Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Waiting for Harbaugh

Allow me to preempt: Yes, the title of this post is a cheesy reference to the new documentary (“Waiting for Superman”) about America’s failing public education system. And yes, this is also a slightly jealous reference to Jim Harbaugh, head coach at Stanford, who is by many accounts one of the top five active coaches in college football. And finally, yes, this post is about how Vanderbilt fans, until presented with disconfirming evidence, can and should harbor the belief that Vanderbilt’s football program need not be relegated to the basement of the SEC East year-in and year-out, and that maybe the only thing keeping us from joining the ranks of Stanford and Northwestern as academically strong schools in major conferences with winning football teams is a top-notch coaching staff.

What is the definition of top-notch coaching? Here's a try: the ability to recruit quality players (who are not complete degenerates), coach them up to their highest potential, and deliver a product on the field that translates into wins. That third category entails many others -- notably the ability to discipline a team so that it executes plays the way they are drawn up; the ability to scheme for an opponent and then make adjustments in-game according to what the opposing defense/offense shows you; and the intangible capacity to inspire your players to hit the field with reckless abandon and with more desire than their opponents.

This is not to say that Robbie Caldwell, as a head coach anyway, does not have these traits. The jury is emphatically still out. But what have we seen so far this year? Much of it has been rehashed in the comments to the UConn post-game blurb: a team that appears unprepared to play, doesn't execute, kills itself with penalties, lacks a sense of urgency, misses tackles, etc. That's a laundry list that leads straight to the coaching staff, and specifically the head coach, because the buck has to stop somewhere.

Did CRC get a raw deal from CBJ by the timing of his retirement? Yes and no. Yes because Caldwell didn't have enough time to make big changes to the scheme if he thought those changes were necessary. Yes because with a young team we weren't predicted to be particularly good this year, and this is the year (or a critical one of two anyway) on which CRC will be judged.

But no, he did not get a raw deal in the sense that CRC very well might not have been handed this opportunity if David Williams had had time to do a national coaching search. And an even bigger no, because as one looks around the decidedly "down" SEC East, this is the best chance Vanderbilt has had in years to make a splash. Heck, this is the kind of year in which Vanderbilt should have its sights set on Atlanta.

If you snickered at that last statement, it's only because you are so jaded by your years of Vanderbilt fanhood that it is simply unfathomable to you that this team could ever compete for a championship. You think back on the 5-0 start two years ago and you remember how -- in that most glorious hour after beating Auburn in a top-15 matchup with ESPN Gameday on campus -- Vanderbilt went on to lose six of its last seven games (including to two bad teams in Miss. St. and Duke), limping into the Music City Bowl and trying to be happy about a feat that seemed in some people's eyes to be the ceiling of Commodore football potential.

Well, I'm not sure what our ceiling is, but what I heard from Coach Caldwell after the UConn game was not especially encouraging. It came off sounding a bit like veiled excuses: "we're injured, we're young, we don't have the depth, it was windy on the field," etc. Some of those sound an awful lot like the same tired old lines we've been trotting out for years to downplay the long spate of losing records and moral victories. Say what you want about the Pac 10 and the Big Ten, but coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Pat Fitzgerald are proof that you can win at a private school with "smart kids" (throw Jim Grobe into that group as well). Heck, Kentucky is proof that you can even win in the SEC East without a great recruiting base or much of a football tradition to anchor you.

So one could return to that timeless black & gold (or is it black & blue?) question: Have we been making too many excuses? Were we all so enamored with Bobby Johnson as a person that we found it easy to gloss over loss after loss and wave the convenient flag of academics and the strength of the SEC in response to any dreamer who might dare to criticize the administration or the head coach for failing to take Vanderbilt to the next level?

I don't know the answer to those questions and I am convinced (keeping with that color theme) it's not black and white. We've had improvement in recruiting and there is genuine SEC talent at pretty much every position (as to the young O-line, the debate continues). It's not all a train wreck.

What I do know is the SEC East is down this year. Florida is a highly talented mess. Georgia is reeling. Tennessee is a rebuilding comedy of errors (see, e.g., 13 men on the field at LSU). Kentucky is Kentucky. South Carolina is extremely good (in my opinion) but Steve Spurrier has such a big ego and is so liable to do something stupid (like pull a starting QB who's having a great game just because he got stood up and fumbled, then insert a true freshman in his place) that I feel like you've always got a chance against his Gamecocks. All of this should spell hope for Vandy. Warren Norman is an absolute game-changer, and the team showed against Ole Miss an ability to hang tough against a comeback (on the road no less) and not beat ourselves. We should manhandle Eastern Michigan, and frankly, with this much chaos in the division, it's still realistic to look at the schedule and find five more wins. The question is whether CRC will be able to take this team from the depths of disappointment and turn this season around. It's a similar test (if different in degree) as the one facing Mark Richt right now. Can the coach get his guys to believe that they can compete for third place in the East? Can he right the ship on penalties and turnovers? Can he isolate the key problems and make the adjustments needed to show real improvement over the course of the season?

Until we know the answers to these questions -- that is, until we know who Robbie Caldwell really is -- I'm left to wonder whether Commodore fans will be left sitting out in the cold another year, waiting for our Harbaugh to come.


AD said...

Appreciate reading a thoughtful post midweek. It seems unlikely that Harbaugh would leave Stanford, especially not for another rebuilding project at a school with which he has no connection. My guess is that the only jobs he'd take are the Michigan job or an NFL head coaching spot.

Somebody this weekend brought up the coach you mentioned toward the end, Mark Richt. I haven't paid much attention to him since I'm not big on UGA, but would he make sense here? Mostly because I think he's funny, but what about Mike Leach? The insufferable VULS alum Clay Travis thought that Leach could shake up the business as usual Black & Gold, at least offensively (probably a double meaning there) in a way that would spike the win column and draw recruits on that basis.

I think we can talk about new coaches without passing judgment on CRC. Recalling DW's words, CRC is ICRC in everything but the name.

Seamus O'Toole said...

Thanks for the comment, and just to clarify I did not intend to imply that Jim Harbaugh would consider leaving Stanford for Vandy, but rather that the Commodores could use a metaphorical Harbaugh -- a motivator who can breathe life into a struggling program.

Anonymous said...

its a very thoughtful post. I feel very strongly that this staff should be given only this sseaon to show significant improvement. Because BJ left the program 2 days after all recruits had registered in summer school thereby locking in all for this season (without having to sit out if any 1 recruit wanted to transfer) and also tying David Williams hands from doing a national search, he essentially forced this staff on the administration. I like Caldwell (so far) but do not feel that sveral assistants should be brought back if in fact the entire staff is not fired at seasons end. I really like Coach Hand, most of the defensive coaching side of the ball, and runnings backs coach; but the play calling (Kiser) and WR (Fischer) do not deserve to come back. If David Williams allows 1 more year, then at a minimum he should force Caldwell to make changes to the staff. BJ's holdovers have had more than an oportunity to show if they are good or not at establishing a winning program. Call me crazy but I really think that Vandy has the athletes on both sides of the ball.....coaching is another story.

Jeff said...

To echo what was said, this was a very thoughtful post on Vanderbilt football. As fans, we have put up with a lot over the years and it is frustrating as to why we cannot get a coach and staff to Vanderbilt who can bring top notch talent and win against the best in the SEC. Looking back to 2008, why can’t we start 5-0 and be a ranked team more often? Why does that have to be considered a miracle? I think Bobby Johnson showed what could happen at Vanderbilt in 2008, the problem was it wasn’t consistent. So when Johnson left, it surprised me Williams quickly promoted RC to head coach. CRC was a piece of a staff that was comfortable with the middle to lower road consistency Vanderbilt has always been on. Why not try and recruit a coach who has shown he can win consistently?

While I don’t like Mike Leach as a coach for Vanderbilt, I like a coach with his attitude. We need someone to come in and have the mindset of “tough academics, tough conference, small numbers, small fan base, F*** IT! I’m going to win regardless and you can kiss my a** while I’m doing it!” It seems CRC has made more excuses for Vanderbilt than CBJ ever did and he’s only coached four games. I’m sick of excuses. We get it, it’s going to be hard to recruit here but what does that say to recruits when our coaches are whining about the program? It doesn’t help that the coaches complain about why it’s hard to win here with the national media saying the same thing.

I’m not saying I hate CRC because he’s done an OK job thus far. We have been in every game we’ve lost but the bottom has fallen out late (except at UCONN). However, it sickens me how much HE has complained about it being difficult at Vanderbilt as the head coach. We have 8 games left and only Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina are “upper tier” teams, and a solid game plan we could beat. Eastern Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Wake Forrest are the winnable games. I believe we have the talent to win every one of those games and I wish our coaches did as well.

Anonymous said...

Well written post. One problem is actually finding the Harbaugh. Let's not pretend that great coaches are knocking the door down to coach at Vanderbilt. Bobby Johnson was a vast improvement over the last several coaches at Vanderbilt.

I really like CRC. I don't know if will be a good or great HC yet, but I want to give him a chance. One thing that really bothers is how bad the offensive line is. The offensive line is the worst unit we have. That is CRC's specialty and it scares me to think about how that might be a reflection on him. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt on the issue bc we did lose James Williams, who would have undoubtedly helped this football team. In fact, we have lost two good football players in each the past two seasons due to academics with Williams and WR Terrence Jeffers that could have had a big impact.

That is one reason why lowering our academic standards for entrance will actually hurt us. If we do, the kids will flunk out and we just wasted our time and scholarships.

One thing we need to eliminate is Leach. He is the wrong direction. He locked a player in a closet. Do you think that was the first time???

One intriguing idea would be to bring in Mark Richt and his offensive staff and keep our defensive staff. Plus Richt is a man of character and well respected. He would bring a good name to Vandy. We would be lucky to have him, but I don't know if he would be willing to come or not.

For now, we need to get behind CRC, because he is probably our best shot at short term success. Hopefully the offensive line will improve and we can establish a running game where we can also have success with play action and hopefully our defense will return to good, consistent play.

Anonymous said...

One thing we need to remember that the offense did show some spark against U Conn. It didn't show consistency. But it did show improvement and a reason for some optimism if these guys can play more like they did for those 4 minutes.

Also, let's remember that U Conn has a good ball team. I know they aren't a name yet. But they do have a good offense and I bet they will be in a bowl game this year. The schedule is not helping us much this year.

Let's see how things progress before we start looking for a new head coach. And the post above is correct that there aren't really any big name coaches that want to coach at Vandy anyway. So, lets be patient for now.

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Anonymous said...

I hope to see a boost with Smotherman back on the d-line. Does anyone know if Greenstone is healthy? We should have quite a DT rotation pretty soon if we can get everyone healthy.

Anonymous said...

Lets all hope and pray they dont sleep on Eastern Michigan...

Anonymous said...

We don't have anybody qualified in place to make a major sports hire.

As long as this is the case, we will have Mr. Greenjeans the cable guy as coach as long as he cares to stay.

Then he can quit a week before the season starts at some future date.

Jeff said...

After my post, I thought about where this team was at, regarding the perceptions many had for this year. As of now, we are ahead of expectations. Many thought we would have another 2-10, possibly 1-11 season and would defiantly go 0-8 in league play. As of now, 4 games in, we are ahead of expectations (1-1, 3rd in the East and 1-3 overall). This is a young team and we need to remember that. This team was probably not favored to win any SEC games and that changed when they beat Ole Miss. After that, even ESPN said they could possibly win 5 games. Some thought they had what it took to beat UCONN and you know this team heard that about probably got excited. They were actually favored by some to beat the preseason Big East favorites. I’m not saying they should be forgiven for their performance on Saturday because I’m sure they learned from it. Krause turned the ball over on Vandy’s first offensive possession of the game. Later, he was recipient of 44 yard field goal reception. If the team steadily improves like this, we should be fine. Also, Larry played a good game and showed a lot of potential. We have a lot to build on and that cannot be denied.

The SEC East is down this year and if the coaches can motivate and keep this team accountable, the remainder of this year could be fun year. Think about it. What if this team capitalizes and gets wins against down SEC teams Georgia and Tennessee? That would be HUGE! Don’t think the coaches haven’t thought about capitalizing on that. If they haven’t, then yes they all need to be fired, haha. In all seriousness though, we need to stay positive for this young team. All in all, this season isn’t the train wreck we all thought it would be, especially when CBJ resigned. I see a lot of hope in this team, and for this season. As Vandy fans, so should you…

Vandygal78 said...

Great Article. We need the wins to get the attention to get the recruits. We are already seeing the difference a great recruiting class makes. Imagine two or three more classes like this past one. We are better than everyone projected , but of course I was imagining that we could win the East this year. (this was the perfect year for us with all that is going on). I hope that Caldwell can get everyone fired up, If he does we CAN win a bunch of games. The coaching question is tough. Hope CRC can pull it together but if not, then we need an attention (the good kind) getting selection. We can't afford to gamble on the merry go round of coaches. We can't wait to see whose system will work. We can't afford to move backwards. I firmly believe that coaches are paid too much, but I am almost to the point of saying, just pay the money for a shockingly unbelievable selection that would have players begging to come to Vandy. I'm talking Gruden or some other big name NFL guy. Maybe divide the compensation into coaching salary and consultant salary to make it more palatable to the Universary. I really am conflicted about the salary thing, but we just can't let the progress that we made over seven years of CBJ just fade away. We cant start over. We should be fighting for the East at least once every couple of years.

Andrew VU '04 said...

@ Jeff, in response to your statement, "Many thought we would have another 2-10, possibly 1-11 season and would defiantly go 0-8 in league play," I agree with your numbers, but not the attitude. Are you claiming we'd be counter-sports-culture in our defiance? I.e. losing to be contrarians in the win-at-all-costs sports culture of the SEC? I'd like to think that if we'd lose, it wouldn't be for the purpose of making an abstract political statement.

Oh, and Seamus, Philly hates you, too.

Jeff said...

@ Andrew VU - All I was saying with those numbers was what the media was expecting of us and so far this team has shown they are better then what was expected of them, in my opinion. If anything, I do want Vandy to prove the critics wrong for the sake of doing it. Who doesnt love it when you defy expectations. If they dont, Ill form my own opinion based on what happened throughout the season.