Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Great Debate: Coaching vs. Recruiting, part 2

The University of Miami, and their "recruiting" woes.

In Part 1, I discussed the job description of a big time college coach, the importance of recruiting and how recruiters are evaluated by the general public. I gave some examples from the University of Florida where a myth was constructed that Ron Zook inherited a team that simply didn't have the talent to compete at the same level as it had for the previous 12 seasons; that somehow, inexplicably, at some point Steve Spurrier had either forgotten how to recruit or stopped caring about it. And that poor Zook was left to pick up the pieces. Now let's look at an example that observers say is the exact opposite.

In 2001 Larry Coker assumed the head coaching duties at the University of Miami after Butch Davis left for the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Coker inherited a team that is widely accepted as one of the greatest collections of college talent in recent memory. Turn on the TV on any Sunday during the fall and you will find members of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes perfoming at a high level. Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, and Jeremy Shockey are just a few of the players from that squad. Living in Miami, as I do, I'm quite familiar with the Hurricanes and the claims of their fans and the local sports talk show hosts. The general sentiment of the fans and the local pundits was that Butch Davis had been an excellent recruiter but questionable as a coach. In other words, he knew how to collect talent but not how to maximize it. Several Miami fans went as far as saying "Butch is our Zook". Coker winning the "National Championship" in his first season seemed to reinforce this idea that Miami had the players but that they hadn't been coached well previously.

In 2002 Miami stood on the verge of winning its second consecutive mythical national championship in a row when its star tailback, Willis McGahee blew out his knee and then the team was victimized by a shady pass interference penalty. Instead of the highly favored Hurricanes, the OSU Buckeyes walked away from the Phoenix desert with the crystal football. And then came the beginning of the end for Larry Coker.

In 2003 the Hurricanes posted a record of 11-2. They followed that up with back-to-back 9-3 seasons in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 Larry Coker led the Hurricanes to a 6-6 regular season and was fired before the team's appearance in the MPC Computers bowl in Boise Idaho. He coached the game even though his defensive coordinator, Randy Shannon, had already been named as his successor and the Hurricanes won, finishing 7-6.

Larry Coker, a man who had led his team to 2 consecutive "national championship" appearances and accumulated a record of 60-15 (for an almost unheard of winning percentage of .800) was a man without a job.

Miami fans who had been accustomed to winning, in a way fans from other teams never have before or since, ran Coker out of town on a rail. The problem, they said, was that Coker knew how to coach but he couldn't recruit like Butch did. He had won with Butch's players but couldn't win with his own. The evidence superficially supports this theory but, as you can imagine by now, I don't agree. So let's take a closer look at the Miami Hurricanes of the 21st century and see if we can figure out where it all went so wrong.

Certainly Butch Davis brought in many talented players during his time in Miami. I believe the school had an unprecented number of NFL 1st round picks during the Davis/early Coker years. Like Steve Spurrier at Florida several years before, Butch had inherited a program that was on probation and Miami was a rebuilding project. It's hard to tell how many of those first round picks were highly touted by the recruitniks because generally the recruiting rankings only go back to 2002. But let's assume that Davis' recruiting classes were all among the best in the country, how did Coker's classes stack up?

Well, according Coker's 2002 class was 4th in the country with six 5-star recruits and eleven 4-star recruits.

In 2003 Miami was ranked as having the 6th best recruiting class with three 5-star recruits (including QB Kyle Wright) and nine 4-star recruits.

If 2003 was suddenly a "sub-par" year for the Hurricanes then 2004 was a return to glory. says that the 3rd ranked 2004 class at Miami included ten top-100 players with three 5-star players and eight 4-star players.

In 2005 rated Miami's recruiting class a relatively disappointing 12th in the country with three 5-star players and seven 4-star players.

And in 2006, Coker's last recruiting class, Miami only managed to reel in one 5-star player but did recruit eleven 4-star players, coming in at 14th.
So while shows that Coker's recruiting suffered in his last two recruiting seasons, overall in the last five he was able to bring in sixteen 5-star recruits and forty-six 4-star recruits and his average class rank was 8th. That doesn't sound too shabby.

Is it safe to say that the 2006 Hurricanes didn't play like a team with sixteen 5-star players and forty-six 4-star players? I think it is. Perhaps then, the problem lies elsewhere...

As I mentioned in part 1, I believe that one of the most difficult things to do is evaluate high school football talent. I gave examples of NFL teams evaluating players on which they have much more information (films, combine results, Wonderlic tests, etc.) yet every year we look back and say "So and so was a bust." That doesn't mean that people like the folks at shouldn't attempt to do it. Or that people shouldn't pay attention to what they say. But I think it means we have to take all of it with the proverbial grain of salt.

Let's take the example of Kyle Wright. As I mentioned in the year-by-year breakdown Kyle Wright was highly sought after coming out of High School. He was rated as a 5-star player by both and Let's look at Wright's statistics over the last two seasons:
In 2005 Wright completed 180 of 307 passes (58.6%) for 2403 yards. He tossed 18 TDs vs. 10 INTs and had a QB rating of 137.21. He was sacked 34 times. Not bad statistically but it was enough to get his offensive coordinator fired.

In 2006 Wright completed 152 of 250 passes (60.8%) for 1655 yards. He tossed 8 TDs vs. 7 INTs and had a QB rating of 121.37. He was sacked 19 times. Wright was occasionally benched throughout the season as Coker grasped at straws to try to make the offense work better.
Now let's look at another quarterback that wasn't so highly touted...

When Alex Smith accepted a scholarship to Utah he wasn't what you would call a blue-chipper. He was tall and skinny. rated him a 2-star prospect (I can't find a rating for him). He was recruited by Utah, Louisville, and some Ivy League schools. Since Smith was a good student he was able to transfer a bunch of advanced placement credits from high school into college and entered school at Utah in 2002 as a football redshirt freshman but academically as a junior. His red shirt was burned in mop-up duty and his head coach was fired at year's end. Then Urban Meyer was hired as the coach of the Utes and Alex Smith's meteoric rise to prominence began.
In 2003, Smith's first year as a starter, he completed 173 of 266 passes (64.8%) for 2247 yards. He tossed 15 TDs vs. 3 INTs. He also rushed for 452 yards and 5 TDs.

In 2004 Smith completed 214 of 317 passes (67.8%) for 2952 yards. He tossed 32 TDs vs. 4 INTs. He also rushed for 631 yards and 10 TDs.
Now I'm not going to claim that in the hands of the right coach any 2-star recruit can become the first pick in the NFL draft, like Alex Smith did, but I wanted to present this as anecdotal evidence that one man's trash is another man's treasure.

I contend that Larry Coker was never as good a coach as some people claimed him to be when he was winning and that he's not nearly as bad a recruiter as they said when was when he was losing. Let me explain.

I believe that in this crap shoot we call recruiting Butch Davis did very well. He did, in fact, bring in a lot of great players that went on to great success at Miami and beyond. He was on a roll unlike any that many observers had seen previously. I'm not trying to minimize what he did by saying he was lucky. He recruited the buzz players and, through a combination of perhaps coaching and evaluation, more of them came to fruition as peak performers than is ordinarily the case.

Coker, on the other hand, continued to recruit the buzz players but they just didn't seem to pan out for him. Perhaps he didn't recruit to fill the right needs or perhaps he didn't have as keen an eye for psychological "make-up" in order to distinguish between the 5-stars that were contenders and the ones that were pretenders. Either way, the alleged talent he collected never came to fruition and the won-loss total for 2006 proves it.

There's one more factor that Miami fans conveniently overlook when analyzing this entire Davis-Coker-Shannon saga. And that's the level of competition.

When Miami began its run of success in the 1980s it was an independent, the Hurricanes belonged to no conference. An independent team basically makes its own schedule. It's not compelled to play any opponent. Miami only had one thing to play for: the mythical national championship. It was "win it or bust". Later, Miami joined the Big East. At the time, the conference was laughable. In 13 years of Big East Play the Hurricanes won the conference outright 6 times and were co-champions 3 times. As a result Miami fans didn't really appreciate what it means to play in a tough conference and win it. What gets lost in the debate about whether Coker was a great coach and good or poor recruiter is that in 2004 Miami moved to Atlantic Coast Conference.

In Coker's last season in the Big East, the Hurricanes went 11-2. Two losses was the most Coker had ever had in his 3 seasons to that point. As I mentioned at the top, a pair of 9-3 seasons followed, and then the 6-6 disaster that got him canned. I believe that while Miami's 6-6 record in 2006 is probably an anomaly, the 9-3 records from 2004 and 2005 are a truer indication of where the program was/is in comparison to other programs in its new conference. With the best Big East teams (at the time) coming over to the ACC, Miami found that there were now more than one or two teams on its schedule that could jump out and beat them occasionally. Teams like North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech. In 3 years of ACC play Miami has yet to win a conference title or play in a BCS bowl game.

To be continued.

Join the debate, comment below.


Anonymous said...

Yep, you are right. People forget that Coker recruited as well as any Miami coach ever when it comes to "ratings". Part of this was that South Florida was ignored nationally and by recruiting services during the Cane Heyday despite the fact that the area has more people living in it than most states. A few years ago we were watching to see who Miami would get so that hopefully some kids they didn't have room for would fall to us. My how things have changed!!!

I still haven't finalized the book on Coker and his legacy because he was a good recruiter "ratings wise" and he did have some top kids denied by the school. Plus he was forced to compete in a much more difficult recruiting landscape than his predecessors had too (might I add I think he had the most honesty and integrity in recruiting than any previous Cane coach - Lesson Learned huh Canes?).

Bottom line is that I don't know if it's entirely all on Coker or what people had been predicting would happen to the Miami program just finally occured and the 2000 and 2001 seasons had just put a new coat of paint on a decaying structure. Maybe they were in decline no matter who was coaching. The new league, the facilities, the much more competitive recruiting landscape, the history of negative publicity, etc, etc, might have just culminated in a "perfect storm" that took down the USS Coker.

Anonymous said...

I think Miami under Coker is the quintessential team that reflects its coaches personality.

Under the subdued Coker, Miami teams yearly became less intense and nasty than they were famous for. Coker's last year was the most telling when the players held a team meeting about bringing back the intensity. It was followed by a couple awkward shows of bravado such as fights and stomping on logos pre-blowout (I'm thinking it was NC State) but without the on-field intensity to back it up.

machete said...

You're just looking at two factors in the coaches, but when evaluating a coach, you must look at three things:

1. ability to find and recruit talent
2. ability to lead and develop talent to full potential
3. ability to be a game-day architect, setting up a game plan, calling plays, making adjustments

I rate Butch (who I do NOT consider our Zook, nor have I heard anyone say so):
1. ***** (Excellent)
2. **** (Very Good)
3. *** (Average)

I rate Coker:
1. *** (Average)
2. * (Poor)
3. ** (Below Average)

Coker was personable and was able to be a "grandpa" to the kids, keep their heads on straight and keep them focused on grades. But he was not a leader. There are stories that he'd sometimes buckle under the pressure and Ed Reed would have to swoop in and save him with a motivational half-time speech. And although he was not a bad recruiter, despite popular belief, he was a poor developer of talent. That much is clear and is supported by your arguments. Also, when Coker was OC, he took more chances, but as a head coach he just couldn't put together a balanced game plan, and certainly did not know how to make adjustments.

As far as recruiting under Coker, first, as I've said, he wasn't a hoorible recruiter. But he wasn't great. Those first few years fresh off a national title and a second appearance, you'd have to really be horrible at recruiting to not grab a top 10 class after such success, especially in Florida, Texas, or Cali. The later classes in the top 20 or so are more indicative of his recruiting ability (and it's worth noting, Miami being Miami, automatically gets some good talent regardless of recruiter).


And about our independent years: you guys LOVE to discredit our schedules during those years, but the truth of the matter was, we played everybody. I've said this before. Miami ASKED the top 25 schools to add us to their schedules. And we never backed away from any teams (unlike the Gators). This is how our swagger was born: saying loud that we'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime.

Certainly the Big East wasn't the toughest conference, but it was an attempt joining the ACC should not have affected us as much as you think it did. Prior to Coker, we played teams and won regardless of conference or rank.

Shannon is going to bring us back. I'm certain that our recruiting class this year, after a miraculous salvaging job by Shannon, will be in the top ten. We've got two 5-stars in the bag and it looks like we might get 2-3 more. We have a bunch of great4- and 3- stars, and some sick 2-star talent that is flying well low under everyone's radar. After a 7-6 season and a coaching change, that's impressive. And I believe Shannon will have The U in the title hunt sooner than anyone expects.

Anonymous said...

Very well written, and I'm a huge 'Canes fan.Your article could replace many on some major commercial sports sites.
The two key words were "psychological make-up" and with those two you nailed a lot of recruits brought in by Coker. Larry went after the "buzz" players but few of them worked out for him because they soon reflected the toughness(or lack of,if you will)of their HC. Yes the ACC is tough but WVU,BC,VT,FSU plus our out-of-conference schedule with teams like Tenn,UW,UCLA were'nt cakewalks.
Again, well done