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Hot Reads: Are We in an Era of Post-Powerhouse Football?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Are We in an Era of Post-Powerhouse Football?

November 28, 2016

Oxford Dictionaries word of 2016 is “post-truth,”  which, hat tip to the intelligentsia, was probably the perfect choice. Maybe the word of the year in college football is post-powerhouse.

If we were just talking “parity” here, this wouldn’t be much of a discussion, though there’s certainly some of that this season:

No, the real impetus for this idea has been the first few spins on the coaching carousel. Nebraska bought a ticket and took a quick ride yesterday, firing special teams coach Bruce Read, but that’s not going to be the source of major trend stories. Texas and LSU both making their next picks for head coach? That will be and has been.

Late last week, LSU thought it had former Houston head coach locked up. When that information was leaked while the Tigers were playing Thanksgiving night, however, it turned into a boondoggle. LSU clearly believes that came from the Herman camp and was so upset by it that it cut off negotiations, refusing to bid against “wealthy and desperate” Texas, instead going with interim head coach Ed Orgeron.

Texas got the guy it wanted, and, by Texas standards, probably feels like it got a bargain at $5 million a year.

Dan Wolken of USA Today writes that those hires, coupled with some past hires at USC and Georgia, indicates a “market correction” in coaching. The massive amounts of money in the sport have made it harder to fire coaches and harder to lure top talent away. Feels like there’s some truth to that.

But it’s really the end of the Charlie Strong era that has people thinking along post-powerhouse lines.

Marc Tracy opens his excellent New York Times column with the example of pre-Saban Alabama. The Tide rolled around in mediocrity for nearly two decades before landing Nick Saban, which offered a pretty striking lesson in what really drives success:

What the Alabama experience has shown, or confirmed, is that legacy, fans, colors — and everything else that lends narrative coherence to the sport of college football — end up mattering not all that much, except for their allure to the proper coach.

College coaches are, to their teams, what the owner, the head coach and the general manager, combined, are to an N.F.L. team. For everything to work, the university needs a competent president and athletic director, but success begins and pretty much ends with the head coach.

The Ringer’s editor-at-large Brian Curtis wrote much the same thing in a different way, drawing on his experience as a Texas alum:

Here’s my theory of college football: There aren’t great programs. There are only great coaches. I know this because I spent most of my childhood watching crappy Texas football teams. They got better when Brown was hired during my junior year at UT. When Brown’s spell wore off, Texas sunk back to a spot in the pecking order behind Texas A&M and Houston, plus Baylor and TCU. This was treated as a historical quirk; in fact, it was a restoration of the Reagan-era prime of the Southwest Conference.

. . .

Texas has the kind of resources — whip-out money, boosters, a fertile recruiting ground — that are necessary to power an annual winner. But having these things doesn’t mean you get a berth in the College Football Playoff every year. Texas’s ability to return to its “rightful” spot atop the heap depends, as it always has, on whether it picked the right coach. Just ask Charlie Strong.

This is a corner on which I have long lived, so I’m mostly just nodding along at this point. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but rather a pretty obvious one if you look at the history of the sport. That said, it’s not a tangible point at the time a coach takes a new job. Everyone can point to championships and fan support and facilities, but nobody can point to how good Herman will be at Texas right now. That all has to be approximated or assumed.

So the primary narrative about this sport will probably continue to exist. You can look at the rankings right now and see a bunch of “powerhouse” programs, but there is a lot of evidence that what you’re really looking at, now or at most points in the past, is a list of powerhouse coaches.

December Delirium

The NCAA volleyball tournament bracket was announced last night. No real surprise, but Nebraska was the top overall seed and in a year when the regional (third and fourth) rounds are at the top seeds’ home floors, that’s a significant advantage.

It’s a change that makes a pretty big difference when you consider things like Texas getting the four-seed over Kansas, the five-seed which won the Big 12. Lisa Peterson, chair of the NCAA volleyball committee, does a good job of talking through the committee’s decision here.

It is a good read if you have any interest in volleyball. The comments from Washington Coach Keegan Cook are also pretty interesting. He’s not a huge fan of the new regionalization of the tournament. If chalk wins out — it won’t — the Huskies would be facing a regional final against Nebraska on its home floor for a trip to the Final Four.

The Grab Bag


  • Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports writes that a Wisconsin-Penn State Big Ten title game that may not mean anything when it comes to the playoff indicates a problem with college football.
  • Ryan McGee of ESPN writes that expanding the playoff from four to eight teams is a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.”
  • Jerry Palm still has the Huskers slated for the Outback Bowl.
  • Breaking down the NCAA volleyball bracket.

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