I didn't realize how comprehensively I'd drank the Gus Malzahn Kool-Aid until just before spring practice, when I was going over the defensive depth chart and caught myself thinking something like
Man, I hope the starting front seven stays healthy, because if the D can just hang in there, we'll be fine.
This is not a rational analysis of Auburn's 2009 football team. From a rational perspective, virtually all our worry should be directed at the offense. That's the side of the ball without a quarterback who has experienced even moderate success at the collegiate level, without a single wide receiver who has ever been more than a safety valve, with a senior right tackle who has never started a college football game before. That's the side of the ball where the adjustment period to a new system and coordinator will be longer and more difficult, the side of the ball where just last year a similar adjustment period to a broadly similar style of offense resulted in 3-2.
But isn't that where the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from? To put aside all logical thought and trust in the intelligence and superiority of a leadership figure who we unblinkingly believe will make the best decisions for all of us? Watching the GMAC Bowl, looking over his record, hearing Trooper Taylor call him a genius ... well, by now I've got my cup tilted as far up as I can get it, shaking it a bit, trying to loosen and swallow those last few cherry drops.
Malcolm Gladwell makes it difficult to take his analysis of sports as seriously as maybe we should. Yes, he's written some brilliant books, yes, he's on very good terms with Bill Simmons, yes, he's written somewhat incisively about sports before. But, for starters--and even though I'm obviously the last person in the world who should judge someone's sports expertise based on their physical appearance--dude does look like this. More to the point, his otherwise excellent article for this week's New Yorker--entitled "How David Beats Goliath," and detailing how unorthodox strategies can level the playing field in sports, war, or elsewhere--contains the following passage:
The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged. But the coaches on the other side of Redwood City’s lopsided scores were disinclined to be so philosophical.Ummm ... of course he did. The opposing coaches--who Gladwell tries to portray as hair-trigger troglodytes--are mostly in the right here. The point of a 12-year-old girls' basketball league is (or should be) to learn fundamentals and have fun. Repeatedly failing to get the ball across half-court against a press offers neither the chance to learn fundamentals like shooting, screen-setting, etc., nor any fun. At all. Gladwell mentions that in one game, Redwood City went up 25-0. No offense, but if you're still running a full-court press up 20 points in a 12-year-old girls' basketball game, you're either an asshole or woefully ignorant of basketball's generally accepted standards of sportsmanship. (The latter's a possibility; the coach in question is an Indian immigrant who'd never watched the game before coaching.) That Gladwell misses the point entirely makes me wonder how much credibility he really has here, how much we can really trust his argument that when it comes to sports, the underdogs of the world need to--no, have to-- embrace "socially horrifying" styles and strategies to succeed.
“There was one guy who wanted to have a fight with me in the parking lot,” Ranadivé said. “He was this big guy. He obviously played football and basketball himself, and he saw that skinny, foreign guy beating him at his own game. He wanted to beat me up.”
But ah, screw the whole credibility issue--I think he's still deeply convincing about the value of the press. And as an Auburn fan, I needed to be convinced, because his explanation for why the press works so well in hoops sounds utterly similar to why Malzahn's offense worked at Tulsa ... and should work in the SEC. Consider:
1. They both eliminate the unnecessary amount of time the opponent has to prepare. As Gladwell illustrates, basketball teams that don't press give opposing offenses two-thirds of the court and as much time as the opponent wants to take to set up their offense. Likewise, a football team that takes the entire play clock to snap the ball gives the opposing defense the maximum amount of time to prepare for the play. A press and Malzahn's up-tempo system changes both those equations dramatically. If you can run a play of approximately similar quality and give the defense much, much less time to prepare for it ... why wouldn't you*?
2. The challenges they both present opponents are all the more challenging for their uniqueness. Not many basketball teams--be they youth girls' teams or NCAA D-I--run an all-out full-court press. Which, obviously, makes it more effective; opposing teams don't just have less time on the court to respond to the press's defense, they're not used to responding in that time frame. With only one other team in the country--Oklahoma--approaching Tulsa's speed, it's safe to say the same goes for the Malzahn offense. That it's run out of a spread--an offense, for all the hype, still run by only a handful of SEC teams rather than the majority--will only make Spread Eagle 2.0 more unorthodox for its opponents.
3. They both ignore talent deficits. Going beyond Gladwell's (multiple) examples of the press's success, look at Mike Anderson's coaching career: UAB from dust into a consistent (and consistently dangerous) NCAA Tournament team; Missouri from broken-down Big 12 mediocrity into a Final Four challenger. And with what? Spare parts, mostly. Meanwhile, how many of the Tulsa players that made up the most explosive offense in the country for two years running have been drafted? None.
So no, Gladwell may not actually be an expert on sports. Doesn't matter: his evidence presents a compelling case for the press. In my opinion it also presents a compelling case for Gus Malzahn.
The funniest part of the reaction to the Limo Gambit--aside from this comically inept post at RollBamaRoll by an embittered Iowa St. fan, which accused Chizik of slacking off for not having "looked the recruit in the eye," the way, you know, he's forbidden to by the NCAA--was hearing it derided by various outlets as a "gimmick." Just a gimmick, the argument went. Inefficient. Not a replacement for hard work.
To which I respond (again): Of course it's a gimmick! It's seven assistant coaches riding around in a rented limousine covered in door magnets and gameday flags like some alternate-world Entourage where the main character grew up in Opelika! It couldn't be more gimmicky if they stuck an ice cream-truck loudspeaker on the hood that screamed GIMMICK HERE! COME SEE THE GIMMICK! CLEAR THE ROAD, GIMMICK APPROACHING!
This is nothing but a good thing. Auburn needs gimmicks. This is the broader point of Gladwell's piece: the frequency with which unconventional thinking triumphs over the conventional, regardless of the resources available to either side; the frequency with which the side with superior resources wins when both sides are using conventional thinking; the frequency, or rather the rarity, of unconventional thinking even when confronted with those first two facts. "Davids win all the time," he writes. They just have to be clever, and brave enough to put that cleverness to work.
A lot of Auburn fans would chafe at describing our team as a "David." But where the Limo Gambit is concerned, in the specific field of in-state recruiting, there's not any question about it. Auburn has become the David. The other team is Goliath. Conventional recruiting strategies and brainless "hard work" are not going to be enough. The other team is the one with the resources of momentum, demographics, and a coachbot. Auburn does not have these things.
That's fine. David wins all the time when he's being smart. And Gene Chizik and his staff are being smart. They have recognized the situation for what it is and are responding accordingly, unconventionally. Chizik likewise recognized Auburn's offensive situation for what it is: a mishmash of underachieving receivers, erratic quarterbacks, enough healthy and productive linemen--maybe--to fill out the first string. The resources here are not sufficient for success on their own. Unconventional thinking was needed. So he hired Gus Malzahn.
Nothing, nothing makes me more optimistic about Gene Chizik's tenure at Auburn than the intelligence and humility behind these decisions, not even the decisions themselves. (Obviously, in the case of a publicity stunt like the Limo Gambit.) Maybe they won't translate into victories. But as long as Saban is at Alabama, Miles is at LSU, and Richt's at Georgia, these teams are going to be closer to being Goliath than Auburn will likely be. Unless that changes, "David" or not, Auburn needs to be thinking like him. And Chizik is, because facing Goliath on his own terms gets us nowhere.
And as for anyone mocking Auburn for Chizik's "gimmicks," well, when Gladwell says these kinds of innovations are seen as "socially horrifying," we don't need to look any further than the Limo Gambit response to see how true that is.
This is the part of the article that terrifies me:
"It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence’s long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability--legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms--because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.Could there be a clearer picture of the failure of Tony Franklin at Auburn? Tubby got halfway there--he knew his offense was in trouble and even knew he needed to do something unconventional to get it fixed. But "David's rules," were, indeed, too daunting. It was too hard for his coaching staff to pass to set up the run, too hard not to huddle, too hard to keep working the Wildcat into the offense even when it showed promise. It was easier just to do things the way they had always done them. So they kept doing a lot of them, and when that didn't work, they went back to doing all of them, and the monster at the end of this schedule ate them alive, 36-0.
"I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press," Pitino said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. "Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last." Pitino shook his head. "We practice every day for two hours straight," he went on. "The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections"-—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction--"they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working." Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.
I remain haunted by something Todd Graham said when Chizik hired Malzahn away:
"Everybody in our building - our strength coach is no-huddle," Graham said. "Our secretaries are (committed) to no-huddle. You can't be a no-huddle offense without being a no-huddle defense. ... We're a no-huddle team. You have to be committed to it to make this work.This is the test for Gene Chizik and the Auburn staff. When the offense has gone three-and-out three straight times and given the defense a total of 2:47 of rest ... when the rest of football is laughing at Auburn, either because they think limos or funny or because Caudle or Burns or a combination of both has thrown four picks in a game ... when a certain portion of Jordan-Hare starts raining down the boos ... what are they going to do?
"Fundamentally, you can say the no-huddle sounds good. But if you don't believe in it - when we got here, we had the No.1 defense in Conference USA. We went from 21st in the nation to 103rd with the same players. Most guys would see that and say, `the no-huddle has got to go.'"
Playing David is hard. I think Gladwell would agree with me that there was a fleeting moment when he stepped out of the ranks--with the surprising speed of a Malzahn-directed offense, Gladwell notes--and thought to himself A slingshot? What was I thinking? Get me a sword and the thickest armor you've got, and pronto. But he stuck with his plan, and the Philistine fell.
Stick with the plan, Auburn.
*I think there's an argument to be made that NBA players' ball-handling skills are too advanced for the full-court press to work at that level. But it makes no sense to me for any basketball team, anywhere, to forego a certain amount of token backcourt pressure following a made field goal. The breakaway risks of one or two guys going man-up in the backcourt or, say, trapping halfheartedly at quarter-court are basically nil if the team's executing correctly ... but in return, you get four or five seconds burned off the shot clock that many offenses (especially in the NCAA's snail-paced, coach-dominated halfcourt leagues) desperately need to run their sets. Why not do this? Man, I do not get it.