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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Updated: February 19, 7:41 PM ET
Classic comparisons

By Kyle Carter
ESPNOutdoors.com

Sometimes the best way to break down something you don't know well is to compare it with something you do know well.

That's why mechanics have to know a little bit about everything. They have to diagnose the problem, explain it in real terms and then put it in simple terms like "the brain's telling it to go, but the legs just won't move."

That's why every bass fishing, figure skating, rugby or lacrosse analyst refers to the best in their sport as the "Tiger Woods of …" (or at least they used to).

So, for those of you who might not know bass fishing, and for those who do, here's a preview of the biggest bass tournament of the year, the Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake in Alabama, where the winner will take home $500,000 and become a bass fishing legend.

Yankees, Patriots, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Johnson
Kevin VanDam — He's the guy everyone mentions when asked to pick a favorite. Anglers check their names on the standings compared with his.

He's good enough that in three years of covering bass fishing, I haven't heard a single Jean-Claude joke. He's KVD.

Drew Brees
Skeet Reese — The defending Classic champ has never been able to do enough to receive the respect he deserves within the sport, but people are starting to come around. Reese is from California, has spiky hair (when he has hair) and likes the bass thumping in his truck as much as he likes catching bass on the water.

But he was one fish away from winning the biggest tournament of the year (Classic) in '07. He was Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year in '08. He won the Classic in '09 and was one fish away from following it up with another AOY title. People are just now starting to recognize he might belong in the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady category.

Philip Rivers, Andy Murray, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Michael Iaconelli — Iaconelli is the guy everyone wants to talk about, and everyone either likes him or hates him. Ask a speechless bass fan what he thinks of Ike and he'll either smile big and nod or give you the finger.

It took three names to try to place him. No one signs more autographs. I once watched Ike promise a man an autograph before getting pulled into a meeting. When he came out of the meeting 20 minutes later, he saw the same guy standing 100 yards down a hill and chased him down to make good.

That's the same guy who got frustrated in the 2006 Classic and proceeded to kick all things kickable and release a string of obscenities that had the Hell's Angels trying to settle him down. Whether it's kindness or anger, he's raw emotion and you'd remember him if you met him.

Los Angeles Lakers, Indianapolis Colts, Phil Mickelson, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Cardinals
Dean Rojas (8 Classics)
Terry Scroggins (7)
Alton Jones (13)
Kelly Jordon (8)
Jeff Kriet (6)
Aaron Martens (11)
Mike McClelland (7)
Bobby Lane (3)

You expect these guys to do well. A win from anyone this group would be a life-changing event, and if they get on a roll or the competition doesn't show up (see: Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006), they have the skill to step in and claim the title.

These guys always make the Classic and two of them will finish in the top five.

1994 U.S. World Cup team, 2009 Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Cavaliers, 1980 U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid
Gerald Swindle (10 Classics)
Randy Howell (9)
Steve Kennedy (4)
Matt Herren (2)
Russ Lane (3)
Boyd Duckett (4)

In short, these guys are at home. This is their home lake. It's not to say that they aren't good anglers but the fact that this tournament is being held close to their home is as important as their skill level. Some on this list are better than others, but they're all holding a card in their deck the rest of the field doesn't have.

The difference between this group and the 2009 Vikings is sometimes in fishing, knowing a lake really well can actually hurt. When anglers fish based on their history with the lake instead of what's happening at the moment, it can turn on them.

The pressure of people expecting them to do well can be too much to handle.

Brett Favre
Denny Brauer (20 Classics)

You could call Gary Klein the Dan Marino of bass fishing.
The one flaw of this comparison is that Brauer has yet to retire (or unretire), but the rest is pretty solid. He's been around forever, has one title under his belt and everybody's wondering if he still has it.

Brauer is a legend in the sport and is fishing against a lot of guys who idolized him growing up. He has facial hair, likes hunting and wears No. 4 (made that part up, he actually wears No. 7). And how about that last name? Commonly misspelled. These guys might have been separated at birth.

Dan Marino
Gary Klein (28 Classics)

This one isn't a hard sell. Klein's an incredible angler — one of the most respected in the world — but he has yet to win the Classic.

This will be his 28th Classic. That is not easy to do. It would be like making the playoffs in the NBA 28 years out of the last 30. But it has produced no wins. He's come really close and says there's one in his future. Maybe it's this year.

Buffalo Bills of the early '90s
Greg Hackney (8 Classics)

He's one of the top guys and has wins on most levels in most tournaments — even some huge wins on different tours. But he hasn't been able to take that success into the Classic.

He has one solid finish, fifth in 2008, but other than that it's been pretty dark. And that's after some pretty high hopes. He was favored last year on the Red River and finished 20th. He shows up and things just don't go right.

The last decade of Spurs teams
Cliff Pace (3 Classics)
Todd Faircloth (8)

Both of these guys are extremely talented and consistent, but they are hard to remember. They don't yell from the mountaintops, dance or do controversial things. They just catch fish every day, and sometimes they win.

Pace was a good day away from winning the Classic in 2008, which was the same year Faircloth almost won the AOY title. But they play a boring game. They're Tim Duncan and his bank shots — extremely effective, but the opposite of flashy.

Zach Johnson, Gustavo Kuerten, Mark Grace
Tommy Biffle (16 Classics)
Mark Menendez (5)
Takahiro Omori (7)
Kevin Short (2)
Shaw Grigsby (12)
Brent Chapman (9)
Byron Velvick (2)
Kevin Wirth (11)
Casey Ashley (3)
Stephen Browning (6)
John Murray (6)
Jason Quinn (5)
Mark Tucker (7)

These are all solid professional anglers. Some of them have specialties like Kuerten on clay, but for the most part, these are the guys who are really, really good at catching bass. Any of them could win, but for most, winning the Classic would be a career maker.

Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals
Scott Ashmore (1 Classic)
James Niggemeyer (2)
Cliff Crochet (1)
Frank Scalish (2)
Kotaro Kiriyama (6)
Jami Fralick (3)

These anglers are solid, they're here to win, but in reality, they're happy to make it to the dance and know that they're a long shot to win. It would take the three best fishing days of their lives.

But it's possible — Fralick proved that a year ago (see below).

Jamie McMurray at Daytona, George Mason in 2006 NCAA tournament
Billy McCaghren (1 Classic)
Terry Butcher (1)

If someone from this group wins, it would be a prime example of just how big winning the Classic can be. It would be a true rags-to-riches story. You have to be good to make the Classic, so both are capable, but they'll need the tournament of their lives.

Fralick tasted what could be last year when he led the Classic after two days, which is something people still talk about when they bring up his name. Charlie Hartley led after Day 1 in 2008 and has been riding that high, at least from the public's standpoint, ever since.

And those were single days. This marks the first Classic for both of these anglers and a win would make their careers.

Jami Fralick
Jami Fralick made his mark on the 2008 Classic.
Los Angeles Clippers, "Rudy," Milwaukee Brewers
Randy Phillips (1 Classic)
Don Hogue (1)
Jody Adkins (1)
Brent Long (2)
Jeff Freeman (2)
Bryan Schmidt (2)
Pam Martin-Wells (1)

It's sad that you can put two professional organizations alongside "Rudy," but that's where we are. Most members of this group are fishing their first Classic and all but one qualified through the amateur ranks of the Federation Nation (Martin-Wells qualified through the Women's Bassmaster Tour).

A win by any of these would be true underdog stories worthy of a movie.

Vince Papale
Darrell West (1 Classic)

West winning the Classic would be like your neighbor, who plays golf every weekend and is a ringer in club tournaments, winning the Masters.

It shouldn't happen, but why not, right? You've seen him rock the pin at the muni.