Leland Stein III

Archive for February, 2017|Monthly archive page

Ilitch leaves a noteworthy footprint in Detroit beyond sports

In sports column on February 13, 2017 at 12:57 am
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Mike Ilitch hoist the American League pennant trophy as his Tigers head to the World Series. Dan Graschuck – photo

By Leland Stein III

Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch recently passed at age 87. He may be gone physically from us, but his legacy and works will keep him in sports lore.

In 2011 ESPN the Magazine released its annual “Best in Sports” rankings and when it came to pro franchise owners, Ilitch was ranked #1. The rankings were reportedly based on honesty, commitment to the community and loyalty to core players.

As I think of great owners in sports, two men quickly come to mind. When I was snotty-noised journalist trying to come up in L.A., surprisingly to me Al Davis (Oakland & Los Angeles Raiders) and Dr. Jerry Buss (Los Angeles Lakers) became my personal advocates and helped me gain traction in the industry, by ensuring I got inclusion, as I was transitioning from engineering to a journalism career.

Any talk of great owners in sports should yield George Halas, Chicago Bears (1920-1983); Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-2007); George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010); Walter O’Malley, Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers (1944-1979); Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (1994-present); Pittsburgh Steelers owners Art Rooney and son (1933-present), Dan, who took over in 2003 and was the linchpin for the “Rooney Rule, and finally my guys Buss and Davis.

All these men were winners and understood continuity, their athletes and each sieged the moment in front them.

To Ilitch’s credit he tried to siege the moment in front of him during his ownership, not sparing anything, including money, to put both his Tigers and Red Wings in positions to win.

But what puts him up in the top rung of owners is his commitment to the community and the actions he took to make Detroit a better city.

A few years back I wrote a column beseeching, cajoling Detroit’s movers and shakers to seek to make the Motor City a national sports entertainment district.

In my 29-years as a journalist, one of the most amazing transformations I have seen is the cities of San Antonio and Indianapolis. Both were little towns with nothing going on in their downtown, each had minimal restaurants, hotels and entertainments venues.

However both San Antonio and Indianapolis built basketball and football venues and all the hotels and entertainment facilities soon followed.

I think Ilitch saw what I saw in those two smaller cities that were both seeking to define themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the walkable sports entertainment future direction and took massive steps to regenerate themselves in that genre.

Building basketball, football and baseball facilities in downtown have worked for both San Antonio and Indianapolis and each city have seen their downtown explode.

Unfortunately Ilitch did not live to see his Little Caesars Arena open. But he can take refuge in the fact that unlike San Antonio and Indianapolis, Motown has all four professional sports franchises, and, they are in walking distance from each other.

Ilitch in his plans for the Detroit District has committed to not only a new basketball and hockey arena, but the redevelopment plans include a posh hotel, medical center, retail shops and residential housing.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Ilitch in an early interview. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

Indeed Ilitch believed that a sports and walkable entertainment district would collectively help Detroit’s renovation and place the city in rotation for hosting the mega-sporting events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend and many other sports and entertainment events.

Maybe, just maybe the addition of Little Caesars Arena could be the linchpin that will even further thrust Detroit into the sports entertainment rotation of major sporting events.

The Motor City is the only cold weather city to host two Super Bowls, and, it has also recently been host to the Final Four and Major League Baseball All-Star Game. With the new arena the NBA and NHL All-Star Games are sure to make their way here.

Ilitch’s commitment to Detroit is noteworthy. Not only has it been sports, but he showed where his heart is attached when he and his wife, Marian, took a chance on the historic but neglected Fox Theatre when they purchased it in 1987. They restored the 5,000-seat theatre built in 1928 to its original splendor.

It did not stop there as the Ilitches commissioned an extraordinary renovation of the adjacent 10-story Fox office building in 1989, relocating its suburban offices staff, and established a world headquarters for their Pizza Company and Olympia Entertainment, Inc. in the transformed office building.

Since then, the theatre district has seen a rebirth marked by the opening of other restored theatres and new restaurants, and the building of two side-by-side stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Lions.

In all the Ilitches own Little Caesar Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Champion Foods, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program and the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, as well as, the Motor City Casino.

Mike Ilitch may have transitioned to the afterlife, but his life’s works here in Detroit will live on and on and on and on.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

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Patriots shock the world with amazing comeback

In sports column on February 6, 2017 at 1:51 pm

Super Bowl LI saw the first overtime game in its 51 year history.

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Tom Brady orchestrates classic victory. – Gary Montgomery photo

By Leland Stein III

HOUSTON – Not only I, but the 70,807 in NRG Stadium, as well as, millions world-wide watching the televised broadcast, were left in shock as the New England Patriots fought back from a 25-point deficit after a surprisingly inferior and feeble performance over the first three quarters of Super Bowl LI.

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Leland Stein III

Then, out of nowhere the Patriots regrouped, just as I had placed them in the football graveyard, amazingly and shockingly they came to life and produced an astonishing 34-28 overtime victory over the shell-shocked Atlanta Falcons.

In the first Super Bowl to go into overtime, one of the most important breaks happen when the red-hot Patriots won the coin toss and promptly drove 75 yards in eight plays giving the Patriots their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Running back James White scored the winning touchdown and the celebration was on.

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Dont’a Hightower’s (54) strip of Matt Ryan fueled Pats fourth quarter rally. – Gary Montgomery photo

The win officially makes Tom Brady the most decorated quarterback in modern football history, having surpassed his own idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw who each had four Super Bowl wins.

Said Brady in the post-game press conference when asked if this title was sweeter than the previous ones because of how they won it: “Every title is special. Two years ago it came down to Malcom (Butler) making the play to beat Seattle and this year down 25 points, I could see why it was hard for anyone to imagine us winning.

“The one positive was we went into halftime down, but we had the ball for 20 minutes. As the game goes on, that gets tough on a defense. In the Super Bowl, everyone is expending a lot of energy and once we got it rolling there in the second half it was tough to slow us down.”

Brady continued: “There was a lot at stake tonight. We played our tails off all season to get to this point and it’s hard to win games in the NFL. To beat this team after getting down 28-3, it was just a lot of mental toughness by our team and we’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”

Coming into NRG Stadium for the big game, I predicted an offensive scoring fest between Atlanta and New England.

So much for my prognostications, in the first quarter both teams produced goose eggs giving all the appearance that defense was going to rule the day.

After the 0-0 first quarter, from the start of the second quarter to halftime the Falcons produced a scoring barrage.

Collectively the teams finished one and two with the least turnovers in the NFL this season. However, it took a LaGarrette Blount fumble that halted a New England drive, and, ignited the stagnate Falcons’ offense as it came alive and drove 67 yards for the game’s first score at the start of the second quarter.

The Falcons ended the first half up 21-3 after three touchdowns, including one from cornerback Robert Alford that came from quarterback Brady’s only pick-six interception of his postseason career.

Having covered all seven of the Super Bowls coach Bill Belichick and Brady have participated in this one just left me completely fibergastic.

Why?

Well, I have never seen this team play so poorly in a big game. No, I amend that statement. Maybe it was the Falcons that made Brady and the Patriots look like they did not even belong on the same field with them.

Atlanta did everything right for three quarters using the same formula that looked similar to the teams that have knocked New England out and issued them some painful playoff defeats: No running game to help settle things down, an offensive line that was having trouble holding up against the Falcons’ very quick pass rushers, and, too many mistakes.

The defense had its struggles, too, laboring to strike the balance of being stout enough against the run in their nickel package (six players in the box), but not vulnerable in the secondary against the high powered pass Falcon’s passing game.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, just named the NFL 2016 MVP, played like it for three quarters. In fact, a precision strike to star receiver, Julio Jones for 27-yards down to the Patriots 22 with a little over 4 minutes left in the game could have sealed the game.

“I felt like we were in good position after that great catch by Jones,” lamented Ryan. “I felt like we put ourselves in a good position to come away with points on that drive after his catch. It didn’t end up working out, which was disappointing. There’s nothing you can really say. This was a tough loss. Obviously very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done, but it’s hard to find words tonight.”

Ryan continues a crazy trend that for the last 16 years, since 2000, no NFL MVP has won the Super Bowl.

After a magnificent season, Ryan might be remembered most for the game he lost. The loss for the Falcons marked the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history and is sure to leave an empty feeling in the stomach of Ryan and his teammates the entire off-season.

The gritty Falcons should use this disappointment to fuel their fire going into the 2017 regular season.

The lost surely put a damper on what was a spirited effort for Atlanta sparked by a young defense that made plays early and often. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones set the tone early with a strip and forced fumble that was recovered by cornerback Robert Alford. Then Alford read Brady as he was pressured by Dwight Freeney, picked off the pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown at 21-0 lead.

Dan Quinn, in his second season as the Falcons head coach after winning a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, lamented the team’s inability to get a stop when they needed one during the Patriot’s late rally.

“I think for sure we ran out of gas some,” Quinn said. “The Patriots executed terrifically. When they got hot, it was hard for us to deal with.”

That said, Quinn was proud of the way his team battled together in their quest for their first NFL title in the 51st season for the Falcons.

“I am proud of the fight that these guys have.”  he said. “The brotherhood that this group has built, it’s as strong as I’ve seen.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII