5 Thoughts, Sept. 5
| Like Us
Week 2 Thoughts
2010 5 Thoughts | Week 1
- Fiutak: The business on the
field matters more than ever
- Cirminiello: The Big Ten's
- Zemek: Coaching evaluation
after two weeks
Sallee: South Carolina is legit
- Zemek: What's with all the
By Matt Zemek
College football, having just 12 regular-season games, is the American sport with the smallest competitive sample size. Given that its players stick around for just three or four years, it’s that much harder to get a read on programs as they evolve over multiple seasons. Everything changes year after year for the coaches, too, but even after just two weeks, everything gets magnified.
At Auburn in 2011, the coach is the one who is winning. Gene Chizik has simply instilled in his team a level of belief that’s unshakable. Yes, that belief might become meaningless when more talented opponents play the Tigers, but for now, it’s already apparent that Chizik has created a subculture of total trust on the Plains. Without Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, Auburn’s players still trust what’s being said to them in the locker room and on the field. Chizik, as a motivator and tone-setter, has obviously gotten through to his players. In 2010, superstar players did the winning, but this year, Chizik is showing that he can handle the motivational side of the coaching craft.
At Texas, did Mack Brown win Saturday night’s game against BYU, or was it a pair of roommates who just happen to play quarterback and receiver, a pair of roommates who happen to have accomplished older brothers playing in the NFL? Brown gets credit for pulling the trigger and inserting Case McCoy into the contest, but the biggest key was McCoy’s ability to connect with Jaxon Shipley. When two members of accomplished football families walk on the field and immediately replicate the rapport their older brothers established, it’s hard to say that something unique to the art of coaching was at work in those pitch-and-catch moments. Mack Brown did allow that chemistry to emerge by giving McCoy his shot, but once that move happened, even he couldn’t have known or expected just how magical the two younger brothers would be.
Then, on the other side of winning, the other side of a coach’s existence, consider Notre Dame and Georgia. These two teams, through two games, are almost exactly the same. Their losses this past weekend against Michigan (for the Irish) and South Carolina (for the Bulldogs) were virtually identical in this one respect: The Irish and Bulldogs made lots of key plays, outperforming their opponents on a clear majority of snaps. However, when they didn’t win specific snaps, they lost big – they committed huge mistakes, not just small ones.
This can be the cruel math of football: If you lose 15 snaps by a large margin (committing red-zone turnovers, giving up 77-yard plays, or allowing defensive touchdowns precisely when you’re carrying the flow of play), those 40 snaps you won by a more modest margin cease to matter. Notre Dame and Georgia were better coached than Michigan and South Carolina on Saturday. The Irish and Bulldogs moved the ball far more consistently than the Wolverines and Gamecocks; they found weaknesses and exploited them; their staffs, led by Brian Kelly and Mark Richt, did more with their schemes and game plans than the staffs of Brady Hoke and Steve Spurrier. Yet, Notre Dame and Georgia lost for a simple reason: While dominating a strong majority of plays, they didn’t make the important plays.
It was a case of “everything but the finish,” much like Roger Federer’s loss to Novak Djokovic after having two match points late in the fifth set. When those kinds of losses emerge, can a coach really be held as centrally responsible? Did Kelly and Richt “blow it?” Not in those games – they did their jobs, only for achingly turnover-prone quarterbacks, Tommy Rees and Aaron Murray, to quite literally lose hold of the advantages the Irish and Bulldogs had established.
Yet, while Kelly and (especially) Richt can’t be blamed for these two specific losses, there’s an elephant in the room which has to be confronted: Someway, somehow, the prevailing subculture in the locker room – the one Gene Chizik has figured out at Auburn – is just not there in South Bend or Athens.
Compared to Richt at Georgia, Kelly is in one sense both less responsible and more responsible for what’s going on at Notre Dame. Kelly is less responsible for the Irish’s problems because he’s not coaching his own recruits (and nothing other than his own recruits). Kelly is more responsible for Notre Dame’s struggles because he has never (yet) fixed them. He lives on a ledge, caught between the desire for leniency (because he inherited a mess that needed to be cleaned up) and the pressure of not yet fulfilling the mandate he was given when he was hired in South Bend. Kelly is still early in his tenure, but the more Tommy Rees cracks in key situations, the harder it will be for Kelly to create the right competitive subculture, the environment which forms the gateway to transformation at a program.
Richt, on the other hand, is coaching his recruits. For whatever reason, he has not found the right buttons to push with his recent (post-Matthew Stafford) crop of players. Accumulations of negative experiences have somehow turned pressure from a positive motivator to an inhibitor of performance. The environment in Athens has seemingly suffocated this current batch of players – Aaron Murray in particular – with a pressure that leads to lapses in supremely significant moments. Richt
is not able to break through that fog of worry which
is preventing his players from being their best when
they need to be.
Richt DID change the competitive subculture at Georgia. He DID take a moribund, lagging program and won SEC championships for the first time since Herschel Walker donned pads for UGA. Richt DID reach three Sugar Bowls, which is more than Vince Dooley did in the 22 seasons he coached at Georgia without Herschel (1964-’79, 1983-’88). Richt has already proven his worth, so when a coaching tenure turns south, it’s hard to lay the problem at Richt’s feet. He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. Yet, the sense of malaise in Georgia is unmistakable, and that – while not something Richt did anything to create – is what must lead him to seek a fresh start at a different program in 2012.
When do coaches win? When do players win? When do coaches lose? When do players lose? The answers to these questions are very difficult to attain in a sport that lasts just 12 games and involves a revolving door of players. It takes a lot of skill to be a college football head coach, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to assess the men who put themselves squarely in the public spotlight.