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Causation, criticism, and proper context

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There's a downside to getting more traffic at this site (well, besides any angst over not having time to post on a particular day), in that sometimes I don't think that I I'm able to be as candid as I would have been, say, last year. For example, one of many idea outlines I have about the question about whether or not Greg Schiano is overpaid in terms of salary. I think that it would be a straightforward, reasonable enough post; the Orlando Sentinel says that he has the 18th highest salary of any FBS coach.

I'm not naive enough to think that I can write in a vacuum, completely devoid of context. After all, the hypothetical argument was spurred by comments that I've read recently critical of Coach Schiano. That's life; it's nothing compared to what Jim Tressel and Mark Richt are facing at the moment.

However, my overall inclination is to try and take a step back, and take a look at the broader picture. Those salary figures don't take into account bonuses, which can be quite large. New Jersey has the third highest cost of living in the country, after Hawaii and California. (Which, is why, when relatively middle class Jerseyans go to school out of state in the Midwest or the South, they get a reputation for throwing their money around.) Take into account the tax burden - property, state, and federal (New Jersey gets the least return on its dollar of any state, as a result of the afore-mentioned disparity), and that salary doesn't go nearly as far as it would for Schiano's coaching peers.

Yeah, it's kind of crummy how coaches always try to angle for a pay increase when they have a big year, and aren't in a hurry to forgo those earnings when their teams struggle. During a recession, with universities across the country taking a hit, and most athletic departments in the red, it's about time for the guys in headsets to be a bit more sensitive to public perception in the future. Especially when it comes to a presumed lifer like Schiano. There will be scrutiny until he wins a conference title; although, there's a case that he's more than earned his salary through other contributions (program building, academics, off field conduct) above a total W/L record.

That's the cliff notes version. However, when the football team apparently in a rebuilding year, and under internal fan scrutiny, I'm not sure about whether this is the right time to have a candid discussion. It's not possible to divorce and thoughts from present context. More worrisome, I don't know if it's ever possible. Let's say, in a year from now, things are going swimmingly. My hunch is that all past concerns will be forgotten, to a point where any wrinkles are completely ignored. The Knights do have two losses to good football teams. They're young on offense, and the light could go on at any moment.

I've tried to be as clear-eyed and candid as possible in my posts, having no qualms about criticizing the coaching staff, overall program, or athletic department when I deem it to be warranted. Certainly, I could have very well been wrong in some of those assessments, or mistakenly defended and apologized for what look like mistakes in retrospect. Additionally, I think that if you look at the presser transcripts, you won't find any public arrogance from Schiano. To the contrary, his coachspeak is so humble, and outright boring, that it almost screams to be remixed with a thumping techno bass line or something. He's made mistakes, and will be the first to admit them, or even try to deflect criticism from players in his role as the figure-who-should-have-better-prepared-them.

Watching the polls for November's New Jersey Governor's race lately, you'll see that Chris Christie's lead against Governor Corzine has faded. I think this example is a salient one to help illustrate the point that I'm working towards. Christie had a big early lead, but New Jersey's demographics usually lean towards the Democrats. Things were bound to tighten up. Likewise, there's a lot of voter anger towards Corzine for the condition of the state economy. He's a victim of bad timing more than anything. Surely, both candidates have made their share of mistakes, but I'm continually frustrated by the general tendency to single out one decisive factor, and attribute all subsequent credit or blame to that specific thing over the many varied, situational factors at play too.

Really, if you're familiar with anything that Coach has ever said, this should be lesson number one. He reiterates this point all the time; it's not about getting that one elite player, or making that one big play. Football is a game of inches, and one can certainly adjust the odds in their favor, but that's ultimately a product of an overall, larger process. If you're hoping for that one quick fix, that one savior, when he comes along, great. Those are your fifteen minutes, and they're spectacular. When a Ray Rice can come out of relative obscurity and be The Man, it's like winning the lottery.

However, what about when the NFL comes calling, and the meal ticket heeds the siren's call? It's right back to square one. The ticket, I truly believe, is to build a sustainable program that can maintain consistent success on a yearly basis. Rice leaves? Replace him with a Kenny Britt. Then you keep reloading - Anthony Davis, Manny Abreu, Tom Savage - surrounded by a good supporting cast. In the end, it's not about one guy. It can't be. Coach Schiano isn't completely to blame for all on-field failures; just as he doesn't deserve the credit for all success. The buck does stop on his door step, but the reality is this all is a complicated process, with about a zillion different nuances all in play. And, the single biggest one of them is just plain dumb luck.

Given hindsight, I'm sure that there's plenty of decisions that Schiano himself would second guess. Hell, give me a night with Doc Brown's DeLorean, and I suppose that all sorts of freaky counterfactuals would have came true. There's certainly plenty to criticize. Criticizing from the keyboard is easy, which is not to discount that a lot of people on the net are really bright, and do have interesting things to say. That's the thing though; it's time the move the goalposts, change the criteria by which we evaluate performance. Instead of looking at an adjusted W/L record, or measuring with respect to relative expectations, I prefer to both judge a program (over a sufficient sample size, of course) in comparison to peer schools, and against its long-term historical trends.

Meaning, it's not great to say something like "Rutgers is thin at position X" and conclude that the coaching staff blew it. Yes, if you look over the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes, there are a lot of busts. There are plenty of hits too. It's less meaningful to say "woe is us, Y percent of players didn't end up making meaningful contributions", than to look at, say, how often high school prospects tend to pan out for any program. While there are games along the way that the Scarlet Knights certainly should have won, that shoe can be on the other foot some times too. I'm by no means 100% satisfied with every twist and turn over the past decade, but still. Don't say "we freakin' suck!". Say, "we're a historically mediocre program, just getting over a very bad stretch run starting in the mid-nineties, and generally satisfied with the improvement shown although they all certainly could and should do much better."

This is not to imply that there are never circumstances where someone makes so critical a mistake (or, conversely, is a direct catalyst for sucesss) as to directly cause defeat or victory, but it's generally rare, and probably balances out over time. That's why when I hear or read statements of the sort like "player Z just wins games" or "player Y is a born choker", I can really do is look/act smug and increduluous, my eyes figuratively rolling out of their sockets. No! That's not how it works!

This all hasn't been nearly as sequential (or sensical) as I would have liked, given time constraints, so I'll wrap things up for now with the following point. If you have specific points or criticism about the state of Rutgers football in 2009, great. Let's hear them. On the other hand, if someone only wants to accentuate the positive, or nitpick every little thing, I honestly start to drown them out after a while. Like, they come across as the unintelligible parents in those Peanuts holiday specials. It's shouldn't be "they have to fix this, and this, and this, and this and this or I'm outta here man". They're being dramatic; and if not, I don't particular want to associate with them in the first place.

Every program has some sort of issue. Week-in and out, the Florida Gators (for instance) are looking fairly vulnerable, and not the atomic supermen that they were touted as being. Is it time to run Urban Meyer out of town? Again, it's fine to have a reasonable discussion on these matters (if it's even possible, it may not be), but I don't think it quite cuts to the heart of the matter. There will always be flaws, real or perceived. What's more pressing is regards to whether there are persistent, structural concerns, center to the heart of a program, and the fundamental way that it runs and operates on a daily basis. Do we need to reinvent the wheel there? Do we?

At the moment, I don't think so. Maybe, just a tune up.