Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why the age bias?

Gaddabout returns with a follow up to his earlier article Why ASU needs a young coach and staff, which generated an unusually high number of comments.

Many of you have responded to my previous post. I will do my best to address my point of view on salaries as a response in that thread when I have time later in the day. I felt I needed more space here to explain my perspective about my preference for a young coach.

It’s not an age bias as much as it’s a perspective bias. Established head coaches have their own staffs and their own systems. It’s very unlikely they’re going to take input into how they run the program, and that’s a problem unless you’re hiring someone who already understands the unique challenges at ASU.

It requires a lot of money to hire a coach of good reputation, and ASU needs something else besides reputation. It does ASU no good if they receive a positive press conference review in the media only to be in the same position five years down the road. In the 31 years since Kush was forced out, ASU’s had six coaches and average about six wins a year. It’s time ASU worry most about getting it right more than winning the press conference. Instant perception should not matter. Selling a few thousand more seasons tickets next year pales in comparison to how many more tens of thousands season tickets the right coach will sell over the course of 10 or 20 years.

Why is that important? Because ASU isn’t just any school. It’s not any program. It’s not plug-and-play Top 25 football here, but I believe that’s the presumption with which we’ve been hiring coaches since Kush left.

It’s not enough to say ASU has to establish itself in recruiting. You have to say where. There have been three head coaches post-Kush that understood how to recruit for this program – Darryl Rogers, Bruce Snyder and Dennis Erickson – and only one of them understood the extreme nature of the problem (Rogers). You have to own turf in SoCal and the best 6 or 7 recruits in Arizona to compete at the highest level. Rogers said USC could take the best 5 recruits in this region and he’d take the next 25. If there were one line to explain ASU’s mission, that would be it. In this age that requires a whole staff dedicated to acquiring the best talent. It’s not a burden that can be carried in the majority by two coaches. Not anymore.

We’ve already tried experimenting under Cooper and Marmie in Texas, the Midwest jucos, and specifically Chicago. Those staffs had some very good recruiters who did a great job finishing second and third on key recruits. Meanwhile, the local contacts withered and Washington and Oregon cashed in on ASU’s absence in SoCal and even in Arizona.

You also have to supplement with the strong Arizona and SoCal JCs, you just can’t afford to have such major deficiencies that you’re constantly counting on juco transfers to fill key positions such as left tackle or defensive tackle. The success rate of a juco player – even a mid-year transfer – is very low. They’re best served as depth chart fillers for the four-year players you’ve recruited and had in your system from the start. If you’re taking more than 5 a year, you’re putting ASU’s program in peril.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Pete Carroll was pure enthusiasm and positive energy when he took over USC at 50. He was a rare gem of a hire that people mocked until he had two years to really get the program moving forward. The common myth seems to be that Carroll wowed recruits with his NFL pedigree, but that’s just not reality. Carroll had two things working for him as a head coach: He had superstar SoCal recruiters on his staff like Ed Orgeron, and he himself was the rare head coach recruiter with charisma to spare. He also understood the culture and could speak the language, in the same way Bobby Bowden understood the South and could recruit the entire region at Florida State. Recruiting involves three important things: 1) Relationship, 2) relationship, and 3) relationship. Carroll understand that in an intuitive way. He never had to think about it. It’s hard-wired into his personality.

Show me someone like that, who’s pure charisma in a coach’s shirt, who gets the culture, and who understands the unique challenges at ASU, and I don’t care what the age of the coach is.

An age isn’t an issue if you have someone like Rogers or Snyder, who came with strong California pedigrees and had a rebuilding plan that matched ASU’s needs. Without any choices like those two on the list, the coaching search requires more vetting and an explicit explanation of what works and what doesn’t at ASU. It requires finding a coach who will listen and learn before hard-coding the program agenda, and hire a staff with the energy to pull it off.

Can you make a mistake on a young coach? Absolutely.

I maintain high respect for Dirk Koetter. I still think he was one of the best offensive minds in college football while he was here and the man knows how to run a staff and a program in a general sense. How he relates to his players was a separate issue, but that’s a much more difficult thing to judge from the outside looking in. And I maintain there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his commitment to the 4-2-5 defense; it’s worked with phenomenal success at TCU for years.

Koetter’s teams were always so close, full of “if onlys.” If only they hadn’t missed three years straight on this position or that position. If only they had one more X or another Y. There was just enough talent and execution to tease you, but fall apart against the best teams – usually the California teams. It created the perception that Koetter’s X’s and O’s were only fit for mid-major football, but that defies the reality that Koetter’s offense was well-steeped in the NFL one-back tradition, and ASU did in fact switch to a conventional 4-3. No, the one major drawback was holes in the recruiting. Small holes that became big holes over several classes, and those same holes that became canyons on the depth chart in Erickson’s second and third years.

When Koetter left, he uttered his famous assessment of ASU: “It’s not what it looks like from the outside.” Or something to that affect. And he was right, to a degree. I suspect he came here with the same assumption most people make about ASU, that the facilities, the weather, the size of this market would make it easy to recruit. He found out the hard way that it’s much more complex than that: Arizona weather is not the easiest sell to kids in California and Dallas and Houston are MUCH farther away than they look on the map the moment you ask kids to move here. There is no natural deep well of recruiting for this school, and the margins for resources spent are thin. This is potentially a very good job, but it’s not an easy one, and the constant churn of head coaching turnover shows a history of coaches who simply don’t understand the program.

I’m not trying to sabotage the school or strong-arm administration by writing this. I’m merely speaking out now based on my 35 years of intense observation of what works at ASU and what doesn’t. I believe I had an epiphany during Koetter’s years about what makes this program tick, and only now do I see an advantage to shouting my point of view as loudly as possible. I’m wholesale convinced that ASU needs to do something radical, something different to change the culture.

But neither am I going to automatically indict any coach ASU hires. Once that guy gets to the podium, I’ll be everywhere returning to my evangelist role for the program. Every new hire gets the benefit of the doubt from me because every new hire deserves the chance to prove doubters wrong. And I will not hesitate to admit it if I’m wrong. I hope all of you feel the same way. This is not the NFL. College football is family, and you always support your family even when you disagree.


Anonymous said...

Where's the applause button?

Anonymous said...

Gadd, a well thought out piece, I also thought Dennis Erickson was so close to having things working. We needed a new OLine coach that would recruit, it took us years to finally get some depth at those line positions and that hurt in years 2 and 3 of his tennure. Let's hope the ASU administration is close to finalizing this search before we lose a couple of our strongest assests in Coach Broussard and Noel Mazzone and that will sting more if they move to another Pac-12 team.

Phil Alvarez (Devil-TROC)

Carpet Medic said...

It will be a breath of fresh air to have a younger staff. I hope the new coach will have a better grasp on how the players should act on and off the field.