape.  Simmons assembled a staff of older, established talents and smart young writers aching for a place where they could flourish without editors constantly leaving what made them unique on the cutting room floor.  Whatever you may think of him, no one was better suited to provide precisely that kind of environment.  Having established that core paradigm, Grantland never looked back, and what followed was a flood of articles and podcasts that were more consistently engaging, intelligent, funny, thoughtful, and just outright great than damn near anything else on the internet.   

Some scattered recollections and things I'll miss:

Gasping at every other paragraph while reading Rembert's incredible piece on Ferguson.

Listening to the Girls In Hoodies "American Horror Story: Coven" episode while driving to Augusta, and loving it so much that I listened to it again on the way home.

Simmons calling out Roger Goodell and the NFL in general for the Ray Rice scandal, getting suspended, then doing it again anyway.

The knowledge that every NBA and NFL draft would be followed by Wesley's elegant and hilarious "Sportstorialist" column.

Alex taking the weird, season-long journey that was "I Suck at Football." 

Juliet's obsession with Handsome Chandler Parsons.

Jacoby's incredulous "WHAT?!?!?!" whenever Juliet said something outrageous.  

Sharp's insistence/borderline religious fanaticism that KD will eventually sign with the Wizards.

Jalen's horrible singing.  Jalen's bat.  "NOT GONNA BE ABLE TA DO IT!"

Barnwell's fantastic article on Chris Borland's retirement.  

Rembert and Emily's "Les Mis" review.  

Being incredibly excited when Zach Lowe and Holly Anderson came on board.

Jason "The Maester" Concepcion schooling Andy on Westerosi history.  

Mays and Barnwell interviewing Charlie Whitehurst, who drove that podcast to its limit as he can with any vehicle.

Wesley's Cannes diaries. 

Andy's piece on the Parks and Rec finale.

Discovering Men In Blazers and The Solid Verbal, for which I am eternally grateful.  

Christina Kahrl's staggering "What Grantland Got Wrong."

Jonah on Madison Bumgarner in last year's World Series.  

Charlie Pierce, just generally.  

Crying when Molly and Emily brought Tess back on the air for the final Hoodies episode.

Incredulity over Wesley not knowing how great a jam "Seven" is.

Grape Job.  

All of Zach's pieces on the Hawks last season.

The Bakeshop Mailbag.

Alex's immaculate profiles of Todd Rundgren and Dolph Lundgren.

Mays going to Lambeau and being enough of a good sport to write about it with grace.  

Molly's desultory and fabulous Mad Men recaps.

That last one brings me to perhaps the most ineffably special thing about the people above (and so many more Grantlanders that I didn't mention): they are so compelling and so ludicrously good at what they do that I will read or listen to them regardless of the subject.  I've never seen Mad Men.  Ever.  Not one episode.  But I read every single one of those recaps because they were so brilliantly written that enjoying them required no prior knowledge of the source material.  Likewise, I have never once fast-forwarded through a "Hollywood Prospectus" or "Do You Like Prince Movies?" segment even when they were talking about things I hadn't seen or heard or just didn't care about in the first place.  I read Greenwald on TV I don't follow and Wesley on movies I'll probably never see, because it's that much fun just to watch them put words together.  That quality, maybe more than anything else, is why Aggie and I loved this thing so much.  Hell, we listened to every episode of "The Right Reasons" and we don't even watch reality TV.   ("Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait ... what's she look like?')

So we sat in the living room and drank bourbon and mourned all of this last night, as strange as it may sound to mourn a website whose former contributors are all still very much in the business of creating beautiful work which we can continue to enjoy.  We mourned because Grantland was our best and easiest point of reference when we were apart, and talking about this podcast or that article helped us to cope.  More importantly, it brought us joy.  Just heaps and heaps of fun and happiness and laughter that we could share across that distance.  All of that resonated very specifically with us, and that resonance has manifested itself in some wonderful if admittedly strange ways.   

For instance, we have a turntable because of Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald.  I'm not kidding.  The Hollywood Prospectus episode last fall where they were gushing over "1989" compelled us to dig into it, and we both fell in love with that album and Taylor Swift in general.  For Christmas that year, before I'd even moved to Chapel Hill, Aggie bought it for me on vinyl, with the promise that when I got here she was going to get me a turntable for my birthday, which she did.  We now have a burgeoning record collection, thanks mostly to thrift stores and Ags' shameless pilfering of her parents' albums.  Buying each other records as random "I love you" presents is one of our favorite things.  And none of this happens without Chris and Andy raving about Tay-Tay.  They turned us on to one record we adore and it turned into a whole new part of our lives we never saw coming. 

That was Grantland at its weird, beating heart.  These people we'll probably never meet and all of their tremendous creativity and verve, becoming part of our lives and deepening them in the process.

There's another Alex Pappademas quote on that chalkboard, from the final episode of "Do You Like Prince Movies."  Aggie and I didn't talk about that one over the phone, we listened to it together.  This was appropriate since Prince Movies was also the first Grantland thing we ever shared and talked about with each other.  Anyway, that quote is the most apropos thing possible to describe Grantland's closure yesterday.

"This is like a going out of business sale for opinions."

And it is.  But while the doors were open and the lights were on, Grantland's inventory housed some of the most wide ranging and beautifully articulated opinions out there.  So thank you.  Thanks to all of you for sharing them, for sharing yourselves, with us.  We can't wait to see what you do next. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Halloween Fun With Paul Johnson.

Coming into the season, there was a decent and completely earned amount of hype surrounding the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.  They finished last year on a high the program hadn't seen in a while, with only a loss to FSU blemishing a back half of 2014 in which they blew the doors off everyone save Georgia, whom they beat in overtime because of some very stupid special teams mistakes by the Dawgs.  Their final game of the year was a 49-34 Orange Bowl win over a Mississippi State team that had at one point in the not distant past been in the conversation of best team in the country. 

They picked up right where they left off this year, making that preseason #16 AP Poll ranking look extremely justified by absolutely destroying Alcorn State and Tulane by a combined 118 points.  The triple option looked as well-oiled and vicious as it ever had, and there was plenty of reason to think a win over Notre Dame in week three might catapult the Jackets into the top 10.  Then they went into South Bend and got stomped.  That 30-22 final score was thanks to some garbage time scoring; Tech looked utterly outgunned in every phase of the game.  The offense, traditionally their strongest suit in the Paul Johnson era, was a disheveled mess.  But hey, a loss to a top-ten ranked Notre Dame on the road ... not so terrible, right?  Here's what happened next:

  • Lost by 2 touchdowns to Duke.
  • Lost 38-31 to North Carolina.  At home.  
  • Got beat down by Clemson.  
  • Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt beats them with a 59-yard boomer of a field goal.  
Next week, they have to host a #9-ranked FSU team that is finding its feet.  Those feet are Dalvin Cook's, and they are averaging 8.7 yards per carry this year.  He's already racked up 955 yards and 10 TDs on the ground, with 131 receiving yards and another score through the air thrown in for funzies.  (In a related note: Georgia Tech is ranked 97th in run defense so far this season, so next Saturday probably will not go well for them.) 

Look, I have some public safety concerns here.  If they lose to the 'Noles, fine, but the week after that ... hooooooo boy.  They're gonna be on the road at Virginia.  The same Hoos that gave Notre Dame a much better fight than the Jackets did, and that currently lead them in the Coastal Division because Georgia Tech is dead-last and a garbage pile of a team right this minute.  Paul Johnson is a recalcitrant old crank even in the best of times.  These are not the best of times, and if Georgia Tech somehow manages the feats of incompetence necessary to lose to Virginia, this could be a real problem. 

That game is being played on Halloween, by the way.  A night when every TV station airs horror flicks and little kids dress up as all kinds of hideous and terrifying monsters in exchange for candy.  So just picture Paul Johnson, who has never said one civil word to a media member in his life, who is prickly and intolerant with beat writers even after a win, stepping to the podium after losing to a school whose best athletes play baseball and lacrosse.  A reporter, some kid fresh out of J school and covering his first college football season, asks a question.  It is not a good question.  Something like: "Coach, can you talk about your preparation this week, and what you could have done better to try and stop Matt Johns?"

Paul Johnson twitches.  He fixes the reporter with a stare.  That stare is cold, so very cold.  He opens his mouth as if to respond, but what comes out is an inhuman howl of fury and pain.

He then transmogrifies into some sort of scaly dragon-goat being, expectorating fire and locusts and just all manner of horror and killing everyone in the room. 

If you are a reporter covering that game, and the Yellow Jackets lose, I'm asking as a concerned friend that you stay away from the post-game presser.  Seriously, go do your write up somewhere far away from Scott Stadium.  You don't need a pull quote from scaly dragon-goat Paul Johnson.  Suffering for your art is noble and all, but it's not worth it.  You'll have trouble enough with Saban after 'Bama loses to LSU.  Trust me, you don't need this. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fare Thee Well, Head Ball Coach

There is both too much and not a lot to say here.  As the capper to a weekend of college football that featured more insanity than just about any I can bring to mind, Steve Spurrier announced his intentions to resign, effective immediately, as South Carolina's head coach last night.  He then finalized that with a brief mic drop of a press conference yesterday morning, bringing to an end one of the most singular and remarkable careers in the history of college football.  Spencer Hall did all the heavy lifting on this already, and it was appropriate that a Florida alum would have the best last word on the Head Ball Coach. 

There's a whole mess of conflicting emotions here for me, and I'm going to try and unpack them. 

As a Georgia fan, there has been no single human who approaches Spurrier as an architect of my personal misery.  Lots of coaches have dashed the Dawgs' hopes like so much kindling over the years, but no one else did it so consistently and with such obvious glee.  The list of people and programs Spurrier has deeply enjoyed antagonizing is a long one, but you'd have to put Georgia pretty near the top if you were using him as the test case while creating some sort of "career opponent trolling percentage" metric. 

During his time at Florida, the humiliations and iniquities and just plain whuppins he doled out to Georgia were both plentiful and full of a bile that stemmed from his playing days with the Gators.  It wasn't just that he assassinated us year after year; it's that the losses were always, always accompanied by a snide remark or three in a characteristically brief and pithy post-game presser.  He felt it was his duty to twist the knife, and he did it with relish.  All coaches love winning, but where the Dawgs were concerned, Spurrier luxuriated in it, and the opportunity it afforded him to remind anyone within earshot who won, by how much, and what that implicitly said about the loser's sad and dilapidated former dignity.  And what, in turn, it implied about the winner too. 

God we were happy when he left Florida.  We thought the nightmare was over. 

After a brief and not-great NFL stint which I won't belabor here, he picked up right where he left off, performing the same messianic feats at South Carolina that he had in the Swamp and Duke before that.  Predictably, his time away from the SEC East had not lessened his Georgia-baiting proclivities, and we were back in that demoralizing grind again.  Just drubbing after drubbing and joke after joke at our expense.  And the games, always early in the schedule, torpedoing whatever preseason ranking or momentum the Dawgs might have had going in.  And it was almost always cumulative.  Georgia has a history of tailspins after bad losses, but dropping one to the Head Ball Coach virtually assured a season fraught with ineptitude and stupid losses to teams no one should lose to.  Just torture, man. 

So a part of me is, if not glad, at least relieved that I don't ever again have to endure the vicious beatings and ensuing snark Spurrier routinely gave the Dawgs for the better part of a quarter century.  (Though he was adamant about "resigning", not "retiring", so who knows.)  Even as the signs became more apparent that his fastball was gone or going fast, you never slept soundly the night before that South Carolina game.  There was always the threat that the man was going to take some seemingly rudderless Gamecocks team and work his voodoo and then you were going to be looking at a scoreboard where the other side had a bajillion points and yours had 10 or 7 or zilch and it shouldn't be happening but OH GOD THEY'RE TAKING THAT PUNT ALL THE WAY TO THE HOUSE WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING THIS JESUS SOMEONE FIND A SUNBELT CONFERENCE GAME WE CAN PUT ON I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.

But if you follow and love college football, didn't Spurrier make it more fun than pretty much anyone else?  He gave Georgia hell, sure, but that was due to a career spent in our division and a grudge that extended back to 1966.  Clearly, the man was an equal-opportunity hater, and watching him turn that ineffable snark ray wherever the wind was blowing on a given week was just delightful.  The gifts he gave were bountiful; every week, our cups did runneth over with the rare vintage of Spurrier.  There were finely blended notes of disdain, candor, humor, pride, humility, and vitriol, coming together in a finish accented by his own self-awareness that this was all both absurd and the perfect vehicle to exorcise every demon and slight he felt was owed payback.  He was giving us a show, but he also meant every word.  He was contemptuous and spiteful yet congenial as hell about it the whole time.  He was the finest example of lovable curmudgeon-ness that ever stepped onto a sideline.  

And he was great, just so very exceptional, at his job.  He took sad sack programs and turned them into juggernauts time and time again.  The records and winning percentages and titles piled up and then he would go somewhere else and recreate, reinvent, and tinker to his heart's delight.  And unlike the other preeminent coaches of his generation and the following one into which his career lasted, he never seemed to have any identity beyond mowing fools down with a grin.  He wasn't defined by any one system or ethos or coaching philosophy.  He revolutionized SEC football with the Fun'n'Gun, but that wasn't because he had a particularly evangelical attachment to it.  He just did whatever seemed most likely to succeed at a given moment on the field, and he was usually right.

So I'll miss having Steve Spurrier around.  College football will be less interesting and far less of a joy to follow without him.  Not the Dawgs having to play him once a year and that usually ending poorly for them, but I'll miss everything else.  May his tee shots be long and straight, may his putter be sure, and may there always be an Arbys within easy distance of the clubhouse.  Take 'er easy, Head Ball Coach.  We'll miss you, dang it. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Georgia Can Still Do This: Weird Saturdays and Hope

It is an inevitability in college football that one or two Saturdays every season are going to produce a wave of results that tilt the sport completely on its ear.  You'll be watching the late games, innocently checking over the final scores from the day, and a whole bunch of them will just look plain wrong.  They'll make you talk like a little kid just learning to speak in complete  sentences, scrunching up your face because all those words put together that way taste funny.  (I'm honestly not sure "undefeated Iowa knocked off a ranked Wisconsin team in a rock fight" is grammatically correct English.  Seriously, can someone check the AP Style Guide and tell me if I'm even allowed to type that?)  But that happened.  So did a lot of other truly bizarre stuff.  Yesterday was weird.

It felt like it was going to be one of those days well before the noon games kicked off.  The rain that's been battering the eastern seaboard for the past week was going to play havoc with every game on or near the coast, and there was plenty of potential chaos lurking around the rest of the country. You could see it just waiting to burble up from the depths of bad bounces and listless play calling, flattening hapless teams without warning or provocation.  Even the survivors had to be shaking their heads yesterday, wondering what the actual fuck just happened.  Indiana and Purdue played #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan State to within inches of their respective lives.  Clemson somehow avoided their essential Clemson-ness juuuuuust enough to beat Notre Dame in a hilarious display of soaking wet ineptitude by both teams.  Florida put an absolute whuppin' on what had heretofore looked like a pretty damn good Ole Miss team.  There was also the complete and abject disaster of Vols/Hogs, in which Arkansas technically won but everyone who had anything to do with that game in any capacity, particularly those whose job it was to tackle opposing players, lost.  Badly.  North Carolina beat Georgia Tech in something which was not a basketball game, and Duke squeaked out something which would presumably be classified as a "football-ish event" against BC.  FSU struggled with Wake Flippin' Forest.  And here I thought that UConn/Mizzou atrocity from two weeks ago was going to be the most ridiculous thing I watched all year.  Nope.  It was a strange, strange day yesterday.

And then (... sigh ...) there was what happened in Athens.

Here's the thing about Georgia football: when those Weird Saturdays of the season come calling, it is never, ever a good thing for the Dawgs.  Any UGA fan can tell you that in games where the capriciousness of fate is running rampant, it is inclined to blow up in Mark Richt's face.  And that was one howler of an example yesterday in Sanford Stadium.  Despite Nick Chubb continuing to be a ridiculous human being and putting up 146 yards and a touchdown on 'Bama's stellar front seven, cumulatively, Georgia simply couldn't do jack and/or squat on either side of the ball.  A (previously) very good defense proved utterly ineffectual against the Tide, and this is an Alabama team that still isn't sure who its best quarterback or wideout is.  Offensively, there just wasn't a solution to the fact that Greyson Lambert's gaudy numbers from the past few weeks couldn't be sustained against an actual team that can play actual defense.  Basically, we played like garbage.

I can tell you without bothering to verify it that the phone lines of every sports talk radio station in Georgia are being incinerated right now by people calling for Mark Richt's job.  I mean this in both the metaphorical and literal sense, as one in every three people who call radio stations re: beleaguered teams honestly believe that they themselves should be given the head coaching job in place of the actual head coach.  Ditto for AD Greg Mcgarity's inbox, which is undoubtedly being inundated with more of the same vitriol.  Personally, I think Richt has been a great head coach for this program, but the frustrations are understandable.  Another potential title contender of a team has been laid low because "dang it, Richt don't ever win the big games."

And yet.

If you squint very hard and tilt your head just so, it is possible to discern the faint shimmer of a silver lining buried behind yesterday's debacle. Setting aside the fatalism endemic to all Georgia fans (by which I mean both the university and the state's various professional and collegiate franchises in general), just indulge me in a hypothetical scenario for a moment ...

Let's say the Dawgs run the table for the rest of their schedule.  It looks reasonably doable, right?  A suddenly revitalized Florida team will very likely give us holy hell at the Cocktail Party, and I'm not ready to pencil in Mizzou and the Vols as obvious victories, because this is Georgia after all, but just pretend it happens.  They'd win the SEC East by virtue of that Florida game, and likely square off against 'Bama, LSU, or Ole Miss in the Georgia Dome for the SEC title.  Can they beat the Tide in a rematch in a meteorologically neutral environment?  Can they beat the Tigers or the Rebs?  Yes.  They can.  It's not necessarily likely, but you don't have to strain credulity all that much to envision it, either.  So: SEC Title, theoretically granted.

Which brings us to the next and most important question: would the Playoff Committee leave a one-loss Georgia team out of the postseason?  Maybe.  We could see an SEC-less playoff altogether, given the ouroboros the conference has become.  But if Georgia beats Florida, and you believe in the theory of transitive wins, then Georgia beat the team who beat Ole Miss, who beat Alabama, and here they are victorious despite what happened yesterday.  And if they can get into the four-team melee that determines the national champion, the Dawgs stand as good a chance as anyone of prevailing. 

All of this is, of course, extremely unlikely.  So many intricacies would have to shake out in precisely the right way and at the right time.  The teams who are currently at the apex of the sport would have to stumble, and Georgia would have to play spotless, sublime football for the remainder of the year to even have a chance.  But they could.  This could all still happen.  And in a year where the SEC is finally seeing its overall dominance approaching a shelf life, this may be the last, best, only shot for Georgia to poke its head above the fray and bring home the first national championship since before I was born.

And this is what we need for a start: we need another yesterday.  Not the outcome, but the circumstance.  We need the shakedown that topples monoliths and skews perceptions.  We need another Weird Saturday.  A day of chaos and stupid, stupid football that, just once, goes in Georgia's favor.