Self-serving College Football Elite Got What They Wanted

The self-serving college football elite got what they wanted: An end to the UCF Cinderella Knights’ remarkable 25-game regular season winning streak. It ended Saturday in Pittsburgh with a one-point, 35-34, last-minute escape by the Pitt Panthers, a certified member of one of the so-called Power Five conferences.

For more than two years, the Knights have been a burr in the Power Five saddles, threatening to horn in on the elites’ rich playoff pot of gold. The big boys became outspoken critics of the Knights’ alleged soft schedule — a result of numerous Power Five schools refusing to schedule the Knights after they began knocking off traditional powers like Auburn, Baylor, et al, and having a game against Georgia Tech cancelled by a hurricane last year. The big boys sneered at UCF for playing non-conference foes the likes of Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic, all the while failing to point out that even schools in the Power Five SEC and ACC softened their own 2019 schedules with off-Broadway cupcakes such as Samford, N Mexico State, Murray State, Western Kentucky, Lamar, Portland State, UT Martin, Towson, William & Mary, Old Dominion, Richmond, The Citadel, Bethune-Cookman, Wofford, Mercer, Holy Cross, Alabama State and the ever-powerful Elon.

Those big boys and their sycophant media are now celebrating that the UCF streak ended with a 1-point loss on the road at Pitt despite an undersized freshman quarterback filling in for the magical but injured McKenzie Milton. One Ohio columnist claimed UCF never deserved a spot in the final four playoff because of its schedule and the “fact” that it was a small school “somewhere in Florida.”

Memo to that lazy journalist: Had you done your homework, you would have found that UCF is the largest university in the nation by enrollment, having recently passed your beloved Ohio State. Today, that guy is doubtless celebrating as if the Knights had been waxed in Pittsburgh by several touchdowns. In fact, UCF has been doing the waxing, dispatching its first three opponents this season by lop-sided, embarrassing scores, including Power Five headliner Stanford just last week.

Another critic, a college football rating service, now snidely puts UCF’s chances of gaining a berth in the playoffs at a demeaning one-tenth of one percent, even if the Knights run the table on its remaining schedule. But finishing with that 1-point loss to Pitt as the sole blemish on this season, will be tough because most remaining games are against the rapidly rising American Athletic Conference. Several fellow AAC members have begun knocking off Power Five teams. In addition to UCF’s romp over Stanford, Memphis beat Ole Miss, SMU upset TCU and Cincinnati upset UCLA just in the first month of this season.

You can’t tell the red faces for all the red faces.

No doubt the Power Five Ranking Committee will censure those athletic directors for being so foolish to put some AAC teams on their schedule, thinking when those contracts were made several years earlier the unwashed opponents would provide guaranteed wins (and bowl bids) for the big boys.

When the current college football playoffs were adopted a few years ago, the Committee claimed their goal was to identify a true No. 1.

No, they were instead looking out for No. 1. Themselves.

This post originally appeared September 23, 2019 at, based in Brevard County, Florida.

The George Bush I Came to Know

During those checkered three decades when I avoided real work by, instead, writing sports columns and books, I was privileged to have interaction with many famous and powerful individuals. Among the most impactful and telling were those several times when I shared moments with the late George H.W. Bush.

Those moments spawned and increasingly confirmed my view of President Bush as not only a man of high integrity, but endearing and genuine humility. Unlike too many egotistical coaches and overpaid me-me-me athletes I often suffered, President Bush exuded the aura of the unpretentious man next door.

My first personal exposure to him came in the Bay Hill Club locker room the day before he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.He had just completed his final rallies in central Florida and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon with old friend Arnold Palmer. He chatted warmly with those of us in the room, then asked Arnie if someone could give him a ride to the Orlando airport. Like one of us great unwashed, he had planned to fly commercially to Houston that evening to cast his vote the next day and join his family and staff to watch the election returns. The sitting president??!! Trudging through a busy airport and finding his seat next to his two-man Secret Service detail??

Arnie would have none of it. Over Bush’s objections, Palmer made a quick call and, within hours, personally flew Bush to Houston in Arnie’s executive jet.

I was aware that Bush — an avid golfer despite his bedeviled putting — served as honorary U.S. team captain at the Ryder Cup matches at the Brookline Club outside Boston and became enamored with gregarious champion golfer Payne Stewart. While walking along observing one of his teammates’ matches, Stewart spotted George and Barbara Bush sitting inside the gallery ropes by a large tree. Knowing how approachable Bush was, Payne stopped, sat down and chatted at length with them. The friendship would grow with each additional encounter. 

A few years later, while writing a book about Payne after he perished in a plane mishap, I managed to get a request to  the ex-president, asking if he would consider writing the book’s foreword. He agreed and roughed out his thoughts on Stewart in a personal letter that is now framed and cherished above my desk.

In simple, but moving declarative sentences, he expressed his admiration for Payne and deep remorse for his premature death. “Barbara and I will always treasure that private little visit” at the Ryder Cup, he wrote, adding: “We were touched by his warmth and his humor … What a lovely man. Everybody who knew him, everyone who loves golf will miss him for years to come.”

There was a humble P.S. scrawled at the bottom: “Please correct my spelling or grammar if needed.”

In a more recent time, I found myself at tony Sea Island Club in Georgia, researching a magazine piece on the club’s very upscale new golf clinic instructed by two PGA Champions Tour stars. When I noticed from my hotel window a long line of sheriff’s cruisers stopped near the hotel entrance, I asked and was told it was for security for ex-President Bush, who would be addressing an economic conference that evening at the hotel. He thanked the sheriff for his concern but asked that the troopers be dismissed for “more important” duties so that other hotel guests would be at ease to chat. 

I found him in the lobby doing exactly that. I re-introduced myself as that pest who hounded him into writing that Payne book foreword. He brightened and generously applauded the book, thanking me for the signed copy I had sent. Then came the humor and that omnipresent humility: “I hope that (foreword) didn’t cost you too many sales,” he laughed.

To the contrary. When I told my publisher that Bush had committed to the foreword, he was ecstatic and declared that little “With Reflections by President George Bush” at the bottom of the dust jacket would reap an “additional 10,000 book sales.” 

The publisher underestimated Bush’s strong appeal. The book made several best-seller lists.

This post originally appeared in the Orange Observer, December 2018.

Reflections on Arnold Palmer

arnie cover 2Arnold Palmer, no longer with us, still stands tall as an example of what we should all strive to be. He became one of the most endearing and trusted sports figures of all time, a status he parlayed into massive endorsement income long after his playing days were over.

Arnie passed Sunday afternoon at the age of 87 following several months of failing health after years of charging through life earning our admiration with thrilling go-for-broke golf and that endearing everyman image.

There was a key architect who molded his exemplary character and winsome public interaction. Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, a western Pennsylvania institution, relentlessly instilled in his children the proper respect for others, even if the lesson had to be applied to his famous golfing son at the height of Arnie’s global fame.

The year was 1964 and the tournament was the PGA Championship in Columbus, Ohio. The Palmers, father and son, had just returned from the course and Arnie was attempting to make a left turn into his hotel entrance across two lanes of heavy, oncoming traffic. A traffic cop waved him off and Arnie circled the block, only to find himself in the same predicament.

Arnie, then thirty-four, cranked down the window, poked his head out, and appealed to the policeman. “You know who I am? I’m Arnold Palmer and I need to turn in there to my hotel.”

Holding his ground, the unawed policeman tersely instructed Arnie to move along. The car shot forward and smoke billowed from Arnie’s ears. But his anger paled in comparison to the sudden eruption from his passenger.

“Son, I don’t care who you are–Arnold Palmer or who!” Deacon glowered. “You had no business trying to steamroll that policeman and he was perfectly right to make you go around!”

It was a booster shot of humility that has been only occasionally needed and rarely forgotten by Arnie.

“Deacon taught his son the straight and narrow of life,” said the late Mark McCormack, Arnie’s longtime agent, “and wanted to make damned sure his son stayed on it. He had a huge influence on Arnold throughout his career. We all are trying to prove ourselves to somebody or get the approval of somebody, and in Arnold’s case that somebody was his father.”

Right uo to and including his final days, Arnie spoke with ever-growing appreciation for the tough Scottish-Irish values instilled in him by his “Pap.” Incidents of boorish or disrespectful behavior by sports’contemporary bad boys invariably move Arnie to suggest the athlete in point should have had someone “to crack down on him like I had.”

Deacon Palmer continued to “crack down” on his son, when he thought necessary, right into the era when Arnie had passed his fortieth birthday and was a global celebrity. “He sure did,” Arnie affirmed, wide-eyed and nodding.

That is a peek at what is behind the enduring popularity Arnold Palmer fashioned, not just with his go-for-broke golf style, but the “every-man” persona his father instilled in him. Deacon Palmer was often introduced as the “proud father of Arnold Palmer,” though the designation often made him cringe. He didn’t mind the second billing, but once told a group: “Everybody here is proud of their sons. The thing is I have two daughters and two sons and Arnold is just one of them. I’m proud of them all.”

It was perhaps an understandable oversight on the part of the masses who were so familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the charismatic fairway hero who lifted golf from sort of an anonymous floating crap game to an immensely popular and well-heeled sport. Arnold Palmer is largely responsible for making pro golf what it is today, Deacon Palmer is largely responsible for making Arnie what he became.

“Pap didn’t just teach me how to play golf,” Arnie once understated. “He taught me discipline.”

And humility. Deacon was a man’s man. But also a gentleman’s gentleman. He believed in all the right things: God, country, hard work, respect for others, Lawrence Welk, shots-and-beer, and–most of all–humility.

The latter was most important in molding the personality that would whip millions of golf fans into frenzied devotion. As greenskeeper at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, Deacon stressed to his children they had no special privileges. They could not swim in the club pool, and talented young Arnold was not allowed on the course when member play was heavy.

The lesson helped Arnie maintain a perspective on his runaway fame while others in the public eye have tripped over their own egos. But even after Arnie had become king of the links, Deacon was still there to give his celebrity son an occasional booster shot.

“It isn’t everything to be up here all the time,” Arnie recently said, raising his hand eye-level to indicate the upper social strata. “That isn’t the whole name of the game to me. It’s fun to sometimes be down here with some people that are down to earth and different. I enjoy that. I enjoy hearing them and enjoy talking to them. They are just nice people who are going along and want to have a little fun and drink a little beer and enjoy life.

Often misstated is the premise that Arnold Palmer is equally at home in a New York boardroom, the Oval Office, or some grungy pool hall. Wrong. Arnie was much more at home trying to bank the eight-ball two rails against a guy wearing a greasy denim shirt and Caterpillar cap, with the next round of beers riding on the shot. There are any number of stories with Arnie circling a green-felt table, stalking his next shot in the back room of a roadhouse, matching his stickmanship against mill workers.

The pool-hall camaraderie story Arnie liked to share with friends involves a laborers’ bar on the west side of Orlando. The beer is cold, the jukebox is loud, and the pool tables become center stage after the four o’clock whistle blows. On a Friday afternoon in 1973, Palmer had missed the cut in the old Citrus Open a few miles away at Rio Pinar Country Club. With his father and a couple of friends in tow, Arnie eased his Cadillac into the row of pickup trucks outside the bar and headed inside to soothe the disappointment.

Arnie picked up the story:

The place had egg cartons on the ceiling and pool tables in the back. It was a pretty tough little bar. You had to sort of get in line to shoot pool with guys who had been digging ditches and putting up power lines and what have you. You’d work your way through the line for your turn and if you got beat, it was back to the end of the line.

There was one little guy who was really tough. He didn’t know who Arnold Palmer was and didn’t really give a crap. My father and the others just watched as I worked my way up and beat this one little guy. Well, I got hot and beat the whole line of guys. We’re playing for beers and by now I have a whole row of beers lined up. Now that one little guy’s turn comes up again and I beat him again.

We’d all been there about two hours by this time and had plenty of beer. The little guy walks over pretty deliberately and jams his cue stick to the floor. I figure now I may have to beat him in a fight. But he kinda puts one arm around me and says, “You can wear my shoes, any time.”  To me, it’s the greatest compliment in the world. To gain the respect of someone like that is a challenge that many people will never understand.

This reflection on Arnold Palmer includes some excerpts from Larry Guest’s 1993 best-selling book, “ARNIE: Inside the Legend,” which was recently updated and re-published as an Amazon Kindle ebook. For three decades, Guest interacted professionally and socially with Palmer as lead sports columnist for The Orlando Sentinel.

Goofygolf at the U.S. Open

Curley, Larry and Moe are alive and well, running the United States Goofygolf Association.

Good for Dustin Johnson to fight through all of his past demons, putting yips, a mid-round mindless penalty ruling by the USGA goonies and the usual tricked-up Open course. The goonies can now go back to their law offices and boardrooms, smug that they embarrassed all but four of the world’s greatest golfers.

Just four broke par at Oakmont Outdoor Horror Emporium this week.

The august USGA officials now have a full year to decide how to beat those four next year by placing snakes in the waist-high rough or barbed wire on greens they typically convert into linoleum. Jack Nicklaus noted Sunday that every time he goes to an Open venue, the greens are faster and faster.

Open greens are now renowned for warp speeds that drive even the most accomplished putters daffy. Chips and putts wander here and there like drunken sailors, rolling, rolling, rolling until they run away from the pin, off the back of the green into bunkers, or back off the front of greens into the fairway. Rumor has it a few wandering putts this year meandered off the course and didn’t stop rolling until they reached downtown Pittsburgh.

I’m sure most USGA officials are well-meaning gents who feel they are contributing their time and energies for the good of the game. What they should be doing is turning over the actual running of the Open tournament itself to the PGA Tour staff, who do that for a living year-round.

The blazered do-gooders could concentrate on marketing tickets, managing concession stands and getting their face time in the awards ceremonies afterward on the 18th linole– er, green. Johnson was charitable in the ceremony Sunday night, doling out thanks to the Oakmont maintenance staff, the fans and, finally, the USGA. Mention of the latter drew a robust round of boos from the fans.

USGA officials — mostly Northeast bigwigs — could also use some help selecting the venues. They tend to pick musty old Northeast courses at the end of 2-lane highways hardly conducive to housing or moving thousands of spectators in and out. Once every now and then they tear themselves away from the Northeast to pick a track out in flyover America, like last year’s Chambers Of Horrors Bay, a sparse and speckled Pacific meadow where each green seemed to have roughly three blades of grass.

Through it all, the USGA boys declare their noble goal is simply to identify the world’s greatest golfers. McIlroy and Fowler and Mickelson and Els had already established themselves in that strata, but Oakmont sent them home red-faced after 36 holes. The true goal seems to be turning a great American golf championship into a mockery.