Tennessee fans this fall have witnessed some of the finest posturing and finger pointing since John Travolta took the floor in Saturday Night Fever. To make matters worse, once fans or players or coaches have decided where the blame lies, it can feed a vicious cycle that can swirl, ultimately, into a "lost season". Players can begin to think, "It doesn't matter how hard I work, we're doomed by the poor play calling and strategy;" while the inner voice in the coaches mind might say "I can draw up the best game plan and we can practice over and over, but the players will somehow find a way to blow it." Self-fulfilling prophecies once this mentality sets in. When that happens, it is both coaching and execution that are at fault and there is no calculus to assign percentage blame.
I don't know how much I truly know about football, but the aspect of the game I know best is how losing football teams behave. First, my credentials: After losing only one game in a legendary junior high career, my high school football team managed records of 6-4, 3-7, 3-7, and 3-7. I could attempt to explain that in some of those seasons the entire roster was only 17 players, but the bottom line is we were bad. Very bad. My college career saw no real improvement as we had records of 4-7, 4-7, and 7-5 during the years I played. The best team I ever played on finished the regular season 7-4, never cracked the AP Top 20, and lost the Independence Bowl to Ole Miss. I know bad football like William Shatner knows bad singing. If my teams hadn't been so bad, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to play as much as I did, so, for me, it was a good thing. In the early 1990's, I was a volunteer (that means unpaid) assistant during the pre-season for a Division I-AA team. Due to league rules and an assistant coach's illness, the team was short on staff compared to most programs, so I helped out with backs and return men one year. I was probably worth about what I was paid. The team went 2-8. I know bad football.
When a team knows that it is bad, every week is more-or-less the same. You go through preparations and practices and, while there may be some twist or nuance in the opponents offense or defense, the main focus is on improving your own performance. There is little time spent by coaches on coming up with great plays, you just work on the ones you know and try to get them right. There were usually so many mistakes from the prior game to correct, that the coaching was hands on. Fundamentals. It is true that players must execute, but coaches are responsible for teaching them how to execute, and, this is the twist that's sometimes forgotten, for knowing what they are capable of executing. As a former OC of mine was prone to say, "No use learning any new plays until we can get the few we do know right at least half the time". This doesn't mean that there were never any changes week-to-week, it just means that the emphasis was on teaching the basics. Over and over.
Knowing bad football has helped me to distinguish bad coaching from bad players or bad execution. Texas Tech was just never going to compete with Miami in 1986. The best team I ever played on, lost to Miami 61-11. That wasn't bad coaching. Truth is, we were fundamentally sound that day in the Orange Bowl. We could have had Rockne, Halas, Landry, Neyland and Bryant coaching us and we might have pulled within 20 of Testaverde, Irvin, Blades, and company. We just did not have the horses to play that level of football.
When the talent level is reasonably even, as it generally is at elite programs, however, coaching becomes the difference. In those circles, bad football doesn't come from talent gaps.
Too much is made, I believe, of actual gameday coaching and play calling. It is part of the game and does make the difference in a game or two each year. If you listen to the talking heads on television, though, you might think that football is like a game of chess and the Grand Masters are strategists who deftly move their pieces around the field. There are great coaching innovators, the sorts of guys who can win consistently with less talent or who more often beat their elite equals, but most winning coaches are winning coaches because they simply have better players. Success breeds success in college football. If you win big, you usually recruit big. There is a reason the same teams are generally in the Top 25 every year. Recruiting isn't the whole story, else we could just crown national championships in February, but it is a necessary ingredient.
Somewhere between recruiting the best players to your campus and making the right calls on Saturday lies the real meat of college football coaching. Evaluating talent isn't just watching film on high schoolers, it is looking at your own players and deciding who plays what position, who starts and who doesn't. There is more art than science to this. Some coaches have a great eye for potential, spotting a DB, for instance, that's a bit slow but who has the frame to add muscle and become a great WLB. Other coaches just don't have the eye or the ability to develop players. Tim Couch should have never, ever run an option offense at Kentucky. Bill Curry didn't recognize that. Hal Mumme did. If Troy Aikman had stayed with Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, today he might be Troy the car salesman, rather than Troy with three Super Bowl rings.
The next key to good coaching is the ability to teach the game. Great players rarely make good coaches. Perhaps because so much of the game came effortlessly to them, they never went through the mechanics of learning what to do and how to do it. Some of the best teachers in the game were poor players and some, like Charlie Weis at Notre Dame or Mike Leach at Texas Tech, never played the game beyond high school. Teaching football requires special skills that must be developed and practiced. It is hands-on coaching at the primitive level. Some position coaches are masters at communicating with young men, individualizing the approach to help them develop to their best potential. Others continue to use the same way of explaining and the same drills, and can't figure out why "the kids aren't getting it". Players instantly know who the best teachers are. They're the ones who work just as hard as the players do to get things right. They'll run through walls for those guys.
One other misunderstood point about coaching: Motivation is even more overrated than gameday strategy. If you ever get a chance to listen to recordings of some of Knute Rockne's famous pre-game and halftime speeches, you can't believe how corny they are. "Listen men, we're gonna fight. Fight! Fight! Fight! And then we're gonna fight some more and we're not gonna give up until the game is over!" Any player who needs a speech or motivational story to get going before a game shouldn't bother taping up. Players are motivated when they strap up and hear the band. Most former players still get a lump in their throats and an adrenaline surge every time they hear the national anthem play pre-game. But while motivation may be overrated, managing a team's emotion is not. As the father of five (soon to be six), I can tell you it isn't always easy to know when you should hug the kid and when you should spank his bottom. (I usually do both, just to cover my bases.) Coaches need to know when to encourage and when to challenge. Different players respond in different ways. It can't always be pats on the back. I became a halfway-decent fullback and punt returner because I was literally afraid to go back to the sideline and face my coaches if I matadored a block or if I muffed a kick. If they had merely clapped and said, "We'll get ‘em next time." I don't think I would have been as effective.
Good coaches also know how to develop a team mentality and promote team leaders since players will always respond better to their teammates than they will to any outsider. Team-driven discipline and motivation trumps the best of speeches and pep rallies. In the college game, the team dynamics change every year. A coaching mistake in maintaining a "team" atmosphere can be poisonous to the team's performance. If the players aren't together, then brilliant X's and O's won't make a difference. The Philadelphia Eagles have at long last recognized that an extremely talented wide receiver can have a net negative effect on a team. A primadonna player who is "me-first" and who hurts team chemistry needs to be told he has no future.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". So begins Leo Tolstoy's, Anna Karenina. My version of this is that winning football teams are all alike; every losing team is miserable in its own way. The offensive linemen at USC may be overweight, but since they are winning, no one complains. Texas QB Vince Young has terrible mechanics and throws off the wrong foot, but since they are undefeated, Texas fans aren't up in arms about it. Alabama's offense has scored only one touchdown in their last three SEC games, but at 9-0, Tide fans are fine with that.
At every school that is highly ranked (or at least exceeding expectations) fans are calculating BCS points and plotting what bowl bids they'll vie for. Football is fun and all is right with the world.
At schools where losing football is going on, there are plenty of opinions of what the problem is. Read our message boards and count the theories for Tennessee's flop. Defenders of the status quo (or at least the coaching staff) will argue that the critics are all wrong. Truth is, the critics are all right, to some degree. There are problems and there are reasons the team is losing. It is hard for the coaching staff, the fans, the players, or the media to point out one root cause, because there probably isn't just one.
Players are at fault. Sometimes they make mistakes. Motivation is at fault. Heads aren't always screwed on straight. Fundamental teaching is at fault. Basic football skills of blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and ball carrying are not where they should be. Discipline is at fault. The best discipline is internal self-discipline but since few will have that in sufficient supply, the team and the coaching need to provide it. Team unity is at fault. Losing only exaggerates rifts and cliques. X's and O's are at fault. When nothing else is ideal, individual plays and mistakes become highlighted.
When too many things are wrong, coaches, especially head coaches and coordinators, need to have a "buck stops here" philosophy. Pointing fingers at "execution" doesn't excuse the coaches. The inability to execute is as much a coaching problem as anything else. The players need to be selected, motivated, taught, and disciplined to execute well or they need to be given an environment where they can execute. In the words of my college defensive coordinator, Spike Dykes, "If we can't do this right, then we need to be doing something else."
To their credit, several Vol players have gone out of their way during radio and print interviews to praise the coaching game plans and to say that "players have to make plays". Given opportunity to shift blame to the coaches, the Vols have consistently avoided the bait. Taking the responsibility for bad plays and game outcomes on their shoulders, these guys have shown maturity. Until you are willing to step up and accept your share of the responsibility, it is all too easy to sit back and point fingers.
At least we know the program's media coaching on how to handle interviews and tough questions has been stellar. You can see it in the players' execution.