Monday, October 01, 2007

You Get What You Pay For

Kudos to Charles Babb at for putting his finger on the source of the current disparity between the Big Ten and the SEC: coaching. Seeing Ron Zook lead his team to Big Ten contender status really drove this point home this weekend. At Florida, Zook was mediocre despite being in one of the great jobs in college football in terms of fan support, talent, and facilities. He goes to the Big Ten and promptly has a contender within three years at Illinois, a program that isn't close to Florida in any one of those categories. It's much easier to succeed when you need to get a big win and the guy on the other sideline is Joe Paterno as opposed to Nick Saban.

There is a certain degree of convenience for an Ohio State supporter to argue that coaching explains the disparity as opposed to talent. Ohio State is the one program in the Big Ten that has a legitimate, elite-level coach, so pointing the finger at coaching is self-serving from a Buckeye, although that certainly does not make the emphasis wrong. A gap in talent would be more difficult to correct and would have more negative implications for Ohio State and the rest of the conference. Focusing on coaching allows Babb to ignore the fact that the South produces more quality football prospects than any other region in the country. Ohio produces plenty of good players, so with no in-state competition for those players, Ohio State can compete with SEC powers in terms of talent (although you'd never know it from the Bucks' sterling record against the SEC). However, the potential for the non-elite programs in the Big Ten is not on the same level as that of the non-elite teams in the SEC because the talent pool is shallower in the Midwest and the disparity will only get more pronounced as population continues to shift south. Or maybe the better way to put this is that there are three elite (or potentially elite) programs in the Big Ten - Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State - and six in the SEC - Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee.

My other minor criticism of the article is that the following paragraph is a little rich for me:

SEC schools gladly pay outrageous sums of money and devote incredible resources to winning in football because of the cultural values placed on wins and losses. This is the way it has been and likely always will be in a region where the
center of the universe rotates around what happens from September to January. Losing to a hated rival is something not to be tolerated; snide jokes and needling from business associates, neighbors, and even relatives must be endured until the following year, and to avoid this embarrassment, money is not an object when it comes to hiring a new coach. In the eyes of the alumni and fans, if the man is right for the job, they will find the money even if they have to take it out of their children’s college fund. Criticism is ignored and runs off their back like water off of a duck, and if pushed they will even ask, ‘Yeah, well, I bet you would gladly trade your coach for ours now even at twice the price.’ Even the coach of a program becomes part of the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ discussion and a source of bragging rights. This passion is so over the top ministers have been known to include references to football in marital vows, and while it may draw a laugh it frequently isn’t meant in jest.

Am I truly reading an Ohio State fan criticizing other fan bases for taking college football too seriously? I could be paranoid in my reading of that paragraph, but that's the gist of it for me.

Something tells me that Dewey Richard would have no problem including in his wedding vows a promise to be true like Rex Kern.

Substantively speaking, the point that Babb leaves out is that the SEC programs have ignited an arms race in terms of paying their coaches. It's hard to identify the starting point for the race, but we're currently at a stage where each SEC fan base looks at its coach and says "is this the guy to compete with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer." If Tennessee off-loads Phil Fulmer this fall, the coaching arms race will be a reason why. Conversely, in the Big Ten, there is no arms race because the coaching pool is filled with mediocrities and unproven figures. There's no great urgency to pay $1.8M for a new coach when all he has to do is compete with Joe Tiller and Ron Zook. The one place in which the arms race dynamic might come into play is Michigan because the Wolverines' arch-rival have the one great coach in the league and Michigan fans, detached and ironic as we may be, can only tolerate playing second fiddle to Ohio State for so long. The arms race should also be in effect at Penn State, which is a shadow of its former self, but the Lions are in a bind because they have a legendary coach whom they cannot fire, regardless of how mediocre his results.

The other problems with Babb's point is that the Big East has turned into one of the premier conferences, certainly surpassing the Big Ten over the past year or two, and those programs pay their coaches a relative pittance. Long-term, Rutgers, West Virginia, and South Florida are going to have to ante up for their head men or suffer Louisville's fate they will, but right now, the Big East is getting a bigger bang for its buck than any other league.


peacedog said...

I might be crazy, but isn't Rodriquez now getting big bucks from WVU?

Also, is the Pac-10 now upping the ante?

Anonymous said...

zzzzzz The SEC is overrated in football. That dog has already hunted. What you have more of is a loud mouthed fan base with an elitist perspective. Speed is in every program with talent whether in New England or California or anywhere in between. Look at who loads the NFL with the most talent. Most of those programs are not in the SEC

Anonymous said...

Should Wisconsin be counted as a potentially elite team? Brett Bielema does own a (deceptive) coaching record of 17-1.

Anonymous said...

If I was in the habit of making posts divorced from reality without any supporting evidence, I wouldn't sign my name either.

peacedog said...

And the answer to my question is: no, the Pac-10 isn't upping the ante as much as I thought. So there you go.

Though I thought RR was getting more than the 1.3M listed in the linked article.

Kevin said...

Delicious irony...You probably could have chosen a better example than Nick Saban, as he didn't exactly light it up as a coach in the same conference whose coaching legitimacy is in question here.

Anonymous said...

Michigan State's last four seasons pre-Saban:


Under Saban:
10-2 (only ten win season since 1965)

Saban's successor:

A 6.5 game improvement in his first season and the school's only ten win season since the Johnson Administration, along with a five game decline immediately following his departure would seem to disprove the deliciousness of your irony.

Michael said...

What CHG said. MSU goes 10-2 all the time.

Anonymous said...

Arms race in the SEC? MAD? Keep going down that road and somebody will get busted big time, then all bets are off as to the continued existence of the SEC.

Can't happen? Ask somebody in Texas about Southwest Conference football . . . Remember SMU!

Unknown said...

Good spot Michael, enjoyed that one.

Saban's going to be hard to judge until at least 3 years down the road when he gets his players in.

The problem is, I think his X's and O's prowess is largely exagerrated. In a big game situation his record is marginal and he's show a propensity for getting blow out several times (Auburn/FL 2000, UF 2001, VT/Auburn/Texas in 2002, UF beat them handily in their MNC season, and UGA pummeled in 2004) . A lot of people argue that he relied heavily on Dantonio and Muschamp, don't know whether thats true or not - but I can say from watching this years team in every game - the offense or defense does not seem to be any better than last year. In fact, the offense seems to be worse.

I do think he looks to be a great recruiter. The only problem is - can he make it three years down the road? It's not out of the realm of possibility he could lose to both LSU and Auburn each of the next two years. He's already feeling heat (has said as much during pressers) after losing the last 2 games. If he loses to Auburn this year (when they are - or were - thought to be down) he will feel heat like you don't get at MSU, LSU or Miami.

Should be fun to watch, Alabama football is, if anything, fun to watch on and off the field.

Michael said...

I think Saban is significantly limited by having an exceedingly mediocre quarterback and only one good defensive lineman. I'm going to reserve judgment until he brings in better talent at those two spots. Until then, as long as he doesn't embarrass himself, the program should be fine.

Ed said...


You do realize that the 0-11 record for 1994 resulted from 5 forfeits, right? Without them, MSU goes 5-6. Hence, Saban really didn't dramatically improve Michigan State at all his first year.

I'll side with Kevin here. I've always scratched my head at Saban's results with Sparty, given his subsequent success. Besides clubbing Notre Dame to death (not too difficult with Bob Davie at the helm), Saban's track record at MSU wasn't really that special. He was basically a .500 coach his first four years with a lot of lopsided losses. Even the year he won 10 games, the two losses were ugly...

I realize it's difficult to win at MSU, but it's not like it's Duke. George Perles's record in the late '80s was significantly better. And no one would ever call him a great coach. At least, I don't think.

Just my two cents.

Michael said...

Michigan State was on probation at the time that Saban arrived. Perles left the cupboard empty (see his results from his last several years) and the fact that MSU was competitive in '95 and '96 was a terrific coaching job. His '99 season was State's best since the 60s when you take into account that MSU was 10-2 in a season in which the Big Ten was excellent. The trend line was up with Saban, which is what LSU correctly spied and his success there bore out their optimism.

Unknown said...

That's true, his quarterback is mediocre - but they do have some talent on that team at other positions.

I guess I'm just saying I don't understand his elite position and 30 million dollar contract.

The BCS championship is impressive, but they even got beaten handily that year and got off the hook by playing Bob Stoops in the MNC. And don't think the cupboard was empty when he got to LSU - that team had a lot of NFL players on it, unfortunately they were being led by a DiNardo.

He doesn't scare me anything like a Steve Spurrier or Pete Carroll in a big game - or even as much as a Tuberville or Richt. Not yet anyways.

Anonymous said...

Couple things:

1. Despite my hatred for anOSU, that is quite possibly the coolest idea for a room I've ever seen. I can see that being recreated for any of the big stadiums.

2. klinsi: FYI, the SEC commissioner Mike Slive has made it his stated goal to have all 12 SEC schools off of probation by early 2008 and is on track to do so. So, there goes your M.A.D. theory.

Ed said...


I’m skeptical that Saban really did such a fantastic job in 1995 and 96 as you claim. I realize they were on probation, but if memory serves correctly, they still had a fair amount of talent (i.e. Tony Banks, Muhsin Muhammad, Derrick Mason – hardly an empty cupboard). Also, there seems to be more continuity than not when you compare Perles’s last two years with Saban’s first two. 11-12 with a bowl game versus 12-11-1 with two bowl bids. A close loss to Notre Dame in ’94, a close victory against Michigan in ’95. Etc.

I think you are quite correct about Saban’s 1999 season. I didn’t consider how good the conference was that year (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State also were top ten caliber). Perles only had Michigan to contend with during his prime.

Michael said...

MSU did have some good offensive talent on the offense in '95 and '96, but they had absolutely nothing on defense. Their front seven couldn't stop anyone from running the bal. The '96 Michigan offense was the worst Michigan offense of the Carr years (although this year, Carr and DeBord have managed to turn a collection of future NFL players into a similar disaster, so check back with me at the end of the year) and Michigan scored 40+ on MSU that year, IIRC.

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