Chicago Fire

Penn State's program is far from dead

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Penn State's program is far from dead

From Comcast SportsNet
The mere suggestion that NCAA sanctions against Penn State were worse than receiving the so-called death penalty were enough to make first-year coach Bill O'Brien raise his voice a notch. "No. We are playing football," O'Brien said forcefully during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We open our season on Sept. 1 in front of 108,000 strong against Ohio University. We're playing football and we're on TV. We get to practice. We get to get better as football players, and get to do it for Penn State." The NCAA crushed Penn State with scholarship reductions that could be felt for much of this decade and a bowl ban over the next four seasons. But it stopped short of handing down the death penalty, forcing the school to shut down the program the way it did to SMU in 1987. It is fair to wonder if Penn State football will ever be what it once was: a perennial Top 20 program that routinely contended for Big Ten championships and occasionally national titles. But to suggest that Penn State's punishment is comparable to or worse than SMU's is to forget just how difficult it has been for the Mustangs to recover. And make no mistake, 25 years later, SMU football is still recovering. "Until you've completely killed a program, it's hard to understand all that it takes for a program to operate on a day-to-day basis," said Andy Bergfeld, a receiver on SMU's 1989 team, its first after the death penalty. "The fact that SMU had to start completely from scratch -- they went from playing in Texas Stadium to converting their 1920 home stadium into a place we could play our home games -- it was very, very difficult. I think Penn State, when all the dust settles, will have a lot better chance to recover more quickly." As difficult as it will be for Penn State to deal with having no more than 65 scholarship players for four years (their opponents will have 85) it's a whole lot better than having no scholarship players at all. SMU's program was shuttered by the NCAA for one year because it was a repeat offender found to be systematically paying players and that high-ranking university officials knew about the payments. The NCAA allowed SMU players to transfer without restrictions after the punishment was handed down, just as it is doing with Penn State players. With no chance of playing until at least 1988, just about all of the Mustangs left. "It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team," said Mitchell Glieber, who was a redshirt freshman on SMU's 1986 team, the last one before the sanctions. "If you had aspirations of playing football beyond college there was no choice." As of Tuesday, Penn State has not lost a current player. No doubt defections will come, and O'Brien has said that right now keeping his team together is his top priority. Glieber felt that professional football was probably not in his future back in the late 80s, so he stuck it out at SMU, along with a handful of other players, mostly former walk-ons. SMU canceled the 1988 season as well, though it was allowed to hire a coach -- former Green Bay Packers great and Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, an SMU alum, was brought in -- and the team began practicing. "The caliber of talent between the pre-death penalty and the post-death penalty were absolutely night and day," said Glieber, who is now the vice president of marketing for the Texas State Fair. "In the first few weeks of practice I was just in disbelief about the level of players we had out there." SMU also had scholarship limits placed on the program by the NCAA and the school had responded to the scandal by drastically raising the academic standards for athletes, Glieber said. Glieber looked at the team SMU was hoping to compete with Southwest Conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M and thought: "Can this group of guys stay healthy and continue to field a team week to week?" "It was pretty bleak looking to be honest with you." SMU, remarkably, won two games its first season back. But the program was a wreck. When the Southwest Conference broke up, many of the top programs from that league ended up in the Big 12. SMU was cast aside. It is not unreasonable to think that the Big Ten, with multimillion dollar television contracts to fulfill that require 12 teams, would not have held a spot for Penn State if it had been given the death penalty. Instead, the Big Ten will withhold Penn State's portion of the conference's shared bowl revenue while the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the postseason. That will cost Penn State about 13 million. But the Nittany Lions will still get to have their games shown on the Big Ten Network. And probably on ESPN and ABC. The spotlight will still be on Penn State football, and that could be a good thing. The day after the NCAA's hammer dropped on Penn State, O'Brien made the media rounds, answering questions about how he will go about trying to lead the Nittany Lions through the difficult times that lie ahead. Mostly, though, O'Brien was delivering the message that there are still plenty of reasons to play football at Penn State. The former New England offensive coordinator and Joe Paterno's replacement ticked off the reasons several times. -- A chance to get a great education; -- The ability to "play football on TV in front of 108,000 fans" at Beaver Stadium; -- To be able to play "six or seven bowl games a year right here in State College in front of great fans"; -- His staff's ability to develop players for the NFL. And he left off a couple of others. Most likely, fans will still come to Beaver Stadium. College football weekends are about more than the game. They are about reunions of friends and family, a chance to cook out on crisp autumn days. Those things won't change in Happy Valley. Also, while a four-year bowl ban sounds tough, think about it like this. An incoming freshman who redshirts for a year -- retaining four years of eligibility -- will be able to play for the blue and white in a bowl his senior season. O'Brien has already shown signs of being a stellar recruiter. He was putting together a class that recruiting analysts were high on before the sanctions. Analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports said that he thinks the first two years under the sanctions will be lean, but O'Brien can start selling recruits a future with bowl games and Big Ten titles by Year 3 and Penn State could be back on track in five years. "It's all about the optimism and the ability to sell the future to these kids," Lemming said. O'Brien said he found out exactly what the sanctions were at the same time as everyone else, when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced them at a news conference Monday morning. Before they came down, O'Brien said he told his bosses what he wanted: "Let us play football and let us be on TV." "At the end of the day that's what you want to do: play football in a fantastic, beautiful stadium and you want your fans that can't go to the game to watch you on TV." It sure beats not playing at all.

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez still 'searching' for potential summer additions

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Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez still 'searching' for potential summer additions

The summer transfer window in Major League Soccer has been open for a couple weeks and the Chicago Fire may make a couple moves before it closes on August 9.

Those moves may not necessarily affect the regular starting lineup, but Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said on Friday that they continue to seek out options to add depth to the team’s defense and that they may need another goalkeeper with Jorge Bava possibly being out for the season.

Bava, a 35 year-old from Uruguay who joined the Fire in January, has been out with what the club is calling left elbow tendinitis. He started the first eight matches of the season, but lost his starting job to Matt Lampson in May. He hasn’t been available as a sub since he was the backup June 4 in Orlando. Bava has been limited in training recently while wearing a brace on his left arm.

Rodriguez said Bava will go on the disabled list. While he is on the disabled list, he would not take up an international spot but would still count against the team’s salary cap.

“If he ends up needing surgery, which I think is likely, then his season will likely be lost and that international spot will open up, but there’s no budget room,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez added that if Bava is out for the season that will “require us to consider looking for another goalkeeper.” The Fire have two others on the roster in Lampson and rookie Stefan Cleveland, who hasn’t played for the Fire and has made only one appearance for USL affiliate Tulsa.

Slightly further up the field, defensive depth is something Rodriguez mentioned the team needed more of back in May. There are still only three centerbacks on the roster in Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira and Jonathan Campbell. A significant injury to any of those three would significantly hamper Veljko Paunovic’s options and flexibility, especially considering his tendency to use all three on the field in a tactical shift on occasion.

Justin Bilyeu, a 23-year-old former New York Red Bulls defender and former college teammate of Fire defender Matt Polster, has been training with the Fire for the past couple weeks. Bilyeu spent most of the past two seasons with the Red Bulls’ USL team before being waived on June 28. In addition, Cuban left back Jorge Corrales, who is currently a Tulsa player, was in training with the Fire this week, but is set to return to Tulsa for the Roughnecks’ next match on Monday.

“We have brought a couple players in on trial this week,” Rodriguez said of the pursuit of defensive depth. “We’ve spoken to a couple teams within the league. We continue to follow some targets, but we have not settled on a specific player to pursue. I don’t think we have yet felt comfortable with what we have in the pipeline, but we’ll keep searching.”

Rodriguez said the team is also looking at improving the midfield, but believes they are “pretty set” at forward. He wouldn’t comment on the rumors of Colombian playmaker Juan Quintero. The latest on that front is a tweet from Taylor Twellman saying the deal isn’t dead even though Quintero extended his loan with Colombian club DIM.


With the Fire sitting in second place in MLS, Rodriguez admitted his three-year plan for the team has been “accelerated a bit.” Rodriguez has a chance to put the cherry on top of a roster that has proven to be one of the best in the league to this point in the season. Is there more urgency to try to boost a team that appears to be a championship contender?

“There’s always a temptation to think ‘Oh man, we’re right there and if we get this piece it will just push us over the top.’ We remind ourselves all the time to refer back to our plan, to look at the opportunity to try to calculate what the knock on effects, positive and negative may be for the future, because ultimately we want to keep this good thing going for a run and a run isn’t one season.

“If something makes sense to us when you think it fits into the development of that championship program, we’ll do it. Just as we’ve been unable to add that backline depth all year long, we won’t do something just to check a box on a list. We’ll only do it if we think it makes sense in the overall context of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Tommy Wingels on 'cloud nine' getting to suit up for hometown Blackhawks

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AP

Tommy Wingels on 'cloud nine' getting to suit up for hometown Blackhawks

Tommy Wingels remembers his Chicago youth hockey days. A native of Wilmette, Wingels said the leagues were pretty good then but nothing like the opportunities area kids have to play hockey here now.

“This city has so many youth programs, so much ability for kids to play at every level. If they want to travel, pursue it professionally, if they want to go to college or they just want to enjoy it because their buddies play it. You can do it everywhere around here, and it’s such a unique aspect,” said Wingels. “I think the expectation has changed now. Kids think everyone can make it now. Back then, nobody thought they would make it.”

Count Wingels among those who wasn’t sure he’d make it. But he did, and on July 1 he made a childhood dream come true when he signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. Wingels was elated when Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville called him about his potential signing. The details of those calls? Well, those are a little sketchy.

“I don’t even remember half the stuff they said to me because you’re on cloud nine and you’re saying, ‘Yeah, when can we sign and where?’” Wingels said at the Blackhawks convention on Saturday. “My wife commented on how big of a smile I had [walking] off our porch and back into the living room. It was very exciting.”

As a kid growing up in the Chicago area, Wingels played plenty of travel hockey. He watched the Blackhawks when he could, trying to catch what games were on television at that time. But the thought of playing in the NHL, let alone suiting up for the Blackhawks someday, wasn’t in his mind at that time.

“I wouldn’t say until the middle of high school did I ever think playing professional hockey was a possibility,” Wingels said. “Coming into high school you think college might be one [possibility]. But not until then did I ever talk about it or think about it.”

Wingels said he talked to a good deal of teams in 2006, the first year he was eligible for the NHL Draft, but he wasn’t selected that summer or the next. It wasn’t until the 2008 NHL Entry Draft that former Blackhawks defenseman/now San Jose general manager Doug Wilson picked Wingels, then playing for Miami University, in the sixth round. Wingels was a steady presence for five-plus seasons with the Sharks, putting up career numbers in goals (16), assists (22) and points (38) in the 2013-14 season. Wingels is forever grateful to Wilson for the opportunity.

“He’s the No. 1 reason why I’ve had an NHL career,” Wingels said. “[He had] the confidence to draft me and he was extremely patient in developing me through my years at Miami. He’s one of the best guys I’ve met in the game and I’ve enjoyed all the interactions we’ve had with him. He’s a guy I’ll definitely keep in touch with while I’m here and for many years.”

On the ice, Wingels should help the Blackhawks’ penalty kill and add some necessary grit – “bring in some sandpaper, finish checks and at the same time chip in some goals, all kind of things I think [Quenneville] and Stan expect me to bring here,” he said. Wingels has gone on long postseason runs (2016 Stanley Cup final with the Sharks and the 2017 Eastern Conference final with the Ottawa Senators), and he can be another veteran voice and presence for the Blackhawks’ young players.

“Your star players will lead and be the best players that they are. But for a young guy coming up on the third or fourth line sometimes it’s tough for those guys to relate to the star players, not because what the star players do but they’re guys who are up and down and they’re guys who have different roles. [I’ll] be a part of that group who can help transition the young players, who can play a similar role to some of those other players and be a sounding board for guys as well. I’m 29 now. I feel young but somehow I’ve become a veteran. So I’ll just try to help out any way I can.”

As excited as Wingels is to be home, he said his family may be more so. His parents, Bob and Karen, get to spend more time with Wingels’ 1 ½-year old daughter. The Wingels are close to Scott Darling’s family, and know from the Darlings how great it was to have their son play here.

Wingels grew up wondering how far hockey would take him. Now it’s bringing him back home.

“It didn’t take long to decide this is where we want to be. My wife is extremely happy – she lived here a couple of years out of college and knows the city very well – and I have a ton of friends here with my family being from here,” Wingels said. “It’s going to be a fun year for us and I can’t wait to get started.”