Thursday, April 16, 2009

Feedback: "Queeg" revisited

So last week I wrote a post expressing my uneasiness with Gene Chizik's obsessively detailed, openly distrustful, just-go-ahead-and-call-it anal approach to spring practice--and, specifically, how the same kind of approach might have led to some of his problems at Iowa St., where a Rivals columnist compared him to famous literary paranoiac Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny.

Though I wasn't surprised some of the JCCW's (kick-ass) readers took exception to this characterization of Auburn's new head coach, I have to say I was caught off-guard by how thoughtful these exceptions were expressed. The entire comment thread is worth a read, but I wanted to highlight (and respond to) a couple of comments in particular, the first by noted Auburn blogger (and fortune cookie inquisitor) Grotus Acorn:
I have to put myself firmly in the "disagree" category.

I tend to agree with easyed and tiger7: God forbid a football team be required to exhibit discipline. Especially - painfully so - the post-2008 Auburn Tigers. Queeg's strawberries were a meaningless detail, but discipline for our football team is anything but meaningless. Auburn football is in a serious nadir. We've endured the season of DEATH. We've had our noses ground into the dirt by the Bammers. This is a genuine time of crisis, and in such crises the head coach has to assert control, and no detail can be overlooked until the ship is righted.

Moreover, Chizik is a head coach with a losing record. He has everything to prove and no time in which to do it. He's got to act fast and no opportunity to fine-tune his vision can be passed up. My guess is that he had to be in a similar mindset at the Iowa "perpetual crisis" State, which may help explain his nit-picking in Ames.

And lastly: being that a lack of discipline radiating down from the coaching staff was a key feature of Tuberville's late tenure, Chizik's style even serves to distinguish his reign from the failures of the past. War Eagle. I'm ready for our boys to be more than a herd of cats.

So, Chizik must at least begin his tenure as a hardass - for his own sake, for his team's sake, and for the fans' sake. Beginning this tenure as a micromanager is wise.

Now, that says nothing much about whether this is a bona fide tendency of Chizik's. Maybe it is. Maybe he's a raging control freak in his heart of clockwork hearts. But I don't necessarily see that as a problem. You bring up Pete Carroll as an example of the fun-lovin', loose 'n fast type who's enjoyed great success. And sure, it would be great to have Pete Carroll's problems. But it would be even better to have Jim Tressel's problems. Or Joe Paterno's. Or (AAAAUGGH IT BURRRNNNNSSS AAAAUGGH) Nick Saban's.

Let's not forget, either, that Chizik's detail fixation isn't nearly as bad as boot camp. No droves of ISU players chose earrings and unstraightened helmets over Chizik's Cyclone team. We are at Auburn. If kids will suit up as Cyclones to play for the guy, they'll certainly play for him at Big Blue.

As for the bitter residents of Ames ... I don't put much stock in the personal complaints. After all, ISU was hoping to keep Chizik around, and the players were buying into Chizik's long-term goals for the program. Seems like they're more unhappy he bailed than anything. Besides, you know what they say about the first person to get personal...
I'll certainly agree that some tightening of the discipline belt around Auburn's program is justified, and probably even necessary. When I reflect on the Season of DEATH these days, I think a lot about that rash of practice field fights that broke out as soon as fall camp opened, the ones that helped drive Deron Furr off the team and cost Marcus Jemison his season. Tubby was always one to leave a little slack in the reins, but 2008 gave us a mountain of evidence he'd just about dropped them completely--and those fights were the first warning signal. The reins do have to be tightened.

But, of course, how tight we want them is a matter of debate. I disagree that the complaints coming out of ISU after Chizik's departure were pure sour grapes over his decision to leave--your readings between the lines may differ from mine, but I thought the bitterness and sniping went far beyond just what you'd expect in response to Chizik leaving (for what any sane person would admit is the better job). I think Chizik's players at ISU just plain disliked him, and I think the easiest explanation we have for that is that Chizik promised them that the effort put in to keeping a clean locker and not wearing the clothes they wanted to and all those other little things would pay off in wins. When it didn't, no wonder they turned on him.

Maybe it's true the strictness came because Chizik was in "crisis mode" from the moment he stepped on campus, and that one day he would have slackened up, as with any luck he'll slacken up at Auburn some glorious day when he's won six straight Iron Bowls and put together an undefeated season and made himself untouchable.

Oh, wait.

That's why I don't think we're going to see much change in Chizik going forward, why I don't think he's merely playing Wild West sheriff before tossing away the badge and having everyone over for pizza and Apples to Apples. Head football coaches at this level are always in crisis mode; you don't have to look any further than Tubby to see what happens to teams whose head coaches aren't. Sure, coaches can learn and evolve over the years, but for the most part I think they are who they are: Saban's still more-or-less the same human-like "person" he was when he arrived in Baton Rouge from East Lansing, Meyer's the same ingenious, preparation-obsessed schemer he was when he left Bowling Green, Tressel the same cold and conservative bespectacled tactician he was when he joined up at Ohio St. Maybe he'll prove me wrong, and I'm sure we'll see some sort of change from year-to-year with the Chiznik, but for the most my wager is that what we see is what we're going to get.

This is where I remind everyone that doesn't mean I think Chizik's doomed to failure. Quite the opposite--so, so many of Chizik's decisions-to-date at Auburn (as well as the positive results on the recruiting trail) suggest that he's got the goods to be a successful head coach. As Grotus points out, you don't have to go any further than our favorite resident Coachbot to find an example of a coach that obsesses over seemingly trivial details, allegedly rubs a lot of the people and players who work with him the wrong way, and succeeds wildly anyway.

But I would caution against seeing Saban's obsessiveness and deep, abiding hard-assedness as the cause for his wild success. Certainly, the attention to detail and doggedness helps in recruiting, but it's probably not quite as important as Saban's obvious salesmanship and his excellent eye for hiring assistants who will sell the program pretty damn well themselves. Talk about the discipline and "the process" all you want, but I think the biggest asset Saban brings to the table is his incredible defensive acumen. Saban gets himself the best possible players and then, on defense at the very least, puts them in the best possible position to make plays. What he doesn't do, from where I sit, is inspire his players to play harder for him than they would for any other competent coach--and against the apparent lightweights on the schedule, they might even play less hard, to judge by the no-shows the past two years against Miss. St., UL-Monroe, Tulane, and Utah.

What's funny is that you could write the exact same argument about the tenure of Pete Carroll, Saban's dialectical opposite in temperament and the immediate counter-example to the idea you have to be Dr. Serious Stone-Face to win in college football. Carroll wins for the same reasons Saban wins--dominant recruiting, shrewd assistant hires, defensive schemes as sharp as there are in the sport. But just as Saban's policies that don't leave him with time for this sh*t didn't do much for him when his team was down to UL-Monroe, so having Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg at USC's practice didn't save them against Stanford or Oregon St. Be a Saban, be a Carroll, it doesn't matter; it's not the type of coach you are, it's how well you coach.

So why do I care about what type of coach Chizik is? Because while I think either type of coach can win, I do think it's the hard-asses who have the harder time when things go south. Players will resent any coach who doesn't lead them to victories, but it seems only natural to resent a coach who's asking them to forego their favorite gold chain and spent 10 minutes a day cleaning up their locker during the losing than the one that doesn't. This is something else Chizik and Saban have in common: at their previous stops, as you know, both began their last season on the job with abundant optimism and finished it leaving for greener pastures under a storm of bad local press and withering comments from their former players. I wish I could think of a third corroborating example (any help out there?), but nonetheless the working hypothesis here is that the descent from "everything's hunky-dory!" to "untenable situation" is made much steeper by the boot camp-style approach.

So even I don't really think Chizik's leadership style is something to worry about for the time being. But it might be something we'll have to worry about in the future ... and since it's not a leadership style I think is necessary for success, forgive me, but I can't help but wish it was something Chizik could go without.

A second comment, this one from long-time reader Sullivan013 in response to the military analogies employed in the thread:
Can't say I played football past high school, but did serve 22 years in the Army, from private to Major, where teamwork was a byword.

How do you instill it? The basic training analogies are misplaced. That process is to create the blank canvas from which you build a good soldier. The real training is at the unit, where micromanaging is minimized but a 'hands on' leadership is still required. The process is to establish a 'team culture' to match your team to your leadership style, within a given set of parameters. Despite the percieved rigid discipline of the military, leadership styles vary greatly from leader to leader.

Ever wonder why Tuberville separated the seniors and treated them differently (BBQs, seniors only meetings with the coach, etc.)? He was establishing the culture of his coaching, and enlisting players as junior leaders. His 'style' if you will was to grant some of his authority to these young men. For a great majority of his teams, that worked well, but I don't recall him doing that in the first few years - he hadn't established his team culture at that point. That came later.

It's my view that the culture for Chizik will be slightly different, but it is still evolving, and won't be fully in place for a couple of seasons. To expect what he is doing now as what he will do in the future is premature. Call it a 'familiarization process with his team, his players and his coaching staff. Once he feels comfortable that his philosophy is being instilled and his players and coaches 'get it', expect his days of 'on the field' coaching to diminish.

As for the ISU experience, every new lieutenant in the service can remember his biggest gaffe of the initial few months after assuming command of his first platoon. I'm pretty sure Patton, Eisenhower, and MacArthur had their share. Afterwards, though, they too learned their trade and did well.

Have patience. Like you said, he's made some astounding progress so far. Let the man coach his team and judge him based on what his young men do on the field of play over the next couple of seasons. Then you can be critical of his leadership style.
I'll say this: yeah, I could have been more conciliatory in that initial post. Certainly, Chizik has earned the benefit of the doubt many times over to this point. Certainly, I may be way off in assuming his in-your-face approach isn't temporary. Certainly certainly, Chizik will have learned a few things from his Ames stint he'll be able to put into practice here.

But: it's still worth asking exactly why things went so wrong at ISU. Auburn hired a head coach with a 5-19 record. As fans, we have to ask ourselves both why he failed so miserably in his previous job and why those same issues, whatever they were, won't resurface at Auburn. I think it's fair to wonder--though not outright declare--if the dress codes and helmet-straightening and secrecy with the press hampered Chizik's effectiveness as a head coach. There were bigger problems, sure. But if it played any part in Chizik's struggles, we'd like to see it changed, right? And that's one thing, at the least, we can verify that hasn't changed. I'll agree it's too early to criticize Chizik for it. But particularly in the offseason, I'm not sure we're better served by ignoring it, either.

p.s. It's another busy day in Real Life, unfortunately. I'll try to get something up later today ... but this may be it. Apologies if that's the case.


Grotus' Acorn said...

LMAO From now on, I will ever refer to Alabama's head coach as "Coach Dr. Serious Stone-Face Nick Saban." Or, CDSSFNS.

Seriously: fair enough. It remains to be seen how Queegedly Chizik will be.

And GL with the RL.

easyedwin said...

They call me Ishmail !!

Sammy34 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sammy34 said...

Sorry for deleting it, should have read over it before posting.

Let me preface my comment with this: I found this blog by complete accident while surfing the net. Being a life-long Auburn fan and season ticket holder, the name instantly grabbed my attention. I had to check it out.

As soon as I had read the first post, which was extremely well-written and thought-provoking, I felt I had found what would be considered by most as an anomaly in the world of blogs. That is a blog not affiliated with any form of mass media, that is not only written with proper grammar and spelling, but also that has content worthy of spending one's time reading.

With all that out of the way, I would like to say I was outraged when I first learned that Tuberville had "retired," and became even angrier when Auburn hired Gene Chizik. My immediate reaction was to say that I was done buying season tickets. The same tickets my family has had since the 60s. After the knee-jerk-effect wore off I decided that I would be an Auburn fan regardless of if there even was a football team, much less who the head coach of that football team is.

After seeing Chizik's hires and their collective recruiting ability, I am ready to say that I am fully behind Chizik and his staff. I do not, however, see this coming season as going well. These pessimistic feelings could be derived from a number of sources, the biggest one possibly being the NIGHTMARE that was the 2008 football season. Oh well, no one probably read this damn far into my comment anyway. Who has the time with the bad economy and all?

Beef said...

I read it. Every word.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Me too, Sammy. Glad you found the site, gladder you seem to like it. Stick around--it gets better the closer we get to the season. At least, I think it does.

War Eagle.

easyedwin said...

Not so fast Sam. JH constantly splits his infinitives ! To split or not to split.

And..he says UAB is not a mid major FGS.