January 30, 2009

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, the studio with the world's largest film library, is beginning an exciting new partnership with the authority in classic film, Turner Classic Movies. With the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection, the two companies will release a collection of 60 top films in 15 themed groups. The TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection will whet the appetite of both serious film buffs and a new generation of movie lovers, giving them an easy way to build a personal library of classic films.

The First Nine: Click on links for more info.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies (Adam's Rib / Woman of the Year / The Philadelphia Story / Bringing Up Baby)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Dramas (East of Eden / Cat on a Hot Tin Roof / A Streetcar Named Desire / Rebel Without a Cause)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Best Picture Winners (Casablanca / Gigi / An American in Paris / Mrs. Miniver)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: John Wayne Westerns (The Cowboys / Fort Apache / Rio Bravo / The Searchers)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Western Adventures (The Wild Bunch / McCabe & Mrs. Miller / Jeremiah Johnson / The Train Robbers)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: World War II - Battlefront Asia (Bataan / Back to Bataan / The Green Berets / Destination Tokyo)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: American Musicals (The Band Wagon / Meet Me in St. Louis / Singin' in the Rain / Easter Parade)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Broadway Musicals (Show Boat / Annie Get Your Gun / Kiss Me Kate / Seven Brides for Seven Brothers)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: World War II - Battlefront Europe (Kelly's Heroes / Where Eagles Dare / The Dirty Dozen / Battleground)
NC State's Yow remembered at funeral she designed

CARY, N.C. — Hundreds of friends, fans and colleagues of Kay Yow remembered the longtime North Carolina State women's basketball coach Friday at a funeral of her own design.

Yow died last weekend after a two-decade fight against cancer. At her funeral at a packed Colonial Baptist Church, the pews filled with bold-faced names from college sports and many of Yow's former players, pastor Stephen Davey said Yow hand-picked almost every element of the service.

"She wanted one final chance to challenge and impact all of our lives," Davey said.

Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, yet went on to lead the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal the next year. She won more than 700 games in her career and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002.

But for many, Yow was best known for her unwavering resolve while fighting cancer, which recurred during the 2004-05 season and had lingered in the years since. She raised awareness and money for research while staying with her team through the debilitating effects of the disease and chemotherapy treatments.

She had to take a four-game leave in December due to what was described as extremely low energy. She announced shortly after the new year that she would not return this season. She soon entered a hospital for treatment and spent about a week there before she died. She was 66.

"Her battle with breast cancer was never about herself," said Megan Smith, an employee at the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer fund in Atlanta, before the funeral. "She was such a courageous and humble person at the same time."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell and Miami coach Katie Meier stopped at a viewing for Yow, while Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie and her team, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer and Texas coach Gale Goestenkors, the former coach at Duke, arrived early for the service.

Others paying respects included former N.C. State football coach Chuck Amato and current coach Tom O'Brien, and N.C. State alumnus and former NFL coach Bill Cowher. Yow will be buried Saturday in her hometown of Gibsonville.

But none of Yow's famous friends were slated to speak.

"She did not want to show any kind of favoritism because there was just none in her heart. None," the Rev. Mitchell Gregory, her pastor at Cary Alliance Church.

Retired professor Janie Brown, the former chair of the physical education department at Elon University, remembered speaking to Yow a couple of years ago for a project on the history of women's sports. She said Yow spoke about balancing teaching, academic advising and even the little things like taping her players' ankles.

"I think that was always her attitude. Whatever the situation, you deal with it. That's what she's done," Brown said. "I'm a good friend, but I'm also a great admirer of what she does. And I think we would hope we could live a life with that kind of influence."

Friday's events are part of an emotionally draining week for the players and coaches she left behind at N.C. State. On Monday, the team went to an area mall to pick out clothes for Yow's funeral, a task that interim coach Stephanie Glance said was easier to do together than individually.

The team returned to practice Tuesday, then attended the campus tribute ceremony at Reynolds Coliseum, home of "Kay Yow Court," Wednesday night. The next day, the team played its first game since her death, falling to Boston College 62-51.

At each public event, there have been numerous fans wearing pink — the color of breast cancer awareness — and eager to share their stories of how Yow inspired them while battling the disease.

She spent 38 season as a coach, 34 with N.C. State. She won four ACC tournament championships, earned 20 NCAA tournament bids and reached the Final Four in 1998.

Yow took a 16-game leave to focus on her health during the 2006-07 season. Her return that year sparked an emotional late-season run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16.

She also served on the board of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which was founded by ESPN and her friend and colleague, former N.C. State men's coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993.

January 24, 2009

Longtime NC State women’s coach Kay Yow dies at 66

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State’s Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach who won more than 700 games while earning fans with her decades-long fight against breast cancer, died on Saturday. She was 66.

Yow, first diagnosed with the disease in 1987, died Saturday morning at WakeMed Cary Hospital after being admitted there last week, university spokeswoman Annabelle Myers said.

“I think she understood that keeping going was inspirational to other people who were in the same boat she was in,” Dr. Mark Graham, Yow’s longtime oncologist, said Saturday.

Yow won more than 700 games in a career filled with milestones. She coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988, won four Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, earned 20 NCAA tournament bids and reached the Final Four in 1998.

She also was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002, while the school dedicated “Kay Yow Court” in Reynolds Coliseum in 2007.

But for many fans, Yow was best defined by her unwavering resolve while fighting cancer, from raising awareness and money for research to staying with her team through the debilitating effects of the disease and chemotherapy treatments. In her final months, Yow was on hormonal therapy as the cancer spread to her liver and bone.

She never flinched or complained, relying on her faith as the disease progressed. She commonly noted there were other patients with “harder battles than I’m fighting” and said it was inspiring for her to stay with her team.

“Almost everybody is dealing with something,” Yow said in a 2006 interview.

“We’re all faced with a lot of tough issues that we’re dealing with,” she said. “We know we need to just come to the court and let that be our catharsis in a way. You can’t bring it on the court with you, but we can all just think of basketball as an escape for a few hours.”

Yow announced earlier this month that she would not return to the team this season after she missed four games because of what was described as an extremely low energy level.

The team visited Yow in the hospital before leaving Wednesday for a game at Miami. Associate head coach Stephanie Glance—who led the team in Yow’s absences—met with the team Saturday morning to inform them Yow had died, Myers said.

Graham remembered how Yow always took time to talk to other patients when she came in for treatments in recent years.

“She could have tried to come into the clinic and be completely anonymous,” he said. “She just wanted to be another patient. She was very open to sharing her experiences with others and being encouraging to others.

Yow’s fight was never more public than when she took a 16-game leave to focus on her treatments during the 2006-07 season. After her return, her inspired Wolfpack won 12 of its final 15 games with wins against highly ranked rivals Duke and North Carolina in a run that attracted plenty of fans wearing pink—the color of breast-cancer awareness.

Her players also wore pink shoelaces for their coach.

“There were so many times I felt like giving up,” forward Khadijah Whittington said after the Wolfpack’s loss to Connecticut in the 2007 NCAA tournament’s round of 16, “and then I see Coach Yow and she never gives up.”

Yow always found ways to keep coaching even as she fought the disease. She spent most of games during that emotional 2007 run sitting on the bench while Glance stood to shout instructions at players or to help a weakened Yow to her feet.

“She’s the Iron Woman, with the Lord’s help,” Glance said.

Yow was quick to embrace her role as an example for others battling the disease. She often found herself going about her daily activities in Raleigh only to have someone stop her and say they were praying for her or that she was an inspiration to them.

“When they say that, it really gives me a lift because it’s at that time I know for sure that I’m not going through it for nothing,” Yow said in 2007. “That means a lot to me. I have to go through it. I accept that, and I’m not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. But it just would be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn’t help people.

Born March 14, 1942, Sandra Kay Yow originally took up coaching to secure a job teaching high school English at Allen Jay High School in High Point in the 1960s. Her boss, along with the boys’ coach, agreed to help her plan practices and to sit on the bench with her during games. Midway through the season, Yow was on her own.

“Really, it was like love at first sight,” she said in 2004.

She spent four years there followed by another year in her hometown at Gibsonville High, compiling a 92-27 record. She moved on to Elon, going 57-19 in four seasons before being hired at N.C. State in 1975.

Her original cancer diagnosis came the year before coaching the United States to the gold in the Seoul Olympics. She had a mastectomy as part of her treatment, then discovered a lump in November 2004 close to where cancer was first discovered. She had surgery that December and started on a regimen of radiation and daily hormone therapy. Still, the cancer came back again and again.

She missed two games of the 2004-05 season while attending an eight-day nutritional modification program, which called on her to eat an organic-food diet free of meat, dairy products and sugar. She stayed on the diet for eight months, losing 40 pounds by keeping junk food and Southern favorites like biscuits and gravy off her menu.

Still, she cheated on her organic diet during home recruiting visits because she didn’t want to offend anyone by passing on a home-cooked meal.

Over the years, Yow never lost her folksy, easygoing manner and refused to dwell on her health issues, though they colored everything she did almost as much as basketball. Ultimately, her philosophy on both were the same.

“If you start to dwell on the wrong things, it’ll take you down fast,” Yow said in ’07. “Every morning, I wake up and the first thing I think of is I’m thankful. I’m thankful for another day.”

January 18, 2009

Steelers top Ravens for AFC title, Super Bowl next

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers outhit the Baltimore Ravens and outplayed them behind a steady-as-he-goes Ben Roethlisberger, marching into the Super Bowl behind a defense that brought back memories of the storied Steel Curtain.

The Steelers ended their home-field jinx in the AFC title game by beating Baltimore 23-14 on Sunday and Troy Polamalu ended any chance the Ravens had for a comeback with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The Steelers will meet the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl in two weeks in Tampa.

The matchup is intriguing—Mike Tomlin vs. the Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator when the Steelers won the Super Bowl three seasons ago who went to Arizona after being passed over for Pittsburgh’s job.

Whisenhunt and his top assistant, Russ Grimm, left after the Steelers unexpectedly hired Tomlin, who has done something even Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher couldn’t do by taking Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in his second season.

The Steelers harassed rookie Joe Flacco all game long. Normally unflappable, he looked lost at times and finished 13-for-30 for 141 yards and three costly interceptions.

Roethlisberger, picked off four times by New England in his rookie-year AFC title game, was a steady 16-of-33 for 255 yards and, most importantly, no interceptions. If nothing else, it showed how much experience mattered in a game so important.

After Polamalu’s twisting, turning run sealed it with 4:39 to play, the game was held up when Willis McGahee, who scored both Baltimore touchdowns, was carted off the field following a frightening hit to the helmet by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark.

The Ravens said he had “significant neck pain,” but movement in his arms and legs.

Pittsburgh is heading to its seventh Super Bowl. Only the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys have won five, and Pittsburgh can be the first to win six. If the Steelers beat Arizona, the 36-year-old Tomlin would be the youngest coach to win an NFL championship.

“They did it tonight the way we’ve done it all year,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got a very humble group, a very selfless group.”

The Steelers proved it is possible to beat a good team three times in a season, and will now face a team they share a history with. They were merged as Card-Pitt during World War II in 1944 when the Cardinals were in Chicago and went 0-10, the only winless team in Steelers history.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney recalls them being nicknamed the Car-Pitts “because everybody walked all over us.”

Earlier in the day, before Whisenhunt knew the outcome of the Steelers-Ravens game, he said he wanted to match up against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.

“I mean, I’m glad we’re playing in it, but the reason I’m here is because of my time with Pittsburgh,” Whisenhunt said, “and I am very grateful for that.”

Nobody walks over these Steelers, a hard-hitting, tough-guy team with the NFL’s best defense, at least statistically, in nearly 20 years. The unit is a worthy descendant of the Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s that virtually defined the way defense is supposed to be played.

They spent the game pressuring Flacco, who tried to become the first rookie to take a team to the Super Bowl. He was outplayed as badly as Roethlisberger was by the Patriots’ Tom Brady in his first AFC title game four years ago, and the mismatch at QB may have made the difference.

Down 16-14, Flacco tried to rally the Ravens in the closing minutes. That’s when Polamalu stepped in.

“I think Troy was probably just able to read my eyes,” Flacco said. “I think he was just able to jump over there, read a little bit and he made a nice play.”

Said Roethlisberger: “He went against the No. 1 defense in the world.”

Ravens teammate Terrell Suggs said, “I don’t think he struggled. They just made plays. When you got a defense that can make plays like that, I don’t think he was placing the ball where he wanted to but this was just their night.”

Still, Roethlisberger cautioned, “You can’t make mistakes and win a big game.”

Maybe it helped that the two athletes largely responsible for Pittsburgh’s last two major sports championships—former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and Penguins co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux—were among the record crowd of 65,350 in Heinz Field.

The franchise, for all of the success it has enjoyed while playing in a record-tying 14 AFC title games, had lost an unprecedented four of its five most recent conference championship games in Pittsburgh. The run of losses almost made the Steelers glad to go on the road for the entire Super Bowl run-up to their last title.

The Ravens and Steelers own the NFL’s nastiest ongoing rivalry. This game was expected to be low-scoring, physical and tense and it was, especially after Baltimore came back from an early 13-0 deficit to get to within 16-14 on McGahee’s second short touchdown run of the game, a 1-yarder with 9:32 remaining.

Baltimore won the toss and chose to go on defense, but another such play— Roethlisberger’s 45-yard completion to Hines Ward on third-and-12 play—led to the first of Jeff Reed’s field goals, a 34-yarder.

On the Ravens’ second possession, Flacco made the kind of mistake he didn’t make in playoff wins over the Dolphins and top-seeded Titans, throwing the ball into the hands of nickel back Deshea Townsend for the rookie’s first interception in 98 passes. Ward kept the ensuing Steelers drive going with an 11-yard catch on third-and-10, leading to Reed’s 42-yard field goal, but hurt his knee while landing.

January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban dies at 88

LOS ANGELES – Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican-born actor who became a star in splashy MGM musicals and later as the wish-fulfilling Mr. Roarke in TV's "Fantasy Island," died Wednesday morning at his home, his family said. He was 88.

Montalban's death was first announced at a city council meeting by president Eric Garcetti, who represents the district where the actor lived. He died "from complications of advancing age," his son-in-law, Gilbert Smith, later said.

"He was so gracious, and Aaron was always humbled by Ricardo's gratitude for 'Fantasy Island," said Candy Spelling, wife of the late Aaron Spelling, who created the show. "I miss him already, and wish his family well."

Montalban had been a star in Mexican movies when MGM brought him to Hollywood in 1946. He was cast in the leading role opposite Esther Williams in "Fiesta," and starred again with the swimming beauty in "On an Island with You" and "Neptune's Daughter."

But Montalban was best known as the faintly mysterious, white-suited Mr. Roarke, who presided over a tropical island resort where visitors fulfilled their lifelong dreams — usually at the unexpected expense of a difficult life lesson. "I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island," he told arriving guests.

Montalban had already coined a cultural catchphrase before the show, which ran from 1978 to 1984. As the celebrity spokesman for mid-1970s models of the Chrysler Cordoba, Montalban unwittingly opened himself up to endless imitation when he described the car's optional seats as being "available in soft, Corinthian leather."

More recently, he appeared as villains in two hits of the 1980s: "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" and — in line with his always-apparent sense of humor about himself — the farcical "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad."

Montalban's longtime friend and publicist David Brokaw said the actor was "exactly how you'd imagine him to be" off camera. "What you saw on the screen and on television and on talk shows, this very courtly, modest, dignified individual, that's exactly who he was," Brokaw said.

Raul Yzaguirre, longtime president of National Council of La Raza, called Montalban "a hero" and noted the actor's contributions to his community. Montalban helped found the ALMA Awards, which honor and encourage fair portrayals of Latinos in entertainment.

"He was just a marvelous human being and an inspiration to be around," Yzaguirre said. "I hope his spirit pervades more of Hollywood — the spirit of humility and excellence and giving back to the community and just plain decency."

Between movie and TV roles, Montalban was active in the theater. He starred on Broadway in the 1957 musical "Jamaica" opposite Lena Horne, picking up a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.

Montalban also toured in Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," playing Don Juan, a performance critic John Simon later recalled as "irresistible." In 1965 he appeared on tour in the Yul Brynner role in "The King and I."

"Fantasy Island" received high ratings for most of its run on ABC, and still appears in reruns. Mr. Roarke and his sidekick, Tattoo, played by the 3-foot, 11-inch Herve Villechaize, reached the state of TV icons. Villechaize died in 1993.

In a 1978 interview, Montalban analyzed the ethereal quality of his character: "Was he a magician? A hypnotist? Did he use hallucinogenic drugs? I finally came across a character that works for me. He has the essence of mystery, but I need a point of view so that my performance is consistent. I now play him 95 percent believable and 5 percent mystery. He doesn't have to behave mysteriously; only what he does is mysterious."

In 1970, Montalban organized fellow Latino actors into an organization called Nosotros ("We"), and he became the first president. Their aim: to improve the image of Spanish-speaking Americans on the screen; to assure that Latin-American actors were not discriminated against; to stimulate Latino actors to study their profession.

Montalban commented in a 1970 interview:

"The Spanish-speaking American boy sees Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wipe out a regiment of Bolivian soldiers. He sees `The Wild Bunch' annihilate the Mexican army. It's only natural for him to say, `Gee, I wish I were an Anglo.'"

Montalban was no stranger to prejudice. He was born Nov. 25, 1920, in Mexico City, the son of parents who had emigrated from Spain. The boy was brought up to speak the Castilian Spanish of his forebears. To Mexican ears that sounded strange and effeminate, and young Ricardo was jeered by his schoolmates.

His mother also dressed him with old-country formality, and he wore lace collars and short pants "long after my legs had grown long and hairy," he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, "Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds."

"It is not easy to grow up in a country that has different customs from your own family's."

While driving through Texas with his brother, Montalban recalled seeing a sign on a diner: "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed." In Los Angeles, where he attended Fairfax High School, he and a friend were refused entrance to a dance hall because they were Mexican.

Rather than seek a career in Hollywood, Montalban played summer stock in New York. He returned to Mexico City and played leading roles in movies from 1941 to 1945. That led to an MGM contract.

"Movies were never kind to me; I had to fight for every inch of film," he reflected in 1970. "Usually my best scenes would end up on the cutting-room floor."

Montalban had better luck after leaving MGM in 1953, though he was usually cast in ethnic roles. He appeared as a Japanese kabuki actor in "Sayonara" and an Indian in "Cheyenne Autumn." His other films included "Madame X," "The Singing Nun," "Sweet Charity," "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" and "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes."

Montalban was sometimes said to be the source of Billy Crystal's "you look MAHvelous" character on "Saturday Night Live," though the inspiration was really Argentinian-born actor Fernando Lamas.

In 1944, Montalban married Georgiana Young, actress and model and younger sister of actress Loretta Young. Both Roman Catholics, they remained one of Hollywood's most devoted couples. She died in 2007. They had four children: Laura, Mark, Anita and Victor.

Montalban suffered a spinal injury in a horse fall while making a 1951 Clark Gable Western, "Across the Wide Missouri," and thereafter walked with a limp he managed to mask during his performances.

Despite the constant pain that grew worse as the decades wore on, the actor was able to take a role in an Aaron Spelling TV series, "Heaven Help Us." Twice a month in 1994, he flew to San Antonio for two or three days of filming as an angel who watched over a young couple.

And when asked to play the grandfather in "Spy Kids 2" and "Spy Kids 3," Montalban told filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in his self-effacing way: "I'm old. I'm in a wheelchair. And I have a Mexican accent. Three strikes and you're out," recalled Joel Brokaw, another of the actor's spokesmen.

"But Robert Rodriguez idolized Ricardo, and came up to his home in the Hollywood Hills to convince him to do the role," Brokaw said. He did, and despite his obvious pain while waiting to do a scene, "something miraculous would happen," Brokaw said. "As soon as Rodriguez said 'Action,' his pain would completely disappear, time and time again. I asked him about this. He smiled and said, 'It's impossible for my mind to do two things at once.'"

Montalban is survived by daughters Laura and Anita, sons Victor and Mark and six grandchildren.

January 07, 2009

We've learned not to count out Yow

It was hard to watch North Carolina State coach Kay Yow walk off the court 21 months ago, after Connecticut ended her Wolfpack's unforgettable 2007 season in the Sweet 16 in Fresno. And it's difficult to hear the news today that Yow is stepping away from coaching for the rest of this season as she continues to fight the breast cancer that has been her on-again, off-again opponent for the last 22 years.

Although she had already missed four games this season because of flagging energy, the 66-year-old Yow made her decision with obvious reluctance.

"Stepping away from coaching is one of the hardest decisions I've had to make," said the Hall of Famer, who has spent the last 34 years of her 38-year head coaching career at NC State. "But I have great confidence in the experienced staff I have been working with for such a long time and the character of everyone involved in the program to respond positively to my decision."

Yow will be replaced on the bench on an interim basis by her long-time top assistant, Stephanie Glance.

It's premature to speculate on whether Yow will return to the bench again, but I, for one, would never count her out. Over the last few years I've learned you can't underestimate the passion and fight in this woman.

Two years ago Yow left her team for 16 games as she underwent aggressive chemotherapy. After she returned on Jan. 25, 2007, the Wolfpack won 12 of their next 14 games and "lifted my adrenaline so much that I didn't feel anything that was happening outside the court," said Yow.

The Pack's emotional run finally stopped with a 78-71 loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. As she walked off the court that March night wearing a brown wig on her head and bandages on her fingernails to hide some of the effects of chemotherapy, Yow gave the Wolfpack hand sign to a standing, cheering throng that included fans of LSU, Connecticut and Florida State. There wasn't a soul in the Save Mart Center who wasn't moved by Yow's courage, but many in attendance made the sad assumption that she had probably coached her last game.

I was one of them. I was in Fresno that weekend, and I know some of what Yow endured just to make that trip. An IV drip for the duration of the cross-country flight, daily blood tests, breathlessness, peeling fingernails, numbness in her feet, and skin pulling off with Band-Aids, just to name a few horrors. Basketball allowed Yow to forget, for a few hours every day, the brutal opponent she faces off the court. But I wondered how long she could split her energy between two all-consuming agendas-coaching her team and fighting her disease.

So I was one of the many who were surprised and delighted to see Yow return to the bench last season -- with more energy, a head of silvery hair, and a new treatment regime. She had two missions: to coach her team (the very young Wolfpack team would finish 21-13 and miss the NCAA tournament) and to lend her name to a national fight against breast cancer by launching the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. Along the way, she got Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt to put aside their differences long enough to join her a TV promo for the fund, which has raised over $600,000 for cancer research to date.

Some of Kay Yow's future is uncertain, but this part is not: whether or not she is able to make another comeback to the bench, she will continue to be an inspiration to her players, to legions of cancer patients, and to anyone who has been touched by her or her story.

January 05, 2009

Pittsburgh is No. 1 for first time

Pittsburgh made it to the top of The Associated Press’ college basketball poll for the first time and it wasn’t even close.

The Panthers (14-0) took advantage of losses by season-long unanimous No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Connecticut to make the jump from third to first Monday, receiving all but two of the first-place votes from the national media panel.

Pitt had been ranked second nine times since 1987-88 but had never reached No. 1 until this week.

“I think it means a lot to our fans and our city and it means a lot to our university, much more so than to me and our players,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said Monday. “But it is part of the reason why we play and work so hard so I am glad for them.”

The Panthers have a lot of familiar names in the Top 25 with them as they are one of a record nine Big East teams in the poll.

The 16-team league had a record eight schools ranked for three weeks earlier in the season, but the return of Marquette and the first appearance of West Virginia made it nine Big East teams.

“I know I said a couple of times when people mentioned that we didn’t play any ranked teams on our nonconference schedule that it’s hard to schedule any when a third and now more than a third are in our conference,” Dixon said, laughing. “I think it’s a good thing. People talk about how hard it is but we knew it was that way when we were signing up for it. You want to play against the best and we’ll have that opportunity a lot.”

The Panthers opened Big East play this week with road wins over Rutgers and Georgetown. They won’t play again until hosting St. John’s on Sunday and Dixon doesn’t think all that time with a No. 1 ranking will affect his players.

“We’ve talked about different things from the beginning of the year and how you can either use things as motivation or let them become a distraction and this is one of those situations that’s come up,” Dixon said. “We need to use this to make us better and it starts today at practice.”

Duke (12-1) jumped from fifth to second to start a run of three straight teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

North Carolina (13-1), which lost 85-78 at home to Boston College on Sunday and received the other first-place votes, was third and Wake Forest (13-0) fourth.

The Tar Heels, who had been a unanimous No. 1 from the preseason poll through the first seven polls of the regular season, won all their games by double figures until running into the Eagles (13-2), who jumped into the poll at No. 17.

“We’ve got to get some things going again, going period,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Monday.

Connecticut, which lost to Georgetown at home last Monday, dropped three places to fifth, while Oklahoma, which lost to Arkansas last week, fell from fourth to sixth. Texas was seventh followed by Michigan State, Georgetown and UCLA.

Syracuse was 11th followed by Clemson, Notre Dame, Purdue, Tennessee, Xavier and Boston College. Marquette and Villanova tied for 18th and were followed by Arizona State, Butler and Minnesota. Baylor and Louisville were tied for 23rd and West Virginia was 25th.

Boston College, which has won 10 straight games since losses at Saint Louis and Purdue, is ranked for the first time since December 2007.

Marquette (13-2) returned after a two-week absence following Big East wins over Villanova and Cincinnati.

West Virginia (11-2) was ranked for two weeks last December. The Mountaineers, whose losses were to Kentucky and Davidson, have won five in a row.

The Big East teams in the Top 25 are Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Marquette, Villanova, Louisville and West Virginia.

Gonzaga (8-4), which was ranked as high as No. 4 this season, fell out of the poll from 16th after losing its third straight. The Zags lost to Connecticut and Portland State then was beaten 66-65 by Utah last week.

Michigan (11-3) split its first two Big Ten games, losing to Wisconsin and beating Illinois, but dropped out from 23rd.

Ohio State (10-2), which lost to Minnesota after opening its Big Ten season with a win over Iowa, fell out from 24th.

There are five games between ranked teams this week and four of those are Big East games: Georgetown at Notre Dame on Monday; Connecticut at West Virginia on Tuesday; and Louisville at Villanova and West Virginia at Marquette on Saturday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Sunday.
Steelers’ Harrison is AP Defensive Player of Year

NEW YORK — Kent State once sent a linebacker to the Pittsburgh Steelers who epitomized everything the Steel Curtain was about.

That was Jack Lambert.

The current version of the hard-hitting, versatile and dynamic former Kent Stater in Steel City is James Harrison, The Associated Press 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.

The linebacker, who had a career-high 16 sacks to set a team record and led the NFL with a career-high seven forced fumbles, beat Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware in balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters announced Monday. Pittsburgh was the league’s stingiest in total defense, pass defense and points allowed. Harrison was its main hammer.

“That’s something that everybody in the league would love to have, to be voted the top player in the league for that year,” Harrison said. “In my mind, I think I do—and it’s going to sound boring—what the defense allows me to do and what my teammates allow me to do.”

Harrison earned 22 votes to 13 for Ware.

Baltimore safety Ed Reed, the 2004 winner, got eight votes. Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth had five and Harrison’s teammate, safety Troy Polamalu, got two.

“It couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward said. “He’s worked his tail off to get to where he is. You appreciate it more, considering where he came from and how he got here.”

Harrison credited defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s schemes with allowing him, an undrafted free agent who was cut several times by Pittsburgh and once by Baltimore, to eventually become a star.

“The defense is built to play with 11 guys, and if all 11 guys are on the same page, playing the same defense on the same play, there’s nothing that can go wrong and that’s just how we feel about it,” Harrison said.

But fellow linebacker James Farrior, who has seen Harrison develop from a backup to Joey Porter into one of the game’s biggest playmakers, sees Harrison as the key.

“His whole attitude about football, I think he works harder than anybody else in this locker room,” Farrior said. “He has a great work ethic. He’s very tuned in to what he has to do to make himself better. That’s all he strives for, to try to be better than anybody else, and you can see his determination when he’s out there on the field.

“We’ve got good players on this team, and every team has good players, but he seems to be—this year and last year—making the plays that made the difference in the game.”

Harrison is the fifth Steelers player to win the award, including three Hall of Famers from the original Steel Curtain: Joe Greene (1974), Mel Blount (1975) and Lambert (1976). In 1993, Rod Woodson was AP Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s eligible for the Hall for the first time this year.

The Steelers didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer in 2008. Harrison didn’t limit his work to that stingy unit, though: Harrison also had 12 special teams tackles.

“People said I couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that,” he noted. “I was too short, too slow. Basically, I play and prepare myself in the offseason with the thoughts of what people said I couldn’t do.”

And he’s proven he can do just about everything.

January 03, 2009

Steelers revere LeBeau, the coach they call Dad

PITTSBURGH — NFL players make headlines for cursing a coach. Criticizing a coach. Calling out a coach. Demanding that a coach be fired.

Loving a coach? Now that’s a new one—except in Pittsburgh, where Steelers players have long talked of their respect, admiration and, yes, love for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Here’s another one: Some of them call the former star defensive back Dad.

“We love coach LeBeau,” Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu said. “I don’t think there’s anything we wouldn’t do for him.”

During a time when Chad Ocho Cinco sits out a game for getting into a dispute with a coach, and Terrell Owens makes a career out of coach-baiting, LeBeau’s relationship with his players is more like that represented in the hero-worshipping Chip Hilton and John R. Tunis football novels of a half-century ago.

And this seems so schmaltzy, it’s hard to believe it occurs in the current-day NFL. One of his players’ favorite days every season comes when LeBeau recites from memory “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” as he did last week.

His players are so devoted to LeBeau, they purchased $300 throwback LeBeau jerseys to wear to the Hall of Fame game in Canton last year to lobby voters for his enshrinement.

“I just have a lot of respect for the man,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “What he’s done as a player and what he’s done as a coach speaks volumes for him, the way he conducts himself and carries himself and treats people.”

The way he coaches, too.

At age 71, and in a remarkable 50th NFL season—14 as a standout defensive back and 36 as a coach—LeBeau is enjoying one of his most satisfying seasons.

The Steelers’ defense is one of the NFL’s most dominant in years, allowing the fewest yards for the second successive season, plus the fewest yards passing and least number of points. The Steelers missed by fewer than 60 yards rushing of becoming the first defense since the 1970 NFL merger to lead the league in the top four defensive categories.

LeBeau is best known for popularizing the zone blitzes that swept the NFL when he was coaching Pittsburgh’s Blitzburgh defense during the 1990s. But playing for the former Bengals head coach requires much more than relying on an innovative scheme.

LeBeau’s defenses are known for maximizing talent, being well-disciplined and fundamentally sound. Some plays are risky, but each has a safety valve, too. As players such as Greg Lloyd, James Farrior, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Casey Hampton, Smith and Polamalu have proven, one can make a career out of being a LeBeau disciple.

As Harrison set the Steelers’ single-season sack record of 16 while winning a second team MVP award in as many seasons, he credited LeBeau for turning a player who wasn’t drafted out of Kent State into a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

“Everything I do is because of him,” Harrison said. “If he doesn’t call that defense that puts me in a position to make plays, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

To further understand LeBeau’s ability to communicate, motivate and innovate, consider this. It has been 15 years since LeBeau’s zone blitzes first became popular, a lifetime in a sport where today’s gimmick fast becomes yesterday’s news, yet his defenses remain as fresh and as confusing as they did then.

The Steelers played one of the NFL’s toughest schedules, yet they allowed only one team to gain 300 yards, held half of their 16 opponents to 10 points or below, and didn’t permit a passer to throw for 300 yards or a running back to gain 100 yards.

Asked why this defense is so good, safety Ryan Clark said, “Coach LeBeau’s calls. I think he’s really been smart. He calls a defense that always allows someone to be over the top in some capacity.”

And who says a coach can’t adapt as he gets older?

LeBeau knew the Steelers needed to generate a better pass rush after getting only 36 sacks last season. So he tweaked his defense to get more pressure from the front three and linebackers Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers finished second in the league with 51 sacks, four off the club record.

“I think in the earlier days sometimes we would just completely dominate the game because people were not familiar with it (the zone blitz),” said LeBeau, who has been an assistant with five teams during his extended career. “I don’t think those situations evolve too often any more, but you can’t put on a video—be it college, high school or professional—and not see the zone blitz being evoked. It’s sound and it’s a safe way to pressure … it has evolved, but we’re still an attack defense.”

Pittsburgh has been home to some of the NFL’s best defenses—remember the Steel Curtain? Mean Joe Greene? Jack Lambert?—and statistically, this defense ranks with them.

“They look a lot like Baltimore (in 2000) when they killed everybody and won the Super Bowl,” Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said.

Much like predecessor Bill Cowher, who twice hired LeBeau to run his defense, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a former NFL defensive coordinator who spends considerable time working on defense. Yet his players say Tomlin allows LeBeau more freedom to run the show than Cowher did.

“Dick is the guy,” Tomlin said. “But Dick will tell you, those calls are great because they’re being executed at a high level, guys like James Harrison and Co. making plays. They make the calls happen.”

LeBeau hasn’t said yet if he will return next season at age 72, but maybe he doesn’t need to. His players believe there are only two things left for them to accomplish to bring the proper credit to LeBeau:

1) Win the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. The Steelers have this weekend off before playing a divisional playoff game Jan. 11. 2) Gain Hall of Fame recognition for a man who ranked fourth in the NFL record book with 62 interceptions when he retired in 1972, and remains in the top eight, and has been one of the sport’s defensive innovators.

“I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said.

His loyal players lined up to hug him during an on-field ceremony Nov. 20 to honor LeBeau for his 50 seasons. Some had tears in their eyes, as did LeBeau.

“Anybody would love coaching these guys,” LeBeau said.

It’s obvious the feeling is mutual.
No. 3 Pitt muscles past No. 11 Georgetown, 70-54

WASHINGTON — DeJuan Blair knew that he was not the main focus of the two dozen or so NBA scouts or the national television audience. The featured attraction was supposed to be college basketball’s latest flavor-of-the-month, Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe.

In the second half, however, it was Blair who was thumping his chest while chants of “Let’s Go, Pitt!” came from the thousands of upper-deck fans who made the trip to the nation’s capital. Blair and the No. 3 Panthers were muscling their way to a 70-54 win Saturday over the No. 11 Hoyas, ending Georgetown’s 29-game home winning streak.

“I played with something on my back saying, ‘They’re picking this young cat against me, and I’m not going to take it,”’ Blair said. “I was always an underdog throughout my whole life. I think I showed a lot of people.”

Blair had 20 points and 17 rebounds, and the Panthers (14-0, 2-0 Big East) never trailed as they dominated the Hoyas on the boards, in the paint and with their depth.

Rebounds: 46-21. Points in the paint: 48-22. Bench scoring: 14-2. Needless to say, those questions about the Panthers’ early schedule—this was their first game against a ranked team—are now firmly put to rest.

“They were saying, ‘Who did Pitt play?”’ Blair said. “We came into Georgetown and showed them what we can do. They can’t say nothing now.”

Tyrell Biggs and Sam Young added 14 points apiece for the Panthers, who shot 53 percent in the second half in a rematch of the last two Big East tournament championship games. Levance Fields had eight turnovers and no assists, raising his ratio to an astounding 91-to-19 on the season.

DaJuan Summers finished with 22 points for Georgetown, single-handedly keeping the Hoyas close until a 17-4 Pittsburgh run midway through the second half.

Monroe added a quiet 15 for the Hoyas (10-2, 1-1), who were dealt a sobering reality check five days after their road upset of No. 2 Connecticut. Monroe’s 4-inch height advantage meant little against Blair’s grit and determination.

“He’s real strong,” Monroe said. “He’s definitely knows how to use his strength, his width.”

Predictably, Georgetown coach John Thompson III downplayed the magnitude of the loss in much the same manner in which he refused to buy into the euphoria over the UConn win. After all, there’s a road game at No. 7 Notre Dame on Monday.

“We have no turnaround,” Thompson said. “We leave tomorrow morning for South Bend. You can’t dwell on that too long. We’re a very good team, but we just had a very difficult stretch from that 14-minute mark where they did a good job of executing and we didn’t.”

Monroe set the tone in both halves. He won the opening tip, scored the game’s first points with a hook shot, then picked off a pass and made the score 4-0 with a layup. In the second half, he scored Pittsburgh’s first seven points, including a hook shot against a triple team after losing the ball and recovering it in the paint. Immediately after that play, he blocked Monroe’s shot at the other end.

In the decisive run later in the second half, Blair—who played only eight minutes against Rutgers because of foul trouble—dunked home a feed from Fields with 7:47 remaining to make the score 55-44, the first double-digit lead of the game.

“We joked with him the last couple of days that he was going to be well-rested,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He had a lot of legs, and he was ready to go. “