Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Chiefs’ Husain Abdullah retires, KU’s Bill Self in March, baseball and more

Kansas coach Bill Self
Kansas coach Bill Self rsugg@kcstar.com

By now, you have probably seen where Husain Abdullah announced his retirement from the Chiefs and the NFL. Three immediate reactions:

1. Bad for the Chiefs.

2. Bad for the NFL.

3. Good for Abdullah.

Let’s do it in order. We are more than a month from the draft, but already the Chiefs have had a rotten offseason. We’ll get into this more later here, but Abdullah was an important piece of what they do defensively. He was a steady safety, a man whose smarts and preparation allowed him to help the team in many ways.

This is a bad look for the league, as Abdullah cites five concussions among the “numerous” factors in his decision. Abdullah’s decision joins a trend of NFL players walking away from the sport long before their production dips. It’s a sign that more guys are aware of the long-term health affects of the sport, and unwilling to trade more money and time in the spotlight for harder years later in life. The more this happens, the less the NFL can credibly talk about improving safety.

Those of us with sons look at this personally. My wife and I happen to be years and years from having to confront this, but as it stands right now, I can’t imagine why I would allow my son to play football — at least not until high school. I am well aware that the sport will be fine without the Mellinger boys, but there are thousands and perhaps millions of others wrestling with the same decision. The sport will be changed, and diminished, because of it.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, good for Abdullah. He is smart, conscientious and ambitious. He has goals beyond football, and once you’re inside the machine, it’s not always easy to keep those in mind. He walked away from the sport once before for a pilgrimage to Mecca as part of his Muslim faith. It’s cool to see a man maintain control of his own life, to make is own decisions. If he was concerned about how he would leave football if he continued to play, good for him getting out now while he has his health and can work on other things.

The Chiefs, and football, will miss Abdullah. Each will be diminished, even if only a little bit, without him.

This week’s reading recommendation is Sam Anderson on Bill Walton’s long, strange tale of NBA survival, and the eating recommendation is the rib and burnt end plate at Slap’s.

As always, thanks for your help, and thanks for reading.

These are two questions.

Let’s deal with the first one first, and before we get to the next paragraph let’s please agree that we are all adults and understand that blanket statements about any group of people as large as the fan base for major universities are impossible. We’re talking generalities here.

The most obvious reason that some — I would say “many,” you might say “most” — Kansas men’s basketball fans are spoiled is that their program is among the best in the nation.

North Carolina fans are spoiled. Duke fans are spoiled. Kentucky fans are more spoiled — or is it entitled? — than any of them.

Alabama football fans are even worse.

If you win 30-some games most years, and the conference title every year, you come to expect a certain amount of success in the same way that if you eat filet mignon every day for lunch you will begin to forget how delicious it is. Another way to say this is that Kansas football fans are not spoiled.

And, actually, I would submit that KU football’s terribleness — that’s apparently a word, by the way, because it doesn’t have the squiggly red line underneath it — is part of the context here.

This is what KU fans have.

They don’t have a football program to lean on, to invest in, to believe in, and this works in many ways. Most obviously, it makes basketball success even more important, both financially and for institutional self-esteem.

I also think that KU’s less-than-stellar record in March — more on this in a minute — is at play here. Losses in March create a sharper kind of pain because they provide ammunition for fans of other schools to dismiss the regular season success.

College basketball is structured in a way that gives exaggerated meaning to a mechanism for deciding a national champion that we all understand is flawed, but that’s also part of the fun. The randomness of it. The need for big programs, with higher-paid coaches and better facilities and famous players, to survive the brutal format.

We all know that the bracket would look much different if each round was a short series instead of one-and-done, but we’ve also agreed that the tournament is what we value.

Because of how it’s set up, there are overreactions on all sides. That’s inconvenient for programs like Kansas in years where the ultimate goal isn’t reached, but it’s absolutely part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so freaking fun.

Look, Kansas’ program is one of the jewels of the sport. The run of 12 consecutive conference championships is absurd, without precedent in modern basketball, and possibly the most impressive streak going in any major sport. Allen Fieldhouse is one of the great places to watch a college basketball game, and one of the great places to watch a game in any sport. The history and tradition are important to the sport.

But along with that come expectations that are impossible to always meet, and can turn nasty. Bill Self sometimes calls this “Kansas math,” where a team can lose more than it brings in but still be expected to improve. It’s part of life in the big city.

Now, about that other question…

…are people really insisting on this?

People who are serious? And not morons?

We can have a somewhat-serious-but-ultimately-irrelevant-until-Self-retires-or-goes-to-the-NBA discussion about who replaces him when he’s gone*, but the idea of whether he should be fired is like the idea of whether your oak tree should cook you dinner tonight.

The anger is all based on KU’s performance in the NCAA Tournament, but, guys, which program do you think has the better postseason track record over the last decade:

Program A: Zero national championships, three Final Fours, four Elite Eights, seven Sweet 16s, two losses in the first round.

Program B: One national championship, two Final Fours, five Elite Eights, seven Sweet 16s, zero losses in the first round.

Probably program B, right? Well, that’s Kansas. Program A is Michigan State, with Tom Izzo, who carries the reputation as a March wizard.

Compare KU’s record over the last decade to the other recognized national powers, and we’re including 2016:

Kentucky: One national championship, four Final Fours, five Elite Eights, five Sweet Sweet 16s, one loss in the first round and two years not in the tournament.

Duke: Two national championships, two Final Fours, three Elite Eights, six Sweet 16s, three losses in the first round.

North Carolina: One national championship, three Final Fours, six Elite Eights, seven Sweet 16s, zero losses in the first round, one year not in the tournament.

Now, a few things worth mentioning: Carolina can still win a second title, Kentucky’s record includes some years before John Calipari, and the decade cutoff, while reasonable, does omit Bill Self’s consecutive first-round losses to Bucknell and Bradley.

But, if we’re being honest and fair, I don’t think there’s much difference between any of them. You wouldn’t look at those numbers and say Kansas has had the best decade of the bunch — I’d argue it’s Duke, unless North Carolina wins the championship next week — but you also wouldn’t look at Kansas as an outlier.

Duke (for now, anyway) is the only one with multiple titles. Kansas has the same number of Final Fours as Duke, and only one behind North Carolina and Michigan State.

Kansas is the only one in the group to not lose in the first round, or miss the tournament altogether.

The argument against Kansas centers around seeding. Kansas has been a No. 1 seed six times in the last 10 years, and a No. 2 seed three others. That is, by far, the best starting position of any program on the list. Kansas has made the Final Four just once as a No. 1 seed. That’s where the disappointment comes from. Expectations can work against you.

So, I don’t know. It’s absolutely true that Kansas should have more success over the last decade with such terrific seeding, but it’s also true that the NCAA Tournament is a tempestuous minx, and no program, regardless of stature, is without its failings and disappointments.

I can only speculate, as I’ve lived in the area my whole life, but I believe the following to be true:

Fact No. 1: EVERY sports fan believes national announcers — media of any kid, really, other than fan-run websites — are against their team, or at least not as impressed with their team as they should be.

Fact No. 2: Kansas Citians, generally speaking, have an inferiority complex that probably makes Fact No. 1 more pronounced.

This may have been a very small number of people, but the fact that any Kansas Citians took that Ricky Gervais Verizon ad as a shot on the city is just silly. The same can be said for anyone who took offense to the Missouri legislator’s dumb idea about making the Cardinals the official team of the state*.

* By the way, I know the natural reaction to those things is to say, “don’t lawmakers have more important things to do?” And the answer is, obviously and unequivocally: yes. But I would just add: if they are spending their time on this type of nonsense — or this, or this — then I think we’re all better off if they never address anything more important. Honestly, I’m surprised Courtney Curtis didn’t introduce a bill proposing the smoke from the Kansas grass fires be designated as The Official Smoke of the State of Missouri.

Journalists in general have certain coaches or athletes they enjoy talking with more than others, but in almost every case I think it would surprise many fans how little any broadcaster truly cares about who wins. This is true of journalists in general, but because of the nature of their jobs, particularly true of national broadcasters: we just want to see good games. Fun games.

So, first, let’s point out that now more than ever before, it is not important when a guy declaring for the draft. The new rules — which allow you to enter every year, go to the combine or otherwise get solid feedback from the league and still pull your name back out if you want — make declaring for the draft more of an administrative move than anything else, provided the player does not hire an agent. Anyone who declares has until May 25 to return to school.

Now, that said, Cheick Diallo is probably gone. He declared on Monday and did not hire an agent, but I think it’s fair to say the feeling has always been that he would leave if he heard enough from the league. The NBA loves his athleticism, and coaches there always believe they can mold raw talent.

I also expected Wayne Selden to turn pro. He just had, by far, his best season at Kansas and this is generally regarded as one of the worst draft classes in recent history. There is every possibility that Selden could improve his play without improving his draft stock if he came back.

After that, it gets a little guessier — red squiggly line, so not a word — but I think Brannen Greene has played his last game at Kansas. It is no secret that he and Self have had their differences, and by now each side is probably ready to move on. He has the size and shooting ability to catch someone’s eye.

Svi Mykhailiuk is an interesting case. He’s 6 feet 8 with the kind of athleticism, smarts, and shooting ability that has always made him a favorite among NBA scouts. He turns 19 in June, so he’s finally eligible for the draft. It seems like he could improve his stock tremendously with a good junior season, but he may decide to play for money.

Oh, and Carlton Bragg. The feeling I’ve always gotten is that he’ll be back next year, with the idea that taking Perry Ellis’ spot will mean an opportunity to showcase himself. He also needs a year to improve his strength, because right now the NBA would eat him up.

Other than that, I haven’t heard anything that makes me think Frank Mason or Devonté Graham will leave.

If this is how it goes, Kansas could be even better next year. Graham and Mason would be among the nation’s top pair of guards, Bragg has first-round talent, and Landen Lucas would be back in the middle.

I find recruiting talk to often be frivolous and inaccurate, but KU is working on what could end up as perhaps Self’s best recruiting class, and I hope I’ve couched that enough different ways. Udoka Azubuike is a 6-foot-11 and 270-pound center ranked in the top 30 by ESPN and Rivals. They also have a commitment from Mitch Lightfoot, a three-star power forward who projects as a program player.

The upside of the class is on the commitments still to be made, however. Josh Jackson, the No. 1 player in the country, is apparently deciding between Kansas, Michigan State and Arizona this week. One Big 12 coach who’s seen Jackson said KU’s backcourt would actually improve if Jackson replaced Selden. Thon Maker, a 7-foot and five-star center from Canada, is also considering Kansas.

Granfalloon is my favorite, but I understand burnt end nachos are not for everyone. They are, however, for me. Right combination of cheese and jalapeños, and the chips are delicious.

Other outstanding plates of nachos are served at Ponak’s (so much cheese), the Brooksider (pulled pork), Pancho’s (been a while), and Austin’s (their cheese is a miracle).

Well, first of all … disappointing? Rey Fuentes, Whit Merrifield, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas have all been crushing the ball. Wade Davis has given up one run. Kyle Zimmer has looked good (and healthy!). Chien-Ming Wang has pitched his way into roster consideration. Danny Duffy’s been bad, but as Ned Yost said recently, Duffy’s always bad in spring training. Which brings us to the point of the question.

The Royals are 13-18 in games that don’t count. You can focus on the 13-18 or you can focus on the “games that don’t count.” That’s up to you. Last year the A’s won the Cactus League and then finished 68-94 in the American League. The year before that, the Indians won the Cactus League and then finished third in the AL Central.

Spring training is an absolute waste of time if you are going for results. The games are played with no adrenaline, varying focus, and little care about actual production. It’s important for guys on the fringe of the 25-man roster or in starting position battles, but mostly meaningless for the starters and stars who largely determine outcomes.

Many of them are working on different things. A pitcher may decide to throw only fastballs, particularly against a division opponent. A hitter may decide to swing only at breaking balls, or try out a new way to time pitches, or concentrate only on hitting the other way. In many games, the lineups used look nothing like a regular-season lineup, particularly if it’s an away game. The starters are often on the golf course.

The biggest thing about spring training is avoiding injuries, and other than an oblique that will keep Jarrod Dyson out a few weeks of the regular season, the Royals have done that.

Is Yostville a thing? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be.

Some version of this question makes its way into the Minutes fairly regularly, and I think I’ve been consistent:

Kansas football.

The reasons are both macro and micro. It is harder to turn around a bad football program, particularly in a place without an enormous financial commitment. For years, KU administrators have been frustrated at how difficult it is to raise money for football. They can’t have lunch without being offered money for the basketball program, but plans to renovate and improve football facilities have been on hold for years.

In that sense, Missouri basketball has good facilities already, and the nature of the sport means the right recruit or two can have an enormous impact. Also, I would argue that Big 12 football has more good programs than SEC basketball, meaning the climb from the bottom is harder.

But, now, I would add some more specific problems for KU football. David Beaty’s decision to effectively demote his offensive coordinator and replace him with, well, himself, is … bizarre. And for a lot of reasons.

Most obviously, it cuts his judgment time from five years to two years. Everyone understood what kind of challenge this was. The one thing Beaty had going for him was patience. The last two coaches have been fired before they completed their third seasons. Beaty was at least going to get five, but by taking over play-calling duties — something he doesn’t have a particularly convincing record on, by the way — he’s providing a tangible piece for people to judge him on in his second year.

More importantly, however, is what it says about priorities. There are so many things that need to be fixed with that program — much bigger and more important things than offensive play-calling in the second year.

The head coach was hired to fix those big-picture elements. Recruiting, and relationships with high school coaches. Fund-raising, and relationships with donors. Developing an identity, fixing the strength and conditioning program, implementing better discipline, creating some sort of guiding principle.

I’m sure Beaty would say he’s still working on those things, but he’s doing it with less time on his hands now, and with a move that does not announce confidence in the coaches he hired.

At this point, it’s more likely than not that both Kim Anderson and David Beaty will be fired or otherwise replaced before they make the NCAA Tournament or a bowl game. Anderson is facing significant challenges, some of his own creation, many of unfortunate circumstance.

But Beaty’s seem to be stacking the wrong way.

Yes.

We’ll talk more about this as the days go on, but it’s been a fairly terrible offseason for the Chiefs so far.

They have been stripped of a third-round draft pick, and as absurd as that penalty is for the equivalent of jaywalking, the NFL’s form of discipline is bankrupt of logic and common sense, so Roger Goodell is expected to hear the Chiefs’ appeal himself. A sneak peak into the appeal hearing:

Chiefs: This is a ridiculous penalty, and one without precedent. Everyone in the league does this, all the time, and when they’re caught they are typically fined or lose a late-round pick. As an organization, we have a history of compliance, as does our coaching staff. It makes no sense to levy an unprecedented penalty on us for such a minor violation.

Goodell: I have reviewed the case, and I agree with myself. Appeal denied.

Chiefs: Thanks for your time. You’re really doing a bang-up job with the league.

But, additionally, the Chiefs’ best player is possibly out for the year and as much as the organization (and the player) push the idea that he’ll be fine, nobody can know for sure. At the very least, he will probably miss a chunk of the season.

The Chiefs also lost Sean Smith, and now Abdullah, and the re-signings of Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali — which at the time felt like necessary moves to close the relatively small gap in the AFC — are starting to feel inadequate.

I mean, look. Nobody knows nothing. But it doesn’t look amazing.

I tend to think it’s bad, and I don’t think this would be a conversation if it were a men’s team.

To build a bigger audience, it would help if there were multiple teams at the top fighting each other for the championship. The way its set up now, the only intrigue is whether UConn covers what might be a 20-point spread in the national championship game. Kudos to the women who play their for their hard work, and for Geno Auriemma for putting it all together, but the story is not one that’s bringing a lot of people in.

If this was happening in the men’s game, it would absolutely be digested differently. Once a sport is established, a dominating team does bring people in, because people like to see greatness. But without the work on the front end, it can feel like a monster beating up on guppies.

Maybe that’s not fair, maybe it’s hypocritical, but it’s also reality.

Well, what we’re doing here is basically calculating the combination of city, ballpark, time of year, and intrigue of the actual baseball.

The top five:

1. Mets: June 21-22. It’s in the middle of the week, which is the only downside. The upside: New York in June, the World Series rematch, and an underrated ballpark.

2. All-Star Game, July 12: I’m including this here because you maniacs will probably vote in eight Royals. Baseball has the best All-Star game of any major sport, and San Diego is a place we should all either live in or visit constantly.

3. Red Sox: Aug. 26-28: Boston in August should be nice, and Fenway is great. Red Sox might be good?

4. White Sox: June 10-12. Chicago in June. Yes.

5. Tigers: Sept. 23-25: Another underrated yard, at least in my opinion. They always have big crowds, and this figures to be right in the middle of the pennant chase.

Another list! Admittedly, a lot of these are a different way of saying, “baseball is great and so is the summer,” but here goes:

10. The Royals will be good. Even when the Royals were a lock to lose 100 games, opening day is still fun. For as much as Kansas Citians tend to complain about being overlooked, this city will be the focus of the baseball world on Sunday night.

9. Everything is possible: Everyone is undefeated. Nobody has struck out. They’re all in the best shape of their lives. The 162 games create reality, but right now, reality is whatever we dream it to be.

8. The set-up. Baseball has stretched opening day out a bit, and now it essentially covers Sunday and Monday. That means games all day, two days in a row, with everyone’s best pitchers going.

7. Living history. This is an event your parents enjoyed, and their parents, and their parents. This is more than 100 years of American anticipation. The Clydesdales in St. Louis, the parade in Cincinnati, the president throwing the first pitch. All of it.

6. Socially acceptable day-drinking. You know, if that’s your thing.

5. Roger Goodell is not involved in baseball, in any way.

4. It’s still about the games. Even on a showcase day, baseball does not come with the pomp and arrogance of the NFL. And, yeah, maybe this is just another way of saying Roger Goodell is a bad leader.

3. The longest game of catch. This one is specific to Kansas City and this year, but the Royals and the city are holding a 10-mile game of catch from Union Station (where the 2015 season ended) to Kauffman Stadium (where the 2016 season will begin). It will raise money and awareness for the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy, which is going to be awesome. I believe spots are still available.

2. Spring is here, summer is on the way. If you don’t like that, please stop reading.

1. You don’t have to be a baseball fan. This is as close to encompassing everything as I can get. The appeal of opening day, and of the first baseball games of the year, is such that people who don’t like baseball — some who might hate baseball — can get into going to the first game. If you’re not into football, you’re not going to be interested in going to the NFL’s first game.

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