Coaching any sport — not just college football — is an organic, evolving pursuit for Mark Dantonio and anyone else who enters the profession.
The basics of a sport remain the same over time. Pitching technique, shooting technique, blocking technique, serving technique, golf swing technique — these and other repetitive components of sports performance retain their essential ingredients.
However, sports nevertheless evolve while they remain in some ways unchanged. Coaches must walk a balance between teaching the core fundamentals and — in terms of how they manage players on gameday — discarding conventions to seek the best chance of success in each situation.
Andrew Miller and Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians are revolutionizing the way relief stoppers are used in the baseball postseason.
Steph Curry is the foremost icon for a newer, smaller and more positionless form of professional basketball. He might not have started the trend, but he definitely carried it forward to a considerable degree, with a level of force matched by few.
Tennis players can’t really imitate how Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal hit a tennis ball, but the two men have nevertheless created an all-court form of full-toolbox tennis which has forced the rest of the competition to dramatically rethink everything from scheduling to training regimens to string technology.
Even in the midst of stasis, of lessons and principles which will never change in sports (take pitches out of the strike zone early in counts; always throw beyond the first-down marker in a college football two-minute drill), these athletic competitions are always evolving and changing.
College football has undergone massive spasms of growth and reconstruction over the past 30 years. This is a remarkably different sport in terms of in-game tactics and offensive styles compared to 1986. Coaches must accordingly move in step with the times.
What’s striking, then, is how even the best coaches among us are still very poor — below-average is a charitable description — at game management in the year 2016.
Three examples from this past Saturday suffice to tell the tale.
Mark Dantonio took a moribund Michigan State program and turned it into (in the 2013 season) a Rose Bowl champion, a Cotton Bowl champion (2014 season), and a College Football Playoff semifinalist (2015 season). He belongs in the top tier of FBS coaches, without question.
Yet, this was the large gaffe he committed on Saturday against Michigan:
Dantonio said he kicked a FG down 20 with 10 minutes left because it would make it a two-score game. I'm not sure the staff did the math.
— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) October 29, 2016
Dabo Swinney certainly benefits from doses of good fortune at Clemson, but in a context of cutthroat competition, you don’t consistently “luck” your way into high-end achievements. Luck helps create the achievements, but talent and a lot of resilience are necessary, non-negotiable parts of the mixture.
Clemson used to be the program which always LOST the close games in the national spotlight. Now the Tigers win them. Dabo has recruited better, delegated better, organized better, motivated better, hired better coordinators — he’s done almost everything better as a coach to create statistics such as this one at Clemson:
Clemson is now 16-2 in their last 18 games decided by 7 points or fewer.
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) October 30, 2016
Yet, on Saturday against Florida State — in a 37-34 game stuffed with big game-breaking plays from two explosive offenses — Dabo made the ridiculous decision to give Florida State another down (third and 23) instead of forcing the Seminoles into a 4th and 13. Keep in mind: The 4th and 13 was not within field goal range; only when field goal yardage is an issue should “third and forever” be seen as more desirable than “fourth and very long.
Dabo ignored that evident piece of wisdom. Florida State converted the third and 23. Dabo got away with the move because Florida State’s offensive line couldn’t stand still… and because Clemson defensive linemen feasted once FSU dug itself a large down-and-distance ditch.
Nevertheless, the coach of the defending ACC champion and national runner-up made an obviously boneheaded decision which almost bit him in the backside.
Beyond Dantonio and Dabo, also consider another game-management jawdropper from the last Saturday of October.
Jim Grobe is no dummy. (Yes, he hasn’t managed Baylor’s interim coaching period well in terms of public relations and sensitivity to alleged victims, but that’s a separate conversation.)
Grobe won an ACC title at Wake Frickin’ Forest, fer cryin’ out loud. That’s one more ACC title in the conference championship game era (2005-present) than Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Virginia combined. It’s hard to win with any degree of consistency at Wake, and Grobe won consistently there. He’s good at coaching football teams between the painted white lines.
Yet, with 46 seconds left in regulation, no timeouts, and his Baylor team trailing Texas by one on Saturday, Grobe allowed his offensive staff to call a planned quarterback run on first and 10 at the start of a do-or-die drive. The second play might not have been a planned QB run, but Seth Russell made an ill-advised decision to tuck the ball away instead of throwing it out of bounds. The lost time from that second QB run — Russell was tackled in bounds — caused Baylor to not have time for a winning field goal attempt in a 35-34 defeat.
Dantonio, Dabo, Grobe — these men know more about football than you or I ever will learn in a lifetime. In terms of all the specific tasks that go into coaching, these three men have gained high marks. Recruiting, hiring staffers, changing the culture of the locker room — they’ve all done these things at a high level, enough to win at least one conference championship if not more.
Yet, they couldn’t tie their shoelaces in terms of game management this past Saturday. Dabo made a similarly confounding decision at the end of Clemson’s season opener at Auburn. Up by six points in the final minute, Dabo had a chance to kick a short field goal (34 yards) and take an insurmountable “game-over” nine-point advantage. Instead, he called a vanilla run which was easily stopped short of the first down. Auburn had a chance to win, but of course, the AU offense was broken at that point in time. Dabo got away with that move, too, as was the case with his choice in the Florida State game.
Coaching game management is getting worse, not better. The elites in the profession can’t even make basic calls anymore. If anyone needed more evidence that head coaches should carve out game-management assistant positions on their staffs, said evidence continues to roll in.