Friday, September 4, 2015

Week 1: Fall of the House of Beck Man


Football has returned!  On Saturday, the twenty-first ranked Stanford Cardinal drive their crowd-sourced content-centered Silicon Valley Tesla bus into Evanston while the Wildcats will try to disrupt their Pac 12 North title bid.  A long, bleak, hatless offseason finally ends.  Northwestern football is back to terrify the Big Ten West, to seize the Land of Lincoln Trophy from the cold, fired hands of the Beck Man, and make it back to a damn bowl game because I am pretty sure there are no more possible ways for Northwestern to lose every single game in a bizarre last-minute conflagration of football misery.

Since last week's exhaustive preview, Pat Fitzgerald has named a starting quarterback.  Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has emerged to grab the starting job, probably because you can't bench the offspring of a Norse deity.  The coaching staff hopes that Thorson will remind Wildcat fans of the traditional scrambly Northwestern quarterback that has led the team during successful years without betraying his lack of experience.  He'll have some help with the return of speedy wideout Christian Jones, who missed all of last year, and Pierre Youngblood-Arry, the Cockney Prince of Agincourt.

Northwestern's offense plans to baffle the opposition with a secret play 
called "The Invisible Didgeridoo"

Northwestern's out of conference schedule this year includes a miniature tour of equally insufferable Power 5 private schools.  Stanford can be seen as a funhouse mirror Northwestern, albeit far more successful on the field, with much nicer weather and an ignominious loss involving a kick return team running over a marching band instead of an ignominious win involving the drowning of a goal post.  The Cardinal went 8-5 last year, including a loss to Notre Dame, a team that crumbled easily before the might of the Wildcats and the cumulative effect of every single lucky break that Northwestern had been denied in nearly two full seasons of football action. 

Maybe opening against a top-25 powerhouse with a freshman quarterback is not the ideal way to start a season.  But top-quality opposition will invite the full pageantry of non-conference football to Ryan Field: ESPN broadcast, Stanford's hallucinogenic tree mascot, and Chicago's Big Ten Tarp.  Northwestern's greatest seasons in recent memory have come out of nowhere.  It is time for them to once again ruin opponents' seasons, crush dreams, and travel to a bowl game even if we have to invent one from whole cloth using shell companies and a long con involving inventing a dot com company.

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BECK MAN



We don't have Tim Beckman to kick around anymore.  Last week, Illinois abruptly fired him amid allegations of player abuse.  Beckman's dismissal could hardly be seen as unexpected after years of futility, controversy, and general flailing Beckmania-- at one point his Wikipedia page contained a section entitled "Public Outcry"-- but his sudden termination eight days before the start of the season certainly caught the college football world unaware. He spent his last year of coaching like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea; we all knew he'd get eaten by a shark, but the end was still sudden and jarring.

There's nothing at all amusing about the reasons why Beckman was ultimately canned.  A University of Illinois-commissioned report claimed that Beckman pressured injured players to keep playing and threatened players with the loss of their scholarships.  These charges are not that surprising in the world of college football, where some tobacco-stained mustache columnist is probably still rhapsodizing about the time an old-school hat-wearing Woody Hayes type yelled "you're not injured. I'll show you injured" before running a walk-on through with a Civil War cavalry saber.  A cynic could also note that the report gave the university adequate legal ammunition to fire him with cause and save nearly $4 million owed to him on his contract and his buyout.  Beckman denies the allegations and vows to fight for the money owed on his contract.

It seems likely that Beckman's tenure involved shady injury practices and provided the university with a way to renounce his salary. Illinois administrators, already riven with scandals in the athletic department and embattled leadership at the top, found an opportunity to free themselves from financial commitments to a losing coach who continually acted like Tim Beckman in public.  The allegations against Beckman don't seem outside the realm of possibility because they had already been echoed by some former players and because Beckman has coached like he bought a Weekly Reader book from 1967 called Trench Bludgeoner's Guide to College Football and Commie Spotting and dedicated himself to Cold War-era football: thus insisting on having players play through pain, demanding favorable coverage from print media, and nurturing the second-most ridiculous rivalry in college football.

THE HAT RIVALRY IN THE POST-BECKMAN ERA

If there is one thing that Tim Beckman accomplished at Illinois it was successfully creating a Northwestern-Illinois rivalry.  It is still not a true rivalry the way most intrastate rivalries work; instead, the Beck Man has somehow reinvented the entire concept of a college football rivalry as a quixotic crusade waged by a single man.  His immediate declaration of war against Northwestern was nothing short of ludicrous. His ham-fisted attempts to stoke that rivalry devolved into farce. It is possible to read the entire Beckman treatment of Northwestern as a brilliant deconstruction of rivalry itself, recasting the Iron Bowl, or the The Game, or the dozens of other actual football rivalries as absurd, rendering all football fans as dimbulb Beckman simulacra.

But, let's give the Beck Man his due here: it sort of worked.  No one hates Northwestern football. Northwestern football is briefly remembered and occasionally pitied. I have spent the past few weeks skimming thousands upon thousands of words of college football and Big Ten previews and almost none of them deign to mention the existence of Northwestern football except as evidence of a Big Ten contender's easy schedule. So when Sheriff Beckman swaggered into town with his school up north euphemisms and purple clothing bans, it was fun.  Beck Man stood in front of the press, the world, and his god decrying Northwestern football with a straight face and it was impossible not to respond with hat-taunts as he floundered about. In theory, the rivalry was against the University of Illinois.  In reality, it was a rivalry with Beck Man himself, who inexplicably continued his one-man anti-Northwestern jeremiads while simultaneously comporting himself like a man in an infomercial unaware that an overstuffed kitchen cabinet is about to unleash an unholy rain of tupperware upon his person.

This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.
This actually happened.

What on earth are we going to do without Tim Beckman?  Bill Cubit seems unlikely to burst into a press conference with a fresh barrage of Northwestern hate-mongering-- it is possible he removed the anti-Northwestern symbol from the Illini locker room only to discover it was covering up a secret cache of VHS recordings of an unsold television pilot called "Tim Beckman's Hat Police."  I don't know anything about Cubit other than his name is an obscure, ancient unit of measure that is good for maybe one half-hearted stiff-arm joke per season.  Our only hope is that Cubit somehow becomes mesmerized by the Hat, loses all grip on reality, and turns into a Klaus Kinsky character over the course of the season, his clothes in tatters, his hair frayed, his press conferences devolving into incoherent hat-shrieks, only no one notices because that is still slightly more reasonable than Tim Beckman.

Illinois fans, we're in this together.  Beckman may have have stared blankly into the middle distance for the last time as the Illini coach, but we have a conference, a trophy, and two bleak programs eclipsed in our own state by a MAC team and FCS team, respectively.  We only have each other. 

Beckman, banished to the Phantom Zone, vows to defeat That School 
From The Adjacent Dimension Well Actually There's No Way To Define 
Its Relation To Us In Time and Space

Give us our damn hat back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Northwestern Preview

In scant weeks, the college football will again get underway and soon, perhaps as soon as the first forlorn kickoff returner is scraped off the field, it will be time to have The Conversation.

The Conversation dominates college football's bloviosphere for the entire season.  Its cosmology is heliocentric; everything revolves around the playoff and, ultimately, the National Championship.  For a team must be in The Conversation before it can be in the playoff, and each week, each minute of college football season, unavoidable college football pundits and bloggers and unhinged Finebaum shouters who, without Finebaum, would be forced to call people to yell at them about Alabama one at a time starting with A Aaronson and ending with T Zbikowski to cast teams out of The Conversation like the Almighty banishing Moses from the Promised Land.  It is a process so weightily asinine that it requires a Bill Simmons-esque Capitalized Phrase.

The crew of Bloviosphere II begins its two-year project to live in a self-contained ecosystem 
generating all of its energy from nightly screaming matches about the SEC.
N.B. College football is so dependent on subjectivity, arguments, and nonsense that it is the 
most Bill Simmonsy sport possible-- we should be living in a world where Bill Simmons 
develops a feud with Phyllis From Mulga

College football is the only major American sport where The Conversation has tangible effect on determining a champion.  There are 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the sheer impossibility of determining the four top teams results in a hodgepodge of computer formulae, polls filled out by hat-wearing journalists and graduate assistants, Lou Holtz's saliva, residual Civil War animus, and people paying to fly airplane banners over stadiums. Then, a mysterious Committee of Thirteen picks them with no accountability.  College football has found the most convoluted, compelling and profoundly stupid way to pick its champion short of Nostradamus texts.

Approximately 90% of the media discussion about college football is about The Conversation and more than 90 of the 128 FBS teams will not be in The Conversation for a single second.  Northwestern is one of them.

Also-ran teams in top "Power Five" conferences exist only when a Conversation team rampages through their stadiums with their entourage of bloodthirsty alumni.  Those outside the Power Five, the Mid-Majors without the influence and the money and the ludicrous propaganda television networks might as well exist in Siberia or a the very least Moscow, Idaho.

Big Ten Network programming subtly works in a sponsor while airing its The Big Ten Invents
Football: Rutgers documentary

Northwestern, along with the vast majority of college football teams, exists in a shadowy netherworld apart from the dominant college football narrative.  These teams toil in relative obscurity as tackling dummies for contenders or by beating up on each other on games televised by contractual obligation that only warrant a passing mention if they end with the requisite number of overtimes, laterals, or 300 pound men precariously running with the football, gleefully living out their Pop Warner touchdown fantasies before they gained several hundred more pounds and coaches convinced them to smash into other giants, triumphantly gallumphing along the sidelines desperately looking for someone to stiff-arm.  In an ideal world, these teams are agents of chaos, ruining a contenders' season and exulting in their opponents' shock, sorrow, and internet coach-firing.  Notre Dame, for example, deserves the indignity of losing to Northwestern so completely that, if Northwestern did not exist, we would have to invent it and its temporarily unstoppable baseball kicker.

Teams outside of the championship face spread offenses, blitz packages, and genuine existential quandaries.  There are 128 teams.  There are no draft picks rewarding miserable seasons; the only prize is its merciful end.  For these teams, the season is a Sisyphean struggle where quarterbacks metaphorically hand off enormous unmovable rocks. This is the best football.

Fans of teams in The Conversation suffer through football season as a precarious drudge through a dozen potential calamities.  Anything short of a championship is agony, a nine-win season is a failure, and anything short of that requires the immediate installation of creepy flight-tracking software to analyze coach movements.  In a sport featuring a weird, oblong ball, every unpredictable bounce portends doom and misery, and every discussion of the team welcomes a thousand armchair Napoleons spouting inane theories about a winning mentality.

Turn on the television and college football is about ESPN College Gameday, poll positions, committees, and trophies.  But for most fanbases, The Conversation is irrelevant white noise.  It is about grasping a frozen beer at 10:00 in the morning before entering an empty, windswept stadium, exulting in invites to the forgettable dregs of bowl season, buckets, Hats, and the faintest hope of ruining the season for some juggernaut team.  Their asses will remain uncrowned. It does not matter.

NORTHWESTERN ON THE FIELD

Northwestern has had a rough couple of seasons.  The 2012 campaign ended a bowl drought that originated in the Truman administration in a bowl that people actually have heard of.  The Wildcats began 2013 with high expectations, eventually summoning College Gameday to campus in a football apocalypse against Ohio State.  Since then, it is misery and strife.  Northwestern has experienced a beguiling series of impossible, last-second losses culminating in the catastrophic Hat Game Bowl Game defeat at the hands of Beck Man in their own goddamn stadium.  There have been no bowl games since the 2013 Gator Bowl.  The Hat resides in Champaign, under guard from Beck Man's elite Order of the Mustacheless.

The Order is trained from birth to defend the Hat with hand-to-hand combat, stump 
speeches, Abraham Lincoln Trivia facts, period-accurate timepieces, and bo staffs.  
Before 2009, they were known as the Order of the Flying Tomahawk with a whole other set of 
birth rituals, each of which was probably offensive and problematic, so if you think about it 
the whole turnaround into a Lincoln-based artifact-guarding death cult in such a short amount 
of time is pretty impressive

The main question is at quarterback.  Candidates include big-armed senior Zack Oliver, dual-threat sophomore Matt Alviti, and John Grisham protagonist Clayton Thorson.  Less than two weeks before the season opener against Stanford, the quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern does not necessarily need a single incumbent starter.  During the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian heyday, the 'Cats altered quarterbacks successfully; Northwestern should push that further by having at least three quarterbacks on the field at all time, occasionally playing quarterback, occasionally playing other skill positions, and other times simply standing in the backfield attempting to confuse the defense with unpredictable arm motions while Justin Jackson runs around them.

If there is one thing to look forward to on offense, it is the return of Justin Jackson.  Jackson seized the starting job as a true freshman after the unexpected departure of star running back Venric Mark.  He ran for 1,184 yards despite coming on as the featured back in the third game.  As Siemian battled injuries, Jackson carried the offense, including going for 162 in an upset against Wisconsin and 149 against Notre Dame.  Jackson's game depends on an expert reading of holes and coverages as he slinks and slithers through the line, ending up where linebackers aren't looking for him.

A frustrated linebacker punches the mirror where he thinks Justin Jackson is, but he is not 
there; no, he is 20 yards away, scampering past a hapless safety or maybe he is cutting back,
warding off the nose tackle with his claw hand

The Wildcats will lean heavily on their defense this season.  They lost some stalwarts last year including ball-hawking safety Ibraheim Campbell and all-encompassing tackle monster Chi Chi Ariguzo.  They return a senior-heavy defensive line and Nick VanHoose at corner.  Safety Godwin Igwebuike and linebacker Anthony Walker made excellent debuts last season.  Igwebuike picked off three passes in the Wisconsin game alone, although picking off Wisconsin passes is equivalent to 1.65 normal passes since the Badgers only break out the forward pass as a droll party trick.  Walker memorably returned a pick for a touchdown in his first start and made another vital pick against Notre Dame off a pass that had comically bonked off a Notre Dame player's helmet.

The road to an unheralded Pizza City bowl game will be difficult.  The 'Cats open the season against a strong Stanford team vying for a Pac 12 North title.  They also face a resurgent Duke team in Durham.  The Big Ten West division does not inspire reverent rhapsodies or rapid mouth-foaming soliloquies on sports talk radio, but it still offers little respite; the 'Cats will likely need to eke out three or even four Big Ten victories to qualify for a bowl game.  After Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to five straight bowl appearances, fans had become accustomed to them, treating these excursions to Texas (always Texas) like a dubious birthright.  Now, expectations have relaxed.  A big upset would be great.  Bowl eligibility spectacular.  But none of this matters when some Midwestern Roscoe P. Coltrane has absconded with The Hat and it is finally time to do something about it. 
   
NORTHWESTERN OFF THE FIELD

While the Wildcats attract little attention during football season, they've found themselves at the center of the unionization debate.  This week, the National Labor Relations Board surprisingly overturned the regional board decision that labeled football players employees and allowed them to vote on forming a union.  The NLRB examined the evidence, looked at the trailblazing work by Kain Colter and the CAPA and the growing unease about the way billion dollar sporting leagues are incoherently bolted onto universities and boldly declared: "THE HELL IF I KNOW."

The NLRB overturned the earlier ruling argued that the designation of athletes as employees at a private institution would cause conflicts when expanded to public universities.  According to this article, Michigan and Ohio have passed laws specifying that scholarship athletes are not employees in response to Northwestern's initial unionization attempts.

The unionization case has exposed the dark underbelly of college football at Northwestern.  The nonsensical marriage of universities and big-time football is endemic and ever-present in the nature of college football the way the air we breathe is rife with microscopic fungus spores and our gas station soda cups are inescapably inundated with images of captain something-or-other who will defend humanity by throwing people into buildings with no apparent effect in an endless series of movies.  Even Northwestern, which has recently invested in a series of various-sized tarps to cover up empty stands (ranging from FCS Illinois Team to Purdue and It's Snowing) is inundated with Big Ten Network money and plasters fans with ads from companies who paid actual American dollars to be the Official Such-and-Such of Northwestern Football because they were swindled by some dashing Harold Hill figure.

Players, university officials, and easily-riled internet commenters can debate about the extent to which they feel athletic scholarships adequately compensate athletes for their time or the extent to which unionization is the right path for athletes.  But it is also difficult to square the opulent spectacle of college football with the actual demands from Colter's College Athletes Players Association for things like expanded medical care, protection of scholarships, and payment for use of images so they can make some money from when I use a thinly-veiled Kain Colter video game facsimile to get an endless supply of first downs against Virtual Ohio State.  It is not clear what behooves the NCAA or its member conferences to increase benefits for players when players have essentially no leverage to play anywhere else until Vince McMahon brings back a new version of the XFL where players are forced to comply with a fringe cowboy hat dress code and play is constantly interrupted by washed-up former players dramatically entering the field while everyone involved unconvincingly feigns stupefaction.

The Macho Man Timmy Hat Rage leaves college to 
join the reformed XFL, enjoying a stellar run as a guy 
who keeps forgetting his gimmick

FOOTBALL RETURNS

Northwestern is irrelevant in the national media's coverage of college football.  But off the field, Northwestern has become the most important team in the country when it comes to showcasing the meaninglessness of the NCAA's "student-athlete" designation.  Ultimately, the battle for college athletes to gain what they decide is their fair share of the monstrous profits generated by college sports will continue to dominate the off-field narrative.

But the bizarre nature of college football, almost impossible to explain in the abstract, will once again make sense as soon as the meats sizzle in parking lots, the marching bands blare their Chicago covers, and the students begin ramming into each other for our amusement.  Northwestern kicks off against Stanford in two Saturdays and all becomes lost in a haze of tarps and hands contorted into crude wildcat claws. I want college sports to reach a more equitable place even if that means massive changes that render them unrecognizable.  But I also want to watch Northwestern players score ludicrous touchdowns, completely destroy some Big Ten team's season, and defeat the Illini in some way that causes the winning touchdown to somehow trigger a vast Rube Goldberg apparatus that hits Tim Beckman in the face with a pie.  I have no idea if these two desires can coexist or if this is a delusion created by the pageantry of the music, the stadiums, and the people dressed like angry anthropomorphic animals imploring the team to touchdowns.

Friday, August 14, 2015

14 Philosophically Midwestern Universities Attempt to Play Football. You Won't Believe What Happens Next!

Oh it is coming.  August is the first ripple in the water glass, next is the coaches goldblumically cackling their way through press conferences, then a goat is dismembered, a lawyer flees to a toilet, and college football season comes stomping out of its paddock, bellowing its blood-curdling roar.

Across the country, college football teams are baking in the sun, running into blocking sleds, and getting screamed at by crew-cut wearing millionaires.  The Northwestern Wildcats are in Kenosha, trying to figure out who will be the quarterback.  Defending national champions Ohio State (good grief) are turning their training camp into a reality show called "Scarlet and Gray Days," which, stunningly, is not a turgid nineteenth century Southern Gothic epic.

Last season, a bunch of morons had declared the Big Ten dead and buried, including the least-informed football blogger in the world.  Bowl season, however, eased those doubts, with the conference scoring several close wins over highly-ranked teams.  Statistically, a close win in a single game depends so heavily on chance that no thinking person can possibly assume it means anything; these games have naturally has fueled the discourse on college football since time immemorial.  Ohio State returns as the consensus favorite amongst the football yellerati after downing Alabama and Oregon with a third-string quarterback.  Michigan seems poised for a return to prominence under Jim Harbaugh.  The Big Ten refuses to be anyone's punching bag until the first significant out-of-conference loss, in which case the Big Ten will return to its perception as a conference of ignorant fullbacks and linebackers squinting quizzically at the flickering shadow of a forward pass on a cave wall.

BYCTOM BIG TEN PREVIEW

Fortunately, the Wildcats will be avoiding the Buckeyes this season.  Another East powerhouse, Michigan State, will mercifully remain off the schedule as well.  Rutgers and Maryland as yet exist on the "here be dragons" portion of the Big Ten map.  Instead, let us turn to an exhaustively-researched and comprehensive preview of the Big Ten West and East Division Interlopers as they appear on Northwestern's schedule while pretending they won't be effortlessly clobbered by the invincible Wildcat football team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota, led by crimson walrus Jerry Kill, appears to be a program on the rise.  They took an 8-4 record to the Citrus Bowl.  Minnesota had been a Big Ten cellar-dweller and reliable Wildcat victim; from 2007-2012, the 'Cats won five out of six.  More importantly, Northwestern had some spectacular Metrodome mojo, with two of the most absurd endings to a football game I've seen within the arena's glorious roof-pouch.  Minnesota had been a welcome sight on the schedule, a cobblestone on the yellow brick road to Pizza City.  Now, they are a much improved team that has irritatingly beaten Northwestern the last two years-- once with an assistant coach at the helm filling in for an ailing Kill, the other time with a 100-yard fourth-quarter kick return.  The 'Cats may regain the advantage this year by playing at Ryan Field in front of a river of maroon that has seeped down Interstate 94.  As with most Big Ten opponents, Northwestern will be relying on the home field advantage of hoping that the visiting team tenses up and gets nervous in front of an overwhelming deluge of their friends, family, and supporters and the dozens of purple-clad handclaws occasionally voicing their disapproval.

Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines suffered the apparently unbearable burden of being kind of bad for more than one season.  The team devolved into a rudderless mess with a mediocre coach, regarded by Michigan fans as a catastrophe on par with a situation where the President of the United States has dissolved the court system and replaced all jurisprudence with trial by monster truck rally.  Michigan fans would only accept one man for the job.  And, because it is not feasible to have a team coached by an animatronic Bo Schembechler standing on the sidelines spitting out dot matrix printouts of what Bo Schembechler would do in any given situation, they decided to hire an unhinged football monomaniac.

I can't wait to hate Jim Harbaugh.  He comports himself like a nineteenth-century military officer just returned from some colonial posting no longer able to function in the West where he has to answer to a doddering hierarchy of muttonchopped generals.  Even by the insane standards of football coaches, whose lives revolve around yelling and watching film and taking fanboats to the east end of nowhere to convince a 300-pound 16-year-old to allow himself to be yelled at by them for the next four years, Harbaugh is intense.  He seems to strive to exist in a world of wide-eyed zeal, where humans only communicate in elaborate football play argots, where discourse is limited to talking about how determined you are, and where the punishments for variation in pants style are unspeakably draconian.  He is also a very good football coach and that is intolerable.

Harbaugh politely disagrees with a holding call

Northwestern had their window.  Michigan had never been so vulnerable.  And, with this final shot at crushing the Wolverines in front of a group of demoralized Michigan fans for once coming into Ryan Field with the slightest tinge of doubt in their inevitable victory, the 'Cats could not pull it off.  Instead, the teams engaged in an embarrassing display of quasi-football, immortalized now as the M00N game.  Neither team could score, hold onto the ball, or attempt any sort of coordinated movement that did not result in a Buster Keaton calamity.  Fitzgerald decided to go for two and Siemian fell onto his buttocks and now Northwestern may never beat the Wolverines again.

But what if something goes horribly awry?  What if, for some unfathomable reason, Harbaugh's tin-pot dictatory doesn't work in Ann Arbor?  What if all of the shouting and baiting officials and making dumb turning into Ghostrider faces can't turn Michigan around and the program continues to list like once-stately liner careening into an iceberg?  What if Harbaugh gets run out on a rail, with angry Michigan alumni braying about him being tainted by the NFL and the Michigan Men condemn him for not living up to their hilariously lofty Michigan coach should be on the list of possible emergency presidential successors in the face of numerous simultaneous calamities standards and bray on the internet about things being UNACCEPTABLE?

That turn of events would somehow justify the existence of college football.

Iowa
The Werther's Originals of football teams takes to the field again under Kirk Ferentz.  Ferentz's team has fallen from its mid-decade heights challenging for Big Ten titles and some Iowa fans have begun to lose their patience.  He remains dedicated to the platonic, plodding ideal of Big Ten football, churning out endless highlight reels of guards running into people.  There's nothing flashy, exciting, or particularly irksome about Iowa football except somewhere along the way they have become blood-rivals with Northwestern and should probably be crushed, with all Iowa merchandise loaded onto a boat armada and burned in the middle of Lake Michigan witnessed only by a single contemptuous man.  

For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Iowa and Northwestern traded off foiling each others' hopes of contention and losing quarterbacks.  The stakes, however, have vanished.  Now, with the Hawkeyes stagnating at Insight Bowl levels and the Wildcats bereft of bowls entirely, the rivalry seems brief and fleeting.


Ferentz reignites Northwestern/Iowa enmity by cruelly accusing him of inadequate fist pumping 
and taking it more than one play at a time out there

Whatever lingering antipathy has declined at the same time as the Rise of Beck Man.  There is nothing the University of Iowa can possibly do that can match his ludicrous Northwestern bashing.  Iowa fans no longer care about this quasi-rivalry since Northwestern has ceased to be a thorn in their side.  That is why it is imperative that the Hawkeyes get hot and win all of their games before rolling into Ryan Field and losing on a preposterous series of laterals so Northwestern fans have another fanbase that might hate them before Beckman volunteers for interplanetary travel to start a pointless rivalry with theoretical Martian bacteria. 

Nebraska
When Nebraska entered the Big Ten, Northwestern fans immediately demanded to know: who is the true NU?  Here's a quick rundown of the case: Northwestern fans claim NU since the school is literally "Northwestern University." Nebraska fans counter by having had no idea that Northwestern had a football team with uniforms and everything. Since then, there has been a tense but civil NU d├ętente between the fans because the controversy is inane even by college football standards, a sport where people get incensed by a victorious team scoring too many points.  

Last year, the Huskers defeated Northwestern and turned our Homecoming into a pitiless sea of red.  Now, the 'Cats have to face thousands of Nebraska fans in Lincoln without the benefit of Dracula jerseys.  The Huskers have a new coach this season, Mike Riley from Oregon State.  Jug-eared cave person Bo Pelini has returned home to Youngstown State because he has figured out that there are entire generations of Youngstonians who have not been screamed at within two inches of their face.  The best way to beat Nebraska is to reclaim the crowd advantage so if you're some wealthy teeth-clenching monocle enthusiast planning to name a building on Northwestern's campus, why not endow a Chair of Showing Them What It's Like instead, buy every goddamn ticket in their stadium, and flood it with Northwestern fans or, in a pinch, Kansas State fans with holdover anti-Nebraska animus?

Penn State
 
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS, FRANKLIN, WHEN YOU DUCK NORTHWESTERN IN THE PAST

Purdue
Ten years ago, Purdue was riding high in the Big Ten, with a conveyor belt of quarterback champions.  Kyle Orton played there, and I can think of no greater aspiration for a football fan than rooting for Kyle Orton.  Now, the post-Tillman Boilermakers are a living museum of football indignity.  The high-flying offenses are probably a thing of the past because who the hell knows what kind of offense Purdue runs. The coaching staff probably puts in a tape and then says the hell with it and watches a bunch of Magnum PI reruns before passing out in their Strategy Caboose.  Everything about Purdue football is misery.  Even Northwestern, at its depths of ineptitude, managed to lose operatically, setting records and throwing things into lakes.  It would take a herculean effort to throw anything larger than a shoulder pad into the Wabash River. 

The Wabash river is further east on this map, but look at what's going on near the stadium. 
Beck Man would never stand for that.  He would have that street name changed immediately 
to That Road Up North, Chief Boulevard, or Fill In Field Here Before Submitting Form

Purdue muddles through, eclipsed even by its slightly-less-moribund state rival Indiana, bucketless and heartbroken.  Northwestern-Purdue will kick off at 8:30 AM, reluctantly televised with commentary recycled from an old copy of NCAA '05.

Wisconsin

There was uncharacteristic intrigue in Madison this off-season as head coach Gary Andersen decamped to Oregon State.  He filled the vacancy left by Mike Riley, who left for Nebraska. The Badgers failed to close the circular coaching loop by hiring Bo Pelini.  Instead, they brought in long-time assistant coach Paul Chryst from Pitt.  Once again, Barry Alvarez descended from the his lofty perch in the athletic department to lead the Badgers to an Outback Bowl victory.  This is the closest thing to a statue coming to life to coach a football team until the technology is perfected by Penn State scientists.

Wisconsin football is not about gracefully lofting passes over a defense.  It is about running around them, over them, and preferably through them by using Wisconsin's hulking offensive linemen and the parts of defenders that are still stuck to them from the week before.  Last year, the Badgers had one of the most comically lopsided offenses in college football, with Melvin Gordon wreaking havoc behind a typical wall of beef while the passing game approximated the replacement of a football with a regulation anvil.  Then, Wisconsin came into Evanston and decided to air it out.

And pass they did.  Badger fans stood there, stunned, as their quarterbacks heaved up 29 miserable passes into the field, off of helmets, and into the waiting hands of Godwin Igwebuike.  Time and time again, Melvin Gordon ran the ball close to the endzone and then watched helplessly as an inexplicable series of passes flew anywhere but.  Andersen and his coaches became textbook victims of what I call Vizzini's Law: never try to do the unexpected when the unexpected is unexpected because it is self-evidently dumb.

"The wide receivers will be wide open," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig 
cackled while calling for another Joel Stave rollout

BYCTOM PREVIEW NUGGET: Wisconsin will probably run the ball a lot this year.

Illinois

Beck Man finally did it.  After years of clumsy rival-mongering and quizzically squinting at something in the middle distance, Ham Fistman managed to beat the 'Cats at home in a loser doesn't get to go to a crappy bowl game match.  And, given an entire off-season to luxuriate in his possession of the Hat, perhaps Beckman will grow from his glories.  Perhaps he'll make the Hat an assistant coach (Coach Hat says you're only giving me 105 percent out there), change his name to Beck Hatman, or walk around Champaign in a home-made hat-cape-- these are all things that most of us would do if we won as prestigious a trophy as the Lincoln Hat.  The Wildcats won't get a chance to wrest the Hat from Beckman in Champaign.  Instead, the contest moves to Soldier Field, Chicago's Big Ten Neutral Site, in order to seize the attention of Chicagoans interested in a Northwestern/Illinois game only if the halftime show consists of 25 guys simultaneously screaming about Jay Cutler.


Tim Beckman is the greatest thing to happen to this football blog.  He has single-handedly taken a rivalry that was at best ironic and elevated it into something approaching an actual rivalry.  He then backed up his talk steering his team into an abysmal record while bumbling around the sidelines and getting bowled over by the occasional referee.  He comported himself at all times like he was flummoxed by an unfamiliar frozen yogurt ordering procedure.  And, in a satisfying narrative twist, he somehow beat Northwestern, not only winning the Hat, but winning a golden ticket to lose a Conference USA team in a bowl game, which is the platonic ideal of stakes for an Illinois-Northwestern football game.  Beckman may not last past this season if the Illini are crappy again, but he has already accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the game of football.

It is football season.  It is Hat Season.  

Friday, July 31, 2015

Media Day

We are nearing August, when football training camp begins in earnest and the Wildcats begin the 2015 season, or as I call it, HATRIBUTION '15.  This week, Big Ten coaches will meet with the media to address hard-hitting questions about whether or not they are excited for football to start.  Big Ten officials will field questions about expansion, because in the rapacious Enormous Ten, the goal is to capture as many television markets as possible in the United States and abroad.  Expect Jim Delany to strut around asking reporters if they had ever seen such a big ten in their lives and who has a bigger ten than him.

Pat Fitzgerald is scheduled to speak Friday.  Those who can't wait can read Skip Myslesnski's interview that addresses the uncertainty on the roster, not only a quarterback but up and down the depth chart.  Fitzgerald doesn't give up much and Myslenski is reigned in instead of the florid, lyrical Myslenski that injects training camp stories with much-needed elements of the introduction to Conan the Barbarian movies.  Though I am writing this before Fitz has spoken, BYCTOM moles have obtained a transcript of his remarks, and he is expected to delight the crowd with references to Our Young Men.
 
Pat Fitzgerald expects fireworks after last year's revolutionary speech 
when he scandalized the football media by vowing to take things one 
game at a time, drawing heckles from disbelieving football personnel used 
to taking things two or three games at a time. Jerry Kill denounced 
Fitzgerald as a sick, sad man and Kyle Flood leaped through a plate glass 
window

Yesterday, Illini football coach and man who doesn't need your advice about opening that pickle jar just give him a second ok Tim Beckman spoke to reporters. Let's check in on Beck Man.

Usually, this is a time for Beck Man to stand astride a podium, cape fluttering in the fan he has brought, while he denounces Northwestern and issues boasts and taunts from the anti-Wildcat underground, but this year Beckman immediately found himself dealing with reports about player abuse allegations.  The Chicago Tribune recently spoke to 50 Illini current and former Illini players about the allegations.  It is clear that Beckman will continue to face questions that he'd rather not answer when he should be preparing for a Soldier Field hat defense.

Big Ten media days are a pointless, ridiculous exercise in nonsense.  None of the coaches will say anything particularly noteworthy about his program and none of them want to be there when they could be screaming at teenagers to run into inanimate objects in the sweltering Midwestern sun.  On the other hand, media day means that we draw ever closer to football season and the attendant miseries.   

BRITISH SOCCER MOVIE REVIEW

What happens when a group of race car conman billionaires takes over a sports team, attempts to rocket them to glory, turns into a global cabal of Steinbrenners, and hires someone to film it?  The end result is The Four Year Plan, directed by Mat Hodgson about the rise of Queens Park Rangers to the Premier League.

The film covers the 2007 purchase of Queens Park Rangers by a consortium of billionaires including F1 racing honchos Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore, and Alejandro Agag and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, rescuing the club from bankruptcy.  The investors were interested in QPR because of its history (founded in 1882), location in West London, and presumably a whimsical name that brings to mind an ambitious episode of Walker Texas Ranger where he traverses the Atlantic to jump kick English cattle rustlers.  Their goal: to raise QPR from the second-tier Championship to the lucrative Premier League.

FLAVIO: We need to work on our set piece
ECCLESTONE: We should set a piece of this stadium on fire and collect 
the insurance money
BOTH: ho ho ho ho ho ho ho

The face of the operation is Briatore (referred to exclusively in the film by his colleagues and angry, chanting detractors as "Flavio"), an anthropomorphic radish who spends most of his time at QPR plotting to fire all of the managers.  Scandal has dogged Briatore wherever he has gone; he spent several years dodging prison from numerous fraud convictions in Saint Thomas and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, spent portions of the 1980s as an Italian Elmore Leonard character:
In 1986, in Milan, Briatore was sentenced to 3 years for fraud and conspiracy for his role in a team of confidence tricksters who, over a number of years, set up rigged gambling games using fake playing cards. The judges described these as elaborate confidence tricks, in which victims were invited to dinner and then "ensnared" in rigged games that involved a cast of fictional characters and realised enormous profits for their perpetrators.
Hodgson's cameras follow Briatore as he stalks about the club.  He denounces managers as idiots.  He disparages players in the stands with Director of Football Gianni Paladni.  He orders substitutions from the owner's box.  He walks around in hilarious European rich person puffy jackets presumably invented to prevent a disgruntled peasant from stabbing him with the jagged edge of a stale baguette in a Parisian uprising.  Briatore, who goes through no less than five managers in his first two years with the club, comports himself like a ludicrous and incompetent dictator. 
 
Gianni Paladini enjoys a soccer game. Paladini comes across in the movie as Briatore's lackey, but 
had actually been a powerful agent who had purchased a stake in QPR in 2003. In fact, in 2006, he 
was involved in a bizarre incident where he claimed that a minority owner had hired a gang of "hard men" 
to intimidate him into selling his stake during a match.  You should read that whole article as it is 
completely fucking insane and something that Hodgson doesn't mention at all in the movie.  
Flavio Briatore is the angry man gesturing behind him.
In an related note, that is pretty much how I watch all sporting events

The best part of the movie by far is when QPR fans revolt.  They chant "FUCK FLAVIO."  They angrily sing "we want our Rangers back" to the tune of La Donna e Mobile while scuffling with police, their blood-curling aria echoing through the streets of Shepherd's Bush.  Briatore tells a group of fans that he will sell the team and leave it to rot while obsequious hangers-on beg him to stay.  He demands names.  What Flavio Briatore would possibly do with the names of people who boo him is unclear; I like to imagine he will use his billions to set up a fake sweepstakes luring them to his private island where they will be hunted for sport, not by Briatore, but by a group of Robert Muldoon-like characters he has flown in while he hovers over the island in a helicopter denouncing them as shitty, incompetent hunters using the speaker system from Apocalypse Now.

The other major figure who emerges is Amit Bhatia, an investment banker and Mittal's son-in-law.  Bhatia comes across as a slick but enthusiastic bean counter who acts as the more reasonable counterweight to Briatore.  He becomes the central face of ownership after Briatore steps down, tainted by an F1 match-fixing scandal.  Shortly after, QPR poaches manager Neil Warnock and rockets to the top of the table.  Yet, even the team's greatest triumph remains mired in allegations of cheating.  The Football Association launches an investigation into an illegal transfer.  The FA threatened fines and a points deduction that would strip QPR of its championship and automatic promotion to the Premier League.  It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film that the most touching moment of catharsis is not the team's  locker room celebration after clinching the championship, but Paladini jubilantly sprinting through the stadium screaming "NO POINTS DEDUCTIONS!"

The film is an odd window into a deliriously dysfunctional sports organization.  Again, Hodgson remains upfront that the funding for the movie came primarily from the ownership, which he depicts as operating with operatic absurdity (it never acknowledges the various scandals and corruption allegations floating around Briatore and Ecclestone and their role in Britatore's exit).  Though the movie has the rhythms of an underdog sports movie, we rarely see the players and have little sense of what is going on on the field.  We keep track of the team's progress by seeing them moving up and down the table and through montages of the owners celebrating or angrily calling for the manager's head.  Managers get more screen time, but come across like teenagers in the first 20 minutes of a slasher film, given veneers of personality before they are inevitably axed.  Hodgson is more concerned with showing how Bhatia saves money by purchasing less ostentatious food and floral arrangements than why QPR has gone from mid-table embarrassment to champions.  But that perspective is more compelling than the traditional narrative, not only because it is a part of sports not often captured, but also because Flavio Briatore comes across as irresistibly loathsome.
 
Manager Neil Warnock celebrates the 2011 championship.  Ecclsteone quickly sold his share 
to an ownership group headed by Malaysian airline magnate Tony Fernandes.  Fernandes 
fired Warnock into his first season in the Premier League, but QPR continued to scuffle 
and was relegated back to the Championship after only one season

The Four Year Plan resonates because it illustrates the helplessness of sports fans when it comes to ownership.  The movie depicts a team saved and backed by the unexpected largesse of deep-pocketed owners, but kept in chaos by volatile, impetuous, and incompetent management.  Capricious owners have been around since the concept of owning sports teams was invented, but the almost unimaginable expenses and profits associated with modern professional sports and the globalization of leagues has amplified effects.  Fans of teams with meddling, boorish, incompetent owners have no recourse other than futile chants and angry arias.  The exception remains the Green Bay Packers, and I hate them so much that I hope their team is purchased by a Habsburg who moves the team to Jacksonville and changes the name to the Muskie Haters.

DON'T DESPAIR IT IS NEARLY FOOTBALL

If there is one thing more arbitrary and absurd than professional sports ownership, it is the NCAA.  We are only about a month away from the season opener against Stanford, quarterback-related anguish, silent home snap counts, and hat vengeance.   

Friday, July 24, 2015

Words, Words About Sports

The Cubs have made it to late July and they have managed to go through nearly 60% of a baseball season without dissolving into a Cubbish morass of ineptitude.  They have hit baseballs in the right direction.  They have thrown baseballs at a regulation strike zone.  Most of the outfielders have managed to show up with regulation baseball gloves and not oversized novelty gloves and propeller beanies.  It's a new world.

The Cubs remain in contention for one of the dozens of available wildcard playoff spots this season because of the sudden influx of young, talented Cubs.  Anthony Rizzo has matured into one of the best hitters in the National League.  Jake Arrieta is pitching like a legitimate ace.  Kris Bryant was an instant all-star, Addison Russell has become an excellent fielder, and Starlin Castro is being the best Starlin Castro he can, which means he is swatting ineffectively at baseballs with a pool noodle.  And every time one of these guys starts to falter or slump they bring up another bat.  This week, it was Kyle Schwarber, a neckless stump-person who treats baseballs like they are a nameless bar hooligan in a Steven Seagal movie.

Cincinnati detectives at a crime scene where two baseballs were brutally schwarbered

Schwarber had a brief cameo as a DH-- he nominally plays catcher the way Russell Crowe is nominally the front man for 30 Odd Foot of Grunts-- but came up this week after a thumb injury to Miguel Montero. And, in a series with the Reds in which the teams played baseball nearly ceaselessly for 24 hours, Schwarber exploded. On Tuesday, he blasted a ninth-inning home run to tie the game, knocked the go-ahead dinger in the 13th, and then exploded into a supernova firing bats across the cosmos.

For the first time in years, the Cubs are fun. That is not to say they are a juggernaut. They play in the same division as the red-hot Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals continue to grimly march towards the division crown, replacing injured pitchers like a gritty Midwestern hydra regenerating heads so it can devour Ancient Greeks the right way.

"Seeing that Heracles was winning the struggle, Hera sent a large crab to 
distract him. He crushed it under his mighty foot."
I would read a book of myths as told by a Wikipedia Editor

Even though the Cubs are headed towards almost certain Cubs disaster, summer is infinitely better with a relevant baseball team that has not yet crushed us.

BEARS FOOTBALL IS BLEAK AND HOPELESS

The Chicago Bears, on the other hand, appear to be moving towards the season with the graceful dignity of Peter Lorre from the first five minutes of Casablanca.  They have installed a new GM, a new coach, a new offense, and will run a heretical 3-4 base defense.  Fortunately, the hands at the wheel are steady, with the McCaskey family committed to running a professional football team in their image, which is currently confused, vacuous mustache staring.

George McCaskey's hero is Ludwig von Reuter who also has a mustache and runs things into 
the ground

The greatest lightning rod for Bears criticism remains quarterback Jay Cutler.  Cutler is entering his sixth year with the Bears, during which he has become as popular in Chicago as a crooked politician dumb enough to get caught.  Cutler arrived with a reputation as a big-armed malcontent who was just good enough to disappoint you.  This was welcome in Chicago's barren quarterback wasteland where fans cheered Rex Grossman for his mastery of the fling-it-up-to-Bernard-Berrian play, where Kyle Orton became a folk hero for managing to look competent nearly as often as he looked like he had grown a beard so he could walk into one of those dingy Chicago bars identifiable only by a faded Old Style sign and order one for him and one for his beard, and where fans cheered Rex Grossman again as he replaced Kyle Orton and this had been going on with a series of interchangeable Grossmen and Ortons since time immemorial.

Cutler had a few seasons of promise and excuses.  The Bears fielded a five-man OSHA complaint as an offensive line and a squardon of interchangeable undersized punt returners at receiver.  When the Bears turned their receivers into a fleet of hulking dreadnoughts and approached competence on offense, the defense turned into a performance art piece about launching oneself gracefully at the air behind a running back. Nevertheless, Cutler has failed to transcend the team's shortcomings and torpedoed the offense with infuriating interceptions.  Every quarterback throws baffling interceptions from time to time; Cutler throws picks so ill-conceived that they appear almost spiteful.  Bears fans have given up on him.  The team gave up on him last season when they benched a healthy Cutler for Jimmy Clausen, a quarterback who had failed to look like a functioning NFL player for even a single snap in his short, miserable career and also he has a baby head.

Cutler has also committed the unforgivable sin of making a large amount of money.  He signed a seven-year $126 million contract, although it is important to remember that NFL contracts deliberately obscure, misleading, and fictitious.  It is not uncommon to see NFL contracts include rich parcels of land in Frisland or Poyasian bonds.  Cutler's contract binds the Bears for a shorter period of time and money than indicated, but it's not negligible.  It is too onerous to release Cutler and has rendered him untradeable, and new general manager Ryan Pace seems to regard his quarterback like an elderly person will regard a tribal bicep tattoo in the year 2070.

The Jay Cutler/Ryan Pace relationship reminds me of a version 
of What About Bob, but instead of being charming and ingratiating, 
Bob sits sullenly in the corner, texting pictures of his boat shoes

Jay Cutler also has an unpleasant reputation.  In this ESPN article ranking the NFL quarterbacks (behind their insider paywall), Cutler is invoked like a chain-wielding wraith portending quarterback doom before finally revealing himself at #20 as a bunch of nameless NFL people call him a jerk.  His air of hostile indifference is well-documented.  It does not bother me if my team's quarterback is a churl because I don't imagine I'll ever have to interact with him, but I can understand how a guy theoretically paid a bit less than the GDP of Nauru who looks at any given moment like he might walk out of the stadium before a gleeful opposing cornerback has the chance to finish sauntering into the endzone with one of his errant passes might antagonize fans.  At the very least, Cutler's mediocrity and toxic reputation means we don't have to see him attempt to act in terrible commercials.  His only onscreen role seems to have been as himself in a fantasy football sitcom, which is a shameful miscasting; Jay Cutler was born to play the dismissive sheriff who doesn't believe in chupacabras until it's too late or someone credited as "guy who won't move yacht."

The Bears will, barring an unexpected miracle, be a dreadful team to follow.  They are in the midst of a complete rebuild.  They face a brutal schedule.   Doug Buffone has passed away, leaving an entire metropolitan area of braying, nasal mustard enthusiasts bereft of anywhere to complain about Jay Cutler for hours at a time.  The entire enterprise will be a joyless slog.  And yet, one year one hopelessly miserable team rises out of nowhere to get obliterated by the Patriots or the Packers in the playoffs and it might as well be the Chicago Bears, sucking all around them into their black hole of mediocrity and dysfunction.  It is not likely, but we just sent a probe towards Pluto, discovered a vaguely Earth-like planet 1,400 light years away, and the Chicago Cubs might sneak into the playoffs.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Televised List-Reading

The National Basketball Association has just capped off its five hour list-reading extravaganza in Brooklyn.  The NBA draft has everything a person wants on television: garish suits, extended shots of people talking on cell phones, xenophobic booing of gangly European dunk magnets, and basketball players forced to deceive the American public with disingenuous hats. 
 
LaMarcus Aldridge and the NBA draw helpless basketball fans into a web 
of lies

In a vacuum, it is hard to understand the appeal of a clumsy, ponderous spectacle where the most exciting thing that happens is some giant dressed like an anthropomorphic blueberry awkwardly shaking hands with a hairless future-man while an off-stage panel publicly describes his shortcomings.  I can't imagine sitting through it live until second-round picks are distributed based on one-on-one pickup games between Darryl Morey and Sam Hinckie.  But the NBA draft and even its overwrought three-day NFL cousin are great because they celebrate hope, intrigue, and developing intractable opinions without any firm basis of knowledge.  Teams and, to a lesser extent, creepy self-proclaimed draft experts, spend hundreds of hours evaluating players, but their picks are in the hands of fate; the only certainties in the history of the NBA draft are the inevitable deaths of everyone involved and the fact that Jan Vesely was not an NBA player.


The Bulls selected Arkansas power forward Bobby Portis with the 22nd pick in last night's draft, even though they have a crowded frontcourt.  I have not seen one minute of Bobby Portis playing basketball.  I am not a basketball scout.  But I am thrilled with the pick because Portis seems to excel at two important skills the Bulls require: making crazy faces and yelling.
 
Opponents cower in fear from the dreaded "Portis Head" 

Portis will be mentored by experienced bigs Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol in bellowing and scowling.  Nikola Mirotic, in his rookie year offers something no one else on the Bulls has: a great, big, bushy beard.  Many pundits expected the Bulls to get a backup for Derrick Rose, but they thought Portis was the best player left on the board and Nate Robinson is still available.

A VERITABLE AND AUTHENTIC SATAN OF MODERN EUROPE

"Whatever subject he started he always got back to his favourite theme, and he represented Prince Bismarck, however he might be for the moment disguised, as a veritable and authentic Satan of modern Europe."

That is how you start a goddamn book review.  W.T. Stead, the notable British journalist and editor known for, among other things, using his newspapers to suggest sending Charles Gordon into Sudan and then excoriating the government for its failure to rescue him and dying on the Titanic, took a flamethrower to recently-deceased Otto Von Bismarck in an 1898 article in his Review of Reviews.  The quote above is attributed to a conversation he had with Robert Morier, the British Ambassador to Russia (Stead traveled to Russia during the height of British Russophobia and published The Truth About Russia in 1888).  It is fair to say that Stead shared this opinion.  In a review of  German press agent Julius Moritz Busch's memoir Bismarck: Some Secret Pages of His History, Stead opened both barrels on Bismarck and his Boswell, Busch.
 
Moritz Busch, Otto von Bismarck, and a pyschic portrait for the floating ghost head of W.T. 
Stead, oh yeah I should probably mention that Stead was an ardent spiritualist who wrote 
extensively about his communication with ghosts and telepathy and automatic writing

There are certainly countless responsible histories you can read of Bismarck that analyze Busch's memoir as a historical source and give you proper context with which to read Stead.  But this is not a place for responsible, contextual history, this is a place for taking a look at nineteenth-century invective and luxuriate in the bile and sort of weird insults and curses laid upon one of Europe's most reviled Victorian statesmen.  Here are some headings and subheadings from the article describing Bismarck or Busch:

THE ARCH-REPTILE
HIS WORMS ON THE PRESS
AN UNCONSCIOUS JUDAS
A PRINCE OF LIARS
BAITING A TRAP WITH A WOMAN
THE DIPLOMATIC SATAN REVEALED  




Stead attacks Bismarck and Busch for manipulating the press. He quotes his own description of the use of a "Reptile Fund" (money set aside for espionage, manipulation, and other underhanded secret deeds) to influence the foreign press from his own The Truth About Russia because extensively quoting yourself in a scathing review is a power move:
In the journalism of Europe it is the lot of some correspondents abroad to fulfil with automatic and unfailing regularity the useful and, from Bismarck's point of view, the necessary functions of the earthworm.  There are, for example, some supreme types of this species on the Times, whose despatches, telegraphed daily to the leading newspaper in the world, are little more than ill-digested reproductions of the inventions and calumnies of the Reptile press-- their "news" is merely the secretion of the reptile passed through the alimentary canal of the worm.  But it helps to form the compost upon which public opinion is based, and thus from the great central bureau of Berlin are fed all the newspapers of the world.
Stead describes Busch as little more than a tool of Bismarck, rendering him as a sort of attack-butler.  
It would be difficult to outdo in caddish insolence the way in which Dr. Busch suffered himself to write of journalists whom he regarded as outside the official circle.  Jeames de la Pluche(1) himself was less of a flunkey than Dr. Mortiz Busch.  One of his articles in the volume is simply superb as a revelation of the way in which a great man's valet can give himself airs.  Even Lord Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street(2) might take a lesson from Dr. Mortiz Busch.  The good German Boswell is really the most unmitigated snob on record.  It is very amusing, and yet in its way not a little pathetic.  For even Dr. Moritz Busch is a human being.
(1) Jeames de la Pluche is a former footman/railroad speculator character whose rise and fall is chronicled in The Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche, a series of letters in Punch by Thackeray writing as M.A. Titmarsh, Esq.
(2) I don't know anything about Salisbury's footman in Arlington Street, but I am going to assume he  the apex of High Victorian butler snobbery who wore a suite made from tails collected from lesser footmen.

As way of proof, Stead offers up an example of how Busch addressed Bismarck:
Pray excuse me for comparing you to an animal, but you remind me of the picture of a noble stag, which, time after time, shakes off the snarling pack, and then, proud and unhurt, regains the shelter of his forest, crowned by his branching antlers. 
 "It is much to be wished  that Prince Bismarck did belong to an entirely different species, if only for the credit of our common humanity," Stead wrote.

The whole of the article is peppered with attacks on Bismarckian subterfuge and Bismarck's impressions of Queen Victoria and other notable British figures.  Stead's review is not a bad way to spend some time reveling in pointed Victorian insults, a model for all book reviews as the following passage should convince you:
  
 NINETEENTH-CENTURY CONGRESS MURDER

We'll end with a final mention of a bizarre spectacle from early American politics when statesmen settled their disputes by shooting each other in the face with pistols.  In 1831, Missouri Congressman Spencer Pettis and U.S. Army Major Thomas Biddle met in a deadly duel that ended both of their lives.  The dispute arose after Pettis, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, attacked Biddle's brother Nicholas, the president of Jackson's hated Second Bank of the United States. 
 
A contemporary pro-Jackson cartoon shows him attacking a monster-bank.  Nicholas 
Biddle is wearing the top hat

According to an article from an 1877 edition of the Hartford Weekly Times by a correspondent who claims to have been a close aid to Nicholas Biddle and signed his article "BOWIE-KNIFE," Biddle's character was "assaulted with bitter vituperation."  Thomas Biddle, who lived in St. Louis, and Pettis began to attack each other in the press with insults such as calling each other a "dish of skimmed milk."

The conflict became violent when Thomas Biddle attacked Pettis in a hotel room.  As BOWIE-KNIFE puts it, Biddle grabbed a cow-hide and "inflicted a very severe chastisement upon Pettis."  Pettis recovered before all involved decided it was sensible and manly to shoot each other.

The venue for the duel was settled as an island outcrop between Missouri and Illinois called "Bloody Island," which should be the title for some horrible pirate fantasy novel.  The island got its name from the numerous duels fought on its soil, as explained by the Missouri State Archive's helpful page on Missouri dueling.  According to that page, the Biddle-Pettis duel was the third major political duel fought on its sand.  The existence of a dueling island could not have been unique to Missouri, and I assume other states had their dueling arenas such as:

RHODE ISLAND: Lockjaw Caverns
GEORGIA: Skeleton Corner
TEXAS: Hellfire Gulch
MISSISSIPPI: Scurvy Coves
KENTUCKY: Headbutt Quarry
FLORIDA: The State of Florida

Biddle and Pettis chose to duel at five feet, an absurdly short distance (Biddle was near-sighted and we were years away from the advent of prescription dueling goggles), and both fired and killed each other.  Bloody island continued to host duels well into the 1850s before people came to their senses, realized that politicians probably shouldn't murder each other, and decided to settle disputes with honor and skill in the Atlasphere.