For those of you who were either tailgating on Saturday during the noon to 3:30 time slot or had been dragged to a corm maze at an inopportune time, Texas had to pull out a skin-of-their-teeth victory in Lawrence against Kansas. Yes, a Kansas team that has not beaten a single FBS opponent and has losses to Rice and Northern Illinois on its resume was one stop away from beating a Texas team that is more profitable than any other in college football and that gets to select players, rather than having to recruit them. Against an opponent that gained 39 yards passing in the game on nine attempts, Texas still found themselves needing to convert a fourth and six from their own 34 with two minutes remaining on a drive that ultimately led to the winning touchdown.
The Twitter reaction to Texas narrowly averting an utter disaster was along the lines of Mack Brown saving his job with that late drive. Think about that for a moment. Brown has accumulated a 15-year record in Austin. If you view his regime as being doomed, then you are looking at his track record since 2010, since which time the Horns have gone 19-14 and look like an anachronism in a conference where teams generally do a good job of maximizing their talent. If you want Brown to stay, then you are putting value on the 2005 national title and the overall health of the program in terms of recruiting prestige and fan interest. In no way should one pass from Case McCoy to Jaxon Shipley determine whether the guy should keep his job.
And yet this is exactly how the college football cognoscenti were acting on Saturday afternoon. The universal focus was on the outcome, with very little attention paid to a process that involved Texas trailing for most of the game to a hopelessly over-matched opponent. No one is saying that Texas deserves credit for their performance in Lawrence, but the volume and quality of the reaction is way different based on the outcome of one play,
And that brings us to Mark Richt. Going into the 2012 Cocktail Party, Georgia fans were down on Richt. The general sense that I got was that the fan base had lost confidence in him, that his teams play flat and soft, and that he does not get the most out of the talent at his disposal. One eight-point win over an overvalued Florida team later and the tune has changed dramatically. The Dawgs just need to avoid a major upset in the next two games and they will win the SEC East again. Assuming that they don't trip up against Georgia Southern or Georgia Tech, the Dawgs will go into a likely match-up against Alabama at the Georgia Dome knowing that an upset victory will propel them into serious consideration for the BCS Championship Game. (I wonder if Gary Danielson would do any politicking for a 12-1 Georgia team over unbeaten Kansas State, Oregon, or Notre Dame? With Gary's intense commitment to intellectual honesty, I totally unsure as to how he would come out on that question.)
Georgia beat Florida despite throwing three interceptions, gaining only 273 yards (a smidge fewer than the Gators were allowing coming into the game, although I'm willing to acknowledge that the windy conditions aided the defenses), and committing a whopping 14 penalties for 132 yards. In the fourth quarter, I couldn't shake Hannibal Lecter's line about tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seat of a car. On an emotional level, no Georgia fan should care about style points in a rivalry game of this magnitude. On a rational level, with some distance from the game, no Georgia fan should let one afternoon in Jacksonville radically alter the way he or she views the current status of the program.
In fact, do we think that Saturday's result was a lot more complicated than "Jarvis Jones was healthy and motivated?" For whatever reason (most likely a pair of nagging injuries that have been bothering him over the course of the year), Jones had been quiet since destroying Missouri in the second game of the season. Against the Gators, Jarvis put forward an effort that deserves its own DVD: 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. In a game full of future NFL players on both sides, Jones stood out. So if your average Georgia fan thought before the game "I'm done with Mark Richt because I can't get the taste of the South Carolina and Kentucky games out of my mouth" and after the game "I knew that Richt had it in him; I'm proud that that guy represents my program," isn't the difference between the two really just the health of Jarvis Jones's groin?
I am reading Ike's Bluff and a particular passage struck me last night as being relevant for the mistakes that we all make in evaluating coaches. In a chapter on President Eisenhower's opposition to the idea of limited war put forward by General Maxwell Taylor and Secretary of State Foster Dulles, Evan Thomas writes the following about Ike adopting a "deeper meaning" from Clausewitz's On War:
Politicians and policy makers may think that they can control war by rational planning, but Clausewitz saw larger, irrational forces at work. The bias of war, Clausewitz wrote, is always toward violence; even the most well-meaning men will use whatever weapons they can find, including the sacrifice of citizens.
Football is constantly described as a metaphor for warfare, so why not get a little lesson the famous Prussian theorist? We grade coaches on what happens on the field, which depends on the illusion that they control the events that unfold before our eyes. We credit Mack Brown for saving his job as if a back-up quarterback completed a pass on fourth down because of something the head coach did. We revise our assessments of Mark Richt because his team won a really big game for the first time in years when in reality, the win was more about healing tissue in the body of a star player than it was about anything else. It's trite to say that we give too much credit to coaches for victories and too much blame for defeats, but this weekend provided a fine illustration of that cliche.