Opening up the mailbag

It's time for the return of Maisel E-mails, sort of like poison ivy, mosquito bites and the other irritants of summer.

Speaking of irritants -- just call me Mr. Transition -- my reference to "Rovian," as in Karl Rove, tactics in my recent story on beleaguered Arkansas coach Houston Nutt set off a firestorm of electronic criticism. You would have thought that I had burped in church, or worse, told my 15-year-old that she would have to walk home from high school (all three-quarters of a mile, downhill).

They defended Rove. They defended the Swift Boat Veterans. They told me to keep my politics out of the sports page.

And I thought they had a point, until I reread the story.

I didn't criticize Rove or the Swift Boat Veterans. I said they had won their victories by attacking an opponent's strength, and that the people who had attacked Nutt's character had copied the tactic.

That's all I said.

I don't know why that touched a nerve. Maybe it's because being a Rove fan these days is like rooting for the Orioles. Feelings may be a bit tender, what with President Bush's poll numbers approaching the Mendoza Line.

Plenty of you argued against any appearance of politics in your sports reading, which reminds me of people who don't like the different foods on their plate to touch one another (take a bow, Annie). Where do you draw that line? I made two baseball metaphors in the last paragraph of a college football column. Is that kosher? Wait a minute. That's a religious reference.

Here's the deal: if I make a political reference in these tetchy times, I have to expect that I will get severe blowback (some examples are below). That's OK. But don't ask me to not make political references. I need all the tools I can get.

From Kenneth G. Hofman, Grand Rapids: You have no apparent credentials that would allow you to make these observations nor draw these conclusions. However, let's assume that you in fact are a trained political observer. There is not a single ESPN subscriber who could honestly answer that they subscribe to ESPN to bear witness to your political insights. Zero. That obviously doesn't mean that you aren't free to do as you please. But, when you choose to do as you please, your readership is free to conclude that you lack judgment. A writer who lacks judgment loses relevance. That marginalizes the writer, and by reference and inference, his or her employer. So, unless you prescribe to the misguided concept of "any publicity is good publicity," then you should conclude that it was wrong to do what you did, even from your own selfish point of view.

Chances are pretty good that, if you were willing to write something like the above, you are not going to share my conclusion that your best interests were compromised. That still doesn't make it right. In fact, you did to Karl Rove exactly what you accuse him of doing. You attacked his perceived strength without any meaningful basis upon which to do so. And, unlike your statements about Karl Rove, we subscribers have the actual proof against you. Right in black and white.

Shame on you. Even if you don't deserve better, your readers do.

Ivan Maisel: That was a pretty good one, based in reason rather name-calling. Then there were the rest, which sounded pretty much the same:

From James Byrne: I, for one, do not think you have the credentials to be delving into NATIONAL politics on a SPORTS blog!!

What an ignoramus.

Maisel: I liked that one, based on brevity …

From Scott Chastain in Atlanta: I read your article only to wonder if I was reading the New York Times Opinion section with their daily criticism of the Bush Administration; only to be reminded you are a "college football analyst." Take a little advice and keep your day job. Leave the political punditry to those "writers" who claim to be unbiased and objective "journalists," and claim they have no political affiliation. Your credibility cannot take another hit like this one! Take heart, you can vote for Ms. Rodham next year and we can all come closer to that socialist utopia all at the expense of the "evil" rich!

Look around, Ivan, most sports fans could care less about your political biases, so keep them to yourself!!!!

Scott Chastain

Maisel: … and I liked Scott's because, after he ripped me a new one, he ended it with "Respectfully." That made me laugh out loud. The others pretty much sounded the same. A lot of New York Times references.

And there were the readers who not only didn't mind the political metaphor, they liked the entire story.

From Frank Bozzo in Seattle:
(Formerly of the faculty at the University of Arkansas School of Law)
I write just to tell you how much I enjoy your work. I cannot wait to read the rest of your series about the problems at the University of Arkansas.

I often read articles by national writers about something happening in the place where I live now (Seattle) or places I have lived, like Denver, Pittsburgh, and -- believe it or not -- Fayetteville, Arkansas, etc., that do not capture the feel of the story to those living at or near the center of the issue. On the other hand, if Part I is any indication, once again, you have done a great job of capturing the story at its heart.

Thank you for your consistently excellent writing.

From Win Gates in North Little Rock, Ark.: I would like to first say that I enjoy your contributions to the ESPN Web site. You have some interesting things to say, and you relate them very well. Second, I have really liked the recent articles on the Arkansas Razorbacks, even though a number of things throughout are not flattering. I was born in Arkansas and raised on Razorbacks football, so the events in Fayetteville over the last five plus months have been upsetting to a true Hog fan.

There are three things I can tell you, Mr. Maisel, with certainty. Number one, Most Hog fans are really ticked off at this idiot suing the university over this moronic e-mail! A large portion, if not a majority, of Hog fans just want this guy to drop off the face of the planet!

Number two, most of us here in Razorback Nation wish Mustain, Malzahn, and Williams good luck on their journeys. We still wish they hadn't even bothered to go to Fayetteville, but hey, what are you gonna do?!

And number three, most of the Hog fans just want the season to start already so the rest of the national media will have something else to talk about, instead of constantly blowing this whole thing up into something that we really don't give a damn about. Most Hog fans are satisfied with Coach Nutt, sad that Frank is finally retiring, and we really like John Pelphrey so far. So we say "Lay off!"

But hey, I know you're just doing your job. Besides, everybody here is convinced that Mustain and Williams will go to USC and get lost in the shuffle of high-quality talent and we won't ever hear from them again; and that Malzahn will be back at Arkansas one day, maybe as head coach. But he'll probably have to wait until Houston is finally gone.


Maisel: I think Win speaks for the silent majority. Oops, that was a political metaphor. Let me try again.

I think if the pressure ratchets up on Nutt, he ought to just declare victory and get ou- …

See? It's just not going to work.

From David Pillar in Bloomington: Thanks for the wonderful article on our beloved Coach Hoeppner. I am the official scorekeeper for IU men's basketball and at a game against Ball State in December '04, Tom Clark, a Big Ten basketball and football official said, "You guys made the best hire of the offseason. You will love this guy. Your community will love this guy. He will do things for your team and university that you can't put a price on."

Boy, he was right. I've been here for 10 years and labored through watching Cam and DiNardo accomplish nothing in a lifeless environment. Even though Hep was only with us a little over two years, he has left our university and community with happy memories.

Again, thanks for a great piece.

Maisel: No, David. Thank you for a great piece. What's so sad about Hoeppner's death is the sense that the job is unfinished, yet he's not here to finish it.

From Andrew Reed in Chicago: Very good column on the '94 Michigan Colorado game. I was a sophomore attending Michigan then, and I can still remember with great clarity so many aspects of that one moment, a moment which seems to just hang there ever since it happened. Michigan was dominating the Buffs for most of that game. Late in the third quarter, my friends and I were planning not only our Rose Bowl trip but mounting all our ticket stubs in a frame with the words "National Champions" listed below -- wise fools indeed.

Then that pass went up. It was like that Michael Vick Powerade commercial. You were there, I realize I don't need to tell you, but goodness did that ball just keep flying. I thought the game was over until doubt began to creep in as the ball was arcing ever higher. Then it suddenly fell to earth, just short of the goal line before being tipped in -- as we've all seen a million times. Stunned. Shocked. Bewildered. Disbelieving. I remember how the stadium simultaneously seemed completely devoid of any noise -- silent as a closet -- but also how impossibly loud the Colorado contingent was. I didn't know what was happening. I swear I looked directly across the stadium and saw people staring right back at me, as if we were ten feet away from one another. We didn't even leave. We were just staring back at one another with nothing to say.

Finally, my buddies and I began the journey back to our dorm. No one said a word during the two-mile trek. That night, parties were cancelled and the town was quiet. I think that was probably the moment when I became firmly entrenched as an obsessed college football fan, but I still can't believe it happened.

Anyway, thanks for making me cry today (kidding!).

Maisel: The tough losses never lose their ability to bruise, do they?

From Jack Evans: Great article on the Colorado-Michigan game. The point that was missing is this game made the difference in unbeaten Nebraska winning the national championship over unbeaten Penn State in the voting. Had Penn State beaten an unbeaten and top-five Michigan team, it clearly would've been viewed as superior to Nebraska's win over a once-beaten Colorado team. Never thought I'd say it but I wish there was a BCS back then. That 1994 PSU team was capable of scoring a ton of points and would've beaten Nebraska.

Maisel: Several Nittany Lions fans wrote in to remind me of the belief in JoePa Land that Kordell Stewart cost them a national championship. Sounds a little like a vast right-tackle conspiracy to me.

From Brian Minoske in Perrysburg: This involves Dennis Erickson, coming back into the NCAA with Idaho and now ASU. Should a college coach who commits violations like he did with Miami that brought down their program, then leave for the NFL to let Miami go through NCAA sanctions, be allowed back into college football? I would think they need to start getting tougher on coaches, boosters, etc., on violations committed, starting with banishment for coaches who cheat. Thanks.

Maisel: The biggest NCAA violations that Miami committed during Erickson's tenure involved Pell Grant fraud led by a guy in the athletic department. I've never seen anything that connected Erickson to those violations. In fact, had the NCAA found Erickson committed any major violations, he would have had a hard time being hired by one Division I-A school, much less the three that have hired him post-Miami.

From Steven in Berkeley: Which do you think is a more pivotal win for California: Tennessee or USC? Nate Longshore, Justin Forsett, and DeSean Jackson obviously make the offense as explosive as ever. It is the defense which is keeping me up at night. I think if we meet the Trojans with an unblemished record in Berkeley, Chris, Kirk, and Lee will have to make their first trip *ever* to Strawberry Canyon.

Maisel: I think Tennessee is the more important game for Cal, and no I haven't fallen asleep next to an open Sharpie. After the way the Vols embarrassed the Bears in Knoxville last year, I think Cal needs a win to prove to the voters that it is ready to become a national power. In the end, of course, USC will be a more important victory. But if Cal doesn't win that first one, a victory over the Trojans would be seen as a major upset, not a victory of one top team over another.

From Tom Cannon in Savannah, Ga.: As a regular reader (and listener via podcasts) I consider you one of the clearest thinking observers of college football, and one of the few who actually "get" my beloved SEC.

But Ivan please think again before using patently partisan political analogies.

I am certainly no fan of Karl Rove, but your gratuitous reference to "Rovian" tactics used against Houston Nutt (and accompanying explanation) sullied an otherwise fine piece.

A significant portion of your readership is not likely to even accept the premise.

The present climate of political debate in this country is polarizing. Why in the world would you want to introduce that to sports commentary?

I remain a faithful reader.

Maisel: I posted Tom's e-mail because no one else was so nice in skewering me.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.