Better To Be Lucky Than Good In College Football

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Derek Dooley of the Tennessee Volunteers walks the sidelines during the game against the LSU Tigers at Neyland Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Every football program is where it is today thanks to its advantages and disadvantages and its thousands of hours of decisions, but also because of sheer luck.

Michael Lewis gave a commencement speech at Princeton this past week. Because Michael Lewis is smart, the things he says apply to things you care about like football, life, and why you have a hard time losing weight while others do not.

This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don't want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

Lewis spoke these words at one of the first two schools to ever play the game of college football. Princeton lost that first game 6-4 to Rutgers, but then went on to become a powerhouse in the paleolithic era of the sport, claiming 28 national championships along the way.

Princeton also gave the world the winged helmet design you might associate more with Michigan than with F. Scott Fitzgerald's haughty alma mater. Michigan is quite good at football, and Princeton is not. There are reasons for that, and good ones. Princeton focuses on things like firing their graduates directly into the cogs of high finance, government, and other profitable world-destroying industries, something they do at a higher rate than other schools. Many Princeton grads probably do not spend their Saturdays watching 12 hours of football. (Those poor, poor bastards.)


Related: Spencer Hall on USC Heisman contender Matt Barkley

You probably do, and what got you on that couch is a process far more complex than you like to admit.

For example: if you are an Alabama fan, you got here through a long chain of decisions that had nothing to do with you at all. You had to be born into a connection, first of all, since most people inherit their fanhood. Secondly, Alabama football had to be good for you to like it, and that quality came about through a century of decision-making, commitment, financing, and what marketers would loathesomely refer to as "brand-building." The institution allowing the University to share its breathing space exists now because of hundreds of thousands of hours of devoted attention, often at the expense of other far more important things.

This is true of any large program, but hard work only takes you so far. The third and most fickle of the things making football teams good is the lightning strike of pure, blind luck.

In Alabama's case, they have indeed been very lucky. We don't talk about Texas A&M's 20-year run from 1960 to 1980 because in real life Bear Bryant left College Station to return to Alabama and took his once-in-a-generation coaching talent with it. Going back even further, we do not talk about Arkansas' amazing dominance in the 1940s under a young Bryant because Pearl Harbor happened, and the actual Bryant turned down the Razorbacks' offer to coach their football team to join the Navy instead. You owe Emperor Hirohito, Crimson Tide fans. You owe him big-time.*

*A fun historical side note: the University of Maryland's President pissed off Bryant by meddling in football affairs, and Bryant left without regrets. This is just to point out that like big programs' successes, Maryland's ability to screw things up in football is a skill they developed over time and not without some effort.

Alabama is not alone in owing much to uncontrollable, random chance. Ohio State already had a blossoming football addiction, but handing the program over to a relative unknown in Woody Hayes helped turn the state into the loving cradle of Midwestern football crackheads we know today. Miami found Howard Schnellenberger, and in turn the Hurricanes found a football dynasty. The list goes on, but in each case flammable materials met fire in the right combination of coach, existing talent, and surroundings.


Related: Spencer Hall on Les Miles vs. John L. Smith, the cure for realignment nausea.


In a lot of cases it's not that hard to be good -- not great, which requires real sacrifice and dedication, but at the very minimum good. Steve Spurrier said as much when asked to evaluate Nick Saban's status among the greatest coaches in college football.

If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they've always won there at Alabama.

Spurrier is right, but there's more than a bit of personal investment in there, too. Saban stands in direct competition with Spurrier for the title, and under very different circumstances. Spurrier has become the greatest head coach in the history of South Carolina football*, and by the numbers this is a very different thing than being a legend at Alabama. Spurrier is within nine games of catching Rex Enright, the Gamecocks' winningest and losingest coach ever with a lifetime record of 64-69-7. Unlike Enright, Spurrier could do this with a winning record in just seven seasons at a school traditionally at odds with the concept of winning consistently, and do it in the modern and extremely cutthroat SEC.

*And remember, Spurrier did this after effectively creating modern Florida football by himself.


Spencer Hall and Dan Rubenstein on Mike Leach expectations

The same has to be said of so many deeply underrated coaches winning at programs where, in context, no one has any business being that competitive. Pat Fitzgerald is hovering at 40-36 at Northwestern, an insane achievement given Northwestern's proximity to Princeton in university rankings. Mike Riley's ability to weave together teams annually at Oregon State is baffling given Corvallis' tiny regional presence, while Mike Leach winning anything at Washington State in 2012 would mirror his ability to take the most remote program in college football -- Lubbock's own Texas Tech -- and turn it into a consistent winner in the 2000s against all odds.

Luck is part of the formula in both directions, but even luck is not a constant in figuring out how much of a program's success is due to a given coach's ability. Derek Dooley at Tennessee seems like a doomed man going into 2012, but that relies on the central assumption that Tennessee in 2012 remains very much like the Tennessee teams of the 1990s: boundlessly talented and capable of competing on the national level against anyone.

That simply might not be true anymore. Tennessee and Notre Dame, while very different institutions academically*, shared one thing: the need to recruit nationally in order to compete. Neither could afford the collapse of a coaching staff, much less a prolonged spell of ineffective management at all levels. A few bad hires here, a few lost years there, and suddenly both programs don't even know what kind of inherent luck they bring to the table anymore by simply being Notre Dame, Tennessee, or any other program caught in shifting sands of circumstance.

Knowing that level of built-in luck determines whether you have a hardworking genius working under impossible constraints on your hands, or whether they're just another assistant elevated to their given ceiling of incompetence. Luck comes in a lot of different varieties. Knowing which kind you're working with matters when you're figuring out whether to pat a coach's back sympathetically, or to stab it and move on solemnly to the next best future for all concerned.

*We're pointing that out to you before a Notre Dame fan does, because they will.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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