Wednesday, August 5, 2009

on coaching and judgment

We'll get back to the links and the thrill of starting practice (I even have a column up about it today) in the morning. In the meantime, I want to discuss this blog entry from a few days ago by Tony Barnhart of the AJC.
In short, Barnhart argues that we shouldn't judge UGA's Mark Richt too harshly for having no national championships to claim (thus far).
You read that right. Having covered this sport for a long time I have concluded that national championships are not an accurate measure on whether or not somebody is a good coach or a great coach. Now if a guy like Urban Meyer has won two national titles in three years and is favored to win another, it’s a pretty good bet that he’s a great coach. But the absence of a national championship does not mean that someone is a lesser coach.
Mr. CFB makes a fantastic point. In Mark Richt's tenure at Georgia — which began in 2000 — he's won almost 90 games, two SEC championships and appeared in the BCS on two separate occasions. They've had the upper hand in nearly all their rivalry games: 7-3 vs. UT, 5-4 vs. Auburn and 8-1 vs. Ga. Tech (sorry, Pedro — that 1 was something else, though, right?). And they've been in the conversation for a national title on at least two occasions — 2002 and 2007.
And yet somehow that number – national championships: 0 — sticks out like a sore thumb.

Tommy Tuberville can identify with Richt. This decade, he shepherded the best team in the SEC at Auburn in 2004. It's the only team this decade that finished completely unblemished, yet it didn't even sniff a national title. Tuberville — who brazenly declared Auburn WOULD win the national championship before he left — leaves as something of a disappointment.

Is that fair? Not really. Richt's best season at UGA — 2002, when his team finished 12-1 — is just as good as every other team in the SEC that DID win a national title: '03 LSU, 'o6 Florida, '07 LSU and '08 Florida ALL finished with at least one loss and won the national title anyway.
The point isn't that coaching doesn't matter. The point is that national titles, especially in the BCS era, are as much about luck as they are anywhere else.
Consider, for example, the 1998 national champs from Tennessee. The Vols — a year after losing Peyton Manning to graduation — finished 13-0 and won the national championship. A great season, obviously. But it's fair to point that at least four of those games were about a minute away from being losses:
• Syracuse. Pass interference kept a last-ditch drive alive that ultimately won the game.
• Florida. An inability to kick broke the Gators' hex over the Vols.
• Auburn. The Tigers somehow failed to score on four tries inside the 1 and lost by a TD.
• Arkansas. Um, this happened ...

Again, no one here is implying that Phil Fulmer is a bad coach. But the fact that Florida's equivalent of Clint Stoerner didn't fall down and inexplicably lose the ball in the process — or the fact that UT lucked out by not having to face either UCLA or K. State (or a Florida St. team at full strength) — doesn't make him a greater coach than Richt.

Here's the thing about Richt's UGA teams, though, that does make me wonder if he's got the chops to be a great coach: they don't rise to the occasion when it matters the most.
By my count, UGA under Mark Richt has been a preseason national title contender three separate seasons: 2003, '04 and '08. All three of those seasons featured spectacular failures. And they never could rise to the occasion against Florida, which explains why we could be talking about Urban Meyer long after we're talking about Mark Richt: not because of the rings, because his teams came through when it counted and Richt's did not.

Which, obviously, raises the same question I've raised in this blog before: would you rather have what Mark Richt has had at Georgia (multiple 10-win seasons without a championshp) or what Auburn or Tennessee have had (seasons of mediocrity with one outstanding season stuck in the middle)?

Discuss, if you will.

1 comment:

-D. said...

I would rather have the kind of consistency that Richt has had at UGA. Sure, they haven't quite been able to get over that national title hump, but when you consistently win at that level over a long period of time, I'd like to think you have much better odds of winning a title. Sure, there's luck involved, but that kind of consistency certainly improves your chances.