Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Tipping Point

My two favorite teams are the Michigan football team and F.C. Barcelona. If you looked in my t-shirt drawer, you would figure this out within a matter of minutes. In 2008, Michigan and Barca both hired new coaches. Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, who represented as much of a home run hire as one could expect. He brought with him a resume of two decades of highly successful offenses and an extended period of time as a head coach in a BCS conference in which he gave West Virginia its best sustained stretch in program history. Barcelona hired Pep Guardiola, a club legend whose coaching resume consisted of one year as the head man of Barca's youth team. Guardiola had been described as a coach on the field by Barca icon Johan Cruyff, but there was no indication that he would be good, bad , or average.

A year and change later, one coach has been a stirring success and the other has been a massive disappointment. The coach with the ideal resume is 8-13. His team is collapsing as each day goes by. Yesterday, Michigan got trampled in the second half by an Illinois team that heretofore had not won a game against a I-A opponent. The Wolverines got stopped on four cracks from the one-yard line with a 13-7 lead and then promptly surrendered. (I'm not much on "I miss Lloyd" statements, but Carr never lost a team like Rodriguez has over the past two weeks.) The coach with the thin resume led Barca to a historic treble in his first season, conquering Spain and Europe at the first attempt. Moreover, Guardiola's Barca played an attractive, often mesmerizing style that won admirers across the football world.

How did this happen? What do we learn from Guardiola's success and Rodriguez's failure? I have a few thoughts on this:

1. Coaching isn't all about scheme. Rich Rodriguez is an excellent offensive schemer. His spread option offense is working throughout college football. (Ask Pete Carroll this morning.) If he pulls Michigan out of its death spiral and gets time, he'll likely put together an excellent offense. Unfortunately, putting players in the right formations and plays is only part of the job. Motivating players and creating a good team ethic are also important and Rodriguez has failed badly in that respect. There's no other way to explain a team playing perfectly well for a half and a drive before collapsing in breath-taking fashion against an atrocious opponent coached by a bumbling fool. There's no other way to explain a team so beset by correctable mental mistakes. Honestly, how much technical advice is needed for Michigan players to successfully catch punts?

Guardiola was able to instill a team ethic at Barcelona that led the team to respond to adversity whenever they faced it. When Barca was ten minutes from a disappointing home draw against a stumbling Real Madrid side, they got a goal. When Barca conceded first in a title-deciding match at the Bernabeu, they responded by putting six past their arch-rivals. When Barca trailed at the Mestalla, they got a goal. Most memorably, when Barca were trailing in injury time at Stamford Bridge and had lost Eric Abidal to an unwarranted red card, they kept their head and scored. If this Michigan team went a goal behind to Michael Essien's screamer, they would have lost 6-0 and ended the match with eight men. Guardiola did make strategic changes, most notably by introducing a pressing system that took pressure off of an average defense by denying the opponent time and space. However, he also kept his team together such that they raised their level when threatened. Rodriguez has failed in this respect. It appears that he's lost his team. I still think that he was and is an excellent coach, but he never got through to this particular group of players.

2. Radical changes are risky. As a fan of the spread 'n' shred, I was excited about Michigan looking to implement a cutting edge offense. The results have been less than ideal. For a decade and a half, Michigan's modus operandi was a powerful running game complemented by an NFL-style passer and top receivers. (The running game was not powerful for the majority of the Carr era, which is what drove me crazy about Lloyd. He often missed what the strength of his team was. I'm making a style point here about the way that Michigan played, as opposed to the results.) Rodriguez's scheme is different. The formations and plays are different; the offense calls for personnel with different skills.

Rodriguez is also a major departure from his predecessor in terms of his coaching style. Carr had a professorial manner. He wanted his players to have a fully-rounded college experience, right down to learning new vocabulary each time they walked into his office. He was a perfect representative for a Public Ivy and I will always miss that aspect of his regime. Rodriguez carries himself as more of a football lifer. He wants his players to be totally committed to football. This is not to say that he wants them to ignore their studies; the team's excellent GPA in 2008 is a testament to that fact. That said, Rodriguez definitely comes across differently than Carr, which heightened the culture shock.

Now, compare to Guardiola. Pep was appointed over bigger-name coaches because he would coach the Barca style, the Dutch 4-3-3 that Cruyff implemented when he coached the Dream Team in the early 90s. Pep could seamlessly integrate products of Barca's highly successful youth team because the youth team plays the same style as the senior squad. Guardiola tinkered with the system with great success, most notably late in the season when he moved Leo Messi from the right wing to the hole between Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield and Henry and Eto'o up front. However, he did not represent radical change.

The same is true for his personal style. Guardiola certainly imposed far more structure than his predecessor, Frank Rijkaard. However, Guardiola and Rijkaard both maintain good relationships with their players. Neither are a dictator like Alex Ferguson, a tactical fascist like Rafa Benitez, or a media whore like Jose Mourinho. Neither Guardiola, nor Rijkaard are likely to be seen ranting on the touchline.

In retrospect, I underestimated the risks of the sea change that Rodriguez would bring. It might have made more sense to keep the aforementioned Michigan style with minor upgrades in terms of caliber of assistants and a tactical understanding of risk and reward. You know, like this guy:

[Insert remark about the rumor that Carr was implacably opposed to Miles being the Michigan head coach here.]

I still like the idea of the radical change that Rodriguez represents. I like his offense and I like his style, which reminds me of Bo. I guess my regret/concern at this point is that Rodriguez has not done a good job of implementing the change that he represents. I like the road he's on, but I don't like the way that he's driving.

One more thought that I struggled to place in this structure: when Guardiola became the coach, he identified three players as black sheep: Ronaldinho, Deco, and Eto'o. None of the three wanted to leave, but Pep sold two of them in his first summer and the third 12 months later. Rodriguez also had black sheep defections from Ryan Mallett and Justin Boren, but Mallett and Boren left despite Rodriguez trying to keep them (at least publicly). This might not mean much because of the differences between unpaid college players and highly compensated international stars, but I may have missed a tea leaf in the form of players leaving Rodriguez because they wanted to do so, as opposed to players leaving Catalunya because Guardiola banished them. Might that have been a sign that the Rodriguez culture shock was going to be an issue? Probably not because there are always transfers when a new coach comes in, but I am in no way certain.

3. It's good to have a successor at hand. Michigan's radical change would not have been necessary if Carr would have had a Gary Moeller on the staff. Instead, the coach that Carr reputedly tabbed as his successor - Mike Debord - was a terrible candidate. From his time at Central Michigan to his ability to shackle Tom Brady to his rumored role in preparing Michigan for a 2007 season that started with a loss to Appalachian State, Debord made absolutely no sense as a candidate. I'm a peaceful guy who last got into a real fight when I was eight, but I would have been ready to go G-20 protester had Debord been hired. (Counter point: Miles was an obvious successor who did not get the job because of [take your pick] institutional politics or unlucky timing.)

Barcelona, on the other hand, had Guardiola at La Masia coaching the youth team. The club did not have to look far to replace Rijkaard. The lesson is simple: it's critical for an organization to have a quality successor ready to take the reins when needed.

4. Talent matters. Pep Guardiola came to Barca at a time where the Blaugrana deployed the spine of the Spain side that won Euro '08, not to mention the world's best player. Rich Rodriguez came to Michigan at a time when recruiting issues left the team without depth or consistent talent in the back seven. Maybe resumes are overrated in comparison to the Jimmies and Joes.

I was originally going to make the point that hiring decisions are often a matter of luck, as evidenced by Rodriguez's predecessor who became the head coach a year after being the defensive coordinator of a defense that set Michigan records in all the wrong ways. Three years later, Carr was being carried off the field in Pasadena; five years later, he added an Orange Bowl trophy to the collection at Schembechler Hall. Lloyd's resume would not have predicted his level of success. On the other hand, Carr's resume did not reflect the fact that Charles Woodson and Tom Brady would matriculate in Ann Arbor in his first season. Talent matters.


Anonymous said...

let me know when you start posting about atlanta sports again

Anonymous said...

I'd add preparation and quality control to the list of coaching duties. If its true that Rich Rod isn't allowing his defense to prepare the way they want to prepare, that's a major coaching flaw.

It would have been fun to see how Les Miles would have done at UM with Mallet.

Anonymous said...

At least you are honest enough to admit that there are problems in AA. Did you get any more suicidal texts from your friend Carlos? Is he even alive at this point?

Go Blue!

Caelus said...

Good review of the situation in Ann Arbor. Sorry to say that I ignored the soccer part as I am not a soccer fan in the least.

Jesse said...

After reading the first item, all I could think about was the level of talent for both when their respective coaches took over. In this regard, there is no comparison and probably it makes all the difference, which you covered in item #4.

Would you care to revisit the comparison between Paul Johnson and Rich Rodriguez? The situations are similar in just about every regard. You have a coach with over two decades of running a successful system taking over at a place that has been running a pro-style offense for almost a decade, has players transfer, and both are in their second year coaching at their new locale. Is it the level of talent that makes the difference or the system, or something else entirely?

Ryno said...

Michael - I think all your points are valid with the exception that you assume Miles would have left LSU.

Coaching for the alma mater is one thing (a very big thing to be sure). Leaving a maelstrom of talent, money, support in Baton Rouge is quite another.

UM would have had to put together a monumental offer to get him to budge and he still might have said "no thank you."

Michael said...

Anonymous, how's this: Paul Johnson will be the head coach in Ann Arbor in three years. Is that sufficient Atlanta content for you?

Jesse said...


By the way, did you get my email Michael? I sent it from work which seems to have an unreliable system in place, so just thought I would check.

JG2112 said...

How about this: Barcelona had the best player in the world (Leo Messi), the best playmaker in the world (Xavi), one of the best attacking midfielders in the world (Iniesta), one of the best out and out strikers in the world (Eto'o), a 10-year starting central defender and captain (Puyol), the EPL's all time leading scorer (Henry), and had established internationals at almost every position. They brought in Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Yaya Toure. They had finished, what, second or third the year before Pep took over?

Michigan had 1 returning starter on offense in 2008. The lack of recruiting on defense from 2005-2007 is also currently killing the team.

Why are we surprised in the least as to how either team played last year?

Michael said...

JG, I agree in concept, but Michigan has enough talent to avoid losing by 25 to the worst team in the Big Ten. Barca didn't have so much talent that they could have been expected to win the treble last year. This was the same Barca side that finished third in La Liga the previous season.

cardrunners said...

I think Rich Rodriguez will get fired after the season if he doesnt beat Ohio State. In his two seasons at Michigan coach there have been very few things to get excited about, and I dont think you will see the patience out of the Michigan administration that you have out of Notre Dame's with Charlie Weiss.