Sports

Column: Of all players, why Persa?

The Daily Northwestern, November 14, 2011

Column: Of all players, why Persa?

By Andrew Scoggin

It’s a cruel twist of fate, like something you might hear in an Alanis Morissette song.

Or, as Drake Dunsmore would say, “That’s football.”

Dan Persa had quite possibly the game of his life, guiding Northwestern on consecutive 85-yard and 91-yard drives in the fourth quarter to put the Wildcats up 21-17.

As Demetrius Fields hauls in the 20-yard touchdown from Persa, it’s absolute bedlam at Ryan Field with 1:22 remaining. But I look back at Persa 30 seconds after the catch to see the trainers helping him as he lies on the field.

He goes to the bench with a row of linemen sheltering him from about 47,130 pairs of eyes, and as his teammates celebrate the upset over No. 13 Iowa, he’s taken off on a cart rather than on the shoulders of adoring fans.

“He should’ve been out there,” junior safety Brian Peters said. “It sucks that he couldn’t be.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald breaks the news after the game: ruptured Achilles tendon, done for the season.

Dan Persa, we’ll see you in 2011.

His style of play might make you think this sort of thing was inevitable. So many rushes out of the pocket, so many dives for first downs, so many big hits from opposing defenses. In fact, it already happened against Indiana with his concussion, though he missed all of about eight minutes of game action.

But this play, this was not when Persa was meant to end his season. He stayed in the pocket and was not so much as barely even tapped on the shoulder by Iowa’s pass rush.

Fitzgerald said Persa told him that he was “just going to run to celebrate with Demetrius” and he heard something pop.

It brings to mind Bill Gramática’s torn ACL and Gus Frerotte’s sprained neck, but Persa didn’t even have time to celebrate before he went down.

It’s an unfair judgment by the football gods. Mr. Iron Cat, who already has emphatically put his stamp on the program, can’t even bask in NU’s biggest win so far this season. I was all set to write about how he should be a prime candidate for the Heisman, but now he’ll be watching NU’s game at Wrigley from the metaphorical dugout.

Now batting, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins.

“I know one guy that probably won’t sleep tonight, and that’s Evan,” Fitzgerald said. “I got a feeling the first guy I’ll see tomorrow morning will be Evan. I got a feeling the guy I’m going to see the most this week will be Evan.”

Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about going down with an injury and missing big games. He broke his leg in the second-to-last regular season game against Iowa (of all teams) in 1995 and had to sit out NU’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 47 years.

The next season, Fitzgerald won his second-straight Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and the Bronco Nagurski Trophy.

Any doubts Persa has Sept. 3, 2011, circled on his calendar?

“He’ll be back ready for his senior year,” Fitzgerald said. “You better look out, because he’s going to come back with a vengeance.”

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Gunning for No. 2

WildcatReport.com, March 11, 2011

Gunning for No. 2

By Andrew Scoggin

EVANSTON — A team is only as good as its backup quarterback. Northwestern fans found out just how true that old adage was in 2010, when an injury to starting quarterback Dan Persa derailed the season.

The Wildcats’ thrilling 21-17 win over Iowa last November is now better known for Persa’s torn Achilles than it is for a 10-point comeback against the 13th-ranked team in the country. It was all downhill after that game for the Wildcats, who closed out the season 0-3 by a combined score of 163-88 with a backup lining up behind the center.

Evan Watkins has taken more snaps than the other two QBs in the battle.

With Persa still on the mend, eyes this spring are focused on sophomores Evan Watkins and Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian as they battle it out for the No. 2 quarterback job.

Most teams have quarterback competitions in which the loser winds up as the backup. In Northwestern’s battle, the winner will assume the second-string role.

All three QBs have split reps with the first team offense this spring. And after three practices, coach Pat Fitzgerald says that a favorite has yet to emerge.

“They’re going to rotate through and we’ll have different combinations until maybe one guy takes it over,” Fitzgerald said. “Will that happen in the first week? I doubt it.”

The quarterbacks themselves say the same thing. Though Watkins couldn’t speak for himself (he had class after practice), neither Colter nor Siemian said any of the three had an upper hand.

“We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we’re all doing good,” Colter said. “I’m just going to leave that up to the coaches. We all want to win the job, though, no doubt.”

Who held that understudy job wasn’t so clear at the end of the 2010 season. Though Watkins started each of the last three games, he split time with Colter, who ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and even brought in a 32-yard reception in the TicketCity Bowl. But it was Watkins who got the large majority of pass attempts, going 36-of-70 for 378 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. Siemian redshirted and didn’t see any action, earning an extra year of eligibility.

And though there’s still plenty of time before the 2011 season begins, Siemian says that now’s the time for players to “win your jobs.”

Fitzgerald thinks that may be a little premature, however, as the three are “nowhere near where they need to be” in his mind.

“They’re all doing good things. They’re all doing things that are going to get us beat,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. The guys are doing a nice job.”

Speaking about the team as a whole, Fitzgerald said some players are “light years away” from understanding the playbook, and that’s certainly true for the quarterbacks, who have more to learn than anyone. Some players learn faster than others; Fitzgerald said it took him two years to fully grasp his role when he was a Wildcat linebacker. Watkins is in his second year at NU, while Colter and Siemian are still in their first.

“Some guys struggle with it because maybe in high school they were able to just run free,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of areas you try to start over and break some bad habits.”

Siemian, who got a lot stronger after winter workouts, says that a greater understanding of the game is his big goal for the spring. But Colter’s primary objective might be proving to some doubters that he’s more quarterback than athlete.

“I’ve been trying to focus on being a true quarterback, going through my reads, making the throws,” he said. “I’m looking to throw first, run second.”

Colter completed only three passes on nine attempts for 38 yards and one interception last season, but that’s understandable given that he only played in the last three games, after Persa’s injury.

Colter, who now wears No. 2 rather than No. 14, said he hasn’t run too much this spring. On Thursday, though, he scrambled a few times during practice, picking up 10 yards on one play.

Siemian connected on a few deep passes, including one 15-yarder to senior wide receiver Charles Brown and another 20-yard strike to sophomore Mike Jensen. Watkins threw with some zip on the ball, though he seemed to struggle the most of the three as a few of his passes bounced off the hands of his intended receivers.

Of course, Fitzgerald isn’t going to say who looked best.

“I’m not telling you that,” he said. “You’re going to ask me probably at the end of spring and I’m not going to have an answer. It’s going to be a day-by-day.”

(Original post — external link)

Demps ready to take the point at Northwestern

WildcatReport.com, April 28, 2011

Demps ready to take the point at Northwestern

By Andrew Scoggin

Although he has a shot to replace four-year starter Michael Thompson next season, incoming freshman Tre Demps hadn’t really played point guard before committing to Northwestern.

Sure, the 6-foot-3 guard took the ball up the court during his junior season at San Antonio (Texas) Ronald Reagan, but Demps said he was never the facilitator on offense. That, along with his quiet demeanor, changed with the arrival of first-year coach John Hirst.

Demps was named first-team all-state after leading Reagan to a 30-6 record.

“From the start I trusted him and it motivated me to be more vocal to those guys,” Demps said. “It was my job to get those guys going where as in the past it was only my responsibility to get myself going.”

Though Demps’s stat line didn’t change much (his points per game average actually went down to 16.6 from 19), he led his team to a 30-6 record and was named first-team all-state by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches.

He’ll play in two all-star games in the next three months, both sponsored by Texas coaches’ associations.

“Most of my peers really appreciate his game because he’s not just a high-wire act, someone who just makes you say, ‘Wow,'” Hirst said. “Tre’s one of those guys at the end of the game that you say wow because you look at those numbers.”

That’s not to say Demps didn’t have a flair for the dramatic at times, Hirst said.

“I can’t tell you how many big shots he hit, too,” Hirst said. “I can’t think of how many times the game was in doubt and Tre makes a play.”

Unlike most seniors during the spring, Hirst said Demps is now working hard on improving on an individual level. He has had Evanston on his mind for a while, at least judging by his wardrobe, which often features purple socks that clash with Reagan’s green-and-white color scheme.

Demps didn’t wait long to commit to Northwestern, turning down offers from schools like Minnesota and Colorado in the process. For him it was the usual combo of high academics and the Big Ten that made him a Wildcat, though NU’s renowned Medill School of Journalism also played a role.

“I used to (write) when I was younger,” Demps said. “I’m really interested in satire, stuff like The Onion. … I think that ties in well with my personality.”

His intelligence extends to the court as well. Demps’s basketball IQ is “off the charts,” Hirst said, likely due in part to his father, former NBA player and current New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps.

He grew up with his mother in the Bay Area in California, and spent summers with his dad.

“I’ve been around the game my whole life,” Demps said. “I think I’ve got to see things I’d say 99.9 percent of the kids who play basketball haven’t seen. Over the years my knowledge of basketball has gone up and up and up.”

Demps said he had built a close relationship with former Northwestern assistant coach Mitch Henderson, who walked him through the Wildcats’ gameplan before their 58-57 loss to No. 1 Ohio State in January. Though Henderson left to coach Princeton earlier this month, Demps said he still talked a good amount with coach Bill Carmody, who Demps describes as fairly laid back.

“I feel like we’ll have a great relationship because we both kind of have a chip on our shoulder because we both get criticized for certain aspects of the game,” Demps said. “I think we can relate really well and take this thing to the next level.”

For Demps, he said that criticism against him centers mostly on his speed and ability to spread the ball around the floor.

“I think a lot of people around the city criticize me for not getting my teammates involved,” he said. “People say I’m not quick enough to play in the big conferences. I’m still using that as motivation right now. I really want to be known as a guy who can get people going.”

After missing out on a point guard for the class of 2010, NU will bring in two in Demps and David Sobolewski of Lisle (Ill.) Benet Academy. Demps said he and Sobolewski speak frequently, mostly talking basketball.

The two will join JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio, among others, in the backcourt, and Demps said he’ll take whatever role is best for the team.

“Maybe in the past I would want that starting position,” Demps said. “But now whatever they ask me to do is what I’m going to do and it’s what I’ll want to do.”

As for comparisons with Thompson, Demps said their games don’t have much in common. He said Thompson is feistier, while he’s a little more finesse.

“Coming in I’m not going to try to duplicate what he did, as far as how we play,” he said. “I’m going to try my best to be a leader.”

Still, his coach isn’t going to undersell him.

“We really feel like Northwestern got a steal, not that he’s going to be jaw-dropping and maybe he will be as a freshman,” Hirst said. “But we’re talking about a guy who’s going to be really great for three or four years.”

(Original post — external link)

Big Ten: Expansion in future?

The Daily Northwestern, May 25, 2010

Big Ten: Expansion in future?

By Andrew Scoggin

While in Washington for a meeting with the Association of American Universities last month, University President Morton O. Schapiro’s son, Matt, called him about a story on ESPN.com.

Matt told him that, according to the article, the school presidents of the Big Ten would be meeting in Washington about the possible conference expansion. ESPN picked up a story from the Chicago Tribune that read, “Morton Schapiro and the other Big Ten presidents” had planned a secret meeting, Schapiro said.

“It’s so funny, I don’t know why they picked me,” Schapiro told The Daily. “He said, ‘Dad, they think you’re a real player. They must not know you.’ They certainly don’t know me.”

The article’s phrasing made it seem like Northwestern was the sole decision-maker as to who could be admitted to the Big Ten, Schapiro said. Of course this isn’t the case, but as one of 11 school presidents, or chancellors, in the conference, Schapiro’s vote carries some weight.

“As president of Northwestern, I’m in the middle of this thing that a lot of people seem to think is extraordinarily important to the future of college sports in this country,” he said.

Since its seven-member founding in 1896, the Big Ten has inducted an additional five members, with the latest addition of Penn State in 1990. The conference sits at 11 schools, as the University of Chicago, a charter member, bowed out in 1946.

The conference announced in a December press release that it was looking into the possibility of expansion, and set a 12- to 18-month timetable. Schapiro said he does not expect a decision to made soon, echoing words said last week by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.

With this, it has been widely rumored the Big Ten could add as many as five schools-as many as it has added in its 114-year history.

“We’re doing this again, and we’re really making these decisions every 20 years,” Schapiro said. “We don’t want to blow this thing. We want to get it right.”

ACADEMICS

In the evaluation of potential candidates, the conference is not willing to compromise academics to add a “football factory,” ESPN.com writer Adam Rittenberg (Medill ’03) told The Daily.

“They’re not going to add a third-tier academic institution,” said Rittenberg, who writes ESPN.com’s “Big Ten Blog.” “It’s a big part of who the Big Ten is. There’s really no one outside of what people would consider the top tier of schools.”

As the decision to add any new members ultimately comes down to the approval of at least eight of 11 presidents, Rittenberg said that “you’ve got to figure academics are going to be a big part of it.”

Schapiro said academic issues are important, adding the Big Ten is the only conference in which all schools are members of the Association of American Universities. The organization, made up of 63 U.S. and Canadian universities, focuses on research funding and policy issues, according to the group’s website.

The AAU is open to new members by invitation only. The Georgia Institute of Technology became its newest member in April, though Rittenberg said a similar invite for the school to join the Big Ten is unlikely.

“Are you really going to extend yourself all the way to Atlanta for Georgia Tech?” he said.Other schools that have been mentioned as potential candidates, including Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers, are also members of the AAU. Notre Dame, long considered a prize catch for the Big Ten, is not a part of the AAU.

“It’s funny because I think it’s very important, and yet I think it won’t matter,” said Teddy Greenstein (Medill ’94), a Chicago Tribune writer who covers Big Ten and NU athletics. “It won’t matter for Notre Dame.”

WHY EXPAND?

Greenstein said the predominant reason for expansion is possibility of increased revenue.

“Those are probably the first three reasons,” he said. “Lacrosse sticks don’t pay for themselves.”

Under the Big Ten’s revenue sharing system, each school receives about $22 million, Greenstein said. The Big Ten Network, which launched in 2007, has helped to bolster this revenue stream, he said.

Adding schools could possibly dilute the amount of money each school receives if they don’t bring in enough additional revenue.

“You know we’re in a great situation,” Schapiro said. “We’re the envy. We get the biggest check, the biggest exposure. So we better make sure if we’re going to expand it’s going to help us all.”

Rittenberg said NU likely has benefited the most from the system. As a smaller school, he said, NU would “get the short end of the stick” in a conference with inequitable revenue sharing, such as the Big 12.

“Even though (expansion) might make it a tougher league-competition wise … Northwestern needs to look at it very closely.”

WHO COULD JOIN?

This inequitable system in the Big 12 might provide motivation for members to bail for the Big Ten, Rittenberg said. He particularly noted Nebraska, whose prominence in the Big 12 is not quite what it was in the former Big Eight Conference, he said.

“Why would you want to stay when Texas is getting such a big cut of it?” he said.Texas has been the subject of a rumored courtship by the Big Ten, particularly after Delany said last week the national population shift to the South was a major part of their expansion study.

While Rittenberg said “you’d have to be crazy” to not consider adding Texas, Greenstein said he doesn’t see the Longhorns leaving the Big 12 and emphasized their distance from the rest of the Big Ten.

Other schools mentioned as possible candidates include Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

Notre Dame turned down an invitation to join the Big Ten in 1999, according to a recent article from Sports Illustrated. Rittenberg said it would be tough to attract Notre Dame, as reports from multiple outlets have said it wants to maintain its independent status for football. The school is a member of the Big East Conference for most other sports.

“Notre Dame is just totally conflicted, but with Notre Dame they’ve got something so special with independence,” Greenstein said. “If their big money donors are not on board with joining the Big Ten, that’s where the conversation ends.”

Though Schapiro said it’s possible the Big Ten could choose to not add any new members, both Rittenberg and Greenstein said they saw this as unlikely.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR NU?

The attention on the possibility of expansion has been “tremendous,” Schapiro said. At an alumni event in Washington last Tuesday night, he said the first question regarded whether Notre Dame would join the Big Ten.

“It really helps Northwestern,” he said. “The fact that … many people seem obsessed about this expansion thing is the best free publicity you could ever get.”

Schapiro said Delany asked Big Ten presidents and athletic directors to not speak publicly about adding schools. NU Athletic Director Jim Phillips declined to comment on expansion.

“I know I’m supposed to just say ‘no comment,’ but I’m not going to just say that at an alumni event,” Schapiro said. “I’m going to go as close as I can before crossing the line because I respect that we’ve agreed not to talk about it.”

Tyris Jones, a sophomore running back on NU’s football team, said players haven’t been put on a similar gag order. He said he hadn’t given it much thought, but he said “the possibility of expansion is definitely a great one.”

“The better the competition, the better the play … the better we look nationally,” Jones said. “From a player standpoint, it’d be exciting to play a team that we wouldn’t have an opportunity to play during a regular year.”

Though he said he didn’t see the big deal about expansion, freshman Arby Fields, a centerfielder on NU’s baseball team and running back on the football team, said he wouldn’t mind taking on Notre Dame every year.

“I feel like if we had an Oklahom
a or a Notre Dame … playing those teams and beating those teams, which we feel like we’re capable of doing, that’ll be big for us,” he said.

The last six months have been quite a whirlwind for the Big Ten, sweeping up the conference to the national spotlight. Schapiro said he didn’t mind the attention.

“Just keep this rumor going,” he said. “The attention at Northwestern has been unbelievable.”

Sandberg still fan favorite

The Indianapolis Star, Aug. 23, 2011

C1, Sports

Sandberg still fan favorite

Hall of Famer draws crowds in 5th year of managing

By Andrew Scoggin

Five hours before the first pitch, Chris and Tara Kaser were waiting. They stood outside Victory Field where the teams enter the stadium, hoping to see the most unlikely of sights in a minor league uniform — Hall of Fame player Ryne Sandberg.

Sandberg, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman and now manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, is a special attraction for the Kasers and other Cubs fans in towns such as Toledo, Ohio, Rochester, N.Y., and Durham, N.C.

On the first day of the IronPigs’ series against the Indianapolis Indians, which ends today, the Kasers said Sandberg chatted a bit, and he signed a baseball and a program from his Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2005.

The Kasers, who live in Flora, Ind., met Sandberg twice in 2009 when he managed the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in Kodak, Tenn., near Knoxville.

“He’s just such a nice guy,” Tara Kaser, 29, said. “Sandberg is always grateful for his fans.”

It’s a fan following that Sandberg said started with his first game as a manager, in 2007 with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs.

That day in Appleton, Wis., it was so cold that Sandberg said he wasn’t sure his team would even take batting practice. But the stadium was sold out.

“It’s been quite a following all these years, at home or on the road,” Sandberg said. Sure enough, at Victory Field on Saturday, a long line of eager fans extended up the lower deck for pregame autographs. (Naturally, the Kasers were fifth and sixth in line.)

Sandberg dutifully signed and posed for photos for about 15 minutes before the game.

“It’s unbelievable how many people he signs for,” IronPigs outfielder Rich Thompson said. “He goes out every day and there’s a line all the way up the row to the concourse.”

Sandberg said he didn’t seriously consider managing until after his 2005 Hall of Fame induction. He hadn’t had much time to think about it during his playing career, and he turned down other coaching chances while getting his five kids through high school and college.

But when the opportunity came with Peoria, he jumped.

“I said, ‘You know what? I want to put the uniform on full-time again,’ ” Sandberg said. “Part of it’s giving back to the game, and part of it’s wanting to be in the game.”

It’s well known that Sandberg coveted the job of managing the Cubs after managing in the team’s minor league system for four seasons. But when then-Cubs general manager

Jim Hendry chose Mike Quade, Sandberg jumped to the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, Lehigh Valley.

It’s the same farm system in which he came up as a player before being traded to the Cubs in 1982.

If Sandberg is disappointed about having spent five years in the minors, Thompson said, he doesn’t show it. That sets an example for players who might be dissatisfied in Triple- A.

“It’s not like he treats us or this team as a steppingstone,” Thompson said. “He’s here with Lehigh to win and to get the most out of us that he can.”

Lehigh Valley has done plenty of winning this season, with a 73-57 record going into Monday’s game. In the team’s three seasons before Sandberg’s arrival, the IronPigs’ average finish was 21 games below .500.

Sandberg takes a subdued approach to managing. He walked out to his third-base coaching spot at the top of each inning Saturday, and trotted back to the dugout with the helmets of IronPigs base runners in hand.

“He’s humble,” Thompson said. “You wouldn’t know he’s had such a ridiculous career.

That career is usually associated with the Cubs, who fired Hendry last week and are struggling under Quade. Speculation has started again about the possibility of Sandberg managing the Cubs.

Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune wrote Monday that the next choice for Cubs manager will be “Ryne Sandberg or someone who isn’t Ryne Sandberg.” He put the odds as better than even that it’ll be Sandberg.

Sandberg said he’s focused on his Lehigh Valley team, and that there are 30 major-league teams out there, not just the Cubs.

“The goal obviously is to get to the major leagues,” Sandberg said. “Right now I’m happy with what I’m doing here.”

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