The Pell Incident
This is an article from the Feb. 14, 1994 issue
Charley Pell had trouble finding a soft landing spot after Florida forced him to resign as its football coach in 1984 for myriad recruiting violations. His name was forever linked with corruption, and schools—even Division I-AA Troy State, which briefly courted him for its head job three years ago—didn't want to take a chance on him. A proud man who had been a head coach for 12 of his 20 years in the college game, Pell wouldn't grub around for assistant-coaching jobs, so he drifted into business, which was not his forte. At least seven of his ventures have failed, and he has lost about $1 million over the last decade.
On the evening of Feb. 2, the 52-year-old Pell drove his car into a wooded area not far from his home in Jacksonville, ran a hose from the exhaust pipe through the passenger-side window and sat inside the car with the engine running. However, Pell had also ingested sleeping pills and vodka, and the combination nauseated him. He got out of the car and vomited, and that's where he was discovered by Florida state trooper Malcom Jowers, a friend who, during the good times, used to escort Pell off the field after Gator home games. Pell had left Jowers a suicide note and a map showing where to find his body and, after the trooper found the papers, he rushed to the scene. Had Pell not gotten out of the car, he might have been dead when Jowers arrived.
Because of the note and the map, there has been speculation that Pell staged the attempt. "Not a chance," says Herschel Nissenson, a friend who was chatting with Pell's wife, Ward, at the Pells' home when word came about the suicide attempt. "That wouldn't be Charley's style. He's been under an incredible amount of self-inflicted pressure over the last 10 years. He can't get back into football, he's not really a businessman, and the media think he's the worst criminal since John Dillinger." Nissenson was the national college football writer for the Associated Press until 1991.
Pell, a tackle on Bear Bryant's 1961 national championship team at Alabama, was released from Baptist Medical Center last Saturday. Though his doctors say that the suicide attempt will have no lasting physical effects on him, he is undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression. Nissenson visited Pell in the hospital, where the suicide attempt was only briefly mentioned: "You know, if Coach Bryant were alive, he'd kick your ass," Nissenson kidded Pell.
"Well, he almost got to tell me himself," said Pell, managing a small smile.
No Show, No Snow
Anchorage spent millions in 1988 in an unsuccessful bid to bring the 1994 Winter Games to the Last Frontier. As it turned out, the International Olympic Committee was wise to spurn Anchorage. The city has just come out of an uncommon heat wave, with temperatures having reached as high as 48°, and much of the snow that blanketed the city has turned to slush and mud puddles. The Nordic skiing events would have been in serious trouble, and Alpine competitors would almost certainly have been skiing on manmade snow. Buck up, Anchorage, and get that bid ready for the 2004 Summer Games.
Ice Wars: The Prequel
Long before Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, there was another no-love-lost rivalry in women's figure skating. It involved Sonja Henie, still the sport's biggest name, and Vivi-Anne Hultèn, then known as the Flame of Sweden.
To summarize Hultèn's position: Henie, the three-time Olympic champion (1928, '32 and '36) from Norway, was a scheming and vindictive competitor who pilfered routines and intimidated fellow competitors. Though Henie had no Shawn Eckardt or Shane Stant in her circle, Hultèn claims that Henie ordered border guards to strip-search her en route to the '36 Olympics in Germany. (Bear in mind that Henie, who died at 57 years old in '69, is not around to defend herself.)
"When I started out, she was very nice, and I admired her greatly," said Hultèn, 82, last week from her home in White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. "But when I started to challenge her by finishing second in the 1933 world championships, she turned on me."
Hultèn said that Henie's father, Wilhelm, made deals with judges that tilted the ice against Hultèn, specifically at the 1936 Olympics and at the '35 and '36 world championships. Hultèn finished third, while Henie was first, in all three competitions. Could jealousy be behind Hultèn's claims?
"Look, I have great admiration for what Henie did," says Hultèn, who runs The Skating Academy in St. Paul. "On the ice she was terrific, a wonderful acrobat, just like a circus princess, a big smile, dressed perfectly, But she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a very nasty person off the ice. She treated people with her hand stretched out, like, What can you do for me? I'm just telling it like it is."
Telling it like it is might have cost her a trip to Lillehammer as a figure skating commentator for NRK, the Norwegian television network. Shortly after Hultèn roasted Henie in the Minneapolis Star Tribune a few weeks ago, an NRK executive canceled an invitation that had been extended in early November. The letter cited difficulties with securing her a ticket but also scolded her for having criticized the Norwegian legend.
"It would've been nice to be there, but I'll watch on TV," said Hultèn. "My favorite is the little girl from Ukraine, Oksana Baiul. She makes skating both an artistic dance and an athletic exhibition. Sonja only did the athletic part. No one wants to hear that, but it's the truth."
Isolated cameras, instant replay, computer graphics and telestrator-assisted commentary. Sounds like some network is preparing for a football game. Guess again. It's 21st-century chess.
"This is going to be anything but the dry, static game that people expect." says Bob Rice, commissioner of the fledgling Professional Chess Association (PCA), which is negotiating to sell its high-tech format to television. Televised chess? Shuffleboard seems like Melrose Place when compared with chess. But the PCA's series of four Grand Prix tournaments this year—beginning in Moscow next month, followed by stops in New York, London and Paris—will feature a speed-chess format, with each player having a total of only 25 minutes to complete his moves. There will also be innovations like electronic boards and Hashing pieces ("viewer-friendly" wrinkles, according to Rice) and, predictably, a voluble, hyper-informative commentator, in this case U.S. master Maurice Ashley, "the John Madden of chess," as Rice calls him.
The PCA is optimistic that American television will buy all or part of the tour. And the plan is not as far-fetched as it seems, given that the PCA has already secured the sponsorship of computer giant Intel, which has committed more than $5 million over the next two years. What's more, consider the boffo ratings that a British television network drew when it devoted 60 hours of programming to last fall's Gary Kasparov-Nigel Short match in London. There's every possibility that a new breed of player could thrive in a glitzy atmosphere far removed from the mausoleumlike conditions of traditional chess, and that a new audience might arise from among the Beavis & Butt-head set.
"People have this idea that you have to be supersmart and educated to enjoy chess," says Rice. "That's bogus. I'm just a normal guy, and I love this game."
Last Saturday, in an intriguing variation on today's popular trade-guns-for-some-thing programs, Prince—the sporting-goods company, not the purple-clad singer—gave a tennis racket to every youngster who handed in a video-game cartridge. Two hundred kids made the swap at SportsTown, an Atlanta sporting-goods store.
Monica Seles did not return to action at the Virginia Slims of Chicago tournament this week and so became, according to the Women's Tennis Association computer, a nonperson. A player must compete in at least three tournaments over a 12-month period to maintain a ranking, and, because she was stabbed at a tournament in Hamburg on April 30, Seles has participated in only two during that span. Because the WTA bases its tournament seedings on computer rankings, the question is: Should Seles be unseeded in the first tournament she enters, or should she be given a dispensation—namely a high seed—because of her No. 1 ranking before the attack?
This issue has caused much hand-wringing in women's tennis in recent weeks. But look, there's only one way to settle it, and we would be amazed if the networks aren't thinking about it—a million-dollar, winner-take-all showdown between Seles and Steffi Graf, the No. 1 player right now. Not only would tennis fans eat it up, but the match would also give the WTA a fix on whether Seles's skills have diminished or whether she is the grunting, baseline basher of old.
Hooray for Hollywood
NBA scouting director Marty Blake was around when pro teams rode buses from arena to arena, so one can imagine his surprise when he went one-on-one with high-budget Hollywood. Blake has a minor—very minor—role in the movie Blue Chips, starring Nick Nolte and Shaquille O'Neal, and he was recently summoned to California to "re-loop" his scene. Blake was flown first-class from his home in Atlanta to Los Angeles, met by a limousine at the airport and housed in a swank hotel. And what were those all-important lines?
"Yep," says Blake.
No, really, Marty, what were they?
"Yep," says Blake. Yep, that was his only line—yep.
Says Blake, "But I said it perfectly the second time."
A Bunch of Real Cards
A different kind of NBA trading card is making the rounds, one that the players would hardly want kept in their children's shoeboxes. The front of Benoit Benjamin's card says THE EMBARRASSMENT, a reference to his legendary underachieving, while Kendall Gill's calls him FANTASY ALL-STAR for his proclivity to overestimate his value. Rather than celebrate Shaquille O'Neal's rim-wrecking power, his card reads PLAYIN' FOR THE CAMERA. And Charles Barkley (above) is labeled, with obvious irony, MR. NICE GUY.
The line of cards is called Skinnies, in reference to the player analysis provided on the back of each card. ("Rony speaks four different languages," reads the skinny on Rony Seikaly. "Too bad he doesn't understand 'pass' in any of them.") Skinnies is the brainchild of First Amendment Publishing, a Northport, N.Y.-based company that got into the trading-card business only because of the constitutional issues raised by a local ban on another company's serial-killer cards two years ago. To challenge the law, First Amendment produced a set of cards, similar to the serial-killer set, called Sex Maniacs. "I'd never let my own child buy those cards." says Joe Mauro, a publishing attorney and one of the founders of the company, "but it was necessary for the protection of the First Amendment."
Bad taste isn't an issue with the NBA cards—well, Christian Laettner (above) would beg to differ—and Mauro doesn't expect any legal difficulties, either. The cards, drawn by several caricaturists, show players in generic uniforms with no reference to the NBA. Reaction from the league has been tepid. "We are reviewing the situation to see if there will be any legal action," said one spokesman.
Here's our skinny on the cards—they're funny and, much of the time, on target. Grin and bear 'em, NBA.
"MR. NICE GUY"
•Fox Broadcasting lost the television rights to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, but don't bet against The Simpsons's network when it comes time to bid for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. That's the hometown of News Corporation Ltd., Fox's parent company, and many observers believe that chief executive Rupert Murdoch would love to carry the Olympics from his native land.
•Undefeated junior lightweight Oscar De La Hoya has come to a financial settlement with his former managers, from whom he split in December (SCORECARD, Dec. 20, 1993) in an attempt to seize "full control" of his career. According to sources, De La Hoya will pay Steve Nelson and Robert Mittleman close to $2 million. Which means that when he climbs back through the ropes, for a reported $1 million payday in Los Angeles on March 5 against Jimmi Bredahl, boxing's Golden Boy will be fighting just to pay off his debt.
•The NCAA recently adopted a rule that allows a college basketball player to enter the NBA draft and then return to the college ranks (within 30 days) if he does not like the team that drafted him or the deal it offers. NBA officials wonder aloud what the rule really accomplishes, because a team that drafts a player keeps the rights to that player for one year after he does come out. Therefore, a college player doesn't necessarily avoid going to a team he doesn't like by staying in school. Beyond that, though, the rule raises a potentially embarrassing situation for the league. To wit: What if no one wants to go to Minnesota?
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Trees died so that a writer named Bob Andelman could produce a tome entitled Why Men Watch Football, which theorizes, among other things, that football "gives us men something to talk about."
They Said It
The Kansas City Royal manager, on the acquisition of former New York Met and fireworks aficionado Vince Coleman: "On July 4, wherever we are, you're going to room with me."