Lights Out

My young high school football charges, the Lawrence Park Panthers, got to play a Friday Night Lights game last week and it was special.

It’s only the second time I’ve had the experience to coach in an outdoor night game and it’s now so clear to me that the Americans have this Friday Night thing figured out. It’s an awesome experience.

Usually we play in the middle of a weekday afternoon with tiny crowds, no supporters, and little media. Our Friday night game saw a noisy crowd, lots of parents finally seeing their children play, friends from school out in droves, and Rogers TV filming our every move for broadcast that weekend.

Beyond the tangible differences, the entire atmosphere was different. The stadium lights illuminated both teams’ uniforms and helmets, casting the players in a glow that made them seem much more “big time.” Those same lights glanced off the kids’ helmets, creating a light-show tango of visual effects. The spiraling ball, set against the pitch black sky, looked like a heat-seeking missile, speedily tracking its way to its target. Every tick of the score clock communicated a tense reminder of the gravity of the moment, as the teams worked their way up and down the battlefield.

In the end my team lost 28–21 to an opponent with many more players and much more size. But losing is not why I entitled this story “Lights Out.” No, I called it “Lights Out” as a tribute to my team. To my surprise, we are much better than I imagined possible in the first weeks of training camp. Friday night demonstrated to me how much better. We have a team that can play “Lights Out”. It all starts with a dynamic offence led by my star senior quarterback who is as good a runner, passer, and leader as I have ever had. His on-field talents are only rivaled by his off-field maturity and egoless personality.

Around him I have a cadre of receivers who can catch, run, and score. To protect them I have a line that is small in size, but large in fight, heart, and grit. On defence we are also short-handed player-wise and size-wise, but we make up for it with speed, smarts, and systems.

Losing sucks. I could recite every loss that I have had from 20 years of coaching. But where defeat can be a coach’s morass, potential is our elixir.

This team has all the potential in the world. Stay tuned as weekly we will take on teams with more players, more size, more everything. But as long as we play “Lights Out”, every game is going to feel like the excitement of Friday Night Lights.



At the conclusion of the “small d” drama of the past weeks, I led my young high school football charges into their first league game with equal amounts of confidence and trepidation.

You’ll recall that we had been dealing with potentially cutting a player, which bizarrely would have been my first such act in twenty years of volunteer coaching. But the potential victim has made an about face that has continued to spin from partially complete to almost full circle. The consistent effort and upbeat attitude he displays in practice now, is born-again-Christian-like in its transfiguration.

Back to the game.

The equal parts confidence and trepidation was how I was feeling. Having scouted our opponents and reviewed our smash of them in 2012, I was confident. Maybe over-confident. On the flip side of the pregame coin toss coin, I was nervous. We are not nearly as good as 2012 and our opponent had improved significantly. They opened their season tying their 2012 division champions, who had also crushed them last season.

Because our game has more spoilers than the last episode of Breaking Bad, I will tell you right now we won 13-6. Yet I have been upset about it ever since the final whistle.

It’s a classic coaching line to say we should have won by more, but I feel that way. Yet herein lies the problem. I am still listening to the side of my brain that was not only confident about the game, but now I am realizing was over-confident. How do I shake that?

There was no validity in my overconfidence. While historically we have played this opponent pretty evenly, they do have the edge in victories, are really really well coached and at kickoff they had many more players, much more size, and consequently way more depth than we did. The worst part is, we weren’t ready to play.

We came out flat. We flubbed an easy touchdown pass. Throughout the game we had at least four other TDs we should have secured. Our defence gave up garbage yardage and our special teams couldn’t get twelve men on the field without me calling timeout. When we did line up a full kick unit, we let their returners race past us.

I suddenly realized I hadn’t coached with enough urgency in practice that week.

Yet we won. We won because we have some real studs at certain positions, significantly linebacker and quarterback. We won because my assistant coaches have all played this game at a high level. We won because, well because we had enough guys make plays at the right time.

But it came down to a late drive by our opponent to inside our 20, featuring a last play of the game pass into their receiver’s hands, that we magically broke-up with a devastating hit by one of our DBs. We squeaked by.

Lesson learned. We have five games left on our schedule. Three will be very tough, and the other two on paper look easier. Time for me to stop looking on paper. Time for me to prepare for every game with the utmost fear. A fear that propelled the young man who I almost cut, to change his work habits. Time for me to eat my own cooking.

Hanger On

Well, he made it.

At least for a few more days or maybe just a few hours. I was convinced that last week he would finally be severed by the axe of dismissal.

You met this week’s subject in my last posting, “First Cut”. The honour of being the first person I ever cut, from my lofty volunteer coaching position, was in his sweaty palms. Some of my readers thought I was actually trying to give him a warning, an opportunity to right his floundering ship.

He entered the week on Animal House level triple secret probation. One misstep and he was eligible for obliteration. The expression “on thin ice” wasn’t even closely appropriate. This kid was in my deep freeze.

I entered the week ready to pounce. Waiting for that stumble. Not surprisingly he managed to stumble not once, but twice. Shockingly he somehow still evaded my weaponry.

Clearly if he had read my blog, he sure didn’t take it to heart. He had fake injuries, misplaced equipment, an alleged sore back, followed by emergency breathing issues, and I am sure he lost his homework as well, but fortunately didn’t tell me.

Can’t say I was all that kind about his sticking around. I yelled at him. I lectured him. Kicked him out of team meetings. Sent him home early. Pulled him aside for stern lectures. Made him run lap after lap. Undoubtedly I tested every fibre of his spirit.

To say he passed the test wouldn’t be true. BUT…he did put in two good practices, out of five. His first and second good nights of the year. So while my core players give me a consistent five out of five great practices every week, his 40% success rate was relatively miraculous.

So, for now, I am letting him stay. Clearly there is something about this team he wants, needs, or likes. Perhaps a combination of all three.

I’m seeing some life in his eyes. I am seeing a small flicker of recognition on his face. There is a slight lift to his shoulders.

He hasn’t received a full pardon. But he might have achieved much more.

First Cut

I still remember the first time I was cut.

Despite being Grant Fuhr’s doppelgänger and my 6.85 House League goals against average, the Orillia Pee-Wee rep team didn’t want my netminding “skills”!

Then again, that wasn’t the last.

In Grade 9 I was thrilled when the basketball coach suggested I join the wrestling team, until my parents advised me this wasn’t an “incremental” suggestion. What I really needed was some incremental inches given I was 4′ 6″, without the skills of Spud Webb.

Seems lots of coaches had some great suggestions for me over the years, but they never involved sticking around. The late Tom Dimitroff took one look at my 5′ 2″ freshman frame and suggested the Guelph campus paper needed a sportswriter more than the Gryphons needed a wannabe Pinball Clemons. (Though in those days, Johnny Rogers would be a better example.)

Even today, when I’m 25 years past trying out for teams, I endure regular cuts from potential clients during the pitch process. Many of them sound just like my old coaches. “We loved your agency, but you finished second.” “If we could only hire everybody.” “Your pitch was great, we just found a better fit.”

But today it’s me who has to do the cutting. It’s my first time. It’s making me sad. I have never had to boot someone off the high school football team I have coached for over 15 years. But I have finally met the kid who won’t try. Won’t listen. Won’t commit.

So it’s bye bye time. Unless he can turn it around. He doesn’t have to be good. He just has to try.

When I am angriest at myself at work, it’s when I lose a pitch I know I didn’t put enough effort into. A valiant effort resulting in a loss is okay. Losing because I was outworked…grrr!

For three long weeks I’ve tried to create the teenage analogy of this lesson in junior’s head. But he doesn’t give a crap.

There is no room in my world for people who won’t try hard. Maybe I should try harder to turn him around. But I really think it’s time. The first time. For me to make that cruel, everlasting decision to cut someone. Because I believe it’s the only message that he will remember.

NCAA Record Holder

I set an NCAA Football record last Saturday night.

I did have help from one-hundred and fifteen thousand, and one hundred and eight other people. (Is that even how you spell 115,108?)

The record, which to be precise is 115,109, was for the largest crowd ever to see a single NCAA event… football, baseball, hockey, or otherwise. Michigan-Notre Dame football. Live on ESPN. The Game Day crew camped out in Ann Arbor, MI.

The best part about being there is that I can actually say when I am old (next week), that “I was there.” For real. Isn’t it amazing how many people were at the Joe Carter walk-off home run World Series game at SkyDome? Or attended the first ever Coachella? Saw Usain Bolt win his first 100M gold medal in Beijing?

I-was-there syndrome isn’t just related to major events. House parties. Political events. Epic bar nights. Flash mobs. Full moons. Solar eclipses. Floods. Celebrity sightings.

It’s amazing how the desire to have been witness to a great event suddenly turns the most honest of us all into stone-faced fibbers. Many times we don’t even do it on purpose. The conversation starts, the magic of the moment expands in every converser’s mind, and without an ounce of guilt you are suddenly nodding vigorously, ruthlessly implying your participation.

But I was there. Michigan-Notre Dame. 115,108 people & me. If you want, I will show you my ticket stub. Then you show me yours.

Game Changer

Let me be clear, football is still my passion.

But I am now royally pissed off that I never got a chance to play rugby when I was a kid.

Now the cynics might scoff and say that’s only because I am now doing work for Rugby Canada. To that, I say, I do mucho work with Nike and I don’t fancy myself a track star. But I can see their point, and yes on Saturday I will be hosting at BMO Field; as our currently undefeated Senior Men’s National Team goes head to head in a Test Match with mighty Ireland in front of 20,000 fans.

But no, that’s not where my angst has originated. It’s more personal and closer to home. It’s watching my twelve year old in his first season with Toronto City U14. Patrolling the sideline at his games, which I will also be doing Saturday, has given this football freak a close-up look at the true origins of gridiron combat. Despite my business interests, I really don’t know the game of rugby.

But what I have witnessed has now made me jealous. Non-stop action. Dashing runs. Brutal tackling. Breath stealing goal line stands. Unbelievable fitness. Constant communication.

As an under-sized football player with a passion for the wishbone, you can understand my jealousy. Rugby was probably my sport. Yet it didn’t exist in my home town. What’s worse, when I didn’t make it in university football, I inquired about joining the rugby team. The rugby coach dismissed my eight seasons of football as irrelevant, given I hadn’t played rugby ever, and told me essentially to go away.

Today I wish he had suggested I at least try intramural, because fast forward to 2013 I may have ended up coaching my son, my Panthers, and maybe your daughter in rugby… instead of football!


The Human Race

Events, such as the Boston Marathon, are the ultimate celebration of humanity.

Endurance events celebrate human achievement that many thought impossible in themselves. Festivals provide a stage for expression and recognition. Sporting events bond people together and prove that team colours are thicker than red blood.

Events aren’t supposed to result in death, amputation, devastation.

Events aren’t supposed to result in CNN, 911, 617.

Events aren’t supposed to result in this.

There have been many, many call outs for us to soldier on, carry on, move ahead. Events and organizers around the world are putting on a brave face. All of us realize the need for beefed up security and additional diligence in our planning. I want to add to the choir.

Our industry might be perceived as fun and games. But we hold the key to The Human Race. We create experiences, joy, and triumph. Now more than ever we must continue to do so.

In this nonstop age of media onslaught, only events will ensure people connect physically. Only events will ensure that we get to know our neighbours. Only events will drive the fitness of our bodies and minds.

Almost every person who reads this blog contributes to that. You need to realize how important what you do, what you do each and everyday, is to society. Whether you are a sponsor, organizer, producer, marketer, volunteer, or a marathoner.

Whatever your marathon is… keep running. Keep organizing. Keep supporting.

Look into the faces of your participants and recognize the importance of what you do.

You don’t organize events. You build people.

Don’t let some nut stop that. It’s the best tribute we can pay to the victims, their families, and the countless people engaged with the Boston Marathon.

Leading from the Front

How do I summarize a week where it seemed every waking moment was filled with inspiration kicking me in the butt?

Some of the motivation was formally delivered. I witnessed a riveting speech delivered by General Rick Hillier at the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance Sport Events Congress. His central message about inspiring others and inspiring yourself revealed that his approach to motivating troops abroad was grounded in ensuring they stayed connected to being Canadian – a sip of Tim Horton’s coffee, a Christmas dinner made by a CO, a visit from the Stanley Cup.

Some of it arrived unexpectedly but in formal settings. In a meeting at Rideau Hall, I was enraptured to hear Bernard Shinder talk about how the event we now call Canada Day was created in the 1970’s by a group of well-connected Ottawa business leaders. Canada Day in Ottawa is a must do event for every Canadian, but in its early days was held away from the shadow of Parliament Hill, as the government feared it may flop!

Some out of the blue. An impromptu offer for a ride from the above Rideau Hall confab, found me being chauffeured by none other than General Walter Natynczyk and hearing about his three children, all proudly serving in our armed forces around the world. How energizing the words of a proud father were, discussing the love his offspring have for serving their country.

Some grew organically. Specifically from Charmaine Crooks, Debbi Wilkes, and Loreen Barnett participating in a Women of Influence panel, moderated by the non-influential male known as MH3, also at the CSTA event. Their voices combined to form a chorus of motivation and insights for women pursuing a career in sports marketing. To quote Debbi Wilkes, “Don’t let anybody else write the script for YOUR life!”

Some were ensnared in the jaws of defeat. Unfortunately at the hands of the US Women’s hockey team who upended Team Canada, in the gold medal world championship game, with their superior skills and sizzling skating. But defeat can be a powerful motivator and all of us should emotionally team up with our women for revenge in Sochi.

I misled you. This wasn’t even an entire week. It was actually only three days. And it wasn’t a butt kicking. No – it was more of a motivational stampede to catch up to those leading from the front!



The Last March

I read that this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been the most watched in nearly twenty years. I also read that this year’s tournament will garner nearly one billion dollars in advertising revenue, outpacing any other sporting event. Ever.

It might be April, but this event labelled March Madness is rolling along into the fourth month of the year quite nicely thank-you very much. Its already created the need to switch Cinderella’s mid-gear, dropping Florida Gulf Coast for Wichita State. Seen our Canadian players get dropped faster than an NBA player tricked into a Kardashian marriage. Not to mention the grotesque rekindling of vicious leg injury memories originally created by Lawrence Taylor on Joe Theisman.

And now. Now we are down to the Final Four. Two simple words that have become a lexiconic icon if there ever was to be one.

Recently USA Today ranked every one of the seventy-four Final Four held to determine the Division 1 basketball champ. Number one according to the survey? The 1979 Larry Bird-Magic Johnson head to head that also featured other members of their Indiana State and Michigan State teams.

I have been to two Final Fours. Put it on your bucket list. Hundreds of thousands of hoop lovers being hosted by a city starving for their tourism dollars. At every turn, every corner store, every coffee shop, every garbage can there is some sort of Final Four connection. Everyone is just happy to be there and if you are sporting any sort of logo, will unabashedly become your new best friend.

But the real magic of the Final Four is the one-hit wonder of its stars. Who can tell me who hit the fadeaway winner from the corner from 1987 or had the full court dash in 1995 or the lights out shooting in any year. For every Johnson or Jordan, there are countless Simons, Smarts, Edneys, Haywards that had their brief shining moment where they emerge from campus hero to national megastar and then soon to back down to NBA journeyman, grad student, European professional, or high school gym teacher.

That Last March into the shiniest of limelights must be most exhilarating and exasperating. This weekend marks the culmination of three weeks of undaldutered attention. Soon the fade away that made them famous, actually will fade away.

Oh there will be the annual replays and the obligatory highlight shows, but I wonder how it feels. To be the 20 year old who is sought by everyone, who will soon be a twenty year old memory.

Co-Branding by Tiger & Lindsey

I had barely finished my recent issue of Sports Illustrated, where Lindsey Vonn denies any romantic involvement with Tiger Woods, when suddenly the pair conduct simultaneous Facebook announcements confirming the opposite.

Before you get caught up speculating how athletic any offspring they may produce could be and certainly before you wonder as to who earns more endorsement money, today there are some more fundamental issues to deal with.

Category exclusivity.

Nike has Tiger.

Under Armour has Lindsey.

When they pose for a photo in branded gear is this somehow contradicting their duties. Are they inadvertently generating impressions for their sponsor’s competitors?

If Tiger starts wearing Red Bull hats do the marketing folks at Fuse Science lose their wings?

If Lindsey refuses to fly NetJets, will their stock crash? Hey wait a minute, doesn’t Tiger own his own jet? Why does he have a fractional aircraft sponsor?

Consider what we know. The pair released four posed, professional, sunny studio photos, featuring their super human athletic frames, to thwart paparazzi from profiting off disclosing their relationship. These photos spun through the digital universe almost as quickly as the stories of Tiger’s philandering did a few years ago. Did they really need to be on the cover of my daily newspaper. In Canada? Two divorced American megastars with (deservedly?) out-sized egos dominating my daily circular.

Yes it’s that big of a story. Neither leaves anything to chance. So imagine the reaction of their agents when each arrived on the “set” adorned in their sponsor’s logos. The swoosh v. the UA. These are not friendly rivals. Bitter is too subtle.

For the first time in sports marketing history the two logos co-existed in a marketing campaign. Harsh? No. That is what this announcement was. Two control freaks attempting to control our interpretation of their relationship. This is marketing. This communications management. Nothing is left to chance.

So I wish them well. They will have detractors. They will have critics. They will have doubters. But if they want to, they will probably succeed beyond our wildest imagination. They have that type of will power.

What needs to be determined is whether they will have any more co-branded adverts. Me thinks not!