“Shaquille O’Neal.” Those words used to instill fear in the minds of opponents as well as coaches. Today, when you hear that name, the first thought is not of powerful dunks or scoring titles or dominance on the boards, but rather stunts in Harvard Square and gimmicky prose via twitter. When asked in his pre-game press conference what Shaq brings to the Celtics, Lakers coach Phil Jackson deadpanned, “Humor.”

And Phil was right. Shaq’s box score read much like a punchline: 0 points, 5 fouls, 13 minutes. Oh, how the Big Leprechaun has fallen.

For eight seasons, Shaq donned the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers. He won three titles and three NBA finals MVP awards. He was the fan favorite, a larger than life personality. Right out of central casting for Tinseltown. But that was before stops in Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and now Boston. The boisterous chants of “MVP” that used to ring through the rafters at Staples were replaced with calls of “Traitor” and “Retire, already.” “Hack-a-Shaq” has become “Shaq The Hack.”

In a career that has taken him from the New York Knicks to the Chicago Bulls to the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson has had one consistent nemesis -- the Boston Celtics. He was asked if he owned anything green. After pausing for a moment, he said he used to have a green Mercedes. It was “Diesel.”

And that’s the last time you’ll hear the words “Shaq” and “Diesel” in the same press conference.

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Nobody was more surprised at Jeff Fisher’s departure than the player who needed his leadership most. “I heard they fired Coach Fisher,” said Adam “Pacman” Jones, “and I was like, ‘What?!’”

Fisher’s players didn’t often make the wrong kind of headlines, but Jones did. What most fans don’t know is how hard Jones tried to get on the right track and how hard Fisher tried to help him.

“We had kind of a father-son relationship,” Jones said Friday from his apartment in Cincinnati. “He was hard on me, but he let me know he was there for me.”

We all know about Jones’ past issues. He was on probation for a fight in West Virginia even when he was drafted by the Titans in 2005. He was as good at getting into trouble as he was at returning kicks. But behind the scenes, Jones and Fisher forged a bond that didn’t make the papers.

“He never turned his back on me,” said Jones. “He came to my house several times. I could go to him and talk to him about anything. And I did. I got to a point in Tennessee where I ran out of options on my own and I turned to him. Coach Fisher was a great person. Great about caring, great about calling. Can’t get any better than him.”

Jones is now with the Bengals, and although a neck injury cut short his season, he’s clearly in a much better place now -- in part because of Fisher.

“I have no idea why they [fired him],” he says. “It’s gotta be the dumbest move ever. But that’s how they do things in Tennessee. It can be very weird down there. I still can’t believe it. But you know, things happen. I guess they fired me.”

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is out of the office. He’s in someone’s living room, promising a nervous parent that he will take care of his teenage boy and turn him into a man. He is probably saying something about responsibility and honor and doing the right thing. That’s the Iowa way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the Ferentz way. Thirteen of Ferentz’s players were admitted to the hospital after conditioning workouts brutal enough to turn their urine brown. They may be there for up to a week. That’s not one kid who had a big breakfast and got sick after a couple of suicides. That’s an entire first-team plus two backups.

Here’s a portion of the press release: “The Hawkeye football players admitted to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics were all participating in NCAA allowable winter workouts. The symptoms, for which the student-athletes are being treated, are likely related to those workouts.” Guess there’s no “I” in Iowa. And the Iowa coach apparently didn’t need to show up at the press conference to address the situation. He was out bringing in more talent. He was out talking about responsibility and honor and doing the right thing. Recruits should ask Ferentz to define those terms.

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that time athletes spend with fans and media is not just “giving back;” it’s an investment. Jay Cutler is learning that the hard way now. His aloof, sometimes dismissive treatment of interviewers and sometimes teammates is now coming back to haunt him in the worst way. When LaDainian Tomlinson left an NFL playoff game in 2008 against the Patriots and sat alone on the sideline behind the dark visor of his helmet, some questioned his character. But that resentment passed, mostly because of LT’s success and popularity in San Diego and around the league. Now, in 2011, Cutler is facing the same situation, having left Sunday's NFC championship game with a knee injury everyone is questioning.

But this scrutiny will not soon lift. A lot of people just don’t like Jay Cutler. He doesn’t seem to make an effort to reach out, and few are reaching out now to him. This is like the lessons we learned from the Tiger Woods fiasco, as a brilliant athlete had trouble redeeming himself in part because he didn’t feel the need to be a friend to the masses. LeBron James got skewered in Cleveland for similar reasons. Jim McMahon got hurt a lot, Bears fans remember, but he’s still beloved today as a brawler who happened to play quarterback. This Bears starter won’t be remembered the same way. Is Cutler seriously hurt? Yes he is; he suffers from a ruptured reputation.

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They waited too long.

All the emotion was with the Jets going into Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. So where was it in a first half featuring a defense that couldn’t “stop a nosebleed” (or Rashard Mendenhall), and an offense producing 77 yards in 30 minutes? If they played with emotion for just five minutes of that first half, they would’ve won. Because in the second half, they found it. The defense gave up zero points. Sanchez did everything he could. Countless guys fought through injuries. But no matter how big your heart is, you can’t win if you’re only there for half the battle. Not against that defense and that quarterback. During the first half, the Jets weren’t there. They were lifeless shadows of themselves. In the second half, they looked like the champions they were so close to becoming, with a will stronger than any 21-point deficit.

It was too late.

They waited too long to show up. As a result, Jets fans will have to keep waiting for the day when this team will finally stop breaking their hearts. Forty-three years. Right now, it feels like the waiting will never end.

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As the Jets return to Pittsburgh, their fans can’t forget the stinging memory of the last playoff game they played at Heinz Field -- the 2004 divisional matchup, when Doug Brien missed two game-winning field goals, delivering one of the most heartbreaking losses in Jets history.

Six years later, a lot of things have changed about the organization, but the presence of an unreliable kicker remains. Nick Folk is a “Folk Hero” one second, “Folk the Choke” the next. He won the game in Indianapolis, but missed a 30-yarder in Foxborough. In a stadium haunted by field-goal kickers past, a quasi-reliable kicker isn’t enough. When this game goes down to the wire, I want it in Mark Sanchez’s hands, not at Nick Folk’s feet.

Note to the Jets: Don’t play for the field goal -- they’re never safe. If it’s 4th and goal with seconds left in the fourth quarter and you’re down by three, go for it. As Herm Edwards would say, “Play to win the game.” (“Hellooo!”) Don’t break hearts the same old way. Don’t count on Nick Folk, not with the memory of Doug Brien lingering between those uprights. Don’t be the Same Old Jets.

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Everyone's thinking about the NFL playoffs, but a lot of football destinies are about to play out in Orlando and Mobile. The East-West Shrine Game is this week, and the Senior Bowl comes right after. NFL scouts will be grilling and grading the nation's top future pros. And believe it or not, some names are already making a name based on good interviews or bad vibes. I went to my first Senior Bowl in 2000, and I was on the field interviewing Jon Gruden when I started hearing murmurs about a guy from the University of New Mexico with a strange name. Slowly but surely, scouts and coaches started gathering near a defensive drill, where the prospect in question was clearly dominating. I spotted his name: "Urlacher." The future Bear became the talk of the hotel lobby, and 11 years later, the "guy from New Mexico" is a game away from his second Super Bowl. The next Brian Urlacher is about to blow up, maybe as you read this sentence.

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Rich Rodriguez has donated his Michigan gear to the Salvation Army. Classy. And a nice way to leave a place that didn’t always treat him right. Truth is, Poor RichRod’s Almanac started closing before he even got to town. People just didn’t embrace him. He was too … different. And it didn’t matter that he recruited one of the better examples of a student-athlete that exists in America, Denard Robinson. Some of the same fans who wanted Drew Henson over Tom Brady cheered when Tate Forcier replaced the injured Big Ten Offensive MVP at quarterback. Now those fans have a native son in Brady Hoke instead of an outsider.

Hoke will do well because his mistakes will be forgiven where Rodriguez’s weren’t. Already, Hoke’s mediocre record at non-AQ schools is being justified, while Rodriguez’s impressive record in the Big East was constantly trashed. Hoke is being praised for keeping Robinson, when Rodriguez stole him from Urban Meyer and others in the first place. The whole thing reminds me of Colorado, where a Bo Schembechler disciple (Bill McCartney) was replaced by an offensive wizard (Rick Neuheisel) who nobody trusted. “Slick Rick” was underwhelming in the win-loss record and eventually banished in favor of insider Gary Barnett. He arrived in Boulder to wild praise and promised a “Return To Dominance.” Sound familiar? Well, Colorado never returned to dominance. We’ll see if Michigan does.

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Pat Shurmur sure has a coaching lineage. But can he throw? Block? Run? Catch? No. It’s going to take at least two years for the Browns to get the necessary talent in place – and those decisions will not be made principally by Shurmur. So he’s up against the same culture of doubt and delay that Chris Palmer and Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini faced. Cleveland simply doesn’t believe it’s going to work out in the end. So the city and its fans feature a blend of impatience and downright fear. The panic button is so easy to press. It’s never far away. Who can say if Bill Belichick could have worked his magic if given a little more time with the Browns? We’ll never know. So can Shurmur coach? We might never find out.

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Jim Harbaugh is one of the hottest coaching candidates in recent memory. Let's discuss some of the others: Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Pete Carroll. How'd those guys do?

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