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Chemistry Is For Laboratories, Urban Meyer Edition

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?

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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:

Even as the unprecedented success at Florida continued, a mounting number of players were dragging the Gators’ name down a path of drugs and destruction. At least 30 players were arrested in Meyer’s six seasons. Instances of substance abuse were often linked to his most prized athletes. NFL teams took notice.

Hernandez admitted to failing a drug test at Florida, a problem that cut his draft stock from first-round grade to fourth-round selection by the New England Patriots. Harvin, according to multiple reports, failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine and slipped from a top-10 pick to the latter half of the first round.

Spikes, sources said, failed a drug test at Florida and was suspended four games during his rookie season with the Patriots for using performance enhancing drugs. Offensive lineman Maurice Hurt, according to multiple reports, last year tested positive for marijuana at the Combine. He fell to the Washington Redskins in the seventh round—and later developed into a starting guard in his rookie season.

Just how prevalent was the drug use among Meyer’s players? A source told Sporting News that Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke to the current Florida team this offseason, and addressed the issue and how it impacts NFL careers.

"His message was, in essence, don’t be like those guys," a source said.

Hernandez was a fourth-round pick and has been one of the most productive pass-catching tight ends in the NFL over the first two years of his career. Harvin has accounted for 2,625 yards receiving and 24 total touchdowns in three seasons in the NFL, despite playing a position with a steep learning curve. Brandon Spikes was a starter from day one with the Patriots. I am going to surmise that Hayes' source left out the second part of Belichick's message, which might have been "don't be like those guys ... whom I drafted and have had success starting." Heck, the chemistry and leadership mindset is great for someone like Belichick, as it is a market inefficiency that he can exploit, not unlike the focus on pure physical tools and interview skills that Billy Beane was able to exploit as described in that book that Joe Morgan refuses to read.

As I learned when I wrote about Georgia's drug policy, UGA's strict approach to marijuana use is the result of a school-wide effort to deter drug and excessive alcohol use. Mark Richt did not implement the policy based on a belief that casual marijuana use is bad for team morale or on-field performance. Indeed, he is not the one who implemented the policy in the first place. If that would have been his rationale, then Florida's experience under Meyer would completely refute it. As it is, Hayes' article should be mandatory reading for someone like Jeff Schultz, whose angle on Georgia football seems to be that the police blotter reflects that Mark Richt has lost total control over the team and the loss of control is affecting results on the field. Meyer managed to win a pair of national titles with off-field issues that put Georgia's scooter issues to shame.

There are legitimate lessons for Urban Meyer to take from his time at Florida. His decision to promote Steve Addazio to offensive coordinator in 2009 after Dan Mullen left was a disaster, leading Florida's offense to regress a little in 2009 and a lot the following year. He recruited, signed, and started John Brantley because he was local and a legacy Gator, ignoring the fact that Brantley was a terrible fit for the Florida offense. He made recruiting mistakes, as evidenced by the fact that Florida players are going to be an afterthought in the Draft this month, a point that Hayes notes. These are all legitimate criticisms that explian Florida's decline after 2009, but they have nothing to do with the touchy-feely intangibles that college football's McCarvers and Celizics cite in lieu of doing actual thinking.*
* - Justr

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.