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SOME THINGS TO PONDER WHILE WADING THROUGH THE SUPER BOWL HYPE

We're trying something different here today. We're asking for your time to tempt you with a few thoughts not related to football on this, the sport's longest day.

These are by no means full-term opinions, just some thoughts that might grow up to be columns some day. Enjoy them along with the three different cheese dips, four brands of sausage and 13 useless hours devoted to pregame Super Bowl hype.

UB continues to play wait-and-see with basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon. Normally I'd say this is good strategy. UB certainly doesn't have a sports management team in place that is experienced enough to make a long-term decision on a coach who may or may not be exactly what's right for the fledgling program.

There's not a whole lot to lose in letting Witherspoon, an interim coach who stepped in from Erie Community College to rescue a program that was at the brink of chaos, play his cards right through the end of the season. There is no hue and cry from a student body or alumni groups who are apparently so conditioned to accept the 'growing pains' excuse that they'll let just about anything go, including a Division I football program that hasn't yet begun to compete.

Having said that, however, UB would be wise for once to dump the national search routine and commit to a local coach with a good track record, a solid grasp of the Xs and Os of coaching and a definite rapport with a mixed bag of players. Simply put: Give and give the job to Witherspoon.

This area isn't a basketball hotbed, but at last count there were 26 kids who claim Western New York as their home and were playing in Division I programs this season. If UB could capture just two or three of the top WNY prospects every season it would quickly be able to establish a reputation of sorts in the local basketball community. Supplement those recruits with one or two decent prospects willing to take a chance on an institution that is unknown in the roundball world, but does provide for a good level of play and a decent education and suddenly you've got the makings of a program.

Witherspoon can do that. He has strong ties to the local kids both from his days at Sweet Home and ECC and his summer basketball programs. He's respected, he's even charismatic and caring. At this stage of UB's athletic redevelopment the focus should be on building. Building ties with the Buffalo community and building a program that's based on homegrown talent is both a simple and effective first step. Witherspoon can do both.

Dominik Hasek is coming back and all's right in the Sabres' world.

I don't buy it. Assuming Hasek does get back into the lineup soon, he's not going to replace the goal or two per game that the Sabres need to turn a close loss into a close win.

His absence has hurt, even in ways not imagined -- leadership and mental toughness come immediately to mind -- but the facts of hockey are these: The Sabres don't score. The power play is abysmal and the team has not had enough players step into leadership roles to compensate for his absence. Oh, and one more thing. Other teams got better as the Sabres opted to stand pat.

Producing goals was the problem when the Sabres failed in the playoffs after winning the Northeast Division under Ted Nolan. It was the problem when the Sabres failed after getting to the Eastern Conference finals two seasons ago. It was the problem when they failed in the Stanley Cup finals last spring.

In most of those years Hasek gave his very best. He is not younger, not better and certainly not as durable as he was back then. It's time Hasek stopped carrying all the burden. If the Sabres are to win with Hasek in goal he needs more talent in front of him. It's been that way for the better part of four seasons and management has yet to respond.

Small wonder Hasek's future as a Sabre is so very much in doubt.

Just how sad is that sad, sad Kevin Stevens story?

You probably know the story by now. Veteran hockey player, currently playing for the New York Rangers, has problems in his career, eventually starts to slide and suddenly finds himself arrested with crack cocaine, a crack pipe, and a prostitute in a cut-rate motel in a tough part of town.

When it's Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons or Darryl Strawberry of the New York Yankees, it's an outrage complete with moral indignation and calls for the player's head or at least the end of his career.

So far, all we've really heard in the Stevens case is what a shame, how could this happen to such a great guy, here's hoping he gets the help he needs.

Except this is Stevens' second offense. He's been through this, and rehabilitation, before. It was kept quiet back then but it's been going on for a long time.

What makes Stevens' case different? He has a wife who is working through a very difficult pregnancy. He has kids. He has had an obligation to be a better player than he has allowed himself to be.

One can only hope Stevens does get the help he needs. He really is a likable guy, but the fact remains he's hurt himself, his family and his team and now he has to answer for it.

Just like Robinson, the Straw Man and the too many athletes who have traveled this well-worn road before him.

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