The Genius of Al Golden

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Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

I don’t know if Al Golden will be successful at the University of Miami.  There is no blueprint for success or “right way” to do things.  If there was a surefire method, rather than debate over tactics, there would simply be a formula that showed “the way” to win, similar to how there is no debate about how to multiply numbers, but simply “the way” everyone knows that 2×3=6.  Golden’s success or failure might ultimately stem from the results of the NCAA Investigation.

But he possesses one trait which you often find in true geniuses:  the ability and willingness to adapt and learn from others.  On the surface, it might seem a bit counter-intuitive, since geniuses should be able to rest on the strength of their own acumen.  Awareness of that genius, however, can quickly lead to a stubborn attitude and ultimately to failure from inflexibility.  It’s why we often see great coaches win in one place then fail in another, when what worked and made sense before no longer makes sense now, in a different place and era.

And yet some coaches have shown an ability to adapt to changing circumstance, to be committed to the philosophy of success over all else.  2 such coaches are Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick.

Urban Meyer

Everyone knows that Urban Meyer was a highly successful coach, going undefeated at Utah before winning 2 national championships at Florida.  He is also known for his spread-option offense, relying heavily on a mobile QB to be a run and pass threat.

But in his second season at Florida, Meyer was faced with a tough decision.  He had a senior drop-back pocket passing QB, Chris Leak, and a dual-threat freshman QB, Tim Tebow.  Tebow was much better suited to run Meyer’s preferred offense.  Most thought it was the final nail in the coffin for Chris Leak’s career, either forced to watch a true freshman start or to run an offense he was ill-suited for.  Meyer saw things differently.  He saw that the rest of the team, particularly the defense, was ready to win now, and implementing a radically different offense with a true freshman QB was likely to waste an opportunity.  So instead of stubbornly sticking to his philosophy, Meyer implemented a scaled-down spread-option which allowed for more drop-back passing, playing into Leak’s strengths.  Florida won the national championship.  2 years later, after Meyer had implemented his full spread-option system around players better suited to run it, he won the national championship again.  The difference in philosophies but the similarity in overall success is staggering, considering the minimal 2-year gap between teams:

2006 2008
Rush Offense Rank 38 10
Pass Offense Rank 28 61
Total Offense Rank
19 15
Rush Attempts Per Game by starting QB* 5.5 12.6
Rush Yards Per Game by starting QB* 2.1 48.1
Pass Attempts Per Game by starting QB 26 21
Pass Yards Per Game by starting QB 210.1 196.1
*includes sacks

In 2006, Meyer leaned on the passing ability of the QB, and had a Top 20 offense.  2 years later, he leaned on the running ability of the QB, and had a Top 20 offense.  Yes, those Florida teams had great defenses, but most coaches would have thrown away the 2006 season with the freshman QB that could run their system.  Meyer won a championship.

Bill Belichick

What’s fascinating about the Patriots decade of success is few people remember where it started.  The Patriots were a huge underdog with a backup QB, Tom Brady, facing the juggernaut known as “The Greatest Show on Turf”, the St. Louis Rams.  Belichick’s team prevailed in an upset, using a system that leaned on his defense while protecting his inexperienced QB.

Despite this success, Belichick recognized the changing nature of the NFL game.  The Rams might have been the exception in 2001, but they were quickly becoming the rule and were a  precursor to an era of wide open passing offenses.  In beating the Rams, Belichick learned how hard it was to beat the Rams, and decided to become the Rams.  The always conservative Belichick abandoned that philosophy, and parlayed much more offensive friendly teams into back-t0-back Super Bowl Champions in the middle of the decade (including winning a shootout in the 2003-2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina).

The transformation was finally complete in 2007-2008, when the Patriots annihilated teams en route to an undefeated season and a shocking Super Bowl loss to the Giants.  Over the course of 7 years, Belichick had taken a conservative, defensive team and transformed it into a wide open passing team, collecting rings along the way.

After several playoff failures, this summer quietly marked another huge transition for Belichick.  Since working as a defensive coordinator with Giants in the 1980s, Bill Belichick has believed in running a 3-4 defense.  Yet, this summer, after seeing his defense slowly slip over the past few years, Belichick transitioned to a 4-3 defense.  It was a shocking change in philosophy for a coach who very easily could have held up multiple Super Bowl rings and concluded that his scheme works.  Whether the change in philosophy proves to be successful is still to be determined, but we do know that Belichick will try anything to win, and that philosophy has seen him repeatedly contend for Super Bowls with dramatically different teams over the past decade.

The Golden Era

I’ll admit that I really like Al Golden.  I like the way he carries himself, I liked his first press conference, I like his attention to detail.  I really hope he does well here.

But, I tend to take my philosophy from a 1980s era Wendy’s commercial:  Where’s the Beef?  It is fine to say all the right things, but when it gets down to the real substance, what’s there?  We obviously have to wait much, much longer to judge Golden based on his win-loss record.  But 2 instances of Golden’s true genius impressed me, and show him following in the footsteps of Meyer and Belicheck into the land of knowledge and adaptability.

After the loss to Maryland, Jarrett Payton did an interview with The Jorge Sedano Show in Miami (you can find it here in the “790 ON DEMAND” section on the date of 9-8-11).  Payton, in a wide ranging interview, discussed an interaction he had with Golden at a Chicago alumni meet-up.  Golden sought out Payton, introduced himself, and then told Payton that Golden and his staff had recently been watching Payton’s old game tapes.  Jarret Payton last played at the University of Miami in 2003.  There can only be 1 of 2 conclusions drawn from this:

  1. Golden and his staff were going through every Miami game tape from the last decade to get ideas on what will and will not be successful.
  2. Golden and his staff identified a similar team (veteran defense, high turnovers on offense) from the Hurricanes’ past that was successful (won the Orange Bowl) and was trying to emulate that.

In either case, the approach is amazing in it’s simplicity.  In business, we often talk about “seeing what’s out there so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”  Golden brought the same philosophy to his coaching.  Why go through growing pains when you can learn from someone else’s?

As impressed as I was with Golden’s apparent philosophy, I didn’t want to make too much of it.  For all I know, he was telling Payton this to be polite.  But this week, with Kansas State on the horizon, Golden reiterated his approach.  The subject of a press conference turned to Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who took a dormant and downtrodden Kansas State program and built it into a national power that was a late meltdown away from an appearance in the national championship game. On Snyder, Golden said, “I read every book that he ever was involved in, every article because we had the same task at Temple. We were the worst team in college football when we took over, 119 out of 119. You have to look at those that came before you, the pioneers, and try to learn from them. Coach Snyder, that’s the ultimate blueprint. ”  We all know the great job that Golden did at Temple.

If he didn’t have me after the Jarrett Payton interview, he certainly has me now.  Golden’s success will be measured in wins and losses over several years.  A lot can go right or wrong depending on luck, happenstance, or a bounce. That is why we watch and love college football.  It is uncertain.  The sample size is always too small to allow for total predictability.

Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, Golden has already shown me his genius in an area where it is often so rare, in the ability to learn from others and adapt to changing situations.  There is no sure path to success, but Golden has the approach that legends like Meyer and Belichick parlayed into multiple championships.

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