The Obfuscation of Success: The Kiffin Era And ... Grammar???

There's a part of me that loves to watch people.  I'm really an observer by nature, so opportunities to sit back and see human dynamics in action (rather than be in the middle of the fray) are quite enjoyable at times.  Over the last few weeks, the sheer workload I've been under between school and my assistantship have forced me more into the observer role in blogging than I'm used to, but it's been rather cathartic.

As you all know, the hot topic I've been observing is the question of the success of Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff.  Opinions vary widely, from the prediction of a 10-2 record this season to the cheese-eating promise of the college football blogosphere's most famous turophobe.  As in most debates, both sides of the coin are spending their efforts trying to emphasize the points in their favor and discount those that are not.  But, like many debates, the biggest problem is that we're not even debating the same thing.

Consider the following memes we've seen tossed around:

non-UT fan:  How in the world can Kiffin talk so much when he hasn't even won anything?

UT fan:  What do you mean?  He's already landed Bryce Brown, and he got Teague and Nuke right out from under Meyer!

non-UT fan:  But he's 5-15 as a head coach!

UT fan:  ...for the Raiders!  Seriously:  Al Davis!

non-UT fan:  Who's beginning to make more and more sense now.

UT fan:  o.O

And this one:

non-UT fan:  Lane's such an idiot, calling out Meyer and Saban like that.  UT is going to get pounded in the fall.

UT fan:  Yeah, like Florida and Bama weren't going to try to pound UT anyhow.  IIRC, Fulmer's niceties didn't keep the score from going to 59-20.

non-UT fan:  At least Fulmer could be respected.  He didn't cause violations every time he opened his mouth.[Aside:  this one's especially ironic coming from Alabama fans.]

UT fan:  For one, they're only secondary violations and they're helping to restore confidence in a program that has lost that.  For two, he's not going to back down and play dead.

non-UT fan:  No, he's going to walk head-first into probation if he doesn't shut up.

Then there's this little beauty:

non-UT fan:  Nice to see UT getting Zooked.  Lane's hired a bunch of recruiters, but somebody's got to actually coach these kids.

UT fan:  Oh, like Monte Kiffin?  Greatest defensive mind in football, pro or college?  Or Orgeron, who is universally considered one of the best D-line coaches available?  Eddie Gran - coach of Auburn's legendary running backs?  Chaney, who coached Purdue's top-flight offenses during Tiller's best years?  Suuure, no coaches on that staff.  Nope.  Not at all.

non-UT fan:  But remember that Monte will be going against the power run offenses of the SEC, not the pass-happy offenses of the NFL.  His defense isn't built for that.  And he isn't used to working with college kids.

UT fan:  And his work at places like Nebraska gives you no reason to think he can handle college coaching?

non-UT fan:  And Chaney won't be able to work to his potential so long as Lane is in control.  It's going to be Lane's offense and it's not like he has Sarkisian, Leinart and Bush around now.

UT fan:  Why do you assume that Sarkisian ran everything?  There's no proof of that.

And lastly:

non-UT fan:  I keep asking this and you still refuse to answer:  where's your quarterback coming from?  Coleman's gone, Crompton is Crompton and Stephens still can't beat him out.  And now Heaps is off the board.

UT fan:  Umm, I have answered you.  We do worry about the quarterback position.  For this year, remember that Lane's offense isn't as confusing as the Clawful.  But we are worried about qb recruiting this year.  Lane will get his quarterbacks; his recruiting machine has proven very effective everywhere else.  But recruiting qbs takes more time and it's getting very dicey for this year.

Beneath all these arguments is one simple little difference in paradigm - an obfuscation that keeps the argument from getting anywhere:  tense.

If you go back through the various message boards and blogs and re-read the arguments about Kiffin and whether he was a good or a bad hire, you'll notice that the arguments almost all come down to a matter of verb tense.  Those who argue in Kiffin's favor tend to stay in past tense, looking at what he's done at UT to date.  Those against Kiffin tend to argue in future tense, finding evidences to expect failure and extrapolating them to the upcoming seasons.  When we do that, the argument becomes one of a concrete concept with an abstract solution (has he been successful in the offseason goals of a head coach?) to one of an abstract concept with a  concrete solution (will he be successful and win games?).  It's a very distinct difference.

So, for a start, let's take a look at whether Kiffin can be considered a success so far.  In other words, given that we cannot violate physical laws and judge Kiffin on things that haven't happened yet, let's take a look at the past-tense question.  Has Kiffin been successful so far?  What does that success entail?  What does failure mean in this case?

STAFF

How has Kiffin done assembling his staff?  Some points to consider:

  • The staff is call an all-star staff for a reason.  Again, remember that we're not looking at future success yet.  Whether the staff will produce wins remains to be seen, so let's shelve that issue.  But if you look at the staff, it is made up of people who are considered very successful at their jobs from previous gigs.  There are many top-shelf recruiters like O, Thompson, Gran, and Chaney (yes, Chaney; we don't hear much of him but look at his recruiting history).  Likewise, they have enjoyed considerable success at their coaching assignments - Gran and the Auburn running backs; Chaney and Purdue's offense (and Wyoming's offense back in the day, trust me).  Others are harder to define, like Reaves at South Carolina, so it's not a perfect picture.  But it is an impressive one.
  • This was a huge priority for Lane.  He didn't decide to take a relatively modest salary and pay his assistants above market value simply out of the generosity of his heart.  Lane Kiffin wanted specific coaches and felt that paying them enough to get them was more valuable to his coaching career than keeping more money for himself.  In the future, we'll judge these hires by on-field performance.  Right now, we judge them based on the concept and the execution of the concept.  Concept:  Pay the money to get the best coaches I can get.  Execution: The reputations of this staff from previous stops are very high.  Kiffin paid a lot for them, but it's hard to imagine a more reputable staff.
  • It wasn't a 100% success rate.  Kiffin didn't get every single coach he went after.  He missed on Rodney Gardner.  If you judge success based on 'hit rate', then it's a matter of what sub-100% threshold you consider a success.

RECRUITING

We're all familiar with the recruiting scene, so I'll keep short here. 

  • First class:  You have pickups like Nuke, Teague, Jackson and Brown - none of whom would have come to UT prior to Kiffin's hire.  You have losses like Boyd who are now gone due to Kiffin's hire.  On the balance, it's easier to argue success here, but I'll leave that open.
  • Current class:  The quarterback issue will someday define the '10 class, but for now we're only looking at the concrete evidence of performance to date.  So far, it looks like UT will be well-stocked on defensive line and is close to a solid O-line class.  Ask this question in this way:  how has the recruiting machine done to date?  Don't ask:  how will things finish?  That's a future tense question and is an entirely different argument.
  • Recruiting engine:  Is the machine set in place?  The short answer is 'yes'.  Everybody on this staff comes with a recruiting reputation.  The news reports from recruits who have spent time with this staff have been very complimentary.  Again, it's not 100% (just ask Marlon's grandmother), but the balance has been impressive.  Hearing recruits talk about how 'intense', 'energetic', and 'fun' their visits have been is only encouraging news.

PRACTICES

Caution on this point, as practice reports are usually spun with propaganda (for every school, not just UT).  Still, have the goals of practice been met?  And what exactly are these goals?

  • Defining the pecking orders.  With a new staff and new system, the best players available might not always be the best available under the previous staff.  Lane announced that all starting positions were open and that everybody would have a shot.  That promise appears to have been fulfilled so far as we can tell.  (Coleman may tend to disagree, but I cannot conclusively answer to either side on that point.)  Was the open competition policy sound?  Someday, when the future becomes the past, we'll point to the win-loss records to answer this question.  Today, the best we can do is to look at other open competition schools (USC, Alabama, Florida) and see how that's worked out.  It's been a successful business model in the past.  Since we can say that Lane has been following this model well, it seems reasonable to think he's had success to date on this point.
  • Installing the systems.  With a new offense and new defense, everybody is learning.  Here's the proof of this pudding:  remember how excited the offensive players were at this time last year about how the Clawfense was going?  About how much fun they were having and how eager they were to unveil it in the Rose Bowl?  Yeah, neither do I.  In hindsight, that silence should have said something.  Today, the players on both sides really seem favorable of the systems.  The defense loves the more aggressive mentality and the offense has a great handle on the zone running schemes.  To date, the systems seem to be going in place well.
  • Player development.  Again, this is very hard to judge from practice reports.  How much have the players improved since the beginning of spring practice?  Have they retained what they learned so far?  We can't tell.

DEPTH CHART

Similar to the question of determing the starters:  how does UT look regarding backup players?  A lot of players have left the program and UT will enter the fall with one of the thinnest depth charts (in terms of body count) in Division 1A/FBS/whatever.  There's little margin for error.  This is where the concrete concept (do we have a good depth chart? No.) runs into the abstract valuation (how good could it have been?).  Would UT be better off with the departed players still on board?  Probably.  How much better?  That's really hard to tell.  It's probably best to be bearish on this point and say that player retention during the transition hasn't been as good as could be hoped.  Will it matter?  We'll see in the fall; if UT avoids the injury bug, then it might not even make a difference.  But again, that's a future argument.

SUMMARY

In short, judging the Kiffin era based on events to date tends to balance out in Lane's favor.  It's not perfect: having fewer secondary violations and fewer departures (like Coleman) would have been positives for the program.  It's also not to shabby.  If we were to remember how things were on the day that Kiffin was hired, would the program's current state be considered a good milestone for late June?  UT fans obviously believe so.  I'm interested to learn what non-UT fans think about the program in present terms; we already know how you feel about the future.

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