GAINESVILLE FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Head coach Urban Meyer of the Florida Gators directs his team while taking on the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 25 2010 in Gainesville Florida. Florida defeated Kentucky 48-14 for Meyer's 100th career victory. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Florida won a national title in impressive fashion in 2008, despite favoritism and lax discipline from its coaches. Can we use this experience to put to bed the excessive focus on impossible-to-measure concepts like leadership and chemistry in assessing college football teams?
In the development of the sports blogosphere into an interesting place - one that banished rote game recaps and single-paragraph, reactionary columns from the consciousness of a generation of fans - Fire Joe Morgan deserves its own chapter. For those of us who grew up complaining about lazy columns that relied on chemistry and leadership in place of actual analysis, FJM was a delight. Their merciless eviscerations of Joe Morgan morphed into regular attacks on Tim McCarver, Hat Guy, and anyone else who refused to recognize that baseball is a game that can be quanitified because of the one-on-one battle between a pitcher and a hitter. I doubt that I am alone in saying that part of my aspiration in writing is to combine logical, evidence-based arguments with wit in the same zip code as the guys who wrote for FJM.
I was thinking about FJM when I read Matt Hayes' SHOCKING EXPOSE on Urban Meyer. One of the pet themes of FJM was to mock those who attributed the success of baseball teams to intangibles, like Derek Jeter's icy glares and David Eckstein's dirty uniforms. If ever they needed a succinct illustration of the irrelevance (or at least lack of relative importance) of chemistry and leadership, Hayes' article provides it. To summarize the article, Florida's players engaged in various forms of bad behavior during the 2008 season. The highlights include Percy Harvin complaining about running stadium stairs and then choking his position coach, Janoris Jenkins getting into various scrapes with the law, Meyer applying laxer discipline to his best performers, and Florida players generally smoking a lot of marijuana.
And here's the punchline: it's an afterthought in the article, but Florida won the national championship in 2008. In fact, there's an argument to be made that 2008 Florida was the best team of the Aughts, as evidenced by the fact that their yards-per-play margin ranked up with those of 2001 Miami and 2005 Texas, despite the fact that the Gators played a tough schedule. The Hats Guys of the world (and there are plenty of analogs in the world of college football) want us to believe that teams win based on senior leadership, authoritative performances from quarterbacks in the huddle, and "everyone coming together as a team." According to this ideology, 2008 Florida should have been terrible, as their players should have been split apart by inconsistent discipline and a star player being permitted to commit a battery on a coach. Instead, they ended the season passing around a crystal football.
And, as if to illustrate this mindset that can't make sense of the fact that a team with great players and schemes can win regardless of what the players do off the field, John Pennington opines that the Hayes story shows that Tim Tebow was the real reason why Florida was so successful under Meyer. It's as if conventional wisdom people can't get their heads around evidence that does not comport with their worldviews. Let's think about all of the reasons why Pennington's explanation is wrong. First, Meyer won big at Bowling Green and Utah, so apparently he can win without Tebow. Second, Meyer won his first national title with Tebow playing solely as a short-yardage weapon. Unless we are supposed to believe that a true freshman non-starter was the glue for a national champion, Tebow can't be the reason why Meyer won his first national title. And funnily enough, Tebow lost four games when he was paired with a bad defense in 2007, won a national title in 2008 when that defense matured and got an infusion of young talent, and then came up short in 2009 when Dan Mullen was no longer calling his plays. Third, doesn't the Hayes article refute the idea that Tebow's leadership was able to mold the team? If Tebow were truly the guy in charge, then wouldn't his teammates have behaved better?
This excessive focus on chemistry and leadership is not limited to people paid to opine on college football; the people who make personnel decisions are subject to the same criticism. If you need a reason to tune out when subjected to a million references to "character concerns" in the lead-up to the Draft, remember these five paragraphs:
Did the off-field issues described in Matt Hayes' article about Urban Meyer cause the Gators' decline in 2010-11?
Yes (15 votes)
No (150 votes)
165 total votes