Among the ways to view events from the past, one pair of rival frameworks is the Great Man theory of history and the approach that focuses more on structural forces like resources, geography, and demographics.
Historians have debated the two for years, most prominently in the 19th century, until the Great Man theory took a beating from academics in the 20th century. In popular culture, though, the Great Man theory remains prevalent, as evidenced by the popularity of biographical books and movies. One of the primary points of contention between the two schools of thought is on the role of individuals in history. How much difference can one person make? When we see major events, are we making a mistake when we attribute those events to the people (usually men) in charge?
Take the outcome of the Civil War, for example. The Great Man theory focuses on the major individual players -- Lincoln, Davis, McClellan, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson, etc. -- and ascribes the result of the war to the actions of those individuals. The structural forces approach points to the major advantages that the Union had (population, industrial capacity, railroad miles, etc.) against those of the Confederacy.
The Great Man theory is traditional, conservative, and popular with the larger public; the Structural Forces approach is modern, progressive, and popular with fans of academic history.
Les Miles and Mark Richt are a nice illustration of the different ways that we can view public figures based on either the Great Man theory or the Structural Forces theory. They are also good illustrations of the fact that it's hard to judge head coaches when there are so many outcome-determinative factors swirling around them.
Richt and Miles will meet for the fifth time on Saturday in Athens. It's probably fair to say that they are liked, but not loved by their fan bases. Richt has taken Georgia to a level that it had not reached since Herschel Walker, but are three SEC titles (none after 2005) and two major bowl wins -- both over lightly-regarded underdogs -- an acceptable haul for the flagship program in the fourth-most talent-rich state in the country?
Miles has the national title that Richt lacks, but it was won in the most bizarre of circumstances. 2007 LSU was the best team in the country, but they lost two games and only won the national title because pollsters could not find any acceptable alternatives to a two-loss team. Miles' team fell flat on its face in his second appearance in the national title game, and his sometime comic bumbling at the end of games is not exactly confidence-inspiring. And LSU has an even more favorable situation than Georgia, in that they not only sit in a fertile recruiting state, but they are the only major program in a state with a "uniquely insular culture."
So how do the different historical frameworks apply to these two guys?
If you are a Great Man advocate, then you focus on the two coaches' personalities and the aspects of their jobs that they can control, and then you attribute the successes or failures of their teams to the head men. With Richt, you focus on his cool demeanor and possibly his religious worldview. Maybe you view him as an honorable gentlemen in a profession full of Todd Graham types, or maybe you think that he lacks the drive that some of his rivals have. With Miles, you focus on the eccentricities, the tendency to gamble (sometimes in an insane manner)* and the fact that he will always be compared to the reigning Great Man in the SEC, his predecessor as head coach in Baton Rouge.
* - The fake field goal against Florida in 2010 is a great example of a terrible decision that ended up working. If you focus on the result and ignore everything else, then that play is another example of Ramblin' Gamblin' Les Miles winning a hand against the odds. If you focus on the process, then it was a dreadful decision that only worked because of a fortunate bounce of the ball.
If you prefer to focus on structural forces, then you look at the positions of Georgia and LSU in the college football universe. You focus on the in-state blue chippers available to both programs, as well as the notable competitors for that talent and the programs' abilities to win recruiting battles. You also note that both programs have all of the accessories necessary for talent acquisition: fan support, facilities, tradition, and cultural cache. Finally, you would analyze the recent performances of the programs before Richt and Miles arrived, as well as the status of their rivals during their tenures.
Regardless of which framework you use to judge Richt and Miles, the answer is uncertain. You can look at their personalities and the coaching decisions that you can isolate to them and conclude that they are great or mediocre. You can analyze them in the context of the structural forces that apply to Georgia and LSU and decide that both coaches are doing well or that they are squandering favorable positions. The framework doesn't dictate the conclusion.
Richt and Miles hold looser grips on the reins of their programs than do other coaches. Neither coach is viewed as a guru on one side of the ball, unlike a Meyer, a Saban, or one of the bevy of air raid or spread-to-run head coaches in major college football. Neither coach is viewed as a control freak or an interventionist. (See: Nutt, Houston.) As CEO coaches (or, if you prefer, Watchmaker deities), Richt and Miles recruit, they hire good assistants, and then they manage the process. Both are hard to evaluate as independent actors, which leads to the conclusion that they should be judged by their performances in light of the structural forces that apply to them.
We often evaluate head coaches based on a very small slice of what they do. We judge them based on decisions that they make at the end of close games and based on winning championships, when luck, circumstance, and independent actors play huge roles. Tom Osborne was defined for a decade by the decision to go for two in the 1983 Orange Bowl. Bobby Bowden was judged for losing a bevy of close games to Miami. And how much did the impressions of Osborne and Bowden change when they finally won national titles?
We judge coaches less on recruiting, staff construction, player development, and running good practices because we don't get to see those processes at work. We tend to make judgments based on what we see, so we overrate late-game tactical decisions and final results (and because of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, we often assume that the fourth quarter decisions caused the result) and underrate everything else.
In a way, Richt and Miles illustrate the fact that it is just hard to judge coaches altogether. We don't have a real handle on them as "Great Men" because they aren't widely acclaimed schematic experts and they don't ostentatiously demand attention. We think we have a handle on other coaches who do take a more outsized role, but that just blinds us to the fact that we still can't see most of the work that determines whether they succeed or fail. So maybe the solution is to stop making snap judgments and just be patient for the judgment of history.
We shouldn't get too worked up about the result of the game on Saturday as a referendum on Richt or Miles. Whether you prefer to focus on the individual or the circumstances, it's hard to make accurate judgments on the role of one person in swirling mass of people and forces. If Georgia loses, then Dawg fans might be tempted to gripe about Richt going 1-2 in his three big September games and, with the prospect of a new, unproven quarterback over the horizon, wonder how long it will be before the Dawgs are going to win another conference title. If LSU loses, then Tiger fans could start to fret about how this season is going to play out with so many challenging games on the horizon. If LSU loses and the offense performs poorly, then there will be a real temptation to look at the other teams in the West and assume Cam Cameron wasn't the answer after all.
This is a good time for fans to tie themselves to the mast. Historians have been arguing for centuries about the credit or blame that should be given to individuals in deciding notable events. Richt and Miles are evidence that our answer ought to be "hell if I know."