Like Father, Unlike Son

The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl match-up has cast some attention on familial ties in football.  The “Brother Bowl” is rare enough to be intriguing in any environment, and especially so in the biggest football game of the year.  As good as the season has been for the Harbaughs, it’s been an uneven one for a handful of coaches who followed their legendary fathers into the profession.

USC's Lane Kiffin during the final seconds of a 2010 loss to Notre Dame.

Skip Holtz’s run at South Florida ended with a thud.  His second straight losing season notched only three wins, and built on none of the ground developed during Jim Leavitt’s long tenure.  Expectations were high for Holtz, whose success at ECU included two CUSA championships and a stretch where he nailed consecutive wins over Boise State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia (all ranked, and with WVU at #8 at the time.) Many thought Florida’s talent base and USF’s strong position in a BCS conference were two ingredients that would elevate both program and coach.  It didn’t work out that way.

Holtz landed on his feet, though it seems that keeping the momentum developed by Sonny Dykes and crew will be tough: the team’s roster is built for one of the most unique schemes in the game, while Holtz isn’t known for being a whiz on offense. Then again, his dad survived a disastrous attempt to bring both the veer and the Notre Dame fight song to the NFL’s Jets.  And there’s probably thousands of kids out there who think he’s really a doctor, so maybe LT isn’t that great an obstacle.

When I started writing this piece, Derek Dooley was still looking for work following his departure from Tennessee.  After three losing seasons (including 3-5, 1-7, and 0-7 conference efforts) the biggest surprise may be that he lasted that long.  His tenure will be remembered for Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since dinosaurs roamed the earth, on-field coaching gaffes, recruiting failures, a hemorrhaged coaching staff, and the creation of a run-off rule nicknamed in his honor.  The last one is probably the only one people will remember; the rule was designed to reverse an odd situation where the Vols lost a bowl game because their opponent penalized themselves at the end of the game.  That game capped Dooley’s first season, which unfortunately for the young coach was also his best season in Knoxville. I wouldn’t bet someone else’s money on him coming close to equaling his dad’s national title and six SEC championships, especially since his post-Vols springboard team is the Dallas Cowboys, which has its own running theme of failure in this piece.

For my money, the saddest story actually involves the man Dooley replaced at Tennessee.  Lane Kiffin has been a mirror-universe Midas, with every program he touches collapsing into chaos.  He was given the benefit of a doubt over his Oakland exit—call it the “Al Davis Clause”—though the shambles Kiffin created in the wake of Phil Fulmer at Knoxville largely erased the goodwill.  Bad losses, recruiting and public affairs gaffes, an ill-advised public showdown with Urban Meyer, and a humbling bowl loss that showed his team to be largely unprepared and apathetic—Kiffin achieved all this in just one season, then fled the Tennessee Valley like a deposed dictator.  He even left rioting youth in his wake. He established shop at Southern Cal, where he teased Trojan fans with a 10-2 season before becoming the first coach to take a preseason #1 to a 7-6 record ranked outside the top 25.  He even echoed his bowl “success” with UT, with his Trojans getting soundly whipped by Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.

It’s the saddest story of the three not because of Lane (who still is employed with the Trojans), but because he dragged his father into it.  While Lou Holtz entertained audiences across the country with his Dadaist talents, and Vince Dooley enjoyed consulting gigs and writing children’s books, Monte Kiffin spent a fair chunk of his golden years trying to help his son win a few ball games.  Monte is recognized as one of the greatest defensive coaches to have worked in the NFL, and he’ll be synonymous with Tampa-2 schemes (and probably Cover-2 schemes in general) for decades to come.  So of course his venture into the college game was unrewarding.

The media tale is that the elder Kiffin couldn’t match the schemes of today’s spread squads, though it’s a faulty analysis: it wasn’t the smoothest schematic transition for Monte, though his game plans against Florida (when he was at UT), Oregon, and Georgia Tech had an expert’s wrinkles, and his teams held more than a few potent offenses to respectable scores.  An eminent professional, Monte couldn’t overcome the chaos of sanctions, blue-chippers, and his own son’s antics.  There are two versions of how his tenure in the college ranks ended.  He was either fired by Lane, or he willingly left for the Dallas Cowboys, a team led by the Lane Kiffin of Owner/GMs.  If you’re of the mind that he was escaping the college game, he knew going in that two opponents in the NFC East take offensive cues from Baylor and the run-and-shoot (Chip Kelly came along later.)

Rex and Rob Ryan are a mixed bag that seems appropriate for a year of successful brothers and lacking sons of coaching legends: the tantrum-throwing twins flip back and forth between being hailed as geniuses approaching Buddy’s understanding of the game, or being scapegoated (as is their current predicament.)  Come to think of it, Rex and Rob have quite a bit in common with their dad.

Rob Ryan and his playsheet.

Buddy Ryan at his peak was a defensive genius, but he was undone by a mercurial temper, stubborn personality, and a professional self-destructive streak that occasionally led to violence.  Rob’s work with the Cowboys was likewise volatile and odd. He brought the same strategies that at their best baffled even Tom Brady, though his tenure was marred by injuries to his players and their lingering difficulties in learning his shifting schemes.  In the end, his final season was eclipsed by the advertisements gracing his play sheets, and perhaps a bit by the arrival of his replacement, Monte Kiffin.

In New York, Rex seems to be on thin ice with the Jets, though given how much turnover has gone on in the staff and front office, it’s as stable as can be expected.  His tabloid coverage and the Tim Tebow trainwreck, unfortunately, have been more consistently newsworthy than his teams; barring some tremendous improvement, Ryan’s departure seems a matter of “when,” not “if.”

None of these examples point to any disadvantage with being a famous coach’s son; if anything, having family roots eases an entry barrier.  The stumbles only show how difficult the profession is, where even being raised in the football life doesn’t guarantee regular success.


*The Close But No Cigar Category:  In case you’re wondering, Michael Lombardi isn’t related to Vince, and Pat Shurmur is Fritz’s nephew.


From Brett to Manti: Football and the Internet News Machine

I doubt Jerry Yang and David Filo imagined that their tiny private web directory would grow into one of the most-used internet search engines on earth and a titan among internet media companies.  I more seriously doubt they ever imagined their grad school hobby becoming what might be the most feared name among college football coaches and ADs.

Yahoo! has come a long way since 1994.  So has sports journalism.

A thank-you letter from former Oregon Ducks Head Coach Chip Kelly to scouting service provider Will Lyles, as reported by Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel.

In many ways the Yahoo! sports staff is a cast of throwbacks: they painstakingly put together stories and follow traditional journalism’s rules on sources and verification. Charles Robinson’s and Dan Wetzel’s investigations into Miami, UNC, Oregon, and Ohio State played out over months.

The internet has changed the rules of journalism.  It’s given reporters unlimited and instantaneous access to sources and data, which is a definite boon to their work.  On the other hand, the democratization of start-up websites and free-to-operate blogs has created a wave of competition that’s empowered by the public demand for an instant and constant stream of information.  No print-run deadline has ever created a challenge quite like this, and the result has been the sudden appearance of football stories seemingly ripped straight from The National Enquirer.

Though they’re important to today’s climate, the big multimedia players–ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, etc.–aren’t the trendsetters or the risk takers (though I suppose it could be said that ESPN frequently risks its journalistic credibility.)  The big entities have advertisers, shareholders, and parent companies to keep happy.  While they’ve adopted the tools and techniques of the internet community, they won’t, for example, play by Deadspin’s rules.

Deadspin is one of eight websites in the Gawker network.  A privately owned company targeted at hard-to-offend, internet-affixed younger demographics, Gawker doesn’t have to fear audience blowback the way its bigger rivals do.  This measure of freedom allows Deadspin to serve as a sports-news tabloid where the writers often have a celebrity columnist’s desire to be part of the scene and a blogger’s flair for search-engine optimization.  Deadspin writer (now Gawker editor) A.J. Daluerio broke the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger scandal with a story that focused as much on his attempts to wring information out of Sterger as it did Favre’s indescretions.  To quote Daluerio, he “persisted because I’m a dick and it’s an incredibly funny story[…]”

As distant as it is in scope and concern from a publication like The Atlantic, Deadspin at least tried to report a full story on Favre.  It’s easier to praise their recent expose on Manti Te’o. While still tabloid material, the piece sought to correct public perception with a few pounds of indisputable facts, and smartly embarrassed their more established competitors along the way. Not often rising to that ambition are the small-market sports operations–the team-specific sites of conglomerates like Rivals and Scout–and independent bloggers.  Both were badly exposed during recent bouts of conference realignment speculation.

Orangebloods, an independent member of the Yahoo!-owned Rivals network, became a go-to source for Big 12 and ACC fans worrying about how these conferences could cannibalize each other. Every day seemed to bring new updates and rumors from unnamed sources.  As rumor after rumor failed to materialize, it was obvious that while the site may have been well-connected to “insiders” with Texas and other Big 12 schools, it wasn’t well-connected with any facts.  In retrospect, I’ll give its operators the benefit of the doubt and say it probably fell victim in part to the machinations of a few higher-ups hoping to use the site for their schools’ (or personal) agendas, though the bulk of the blame for their failings lies in Orangebloods’ inability (or unwillingness) to vet sources and discern just how truthful their reports were.

Worse are the completely uninhibited loose cannons, of which Chris Lambert, aka “Honus Sneed,”  aka “Dude of WV” is a prime example.  An internet troll extraordinaire, Lambert used a Twitter account, a Blogger site, and a litany of unverifiable and oft-contradictory rumors to obtain the coveted status of “guru” in the minds of many NCAA fans.  How successful was he in getting attention?  One batch of comments on the Seminoles’ purported departure from the ACC is the assumed cause behind a retaliatory announcement from FSU President Eric Barron.

His predictions haven’t quite reached the same peaks, either because he’s being fed misinformation or because he’s making up rumors and tips by the gross.  Not surprisingly this isn’t a distanced, ethically mindful reporter we’re talking about: it’s a ticked-off Mountaineer fan who  has an ax to grind with the ACC.  Lambert admitted as much on Twitter, saying his goal was to “sow instability in the ACC & make poaching easier” in order to avenge the conference’s likely snub of WVU.

Still, everyone described above has at least vestiges of a traditional journalist, even if they’re by way of a shock jock or cult leader.  The last rung on the internet-news ladder is the hive mind.

Curious internet users–sometimes spontaneously, sometimes directed–have broken several football stories, most notably with the trail of follies that eventually coalesced into sanctions for the UNC Tar Heels.  Beginning with defensive tackle Marvin Austin’s ill-advised tweets, contacting public figures and conducting research throughout the story’s development, and keeping their gripes alive even after the delivery of sanctions, the NC State fans of Scout’s Pack Pride forums are without doubt at least partially responsible for igniting and maintaining the steady blaze that upended UNC’s football program.  During the process they turned rumors, complaints, and long-standing grudges into a stream of persuasive evidence, and when that wasn’t enough they transformed into a self-directed crowd-sourcing project that unearthed public records and established a virtual archive of every possible development and piece of evidence in the case.

While they pursued their share of false leads, the Pack Pride crew was eventually credited for several breaks.  The first was reviewing official (and publicly available) court documents and discovering that UNC football player James McAdoo not only blatantly plagiarized sources for a paper, but that both UNC and the NCAA had missed the obvious evidence.  More damningly, the Pack Pride crew also unearthed a transcript belonging to former two-sport UNC star Julius Peppers; the transcript, which was left forgotten on a public server, roughly verified the worst of the school’s academic improprieties.  If he holds true to his promise, it will also lead to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s resignation in June.

As unconventional as their methods were, the Pack Pride crew never entered dangerous legal ground, and their topic of interest was, at the end of the day, issues prosecutors rarely take interest in. The same can’t be said of the case unfolding in Steubenville, OH, which involves the alleged sexual assault of an underage victim by two likewise-juvenile members of the local high school football team.

While independent bloggers were the first to make the story national news, a cluster of computer hackers associated with the loose Anonymous collective upped the stakes.  The hackers (operating under the name “Knight Sec”) themselves collected some of the case’s most damning evidence legitimately by tapping into the near permanent and under-appreciated archival capabilities of the internet, and also by communicating with students in Steubenville.  Legal lines were crossed, however, when they hacked the servers of a privately owned fan site for the Steubenville football squad, defaced the site’s homepage, and broke into the owner’s e-mail account and dumped its contents onto the net; since then, the local sheriff’s office has become a target for even less discerning internet elements.  The national cachet of Anonymous amplified the focus on Steubenville, and Knight Sec’s choice of target essentially cemented (rightly or wrongly) the topic of “runaway football culture” within the media narrative.

It used to be that you needed an informant or a warrant to get behind locked doors.  Hacking has turned this model on its head, so much so that higher-ups at News International resorted to these measures themselves. Anyone who followed this scandal or Anonymous’ exploits knows that the security of personal technology is universally lagging, and that implementation of the defenses that are available is spotty.  If the past few years are remembered in any way for changing how the public gets news, I think it’ll be because hackers–whether “hacktivists” or simple miscreants–will become a larger presence, and break more and more stories (and pile up more and more collateral damage.)

Football could fall into such a trend.  Large, easily accessed networks like those run by corporate institutions and large universities are frequent targets for hacks, as are all manner of e-mail accounts and personal wireless devices.  Imagine a hastily drafted confessional memo on concussions stolen from an NFL server, intercepted e-mails proving collusion or interference with player contracts, or a text message on steroid deals yanked from the ether. Or, instead of focusing on a small town in Ohio, hackers turned their attention to the recent death of a Notre Dame student working for the football team, and in doing so made public every e-mail in Brian Kelly’s account.  If football, at any level, does become a frequent target for less-than-legal inquiry, there is one aspect that will be routine: it will be just the latest in a long line of challenges for traditional sports reportage.

Bryant and Saban

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.

[Saban’s] got a nice little gig going, a little bit like Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”  –Steve Spurrier


With Alabama’s rout of Notre Dame, Nick Saban achieved something Bear Bryant never did–he beat the Fighting Irish, and for a national championship, no less.  True to his MO, Saban’s post-game demeanor was that of a man walking back to the office after a good working lunch.

Saban may well be on his way to owning more national titles than any other coach in college football, including the six generally attributed to Bryant.  Aside from sharing their best-known employer, Bryant and Saban have a handful of similarities.  Bryant had the same unshakable focus of Saban: Texas coach Darrell Royal once said “the difference between me and Bear Bryant was that I was a guy who coached football and then moved on. […]  Coach Bryant was a man on a quest, a quest for immortality.”  They are the only coaches to win SEC championships at two different schools.

Both Bryant and Saban will be remembered as taskmasters, with Bryant’s infamy owed to his reign, later regretted, over a Texas A&M squad in Junction, Texas, and Saban’s arising from a stream of demands and tirades that seem to peak when his team is destroying opponents, and an obsession over issues of discipline bordering on compulsive.

Both built teams by out-recruiting the competition and pushing rules on player eligibility.  Biographer Keith Dunnavant writes that Bryant “was probably responsible for the implementation of more new regulations than any coach who ever lived, because he was determined to use every loophole to his advantage.”  He signed players as athletes in every college sport besides football, “taught” courses in football that were de facto live practices for his team, and bought players expensive team gear to add class and distinction to the program.  Saban has taken on efficient (or ruthless, depending on your perspective) methods for culling weak links from his squads, hedging his bets by intentionally oversigning recruits, and running a marketing enterprise that pitches Alabama football in a way that puts Apple to shame.

On the field Bryant and Saban are known for efficient, well-drilled squads.  Conversely, neither are remembered as chalkboard innovators: Bryant gave credit to the trends he adopted and adapted, and while Saban is the most vocal proponent of his route-reading pass defenses, Bill Belichick is owed at least half the credit for developing the technique.  On offense, Saban’s approach is more related to Bryant’s pro-style squads than it is to today’s hottest systems.

Finally, both Bryan and Saban came to latent Alabama powerhouses that were distanced from their national title days, but not so distanced as to be forgotten or rendered moot.  If there is a football-focused caveat to Saban’s career, it is this last similarity.  His greatest successes came at LSU and Alabama during an era when membership in the no-holds-barred SEC is almost a requisite for winning a national title.  No other conference has the money, fan-base, or creative “intangibles” of the SEC, and no other conference has been close for over a decade.

This commonality is an introduction to where Bryant and Saban diverge.  Most recent out-of-conference challengers–Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami, and Florida State–to the SEC ended up relying on their own cocktail of NCAA infractions to help leverage their legitimate attributes, though they eventually proved to be amateurs compared to the big-business SEC.  I say this knowing that violations, whether of institution policy, NCAA fiat, or public law, happen at every school at every level of play.  The SEC has just insulated itself from the consequences far better than other conferences by both practice and by its tremendous importance to the revenue side of collegiate athletics.

Alabama was coming off historic failures when Bryant arrived, and the SEC football monopoly simply did not exist in his day.  He won his games in an era far more formidable than Saban’s: Paterno, Osborne, Hayes, Switzer, Bowden, and Holtz were all in their prime at one point during Bryant’s career.  Meanwhile, Saban’s challengers are a ragged lot: the best pure coaches work at non-traditional powers, while his nearest rivals in major conferences are prone to self-destruction.  At the same time, Alabama is (and has recently been) without doubt the alpha of the SEC pack.  Look no further than hapless Mike Shula, who not too long ago earned a 10-2 season with the Crimson Tide.

Bryant also wisely avoided the NFL pitfall that has soured fans in both Baton Rouge and Miami.  Strangely enough, Bryant’s opportunity also came from the Miami Dolphins; his stated reason for turning down the Dolphins was that he would never leave Alabama just for a bigger paycheck.  This speaks to what might be a persona deficit that could hamper Saban’s status as historical icon: it’s rare for a man described as aloof, taciturn, and mercenary to hold sway over the imaginations of football fans and historians. Personality is partly why we “know” Bryant better than Bernie Bierman,  Barry Switzer better than Bud Wilkinson, and Jimmy Johnson better than Dennis Erickson.

There is one comparison to still be made between Bryan and Saban, and that’s their adaptation to changes in the game itself.  Bryant eventually had to adopt the Wishbone to successfully close out his years.  Saban, meanwhile seems to have a chink in his armor: the spread-option coaches among his competitors–Urban Meyer in particular–have managed to needle soft spots in the Alabama coach’s vaunted system. Today’s concepts threaten to strip him of the strict sidelines-control he values; if they become a long-term component of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts.  (Saban also may suffer comparatively by virtue of the fact that Belichick has adopted and mastered shifts in the game with great success in the NFL.)

All said, the jury is out on Saban’s final spot in history. Every coach is one calamitous decision or revelation away from public failure and humiliation, though if anyone is relatively safe from this, it seems to be Saban. The quote that began this entry reflects this reality, and while Spurrier’s words were more psychological warfare than anything, they also have a measure of truth when it comes to assessing Saban’s legacy up to this point.  Saban has had good stints with Toledo and Michigan State, and his success at mighty LSU reached its apex with an asterisked split-championship many think rightfully belongs with Pete Carroll and the Trojans. Given that the NFL is full of coaches just like Saban (and is adopting the same spread tactics he’s publicly lamented), it seems unlikely he’ll find redemption there, or a way to burnish his legacy the way Johnson and Switzer did.

There’s no doubt Saban is a tremendous coach, and perhaps the best in the NCAA right now.  But for him to be considered an all-timer, he has to personally surpass the mythos of Alabama and all it represents, and that likely means putting Bear Bryant’s achievements numerically and unequivocally in the rearview mirror.  Anything less and he may be remembered as the football equivalent of a jockey fortunate enough to have ridden Secretariat.