I’m not a huge football fan. My passion has always been baseball. I do enjoy watching a good football game, but I’ve never gotten into college football. I always say it’s the transient nature and imperfections in the game. I’ve always found NFL football to be of a better quality. That’s just my opinion though.
This week, an article made me re-evaluate my thoughts on college football. In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis, famous to baseball fans as the author of Moneyball, profiled Texas Tech Head Coach Mike Leach. Much like he did with Billy Beane in the controversial book, Lewis has found someone willing to challenge the dominant paradigm of his sport.
One passage toward the end of the article offered a telling glimpse into Lewis’ mind and his love of finding that one guy on the frontiers of change:
Leach remains on the outside; like all innovators in sports, he finds himself in an uncertain social position. He has committed a faux pas: he has suggested by his methods that there is more going on out there on the (unlevel) field of play than his competitors realize, which reflects badly on them. He steals some glory from the guy who is born with advantages and uses them to become a champion.
In his profile, entitled, “Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep,” Lewis looks at Leach’s unorthodox coaching and play-calling techniques. Leach has been, in the NCAA circuit, the guy filling Billy Beane’s roles. He’s often left with some of the players the big-name football schools won’t even consider. And he’s turned these players into some of the most potent offensive lines in the history of college football.
Leach is not afraid to push the envelope of accepted football wisdom. He doesn’t believe in the old theories of establishing a running game. Rather, he has the defensive, including 300-pound linemen, running down field trying to keep up with his four receivers. As the defense scrambles to adjust, holes open up early in the game for the running moves. Why give away your running plays by lining up in a formation when a first down can be had otherwise? Leach gives the quarterback more leeway than most coaches ever allow their passers.
Texas Tech’s offense has reached the point where 56 points would be considered a bad game. They run the clock differently than any other team; they run the game differently than any other team.
Lewis’ work is fascinating to me as a relative outsider to football. It’s interesting to see the similarities between baseball and football when it comes to the “old way” of thinking. Baseball managers, GMs, writers, commentators, they’re all afraid to adjust to new ways of thinking. Just look at the Paul DePodesta debacle in Los Angeles. (DePodesta, not coincidentally, was a major player in Lewis’ book.)
It seems that football, another game that relies on intricate strategies and analysis much like baseball does, suffers the same love affair with the tried, true, and maybe a little tired methods that have worked for so long. Leach, who would never be allowed to experiment offensively at a school like Notre Dame or at the NLF level yet, has shown the football world that there’s a more imposing way to play. Of course, Leach’s constant references to pirates would not endear him to those so-called institutions of football. But that’s all a part of his character.
Lewis’ work, which could easily be the basis for a book on football coaching techniques, hints at some of the consequences of Leach’s methods. First, the quarterbacks who pass for nearly 6,000 yards in a season, basically have no feeling in their arms and rely on cortisone shot after cortisone shot.
But more interesting are the hints at the future of Leach’s players. Some of his stars, drafted by NFL teams, have fallen far short of expectations. Lewis doesn’t explore these professional failures, but it’s clear from the article why they don’t succeed. Leach’s techniques are so far out of the mainstream that stars at Texas Tech do not fit in with the dominant football paradigm. These players would do well on a Leach-inspired NFL team; they won’t do well on Bill Parcells’ team.
In the end, Lewis’ story, much like Moneyball did, offers promise for the future of the game of football, Is there a revolution in football strategies looming on the horizon or is the man using pirate metaphors to pump up his team the long ranger here? Will others join him as others have joined the long line of statistically-minded baseball executives stretching back to Branch Rickey and beyond?
I hope Lewis turns this profile into a book, and I hope you check out his article. Any open-minded fan of sports will find it a rich and complex story no matter your initial feelings toward college football.