Last night’s solstice marks the true beginning of summer, coinciding with my four-year-old’s last day of preschool. Summer means travel season, so it seems only fitting this edition of The Open Man Q&A come in a travel size.
Though not as robust as more recent entries — check out last week’s on best offensive lines and bucket-list rivalry games for reference — this week spans a variety of topics. Would you believe there’s hockey included? That seems like a fitting starting point!
PK Subban as cover athlete for NHL 19: there’s no way the NHL screws this up, right?
— 🇨🇷 Juney the World Cup Watcher 🇩🇰 (@AVKingJames) June 21, 2018
Full disclosure: My hockey fandom isn’t what it once was. My first newspaper beat was hockey, and in my first job out of college, I drove with my co-worker and friend to numerous ECHL games on our down time. SportsCenter highlights first got me interested in the NHL in 1995. NHL ’96 on the Sega Genesis — NOT the version played on Swingers, which was the vastly inferior and, thanks to that movie, overrated NHL ’94 — further fueled my fandom.
Coincidentally my enthusiasm for the top league waned a bit a decade later when the next lockout cancelled an entire season. I was covering college hockey at the same time for my college newspaper, and discovered that the college game’s larger rink and deemphasis of some of the more violent elements entertained me more. For that same reason, I enjoy Olympic hockey every four years far more than the NHL.
Still, I kept tabs up until the birth of my first son. When you have a kid, your bandwidth for entertainment narrows exponentially. Fatherhood turned me from a diehard MLB fan to a casual follower. After covering football all week and especially closely on Saturdays, once Sunday arrives, I prefer going to the park with my son to watching the NFL. And hockey fell off the radar for me entirely, much as video games had even before becoming a dad.
That said, P.K. Subban strikes me as a no-brainer decision to grace the cover of NHL ’19, and EA Sports apparently agreed. There aren’t many names in the current NHL I recognize, and the options there aren’t great. Alex Ovechkin is a Putin Guy. Patrick Kane is basically every SAE or PIKE I attended college with, but if they had talent.
Subban, on the other hand, has a reputation as one of the sport’s good guys. What’s more, I credit him as central to transforming the completely unlikely city of Nashville — a locale I would have been sure was destined for an Atlanta-like NHL fate — into a hockey-crazed destination.
Is EC3 in the top one percent? Y/N
— manicpixiedreamhurl (@thesneakyhuevo) June 21, 2018
Oh! So here’s another (at least tangentially) Nashville-centric topic: Ethan Carter III.
Since debuting in NXT earlier this year, any vestiges of Ethan Carter III as portrayed by Michael Hutter — the wrestler formerly known as Derrick Bateman in WWE — have been downplayed in favor of the gimmick name EC3. Though, that evolution began in his previous stop: The formerly Nashville-based Impact Wrestling. Total Nonstop Action Wrestling? Global Force Wrestling? Gah, the company used all three names in EC3’s tenure.
And while a federation going through three name changes in less than five years is a bad sign for the organization itself, the former TNA rejuvenated Hutter’s career.
His gimmick functioned as an in-ring avatar for the eroding state of the company, in fact. Debuting in late 2013 as Ethan Carter III, his name was taken from TNA owner Dixie Carter. Carter’s horrible business decisions, like putting hack booker Vince Russo in a position of power on multiple different occasions and hiring Hulk Hogan to do a much worse version of the NWO, undercut every ounce of potential the once-promising organization had.
If there was any good to come from Carter’s indefensible leadership, it was EC3. He worked instantly as a loathsome heel, but his outstanding in-ring work won the respect of his audience.
The 1% gimmick isn’t new: Ted DiBiase perfected it as Million Dollar Man, and pre-personal issues Alberto Del Rio looked poised for a long run as a main-event heel. The gimmick itself is also inherently silly. If you have hundreds of millions of dollars, there’s not much motivation for putting oneself in harm’s way — and certainly not to the extent EC3 did in the 5-star Ladder Match at NXT Takeover: New Orleans.
But for EC3 to have evolved from the bland Bateman character, to a signee of TNA when the company was near its nadir, and to now be a part of a 5-star match with future main-event potential? He’s put himself in the Wrestling 1%.
Which modern era team that didn’t win the title reasonably should have? A top 3 is ok
— redacted cell phone number (@Moose_Bigelow) June 21, 2018
However, for the sake of this exercise…
I was thinking about teams with high hopes good coaches and players who put out a dud of a season
— redacted cell phone number (@Moose_Bigelow) June 21, 2018
Allow me to begin with a mention of a team I’m not including: 2012 USC. Despite being the first AP preseason No. 1 to finish unranked, the 2012 Trojans shouldn’t have been a preseason No. 1. They shouldn’t have been a preseason Top 10, frankly, but college football media were blindly by Matt Barkley’s return; a late-season win at Oregon (that would have been a loss had that game gone 30 seconds longer); and the concept of USC being back.
So with that, and limiting to teams in my time following the sport, here’s my three nominees:
3. 1994 Arizona Wildcats
Coming off a 1993 season that was at the time the greatest in program history (only surpassed by 1998), the 1994 Arizona Wildcats earned substantial national championship buzz in the preseason. Desert Swarm returned All-American Tedy Bruschi to anchor a unit that pitched what was then the only shutout in Fiesta Bowl history.
But Arizona’s defense could only carry it so far; the Wildcats played a style of offense in the early 1990s that looked more befitting the 1890s, and it cost Arizona in losses to Colorado State (21-16) and at Oregon (10-9).
The wheels came off on both sides of the ball in a blowout at USC that ended any chance of Arizona reaching the Rose Bowl, say nothing of competing for a national championship.
When Arizona put together its best season ever four years later, it combined Desert Swarm with a more modernized offense, thanks to the promotion of Dino Babers to offensive coordinator.
2. 2017 Florida State Seminoles
Recency bias? Maybe. But a year ago at this time, Florida State fostered very real national championship aspirations. The Seminoles earned first-place votes en route to a preseason No. 3 selection. Some jackasses even thought Alabama might be in danger in the Week 1 matchup.
Although Deondre Francois’ third-quarter injury against Alabama contributed to the Seminoles’ struggles, and the losses were typically close, this team just looked out of sorts all season. Having to reschedule a hurricane-canceled game with Louisiana-Monroe just to gain bowl eligibility was a bad look for a campaign that opened with such promise.
In hindsight, given what transpired down the stretch, it appears as though Jimbo Fisher had one foot out the door well before taking Texas A&M’s absurd contract offer.
1. 2008 Tennessee Volunteers
With a winless SEC docket and the firing of Butch Jones this past season, Tennessee made it a full decade since it was last relevant. That’s still somewhat mind-blowing for me as a child of the 1990s, and young adult in the 2000s, when UT football still mattered on the national scene.
It doesn’t feel like a full decade ago when Tennessee was fresh off winning the SEC East, having very nearly removed LSU from the national title picture with a nail-biter in the SEC Championship Game, and returned a bevy of talent. The Vols opened the 2008 ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, but they seemingly had the makeup of national title contenders, what with Arian Foster in the backfield; Eric Berry at safety for John Chavis’ defense; and a legit Hall of Fame coach, Phil Fulmer.
The immediacy with which Tennessee’s 2008 tanked is staggering, and a rather fitting microcosm for how quickly the program lost national relevance. Losing to UCLA in Rick Neuheisel’s debut as head coach set the tone, and was one of three losses suffered in UT’s first four games.
The sub-.500 finish was an occurrence unheard of on Rocky Top in the previous century.
Oh, if Tennessee brass only knew what was coming.