Friday, January 19, 2007

The Great Debate: Coaching vs. Recruiting, part 1

Since the Gators won the BCS Championship game on January 8th there have been people (on message boards, blogs and so forth) that contend that Florida fans should somehow be grateful to Ron Zook. After all, most of the key players on the Gators squad were recruited by Zook. And while several key contributors were not holdovers from the Zook era, like Dallas Baker, Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow, Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson (save the emails, Nelson had to be re-recruited by Urban Meyer), the truth is that this was largely Zook's team. That said I don't think Florida "owes" Zook anything and I don't think he deserves credit for the championship. Why? Well, because I believe that while Zook was able to bring in players who were thought to be talented, they were never able to really prove their talent until Meyer came along.

So this is the backdrop for the great debate. Call it coaching vs. recruiting or talent vs. coaching, whatever but please read on and add your thoughts to the debate.

In my mind, the job description for a big time college coach is two-fold: 1. Find the most talented players possible and 2. Get optimal performance from them. As in any profession with multiple responsibilities there are men in coaching that can perform all of the required responsibilities well, some that are good at one but not the other, and some that are good at neither.

I would like to take a look at the 3 most recent Gator coaches and share my opinions as they pertain to each one's coaching and recruiting abilities.

First off is the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. If you don't know about this man, you have been living under a rock. When Spurrier took over the Gators' head coaching duties in 1990 the team was on probation with the NCAA and had accumulated a combined record of 14-10 in the two seasons prior to his return to Gainesville. The Gators had also just lost their best offensive player from the previous year, Emmitt Smith who went pro after his Junior season. In his first two seasons Spurrier accumulated a 19-4 record, won an unofficial SEC championship and then Florida's first legitimate SEC champonship. It was an instant turnaround. Spurrier was able to take another coach's players and make winners out of them. But the winning didn't stop when those players moved on. Spurrier would go on to accumulate a record of 122-27-1, win 6 conference championships and one "National Championship". In Spurrier's last year with the Gators, the team finished third in both major polls. It is safe to say that Spurrier handled the primary responsibilities of coach quite well. He introduced high-powered, pass-often offense to the SEC and changed the way the conference plays the game.

I contend that it is also safe to say that, in his 12 seasons at Florida, he was able to recruit enough good players to achieve these successes. But the latter half of Spurrier's tenure with the Gators coincided with the widespread adoption of the Internet. With the Internet came ways for people to engage in discussions about their favorite things. And while college football always had fans that were "recruitniks" (people that kept track of who the most highly-touted high school players were and which teams were able to recruit them successfully), the Internet made this hobby much easier to participate in. Suddenly anyone could learn from "experts" about high school players they had never heard about but that were supposed to be the next big thing. And just like that the recruiting wars took on a whole new meaning because someone was keeping score and people were paying closer attention than ever before.

Now I don't know coach Spurrier but I'm pretty sure that he understood the importance of having good players though perhaps he cared less about what self-appointed experts felt about them.

Which brings me to Ron Zook. When Zook arrived in 2003 he took over a team with a combined record of 20-5 during the two previous seasons. Those seasons included an SEC title in 2000 and the aforementined number 3 ranking to end the year in 2001.

In his first two seasons with Gators, Zook went 16-10. That was worst two-year stretch for the Gators since 1988-1989. And it was just around this time that the debate about talent, and how much of it the Gators actually had under scholarship, began. In an effort to excuse Zook's sub-par performance on the field a myth was constructed. The myth was that when Spurrier took off for the pros, he left the cupboard bare of the talent needed to continue competing at a high level, that Zook needed time so that he could get play-makers. Believers in the myth claim that Spurrier simply was never a particularly good recruiter and that he had lost interest in recruiting over the years anyway. Some even went as far as to say that he had foreseen the lean times that were just on the horizon and that this was the reason he left for the NFL (completely dismissing the 25 million reasons that Spurrier had to become the head coach of the Redskins and the fact that 12 years is a long time at any job).

In any case, the problem with the Gators, according to some, wasn't the present coach, his philospophy, decision-making or motivational skills; the problem was that he inherited a team with insufficient talent.

I strenuously object to that theory and I have 3 main arguments as to why I think it's a canard:

1. As a rule, I subscribe to the principle that the best indicator of future perfomance is past performance. In Spurrier's 12 seasons in Gainesville he had some great seasons and some so so seasons but he never lost 5 games, much less in back-to-back years. He took over a team that he had no part in recruiting and made an instant impact. Spurrier was seemingly able to recruit players that were good enough to keep the Gators ranked in the top 15 for most of those 12 years. The proponents of the myth want you to believe that at some point Spurrier either forgot how to recruit or simply decided that he didn't want to do it anymore. In my opinion that's the same as saying that he didn't care about winning anymore, a premise that I don't accept because there is no proof that this has ever been the case with Spurrier. In short, I don't think a leopard can change its spots. A winner is a winner and a loser is a loser.

2. The team that Zook took over in 2002 had 12 future NFL players on the roster including the Heisman trophy runner-up and current Chicago Bears starting QB, Rex Grossman (who is one game away from the super bowl).

3. Football is a team game. There are 11 people on the field for each team and they all have to share in the execution of a plan in order to succeed. There is more specialization in American football than in any other sport. There are great athletes and then there are great football players. Because playing styles vary widely not every team has use for the same types of players. Some programs prefer bigger players and bruising backs to grind out a ground game while others build upon a foundation of speedy receivers and heady quarterbacks. Some teams use tight ends and full backs while others go 5 wide. Just because Zook didn't think the players he inherited were good enough to play the type of football that he supposedly wanted to play (something he told AP reporter Eddie Pells in 2003) it doesn't mean that they weren't good enough to win in a different system or for a different coach.
To me it boils down to a simple question: If Steve Spurrier had stayed for 2002 and 2003 would have accumulated a better record than 16-10? A look at my "Magic 8-ball" says "All signs point to yes."

The reason I believe that is that is the crux of this debate. Are great players born or made?

The problem, as I see it, is that the recruitniks blindly follow the pronouncements of the recruiting experts who rank each school's recruiting classes based upon the ratings they assign to thousands of high school players from around the country. Now maybe I'm naive but if literally dozens of college football experts can be wrong about how good Ohio State is compared to Florida when both teams had all of their games televised, how can a handful of so-called experts say with any degree of certainty who the best left tackle or quarterback in the country is? If you think they can, I have two words for you: Ron Powlus.

We have all seen NFL teams pick first round "busts" over the years. Think about that. With millions of dollars on the line, a team of professional scouts and executives can be wrong about a player on which there is infinitely more film and information about than a high school player from say Immokalee, Florida. A college player is closer physically to what he will be as a pro than a High School senior is to what he may be as even as a college sophomore. For this reason, even if we were able to know who the best high school quarterback is today, it doesn't mean that he's going to be the best sophomore QB in two years.

And this is all without taking one very important thing into account: coaching. The top high school player can quickly turn into a bust if he isn't paired with the right coach to bring the potential within him to fruition. This includes getting the player mentally prepared (learning the playbook), physically prepared (strength training), academically prepared (keeping him eligible), etc. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around does it make a sound? If a 5-star recruit isn't coached properly does he make a splash?

Another question: If Ron Zook had coached the Boise State Broncos this year would they have finished 13-0?

To be continued...

Add your comments to the debate.


Matt said...

You make an excellent point about the how little the recruiting services know. Yes, they can broadly judge how good a kid is in high school, but who knows what happens in college. If I remember correctly, I don't think Wuerffel was highly recruited (I could be wrong). And I know for a fact that Meyer took a chance with a short guy from St. Augustine named Brandon James. That seems to have worked out pretty well.

A corrallary to your ideas of what a good coach needs to do. I don't think they neccesarily have to find the most talented players, but rather the best fit for the system the coach is running. For Meyer, that means the fastest players alive. For Spurrier, that meant ability to catch long balls. And for Zook, it was...well, I think we're still trying to figure out what the hell he was doing.

Pace said...

I think the recruiting services do a great job with the problem you described: how to compare kids across the country?

That said, recruiting rankings should be taken into account only as far as general trends. For example, Texas, USC, and LSU were widely expected to be 'loaded with talent' from top rankings in the past few recruiting seasons and, sure enough, they were talented. But that also shows you the importance of other factors than recruiting because each took themselves out of the MNC race twice.

Does every five star make an impact? Obviously not. But you'd be foolish not to note that for every Boise State there's dozens of San Jose State's (who almost beat BSU) that just don't rack up enough good recruits to compete.

Gator Duck said...

Enough raw talent, by itself, can rise to the occasion and win games and championships. Two excellent examples are Michael Jordan's early years with the Bulls and Vince Young with Texas last year.

By the same token, very talented individuals can come to believe that they are bigger than their team and actually hurt team performance. Such is the case with T.O. and Kobe Bryant.

On the other hand, a very good coach can take capable players who have average and average+ natural talent and then build talent. This is what Spurrier did in his 12 years at Florida.

As talent can be developed, so can one additional extra special attribute - teamwork. It has been said "There is no I in team" to the point that everybody is sick of it. However, it is probably even more important than talent. When the team is clicking, every player knows what to expect of each other, that their teammates will be where they need to be and doing what is necessary. Examples: The 2006 Gator basketball team and the football team to a lesser extent, Meyer's 2004 Utah team, this year's Boise St. team, and the Laker's during the Magic Johnson era.

KG said...

I don't think anyone is crediting Zook with the National Championship. What people are saying is that Zook recruited most of the kids that were on the team that won it all. For people who say it . . . okay, Zook had a great recruiting year when he first got here. I can't argue that something like 22 of the starters were Zook recruits. I will say that his last couple recruiting classes (although highly rated) had some definite weaknesses in them that I won't go into. His 2003 class, as we have seen was a very deep group.

It's also true that Galen Hall did a very good job recruiting. The 1989 and 1990 (the first Spurrier class put together in a hurry) were very weak and it showed in 1993 when 4 out of our 6 deep defensive line rotation were frosh. It's not usually mentioned that Galen went 7-5 with essentially the same kids (plus Emmitt Smith) that SOS went 9-2 with. The next year those kids won Florida's first SEC title (really the second straight title but that's another story).

So if someone wants to throw a little credit to Hall or Zook I have no problem with that. UM and SOS have proven they are better coaches (and recruiters) than their predecessors. In both of those cases the talent on hand allowed UM and SOS to acheive great things. Had they walked into a situation where the Gators had the talent on hand of say an Ole Miss . . . it would have taken much longer to get to the top. JMHO

Teufelhundengator said...

Again, excellent analysis. Your most potent observation, in my opinion, is the "losers are losers" and "winners are winners."

Ron Zook is a lifelong loser - he's never won at anything. A grocery store clerk. But, for some reason, people like to apologize for that and call him a "nice guy."

RattlerGator said...

Dude -- this point you made, I'm curious about it:

"2. The team that Zook took over in 2002 had 12 future NFL players on the roster including the Heisman trophy runner-up and current Chicago Bears starting QB, Rex Grossman (who is one game away from the super bowl)."

Where are those twelve players identified? Point me in that direction or name them. Zook haters are notorious for overlooking really obvious facts and I suspect this is one of them. For instance, that Heisman Trophy QB -- Rex Grossman? I love him, but this season he has clearly demonstrated just how hardheaded he is. Think he was a problem for Ron Zook or was was he a point of stability and support?

But please -- where's the list for those 12 NFL players inherited by Ron Zook?

Henry Gomez said...

According the UF pre-Game notes from the BCS Championship game the following Gators from 2002 were on NFL rosters as of opening day 2006.

Taylor Jacobs
Kelvin Kight (practice squad)
Max Starks
Rex Grossman
Earnest Graham
Keiwan Ratliff
Ben Troupe
Aaron Walker
Ian Scott
Gus Scott
Todd Johnson
Clint Mitchell (practice squad)

I'm not a Zook hater. I'm a Zook observer and I've never seen more people makes excuses for a bad coach in my life or people trying to besmirch the reputation of a good coach (Spurrier). As of this writing it looks like Grossman is going to the Superbowl. Maybe the problem in 2002 wasn't Grossman, or the players on the roster. Why is that so hard to believe?

KG said...

If the problem in 2002 wasn't Grossman or the other players then you are saying Spurrier is to blame for their inability to get to the Championship game that year???

Henry Gomez said...


I'm not sure I follow you. I think the players were there to be a better team than the record at the end indicated. I think a coach better than Zook could have won a couple of more games.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Henry.

Regarding the 2001 season under SOS, it's mo opinion that we very well could have been at the NC had the season not been interrupted by 9/11/01. I'm not making excuses, but the outcome could have been different and possibly had worked to the Gators' advantage.

Had SOS been around in 2002 I'll say DEFINITELY the outcome would have been different and we would have had a winning season. SOS was much more organized, delegated responsibility to his assistants, had a definite plan of attack against an opponent and had his teams prepared to play 60 solid minutes of football as opposed to Zook.

Zook may have been able to attract talent to Florida, but he couldn't COACH them and frankly wasted their talent. Because of poor coaching Rex Grossman deteriorated from a Heisman runner-up under SOS/Buddy Teevens to mediocre under Zook/Ed Zaunbrecher. With good coaching Rex blossomed; with bad coaching Rex faltered. Naturally the Zook apologists blame Rex for the losses at Ole Miss and the LSU game, but he can't be held 100% accountable - preparation for any game and making sure players understand their assignments is still the main responsibility of the coaches, and that meant ZOOK and staff - moreso Zook the Master Micromanager - he failed to delegate responsibility to his assistants and gave them little leeway to develop their players at their particular positions, and that's one of the many reasons why he lost his job at Florida. Zook liked to think he was a "jack of all trades", but the truth was that he was a master of none.

I laughed when I read that statement Zook made about the players he inherited "not being good enough to play the type of football he wanted to play". He inherited a plethora of talent in spite of what the Zook apologists would rather have Gator fans believe. Zook had no concept of what it took to win in a BCS-calibre conference like the SEC. The fact that Zook had no head coaching experience whatsoever spoke volumes for itself, and that one statement is a good illustration of that.

Had SOS stayed at Florida, it's likely we would have won championships in 2002, Rex could have been a Heisman finalist and likely wouldn't have struggled in the NFL as he is now due to his mechanics being manipulated under Z & Z. The difference in his performance between SOS and Zook is obvious and easy to see both from video replay and on paper - OK Zook apologists, as far as the latter go to Gatorzone, pull up his bio and see for yourselves - and YOU do the math.

Also, I wouldn't exactly say that Rex was being hard-headed. As the 2002 season progressed he started to take Zook at face value and eventually see that this guy didn't have all his ducks in a row. He was trying to make the best of a difficult situation and tried to make things work in spite of the circumstances. If Rex just plain didn't give a damn the outcome of the 2002 season would have been MUCH worse than it was.

Hindsight is 20-20, and IMHO Rex should have taken a chance, bailed on Zook and entered the NFL draft in 2002. Perhaps he would have been relegated to "clipboard duty", but he would have entered the pros with much more sound mechanics. If only Rex took the time to have really read into the handwriting on the wall....

As far as I'm concerned great players are both born AND made. In the hands of the right coach a good player will enjoy great success; in the hands of the wrong coach that player's talent will simply go to waste.

Gator Duck also brings up another good point. Team unity and strong leadership are crucial for a team to succeed; SOS was clearly in command and control of his teams but under Zook the tail seemed to wag the dog too many times. If Zook was such a good leader, WHY was it necessary for the players to call a "players-only" meeting because morale was so low and there was no direction? If Zook was such a great coach, WHY then was player discipline such a problem?

Could anyone have imagined Spurrier going over to a frat house trying to break up a fight involving some of his players, making Milquetoast threats and dropping the "f" bomb causing embarrassment to himself, UF and the football program? HARDLY.

As far as the 2002 Gators on NFL rosters as of 2006, keep in mind they all were SPURRIER's recruits. They don't owe Zook a damn thing as far as I'm concerned - and neither does our 2006 National Championship team under Urban Meyer.

Call me a "hater" if you want, Zook apologists, but I just plain didn't like Zook and still don't like him. As much as you're entitled to your opinion, I'm entitled to mine.