Athletes or Coaching?
This is the chicken or egg version of college football. In reading preseason publications and watching several television previews for this upcoming season I can't help but be struck by the divergence between these two poles.
The straw that broke the camel's back was probably a recent viewing of ESPN "The U" national college football preview with John Cooper and Todd McShay. In discussing USC and their possibilities of repeating, Cooper commented that the Trojans did not have a cakewalk back to the national title game; the loss of so many quality coaches would be an obstacle to overcome. He further noted the greatest loss on the team was not a player but rather Norm Chow whose offensive mastery had allowed Pete Carroll to obsess on the defense. McShay disagreed, believing the Trojans will hardly miss a beat without the coaches who have departed. The key for him was the athletes; USC will miss several All American defensive leaders more than anyone standing on the sidelines.
So, the question is – who is right? Is it John Cooper who constantly harped on recruiting athletes and playmakers at Ohio State but when push comes to shove sees coaching as the key? Or, is McShay correct by noting with enough athletes one can overcome a great many scheme or coaching limitations?
Cooper has this one right.
For starters, if it was only about getting the most athletes then Cooper would probably have at least two and possibly three national titles to his name. That is not meant as a bash on him; it is merely a statement of fact. There is no way Michigan State (led by Nick Saban) should have defeated the 1998 Buckeye team, and the same can be said for the 1995 and 1996 games against Michigan. If it were only about talent, then Mack Brown would currently have a six-game winning streak against Bob Stoops and Oklahoma instead of a five-game losing skid. Brown would also have roundly defeated Bobby Bowden on more than one occasion while coaching at North Carolina.
If it were only about talent.
The fact of the matter is, if wins were merely based talent and not coaching, then no university would ever fire their head coach. They would find someone they liked and their alumni embraced and keep him until he retired. If the football team suffered a few too many losses, they would axe the recruiting coordinator. In fact, a dynamic recruiting coordinator would be the most sought after person in short order. In keeping with their status the salaries would rise and soon dwarf the head coach since he would be little more than a figurehead whey they determined wins and losses. Urban Meyer would not have been the object of more attention than an attractive girl at an all boys school this past off-season; Notre Dame and Florida would have instead focused their efforts on landing his recruiting coordinator.
Does talent play a part?
You bet. It would be an overstatement of the worst sort to maintain talent did not win football games. No matter what kind of coach Jim Tressel might be, he simply can't teach Ted Ginn, Jr. to take a slant against Michigan State and use it to give the Buckeyes the lead. Bob Stoops couldn't teach Adrian Peterson to spin off a tackle and sprint 70 yards for a score. Pete Carroll or Walt Harris would not have been able to dream up the kind of physical domination by receivers Mike Williams and Larry Fitzgerald. Lou Holtz could not have scripted the kick returns of ‘Rocket' Ismail on any chalkboard known to man.
However, talent alone cannot begin to explain the following:
- How can Jim Tressel win a national title in two years and beat Michigan three out of four when no coach other than Woody Hayes managed that feat in the last 25 years? How can he win five national titles in his career – more than any other I-AA or I-A coach currently on the sidelines? He didn't have that much more talent and sometimes had less than opponents.
- Why can Kirk Ferentz average 10 wins a season at Iowa, including a shellacking of Ohio State in 2004 and a beating of epic proportions against Michigan in 2003?
- Explain Lou Holtz's ability to take South Carolina to the Outback Bowl and defeat Ohio State in back to back seasons. Surely their talent level is not and has not ever been that of the Buckeyes.
- Tell me how Jeff Tedford can transform California into an instant winner after they suffered terrible recruiting classes and maintained their role as a doormat of the Pac Ten for decades. Matters were so bad that Tom Holmoe won just 16 games in his five seasons before being replaced by Tedford. His winning percentage was a sickly .291 compared to Tedford's .658.
- Show me why Bob Stoops has been to three national title games and is 60-7 over the last five years when his predecessor John Blake went 12-22. Sure the Big 12 might not be all it is cracked up to be, but even so, that is pretty impressive considering several Nebraska and all of the Texas teams have had more overall talent than the Oklahoma Sooner squads.
- How can Urban Meyer turn first Bowling Green and then Utah into almost instant winners? At Bowling Green, Gary Blackney went 3-8 in 1997, 5-6 in 1998 and 1999, and finished 2-9 in 2000; Meyer proceeded to win 8 games in 2001 and 9 in 2002.
An even larger question is - if it were just about talent or even mainly about talent, then how would there be upsets? College football players and programs would not even have to play the game. Only when teams had virtually equal talent would the teams have to take the field. Northwestern would not have defeated Ohio State in 2004 or Michigan in 2000. Oklahoma State could not have ruined Oklahoma's season in 2001 and 2002, and UCLA would have played for a national title against Tennessee in 1998. The regular season would become essentially meaningless. Instead of going through the charade, programs like Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Miami, Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas would simply face off in a round robin tournament because clearly nobody else would hand them a loss…ever…right?
So where is the middle ground? Clearly it does take talent to win a national title, but it takes more than just having ‘playmakers' or ‘athletes.' The reality is great coaching both develops and equips the talented players to meet and exceed expectations. The result of this genius is to raise the profile of a particular program – which allows the coach greater access to even better athletes. This becomes a cyclical effect which feeds upon itself, and the head coach now has the firepower not only to win a national title but also to sustain a program. Even in lean seasons with injuries and scandal the excellent coach is still able to scratch out a better than .500 record and compete in games they should not.
Still, there is a flip side to this coin. There are coaches in college football who appear to lean more heavily on talent. They beat less talented teams like a rented mule but find themselves coming apart at the seams like a cheap garment when faced with an equally talented but better coached program. Mack Brown of Texas and John L. Smith of Michigan State are a two that immediately jump to mind. Both generally find themselves on the losing end to teams who had no business defeating them and do so fairly regularly. Smith's teams shoot themselves in the collective foot with foolish penalties while Brown has never won a conference or national championship of any kind despite having embarrassing riches of talent.
Still, in the end there is a reason coaches are hired and fired, and it's more than simply finding a scapegoat. Schools, fans, alumni, and athletic directors recognize that winning and losing most often are separated by schemes. If it were just about talent and not X and O and leadership, then schools
On any given day, the coach and his staff will account for at least 7 points and probably 14 or more. When equally talented teams are facing off, this can and will make the difference in most cases. Talent without coaching will lose every time, but talent with coaching is a fearsome foe to face.