Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ranking Coaches

I'm as much of a sucker for a good list as anyone, but coming up with a list of the top ten coaches in college football like Mark Bradley does is a difficult proposition. First of all, we would have to define what we mean by "best coach." Are we playing the "if I had to win one game, this would be my guy" game? Does longevity matter? (This is obviously an important consideration when evaluating Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino, both of whom go higher on any list that isn't about finding a coach for the next decade.) Do I imagine that I'm the athletic director at a major program? A smaller program?

These last two questions are important because we cannot rank Paul Johnson and Mark Richt without them. Johnson runs a funky offense and has had great success at smaller programs that operate with less talent than their rivals. He's a perfect fit at Georgia Tech. If I were the athletic director at a school like Northwestern or Kansas, I would much prefer Johnson over Richt. On the other hand, Richt is a good recruiter, he runs a pro-style offense, and he does a good job of managing egos. A major program is often looking for a caretaker CEO type, which makes Richt a better fit at Georgia. UGA should not necessarily be looking for a coach like Johnson who can take overlooked recruits and put them into an offense that maximizes their talent; it should be looking for a coach who can use his own style and Georgia's profile to bring in top tier talent. If I were the athletic director at Ohio State or USC, I'd prefer Richt.

To use a military history analogy, Dwight Eisenhower was not a great general. If you plopped him down in a battle in which he has equal or lesser forces than his opponents, then he probably wouldn't be a great success. You certainly wouldn't want someone like Eisenhower leading a guerrilla force. However, he was a perfect fit in the role he was handed in World War II: keeping a bunch of talented, but disagreeable generals happy and pushing in the right direction.

I digress. Regardless of which standard you apply, Bradley makes two choices that are very hard to defend:

1. Mack Brown over Bob Stoops.

Brown and Stoops are at peer programs, with Brown at the somewhat more attractive school because he does not need to convince players to leave the state in order to assemble a talented roster. Brown and Stoops are in the same conference and play each other every year. Stoops has won six Big XII titles in ten years. Brown has won one Big XII title in eleven years. Case closed.

2. Pete Carroll behind Brown, Jim Tressel, and anyone not named "Urban Meyer."

Bradley writes that Carroll loses too many games that he shouldn't? Even so, he has the best winning percentage this decade. Are we going to punish him for assembling so much talent that his teams should never lose? In other words, are we going to punish Carroll for being a great recruiter? Carroll's record in big games is stellar, so if the question is "whom do I pick for one game," he'd be hard to pass up. Yes, Mark, Mack Brown did beat Carroll in a Rose Bowl, but calling the defense-less 2005 Trojans Carroll's "best team" is indefensible. Did Herbstreit and May really infect your judgment that season?

And Tressel over Carroll? Are you mad? Tressel is an OK coach and all, but he's coaching in a top-heavy conference in which one of his two major rivals is coached by the Queen of England and the other has been undergoing a transition from Lloyd Carr (who had one foot out the door for several years and was never a great coach to begin with) to Rich Rodriguez (who brings a radically different system). I suppose you can make the same argument regarding Carroll and the Pac Ten, but Carroll can point to numerous big wins outside of the conference. Tressel has the win over Miami and...?

Anyway, it would be unfair for me to gripe at Bradley's list without making my own. If I were a major program athletic director hiring a coach, here is my contact list:

1. Urban Meyer
2. Pete Carroll
3. Bob Stoops
4. Nick Saban
5. Bobby Petrino
6. Frank Beamer
7. Mike Leach
8. Rich Rodriguez
9. Brian Kelly
10. Mack Brown
11. Mark Richt
12. Jim Tressel
13. Houston Nutt
14. Mike Riley
15. Les Miles


Ryno said...

Ok - I'll bite.


Michael said...

Look at his resume at Louisville. The only knock on him is the way he flirts with other jobs, but there's a reason why a number of schools want to hire him.

Caelus said...

I notice that you have RR four spots above Tressel. Hope you are right.

Go Blue

Michael said...

I'd rather have the guy who won big at West Virginia than the guy who won big at Ohio State. I'd rather have a guy who knows one side of the ball very well than the guy who needs good coordinators on both sides.

dave clark said...

Nick Saban has never won 10 games two years in a row.

Anonymous said...

Interesting column. I agree with statement that different programs require coaches with different skill sets.

But based on that, how well does Rodriguez fit at UM? Michigan certainly represents a "CEO type" program, yet RR's background has been more that of a head coach who took overlooked talent and maximized its effectiveness.

Perhaps the answer, using Myer and Spurrier at UF as examples, is that "talent maximizing" coaches can go to bigger programs and succeed, while CEO type coaches have a more difficult time winning at smaller programs. But then I think of Tressel and the success he had at Youngstown before he came to OSU. So perhaps the answer is that a good coach will be successful no matter the program.

Michael said...

Saban gave Michigan State its best season in eons. He won two SEC titles at LSU after they hadn't won one in 15 years. He had an unbeaten regular season with Alabama, their first in 14 years. He's a very good coach.

Personally, I think the best coaches combine the CEO/recruiting skills with mastery of one side of the ball, either offense (Meyer, Spurrier in his heyday) or defense (Carroll, Saban, Stoops). Those coaches have an advantage over the guys who are great CEOs, but rely on two great coordinators instead of one (Tressel, Miles, probably Richt).

Rodriguez undoubtedly knows offensive football very well. The question is whether he can handle the CEO/recruiting functions. His first 1.5 classes at Michigan were very good. He's struggling a little in recruiting this year, most likely as a result of the perfect shitstorm that was 2008 for him. He's pretty good at assembling a staff, although he screwed up with the Scott Shafer hire last year. He does have some excellent coaches who go with him everywhere, so I do see some CEO skills. I think he'll put it all together at Michigan, at which point Michigan will have a combo of Eisenhower and Guderian.

dave clark said...

"Saban gave Michigan State its best season in eons. He won two SEC titles at LSU after they hadn't won one in 15 years. He had an unbeaten regular season with Alabama, their first in 14 years. He's a very good coach."

He's never won 10 games twice in a row. Also, Louisiana-Monroe. Also, his coaching in the Sugar Bowl was ah-ah-ah-abysmal. Every time you hear Orrin Hatch flap his gums, thank St. Nick.

Mark Richt said...

"He won two SEC titles at LSU after they hadn't won one in 15 years."

I won two SEC titles at Georgia after they hadn't won one in 20 years.

Michael said...

The ten game stat is a silly, contrived stat, kinda like Tebow never leading his team on a fourth quarter comeback. You think he's not going to win ten games in consecutive seasons with the recruiting classes he's bringing in? Saban did a good job at Michigan State, he won a national title and two SEC titles in five years at LSU, and he had Bama back within two years. He's a very good coach.

In comparison to Richt:

1. LSU was in much worse shape when Saban arrived than Georgia was when Richt arrived. Donnan was not a bad coach and he was a pretty good recruiter. Dinardo was...Dinardo.

2. Saban has a national title. I know that there's a certain degree of luck involved. Saban's one-loss season led to a title shot; Richt's did not. That said, Saban faced an excellent Oklahoma team in the Sugar Bowl and beat them. Richt has never beaten a bowl opponent on that level. That's not Richt's fault, but I know that Saban can win a really big bowl game, but Richt has a null set in that department.

3. Saban is a defensive ace. Would anyone describe Richt as an offensive ace?

I like Richt and all, but I'd take Saban first.

Jesse said...

W/R/T Rich Rodriguez:

Your comments here contradict your original statements in the post, especially what you have stated about RR. You original assessment states that Paul Johnson and his system would not succeed at what you deem power programs yet you put Meyer and RR on your list, completely ignoring that both systems used by them are derived from Johnson's system. You then state that RR and his system can succeed at a power program.

So which is it? Or maybe you only think RR will succeed because he's at your school of choice and Meyer has proven his system's worth so you have no grounds to deny it? If you truly believe RR and his system will suceed, then why isn't Paul Johnson above him on your list. He has proven everywhere he's been that his system wins, and on top of that, he did it last year with players recruited for a pro-style offense.

At this point, your argument is full of holes and contradictions, much like Bradley's list. Maybe that was the point though.

The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners said...

We had just gotten the crap kicked out of us by Freaking Kansas State. Kansas State lost to Marshall at home that year. We were also playing LSU in New Orleans. We lost by a score.

Georgia 45, LSU 16 said...

"Saban is a defensive ace."

Come again?

Billy Bennett said...

Congrats on your national title, Mr. Saban.

Michael said...

Jesse, there's a difference between Rodriguez's offense and Johnson's. The option is a great offense for a smaller program because it is unique, it's hard to prepare for, and it allows a smaller program to succeed offensively using lesser recruits. A program doesn't have to be a recruiting powerhouse to bring in an option quarterback or the smaller linemen that the offense requires.

Rodriguez's offense isn't as hard to prepare for because so many teams are running it now. It also doesn't require as many niche players as the Johnson offense does, although there are certainly some niche roles in it (namely the slot receiver spot). However, it's a better offense than Johnson's because the passing game is more developed. It makes perfect sense for a major program because: (1) it's the best offense around at present; and (2) major programs have the best shot of signing those rare quarterbacks like Vince Young or Tim Tebow who can run and throw.

Thus, Meyer and Rodriguez are excellent coaches for major programs because their offenses make sense for Michigan or Florida. Johnson, because his offense is a little different, makes more sense for a mid-size program. His offense isn't as good, but it's more unique and it allows Tech to avoid recruiting head-to-head all the time with UGA and other big regional rivals.

Jesse said...

Then you clearly no little of anything about Johnson's offense. Where would you point to show that Johnson's system is under-developed in the passing game? Clearly you are ignoring all of the prolific passing schemes his system used while he was at Hawai'i. The system is designed to utilize the strengths of the players in place or can be recruited, regardless of the over-arching "history" of the program. If there is an abundance of rushing elements, then that's what the system is catered to. If it's passing, then that's what he does. The better the recruits, the better the results of the system, regardless of what type it is. It is not "designed" to recruit lesser talented individuals. No one intentionally recruits lesser talented individuals just for the sake of a system. That line of thinking is absurd.

You really should do more research on the flexbone spread before attempting to critique it. Both Meyer and RR derive their systems from what they learned from Johnson. Johnson's system just succeeded with a very talented group of players recruited for a power pro-style system. What's RR's excuse if his system is so much better?

Michael said...

Jesse, you're right. I don't know about Johnson's tenure in the WAC. I just know that he coached at Navy and Georgia Tech. His offenses at those schools have been option-heavy and have leaned heavily to the run over the pass. That's not to say that his offense can't throw the ball at all, but the iteration of his offense that I've seen isn't going to produce Shaun King or Woody Dantzler passing numbers.

Put another way, if you were Tim Tebow or Vince Young, you would rather play in the Meyer/Rodriguez offense than the Johnson offense because the former uses more passing formations and the aerial opportunities are better. Johnson's offense is very productive, but its top-end is lower because of the limitations in the passing game.

And I'm calling BS on the idea that Rodriguez got his offense from Johnson. If you have a link, I'd love to see it. From what I've read, Rodriguez came up with his offense (borrowing from ideas that had been around for a while) at Glenville State.

We really need Chris Brown to weigh in on this.

Anonymous said...

I would say Richt is an offensive ace, but better football minds might convince me otherwise. He was the offensive coordinator for all those great FSU teams in the 90s, and as soon as he left that program started their decent to mediocrity. He's coached two Heisman winners, both running QBs and drop back QBs, as well as the winningest quarterback in IA history. His system isn't revolutionary or flashy, so he doesn't get the same recognition as the innovators, but I think he's pretty excellent at running the offense. Until recently he was his own OC at Georgia. He didn't blow the doors off the conference but he was very good.



thirdfalcon said...

I'd say the real question is is Saban ranked too low? You could make a pretty strong case that if he hadn't left for the dolphins for his stint, Urban wouldn't have made it to the BCS championship.

Hobnail_Boot said...

I like Michigan as much as anyone in the South is allowed to, but putting RR on here is borderline insane, especially given how you described Paul Johnson.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, there literally isn't a single metric by which Rich Rodriguez is a better coach than Paul Johnson or Jim Tressel. You do realize that Tressel didn't start his career at OSU, right? Do you have any idea how successful he was at YSU? Same with Johnson; his records at GSU (62-10, 2 championships) and Navy (42-29) were more impressive, given the circumstances, that Rogriguez' records at WVU or Glenville St.

Aside from that, we can direclty compare how well these coaches handled poor situations. Johnson and Tressel each walked into a situation that was as bad, if not worse, than Michigan's situation in 2008. Johnson flourished, beating Miami, Georgia, and Florida St., and Tressel did okay, beating nMichigan at getting to a bowl. Rodriguez totally and ineptly failed; he couldn't recognize how futile it was to give Sheridan snaps, he didn't choose a good defensive coordinator, and he didn't do whatever it took to keep Mallett around (or Threet this year). He's still a fine coach, but you are very misguided if you think there's any measure by which he's better than Tressel or Johnson.

Michael said...

Here's why Rodriguez is better than Tressel:

1. Rodriguez knows offense very well. To be in the absolute top tier, a coach should know one side of the ball. Can that be said about Tressel on either side?

2. You're insane if you think that the situation that Tressel inherited in 2001 was not different than the situation that Rodriguez inherited in 2008. Michigan had a walk-on and a RS frosh QB. The former was horrendous and the latter not much better. The offense was both brand new and having to learn a new system. Rodriguez faced a perfect storm. I'll grant you that Rodriguez made a bad hire on the defensive side of the ball, but that happens sometimes with coaches, even great ones. Remember Zook's defenses under Spurrier? Oklahoma's offenses between Mangino and Wilson? Hell, you could make a convincing case that Pete Carroll never replaced Norm Chow properly.

In any event, the key question in comparing them is not whether Tressel's first team at OSU was decent and Rodriguez's was terrible, but rather what those programs do when the head coaches have had time to build their programs. Tressel has done well, but he's been exposed in big non-conference/bowl games. His success in the Big Ten has a lot to do with Michigan and Penn State being down (Penn State more than Michigan). Rodriguez's run at WVU is more impressive than anything that Tressel accomplished at OSU because RR was at a program with a talent disadvantage relative to rival programs. RR was also winning in the Big East at its absolute apex and his teams played well when they stepped outside of the Big East.

3. If you want to make the argument for Tressel, start with recruiting. He's done a great job over the past two years.

Jesse said...

You are very wrong on a few things here concerning RR. First and foremost, he was not coaching at some obscure hole of a program such as Temple. WV and the surrounding area has been loaded with talent for decades and WV has benefited greatly from that. You can't possibly claim that WV is at a talent disadvantage when compared to Rutgers, Syracuse, Cincinnati, South Florida, UCONN, ant most times even Pitt. VT, Miami, and BC left in 04, so I'm not sure what you are comparing talent to.

Secondly, RR had just started at WV at the very last of the Big East's "apex" in 2001 and he did nothing going 1-6, 7th in the conference. After that, Miami started their decline, BC was just starting their ascent, and VT was the dominate force. But it's not like the Big East was loaded with stud programs that were putting up much of a fight. Rutgers was one of he worst teams in the country, Pitt was middle of the pack as always, USF was nothing, Cincy was middle of the pack, and UCONN didn't even have a football team.

RR took advantage of three teams leaving the conference bare and a ton of weak standing water and he did it with a great offensive scheme using very talented individuals. He didn't do it with a bunch of 2-star Div II players like you imply. I get it, you are defnding your schools choice for their current head coach, but please, let's not get absurd here and at least try looking at the facts before making any wild claims that RR is some legend in the making.

Johnson is clearly better than RR by all accounts and I'm not sure I would go so far as to say RR is better than Tressel.

Anonymous said...

Judging Tressel as "exposed" based on three games requires you to ignore the 100 other games he's coached with the Bucks, the 194 he coached at Youngstown St., his 9 national championship games (5-4), and his wins over extraodrinarily talented Texas and Miami teams. That's patently absurd; you're accepting the small sample size and ignoring the macro level trend. You would howl if Zimmerman or Simmons did that.

As for the QBs that Rodriguez inherited at Michigan, I thought he inherited the #3 ranked QB in the 2007 class, Ryan Mallett? He should have figured out whatever it took to keep Mallett in the fold, instead of allowing Mallet to transfer. Tressel inherited a terrible defensive back as his starting QB who proceeded to miss games because of a drunk driving incident, and then had to replace him with an extremely low-ranked recruit (Krenzel). He walked into a nasty situation and turned it into a monster on the level with USC. Pretending otherwise ignores the base rate by focusing on the anecdote.

Anonymous said...

...also, Coach Rodriguez did not win in the BigEast when it was at its apex. He won in the Big East after Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College were replaced with South Florida (who dominated WVU the last 2 years Rodriguez was there), Louisville, Cincy and UConn. WVU went 0-3 against Miami under Rodriguez, 2-3 against Virginia Tech, 2-2 against BC.

That's not really a knock against Rodriguez, but it takes an incredible amount of partisanship to believe that what Rodriguez did at WVU was equal to what Tressel's done at Ohio St.

Michael said...

1. The Rodriguez had his 32-5 run at WVU, the Big East routinely had multiple teams in the top 10-20. With Petrino, Schiano, and Levitt joining RR, the conference had possibly the best collection of coaches in the country. WVU's success in that conference with equivalent (at best) talent is more impressive than Tressel winning in the Big Ten when Michigan and Penn State collectively coached by a guys who should have retired in 2004 and 1999. RR's teams also won major bowls against Georgia and Oklahoma while Tressel's teams cannot win big games outside of the Big Ten.

2. Regarding the sample size point, the vast majority of the Ohio State sample size comes against MAC teams, hopelessly outmatched Big Ten opponents with inferior recruiting bases, and the two other conference powers that haven't had above-average coaches in years. That's why the games against Florida, LSU, and USC take on out-sized significance. Tresselball works against opponents with lesser talent, just like the style that Schembechler used. It's dicey against similarly talented opponents and it's a disaster against a better team. I know that I'm putting stock in a small sample size, but it isn't as if any of those games were close. I'll grant you that OSU's strong performances against '05 and '08 Texas are evidence against my theory.

3. I swear to G-d, if you asked me when Lloyd retired whether I'd rather have Rodriguez or Tressel as my head coach, I would have taken Rodriguez without thinking twice. RR would have been on any list of top ten coaches before last season, but if you want to conclude that he forgot how to coach in one year, be my guest.

Anonymous said...

Re. 1.: Those coaches are all good, but they all coach at schools with less access to talent and less of a historical pedigree than the schools they replaced (VT, Miami, BC). Rutgers has done *all* of its heavy lifting in-conference. Who are their impressive non-conference wins against? A 6-6 NC State team? A 2 win Illinois team? A 3 win North Carolina team, in the death throes of the John Bunting era? I think that pretty much everyone in college football would rather see South Florida, Louisville, and UConn on the schedule instead of Virginia Tech, Miami, and BC.

Re. 2. OSU has 3 strong performances against Texas; 2 close losses in 2005 (25-22) and the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, and a sold win *at Texas* over a 10 win Longhorns team in 2006 (24-7). Add to that the aforementioned national championship win in 2003 against Miami, who had scores of NFL players, the wins against several extremely talented Michigan teams in 2004-2007 (the 2007 version of which defeated Urban Meyer's Gators in the CapOne Bowl), a good win against a strong Texas Tech team in 2002 (45-21), a Fiesta Bowl win over an excellent Big XII champion Kansas St. team in 2004 (35-28), and its apparent that he's defeated plenty of talented teams.

Also, Youngstown State didn't have any special advantages over its competitors while he was there. They didn't win anything before Tressel's time and they haven't won anything since (unlike GVSU, which seemed to do just fine after Kelly left). You can't explain away Tressel's record at YSU; they have playoffs at that level, and in each of the 6 seasons that his team went to the championship game he faced most of, if not all of, the best teams at that level. You might contend that Tressel doesn't know offense as well as Rodriguez. I don't think there's any way we can know that, but suffice it to say that whatever amount of offense Tressel knows is sufficient to be dominant at both the FCS and FBS levels. Scheme is overrated anyway; Tressel's OSU offenses adapted quite well tyo the talent he's brought in. When they had a poor QB, a great line and average receivers, they ran the ball from a basic I formation. When they had a mobile, accurrate QB, they adapted the offense, passed more and allowed the QB to run more, and generated a heisman winner with an astounding line: 65% completion percentage, 30 tds, 6 ints, 2500 yards.

Re. 3.: Sure, Rodriguez is 12 years younger than Tressel. That's a fair reason to prefer him. But Michigan will be insanely lucky if Rodriguez approaches Tressel's level of success (>80% winning %, multiple national title appearances with at least one win).

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