NCAA

College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

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AP

College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

The Golden Bears may have gotten it right this time.

Cal moved quickly to replace fired head coach Sonny Dykes with Justin Wilcox, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football. And judging from the early returns, it looks like an excellent hire.

Wilcox has earned high marks as defensive coordinator at a number of the top programs in the country -- Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and most recently, Wisconsin. This year his Badgers’ defense ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense. Cal’s, by contrast, was No. 125.

The hiring sends an important message that defense, which has been an embarrassment at Cal for the past four years, is of prime importance. For the Bears to move into the elite in the increasingly-competitive Pac-12, they can’t survive with offense alone. Witness Dykes’ 10-26 record in conference play, the ascent of defensive-minded Colorado this season, and Chris Petersen’s championship blueprint at Washington, which features one of the nation’s top defensive units.

Wilcox also is a much better fit culturally than Dykes, who’d spent most of his career in Texas and the South. Wilcox knows the Pac-12 very well. He played at Oregon and coached the linebackers at Cal from 2003-2005 prior to his recent stints at Washington and USC. Wilcox clearly understands the conference, the West Coast, and the cultural and academic environment at Berkeley, which he called the “most dynamic place in the country.”

Hiring a new coach so late in the game could pose problems with respect to assembling a staff and recruiting, but again, Wilcox is off to a great start. He lured Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, architect of some high-octane offenses at EWU, to come aboard as offensive coordinator. He also nabbed Steve Greatwood, a former colleague at Oregon and one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in the country.

Wilcox has a reputation as a strong recruiter. Indeed, three highly-regarded recruits -- defensive lineman Gabe Cherry (Bakersfield), DB Elijah Hicks (La Mirada) and WR Taariq Johnson (Buena Park) arrived on campus this week as mid-year freshman enrollees.

At his press conference Wilcox appeared smart, poised, classy and businesslike. He refused to be baited into criticizing his predecessor. He also appealed to Cal fans to support the program and make Memorial Stadium a tough place to play. The stadium was pretty noisy during the Jeff Tedford regime, but lately it’s borne no resemblance to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, where Wilcox played, and Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where he coached this year.

If he can turn the program around, I suspect Memorial Stadium will be rocking once again.

2017 Schedules: The Pac-12 has released its 2017 football schedule, and both Wilcox and Stanford coach David Shaw are looking at some tough sledding. Both teams open Pac-12 play in September against a loaded USC squad. Cal’s non-conference games include the season opener at North Carolina and home games with Weber State and Ole Miss, followed by USC in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 23. Wilcox also has conference road games at Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA. Ugh!

Stanford, meanwhile, opens on the road (probably in Australia) against Rice, then kicks off Pac-12 play at USC on Sept. 9. However, the Cardinal will benefit from having UCLA, ASU, Oregon, Washington and Cal on the home schedule, along with Notre Dame.

New ticket policy at Stanford: Speaking of the Stanford home schedule, the Cardinal brass notified thousands of season ticket holders this week that to retain their sideline seats, they must make a substantial donation to the Buck/Cardinal Club athletic scholarship program. The “Priority Seating Expansion” means that ticket holders in 10 sections of the stadium will need to cough up about three times as much money to keep their seats. For example, a fan with two season tickets who would normally pay $1,078 for two seats this season now must ante up an additional $1,000 per seat. Bottom line: a total tab of $3,078 instead of $1,078. With six home games, that translates to $513 per game for two tickets.

Although the home schedule is attractive this season, it’s hard to fathom the reasons behind the new policy. Stanford had no home sellouts last year, and there were plenty of good seats available for every game. A similar policy was implemented several years ago at Maples Pavilion, and the result has been lots of empty seats at Stanford basketball games.

Nationally, college football attendance declined this season for the sixth year in a row. Among the many reasons were rising ticket prices, the increasing number of night games, uncertainty over starting times, and the quality of the home viewing experience.

Greed, it seems, has trumped fan loyalty. Instead of raising prices and repeatedly asking the same people to spend more money, college athletic departments might consider rewarding loyal fans by lowering ticket prices. That way, they could fill some of those empty seats, improve the atmosphere in their stadiums, and give their coaches more of a home field advantage.

Beamer Selected: The College Football Playoff folks just added former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer to their selection committee. A better choice could not have been made. Beamer retired last year after 29 years with the Hokies, and he is widely regarded as one of the best coaches and finest human beings to ever grace the sport.

I can speak from personal experience as a bowl director. Virginia Tech played in our first post-season game in San Francisco back in 2002, when it was known as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. Coaches can bring a lot of baggage -- and ego -- to a post-season game. Some might have viewed a bowl game in its infancy as something of a comedown for Beamer, whose team had played in the national championship game two years earlier. But not Frank. He treated everyone associated with our bowl with the same warmth, graciousness and respect, enthusiastically did everything we asked of him, and was a total delight to deal with.

His wife, Cheryl, was another class act. A week after the bowl game, I got a thank you note in the mail from Cheryl, along with a $20 bill. She apologized for not having gassed up her rental car before returning it, and didn’t want to saddle me with the bill.

People like that just don’t come along every day.

NBA mock draft 2019: Where Zion Williamson, other stars will be picked

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USATSI

NBA mock draft 2019: Where Zion Williamson, other stars will be picked

The NBA offseason has began for 14 of the league's 30 teams.

While those lucky enough to make the playoffs continue to focus on the task at hand, the rest are busy with what has become a year-round process of talent evaluation. Coaching changes already have been, and more are possible as teams are eliminated from the postseason.

Soon enough, the focus of all 30 teams will shift to the 2019 NBA Draft, where Duke’s Zion Williamson is certain to be the No. 1 pick. Lottery balls fall May 14, and they will set the official order in which non-playoff teams will select.

Once that's done, players will move up and down draft boards. The NBA’s combine on May 15-19 again will force shifts, followed by individual workouts and team assessments.

Plenty will change between now and the June 20 draft, but here's our 2019 mock, version 1.0.

CLICK TO SEE OUR 2019 NBA MOCK DRAFT

Kyler Murray's football-over-baseball decision gives NFL what it needs

Kyler Murray's football-over-baseball decision gives NFL what it needs

Rocked by scandal involving its most successful and influential owner, sharply critiqued by medical experts and buffeted by opposing winds of its conservative fans and those seeking social progress, the NFL is searching for a hug and a hero.

Major League Baseball, which has its own shame from the owner’s box, might be even more desperate. The game has devolved into such tedium that its guardians worry about game length, mound height and what on earth to do about the designated hitter.

Furthermore, the steroids era has given way to the age of American-born players with beige personalities, seemingly ambling off a factory assembly line in monochromatic lockstep. The casual fan -- once familiar with Jeter, Bonds, Junior and The Big Unit -- rarely recognizes Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, much less Khris Davis, who has hit more home runs than anybody over the past three seasons.

These are challenging times for the popularity of these two American legacy sports, only one of which can anticipate the gift soon to be delivered.

Kyler Murray’s timing is impeccable. The two-sport star and Heisman Trophy winner’s choice to declare for the April 25 NFL draft is a stroke of luck for football and a stinging defeat for MLB, the Oakland A’s in particular.

For even with the A’s recent success and solid young core of players, tickets remain plentiful. The addition of Murray, drafted ninth overall by Oakland last June, would have sent a wave of enthusiasm throughout the organization.

“It’s franchise-changing when you have somebody like that,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco advertising executive and sports marketing analyst. “You can build your whole team around him. You can build your whole marketing plan around him. Merchandise becomes a huge thing. It can improve your TV deals. It can improve your sponsorship opportunities.

“It can completely turn around a franchise if this guy turns out to be all that he’s cracked up to be.”

The perfect package

Every NFL team is fantasizing about The Kyler Effect. All 32 were represented at Oklahoma's March 13 pro day, where he did little more than support his teammates between stepping on a scale in the morning and throwing 66 passes in the afternoon.

The Arizona Cardinals, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft, envision the quarterback as a catalyst for reviving their sagging fortunes. During his time as coach at Big 12 rival Texas Tech, first-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was so taken with Murray that his comments amounted to breathless admiration. Raiders coach Jon Gruden describes Murray as “like watching a video game,” insisting Derek Carr is his quarterback while clearly intrigued by Murray.

What’s not to like for a team and a league needing a lift? Murray comes with no visible red flags, is young at heart and conveys joy in the midst of mayhem. He can charm the elderly while also enthralling the fifth-grader.

The perfect baseball candidate would be a five-tool center fielder or shortstop. Murray plays center field.

The perfect football candidate would be a quarterback capable of sprinting through defenses and throwing over them. Murray is, ahem, that quarterback.

If this were an auction, the bidding between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred might go on for months, with Patriots owner Robert Kraft (under investigation) and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer (suspended without pay) leading cheers.

Murray fits the magnetism profile. Team owners see revenue. Coaches, scouts and fans swoon over his dual-threat talent. As a Korean-American, his multicultural ancestry (hello, young Tiger Woods) should, at least theoretically, broaden his appeal.

Murray’s ordinary stature, listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds at Oklahoma, invites skeptics -- some still question his height -- but also adds the underdog element that captivates the casual fan and opens the window to transcendency. He’s an instant name-brand star, with the potential to be a visible ambassador for a team and a league and a sport that needs as much positive recognition as it can get.

Consider: In a recent ESPN poll ranking the global fame of current athletes, MLB struck out among the top 50, and just two NFL players -- quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Cam Newton of the Panthers -- were included. The NBA, by contrast, had three in the top 11 (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry) and nine in the top 50.

The addition of Murray to the NFL has no less than national implications.

“It’s kind of a movie script,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “The ups of being the player he was in high school. Then he goes to Texas A&M, and the ups and downs he had there. And then he comes here and sits for a couple years. He’s a backup in football. He’s not playing that great in baseball in his first year.

“And then all of a sudden, he kind of gets settled in -- or however you want to describe it -- and then becomes a top-10 pick, most likely, in two different leagues. It’s just stupid. That’s just unheard of. You couldn’t even dream that up.”

Murray, 21, might have “settled in” with the Sooners last fall, but he also introduced himself to America beyond Texas. The junior did it with spectacular exploits, destroying opposing defenses with his arm and his legs, passing for 4,361 yards (42 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 more scores.

Not that any of this surprised the folks back home in Texas, where Murray’s career at suburban Allen High School, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas, was as celebrated as those of Lone Star legends Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson. The Eagles were undefeated (43-0) in Murray’s three seasons as the starter, with him passing and rushing for 186 touchdowns.

Sooner stardom

Murray initially chose to attend Texas A&M, where his father, Kevin, played quarterback 30 years earlier after a brief minor-league baseball career. That lasted one uneven season, during which the true freshman made three starts. Kyler announced during winter break that he was transferring, and one week later chose Oklahoma as his next stop.

The Sooners at the time were coached by Bob Stoops, the famous sideline presence who spent 18 seasons at Oklahoma before retiring in the summer of 2017 and endorsing Riley as his successor. Stoops could not have predicted Murray’s rise to the top of the NFL draft board, but he is not surprised.

“When I first laid eyes on him, he was a junior in high school and I saw him coming out of a weight room in Allen,” Stoops recalled. “He was put together physically even then. I tried to recruit him then and didn’t have much luck. But the second time, after leaving A&M, he called us, and we were elated to have him coming to Oklahoma.

“In fact, Lincoln’s comment watching his tape was, 'If Kyler comes to Oklahoma, he could win the Heisman Trophy.' I guess it was prophetic.”

Murray sat out the 2016 season by NCAA mandate, spent the ’17 season backing up eventual Heisman winner (and No. 1 draft pick) Baker Mayfield, and used the 2018 season to build such a remarkable brand that he has reached first-name-only identification.

That’s a by-product of piling up preposterous stats by throwing perfect 60-yard spirals over defenses, using 4.3 speed to dart through them, winning 12 of 14 games and, along with the Heisman, Associated Press Player of the Year honors and the Davey O’Brien Award, which signifies college football’s top quarterback.

Yet there are a few scattered skeptics. Some question Murray’s leadership, and one in particular, former general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, claims to have gotten a heavy dose of negative feedback from some of the teams that interviewed Murray at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

“These were the worst comments I ever got on a top-rated quarterback, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Casserly said on TV. “Leadership -- not good. Study habits -- not good. The board work -- below not good.”

Asked to evaluate his leadership, Murray responded logically: “Ask my teammates.”

Oklahoma coaches and teammates offer a vigorous defense of Murray’s toughness, knowledge -- he was on the Big 12's All-Academic second team -- and leadership.

“Kyler’s a different breed,” said Sooners offensive lineman Cody Ford, also projected as a first-round pick. “He’s a great leader and a great teammate. Even when he didn’t play, he was pushing everybody, pushing anybody. When he was sitting back watching Baker do his thing, he always took a leadership role. So, for somebody to say he’s not a leader is not right. They’re wrong in so many ways.”

After the decision

It’s not only what Murray has accomplished that impresses observers but how he has done it, skillfully straddling that subjective line between confidence and humility while offering up a face full of cherubim -- all of which sets him even further apart from other draft-eligible players.

“No. 1, he won the Heisman Trophy,” Dorfman said. “That’s no guarantee of future success, but it does put you at the top of the heap coming into the league. No. 2, the whole baseball versus football thing was, intentional or not, a brilliant marketing strategy. It made him much more popular and a topic of discussion. He became a subject on sports-talk radio, with everybody wanting to know if he was going to go with baseball or football. It made him stand out in ways that nobody else could.”

Murray says he grappled with the choice, and there are reasons to take him at his word. Drafted ninth overall by the A’s last June, he quickly came to the Oakland Coliseum with his family, signed a $4.66 million contract -- with a $1.5 million bonus -- before donning the green and gold, grabbing a bat and taking a few swings.

A’s baseball boss Billy Beane that day described Murray as “arguably one of the most dynamic athletes” drafted in his 29 years as a scout and executive. The A’s approved of Murray’s decision to play football last fall. Represented by super-agent Scott Boras, they also expected him to choose baseball.

Though Murray has returned about $1.3 million in bonus money and forfeited the additional $3.16 million, he acknowledges that informing the A’s of his decision was not an easy conversation.

“At the end of the day, they drafted me. In my heart, I'll always feel like I'll be an A just because they took the time to do that, and obviously it's a dream come true to be drafted No. 9, first round,” he told Dallas sports-talk station KTCK-AM last month. “It was definitely tough. It's not like breaking up with a girlfriend, but it was hard to have that conversation for sure."

The A’s declined to comment for this story, citing they still own the rights to Murray and implying they still hope he’ll someday join the organization. Asked about a future in baseball, Murray gives himself an invisible fraction of wiggle room.

“I love baseball. I’ve always loved baseball,” he said. “I don’t know why everyone is trying to make me un-love baseball. I grew up playing baseball and football and basketball. But, at the end of the day, I can’t play both. Is it out of my system? I guess. But I don’t know.”

NFL teams don’t care. They are content to accept that Murray’s passion for football trumps his love for baseball. They’ve studied the video. They’ve met with him. They’ve tested him.

They also sense someone with his backstory and electric skills potentially can be a star off the field.

“He’s special,” said 86-year-old Gil Brandt, the godfather of NFL personnel men. “I don’t know that staying (at Oklahoma) for another year would do him any good. The way the league is going, with movement at quarterback, his timing is pretty good. He just has to get to the right situation. If he does, he’s going to be really good.

“If he goes first to the Cardinals, can you imagine the excitement in Arizona?”

Long and short of it

The blueprint for NFL quarterbacks indeed is changing. New Orleans' Drew Brees, at 6 feet, has won a Super Bowl. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, at 5-11, also has one ring and was within a questionable play-call of a second.

Noting the doubters, his smallish physique and running ability, some NFL teams believe Murray is the man who can silence once and for all the debate at about a quarterback whether a “small,” dual-threat quarterback can thrive in the league.

“I haven’t really thought too much about it, but I think it’s a cool deal, being different and not marginalizing shorter quarterbacks just because they’re not as tall,” Murray said. “I go out and play the game at my height -- whether it’s 5-9 or 5-10 -- I just love playing the game. I love to win. The fact that I might be able to change it is pretty cool.”

Wherever Murray lands, the hype will burn hot enough and high enough to leave a vapor trail. He’s the Golden Child the NFL badly needs, and the league surely will put his wholesome mug in front of as many cameras as it can find.

It’s a lot to live up to, but Murray comes with a cheering section befitting Superman in a modest physical package.

“The $4.66 million contract he got from the A’s, he’s going to make that in endorsements in the NFL,” Dorfman said. “Probably in his first year.”

Had Murray chosen baseball and the A’s, he’d likely be living in the Stockton area as a member of the Ports, Oakland's Class-A affiliate. He’d be bracing for months of cheap chow on long bus rides between two- and three-star hotels.

The Ports open their season Thursday at 5,200-seat Banner Island Ballpark. Even with the nice yard and the good crowd, they’ll miss Murray more than he’ll miss them.