Q&A: The XFL, Herm Edwards and Coach K Recruiting

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Who says Super Bowl bye week is uneventful? The announced relaunch of the XFL headlines a busy week, and naturally, kicks off our Q&A.

Short answer: No. I vividly remembering the original incarnation of the original XFL, which launched at both the peak of the World Wrestling Federation’s popularity and the apex of my own wrestling fandom. I would have consumed damn near anything with WWF branding at that point in my life. Add my love of sports, and some of the names associated with the XFL peaking my interest — most notably 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam.

The mid ’90s were integral in shaping my love of college football, and Salaam’s Colorado team contributed one of the landmark moments in that process for me.

I was one of the millions tuned in for opening night, and I probably stuck with the XFL longer than most, hoping it would turn a corner. It wasn’t just that it was WWF branded; I genuinely hoped for a secondary pro league to thrive, and I still do. The more opportunities athletes have to make money following their dream, the better. Of course, one of the myriad problems with the XFL was that the pay was horrendous, especially for a league co-owned by two properties as large as NBC and the WWF, and for a sport as dangerous as football.

And that’s just one of the problems that plagued the original XFL I cannot envision being remedied on a second tour.

Nostalgia has a way of sanitizing memories, and the XFL’s legacy got an especially thorough scrub with last year’s 30 For 30. Charlie Ebersol did not shy away from depicting the more unseemly element of his dad’s joint venture with Vince McMahon, but upon first viewing and especially now, the narrative arc felt as though it was building to a redemption of sorts; that McMahon learned his lessons from the league’s initial failure.

However, Vince McMahon has a long track record for venturing out of his area of expertise and failing dismally. The XFL launched a decade after the World Bodybuilding Federation, and the former failed for many of the same reasons as the latter. Both brought pro-wrestling bluster to established worlds of sport and fitness, and the preexisting fans of both football and bodybuilding saw this bravado as tawdry and juvenile.

What works in the confines of wrestling doesn’t fly outside that industry. In turn, McMahon exposing that attitude to a larger audience — i.e., his embarrassing HBO interview with Bob Costas– turned a lot of people off to wrestling. WWF/WWE has never again been as popular as it was in early 2001, and the XFL played a key role.

So, what would entice me to give XFL 2.0 a chance? If it was a different, secondary league without Vince McMahon involved. Beyond the blatant and exploitative political angle, I am not interested in any product outside of wrestling McMahon might be overseeing — especially not football.

In an era that demands TAKES regardless how well versed one might be on the topic, I am of the opinion hires cannot be adequately evaluated until their teams have actually played. What’s more, it might take even a few years to make a truly educated assessment, based on the circumstances the new regime oversees.

From that standpoint, Herm Edwards’ hire has been judged quickly and harshly. But there are red flags.

Edwards hasn’t been around college football in 30 years. The game’s dramatically different compared to even last decade, say nothing of the ’80s. In Edwards’ defense, I had a similar skepticism when UCLA hired Jim Mora, and he succeeded immediately en route to leaving the program in considerably better condition.

However, Edwards being out of coaching altogether for a decade — and his last two NFL seasons producing records of 4-12 and 2-14 — doesn’t inspire much confidence. Mora also landed a Top 20 recruiting class out of the gate; Arizona State’s 2018 class currently sits at No. 77 according to 247Sports, behind Tulane, Louisiana Tech and former Sun Devils assistant Jay Norvell’s Nevada Wolf Pack.

Speaking of assistants, losing both Billy Napier and Phil Bennett shortly after Edwards’ hire, and on the heels of their retention being teased as a cornerstone of the new coach’s regime, is concerning from an outside perspective.

On-field performance will be Edwards’ ultimate measure, but how these first few weeks have gone, he needs to win to dispel the understandable skepticism. So, in that regard, the hire’s been met with just about the right amount of national respect.

Now, on the topic of video games bosses, I must preface the following with any opinions I offer on gaming: I haven’t played a new title other than FIFA since 2010 when I sold my XBox 360 to help pay for my wedding photographer.

That said, games from the ’90s relied on the Final Boss as such an important pillar of their titles that these characters were generally more difficult to defeat by design. These are three I invested many hours trying to take down — and in one instance, was never successful.

3. THE HOST – SMASHTV

Obviously inspired by one of my favorite Arnold movies, The Running Man, SmashTV was one of my favorite games to unload a cup full of quarters at the local arcade, playing alongside a friend.

The game show premise concludes with the heroes facing a giant, mechanized version of The Host. His size within a confined arena space, his arsenal of weaponry and the sheer volume of damage he can absorb made him an especially vexing final boss. There’s a SmashTV arcade cabinet in Northern Arizona that earned a pretty penny from me trying to defeat The Host.

2. SHAO KAHN – MORTAL KOMBAT II

Last week, I wrote a love letter to my all-time favorite arcade game, NBA Jam. However, I logged more hours playing Mortal Kombat II on Sega Genesis than any other video game on any platform.

MKII was perfect both for sleepovers with friends, and trying to master alone. Climbing the ladder in single-player mode was equal parts exhilarating and infuriating, and reaching Shao Kahn was the most infuriating part.

Shao Kahn was twice as fast as any other fighter, and his moves reduced three times as much life. I had rounds with the MKII final boss that lasted mere seconds. Shao Kahn was the ultimate break-the-controller boss, but beating him felt like a genuine achievement.

1. MIKE TYSON – MIKE TYSON’S PUNCH-OUT

My family did not own an NES when I was growing up, so I didn’t play Punch-Out until my teenage years. Nintendo was two generations removed from its original system by then, which made NES inexpensive. I revisited titles from my childhood and earlier; not many lived up to the fuss, but Punch-Out absolutely met all expectations.

And horror stories elementary school friends told about facing Mike Tyson in the final bout of Punch-Out came to life for me much later.

I have never beaten Mike Tyson, nor have I actually witnessed anyone defeating him. In fact, I’m going to just assume programmers made him unbeatable as part of gaining Iron Mike’s licensing at a time when he was arguably the most prominent athlete in America. If you claim to have beaten Mike Tyson on Punch-Out, you’re a liar or a cheater. Game Genie’s for weaklings.

Mike Krzyzewski bringing together the last couple mega-classes he’s had at Duke has generated some talk that perhaps Coach K has surpassed John Calipari as college basketball’s master-recruiter. I’m not ready to declare Cal’s reign as the King of Recruiting over, considering his track record for building teams on elite-level, one-and-done NBA talent dates back a decade to his tenure at Memphis.

However, I credit Coach K’s sudden surge to K simply choosing to recruit more of that type of player.

Coach K started to grow into a living legend in the early 1990s, at a time when only the absolute pinnacle of college players left early for the draft — and those who did were typically third-year players. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill all stayed at Duke for four years.

Duke endured a lull after Hill’s graduation that included the 1994-’95, half of which K missed due to back surgery and the Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament. They returned to the Dance in 1996 but lost in Round 1 to Earl Boykins and Eastern Michigan.

College basketball began to transition in the latter half of the 1990s. A player like Tim Duncan staying for four years was far more exception than rule, and teams were beginning to thrive recruiting NBA-bound talent that would hang around two years. Krzyzewski adjusted and in 1997 signed an absolutely stellar class that featured Elton Brand and William Avery. In ’98, K landed Corey Maggette.

A roster loaded with young studs in 1998-’99 steamrolled through the season — until the national championship game. Juniors Richard Hamilton and Jake Voskuhl were instrumental in Jim Calhoun winning his first national championship, while Krzyzewski was denied his third. He’d get that two years later with a team built around a senior leader in Shane Battier, a signee from that awesome 1997 class and a throwback to Duke’s dominance a decade earlier.

Krzyzewski made a comment at the 1999 Final Four about recruiting and building around early-departing talent that I thought was very telling, especially in retrospect:

Right now we have a chance to stay up here. But that depends. That depends on what kids do. How you recruit. Things are not as stable anywhere anymore, and you have to constantly look at ways of running your program to keep it at this level. You know, basically, we’ve done it with a very young team.

Duke continued to attract NBA talent, but Krzyzewski’s recruiting strategy deviated from many of the other successful coaches in the 2000s. His Blue Devil teams were typically built around players who were going to stay in the program like J.J. Redick. The 2010 national championship team featured juniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, and seniors Lance Thomas, Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek in prominent roles.

Krzyzewski never won a national championship with a team heavily reliant on one-and-done freshmen until 2015, and I see that as the catalyst in shifting his philosophy. Had the Justise Winslow-Jahlil Okafor-Tyus Jones triumvirate not made that title run — and given the dip Duke suffered at one juncture that season, that looked like a very real possibility — I don’t think we’d see K bringing together the kind of classes he has in the last two seasons.

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