Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The World According to Bill

Losing games is never easy, though no one ever said it would be. Some games are more meaningful than others certainly and thus those losses sting harder and linger longer. All you can really do is try to learn something from the experience and move on. You cannot alter the past only your future. Though that doesn’t mean we don’t try from time to time.

The outpouring of emotion following the Ohio State Buckeyes second consecutive loss in a national championship game is following that natural order of things. It’s been almost a mini version, actually, of Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, with most fans currently stuck somewhere between denial and anger. The feelings are too raw, apparently, for lessons learned.

There have been postings to the message boards at TheClevelandFan.com that have been all over the map. Almost every body with access to a computer and a forum has weighed in, including, of course, yours truly. Some can’t believe that the Buckeyes laid an egg for two years in a row. Others are simply angry about it and lashing out in every direction. There’s been some transient levels of bargaining and depression but little, to this point, acceptance. Then there’s Bill Livingston.

In Wednesday’s Plain Dealer, Livingston again proves, as if he had to, that while others can have their ups and downs, his ability to be consistently wrong knows no parallel. Rather than put the Buckeyes loss into some sort of perspective or to offer some greater insight (he did attend the game didn’t he?), he instead uses his allocated column space to once again take a hack at one of his favorite targets, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel.

In Livingston’s world, Tressel is a poser and a phony whose accomplishments are always less than they otherwise appear to be, the latest example being the LSU loss. It’s fine, of course, if Livingston or any other columnist wants to paint a more complete picture of Tressel than some fans who have deified Tressel might want to see. But it’s another thing altogether to simply hack away unfairly.

In this regard, it’s not as if Livingston hasn’t done it before. You can compile a pretty decent size library of Livingston columns about his criticism of Indians manager Eric Wedge, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Does it mean that Wedge has done everything right in his tenure of Indians manager? Of course not. But Livingston’s inability to provide perspective or discern trends, which really is the core of his job, is becoming legendary. He’d rather continue to grind the axe he has against Wedge, even at the expense of his own credibility.

Livingston has been on a similar crusade when it comes to Tressel for years. There was the column in November, 2006 (no longer available, mercifully, in the Plain Dealer’s archive) in which Livingston seemed to credit Tressel for successfully making the transition from Division I-AA to Ohio State but really was a vehicle for criticizing Tressel’s supposed inability to discern quarterback talent. He claimed, for example, that Tressel was slow to see Troy Smith’s talent while not acknowledging that Justin Zwick was a much better and higher profile prospect. Smith was a late bloomer, to be sure, who really didn’t come into his own until, under Tressel, he learned to think pass first, run second. (My view on Livingston’s column appears here)

Then there was the column last season (likewise no longer available from the Plain Dealer’s archives) in which Livingston took Tressel to task for not voting in the final USA Today coaches poll as to who should take on the Buckeyes in last year’s national championship game. This was, of course, after Livingston initially came out and supported the move. (My view on this Livingston masterpiece appears here) Straying for from his intended point, Livingston used Tressel’s non-vote as a launching pad for a broader criticism of the coach, implying that his ethics and values were, if not questionable, then at least not where they should be. His chief evidence for this character assassination was the supposedly too soft punishment he leveled on former linebacker Robert Reynolds for a cheap hit in a 2003 game.

Wednesday’s column follows the same worn formula but also reveals more than a touch of inconsistency, demonstrating perhaps that Livingston likewise must not have access to the Plain Dealer’s archives. In it, Livingston uses the loss to LSU as another reason to take down Tressel another peg or two, but not in a way that makes much sense.

First, he basically minimizes the 2002 national championship out of existence by alternatively suggesting it was either unfairly gifted on the heels of a bad interference call or that it was essentially nullified because of Maurice Clarett’s substantial legal troubles since that game. Second, he then subtly suggests that Tressel’s pursuit of Pennsylvania high school wunderkind Terrelle Pryor is an act of desperation, an act that will be further played out if he lands Pryor and then starts him ahead of incumbent quarterback Todd Boeckman.

If you’re having trouble following the logic of that last paragraph, no need to adjust either your minds or your eyes. Only in Livingston’s world would it make sense anyway.

The inconvenient fact remains for Livingston and his ilk that Tressel has won a national championship at Ohio State. That victory, which was every bit as big of an upset as Florida’s victory against Ohio State last year, if not more, isn’t tainted in the least. However you decide to come out on the interference call in overtime, the one thing that can be fairly said is that it was a close call. Maybe the referee should have swallowed his whistle, maybe not. But one thing is certain, that penalty call wouldn’t even make the list of the 50,000 worst calls by officials in sports in the last decade. As for Clarett, the fact that he let his own outsized ego and desperation take hold of him to the point that he committed a crime years after that game doesn’t magically invalidate his performance in that game. To even offer the suggestion, as Livingston does, is as ridiculous as it is bizarre.

As for Tressel’s pursuit of Pryor, Livingston is as off-base as ever, which is a pretty far-reaching statement, actually. Pryor is the consensus number one high school player in the country. He’s number one in every scouting service and was the USA Today high school offensive player of the year. Nearly every coach from across the country has pursued Pryor. Indeed, if Tressel was not doing so, he would be rightly criticized, likely by Livingston.

Further, Livingston’s underlying inference is that Pryor has a shady background or, in Livingston’s words, he’d be a “shortcut” for the program. Exactly, why, however, he doesn’t say, meaning he can’t support it. Pryor did have an incident last fall when he was allegedly given a citation for disorderly conduct for reportedly being “mouthy” with security officers at a Pennsylvania amusement park. But if this sole incident is the basis for Livingston’s implication that Pryor is trouble, then he should just level it and let others make a judgment. Instead, he simply dangles the implication out there that landing the nation’s top high school recruit, who happens to be African-American, would be a “shortcut.” Nice.

The other interesting aspect to Livingston’s criticism is how inconsistent it is with his other column, noted previously, in which he criticized Tressel for not being able to recognize quarterback talent. Anyone who saw Pryor play last Saturday in the U.S. Army High School All American game in San Antonio, a game in which Pryor not only won the MVP award but looked as if he were playing a different game at a different level than anyone else, knows he’s a major talent. Only a fool wouldn’t allow him to compete against the incumbent, whoever it is. If Pryor ends up with the Buckeyes and can overtake both Boeckman and Antonio Henton, then he would deserve to start. Any other decision and you could almost see the next column Livingston would recycle, saying how Tressel can’t properly evaluate talent.

The issue isn’t whether Tressel should be subject to criticism for his performance and that of his team. Even Tressel understands that’s fair game and comes with the territory. The issue really is why the Plain Dealer continues to provide Livingston with a forum to exorcise his personal demons against those with whom he harbors personal jealousy for accomplishing far more. Given the deteriorating quality and readership of the paper, the answer lies in what appears to be the Plain Dealer’s overarching problem, they just don’t care.

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