Monday, November 13, 2006

Saint Bobby and the Babe



In the pantheon of sports greatness few stand taller than Babe Ruth. The Babe transformed his sport, revolutionized the sports celebrity, and became one of the premier icons of post-depression America. Although his records may have been surpassed, his epic shadow still stands over baseball to this day.
Like Ruth, Florida State University Head Football Coach Bobby Bowden has become an icon in college football. Along with Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Bowden stands head and shoulders above his coaching contemporaries and has become possibly one of the most recognizable faces of college athletics in America.
Although one was an athlete and the other a coach, the careers of Babe Ruth and Bobby Bowden contain almost eerie similarities. As the career of Bobby Bowden strolls towards the sunset, a comparison of these icons is not only overdue, it is essential.

Origins towards Success

Both Bowden and Ruth entered their respective fields with two other organizations prior to reaching the teams that brought them to greatness. For Ruth, his rise to success began as a minor leaguer in Baltimore in 1914, continued as an up-and-coming major league veteran with the Boston Red Sox from 1914 to 1919, and reached its apex and superstar status with New York Yankees from 1920 to 1934.
After four years as a young head coach at Samford University (Howard College), Bowden progressed to West Virginia University, where he established himself as a capable head football coach winning 42 and losing only 26 from 1970 to 1975. In 1976 Bowden left West Virginia and came to Tallahassee where eventually success became the routine.

Years of Dominance

Eerily both Babe Ruth and Bobby Bowden can claim 14 years of nearly unmatched dominance in their fields. For over a decade, each was the greatest among their contemporaries and established levels of achievement seldom achieved.

After being sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, Ruth began an offensive assault unmatched in baseball history. From 1920 to 1933, Ruth led the Yankees to the World Series 10 times and paced the American League in home runs 12 times, averaging 45.5 home runs per year. His style of play and home run hitting ability changed the way baseball was played, brought fans to the ballpark as no player had before, and made the New York Yankees the premier benchmark of success in major league baseball.
From 1987 to 2000, Bobby Bowden was the Babe Ruth of the college football sidelines. Although Bowden did establish a culture of successful football during his first 11 years at Florida State (1976 to 1986), he won only 90 games. Starting in 1987 however, Bowden led the Seminoles to 153 victories, lost only 19, won two national championships, nine conference championships, and reached a major end-of-the-season bowl game every year.

The Houses that They Built

In 1923, the New York Yankees opened Yankee Stadium, a 70,000+ capacity venue featuring decorative facades, an “unheard of” amount of fan friendly restrooms, and executive offices for team officials. Because of the success of Babe Ruth and the Yankees since the Babe’s arrival the new stadium was aptly nicknamed “The House that Ruth Built.” Of course, Ruth wouldn’t disappoint, hitting a home run in the stadium's grand opening.
Although a new stadium was not in the plans for Florida State University, Bobby Bowden’s continued success in Tallahassee and a growing student body (possibly derived from a successful athletic program) forced the administration to revamp Doak Campbell Stadium and transform it into the largest football stadium in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Like Ruth’s new home, FSU also incorporated a large part of its administrative offices into the new stadium, adding offices for not only the athletic department, but admissions, registrar, and financial aid. As a tribute to Bowden, a bronze statue was created in his likeness in 2004.

The Later Years

In 1934, Babe Ruth “only” hit 22 home runs. According to ESPN’s baseball analyst Rob Neyer, “Ruth had turned thirty-nine in 1934, and though he could still hit — in ‘34, Ruth was maybe the third-best hitter in the American League, behind only Gehrig and Foxx — he couldn’t do much else.” Ruth’s 22 homers placed him 8th in the league as the Yankees finished second and began to rely more heavily on Triple Crown winner Lou Gehrig. The impression that Ruth could only hit home runs became truth as his batting average was his worst since his rookie year 20 years earlier. After the 1934 season and a falling out with management, Ruth would leave the Yankees and play his final season with the Boston Braves, hitting only six more career home runs. He left the game with 714 home runs, a record that would stand for nearly 30 years.

After reaching the National Championship game three years in a row and winning every game in the 1999-2000 season, the Bobby Bowden-led Florida State Seminoles began to fall off their perch as the nation's premier dominant football program. Although Bowden became the all-time winningest coach in college football, the Seminoles have only won 10 games once since 2000. Like Ruth before him, Bowden’s detractors have grown in number and have claimed his ability to coach has diminished, forcing the Seminoles to rely more on the talent on the field and not on the strategic mind of Coach Bowden.

It is highly unlikely that Bobby Bowden will be forced to finish his coaching career with another organization as Babe Ruth did with the Boston Braves. At nearly 80 years old, when Bowden leaves Florida State, his career will be over. Although there is history in elderly coaches turning programs around in the face of detractors (see Joe Paterno – 2005), even if Bobby Bowden fails to do so Florida State Seminole fans should take solace in knowing they witnessed a legend – a man so good at his profession Babe Ruth should henceforth be referred to as “The Bobby Bowden of Baseball.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The Life and Times of Big Jelly



With baseball season over and the Florida State football season begging for a merciful end, it is time to take a look at one of the last bastions of pure sports integrity - pro wrestling. Just kidding. I speak, of course, of college basketball. And how better to conjure up the spirit of Cinderella than to profile one of the largest, most underappreciated characters to take the court in recent times: Nigel Dixon, center for Florida State University (1999-2002) and Western Kentucky (2003-2004).

Nicknamed "Big Jelly" because of his tremendous size (nearly 7 feet tall and at times near 400 lbs), Nigel arrived at Florida State under the tenure of Head Coach Steve Robinson. According to The ACC Area Sports Journal, "massive center Nigel Dixon was an unheralded, high-risk signee." Despite this less than glowing review, Dixon became a crowd and campus favorite and his "Big Jelly" nickname was voted best in college basketball by the editors of the Sporting News. Even his attire quickly became fodder for legend as he was fitted for "Nigel sized" shorts.

But size alone does little beyond attracting attention. Big Jelly had to prove his worth on the court. From the moment he stepped onto the college hardwood, Nigel was able to vastly improve his conditioning, lose over 100 pounds, increase his athleticism, and begin to grasp his potential as one of the preeminent big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After a disappointing freshman season, in which he averaged only 1.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 6.4 minutes a contest all off the bench, Nigel became a starter during his sophomore year and averaged 6.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 14.7 minutes per game. Among the highlights of these first years were a season-high 12 points versus Duke during the 1999-2000 season and 23 points and 10 rebounds against Rhode Island in the 2000-2001 season.

Big Jelly would take a big step towards the next level in the 2001-2002 season. Again starting over 75% percent of his games, the mammoth center led the Seminoles in rebounding with 6.4 per game, averaged 8.1 points per game and shot 49% from the field. Among the highlights of his season were 15 points and 10 rebounds against eventual National Champion Maryland and a similar performance against Virginia. He also played a key role in one of the most shocking upsets in Florida State basketball history, a 77-76 victory over then-number one ranked Duke.

Alas, the emergence of Big Jelly as an ACC force to be reckoned with at FSU would end with the hiring of new head coach Leonard Hamilton. Depending on which side of the story you believe, the Nigel Dixon Era at Florida State ended because Hamilton prefered long, athletic, swing players who could play a more up-tempo game or because Big Jelly wanted a redshirt year, something he was denied under Robinson. As dark clouds covered Tallahassee, Nigel "Big Jelly" Dixon moved on to Western Kentucky University.

After being a transfer redshirt for the 2002-2003 season and slimming down to svelte 320 pounds, Big Jelly would become "Big Firm" at Western Kentucky. As a relative unknown to the Sun Belt Conference, the new and improved Nigel Dixon was the only player in the conference to average a double-double with 15.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Among the highlight of his breakout year included a league-high 15 double-doubles and career highs in steals, assists and blocks. In one game against Marshall, Big Firm had 29 points and 16 rebounds. In another contest against Ball State, the big fella scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Nigel Dixon had become unstoppable.

With such a monster season, Big Jelly/Big Firm achieved national attention and won numerous accolades, including First Team All-Sun Belt Conference, Newcomer of the Year and Sports Illustrated Honorable Mention All-American. Would the NBA be the next step? Could Big Firm bang bodies with Shaq or Yao Ming?

Despite claims that Dixon was a poor ball-handler for a big man, and would "challenge Chris Dudley as the worst bricklayer in NBA history", the Detroit Pistons signed Nigel on October 1, 2004. Dixon played in three preseason games with the Pistons, averaging 1.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in 12.7 minutes. Unfortunately, with All-Star center Ben Wallace and potential star Darko Milic, the Pistons released Nigel Dixon after 18 days.

After being released by Detroit, Nigel Dixon brought the Big Jelly/Big Firm Show to Greece, playing for MENT Vassilakis in the Greek Basketball League. While in Greece, Nigel only played in 11 games and recorded a disappointing 4.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Although his performance in Greece was not to the level he had achieved in America, the Denver Nuggets took a chance and signed Dixon on September 30, 2005. His stay with the Nuggets lasted less than a month, however, as he was released on October 26, 2005.

Less than a week later, in early November 2005, the Fayetteville Patriots of the NBA Developmental League, seeing the talent that made him a Western Kentucky star, made Nigel the second overall pick in the NBA Developmental League Draft. Sadly, the Big Jelly/Big Firm Era in Fayetteville was over rather quickly, as Nigel left the team on November 22.

When last seen, Nigel Dixon was plying his craft in the Korean Basketball League for the Pusan Magic Wings and making the Korean International All-Star team. With any luck, the powers that be in the NBA will realize the massive talent, drive, and determination in Nigel Dixon and the "Big Jelly/Big Firm Experience" will be playing in an NBA city near you.