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Football Programs Need Not Fear Innovation

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↵Paul Johnson's flexbone will never work. Mike Leach is too eccentric to succeed. The spread option will be a bust in the SEC. ↵

↵Skepticism is a fine philosophy, but think if it as just one essential spice in the full rack of seasonings you need as a football fan. It is not bad in itself to be skeptical; that's why contracts have buyout clauses, and why you run background checks on employees before you hire them, and why we have contracts in the first place. Correction: that's why we have contracts to begin with, and unless you're Joe Paterno sealing the deal with a handshake as you have for the past 5,000 years as head coach of Penn State, you sign them for the benefit of everyone involved. ↵

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↵The bad kind of fear of the new in football stems from a mix of well-advised skepticism and stodgy loyalty to dying or dead ideas well past their prime. The Tennessee coaching search began with one of college football's stodgiest of traditionalists, Phil Fulmer, and the gradual decline of the Tennessee program. Tennessee did little new over the course of their long, slow slide from a national title Everest; in fact, they did what you are in many cases supposed to do, which is fix nothing that is not broken. ↵

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↵By rule, that is the skeptical thing to do: keep plugging away with what got you there. ↵

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↵It also runs counter to another important element in your arsenal: pragmatism. When devout communist Deng Xiaoping began to introduce elements of capitalism into the Maoist economy he inherited as Premier Leader of China, he was asked if this did not go contradictory to everything he had worked for in the Chinese Revolution. His answer: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” ↵

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↵There's a mixed record on this in college football. Typically, big programs let mid-sized programs take the risks for them in hiring innovative coaches with "new" or "exotic" ways of doing things. West Virginia placed the first substantial bet on Rich Rodriguez. Utah plucked Urban Meyer out of the MAC and catapulted him into major program majordomo. Paul Johnson coached in D-2 for years before taking a service academy job where he was so successful with so little that he had be hired by a major program somewhere. Texas Tech, with nothing to lose, signed the architect of the offenses that pulled both Kentucky and Oklahoma from the mire of their respective conferences. ↵

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↵In each of these unconventional case studies in success, there are a few common threads. ↵

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↵Each of their systems is at root fundamentally sound, and based on very, very old concepts. Johnson's flexbone is an evolved version of several iterations of the old triple option and wishbone. Ditto for Rodriguez's system, which takes the option and spreads it wide across the entire field. Meyer's system is Rodriguez's system with some run 'n shoot passing and empty backfield thrown in, while the Red Raider air game morphs certain elements of the old Lavell Edwards/Norm Chow passing game with wide offensive line splits and a whiplash draw run game. ↵

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↵Every one of them depends on simplicity and variation. Oh, and practice. Each of the coaches mentioned is notorious for being sticklers on execution. None of them will perform Holtzian magic tricks in pep talks, but watch each of their offenses at their finest and note the precision that turns potentially dangerous offenses into the lethal variety. Exotic frippery of the schemes aside, they are all at their core about precision and execution, and the evidence comes in an even simpler form of documented success at multiple stops in their coaching careers. ↵

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↵Georgia Tech's gamble paid off to the tune of 472 yards rushing against Miami Thursday night. The Hurricanes entered the game as the 19th ranked rushing defense in the nation. They left Bobby Dodd Stadium as the 62nd ranked rush D in these United States. The Yellow Jackets, often condemned by many as doomed to struggle against schools without similar academic constraints, destroyed a team made up of the cream of South Florida's recruiting crop. They are ahead of schedule in their rebuild, and Paul Johnson's attention to detail and stern ethos are to credit, funky flexbone whiteboard schemes and all. GT's gamble, for the moment, has worked out in way making skepticism of the flexbone a more difficult position to hold by the day. ↵

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↵Bringing us to Tennessee, a place so long on skepticism it may be an insult to call them conservative as a program. The leading candidate according to all concerned is Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, a fine coach with his own track record of winning at many different levels. Kelly is an adequate and very conventional choice. So is Mike Leach, the bandito behind Texas Tech's program. Kelly will likely nail the interview, look like a coach, sound like a coach, and promise everything the Vols would like to hear. Leach will look wrong in a suit and tie, possibly give some eyebrow-raising answers to the questions they ask him, and indeed could be too honest for his own good. (From some accounts, his interviews are sometimes bizarre and uncomfortable experiences.) ↵

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↵It would be a shame, though, if Tennessee ignored the need to season the mix with some pragmatism. Black cat, white cat ... Leach still catches mice, and if Tennessee doesn't nab him this year, someone else eventually will. Winning is a fundamental that never goes out of style, and one that wins over even the most hardened skeptic. Success for the gifted but eccentric is the easy part; not wearing the musical tie to the interview is the hard part for those who can't help but scare the normals a bit too much for their own good. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.