Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Enlightenment of Joe Biddle

Joe Biddle's column in today's Tennessean should be required reading for every Vanderbilt fan. The title of the article is "Vanderbilt hesitates at truly competing in SEC football." The bottom line of the article is two-fold:

1) "[F]or Vanderbilt to think it can hire a coach who can have winning seasons is laughable."

2) "It is not the coach. It is the lack of commitment. Always has been."

The sad thing about Mr. Biddle's writing is that there is probably some truth to what he's trying to say. Unfortunately, he lacks either the penmanship or the justification or the guts to come out and say exactly who "lacks commitment." His column, like some of the other critiques we've seen in recent months, halfheartedly points the finger for Vanderbilt's struggles at none other guessed it: Vanderbilt! Wow, thanks Joe! What an insightful revelation!

Mr. Biddle's writing is long on inflammatory criticism and excruciatingly short on facts and insights. From top to bottom, he vaguely attributes ideas and attitudes to the conveniently nebulous "Vanderbilt." Way to call 'em out. If he is so convinced of this lack of commitment, I would suggest that his time and column space might be better spent explaining to his readers who it is that's falling down on the job. Is it David Williams? Nick Zeppos? Boosters? Fans? Students? All of the above?

Mr. Biddle's columns are frustrating because they often feel purposefully vague, allowing him to level criticism and stir the pot without giving readers any place to look to see what foundation there is for what he's talking about. He says Vanderbilt coaches operate with one hand tied behind their backs. True enough. I would also argue that fans like us who care about the success of Vanderbilt's football program are forced to operate with one hand tied behind our own backs when we try to isolate problems from the outside looking in while our local media won't even help to explain where the problems lie.

If Mr. Biddle thinks the problems are pervasive, then he should spell it out rather than hiding behind the completely opaque claim that "Vanderbilt" is "hesitant" about being competitive in SEC football. (SAT word of the day: "anthropomorphism.") If the title of his column means Vanderbilt is reluctant to relax admissions standards in order to recruit more talented players, or make under-the-table payments to secure recruits, then I'd like to hear him state that on the record. Because if he's criticizing that approach, then he's basically saying Vanderbilt's lack of commitment is actually a devotion to integrity. But of course, that's a cliche that doesn't sell newspapers.

Again, at the end of the day, Mr. Biddle may be right about some things (we'd never know which ones since he refuses to take a stand against any particular person or office), but he's also wrong about some things too. He's wrong that a coaching staff can't make a difference in a football program. We've said it before and we'll say it again: look no further than Stanford or Northwestern. Sure, the SEC may be a horse of a different color, but it's not so different that 10-3 or 9-4 seasons out of those Pac-10 and Big Ten schools can't be matched by 8-5 or 7-6 seasons down our way. Biddle says no, Vanderbilt can't have winning seasons. I say the Dores started 5-0 two years ago and finished with a winning record and a bowl victory. Was that because "Vanderbilt" suddenly decided to be "committed" for the first time in decades?

If having "the worst stadium in the SEC" and "no indoor practice facility" are symptoms of a lack of institutional commitment, what is it that Mr. Biddle thinks Vanderbilt should do to join the SEC "arms race"? Would better facilities translate to the recruitment of better football players? Sure, maybe to a limited extent. But how can you imply in one breath that better facilities make a difference and in the next breath say that the person coaching the team makes no difference at all? He relies on history to prove his point about the irrelevance of coaching changes, but it sounds to me like a cop-out symptomatic of the worst in Vanderbilt fans' defeatism (although Joe might take offense at the implication that he is anything close to being a fan of Vanderbilt).

How about this: Ask a former football player whether the key to winning has more to do with spending money on stadium renovations (which Vandy has recently done, by the way) or more to do with coaching players up to their full potential, instilling in them a certain mindset, and preparing them each week to execute a game plan that maximizes their strengths and minimizes the opponent's? Forget about football: anyone who has ever played any team sport knows the answer to that question.

So I leave it at this: I challenge Joe Biddle to do more than just blithely calling out an entire institution. Call for someone's head, call for specific changes, demand something concrete. Joe doesn't seem too fond of David Williams -- if that's his opinion, I don't necessarily condemn him for it, I just wish he would say it with clarity. Similarly, we all agree that Robbie Caldwell was put in a tough spot this year, but that doesn't mean that people who think it might help to get some new blood in the coaching staff are simply misguided dreamers who have no grasp of reality. Many of us do care, and many of us who, unlike Mr. Biddle, do not have access to the inner workings of Vanderbilt University, would like to know what it is we should be talking about when we talk about change. So far I don't see Joe Biddle doing very much to help.


Andrew Smith said...

I think Biddle made a far more coherent argument than you report: Even a great coach will never be able to make Vanderbilt an SEC winner because it hasn't made anything like the investment in football that other SEC schools have -- a failure that makes our players less effective by depriving them of the world-class training tools and, more importantly, forever keeps us from recruiting great players who come to campus and see we don't care about football.

I think that's a wholly coherent argument, though I think it's wrong. A world-class coach can make this program a steady winner and occasional power. The problem is that we've never had anything like a world-class coach -- which should be perfectly evident to Biddle when he goes down the list of coaches that have failed here.

Which of those coaches went on to win national championships elsewhere and keep other programs consistently in the top ten? Not one of them. If Urban Meyer had coached here, lost every year and then gone on to dominate NCAA football at Florida, that would demonstrate Biddle's point. As it is, the past 30 years have only told us that coaches who can't win anywhere can't win at Vanderbilt.

That said, it would be a lot easier to win if we built world-class football facilities here. It would help tremendously with recruiting. I'm not suggesting a 100,000 seat stadium that would be empty every week but I am suggesting the nicest stadium and facilities in the SEC would help tremendously.

Seamus O'Toole said...

Andrew -- Thanks for the comment. I'm just not sure which "world-class facilities" are going to turn us into a great football program. Top-notch weight room? Check. Amazing training table? Check. A lack of indoor practice facility and an aging stadium are marginal issues in my view, and certainly nothing near as important as the coaching staff (which I take it you agree with me on). I would've thought Biddle's column might make more sense if he talked about a lack of institutional commitment and used coaching hires as an example of that, not as a means of proving the lazy point that it is "impossible" to win at Vandy.

Andrew Smith said...

I agree entirely with you, not only that a world-class coach could make Vandy a steady winner but also that better facilities would be a minor improvement in comparison.

I do think, however, that better facilities, while not nearly as important as a coach, would make a very tangible improvement in our recruiting.

I've not toured any college facilities except for Vandy's, so I have no idea what constitutes world class. I am surprised that you assert we're already there in some respects because everything I've read suggests that truly top facilities make everything at Vandy look like something you'd see at a reasonably ambitious middle school. Certainly the stadium and practice fields look that way and that matters.

Is it silly to base your choice of college on the bling factor of a practice fields? Yes, but remember that we're dealing with 17-year-old boys here and they tend to make a lot of decisions based on such things. (I'd even go so far as to say we could very noticeably improve the quality of our recruiting by ditching the hideous and stupid black-and-gold for a tough and elegant black-and-silver. That's how superficial I think recruits to be.)

Would the benefit to recruiting (and the benefit of better recruiting to the school) justify spending $500 million on a new stadium? Almost certainly not, but that doesn't change the fact that such a commitment to the best facilities in the SEC could certainly add a couple wins a year to the school. Biddle is right in that.

He's just wrong in not realizing that a world-class coach and coaching staff could add five wins a year to the team, so it's really the place Vandy should focus.

Actually, as I think about it now, let me go beyond Biddle's argument and pose a more interesting question: Would spending a gazillion dollars on football facilities to signal that we're serious about football would do as much to help us recruit a world-class coach as it would help us recruit world-class players? Can we recruit a world-class coach without first doing something to signal that we're serious about change?