Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Launch the V2s! (Or why Big Ten Expansion Won't Cure What Ails the Conference)

Because I am who I am and this blog is what it is, I'm going to compare Jim Delany to Hitler. The Big Ten is making a very public show of its interest in expansion. I have no doubt that this move is motivated by a major case of SEC envy. Barry Alvarez was probably sitting on his couch for the first weekends of the past two Decembers, watching the #1 and #2 teams in the country play each other in the Georgia Dome and thinking to himself "man, we need something like that." However, what the Big Ten needs is not the game in early December; what it needs is teams of the quality of Florida and Alabama.

Let's imagine that the Big Ten had a conference championship game this year pitting Ohio State and Iowa and the game was played in Chicago on the same day as the SEC Championship Game. Florida and Alabama were #1 and #2, playing for a spot in the National Championship Game. The game featured the 2008 Heisman winner against the eventual 2009 winner. It featured two of the top four defenses in the country. It featured Urban Meyer against Nick Saban, the two coaches who would probably command the highest salaries if every college coach became a free agent tomorrow morning. In contrast, Ohio State/Iowa would have pitted two teams outside of the top five. The quarterback match-up would have been wasted talent/big disappointment Terrelle Pryor against the immortal James Vendenberg. The coaching match-up would have pitted Jim Tressel and Kirk Ferentz, who were last seen competing with one another in Columbus to see who could create a denser diamond out of the lumps of coals in their nether regions.

There are reasons why the Big Ten is sixth in the 2009 Sagarin conference rankings while the SEC is first. There are reasons why the same was true in 2008 and 2007. In 2006, when the Big Ten was allegedly up and had a famous #1 vs. #2 game in November, the SEC was first and the Big Ten fifth. This is the fourth straight season in which the Big Ten has finished way behind the SEC, its one rival in terms of media profile, fan interest, and revenue generation. Those reasons have nothing to do with the conference ending its season before Thanksgiving. Big Ten teams would suck just as much in September as they do the other three months of the season.

There are two reasons for this gap, one of which the Big Ten can control and one of which it can't. The obvious reason is that there is a vast disparity between the talent available in the Southeast and the Midwest. One can look at the Rivals database for any year and realize the gulf in proximate talent. For instance, this year, there are 44 players in the eight Big Ten states rated as four-star or higher by Rivals. There are 49 such players in Florida alone. Big Ten teams are behind the eight ball because population drain from the Midwest, as well as a variety of other factors, means that they are farming barren fields.

The second factor, which the teams in the league can control, is a collection of mediocre coaches. The Big Ten and SEC outpace every other conference in terms of revenue. What the Big Ten states lack in fast, mean dudes who can tackle, they make up in eyeballs that interest advertisers. What the Big Ten should be doing with that revenue is ploughing it into brand name coaches. After all, if you have to go outside your region to acquire talent, shouldn't you hire a top coach who has: (1) name recognition in Florida and Texas; and (2) the ability to make average talent look better?

SEC programs are certainly willing to spend top dollar for the coaches with the best resumes; Big Ten programs are not. There is no analog in the Big Ten to Arkansas hiring Bobby Petrino or South Carolina hiring Steve Spurrier. South Carolina and Arkansas can best be described as lower middle class in the SEC. They are behind Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida in terms of natural advantages. Thus, they hired two coaches with great resumes and paid those coaches market value for their services. Even when SEC programs hire cheaper, underwhelming coaches (see: Kiffin, Lane and Chizik, Gene), they then spend their savings on top notch assistants. If they end up with Braxton Bragg instead of Robert E. Lee, then they at least get Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet to be the subordinates. Leaving aside the fact that there are no Petrinos or Spurriers in the Big Ten's middle class, there are no Malzahns or Monte Kiffins, either.

Every head coach in the SEC falls into one of three acceptable categories for a major program head coach: (1) significant success as a head coach at a lower level (Johnson, Meyer); (2) success as a head coach on a comparable level (Petrino, Miles, Nutt, Brooks, Spurrier, Saban); or (3) coordinator for a national championship program (Richt, Mullen, Kiffin, Chizik). Where does Pat Fitzgerald fit into those categories? Or Ron Zook? Or Danny Hope? Or Bill Lynch? Or Tim Brewster?

And so, to come full circle, the Big Ten right now reminds me of the Third Reich in the summer of 1944. Germany was about to get hammered in the East by Operation Bagration and in the West by Operation Cobra. Faced with major issue, Hitler decided that the way to win the war was by firing a bevy of V-2 rockets at London. His decision was a classic case of praying for some sort of saving throw the the dice when faced with basic shortcomings. This analogy isn't perfect because there was nothing that Germany could do to win the War after Stalingrad, whereas there is an obvious way for the Big Ten to get out of its current crisis. (The analogy also has a timeline issue in the sense that Hitler was always too obsessed with technological solutions, so pinning his hopes on the V-2 was not just a summer 1944 mistake.) Hitler didn't have the option of bringing in better generals to reverse setbacks in the field. Still, the basic idea is that the Big Ten is proposing a solution that does not address the problem. Expanding to 12 teams and adding a championship game will add revenue to the league, but the conference is already awash in revenue. The problem is what the programs are doing with that revenue.

(And speaking of revenue, coming back to the Mandel article that I linked above, I don't understand how a championship game that should generate something in the neighborhood of $12M annually [assuming that it is close to as economically successful as the SEC Championship Game] could possibly be offset by the occasional loss of a second BCS bid that is worth $4.5M. Mandel also ignores the fact that, using this year as an example, if Ohio State beat Iowa in the title game and knocked them out of at-large contention, Penn State would have stepped right in to fill their shoes. Those criticisms aside, Mandel's piece about Big Ten expansion is excellent and I agree with his conclusion. There is no obvious candidate for expansion other than Notre Dame. Missouri seems unlikely to join and Pitt does not bring much in terms of additional fans/TV markets.)


Anonymous said...

MSU hiring John L. Smith, Minnesota hiring Glen Mason, and Michigan hiring RichRod are analogous to Arkansas hiring Bobby Petrino. None of those hires created nationally, or even regionally, powerful teams. The Big Ten coaches who've performed the best out of conference are the coaches with the dodgiest backgrounds, Carr and Ferentz.

Rich Brooks a success? He was 91-109 at Oregon. He then failed miserably in St. Louis, was mediocre at best in Atlanta, and was out of coaching for 3 years.

The SEC is better than the Big Ten for 2 reasons: 1) Local talent, 2) oversigning.

Michael said...

JLS didn't take Louisville to the heights that Petrino did. Maybe Mason is a good analog. RichRod is not because my point is that the middle class of the SEC behaves differently than the elite.

Maybe part of my point is that the Big Ten has regressed in terms of its selectivity. On a pure resume basis, Barry Alvarez was a good hire, as were Tiller, Mason, and Randy Walker. The recent hires have been meh.

Michael said...

Oh, and Rich Brooks does have Oregon's only Rose Bowl appearance in eons under his belt. He went to four bowls in his last six years there. He won the Bryant award in 1994. Perhaps you aren't aware of what Oregon football was before him.

Are you seriously going to suggest that it's a good idea to hire coaches with dodgy backgrounds? How about Tressel, who had an outstanding I-AA background when Ohio State hired him? Or Alvarez, who had the national title coordinator qualification?

LD said...

I can't believe I'm writing this, but I think that the Big Ten analog to Arkansas and South Carolina (in terms of spending money on coaches) is... gulp... Illinois.

Zook himself doesn't fit four corners into your three acceptable categories, though he was a coordinator for multiple top 10 teams including one lost a MNC game, and he recruited a large number of the players who ended up winning the title for the Gators in 1996.

But what really makes Illinois match up is the big money they appear to be spending on coordinators, hiring Petrino away from Arkansas for the offense and hiring Koenning away from Kansas State for the defense. Illinois is clearly lower middle class among Big 10 football programs, but they alone appear to be actually interested in investing the money to make the program compete.

LD said...

Also, and this is a total nitpick, but Bellotti took Oregon to a Pac-10 title in 2002, but didn't go to the Rose Bowl because it was the designated National Title game site that year.

Brooks/Bellotti // J.L. Smith/Petrino?

Anonymous said...

Are you seriously going to suggest that it's a good idea to hire coaches with dodgy backgrounds?

No, the point is that the Big Ten's mediocrity out of conference has almost nothing to do with the quality of its coaching hires.

John. L Smith went 41-21 at Louisville, and he had the program's signature victory over Florida State. That's only slightly worse than Petrino's 41-9 mark at Louisville, and JohnEl didn't have that horrible 3-10 year between Louisville and his hire at MSU. So on a scale of ten, if Petrino was a 9 in the fall of 2007, John L was an 8 in the fall of 2002.

Seriously, the chance of any SEC coach other than Meyer and Saban making a large difference at any of the little 8 is very slight. Spurrier hasn't made SC any good (definitely not better than Iowa), and they're in a relatively talent rich state with an 80,000 seat stadium and top notch facilities. What's he going to pull to West Laffayette that he can't pull to Columbia? How would Petrino pull any more talent to Minneapolis than he can pull to Fayetteville?

Michael said...

Yes, 41-9 is almost the same as 41-21. And that 3-10 with the Falcons is a good indica of Petrino's ability, because what coach wouldn't succeed with 20% of the salary cap pleading to numerous felonies and spending the season in prison? Tell me, FF, do you have any internal voice that tells you the difference between a good argument and a bad one?

LD, I'm not buying what you're selling on Zook. His tenure at Florida was a disaster and his time as the DC at Florida wasn't much better. He was, after all, in charge for 62-24, was he not? I do like your analogy, although I would rate Petrino a little ahead of Bellotti because he wasn't as dependent on having a star offensive coordinator.

Tommy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tommy said...

Well, there's not much of a top-down approach the Big Xi can take to the problem of bad coaching. They can't make Illinois fire Zook.

That said, it's clear that the SEC really came into its own after instituting a championship game. It sure as hell wasn't the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina that made everyone get serious.

Maybe Delany is figuring that instituting a little Darwinism in a union culture like the Big Xi will make programs like Illinois think about how long they're willing to tolerate Zooks of the world.

You could argue that having a championship hasn't made the ACC better, but it's certainly made for more parity and competition generally leads to quality.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 41-9 is almost the same as 41-21.

Yes, it is. John L took over a 1-10 program and improved it immediately. He also had a longer track record than Petrino-14 years of success vs. 4.

And yet, that hire didn't do anything for MSU's program. It didn't make them nationally relevant, it didn't draw scores of southern recruits to MSU. Your theory doesn't hold any water when you actually try to verify it.

Anonymous said...

Rich Brooks went to four bowls in his last six years there.

That's not very impressive, and its totally arbitrary. With a mediocre coach like Brooks, you can choose all sorts of different ways to interpret his record (e.g. in his last 4 years he was 23-24, he didn't get Oregon to a bowl for his first 12 seasons, etc.). Sure, you can spin it in a positive light like you're his agent or something, but anybody with any objectivity would consider him a mediocre coach in the fall of 2002.

Good question: most mediocre Bryant award winning coach-- Rich Brooks, Bruce Snyder, or Larry Coker?

LD said...

I'm not selling Zook, per se, but rather Illinois (at least in comparison to their neighbors). They're at least trying something different - expanding the recruiting map by hiring Zook and spending real money to surround him with supposedly talented coordinators.

That's different from what Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana have done with their recent hires.

I agree with your premise that most Big Ten programs aren't using financial strengths to their advantage in terms of coaching, just I think that Illinois has actually the right strategy, though their decisions on how best to implement such haven't been a success.

Michael said...

LD, I agree with you abou Illinois' new approach. Now, if you could please tell Anon that he doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, that would be great. I'm tired of dealing with his attempts to argue minutiae.

Neil Young and Geraldo said...


I have noticed two things about this website.

1. You are getting more hits. Congrats! You deserve it. I think you are a better writer than, even, Furman Bisher. Selah!

2. You are getting more snippy! Must be work/family....

PS: You still owe me that TTL review. And what about all these Christmas songs??? Can a jew surrounded by gentiles really be THAT nostalgic about Christmas??? I think you might have some sorta idea....

Michael said...

This is embarrassing to say, but I don't know how many hits this site gets. I always thought that I didn't want to know because then I would figure out what people like to read and that would skew my writing. But now, I'm kinda curious.

I am definitely more snippy these days. The whole "Rodriguez failing" thing hasn't gone down well with me. You would think with my soccer team's performances, I'd be OK. Work and family are both going well.

Neil Young and Geraldo said...

Yeah, but what about the new Bob Dylan albums???

Michael said...

I do owe you a review of TTL. I have not bought the Christmas album, mainly because I don't like Christmas music very much. (I do like Christmas as a season.)

Neil Young and Geraldo said...

You might not like Christmas music, but have you seen the video of "Must Be Santa"? Ridiculously good....

You need to get the album, Michael.

There is just no reason not to celebrate the release of a Bob Dylan album. He breathes so much life into those old songs-- its kinda like Self-Portrait in a way. (But nothing close to As Good as I Been to You or World Gone Wrong.)

Its been a good year for the old man, with those two studio releases. 36 years since he has done that! So proud to still have him around....

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