You would think that football coaches would be the ones to innovate in the sport. In fact, 99% of them are afraid that deviating from the football coaching norm might get them fired. They almost all run a few currently fashionable offenses and defenses. The higher the level, the less variety there is in the way football teams operate. I discuss this problem in almost all of my football coaching books but mainly in The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense.
Most football coaches are government employeesmiddle schools, high schools, state colleges and universities. They may have tenure as teachers, but not as coaches. They can be, and often are, fired from their football coaching jobs with little or no cause. Similarly, pro and private college coach job are highly sought after. All pro coaches are subject to incessant, withering criticism from the media, fans, and owners. College coaches are subject to the same criticism only you can substitute college administrators and alumni for owners.
‘Bland and compliant’
A recent column in my local paper noted that the Oakland Athletics passed up a chance to hire an excellent new manager for their baseball team. The columnist said the reason was that General Manager Billy Beane likes his field managers to be “bland and compliant.” I do not know if that’s true about Billy Beane. If so, it is ironic. Beane himself is anything but bland and compliantas evidenced by Michael Lewis writing the book Moneyball about Beane. But I do think that most executives who hire coaches at all levels are seeking bland and compliant coaches.
So it is understandable from a career perspective that such coaches are reluctant to try new tactics or strategies or to use out-of-fashion tactics or strategies. But that reluctance is not acceptable to those of us who love the sport.
I am not the only one to observe that football coaches are unwilling to do the right thing in many situations. Many others have made the same observation, including many of those in the coaching profession themselves.
The 12/18/06 ESPN, The Magazine had an article by Moneyball Author Michael Lewis on going for it on fourth down. The title was, “If I only had the nerve” and had a painting of the scarecrow, lion, and tin man from the Wizard of Oz. The Lion, whose signature line was, “If I only had the noive,” in the movie, is wearing a coach’s headset and boom microphone.
Conform to the group norm
Lewis said about the same things I say about coach timidity, although he emphasized one point I only mentioned briefly. He said that coaches are unwilling to deviate from the coach group norm because they are afraid it will anger another coach. That, in turn, could make it harder for the coach who deviates to get his next coaching job. Since coaching jobs are so very hard to get and keep, coaches are unwilling to do even the slightest thing that might reduce their chances of getting or keeping a job. Among the things they are unwilling to do are going for it on fourth down, even when that would increase their chances of winning the game, if it might piss off a coach somewhere who might otherwise have possibly hired them in the future. Deviating from what the other coaches do is always, unavoidably, an implicit reproach of what the other coaches do. Again, see my new book The Contrarian edge for Football Offense.
At one high school where I coached an underclass football team, I occasionally angered opposing coaches or parents or vice versa. My varsity head coach always, I repeat, always sided with the opponent regardless of the merits of my case. I finally concluded that our varsity head coach was extremely insecure and wanted to stay on the good side of everyone who might remotely be able to give him a job in the future if he ever needed one. That is, he wanted to stay on the good side of all principals, athletic directors, and coaches that we played against. The fact that one of them might behave improperly toward me or my team was utterly irrelevant.
The key reason for this was that I, as a non-teacher, off-campus, underclass coach, did not appear to be a person who might be able to ever offer the coach in question a job in the future. Had I had some potential to hire him in the future, I expect he would have mediated the dispute or ignored it and hope it would go away. But whenever the dispute was between me and anyone who might possibly ever have influence over the hiring of a varsity football coach, I was automatically in the wrong and needed to correct the error of my ways. “Thou shalt not reduce the varsity coach’s job options by asserting that thou art in the right even when thou art indeed in the right,” seemed to be the guiding principle.
Here is a pertinent line from Dr. David Romer’s famous study that found that coaches kick far too often on fourth down.
Examination of teams’ actual decisions shows systematic, clear-cut and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize teams’ chances of winning.
In Plain English, he is saying that NFL head coaches are, out of ignorance or out of selfishly placing job preservation over winning, making clearly incorrect decisions about what to do in the vast majority of fourth-down situations.
Some institutions, like the government, are populated by Philistines and therefore only reformed by persons outside the institution. Football coaching, because of the ever present danger of being fired, is one of them.
Here is a quote from Wells Fargo executive James Vertin. He’s talking about investment managers, but his words are equally applicable to the football coaching profession.
The guild system, in which an apprentice learns from the lore from a master craftsman [and] progresses to journeyman when he has learned to replicate the master’s application of the lore…is not an environment in which boat-rocking is encouraged…It pretends that everything worth knowing is already known and in use. The members have an overriding interest in the status quo, and this interest tends to be protected at all costs.
George Bernard Shaw said,
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
There is an excellent book called Unique Ability by Nomura and Waller. It has almost the same subject as my book Succeeding, which is doing a great job of matching yourself to your career and your spouse.
On page 125, Unique Ability discusses what its authors call “disenabling factors.” I do not care for that kind of psychobabble. What they are talking about is wrong situations for you to try to work in. Here are paraphrases of their points translated into coaching context:
• teams that say they want to change but really do not
• head coaches or other executives who want to improve their team but who lack the authority to implement the necessary changes
• not-invented-here syndrome, that is, the unwillingness of many head coaches or executives to adopt good ideas that they themselves did not think of because they are insecure and unable to admit that any good idea would not have been thought of by them first
• organizations that are committed to maintaining the status quo
• head coaches or executives who are congenitally afraid of change
• teams where internal political factions prevent a consensus to take needed actions
• bureaucracies that are characterized by red tape, lack of bold leaders, and lack of rewards for doing the right thing
Quotes from the Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray
Author Bill James has partly revolutionized baseball by studying it in a scientific way. At first, he was ignored by the baseball establishment. More recently, his ideas have been heralded in the book Moneyball and by the fact that he was hired by the Red Sox not long before they won their first two World Series in a very long time. The book about James has a number of quotes that are good for explaining why this Web site is needed.
Take nothing on looks; take everything on evidence. There is no better rule.
Charles Dickens in Great Expectations
Teams despised what they saw as outsiders, troublemakers. It was a real culture battletough guys against analytical guys. Career baseball people saw us as unworthy. Like in any society, there was a fear of change, a loss of control.
Randy Hendricks, Major League Baseball agent and Bill James fan
To understand baseball without reference to its statistics is an absurdity, like understanding American politics without reference to elections. The only choices areuse statistics carefully, or use them loosely.
Given an option, all men prefer to reject information.
Misguided faith leads to stubborn repetition of foolish decisions.
In God we trust; all others bring data.
W. Edwards Deming, renowned quality control expert who gets much credit for the quality of modern Japanese products
…it is singular how long the rotten will hold together, provided you do not handle it roughly. For whole generations it continues standing, “with a ghastly affectation of life,” after all life and truth has fled out of it: so loathe are men to quit the old ways, and conquering indolence and inertia, venture on new.
Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution
…most people want to believe rather than to know, to take for granted rather than to find out
This Web site is a gathering place for “unreasonable” men who love the sport of footballmen who are too “unreasonable” to long remain in the go-along-to-get-along, Babbitesque profession of football coaching. This Web site can propose and argue for innovations and contrarian strategies and tactics, and criticize their absence, without fear of being fired.
To contribute an idea or comment to this Football Think Tank web site, either email to email@example.com or fax to 925-820-1259 or snail mail at 342 Bryan Drive, Alamo, CA 94507.
John T. Reed