The last time the La Salle Explorers won an outright Big Five title — the longstanding championship of the Philadelphia college basketball scene — was the 1989-90 season. They made the NCAA tournament that year, and again in '91-92, but in the 20 years since, it's been an elongated dry spell. In fact, the only postseason basketball they've played in the ensuing years came last season, with a first-round NIT loss. That's about to change under coach John Giannini, who won a Division III national title at Rowan College and was the head coach at Maine before coming to La Salle in 2004. It's been a slow climb back to respectability, but at 8-3 in the new and improved Atlantic-10, Giannini and the Explorers are poised to make their first NCAA tournament in two decades.
With a win tonight over Temple (7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), they can also clinch an outright Big Five title. I spoke with Giannini on Monday about his season, the new Atlantic-10, and what the Big Five championship means to the team, the university, and the city.
It seems odd to call Philadelphia a basketball town. Despite their success early this season, the Sixers are a distant fourth in fan interest as far the city’s professional teams go. The Eagles and Phillies dominate the headlines, and the Flyers have an avid, raucous following. But with five Division I basketball programs (actually six, but no one cares about Drexel) clustered together within miles of each other, the city every year morphs into one of the true havens of college hoops as soon as the Eagles are eliminated.
The Big 5 started in 1955 when the athletic directors at La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova decided they would all play the vast majority of home games at the Palestra on Penn’s campus in doubleheader formats. Out of this arrangement, the city series was born, an annual round-robin tournament between the five schools. Several major cities have multiple major programs, but none of them play each other with any regularity. Yet for all but an eight-year stretch in the '90s, the Big 5 schools have dutifully faced each other, playing for a largely mythic city championship and bragging rights at Sonny Hill League summer games.
Welcome back to your monthly dose of Schadenfreude. Here at the Depressed Fan Base Committee, our job is to kick a city while it is down. And man, there are some down cities in this country. This month, 10 voters identified 35 cities as worthy of recognition. Along with the Top 10 list below, nominees included Detroit; Atlanta; Stillwater, Okla.; every city in Texas; the entire state of North Carolina; and the Three M's: Montreal, Manchester, and Milwaukee. (They still call those “The Three M's,” right?)
Disclaimer the First: We're not doing Happy Valley or Syracuse, so don't even ask. I had a whole slew of jokes lined up, but the Department of Justice flagged every single one. Come on, DoJ, don't you guys have something better to be flagging? I've got a neighbor who listens to Bruno Mars nonstop, and he doesn't even get audited by the IRS.
Chris Ryan: I guess that's what happens when you bring a knife to a Stratego tournament. In this series, the Phillies were put to death by a hundred dying quails, ground balls with eyes, and worked counts. And on Friday night, the fatal blow was dealt early by Skip Schumaker. Skip Schumaker — if he didn't exist, the Cardinals would have had to invent him.
Chris Ryan: So after Chase Utley got thrown out at third base by God's bouncer, Albert Pujols, in the sixth, I pretty much knew Wednesday was not going to be our night. I feel OK about this for two reasons:
During the NFL lockout, there was no shortage of stories about player-organized workouts, with team leaders like Michael Vick and Mark Sanchez running unofficial practices for their squads. So why are we getting the distinct impression that those player-organized practices were maybe just dudes playing ping pong, pranking one another, and watching Flipping Out reruns?
If you could describe the collective performances of NFL offenses in this during this training camp in one word, you wouldn’t use a word. You’d just let out a guttural sigh.
Let’s take a look around the league and see who is dropping passes.
In 1945, facing an unwinnable football game against Army at Yankee Stadium, Michigan coach Fritz Crisler resorted to a desperate ploy: Utilizing the free substitution rule implemented due to the shortage of male bodies on campuses during World War II, he shuttled in a separate offense and a separate defense. His team lost 28-7, but his controversial tactic was considered a success. The next season, Army copied his idea, and by the mid-1960s two-platoon football became a permanently accepted practice, and one-platoon football became the quaint product of a bygone era. (When Stanford’s Owen Marecic played both fullback and linebacker last season, he came across as a Bronko Nagurski fanatic with a death wish.)
For all of its Neanderthal tendencies, football is as susceptible to evolution as anything else in American life. What seems like an inane gimmick may someday become conventional wisdom, which is why, if the Philadelphia Eagles really want to live on the edge, they shouldn’t trade Kevin Kolb to anyone. They should play him.