Bob Sparks - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

Despite end of six-game grind, FSU still faces daunting schedule

The six-game grinder in the Florida State men’s basketball schedule is now complete. No ACC team in 24 years faced the challenge of so many consecutive games against top 25 teams.

It says a great deal that FSU was able to win five of those games.

With Saturday’s wire-to-wire 73-68 win over No. 12 Louisville, the level of competition diminishes somewhat. At least on paper.

While the next three games are against teams outside the top 25, all three are on the road. And that’s where trouble could come.

Playing on the road brings its own challenges, no matter the opponent. The chance to knock off a top 10 team brings sufficient motivation. Florida State had better be prepared for that.

None of their last six opponents were taken lightly. It was not difficult to be emotionally ready to face top 25 teams Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville.

Upsets often come when the emotional gas tank is depleted or an inferior opponent is taken lightly.

The Seminoles (18-2, 6-1 ACC) will be a solid top 10 team when they show up in Atlanta on Wednesday night to face Georgia Tech. They will go into the game as heavy favorites.

North Carolina was also a big favorite against the Yellowjackets on New Year’s Eve, but went back to Chapel Hill with an 85-73 loss. Georgia Tech is 9-3 at home, but they will be ready to ambush the Seminoles.

It is always difficult to play in Syracuse, but Florida State will go there next Saturday. The Orange are only 10-10, with four of those losses coming at the Carrier Dome.

The Seminoles will be in Miami on February 1 to face the Hurricanes. Miami is 12-5 this year (with three home losses) heading into Sunday’s game at Duke.

No one should doubt they will give FSU their best effort.

While none of these three games will define their season, they will go a long way into determining FSU’s seeding in the NCAA tournament. Coach Leonard Hamilton knows why his team is successful and why they should finish strong.

“This team communicates with each other well. They hold each other accountable,” he said after the Louisville victory. “There’s really no drama with them. They believe in each other.”

He believes his team understands that a game against Louisville will be a different game against Georgia Tech. His team understands that “each game takes on a different personality.”

In addition to the next three games, four other road games remain on the schedule, including trips to Notre Dame and Duke.

It is difficult to forget this is a young team unaccustomed to being in big-time games coming down the stretch. Their go-to guys are a freshman (Jonathan Isaac) and a sophomore (Dwayne Bacon). Junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes is an old man within this group.

While a tough stretch of the schedule is over, life in the ACC means there are no nights off. The remainder of the schedule will reveal the true personality of this talented team.

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Builders Stephen Bittel and Donald Trump have things in common

Everyone in America knows the name of President Donald Trump. On the other hand, few are familiar with Stephen Bittel, even in his home state of Florida.

As of noon on Friday, Donald Trump officially became the President of the United States. As of January 14, Bittel became the latest Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

For all of the obvious differences of party affiliation, the two men have some things in common. Both are wealthy developers. Both are known to say what is on their mind.

To no one’s surprise, Trump has a 55 percent negative rating (as does Hillary Clinton). One of the key factors leading to that score is the perception, true or not, that Trump is a bully.

As the vote for Democratic Chairman approached, Bittel faced four challengers unimpressed with his style. Dwight Bullard, Alan Clendenin, Lisa King and Leah Carius thought Bittel was pushing his weight around too much.

“Somebody in this race has been trying to bully and intimidate people,” Clendenin said.

Sound familiar?

In fact, the quartet had their own unofficial “Anyone but Bittel” cabal. They claimed to control 60 percent of the votes, thereby denying Bittel the chairmanship.

“We are standing shoulder to shoulder,” added Clendenin.

Sound familiar? Backed in large part by the Democratic establishment, Bittel won on the first ballot.

Democrats hate, to different degrees, what Trump is all about. They don’t like the way he won and the type of supporters he attracted.

The guess here is that in Bittel, Democrats have elected a chairman that will behave in some ways like Trump. In other words, he promises to be an aggressive, active chairman that seeks to make the Florida Democratic Party great again. #MFDPGA?

The task before Trump is well known. What confronts Bittel is understood mainly by those entrenched in party politics.

Trump knows a $20 trillion debt is daunting. In the world of Florida politics, so is the job facing Bittle and the Democrats. An example is illustrative.

My friend and former colleague Jason Gonzalez recently posted this “gee-whiz” nugget on Facebook. In the bluest of blue counties, Leon, here are the Republicans who affect those constituents on the state and federal level:

President and Vice-President; Speaker of the House and Majority Leader in the Senate; Governor of Florida and all three Cabinet positions; Speaker of the Florida House and President of the state Senate.

Here’s the final straw. With Dr. Neal Dunn’s victory in Congressional District 2 (Gwen Graham did not seek re-election), Republicans control all of those positions at the same time for the first time ever as of noon on Friday.

(NOTE: some Leon County residents, like this writer, reside in the district served by Rep. Al Lawson, a decent guy).

Bittel has heard the criticism of the state party for not helping develop a “farm team” or “bench” of young, charismatic candidates. Florida is far from alone in facing problems brought on by an overloaded focus on presidential elections at the expense of winning locally.

Look no further than the trouble Democrats have in nonpresidential year elections for an illustration. A must-read piece in Politico Magazine by Edward-Isaac Dovere shows the national dilemma confronting Democrats with Florida serving only as a microcosm.

Only 16 of our country’s governors are Democrats, while 32 state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. Democrats lost 1,034 state and federal legislative seats over the past eight years.

“There’s no bench, no bench for a bench, no one able to speak for the party as a whole,” Dovere wrote.

Over the years, Bittel has raised large sums for Democrats. As chairman, he has a chance to close some of the canyon-sized gap in money Florida Republicans have enjoyed for years.

If he employs some of Trump’s qualities in bringing disaffected Democrats, their passion and their money to the cause — and starts building a bench — being a bully won’t be such a bad thing. I am not in the business of giving Democrats advice, nor would they want it.

That being said, for one of the few times in recent memory, Florida Democrats may have made a good move in electing Stephen Bittel. Republicans should keep an eye and ear on him.

 

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Florida State star Jonathan Isaac has the talent to overcome rare mistake

Jonathan Isaac is a unique talent in the world of college basketball. Unfortunately, those talents are likely to be on display in Tallahassee for only two more months, or however far Florida State goes in the NCAA Tournament.

Isaac is destined for the NBA, where he will likely excel. The 6’10” 5-star forward from Naples and the IMG Academy would be there now if the league did not require at least one year of college (that’s another story).

His talent is easy to see just by watching a few minutes of an FSU game. Isaac and his teammates play just as hard at both ends of the court, but he has the talent to make plays his teammates cannot.

The late Al Maguire, who coached Marquette to the 1977 NCAA title before serving as an NBC commentator, wasn’t much into freshmen. One of his most famous quotes was “the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.”

Not in today’s world. Now, the most talented freshmen (Diaper Dandies if you’re into Dick Vitale), become NBA draft choices.

That means they either blow the scouts away in high school, or they develop rapidly. Isaac fits both descriptions.

Wednesday night’s 83-80 victory over No. 15 Notre Dame is a case in point. With FSU’s other future NBA player, Sophomore Dwayne Bacon, having an off night, Isaac, with a big assist from Xavier Rathan-Mayes, put the team on their shoulders.

Both made huge shots down the stretch to keep the fighting Irish at bay, but Isaac was also swatting shots away at the other end. His 23 points and 10 rebounds were huge, but all seven of his blocked shots were necessary to keep Notre Dame from stealing the win.

The Fighting Irish made an astonishing 15 of 21 three-point attempts.

“That’s ridiculous,” Isaac said. “That’s crazy.”

FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton, who has been around a lot longer than Isaac, added to that.

“I’ve never seen a team shoot 15 of 21 from 3, period,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never witnessed that.”

The last two blocks came in the final five seconds, but there is a story behind that, too. After Rex Pflueger’s miracle 3-pointer went in, narrowing the gap to 83-80, Isaac prepared to inbound the ball.

The freshman coughed it up to Pflueger, setting the stage for a highly deflating ending. Instead, Isaac recovered to block two shots in those five seconds without fouling, thereby sealing the win.

Yes, he made a huge mistake, but that was after a game of highlights that included making four clutch free throws in the final 26 seconds. He then recovered from that mistake in a big way.

None of the accounts in the Tallahassee media pointed out Isaac made the potentially critical turnover. Perhaps it might get in the way of the story on how well he played overall.

In fact, it is just the opposite. He is gifted, but not perfect. One bad play was followed by two great plays. Isn’t that what great players do?

That is not the mindset of a freshman. Maguire would agree it would be an unexpected pleasure if Isaac became a sophomore.

The next test for the freshman and his teammates comes Saturday when No. 12 Louisville travels to Tallahassee.

 

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Larry Robinson a good choice for FAMU, Tallahassee

Florida A&M University is one of America’s most recognized Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). It is the only HBCU within Florida’s State University System.

Together with Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College, FAMU is a major presence in the Tallahassee community. Those of us who live here want a thriving FAMU that can make significant contributions to our culture, our history and, of course, our workforce.

While students, faculty, administration and alumni have a stake in a thriving university, so too do those who live and work here. Among those with no direct ties to the university, I am not alone in recognizing FAMU’s importance to the Big Bend region.

Florida A&M is again in need of another president. In the past, they have filled that role through promotions from within or from a national search following the service of an interim president.

Based upon recent history, the university does not need a national search. Someone who can do the job is already in it.

On three occasions FAMU has turned to Dr. Larry Robinson to bridge the gap between a departed president and that person’s successor. His current stint as interim president began with the ouster of the university’s first female president, Dr. Elmira Mangum, on September 15.

His first appointment came in 2007, but his most significant tenure followed the resignation of Dr. James Ammons in 2012 in the aftermath of the Robert Champion hazing tragedy.

Robinson’s interaction with the Board of Governors, his bosses, earned him high marks.

“Thank you for being so open in your affiliation with us,” said then-Chancellor Frank T. Brogan. “That has not always been the case. I know Florida A&M is going through a tough stretch. The only way you can address problems is to admit you’ve got them.”

Norman Tripp, a member of the Board of Governors, described Robinson’s resume as “astounding” at the time. Despite this, Robinson declared he was not a candidate for the appointment as full-term president. Mangum was selected following a nationwide search.

Robinson is in a different position in 2017. Last month he appeared before the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board. When asked if he was interested in the permanent position, Robinson responded with a declarative “who wouldn’t be?” He further added that he would be “honored” to serve.

He has the support of the presidents of the capital city’s other educational institutions. At a recent Martin Luther King Jr. tribute, Florida State University President John Thrasher threw his support behind Robinson.

“Larry Robinson is doing a superb job at Florida A&M University,” Thrasher told the crowd. “FAMU students deserve his leadership.”

TCC President Jim Murdaugh directed his comments to Robinson at the same event.

“I hope you get that job,” he said. “You certainly have my support. You have earned that job.”

Not everyone took the endorsements, especially from Thrasher, as a good thing.

In a column published in the HBCU Digest, Jarrett Carter Sr. wrote that Thrasher and Murdaugh’s support is “nothing good” for FAMU. He cites Thrasher’s role in advocating the splitting of the joint FSU/FAMU engineering program.

To be clear, the engineering issue divided members of the Legislature as well as supporters of both schools. However, it is difficult to see how Thrasher’s and Murdaugh’s support is a bad thing.

They not only represent their institutions, but also share with FAMU a leading role in the vibrancy of the capital community. It is in that sense, to use a legal term, that both have “standing” to do what they did.

This is the primary reason why this writer hopes that Robinson is selected. That and the memory of an opportunity I had to speak with him.

At a session-eve reception shortly before Mangum took over, Robinson was a humble, soft-spoken, advocate for his university. It did not take long to ascertain this was not only a brilliant man, but one who possessed the ability to connect with people.

Robinson is on a one-year contract as interim president. However, like sports coaches, contracts are torn up and extended when one does a good job.

Why not do the same for someone who has done so much for the university? Why not bring it up at the next board of trustees meeting?

Trustees cannot orchestrate this among themselves outside of public view, but there must be a growing sense they have their man in their midst.

Who will make the motion to make it happen?

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Florida schools’ in-state bowl wins will only help recruiting

We are less than three weeks from National Signing Day for college football. Florida’s power schools will, of course, do well, while South Florida is a finalist for the biggest remaining prize.

Florida, Florida State and Miami each posted impressive bowl game victories in their home state, something that can perhaps sway an undecided star player. Better yet, it can impress an in-state junior or sophomore enough to put your school on the list for a future signing day.

The Gators’ rout of Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Miami’s romp over No. 12 West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and the Seminoles’ squeaker over Michigan in the Orange Bowl were huge for all three programs. It did not take the Hurricanes long to begin using their bowl trophy as a recruiting tool.

Before bowl season, all three were having good recruiting years. The 2017 Florida State recruiting class is ranked sixth by Rivals.com and seventh by ESPN.

Yes, Alabama has the top-rated class.

Florida is ranked 18th by both outlets, while Miami is 13th by ESPN and 14th by Rivals. None of the other Florida schools are ranked in the top 40, but Central Florida is rated 53rd by Rivals.

USF is a finalist along with FSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and LSU for defensive tackle Marvin Wilson from Houston, Texas. He has already visited the first three, but will travel to LSU on Saturday and USF next Friday.

Statements from Wilson indicate LSU and FSU are currently his top two. Whomever Wilson selects, that school’s class ranking will rise accordingly.

Another top defensive tackle is Aubrey Solomon of Leesburg, Ga. He will visit Southern California on Friday, Auburn next Friday and Florida on January 27, only five days before he will make a decision.

The top remaining Floridian is defensive end Jarez Parks of Sebastian, Fla. He is visiting Florida on Friday and Auburn next Friday. His visit to Tallahassee came during the Florida State vs. Florida weekend.

There is plenty of competition for high school talent, but especially in Florida. The available talent is at the top of the charts.

National Champion Clemson always recruits Florida hard. Winning that championship in Tampa can only help their long-term prospects.

Former Gator Coach Will Muschamp is bringing a couple of Florida recruits to his new home at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have the 11th-best class.

For those that follow recruiting closely, this will be an interesting three weeks.

 

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Have we reached the point of ticket scalping for FSU basketball?

It is January, when the Florida State faithful like to talk about the impending National Signing Day for football or spring practice, which is nearly three months away. We have breaking news. People are actually talking about basketball in the state capital.

The FSU men’s basketball team has the attention of Seminole Nation. It took a top ten ranking (No. 9), a packed house and a spanking of seventh-ranked Duke, but the FSU bandwagon is now fully loaded.

Going into Tuesday night’s showdown with the Blue Devils, interest had piqued sufficiently to actually have students and fans eagerly anticipating a basketball game in January. The conversation among Seminoles’ sports fans may have gone something like “it’s great that 5-star running back Cam Akers committed to FSU, but I need two tickets to the Duke game on Tuesday.”

People go to movies, attend plays, and go to concerts because they like the entertainment. Basketball teams can find ways to win games, but do not necessarily look good doing it.

These guys are truly entertaining to watch. (So, too, is the FSU women’s team, also ranked in the top ten).

The best comparison of the FSU style is to the “40 minutes of hell” storm employed by then-Arkansas Razorbacks’ Coach Nolan Richardson. The constant pressure defense carried out by superb athletes led the Hogs to the 1994 NCAA Championship.

That is unquestionably how FSU opponents feel after each game. Just ask Duke.

Wave after wave of either quick or long (or both) athletes coming at you has an effect. Coach Leonard Hamilton uses 10, 11 or even 12 players during a game to facilitate the attacking style.

Opponents, meanwhile, may have only six or seven players they can count on. By the second half they begin to wear down while the Seminoles keep their foot on the accelerator.

The result is a 16-1 record, their best start ever. They would be 17-0, but let an 18-point lead slip away against Temple on November 24.

At that point of the season, Florida State was playing something like “10 minutes of heck.” Since buying into Hamilton’s pressure defense scheme, they have won 12 consecutive games, a school record.

Hamilton has recruited several quality players to Tallahassee during his tenure at FSU, but his teams have not been able to put everything together. They won the ACC Tournament in 2012, but were an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.

They have not returned since.

Hamilton had even more success on the recruiting trail over the past two years. Dwayne Bacon was a highly-regarded player out of Lakeland, who had a sterling freshman season last year and has improved upon that.

Jonathan Isaac from Naples was a top-15 national high school player, who has already demonstrated his talent this year. Trent Forrest and C.J. Walker are other freshmen adding depth. Sophomores Terrance Mann and PJ Savoy add quickness and a shooting touch, respectively.

Junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes is dynamite when he’s focused while graduate student Michael Ojo has improved enough to make solid contributions at center. Plus, Ojo is so big (7’1”, 305 lbs.) he seemingly blots out the opposing basket. One could literally list a dozen players that have made contributions to this team.

FSU is in the middle of a brutal stretch of games where they play six consecutive ranked teams. With the win over Duke, they are now 3-0 in those games.

A big test looms on Saturday when they face No. 11 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They have already proven they can win in tough places with their 60-58 victory at eleventh-ranked Virginia. Hardly anyone wins there.

During FSU’s NCAA Tournament drought, Hamilton has heard several cries calling for his ouster. No one wants to fire Hamilton now.

After this six-game stretch concludes, the basketball world may know not only whether Florida State is a candidate for the tournament, but whether they are Final Four material. Or better?

Following the North Carolina game, No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 14 Louisville come to the Tucker Civic Center.

Barring significant injuries, they will be in the conversation. But as coaches like to preach (correctly), it’s one game at a time.

Two months ago, which would have been the most unlikely to occur? Donald J. Trump elected President or basketball ticket scalping at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center?

Tough call.

 

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Clemson, Alabama overshadow Jaguars personnel moves

The College Football Playoff Championship Game was a victim of bad scheduling. When news emerged that the Jacksonville Jaguars had hired Doug Marrone as their Head Coach and Tom Coughlin as Executive Vice-President of Football Operations, who cared about a silly college football game?

While Deshaun Watson and company were upsetting Alabama on Monday night, didn’t much of the nation miss part of it because they were glued to the NFL Network?

The answer is, of course, an emphatic NO.

This little exercise in sarcasm is designed to question the Jaguars’ timing, not the wisdom, of this all-important announcement for their fans and community.

Not that these are anything but quality hires. That will be determined later, but the rollout does cause a bit of head scratching.

Why would you make such an announcement on a day football fans are focused on the college championship? Yes, things were beginning to leak out, as they always do, but that does not mean the team had to comment unless they wished to do so.

“We cannot confirm those rumors,” is a line that always works, because it is always true.

The hiring of Marrone, Coughlin and the extension of team general manager David Caldwell represent the biggest moves the team will make until draft day. Jags.com described them as “eye-opening changes.” You bet they are.

On the other hand, by the time Hunter Renfrow caught the championship-winning pass for Clemson, how many were unaware – even in Jacksonville – about these eye-openers before closing their eyes to sleep early Tuesday morning?

By participating in the story on Monday, the Jaguars have allowed others to control the narrative until Thursday’s official introductory press conference. Owner Shad Khan said the right things, including the introduction of the three, but those things could have been said on a day where competition for news coverage was far less intense.

“I have confidence that one day soon, we’ll look back on today’s news as the moment that inspired and ultimately established the Jacksonville Jaguars as a football team that wins, week to week and season to season,” Khan said in his statement. “The results will speak for themselves in time, but with Tom coming in to join Dave and Doug, there is no question the Jacksonville Jaguars are a stronger football team today.”

These moves are not likely to be fully embraced by what is left of Jaguar Nation. All three, in some aspects represent the past and the present. Only winning will win them over.

Those buying the tickets wanted change. Make the Jaguars Great Again!

Or at least 10-6!

On Thursday, the Jaguars will be the center of attention in their community. It is then the questions will come about the circumstances behind Marrone’s departure as Head Coach of the Buffalo Bills, and will Marrone be intimidated by Coughlin hovering over him?

Hopefully the leadership team will be asked for their plan to make the Jags winners again.

Hopefully things will go well on Thursday. In the end, success will first be measured in season ticket sales before the team ever takes the field.

Confidence in the team’s direction will go a long way to putting people in seats at EverBank Field. The drive to make Khan’s statement come true begins now.

Correction; It began on Monday night.

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Rick Scott should call Richard Doran before appointing next AG

There seems little doubt that within the next few days Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi will add the word “former” in front of that title. The all-but-certain appointment to join the staff of President-elect Donald Trump will likely be leaked to the media, then, no doubt, made official via Twitter.

While we wait, there are administrative matters requiring attention. Among the most important for the Office of the Attorney General is to be prepared for the re-stoking of the Trump Foundation donation to Bondi’s re-election campaign.

The issue is bogus, but Bondi and her successor will again be answering those questions.

Speaking of her successor, the identity of that person has already drawn significant speculation within the political circles. Several names are tossed around, including Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran. Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz of Miami also appears on several lists.

Two factors go into appointing the next Attorney General. Competency and the ability to win the election in 2018, hopefully in that order, are paramount.

I have a suggestion for Governor Rick Scott as he contemplates his most important appointment. He should consult with Richard Doran.

While Doran’s name would not ring a bell with most around Florida, those within the circles of state government know him well. For what is about to happen, he is the only Floridian who has “been there and done that.”

While there are some differences in the circumstances, Doran, a Republican, was appointed Attorney General on November 5, 2002, by then-Gov. Jeb Bush when Bob Butterworth resigned to seek election to the state Senate.

Doran spent 19 years in the Attorney General’s office. In addition to leading the office for a brief time, he also knows what it takes for it to be successful from the other side.

As a shareholder in the prestigious Tallahassee law firm of Ausley McMullen, he is content doing what he is doing. But, he would be an invaluable adviser to the governor.

Doran believes the governor has a good process in place to make a good selection. He speaks of the current situation involving Bondi as “if” she joins Team Trump, not “when.”

“Because one of the roles of the governor is to evaluate attorneys for judgeships, Gov. Scott and his staff have had the opportunity to evaluate a number of very fine attorneys over the past several years,” Doran said. “To me, the process of selecting a new attorney general would be similar.”

Precious few of those attorneys would have the experience of the mission and inner workings of what amounts to one of Florida’s largest law firms. While others will advise Scott on issues of electability for 2018, Doran can offer his advice on running the ship.

While there are similarities between his situation and the one about to develop in Florida, he recognizes that his two-month stint as Attorney General is different from someone who will serve for two years.

“This would be uncharted territory for a Florida governor,” he said. “I would look for him to identify individuals of the highest integrity, commitment to public service, as well as an understanding and respect of the notion of separation of powers and an ability to run a large organization.”

That sounds like someone who is not thinking much about 2018. Which is exactly why the governor needs to talk to him.

Among the many possibilities out there, there will be a few who can both handle the legal responsibilities as well as possess the necessary political skills to be successful. Butterworth, with whom Doran served, and Charlie Crist, with whom I spent four years in the Attorney General’s office, are perfect examples.

Gov. Scott, you and the people of Florida would be well served by making that call.

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Steelers send Dolphins home for the winter

The Miami Dolphins’ stay in the NFL playoffs was brief, but at least they got there. On Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers had their way with Miami in a 30-12 rout at Heinz Field.

Despite the score and the fact Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell set a franchise playoff rushing record with 167 yards, Miami had their chances. Three costly turnovers and a devastating penalty proved fatal, however.

Early on, the Dolphins looked like they did not belong. If Bell wasn’t running crazy, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing pitch and catch with Antonio Brown for long (60 and 52 yards) touchdown passes.

It was 20-6 and looking to be a lot more. While Bell was piling up the yards, Dolphin running back Jay Ajayi was getting piled on. After running through the Steelers for more than 200 yards during a 30-15 Dolphin win in October, Ajayi managed on 33 yards on 16 carries on Sunday.

“Last time, we felt we didn’t play well,” Bell said. “Those guys got after us, they jumped on us early.”

Not on Sunday. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to put Miami on their heels.

“The defense played great today, stopping their run game, making it tough on (Ajayi) their side; he’s a great runner,” Bell said. “On the other side, we wanted to control the ball, score some touchdowns and we did our job today.”

They certainly did, but the door did open for Miami just a bit.

The Dolphins’ big chance came near the end of the first half and the start of the second. With Matt Moore hooking up with receivers Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker, the Dolphins reached the Steelers eight-yard-line in the final 30 seconds of the half.

With the Dolphins set to receive the second half kickoff, Coach Adam Gase believed his team could tie the game early in the third quarter. That plan was blown up by linebacker James Harrison.

As Moore dropped back in the final 30 seconds, Harrison, who was unblocked, got a clean shot at Moore, who fumbled and the Steelers recovered. On the first series of the second half, Moore was again sacked in Pittsburgh territory, he again fumbled, and the Steelers again recovered.

After a Steeler field goal, Moore was picked off on the first play of the next series. Miami held Pittsburgh to a field goal attempt, but Tony Lippett jumped offside, giving the Steelers a first down. Three plays later, Bell was in the end zone, making it 30-6.

These kinds of things can’t happen during the playoffs. You can get away with stuff like that against Cleveland or the 49ers.

Game over.

It’s not time for excuses, but it is fair to point out this is the Dolphins’ first playoff game since 2008. There is every reason to believe there will be more and they can become playoff veterans like so many of the Steelers are.

The trick is to get a playoff game at home. That will mean beating the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.

Tom Brady won’t be there forever. Even if he is around another two or three seasons, Gase is building a solid foundation in south Florida.

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Former Lightning Coach John Tortorella poised to make history

Tampa Bay Lightning fans will remember John Tortorella. In 2004, he coached the Lightning to their one and only Stanley Cup, defeating the Calgary Flames, four games to three.

Trailing three games to two, Tampa Bay won Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at what was then the St. Pete Times Forum. Calling the games for ABC was Sarasota resident Gary Thorne, Bill Clement and John Davidson.

Davidson and Tortorella would join forces in Columbus, Ohio a decade later to form a partnership that would change both of their lives. On Thursday night, Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets will try to do something only one other team in history has accomplished: 17 straight wins.

A lot has happened to Tortorella between the historic night of June 7, 2004 when the Stanley Cup was hoisted over the head of the coach and his jubilant players, and today. He won the Jack Adams Award as National Hockey League Coach of the Year in 2004 and is favored to win it this year, but it has been a long road for him.

His tenure in Tampa Bay was winding down when he told a New York Post reporter to “get the **** out of here” in 2007. One year later he was fired and moved on to the New York Rangers.

During his five years in Gotham, the Rangers were respectable, but made it to the conference finals only one time. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for an incident in Washington where he tossed a water bottle and brandished a hockey stick to a taunting Capitals’ fan.

After he was fired in New York, Tortorella spent one disastrous season in Vancouver, where the Canucks missed the playoffs in 2014, their first absence in seven seasons.  Tortorella again made the wrong kind of news when he tried to get into the Calgary Flames’ locker room between periods of a game. The brawl that ensued led to a 15-day suspension.

By 2012, John Davidson was President of Hockey Operations for the Blue Jackets. After firing Todd Richards just seven games (all losses) into the 2015-16 season, Davidson hired Tortorella. The Jackets showed some promise, but did not make the playoffs.

Tortorella was tapped to coach Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey event last fall. True to his nature, he made news, but what he did earned the support of many Americans who were aware of it.

He said if any of his players sat during the national anthem, they would be “benched.” That turned out to be the least of his worries as Team USA failed to win a game.

This year’s Blue Jackets team got off to a respectable 11-5-4 start. On November 29, the Lightning came to Columbus and left with a 5-1 defeat. That was the first in a string of 16 consecutive wins for the Blue Jackets.

On Thursday, Tortorella and Columbus will try to match the consecutive wins record held by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. That team was led by Mario Lemieux and coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman.

While Tortorella has eight fewer Stanley Cups than Bowman, a win on Thursday would have him standing next to hockey royalty for good reason. No one, other than Tortorella, Davidson and a few others saw this team come together this fast.

He has instilled a strong work ethic in a team devoid of superstars. He likes to call them a “group of focused businessmen.”

“They’ve accepted the thought of coming to work every day and worrying about that day, worrying about that game and not worrying about what happened, what’s ahead of us,” he told local media. “That’s where we are right now. We’re becoming pretty good pros.”

If the streak continues for another week, the Lightning would have the chance to be the ones to start and end it. The Blue Jackets visit Amalie Arena on Friday the 13th.

Thirteen years after winning a Stanley Cup, it appears John Tortorella has come full circle.

 

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