Monday, December 08, 2008

Coachapalooza: hello there, Turner Gill

Previous entries in this series: Mike Leach, Jimbo Fisher, Brian Kelly. Collect them all!

First, would he come? Uh, if Auburn can't hire a coach away from Buffalo, I think it's for the best we just disband the program. I suppose if Syracuse offers him their job--they aren't expected to--and Gill's taken some kind of crazy liking to upstate New York, maybe he's pause like 20 seconds before taking the Auburn job. But that would be the extent of it. Odds Auburn gets him if he's the choice: 99-1.


Quite honestly, the biggest pro--and the one that's got Auburn fans in such a relative tizzy--starts at about the 1:50 mark:

There's more of it here*, more here where Woodberry writes--almost certainly correctly--that Gill would handle "the rubber-chicken circuit" with aplomb. Everything we see of Gill, everything we read of him screams: this guy is a Head Football Coach. And a good one. He looks the part, sounds the part, by every account we get lives the part.

I doubt very seriously Auburn fans would be the only ones who'd notice Gill's Head Football Coach-ness if he landed on the Plains. Recruits would listen. They'd sign up. They'd work their tails off for him. Not for nothing, I don't believe, has Gill been described left and right and one of the key recruiters on Nebraska's Osborne, Solich, and even Callahan** staffs. Moreso than some of the other candidates Auburn's looking at, I would have a hell of a lot of confidence that Auburn could start winning some of the recruiting battles they're losing now--even before the wins started coming back. Like Mark Richt, like Jim Tressel, like even Phil Fulmer in his early years, Gill just seems like the sort of person you can build a program around.

As proof: the reclamation project at Buffalo, still a stunning achievement no matter how many times I've heard it mentioned over the past several days. The Bulls' records between 2002 and 2005: 1-11, 1-11, 2-9, 1-10. When you hear the Bulls referred to as the worst program in D-I, it's not an exaggeration. As the current Dr. Saturday detailed on a weekly basis back at his old site, the Bulls went seven consecutive seasons without being listed as a Vegas favorite, gave six to Temple to open the 2006 season, then immediately went another 17 games before being favored again. It's not really feasible to be any worse than the Bulls were.

And yet somehow, between Gill's first and second seasons, he snapped his fingers and turned the Bulls into a real football team. The record went from 2-10 in 2006 to 5-7 in 2007, but the wins and losses don't do justice to the down-to-down turnaround Gill engineered; per Steele, the Bulls went from being outgained by 111.3 yards a game in MAC play to outgaining their MAC opponents by 70.1 yards, a 181-yard net swing in the course of a single season. I checked my entire Steele twice through--it was the biggest step forward in the country. In terms of overall net per-play vaerage, it was a similar story: -1.9 in 2006, -.4 in 2005. For a reference point, think of the improvement Auburn made between the 2001 team and the 2004 team; the Bulls pulled that off in a single offseason.

How? Although the 2007 team showed even more improvement on the defensive side of the ball, the hallmark of Gill's Buffalo tenure from a statistical standpoint has been the year-to-year offensive improvement. After ranking 108th in yards-per-play, the Bulls rose to 73rd last year and then another 20 spots to 52nd in 2008. Perhaps no coincidentally, the surge coincided with Gill taking over the reins as his own offensive coordinator.

For those of you worried about a "gimmick offense" adapting to the SEC, relax; Gill appears to run multiple sets and prizes balance, calling 441 runs and 400 passes (despite the fact that behind senior four-year starter Drew Willy, the Bulls threw the ball much more effectively than they ran it). It seems reasonable to expect that with Gill's improved recruiting (particularly at receiver?), experience coaching quarterbacks, and track record of steady improvement with the Bulls, Gill would be able to give the Auburn offense a boost.

One other pro that has to be mentioned: if Auburn wants to short-circuit the storm of negative press that resulted from Tubby's ouster, there's no better way to do it than to hire the state of Alabama's first-ever African-American head college football coach. It's questionable exactly how much that tide of goodwill would actually be worth--ask Sly Croom if it made things any easier in Starkville--but it's there.


Yes, the Bulls offense took another step forward this year. But the team as a whole ... um, despite that whole "record" and "championship" thing, Gill's Bulls were not actually a better team this season.

Consider: that +70 yardage margin in MAC play in 2007? Gone in 2008--the Bulls are giving up 400 yards a game and gaining about 13 yards less than that. Per-play, the story's a little better, but not much: after a net of +.2 per play in 2007 MAC play (5.4/5.2), the Bulls have backslid to -.2 in 2008 (5.6/5.8).

The issue is coordinator Jimmy Williams's defense. After their 72nd-place finish in 2007 the Bulls dropped to 94th this season; even if the yardage totals are similar, the substantially easier schedule the Bulls played this season and additional .6 yards-a-play given up in MAC play should tell you something about how much trouble the Bulls had on defense this year. (Also: these stats were tabulated before the MAC championship game, where the 500 yards given up to Ball St. won't help.) It would be one thing if Williams was working with a bevy of underclassmen and newcomers--but the Bulls returned eight defensive starters, including the entire secondary, and had the luxury of starting three senior defensive linemen. Despite those advantages, the Bulls' D regressed to the point that Bulls were, overall, no better (and were possibly worse) than they were in 2007.

So how did the record improve from 5-7 to 7-5? How'd they go from also-ran to MAC champs? Well, first, remember that their regular season MAC record didn't actally improve--they were 5-3 in 2007 and 5-3 in 2008, and only advanced to the MAC title game via 1) playing in the substantially weaker of the MAC's two divisions 2) beating division rival Bowling Green 40-34 in overtime after a furious fourth-quarter rally 3) this:

Outside of the MAC, it's simply a matter of scheduling: in 2007 they visited Rutgers, Penn St., Baylor, and Syracuse; in 2008, two of those trips were replaced with home games against UTEP and Army. Easy.

Buffalo probably wouldn't have even held steady at 5-3 in the MAC if not for their stunning good fortune in the realm of turnovers: the Bulls finished at +13 in the regular season, tied for a spot in the top 10, after Bull opponents put the ball on the ground 29 times, ranking the Bulls in the country's top 5 in that department. Some of turnover margin isn't random--the Bulls defenders' made some savvy plays to force some of those fumbles, and having a senior quarterback who finishes the year with only five interceptions helps--but by and large, numbers that high are luck. And the regular season, of course, just ended up being prelude to the insane MAC title game, when Ball St. outgained the Bulls by a full 200 yards and would have won if they hadn't put the ball on the turf four different times, with the Bulls walking two of them back for scores.

So, yeah: whatever the record says, Buffalo did not improve in 2008. Saying Gill "took the Bulls from 1-10 to a MAC title in three years" isn't as accurate as saying "Gill took the Bulls from 1-10 to MAC East contention in two years, then totally lucked into a title his third year." So, yeah, I'm troubled:

1. When you're talking about a candidate with only three years had coaching experience, and in one of those three years the team failed to improve in several measurable ways, that's troubling.

2. When the reason a candidate is a candidate because of his record this season, and that record is built on Hail Marys and opponent's mistakes, that's troubling.

3. When the candidate may bring with him a defensive coordinator whose defense took a dramatic step back this season despite having more experience on hand than in his previous seasons--and who I believe, based on what little evidence we have, would not be able to hold the line drawn in the sand by Tubby and his DCs--that's troubling.

One other thing that probably deserves mentioning in this space: it doesn't change my opinion that hiring Gill would be a boom for Auburn's recruiting, but there's not any hard guru evidence that Gill's done wonders for the Bulls' recruiting efforts. Buffalo currently has the smallest, lowest-ranked class in the MAC and there's basically no difference between the ratings of Gill's classes with his predecessor's. I don't think that means a whole lot, if anything; the gurus might be able to tell you with a certain amount of accuracy what's going on in the SEC, but I can't imagine their credibility extends all the way down into the morass of no-stars that make up the overwhelming bulk of MAC prospects. But if you want to have some kind of firm assurance of Gill's recruiting pull, you're either going to have to rely on the old Nebraska anecdotes or what your gut tells you during that postgame interview. (That's what I'm relying on, anyway.)

(And oh one more thing: Gill's not as young as you think. He's 46, three years older than Fisher, only a year younger than Kelly and Leach. It's not a detriment, and Gill's probably more energetic than any of those guys regardless, but he doesn't have, say, 25 years left on the coaching odometer, either.)

Final endorsements? Let me say this: I think Gill is a good candidate. His combination of charisma, offensive pedigree, and willingness to put in the work to turn freaking Buffalo around means he would be a hire with a tremendous amount of potential. Because of that upside, I'd take him over any other coach currently at a mid-major school, and I do believe there's an excellent chance he becomes a big winner at some BCS school someday.

But, finally, my advice to Auburn would be: let some other school take that chance. It's too soon. As staggering an accomplishment as resurrecting this Buffalo program is, it's a completely different kind of challenge from leading Auburn into battle against the likes of Nick Saban and Mark Richt and Les Miles. Three years just isn't enough time, especially when one of those years was spent mostly spinning the team's wheels rather than moving it forward.

Yes, Gill will be able to recruit, but so could Ed Orgeron. Yes, Gill is a man of impressive character, but so was Sly Croom. Yes, Gill resurrected a dormant mid-major program, but so did Steve Kragthorpe. I just can't shake the feeling that we're not even having this conversation if that Hail Mary hits the turf, and if the margin between being Auburn's next head coach and not even getting an interview is that slim, the candidate probably shouldn't be the head coach.

Sorry, guys.

*Gill mentions taking the 1958 Buffalo team to the Bulls' bowl in a couple of weeks; this is because the 1958 Bulls were invited to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, but turned down the invitation when they were told their two black players wouldn't be allowed to make the trip. It's one hell of a story, and I strongly suggest you read it here.

**Remember that Callahan's problem was never recruiting, which actually got better after he arrived.


gerry dorsey said...

i agree. i feel the jump from the mac to sec is too great. he needs some seasoning in the big east or some such, a la urban meyer.

Harrison said...

i feel you jerry, but i dont understand your worry about the defensive statistics of gill's team. i mean, paul rhoads hasnt left, has he? and it was the offensive assistants that were under fire, not don dunn, terry price, or james willis.

Gerald Ball said...

"Turner Gill is a great candidate who deserves a job somewhere, just not at MY school."

That is precisely why there are only 4 black coaches today, and when black coaches do get hired it is at wastelands like Mississippi State, New Mexico State, Temple, Wake Forest, New Mexico, Northwestern, Stanford etc. The only SEC school to offer to hire Charlie Strong, who has been the conference's top coordinator for 10 years? Vanderbilt.

Most people I suppose would only want a black coach after he has already won a national title. (Never mind that if he has already "proven himself", why would he leave?) Meanwhile, Lane Kiffins and Steve Sarkisians, guys not even 35 years old who have been coordinators for less than 3 years, can get jobs with no problem.

It stinks, and attitudes like this are the reason why.

Gerald Ball said...

Gerry Dorsey:

"he needs some seasoning in the big east or some such, a la urban meyer."

Wrong. Urban Meyer was hired from a mid - major job that he had held for two seasons. Houston Nutt was hired from a mid - major job as well. Tommy Tuberville had no head coaching experience when Ole Miss hired him. So did Mark Richt and Philip Fulmer. Remember what Michelle Obama said about "they keep moving the bar"? This is what she meant ... and keep in mind that the only reason why Gill lacks experience is because NO ONE WOULD GIVE HIM A JOB. Gill applied to the mid - major job that Urban Meyer. It got to the point where he was even getting turned down at I - AA schools. So, Gill left Nebraska (who refused to promote him to coordinator, and as a matter of fact demoted him from QB coach to WR coach) to enter the NFL's AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PROGRAM that conservatives seem to so hate. And Buffalo hired him because he excelled in the NFL's AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PROGRAM.

But you just keep moving the bar. The folks who passed on Turner Gill a few years from now will look just like the NFL people who refused to hire Tony Dungy all those years: fools.