Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Lifetime Curse

Listening to the commentary on the long overdue retirement of Coach Bowden, I want to correct one point made by virtually all those commenting - Bobby Bowden didn’t “make” the Florida State football program, any more than Steve Spurrier “made” the Florida program.

Both men led the making of their respective programs, but it is very, very different than making them. This is an important distinction. There was (and is) something inherent in the programs at Florida and Florida State that allowed them to be “made”, with the addition of the right coach.

This may sound like a narrow difference, but it is not. If any individual could “make” a program, South Carolina would be “made” by now.

Consider – in the four years prior to South Carolina’s 7-5 campaign this year, Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to a 28-22 record (0.56). In the 4 year’s prior to Spurrier, Holtz had the ‘Cocks at 25-22 (0.53) for an identical number of losses. Assuming Spurrier can win his bowl game, South Carolina will be 36-27 (0.57) for his 5 year span. During Holtz’s last 5 years they were 33-26 (0.56), virtually the identical record.

Both Spurrier and Holtz are “national” champion coaches, but neither made the Gamecocks nationally relevant. This leaves us two considerations –

A. Spurrier, and Holtz, lost “something” in their later coaching years.

B. South Carolina doesn’t possess the inherent quality of a program that can be “made”

I believe it is the second option.

How do we know that FSU, and Florida, have that something “inherent”? Well, I’ve spoken of it before, but here it is again. In 1982 the State of Florida’s “Big Three” (UF, FSU and UM) programs had exactly zero national titles. Twenty-five years later, the same “Big Three” have 10 combined recognized national titles, 40% of those available for the time period. By my count there have been 13 different head coaches at the three schools during that time, with 7 of them national title winners.

Either the State of Florida has been unusually blessed with coaching talents, or something “inherent” is going on. I believe it is the latter, fueled largely in part by the explosion of state population since the 1970’s (more talent, more money, more fans).

In retrospect is was a blessing Spurrier chose to leave when he did, and I can recall the angry voices that very much wanted him to return after Zook was fired. Had Spurrier stayed – or been rehired – Florida would be facing the same problem that Florida State has mercifully ended – a person who is bigger than the program. Moreover, a person who IS the program.

It isn’t healthy for a program when you can’t fire your coach. Listening to Dick Vitale this morning decry the way Bowden was treated, he cited the 14 year period when the Seminoles were ranked in the top 5 in the country. While this is an impressive reign by any standard, Vitale was choosing a period that ended in 2000, or nearly 9 seasons ago. Since 2000, FSU has ranked 23rd in the nation in win percentage at 0.65, the same as Wisconsin (Florida is 8th for the same period, and Miami 12th). Not bad, but a far cry from the 1st ranking for the period Vitale cited and a win percentage of 0.89.

What Vitale was saying in essence was that because Bowden did so well for Florida State in the past, he has the right to destroy a program he helped "make". I simply don’t agree.

And destroying it he was. The ‘Noles are 6-6 this year, after going 31-21 for the past 4 years, ranking them just ahead nationally of Western Michigan and Nevada-Reno (the latter who will surpass them in the 5 year rankings after this season). The team I saw at the Swamp last Saturday was not a competitive college football team. Quite honestly, they looked little different than FIU had the week before (and the stats bear this out).

That is who you are right now, Florida State.

Is it too late to turn it around? Probably not, but it was getting very close to that point. FSU still has the fertile State of Florida to recruit in, though according to Rivals.com they currently rank 37th in recruiting for 2010 right now.

Moreover, as an astute friend of mine noted, the whole “coach-in-waiting” idea steals any excitement the coaching search and hire usually generate. But I’m not willing to count FSU out quite yet.

What observers like Vitale with long memories fail to realize that the audience that is MOST important to future success has very short memories indeed. FSU last played for a national title in 2000, when the current group of recruits was 8 or 9 years old. In their formative life years FSU is roughly as successful as Hawaii or California (last 7 years). They don’t recall the glory years, even if the Vitale’s do. (For Notre Dame, on the other hand, it likely is too late. Their last “national” title occurred before most of the current NCAA players were even born. And since 2000, they have a worse winning record than Bowling Green).

Lifetime coaches are a curse, not a blessing. Coaches, while vitally important, don’t “make” programs.

But they can, and do, unmake them.


Hogbody Spradlin said...

There might be a few Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught, or Vince Dooley fans that would argue with you. They all spent over 20 years in the same place.

I agree with your theory about something 'inherent'. I've been correlating state populations with football program strength for a while too. I've rationalized a lot on that: Miami in the 80's, Florida since 90. Georgia's resurgence (well, it's temporarily suspended) correlates with a population boom. Georgia passed North Carolina to be the second most populous state south of the Mason Dixon (ignore Texas, it's a country).

A decent coach is necessary but not sufficient, and a bad coach (Galen Hall, Ray Goff) can offset all population advantages.

Trader Rick said...

There are many, many factors that contribute to success in any endeavor, hard work and preparation and inate skill being among the most important--but there's always the LUCK factor to deal with too.... and our old friend Karma.

themergz said...

Hogbody - I wrote a piece awhile back about the shadow of Bear Bryant and how it had cursed the Alabama program for many, many years (as far as coaching hiring decisions went). It appears with Saban they are finally past that point, but it took them a great deal of pain to get there.

I've looked more closely at the population thing too, and it is pretty clear the ascendency of football in the state of Florida coincided with the dramatic rise in population (that coupled with the traditional love of football in the south). People forget that Florida was initially part of that rise in the early 80's (we have a good case for being the 1984 National Champion) but was derailed by Pell's unfortunate antics.

Rick – can Karma take the form of sleeping at the stoplight at 3:25 AM?

Hogbody Spradlin said...

Agreed, but the theme of your post was about the decline at FSU in the last few years, not the oncoming hangover years. Almost all programs go through the hangover years after "The Legend" retires. Florida is lucky it was short. At Bama, Gene Stallings cured the hangover, but quit early.

There's good point in the post: Bowden has overstayed his effectiveness and can't see it. Thinking back through the years, it doesn't happen to coaches that much.