Doug Smock: Managing expectations, kickers and D’Antoni
SOME REFLECTIONS after one of the more interesting weeks in Marshall athletics:
n The last time the Thundering Herd football team had win-’em-all expectations was 1999, in large part because of the brilliance of quarterback Chad Pennington.
Pennington, along with succeeding star QB Byron Leftwich, served as “coaches” for the Green-White Game Saturday, and he was able to gauge the atmosphere in and around the program. Not much gets by the Rhodes Scholar finalist, you know.
He remembers how Herd fans not only expected to win every game, but pummel every opponent. Style points mattered way too much, especially for the quarterback. That will apply to Rakeem Cato this fall, especially against a perceived light schedule.
“There are going to be games where he throws for 250 yards and two touchdowns, has no interceptions, graded out 99 percent and everybody wants to know what’s wrong with Rakeem Cato,” Pennington said. “Nothing wrong with him; probably played [his] best game.”
I also recall the 2002 season, when the Herd went 12-2, won the Mid-American Conference championship and flicked away Louisville in the bowl game. After one 300-plus-yard game, Leftwich sized up his performance and was as satisfied with it as any.
He briefly turned downcast, lamenting, “But you know what? It’s still not enough.”
I also recall Marshall’s gutsy 24-23 win at Florida Atlantic last fall. Most Herd fans weren’t familiar with the Owls and many of them expected their team to all but burn down Boca Raton. A few days later, a Herd fan’s post on social media crucified his team.
In my advanced youth, that philosophy is wearing me out. “Your team scored 24. The other team scored 23. You’re living a miserable life,” I replied.
We’ll see some of that this fall.
n There are several questions surrounding this team, with the field-goal kicker as important as anything.
Justin Haig is the incumbent, but I think he’s now the underdog. Nick Smith has been at least as consistent and possesses a strong leg. Saturday, he mis-hit one 42-yarder, but he has been pretty good from that distance this spring.
With Smith, coach Doc Holliday might dare to try a 50-yarder. Haig, for all his experience in pressure situations, doesn’t have that range.
n Dan D’Antoni and new boss Mike Hamrick may beg to differ, but this is the most daring, intriguing hire I’ve seen at Marshall in years. To no surprise, nobody from the outside understands it.
Of all the criticism, there’s one factor I want to eliminate right now: D’Antoni’s age. He doesn’t look close to 66.
Of the 13 coaches to roam the Herd sideline between D’Antoni’s MU playing days and his hiring last week, I figure there is exactly one who could hang with him today in the gym. That’s Greg White, who I’m certain can still spin six basketballs at once.
And who also is a Mullens native. What the heck was in the water down that way?
n I summarily reject the theory that Marshall basketball cannot win, certainly in the new Conference USA lineup. There are some programs with solid heritage, good facilities and/or a great current situation, but nothing close to Memphis-like.
Now, it would be great if someone sneaked into the Henderson Center today and blew it up, but the situation is far from hopeless.
“When we were here, if I remember correctly, this was a basketball school,” D’Antoni said, drawing laughter. “I don’t know what happened when I left. These guys are going to have to bring something back.
“When I was here, this was a basketball school. I suffered 28 straight defeats in football.”
n With their NFL days behind, I had to ask both Pennington and Leftwich what they’re up to now.
Pennington took a deep breath and said, “Too much. Living in central Kentucky, raising three boys. We live on a ball field somewhere, I do a lot of work with their school, obviously a lot of work here, at our university. I’m working part-time for the NFL with the Legends Program as a coordinator of former players.
“Oh, yes, I’m still doing our [1st and 10] Foundation stuff. You name it, we’re in it.”
So what’s Leftwich into?
With a big smile he said, “A lot of golf.”
Hey, it’s all good.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.