Did you ever encounter a sports story that just confirmed everything you thought about someone or something? A perfect illustration as to how you feel about a figure? A representation of Plato's Theory of Forms?
Michigan State hiring Jim Bollman as its offensive coordinator fits that description for me. Dour Mark Dantonio, a coach who learned from Jim Tressel, the master of the uninspiring win, hires the inventor of Walrusball, an offensive mind whose plaid efforts in Columbus led to some of the best mockery on the Intertubes. The head coach wants to win with a Cheescake Factory serving of defense and a Happy Meal serving of offense (minus the toy, of course, because smiles delay character) finds the offensive coordinator who will best exercise portion control of points and first downs.
But the "that's typical!" response extends beyond what the Bollman hire says about Dantonio's personality and the way he views offense, football, and the reality that life is nasty, brutish, and short. The hire is everything that's wrong with the Big Ten in a nutshell. Dantonio individually can point to his record in East Lansing and say, "trust me." Regardless of whether this decision makes no sense in light of Bollman's resume in Columbus, Dantonio is the same guy who went 22-5 in a two-year stretch before losing a metric ton of narrow decisions last year. He's earned the right to make a mistake.
The conference that Dantonio beat up to get those 22 wins in 2010-11 has not earned the same benefit of the doubt. When Big Ten fans are confronted with the gaping maw between the league's strong revenue and attendance on the one hand and its middling results on the other, the smart ones point to the lack of proximity to talent. Full stadia, a thriving cable channel, palatial facilities, and attractive traditions are all helpful when it comes to luring four- and five-star recruits, but they take a back seat to Mama being in driving distance. The Big XII can pull talent from Texas. The Pac 12 can pull talent from California. The SEC and (to a lesser extent) the ACC have strong recruiting regions throughout.
The Big Ten doesn't have any of these things. Ohio is the league's epicenter for talent, but it isn't on the same level as Texas, California, or Florida.
So what should programs do when they are confronted with a talent disadvantage? There are a couple possibilities.
One is to hire coaches with connections to fertile recruiting fields. Louisville has succeeded with that approach, as Charlie Strong and his staff have made up for the lack of blue chip talent in Kentucky by mining their contacts in Florida.
A second approach is to emphasize a unique offensive scheme that can compensate for a lack of talent. Oregon is the best example of this phenomenon right now, but West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Missouri (when they had a functional offensive line) are also relevant. Closer to home for Big Ten fans, Northwestern has ridden a spread offense to results that are better than one would expect for a school with a small fan base, significant academic restrictions, and no natural recruiting base.
To put it bluntly, a conference that has seen two of its upper middle-class programs hire Greg Davis and Jim Bollman in the past year is not taking either approach. Big Ten programs have to make up for their recruiting disadvantages by spending money on attractive coaches, guys who: (1) coach schemes that will entice players; (2) have recruiting relationships and abilities; and/or (3) can put up yards and points without a talent advantage.
Do Davis and Bollman sound like the kind of coaches who can check any of those boxes? Neither guy was noted as an especially good recruiter at Texas or Ohio State, so they relied on their schools' prestige and the other coaches on staff to recruit so well that their offenses could out-talent their opponents. Does that sound like a viable strategy at Iowa or Michigan State?*
* - To a lesser extent, this criticism can be made of other coaching hires in the conference. Ask a Bears fan if John Shoop is the best offensive mind that one could want at Purdue. And while the comparison between Bollman and Michigan's Al Borges demands nuance -- it gives Bollman credit for Jim Tressel's recruiting and play-calling, it penalizes Borges for Tommy Tuberville's meddling, etc. -- it's probably fair to say that the jury is out on whether Michigan has an offensive coordinator who reflects the school's ability to pay for the best.
So how do we know that guys like Davis and Bollman are bad hires? I like data-driven explanations, but this is an instance where there are too many variables to take a statistical approach. Did an offensive coordinator have talent at his disposal? Was it the right talent for his system? Did he play in an offensive environment? Did he have autonomy? Was he reliant on the coat-tails of the head coach? Is the sample size big enough to make definitive judgments? These questions make it very hard to use output statistics with any degree of accuracy.
No, this is an instance where reliance on the hive mind is valuable.
Take Davis, for instance. On the surface, he could seem like a good offensive coordinator. The Vince Young offenses put up epic numbers en route to Texas losing one game in two years. Then, after a short retooling period, the Colt McCoy offenses had a productive stretch before the bottom fell out. And yet Texas fans increasingly grew disenchanted with Davis, dismissing the successes as the result of talent and the failures as the result of coaching. When Davis moved to Iowa, the criticisms of Horns fans -- both the general criticism that Davis was not a good coach and the specific criticism that his offense eschewed deep passes to a remarkable degree -- all proved true as the Hawkeyes plummeted to the bottom of the Big Ten offensively.
The Ohio State hive mind is even more negative about Bollman, holding that he was a disaster as an offensive line coach and as soon as Tressel was removed from the equation, Bollman was exposed as being useless as a coordinator. If Buckeye fans are right about Bollman the way that Texas fans were right about Davis, then next year's Michigan State offense is going to make the 2012 attack, one that finished 10th in the Big Ten in both yards per play and scoring (with Greg Davis's Iowa and Illinois' homage to Chernobyl as the two teams below the Spartans), look like the Air Coryell Chargers.
The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to come up with instances in which college football hive minds have been wrong about coaches. There are plenty of instances of fan bases that warmed to guys on staff as time went on. The evolving feelings of Georgia fans about Mike Bobo are a testament to the fact that feelings can change. Likewise, there can be sample size issues where a coach is a disaster for a season and then turns things around somewhere else.
But when I think about instances where a fan base was exposed to a coach for an extended period of time and ended the period with feelings of universal disdain, subsequent events have usually proven that fan base right. Look at Randy Sanders' career after Tennessee. Or Lou Tepper's career after LSU. Or Bill Diedrick's career after Notre Dame. Or Jeff Bowden's career after Florida State. Or Rob Spence's career after Clemson. Or Willie Martinez's career after Georgia.
There are two possibilities here. One is that I am a victim of confirmation bias, conveniently forgetting the coaches who were reviled by their fan bases and then ultimately gained vindication. The second is that athletic directors would do well to figure out a seismograph for hive minds.
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