Friday Five: Missouri athletics’ handling of Michael Sam, Marcus Smart, Shockers and more

02/14/2014 2:20 PM

02/14/2014 2:20 PM

Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian takes on five topics every Friday on his blog:

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1:

Missouri athletics this week enjoyed a crucial triumph that reflected months of sensitive work and a well-equipped infrastructure.

When MU senior defensive end Michael Sam announced he was gay on Sunday, it marked the culmination of a thoughtful and even model approach to a situation with no known precedent or blueprint.

The development was crucial in many ways, including that it came only weeks after the Sasha Menu Courey case compelled University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe to call for an independent investigation of MU’s approach to the matter.

Sam and MU navigated the way in part because of the athletic department’s inclusive, progressive stance that included providing workshops on such topics, a department-issued video declaration encouraging diversity and denouncing intolerance and personnel who made all that more than lip service.

It’s commendable that MU athletic director Mike Alden’s department and football program alike, by all indications, fostered a culture that said all under their tent are entitled to respect.

That didn’t mean everyone on the football team was happy about this.

But it did mean everyone on the football team had to put a new lens on the issue.

The term “family” in athletics has become trite, but it says something in this instance more than most.

“He’s my son,” MU football coach Gary Pinkel said on Monday, as he says of all his players.

So, then Michael Sam is family. And even if you don’t like that he’s gay, he’s in essence your brother, so what are you going to do now? Hate him? Ostracize him? Oust him? Out him?

Or appreciate him as a brother, friend, teammate and human being and find a way to get along for the greater good?

“The team was prepared to put on the armor and go to battle,” said Pat Ivey, who in his role as MU assistant athletic director for athletic performance was as essential to working with Sam’s situation as anyone.

The Southeastern Conference, Ivey said, was “already tough,” but he added: “If you attack Mike, you attack us.”

The results bear out that mind-set. Or, at worst, that it was simply irrelevant.

How else could MU go 12-2 and have not so much as one player feel the need to sabotage Sam publicly?

Now, there still are some gaps in what we know about how this all went.

There were more struggles than anyone wants to talk about now, for one thing. And it’s fair to say this would have been a far more complicated matter for Mizzou to deal with if he had felt the need to talk about it publicly during the season.

Be that as it may, when it emerged this week, it was more a celebration than anything else at least in part because a delicate circumstance was landed deftly.

Mizzou wisely embraced the moment and rose to the occasion by making Ivey, Pinkel and Alden, among others, available immediately, and it was hard to say MU could have handled this any better from what we know now.

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2:

There were happier things to talk about, of course, than in the aftermath of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” report on Menu Courey, the swimmer who committed suicide in 2011.

Many questions remain in that matter, for MU and ESPN, among others, but Mizzou hurt itself by waging electronic rebuttals instead of a more human approach.

MU knows that, and Alden himself recently expressed regret he hadn’t found a way to make himself visible faster.

And Ivey added an interesting footnote to that on Monday.

Without any direct reference to it, Ivey said, “We’ve taken a lot of heat.” Then he added, “We may not have handled every situation the best it could be handled, but our intentions were right and we’ve learned

“Those situations that we’ve learned from went into what’s going on right now.”

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3:

As I’ve watched the various video replays of the Marcus Smart incident, I find myself thinking of the suspiciously missing minutes on President Nixon’s Watergate tape.

I’m not suggesting Tech did anything to intentionally doctor the one it released. But it seems incomplete based on the gap between when you apparently can hear fan Jeff Orr calling Smart “a piece of crap” and Smart getting up.

On other videos, it’s evident that Orr still is saying something, as are the snarling women next to him, as Smart is moving his way.

So whatever other goading there was, it’s also reasonable to wonder what Smart thought he heard, too.

Trouble is for Smart, no matter how vile the words were, he can’t do that.

As for Orr, without proof he said something worse, disturbing as his demeanor might be, he’s hardly alone in this thinking among mean-spirited: buying a ticket is license for tactics that could incite a riot anywhere else.

But that uneven behavior is less troubling than this:

Is this volatility really what we’re looking for in our air traffic controllers?

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4:

Undefeated and fourth-ranked Wichita State on Tuesday labored 78-67 past a Southern Illinois team that started the season 6-15, and that made some question anew about how good the Shockers are.

Somehow, that left me hearing Nolan Richardson’s distinct voice and words during Arkansas’ run to the NCAA title game in 1995.

The Razorbacks, the defending national champions, had gotten there against UCLA after winning five tournament games by a meager total of 22 points.

And Richardson took issue with the insinuations that winning close games was an indication of vulnerability and that Arkansas merely had been fortunate.

“You can’t be lucky if you don’t put yourself in a position to be lucky,” Richardson said then. “In order to win championships, you have to have luck. And I just hope we have one more day of luck. And you can write your stories: ‘They lucked out again.’ I like that; ‘They almost lost.’ I like that.”

The Shockers, whose schedule makes them a bit of a mystery despite coming off a Final Four berth, could well have lost Tuesday.

They trailed much of the game, and the final score was misleading after a late burst. And that came after two road wins by seemingly pedestrian margins of seven and nine points.

Maybe they’re Final Four material again, maybe not.

But ever since Richardson’s rant, it’s been emblazoned in my mind that winning tight games and, for that matter, winning when you’re not at your best is more a sign of strength than weakness.

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5: In a visit with William Jewell coach Larry Holley on Thursday

, we spoke about his days as a player at Jewell, where his teammates included Homer Drew — best known for coaching Valparaiso and the shot his son Bryce made to upend No. 4 seed Mississippi State in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.

Holley also spoke of playing high school ball against Eagleville’s Jerry Armstrong, who went on to Texas Western, which won the 1966 NCAA title and has become a part of basketball history as the first team with five black starters to win the tourney.

That was celebrated in the 2006 movie “Glory Road.”

On the occasion, Holley invited Armstrong to watch the movie with his own team and do a Q and A afterward.

Holley laughed as he recalled Armstrong elbowed him three times during the movie, each time saying, “Never happened.”

That made me laugh in turn, especially because those were the oft-used words of Dan Devine during a 1993 screening of “Rudy” he invited reporters to watch with him in Columbia.

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