Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Best and Worst Coaches: a Defense of...Al Groh?

Since the question of "worst starter in the Braves rotation" has been conclusively resolved, we'll turn our attention to Mandel's argument that Al Groh is the worst coach in college football. Leaving aside the criticism that there are surely coaches plumbing the depths of the Sunbelt and MAC who are inferior head coaches, Mandel's argument has two major fallacies:

1. It penalizes Groh for good recruiting. Here is the argument used for attacking Groh:

Matt Schaub. D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Heath Miller. Ahmad Brooks. Groh has produced his share of talent in Charlottesville. So what does he have to show for it? A 25-23 ACC record and a whole bunch of Christmas dinners in Charlotte and Boise.

Al Groh recruited all of these players, save for Schaub (and in Schaub's case, Groh implemented the perfect offense for Schaub's skills and turned a middling recruit into a ACC Player of the Year and a first-day draft pick). Is Mandel aware that college football coaches do not have general managers and are therefore responsible for inducing quality players to attend their schools? This criticism is the same meritless argument that was used against Steve Fisher when he was leading Michigan to back-to-back NCAA Title games: he's only winning because he has a lot of talent. This is not unlike saying that Sports Illustrated is only readable because it has good writers.

In some cases, it's easy to criticize a coach for not winning at levels commensurate with the talent available, namely when that coach is at a program with major recruiting advantages. Joe Paterno would be a good example. Paterno coaches at the name program in one of the most talent-rich states in the country, yet he has produced middling results this decade. His team got its one quality win last season - the bowl win over Tennessee - when Paterno was isolated in the press box without a headset. Unlike Bobby Bowden, who still brings a strong recruiting element to the table and just brought in a good upgrade at offensive coordinator (albeit after employing Fredo for longer than the DMV would), Paterno apparently manages to confuse and terrify recruits. Paterno literally brings nothing to the table now, other that his legacy. Groh is at a program that lacks most of the advantages of Penn State, which we will get to now...

2. It fails to appreciate context. Al Groh has won 56% of his games at Virginia. This is admittedly nothing to set the world on fire, but considering that Virginia won only 53% of its games historically before Groh arrived, his number isn't too shabby. His predecessor, George Welsh, won 60.2% of his games at UVA and for his trouble, was proclaimed the best coach in college football by the Sporting News. So what is Mandel penalizing Groh for? The fact that he didn't turn Virginia into a major power?

Look at UVA's football program for a moment. It's in a state that produces a decent amount of talent, but nothing sterling. Virginia is at a disadvantage against its southern brethren in terms of recruiting bases. UVA shares the state with Virginia Tech, which doesn't have the same academic restrictions as Virginia and can therefore clean up in Michael Vick's neck of the woods. Virginia Tech also happens to have the best coach in the conference, per Mandel and the rest of the world. Is it too much to ask that a writer look at context before weighing in on a coach? How did Mack Brown go from "can't win the big one" to a top five coach? Oklahoma declined. How did Dennis Franchione go from good coach in the SEC to bad coach in the Big XII? He's in the same division as Brown and Stoops. Why is Lloyd Carr viewed differently now than he was in 1999? Because of the transition from John Cooper to Jim Tressel.

With that in mind, here are my bottom five coaches in major college football:

1. Paterno - see above. I see no reason to deviate from tradition.

2. Ty Willingham - since we're going after coaches in Title VII protected categories, how about a shoutout for the only coach in recorded history to achieve the Herculean feat of not being able to recruit at Notre Dame (although I will admit that he put together a pretty creditable team at U-Dub last year before Isiah Stanback got hurt).

3. Ron Zook - I'm not going to penalize him for not getting results commensurate with his talent; I'm going to penalize him for not getting results period. The only good thing to be said about Zook is that he will put his successor in a great position to win at Illinois.

4. Bill Callahan - I know that he's had to go through some growing pains in transitioning Nebraska to a new offense, but he's averaging five losses per year and for an alleged offensive guru, Big Red's offenses have been pedestrian. The "let's just run out the clock, take our 18-point beating, and go home" performance at the Coliseum last year was downright embarrassing for a major program.

5. Bill Doba - Just because I have a thing against Bills.


Unknown said...

Chan Gailey should be up there, he hangs in there through John Tenuta. Heck, he should be 1 on that list. Sylvester Croom begs to be on this list as well. No team has ever looked more anemic than his on offense.

Fox said...

I know you hate Mandel and all, but he put in a caveat that he knew recruiting is part of the battle, but was going to count a coach's inability to win with talent against him anyway.

I agree, sort of, on Groh. He's not a terrible coach, just a pedestrian one. Decent recruiter, very average with teh Xs and Os but has done a nice job building fan support with the team and battling the team/school's wine and cheese image.

By the way, I love these rips, but why are you always a week late?

Michael said...

Gailey is not on the lost solely because he's retained an excellent DC. Croom is about to be on the list, but the prevailing sentiment when he was hired was that MSU was a five-year reconstruction job after Sherrill left the program in tatters, so I'll cut him some slack.

Evaluating coaches without taking their recruiting into account as a positive is like evaluating a lawyer without taking his/her ability to write into account.

Groh, to me, is an average coach who is being paid to be a star. He's not unlike Mike Vick.


LD said...

I have a feeling you'll get some google hits for "clean up" "Michael Vick" "woods"...

This list will be a little easier to do next year and the following, as there are a host of coaches who are still in grace periods about to expire: Robinson at Syracuse, Orgeron, Croom, M. Stoops, Wannstedt.

There are two guys that I would also add to the list, but who seem to get passes: Guy Morriss and Mark Mangino. Yes, neither coaches at a powerhouse. But both have worked for long enough to make a mark on a program (as long as Schiano at Rutgers), and neither has elevated their team to even a whisper of attention. Both have current winning percentages far below the historic winning percentage at their schools. Mangino especially should get some derision - he's coached at a school with a healthy Athletic Budget and been in a weak division for most of his entire tenure. But for some reason the buffet-surfing sportswriters don't rail on him very often.

And in case there was radio inspiration this morning - 680 was devoting a bulk of its time to this subject. I turned the station when Perry Laurentino said UNC fans shouldn't be excited about Butch Davis because "it's easy to win at Miami". Yes, it is easy. Entering Miami on probation and banned from postseason play. With scholarships cut. With the Nation's most visible magazine putting out a cover story about how the President of the University should simply eliminate the sport entirely. With Lee Corso railing about how UCF was about to pass Miami by. Easy.

Anonymous said...

Willingham may be a subpar recruiter (although I'm not certain about that; it may be that ND was still in one its "let's raise standards high" modes then), but he did quite well at Stanford, reaching multiple bowls and winning their only Pac-10 title in the last 30+ years. At UW he seems to be slowly turning them around. I think there are worse coaches out there than him.