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In the shadows of head coaches, coordinators count

AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman

Head coaches are the public faces, the foremost representations, of college sports programs. In football, the most visible and (with a few exceptions) culturally resonant sport in the country, head coaches are accorded messianic status when they win big. They are eviscerated to no end when they fall short of expectations.

It is true that coaching has always been — and will always be — a detail-oriented line of work. However, the coaching craft has become more complicated in the modern age. The internet, constant media scrutiny, the evolution of the passing game, exploding television rights fees, conference-specific broadcast networks — these and other realities shape so much of the coaching profession today. They did not exist (at least not to any meaningful degree) in 1980. Some of those factors barely existed in 1995.

Some parts of the coaching business never change, but so much of this line of work has acquired profoundly different dimensions in a relatively short period of time.

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Let’s pose a question to everyone in the crowd:

Do you remember who the offensive coordinators were in the 1986 Michigan-Ohio State game, or the 1987 Texas-Texas A&M game, or the 1988 Alabama-Auburn game?

I ask not because I know — I don’t — but because college football didn’t use to depend on coordinators so much.

As recently as the mid-to-late 1980s, head coaches might have mattered a ton (as they always have) in college football, but coordinators didn’t possess nearly as much centrality in the sport as they do in the 21st century. A Michigan-Ohio State game and an Iron Bowl did not possess considerable strategic nuance. Those battles revolved around three yards and a cloud of dust; punch the other guy in the mouth; play better defense; gain field position; be strong in the kicking game.

The sport wasn’t free of complication or intrigue, to be sure, but the changes which have flooded college football since the start of the 1990s — beginning with Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier; continued by Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Art Briles; and taken in new directions by Rich Rodriguez and Chip Kelly — have rendered this theater of competition completely different from what we once knew it to be.

Ever since Steve Spurrier told all of college football (except for teams such as BYU, which were already pitchin' it around the ballpark in the 1980s) that it was okay to be creative on offense, the need for and value of coordinators has skyrocketed. -- AP File Photo

Ever since Steve Spurrier told all of college football (except for teams such as BYU, which were already pitchin’ it around the ballpark in the 1980s) that it was okay to be creative on offense, the need for and value of coordinators has skyrocketed. — AP File Photo

The passing game wasn’t irrelevant to college football in the 1970s, much as the running game isn’t irrelevant today. However, modern pigskin now involves many dozens of ways to attack a defense. In the 1970s, that number (or better phrased, range) of avenues was much smaller. Because there are so many styles and variations of offense in the modern age, defensive coordinators have to be that much more agile in adapting to what offensive coordinators are trying to achieve.

College football is a strategic banquet to an unprecedented extent.

This isn’t Pat Dye-Bill Curry. This isn’t Gene Stallings-Philip Fulmer. Those days are very rarely evoked by modern matchups. (LSU-Alabama games are the exceptions which prove the rule.)

If teams don’t have astute, nimble coordinators these days, they suffer. Head coaches who didn’t need to devise a grand, complex system (or solve the opponent’s space-age attack) 30 years ago now depend on coordinators to save their jobs. (Nick Saban is the exception which proves the rule.)

Unconvinced about the value of coordinators in the new, modern iteration of college football? You shouldn’t be. Lots of examples exist, but one only needs to look at two schools in neighboring states to absorb the point.

Yes, Mike DeBord is holding back Tennessee. Yes, Brent Venables is elevating Clemson on defense. True, Ohio State suffered last year with Tim Beck and its tardy decision to put Ed Warinner in the press box. However, for the foremost examples of why “coordinators count,” the two centerpiece cities are Austin (good) and Baton Rouge (not so good).

Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert works with players before a spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert works with players before a spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The difference between Rutgers and Oklahoma State is profound.

Charlie Strong coached against Rutgers at Louisville, in the Big East and then (for one year) the American Athletic Conference. Coaching against Oklahoma State and TCU and Baylor is a different ballgame. Strong thought he could take Shawn Watson to Austin as his offensive coordinator, but the first two disastrous seasons at Texas showed how foolish that decision was.

The need to embrace the spread was and is real for Strong, but the part of that decision which is easy to lose sight of is that by using the spread, Strong had a better chance of attracting an elite quarterback. Players want to play in certain offenses; that was the more important part of using a modern offense than trying to simply “do what the rest of the Big 12 does.” Hiring Sterlin Gilbert and being very intentional about changing his offense didn’t merely improve the level of competence in the offensive coordinator position; the move signaled to skill position recruits that Texas was once again a destination spot for top-tier quarterbacks.

Competence. Sending a message to recruits. Utilizing personnel. The coordinator change at Texas has been every bit as influential as many thought it would be — perhaps not in the person of Gilbert himself, but certainly in the act of leaving Watson (and then Jay Norvell) behind.

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In Baton Rouge, one can look at the situation enfolding head coach Les Miles and see that the necessary move Charlie Strong made in Austin has not yet been made at LSU.

LSU has the running back. It has the defense. It has the defensive coordinator — Dave Aranda is outstanding, and his unit bottled up Wisconsin on Saturday, keeping LSU in the hunt. LSU has receivers with great speed and athletic ability.

There’s just one thing missing: a coordinator who can make the offense — specifically the passing game — sing.

It was and is — and will long remain — bizarre: Miles came thisclose to losing his job last autumn. Surely, a coach who comes to the knife’s edge of unemployment should be expected to make significant, central changes in exchange for being allowed to stay on. Everyone knew — or at least should have known — that Miles had to discard offensive coordinator Cam Cameron if he wanted to turn around the ship in Red Stick. Somehow, he didn’t. Somehow — this is the even bigger puzzle — no one in the upper reaches of power at LSU demanded that Miles fire Cameron.

After the season-opening horror show at Lambeau Field, in which Brandon Harris clearly made no advancements from 2015, can there be any remaining doubt that the offensive coordinator position is holding back the LSU program and imperiling Miles’ job security?

Coordinators matter. Hug your coordinator today if he’s excellent. Demand his removal if he’s thwarting your team’s legitimate aspirations.

In the shadows of head coaches, coordinators count

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