Somewhat Speechless

Posted: July 19, 2014 in Uncategorized
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I’m guessing this is the only time I will be in the same story/blog as legendary basketball coach Bobby Cremins. I appreciate Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer — and good friend — Ken Sugiura dedicating a large piece of his blog to me.

You can read it here.

In my previous career my job was very much behind-the-scenes. Sure, every now and then I’d be quoted in the paper as “an athletic department spokesperson,” but my job was to generate publicity for just about everyone but me. So, I’m a little embarrassed but really flattered by what Ken wrote.

It’s nice to know some people appreciate your work.

 

The official preseason ACC rankings come out later this week when media flocks to Greensboro (N.C.) for the annual ACC Kickoff, and two things are certain.

First, Florida State will be picked to win the Atlantic Division – as the loaded Seminoles should be – although it won’t be unanimous. Some writer, wearing an faded orange polo from 1997 and representing a low country website, will not only pick the Tigers to finish first, he’ll vote Florida State in fourth place for good measure.

Secondly, Georgia Tech won’t get much respect. The voting will mirror that of most national preseason publications which project the Yellow Jackets to finish somewhere between fourth and sixth place in the Coastal Division.

Welcome to Groundhog Day in the Triad area of North Carolina where every year Georgia Tech is projected to finish lower than, well, just about everyone.

And every year Paul Johnson’s teams exceed those expectations.

It’s true, look it up. Since Johnson arrived in 2008, no ACC team has exceeded preseason expectations more than Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, and it’s not close.

You would think after six years of under-rating Tech, the “experts” might know better.

This year those experts will see that the Yellow Jackets return just 10 starters and they’ll think: “This is the year the bowl streak (17 consecutive) comes to an end. This is the year Tech finishes below .500 in the ACC (most Tech players weren’t yet born the last time that happened).”

I say Georgia Tech will be better than almost anyone thinks this fall, and here are five reasons why:

1. The schedule is manageable

Unlike some previous years, Georgia Tech doesn’t have the ridiculous task of playing a division rival on just five days rest. No Thursday night games, no Labor Day games in Blacksburg, no mid-season road games in Provo, Utah, and for the love of Dodd, no game in Clemson for the first time since 2011.

The Yellow Jackets don’t play Florida State and they play Clemson in Bobby Dodd Stadium, a place the Tigers haven’t won since ’03. There are games against NC State and Virginia, two teams that combined to go 0-16 in conference play last year, and games vs. Duke and North Carolina, which Paul Johnson has beaten a combined 11 times in 12 meetings over the last six years.

2. The quarterback situation is better

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So., QB, Justin Thomas

I think a lot of Vad Lee, who transferred to James Madison following a season in which he started all 13 games at quarterback. I hope he has a very productive career with the Dukes.

Georgia Tech, however, will be more productive at quarterback this season. Both sophomore Justin Thomas and junior Tim Byerly, although different in style, have both bought-in to the offense.

How Johnson uses the QBs this fall – whether it’s almost exclusively Thomas, one of the fastest quarterbacks in college football, or some type of combination of Thomas and Byerly, a tough kid with a good arm – will be fascinating to watch.

3. Special teams have a chance to be… special

It wasn’t that long ago when Virginia Tech returned a kickoff for a touchdown that cost the Yellow Jackets a victory in Blacksburg. There was also a muffed punt in Miami that the Hurricanes recovered for a touchdown, a mishandled kickoff at Clemson that was downed at the 1 and a missed PAT, of all things, that prevented the Jackets from a fourth-quarter tie at UGA.

While Tech’s special teams have improved over the years, those remain painful memories for Tech faithful.

With who the Yellow Jackets return on special teams, combined with the addition of new coordinator Ray Rychleski, I believe this is the season that Tech wins a game (or two) on special teams.

Even Johnson, who rarely gives such accolades in July, said that sophomore kicker Harrison Butker has a chance to be one of the best in the nation. Punter Ryan Rodwell started half of the 2012 season before redshirting last year, and the Yellow Jackets rarely punt anyway. Tech even has two dependable long snappers.

The real strength, however, should be in the return game. Junior Jamal Golden ranked in the top 10 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns in 2012 before missing most of 2013 with an injury. Sophomores Lynn Griffin and Dennis Andrews have potential to be equally dangerous. Senior DeAndre Smelter was one of the ACC’s better punt returners last season.

4. The defense will be as good, if not better

“How could that be possible?” you ask.

Georgia Tech can’t replace defensive Jeremiah Attaochu, the school’s all-time sacks leader, and Jemea Thomas, one of Tech’s most versatile and productive defensive backs in the Paul Johnson era. Those guys now play for the Chargers and Patriots, respectively.

While Tech will sorely miss Attaochu and Thomas – and the Jackets took a kick to the shin when junior Jabari Hunt-Days, a possible replacement for Attaochu, was suspended for academic reasons – I believe the returning Yellow Jacket players begin to fully grasp defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s system in this, Roof’s second season.

And, it’s not like the cupboard is bare.

Junior tackle Adam Gotsis has a chance to be one of the ACC’s premier linemen and the Australian gives Tech a pass rush, albeit from the interior. Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy just keeps getting better and more productive each season. With senior Isaiah Johnson, who missed last season to recover from a knee injury, returning to action, I think the Yellow Jackets will be improved in the secondary.

5. The big-play threat is back on offense

Since Johnson arrived at Tech prior to the 2008 season, the offense has never been a liability. In fact, over the last six years combined, no team in college football has rushed for more yards and the Yellow Jackets always seem to score plenty of points.

Missing the past three seasons, however, has been the true big-play threat. While this roster may not include a Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer or Anthony Allen, collectively this group may be Tech’s most explosive since 2009.

Where’s this explosiveness going to come from? It starts up front where the offensive line should be a little better, a little deeper and led by senior Shaquille Mason, a legitimate All-American candidate. Behind that line I believe senior B-back Zach Laskey rushes for 1,000 yards this fall. And when the defense puts nine in the box, Tech should be able to throw it better than last season when the Jackets ranked dead last (123rd) nationally in completion percentage.

The bottom line is that Georgia Tech – Johnson’s teams in particular – seem to thrive when the Yellow Jackets can muster that us-against-the-world mentality. Prior to the 2008 season, Sports Illustrated projected Johnson’s first Yellow Jacket team to finish 3-9. All Tech did that season was win nine games including victories against Georgia, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Pick the Yellow Jackets near the bottom of the Coastal Division at your own risk.

I think I brought bad luck to Atlanta when I arrived here from North Carolina in July of 2007.

Soon after I got here, Atlanta suffered its worst drought in a century, there was the financial crisis that impacted everyone, a tornado that blew through downtown Atlanta (apparently for the first time in history), Michael Vick went to prison and the Thrashers went to Canada.

While there were signs that an Apocalypse – not to be confused with Atlanta’s Snowpocalypse of both 2011 and 2014 – was on the horizon, I began the first of seven enjoyable, memorable years at Georgia Tech.

It’s a special place.

Georgia Tech recruits good, smart kids who did everything I asked of them as assistant athletic director for media relations. Even after some heart-breaking defeats, I never had to drag any of our football players kicking and screaming to a press conference. They handled those situations like men, which is what they soon become after arriving here.

It is gratifying to me that I maintain relationships with many former players and I enjoyed getting to know the third-string walk-on kicker just as much as the starting quarterback.

I’d like to thank every current and former Tech football player, coach and support staff member that I’ve had the pleasure to work with the last seven years. I’d list them all, but you’d get pretty bored reading a list of 400 names. I’d list just a few, but then I’d leave out so many good friends that I will miss working with.

While it’s dangerous to begin listing individuals, I would be reluctant not to mention head coach Paul Johnson, who I pestered about doing media interviews and who made me the subject of many good-natured jokes, almost daily, for the last six years.

Paul’s door was always open to me. I never had to make an appointment to see the head coach. In fact, many of our two-minute meetings ended up lasting 45 minutes. That line of communication is important (and rare) to a media relations director. I’ll always appreciate him for that.

I should also thank former associate athletic director Wayne Hogan and former Voice of the Yellow Jackets Wes Durham for convincing me to come here, and former athletic director Dan Radakovich for listening to Hogan.

One time I left a Christmas Party hosted by Hogan and his wife, Dawn, without telling anyone. I slipped out with stealth-like precision, avoiding all peer pressure to stay for one more round or getting hammered with jokes about getting old.

Hogan called it: The Montana Exit. Frankly, I thought it was a term he concocted when he was athletic director at the University of Montana. Turns out I gave him too much credit.

Truth is, I stink at good-byes. My philosophy is: unless you’re ending a relationship, moving to another country or lying on a death bed, I don’t see the need for good-byes when it’s entirely possible you’ll see me at the grocery store tomorrow.

Today is my last day in the office at Georgia Tech. It’s sad to leave, although I’m excited about the next stage (more on that in a future post).

Today seems like a perfect day for a Montana Exit.

U.S. Open - Final Round

I’ve watched more of the U.S. Open this week than I’d normally watch a golf tournament, even a major like this one. There’s something about seeing your hometown on national television that has drawn my attention, and I’m not sure why.

It’s not like I’m going to see a familiar face on television. Although, it’s entirely possible one of my old high school buddies could, in their worst German accent, yell “You Da Man!” after a Martin Kaymer tee shot Sunday afternoon.

I think I’m watching because it brings back some good memories of growing up in a special place.

Truth is I’m not from Pinehurst, I’m from Southern Pines (population: 13,000) – Pinehurst’s less-stuffy, more-diverse neighbor in central North Carolina. I grew up about five miles from Pinehurst’s famed No. 2 course, home this week to the U.S. Open.

Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Whispering Pines, Pine Bluff and every other hamlet that includes the word “pine” in the name form the heart of the Sandhills region.

Not familiar with the Sandhills? Twenty million years ago – back when Angel Jimenez was just a tour rookie – the area represented the coastline, back when oceans were higher and land lower (I looked this up on Wikipedia).

If my parents decide to sell their house, I suggest they advertise it beachfront property. Never mind the closest ocean is about 120 miles to the east.

That’s your geography lesson for the day.

When you grow up in the Sandhills, golf permeates your life. It’s not that I played that much golf. We couldn’t afford those lofty green fees, but my buddies and I were exceptional at sneaking on the third hole at Hyland Hills Golf Club at dusk and getting in three holes before the assistant club pro threatened to call the cops.

Golf is everywhere in the Sandhills. There’s approximately 50 golf courses in Moore County alone.

In high school, I had a summer job at Pinehurst Country Club, working every day from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. parking, cleaning and charging some 200 golf carts. The job was minimum wage but included one of the great all-time perks. Once my shift was over, I could play a round of golf – sans a cart, of course – on any of Pinehurst’s great courses, with one exception.

The No. 2 course was off limits.

Still, what a great deal for a 16-year old. My friends and I would get off work at 11, jump on the No. 4 or No. 6 course before noon for 18 holes, hurry home for dinner, then play American Legion baseball that night. That’s a full day. And a damn fun one, too.

Near the end of my final summer as a cart boy, the clubhouse suits relented one day and allowed us one shot at the famed No. 2 course. They gave us a tee time around 4 p.m., when the members and paying customers were on their third martini in the 19th hole. Without carts and forced to play in foursomes, we didn’t even have enough time to finish 18 holes.

Looking back, that day reminds me of the scene in Caddyshack when Bushwood allowed the caddies to use the pool from 1 to 1:15.

That was my only shot at the No. 2 course, but I can forever claim that I broke 100. No one needs to know that darkness forced us to quit after 15 holes.

Remembering Mike Antle

Posted: June 14, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Antle

Mike Antle (2011 photo)

 

Mike Antle died today and that makes me sick to my stomach.

You may not have known Mike, although if you attended Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines (NC), you heard of him. He was a high school baseball phenom, a legend, one of the most intimidating, hard-throwing pitchers and free-swinging power hitters I’ve ever seen in person.

Mike was just four years older than me, but I idolized him. I was a 15-year old pimple-faced freshman playing on the junior varsity team. Mike was an imposing, extremely confident senior leader of the varsity team, the 1979 team that was the best in school history, producing a 24-2 record and cruising to a state championship.

One of those losses – a 1-0 defeat to arch-rival Richmond County – still bothers me today, even though I watched it from the bleachers that night. Tim Maples, the team’s other pitching ace, struck out 17 batters and allowed just one hit. Pinecrest lost the game when the home plate umpire called a catcher’s balk when Maples was intentionally walking a batter with a runner on third base.

A catcher’s balk!

Here’s how dominating Mike Antle was as a senior. He batted over .500 and was 12-0 on the mound.

It’s funny, the things you remember when you’re 15.

Pinecrest played Charlotte Garinger in the state championship (best 2-of-3) series. In the top of the first, Garinger’s lead-off batter singled off of Maples to right field. Bruce Cole, our sophomore right fielder, threw the guy out at first base from right field.

In the bottom of the first inning, Pinecrest shortstop Scott Jordan was warming up in the on-deck circle when Mike’s dad, Bob, a remarkable baseball man, called Jordan over to the chain-link fence near the home dugout. He told Scott that the opposing pitcher was extremely fond of throwing first-pitch fastballs for strikes.

Scott hit the first pitch out of the park. For all purposes, game over, series over.

Man, I wanted to be as good as Mike Antle. I only lacked the size, skill and athletic ability.

I wish I had of told him that.

Mike actually reached out to me via Facebook a little over a year ago when Atlanta was hosting the Final Four. His next-door neighbors were at the games and he asked me if I would go find them in their upper level seats and say hello. I was glad to do it, of course, and Mike seemed to get a kick out of it from Montana, where he was living.

My old teammate, Bill Hall, was kind enough to let me know earlier today that Mike probably didn’t have much time left.

A few hours later I saw that he had passed away.

That makes me sad because Mike was too young to die, too strong to be overtaken by cancer. It makes me sick that I didn’t try harder to stay in touch. I wish I had told him how big of an impression he made on me.

May 22, 2014 — Being in the same room with Joe Hamilton when the former Yellow Jacket great found out he was selected for the College Football Hall of Fame was priceless. I caught his great reaction on my iPhone.

Video  —  Posted: June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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