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Friday, March 27, 2009

Richt's Refresher Course

There are two types of arguments: Those supported by the facts, and those supported by opinions. The beauty is -- as everything from sports to politics have taught us -- both types can and will be disputed by those with louder opinions.

For just that reason, it is always with great enjoyment that I come upon a topic of conversation that intrigues me over at Senator Blutarsky's Get the Picture blog. While the rest of the sports world revels happily in delusions, the facts still get the weight they deserve at GTP.

So, consider me in a bit of a pickle on the latest fact-based discussion, which came via ESPN's Bruce Feldman, via the Senator. Feldman presents an argument with plenty of factual ammunition. And yet, based mostly on my own opinion, I can't bring myself to believe it.

Here's the basics: Feldman wonders if college football coaches have a shelf life and puts forth the assumption that after about Year 4 or 5, the chances of a coach winning a national title decrease significantly. Recent history gives the theory a healthy dose of evidence.

* 2009 Florida: Urban Meyer's 4th year
* 2008 LSU: Les Miles' 3rd year
* 2007 Florida: Meyer's 2nd year
* 2006 Texas: Mack Brown's 8th year
* 2005 USC: Pete Carroll's 4th year
* 2004 LSU: Nick Saban's 4th year
* 2003 Ohio State: Jim Tressel's 2nd year
* 2002 Miami: Larry Coker's 1st year
* 2001 Oklahoma: Bob Stoops' 2nd year
* 2000 FSU: Bobby Bowden's 24th year
* 1999 Tennessee: Phil Fulmer's 7th year
The lone veteran on the list is Bobby Bowden, with only Phil Fulmer and Mack Brown joining him in winning a title beyond Year 4. As I'm sure Georgia fans are aware, Mark Richt is entering Year 8.

So, does the evidence here indicate that the MNC ship has sailed on CMR? (I still can't decide if I like this blogger lingo.)

According to Feldman, the theory goes a bit like this:
To me that is reflective of a couple of factors: 1.) Coaches who come in bringing a new energy to a program can have huge success; 2.) In many cases they've inherited situations with programs that have the talent base but are eager for a change in direction. (Some players initially will respond better to a hard-line staff. Others to a "players' coach". Either way, the shift can be the key.) 3.) Successful coaching staffs can get stale over time and players/recruits, just like fans, can be swayed by the next new thing around and they want to be part of a fancy turnaround project.

I like it. It starts with a hypothesis, adds evidence and concludes with a viable explanation.

But are we really to believe then that Richt stands less chance of winning a national title now than he did three years ago? Should we assume that, after four more years, the shine will be off Urban Meyer? (NOTE: He'll probably be in South Bend by then anyway.) Should you be concerned that Richt is destined to get the Fulmer treatment in a few years?

Hey, anything's possible, but I have a hard time giving this more than a, "well, that's interesting."

As Feldman points out, there is some rationale to the theory. Yes, complacency can set in for a coach, and that's a bad thing. But there are more factors at work here.

Look at the list again. Of those coaches, three had national-championship-caliber rosters when they first arrived. (Say what you want about the Zooker, but the guy could recruit.) Larry Coker, Meyer and Les Miles all took exceptional talent that was already in place and added the last ingredient to the national-title recipe.

Two other names on the list deserve a good bit of credit, but both helmed sleeping giants. The Texas and USC programs have huge recruiting advantages and by all means never should have slipped to the depths they had reached prior to Pete Carroll and Brown's arrivals.

Moreover, should winning a national championship really be the barometer by which we measure these things? It's one of Richt's favorite cliches, but the national title is really out of a coach's hands. Yes, it should be the ultimate goal each year, but what is the real difference between Georgia's 13-1 season in 2002 and Florida's 13-1 mark a year ago? (Or LSU's 12-2 the year before?)

More than just wins and losses, however, the bigger reason that fewer veteran coaches are taking their teams to national championships these days, may have a lot less to do with motivation of players and a lot more to do with money in the bank.

Over the past 10 years -- the time period Feldman looks at -- the salaries for head coaches have increased dramatically, which leads to two undeniable truths: Coaches (like Nick Saban) are more likely to jump ship for a richer deal, and schools are less likely to keep a high-paid coach in place when he's not winning. From 1993 through 1999, only Lloyd Carr won a national title at a school he had coached at for fewer than six seasons.

In essence, it's the result that proves the question. There is so little tolerance for losing among fan bases, boosters and administration now that most coaches either win a title early or they aren't around anymore by Year 8, 9 or 10.

Of course, all this is taking the long way back to my original point -- my defense is, at heart, my opinion that coaches can stick around for a while and still have a reasonable (or as reasonable as the next guy) shot at winning it all.

But who am I? If you're going to base an argument on opinion, after all, you should at least find someone whose opinion actually carries some weight. So I went straight to the man, himself. And guess what? Mark Richt seems to agree with Feldman.

"You need to revive, you need to always go back to the basics every year," Richt said. "You just can't take anything for granted. Even when you have a staff that understands what we do, how we do it."

As you may have read, Richt's plan for this season is to reinvent his approach by looking back at his early years in Athens. That's a move he wouldn't have made in years past, despite his certainty in its value now.

"There's been years where I've said, 'Men, I know what you're going to do, I know how you're going to do it, I'm not going to have to insult anybody's intelligence to say we're starting from ground zero,'" Richt said. "But this year, I said I don't particularly care if anybody's feelings get hurt. We're going to pretend like we've never done it before, and we're going to make sure we do it the Georgia way. That's the mentality with the staff and with the players and myself."

This, as much as anything else, illustrates the advantage to a veteran coach. They learn from experience.

As much as Richt wants to downplay the failures of last season -- the Dawgs did go 10-3 after all -- there was a lesson learned, and it's essentially the lesson that Feldman's article illustrates. The message does get stale. The landscape changes, and the coaching staff needs to change with it.

I see this in the newspaper business every day. There are hundreds -- thousands -- of good writers and reporters out there who won't make it in today's market. They don't know a blog from a buffalo, and they become out of touch with what it takes to succeed in the current environment.

If last year accomplished nothing else, it served as a reminder to Richt and his staff that no one can rest on their laurels and fresh ideas are invaluable. (Heck, even Richt is on Twitter now!) While Feldman's piece illustrated a trend that is tough to ignore, there's a difference between likelihood and destiny. The way to avoid the likely outcome is to learn from the past, and that's something Richt and his staff seem anxious to do.

"I think the coaches have enjoyed it actually," Richt said. "It started in the bowl practice, and it started with me. I think we've really got a lot of good momentum right now."

10 comments:

Dawg93 said...

Great insight, Dave. One other thing I noticed is that in that list of coaches only 3 had never been a head coach at any level prior to the school where they won a title (Stoops, Fulmer and Coker). Coker basically inherited a nat'l title team from Butch Davis and couldn't keep the momentum going, so he's an exception. Stoops' title is probably the most impressive, given how down in the dumps OU had become. Fulmer just ate a lot of donuts in '98.

Anyway, love the blog and agree with your overall analysis on this issue. And I love hearing that Richt and the staff are taking a back to basics approach this year.

Jon Koncak's Thighs said...

Great piece of writing, DH. Don't worry, you've got what it takes to make it in the new journalism landscape... constant content and a heaping scoop of fear about the future viability of your industry. The latter is doing wonders for my work output these days, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Your instincts here seem completely right to me and the "evidence" isn't necessarily as convincing as it seems at first. After all, how many coaches last more than four years at major BCS conference schools anyway? Thus, just counting how many fall into each category doesn't do us much good.

What we really need to know is the PERCENTAGE of all coaches who were in their first four years at a BCS conference school who won a national championship versus the PERCENTAGE of all coaches who were past their fourth year at a BCS conference school who did so. Then we would have figures we could reasonably compare.

DawgCPA said...

Great post DH. I would only add that I believe a great coach is a great coach. Period. CMR is a great coach. (Oh, did I mention he also happens to be a great man as well?)

I totally agree with CMR's perspective that the MNC is out of his control. The only thing he can do is put the team in position to be considered for the MNC. There is no substantial, controllable difference in Georgia's 13-1 versus Floriduh's 13-1 or Loser State U's 12-2. The difference is outside their influence, i.e. what did the other teams do?

I agree that in coaching, as in every single other industry, one's approach can become stale. CMR recognizes that. Leaders recognize that. Great leaders alter the course. He's done that. Recognition is one thing. Change is something else. Change you can believe in. (Oh wait... I had the Koolaid at lunch!) Anyway, I believe CMR and staff are doing what needs to be done to put the team in position for consideration. Winning the East and the SEC Championship is within their power. Now let's go get it!

Gooooo Dawgs! Sic 'em! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!

Bernie said...

Great points preceded by a great post. I'll only add that today's society scares me with the instant gratification and me me ME attitudes. I see parents instilling it in their children each day - frightening.

It's also a frightening proposition for my beloved Dawgs. Like DawgCPA said, CMR is a great man. To lose him because he had not snapped his fingers and produced a MNC would be the equivalent to a heartbreak for me. I come from an era when a win often came unexpectedly and was something to celebrate richly, now it's expected each week.

Don't get me wrong. I want that "crystal ball" as much the fan sitting next to me. If I was brought to tears when we finally beat Spurrier in '97, I'm quite sure the next Nat'l Title would stir some emotions that reside pretty deep inside me.

But I don't lust it so voraciously that I'm willing to see the program risk several steps backwards.

Hobnail_Boot said...

Escalating coaching salaries, less patient athletic departments, more demanding fanbases, and the BCS making a national title the focus of most major programs have all been major factors in the decreasing average term length for "major program" coaches.

Richt is in the minority; that is, a coach who stays on top of his game and prefers to stay at one place. Other examples include Mack Brown and Frank Beamer.

Anonymous said...

A plane has the exact same risk of falling from the sky each time it flies. CMR has as good a chance as the others each season. Save for OSU Houdini acts in 02 and UTs incredible luck in 3 games in 07, and UGA is in the Championship game, where they would ahve handled either UM 02 or OSU 07. Luck of the draw is a funny thing, but good poker players put themselves in position to win a few more hands than the other guy even with that uncontrollable factor. He'll win one or two before it is all said and done.

Anonymous said...

DH-you have what it takes to remain . I am a 79 UGA Grad live in North Carolina and go to you first for info.I found myself pulling for your Orange last night just because of all you do for the DAWGS.

David Hale said...

Thanks, Anon. Now, if only you could have played small forward for them as well!

Anonymous said...

The statistics do not paint the whole picture. Only 3 schools that have won national championships in the last 20 years won their first widely recognized national championship since 1925. (Colorado, FSU, UF) See http://collegefootball.about.com/od/nationalchampions/a/champions-list_2.htm
Further, no team has won its first national championship since 1925 in the last ten years.

Considering this, there is likely at least an 85% chance that any national champion in the next ten years will come from the group of schools that have already won at least one “widely recognized” national championship since 1925.

Of those 31 schools, only two, Florida State and Penn State have a coach who has been at the school more than 10 years. (I may have missed one.) Only 10 of these schools have a coach whose tenure began before 2004, (FSU, PSU, OSU, OU, Texas, USC, UGA, Iowa, Maryland, and TCU).

So only 1/3 of the schools that are likely to win the next MNC have a coach that has over 5 years at his current school and only 1/15 of the schools likely to win the next MNC have been at their schools more than 10 years.

The statistics cited may say more about the length of tenure at schools competing for national championships than the effectiveness of a coach in his first few years.

Still doesn't mean that good coaches don't find ways to maximize the talent they have regardless of how long they have been at a school.

JL

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