Here it is, devoted readers: my first morning blog. Usually the following paragraphs are lances to the boil of a long and pitiless workday; a cathartic sports reverie prescribed to draw out the accumulated toxins of the 8 to 5. They are as inevitable and reflexive as water spilling over a gateless dam--prose washing out onto the page. It may only be morning, but the water runs deep after these last 132 hours, or so, of sports. This week, perhaps, won’t require the foibles and frustrations of the workday slog to whet my rhetorical vocals. The dam already sits ready to burst. Without further ado: The Things I’m Thinking About.
The Nature of This Business (A Moderately Large Thing)
I’ve spent barely a couple months as an aspiring opinion-haver, and it’s already a toil. To employ a tired metaphor, mine is a fraught, paranoid road, riddled with wrong turns, switchbacks, and potholes. Already, I seem to have found a cliff to drive myself off of.
Here at WhichCarolina, we are in the accountability business, and it’s time to be accountable. Whatever brittle brand I’ve created as a Carolina commentator has been built on a foundation of disdain for Will Muschamp. Despite my twinge of belief in South Carolina’s chances to stick with Georgia this past weekend, I’ve kept the Muschamp marshmallow over the fire, browning it as the centerpiece in my S’more of Discontent. Today I eat crow.
I still don’t know if Muschamp is the long-term answer at South Carolina. This weekend has proven the limits of my omniscience. What I do know is that for 60 minutes between the bushes in the most godforsaken stadium in the most hellish of towns (excluding the Jewish Fraternity), Will Muschamp’s promises came true. The Gamecocks were deep and disruptive on the defensive line, physical in the secondary, and just a damn menace to line up against. Like a high schooler fresh from taking the SAT, Jake Fromm just looked glad it was over.
This wasn’t perfection from Muschamp. The offense ran a hurry up when the refs needed time to review a critical first-down spot, and the decision to kick that 58-yarder looked like a five-year-old trying to eat all of his birthday cake in one bite. But he took a team that had every reason to doubt itself, and beat a top-5 opponent in front of the Athenians without a quarterback for the last 25 minutes of the game. That just doesn’t happen. Who needs perfect when miraculous will do?
Now I, aspiring opinion-haver, must face my comeuppance. I have been right for stretches of the season, but Saturday I was dead wrong about what Muschamp has built in Columbia for the last four years. It’s no mischaracterization that people in this business become married to their takes. They build the foundation for an opinion, stake their claim, and then feed it until it seems too big to fail. When an irreconcilable reality forces them to part from it, there’s a sting in the admission that “This just isn’t working anymore”. Some people never say goodbye, either too squeamish or too vain to dignify the truth of their eroding credibility. I have no such pride. My lampooning of Will was a rushed and stressful marriage anyway. Consider this a quickie divorce and renewal of my hope in a life with Will Muschamp. With any luck, we’ll remarry, and serve crow at the reception.
Our first date is with Florida on Saturday. I’ll be in the stands, dumb with hope once again.
Speaking of hope, it’s the NBA preseason (A small thing)
This is a dangerous time to be a basketball fan, especially one just diving into box scores. Pre-season stats are fool’s gold, but we still wear them proudly. The fact is, these guys are so good that it’s nothing to drop 25 and 8 in an exhibition game where line-ups are scrambled and defense is optional. I want to get excited about Carson Edwards hitting eight 3s in six minutes. As a habitual drone, I want to be encouraged by Terry Rozier dropping 24 points on 4-7 from three for the Hornets. These things can tell you as much or as little as you want them to. Just proceed with caution, because Frank Kaminsky just led the Suns in scoring.
College Football Red Herrings (A less-small thing)
In a season full of non-sequiturs, this week was particularly tough for those teams whose pretensions to greatness were more hopeful than believable. Exhibit A: The ACC. Virginia scored an inexplicable nine (9!) points against a nothing-more-than-decent Miami squad. Then Wake Forest, my Demon Deacon Darlings, let Louisville and a back-up QB drop 62 in Winston Salem. I hope Louisville can replicate this at home against Clemson on Friday, but as Gandalf would say, it’s only a fool’s hope.
Georgia might belong in the same breath. They had won, like Wake Forest, but they hadn’t run away with games, or gone up against anyone who could stop the run and put them in uncomfortable situations. Enter South Carolina, who whipped ‘em real good. Maybe we should have seen this coming from a young defense and a straight-up green crop of receivers. Maybe we should have given a little less respect to a team whose only “great” win could barely hold off USC in South Bend on Saturday night. Maybe they’ll win out, but I doubt it. Who will this splendid season expose next?
Why Don’t I Like Baseball? (A good-sized thing)
I used to LOVE baseball. Seriously love it. I played it, watched it, talked it. Every Braves game was pumped into the Filch house, and I could name key players on every team in the country. Then, somehow, it all stopped. Now I’m left to consider how I got to a point where game two of the ALCS slugfest between the Astros and the Yankees barely blips on my sports-fan radar. I don’t know exactly how this happened, but here are my suspicions:
1. The Braves got bad. We were treated to a godly run of consistency as growing-up Braves fans. The playoffs were our birthright. Their competitiveness provided a context that made knowing about the opposition feel important and interesting. When we started losing, then kept losing, perhaps I dropped off like a trick-or-treating child who knew that the neighbors had run out of Jolly Ranchers. Or….
2. The steroid era broke us. Growing up, we idolized Sosa and McGwire and rocked with Clemens and Canseco. Then we had to watch our stars burn out and plummet, shells of themselves, against the bleak backdrop of “the steroid era”. By the time Bonds came around and asked us to care, we were all just tired. Juicing became part of every conversation. “Andruw Jones having a hot season? Hope he doesn’t get caught.” “Alex Rodriguez is looking pretty big now, isn’t he? Man he used to be skinny.” Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong, but the trust was broken either way. As fans, I think we became afraid to invest ourselves in the players, which makes it hard to keep caring about their success or failure. Or…..
3. The summers just got more interesting. Baseball used to be the only thing going in the summer. We dialed in because we had to dial in to something. As TV coverage expanded, though, the summer desert bloomed brighter. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that baseball enthusiasm waned as Tiger’s legend grew and drew unfamiliar eyes to the golf course. We gained wall-to-wall World Cup coverage, and the NBA put neon lights around the draft and free agency. Olympic coverage expanded, Wimbledons got more accessible, all while baseball plugged along, relatively unchanged. I don’t think the games are too boring or too long, heck NFL and college football games have never been longer. It’s just that they have to compete with more sports that have higher stakes than those granted by a 162-game season. Or…..
Maybe it’s all three, or maybe it’s some other reason. I don’t know. Just add that to my growing list.
Until next time, readers, may Carolina be on your mind.
If most public expression is just an exercise in vanity, then someone get me another mirror! Today I run the WhichCarolina Bi-athlon: a podcast AND a blog in a single week. Here’s your second helping, hungry masses, of word-manna from the burgeoning sports think-tank that is the WhichCarolina juggernaut. May my thoughts be sustenance for a long and lazy Friday. Without further ado: The Things I’m Thinking About
The Price of Money
It’s a gross irony of this intersection of seasons that we can’t seem to prioritize what’s actually happening on the field. Football is in full swing, baseball slogs toward its mildly anticipated climax, and basketball and hockey games are almost real. Zion just dropped 29, Ben Simmons hit his first professional 3-pointer (that’s for this blog’s lone 76ers fan), Tom Brady is Gilgamesh, Clayton Kershaw is Icarus. Yet, it’s a sports smorgasbord that goes uneaten in favor of the geopolitical casserole popping hot out of the oven. Who better to cook it up than the mad chef Daryl Morey.
I’ve disagreed with a lot of Morey’s decisions over the years. He is the Sith Lord to an Empire of ugly basketball, with Harden as his Vader. He sends insulting trade requests, insinuates himself into every deal, all with the self-satisfied winkiness of a Puckish genius. Win or lose, he always gets to be “the smartest man in the room”. I don’t mind that he’s in hot water. What frustrates me is that what’s landed him there is a refreshing departure from his clever racket.
I don’t know what Daryl Morey knows about the situation over in Hong Kong, but his was a visceral and real reaction to visceral and real circumstances: the people of Hong Kong are suffering. Usually the people suffering at the hands of a shady authoritarian government get the benefit of the doubt. Apparently the situation is murkier when that government pays our bills.
To Adam Silver’s credit, Morey has not, and, it appears, will not be fired. Any bloviators who’ve spent the last 72 hours pummelling the commissioner’s spine should leave him at least that vertebrae. They probably won’t though; intoxicated as they are by the blood of a man who “apparently only cared about money this whole time”. Was moving the All-Star game out of Charlotte, and standing beside Jason Collins on a float a profitable thing to do? Only if your public is of a more liberal persuasion. Is championing player empowerment while encouraging their individual voices and brands a political maneuver? Only if your constituents are under the age of 50. Adam Silver has shown multiple times that he’s not afraid to alienate potentially profitable segments of the population to do what’s right. Don’t sell him short because he’s balked at China’s pricetag.
A certain moral dissonance is the price of doing business with China, and many American companies live in its grey discomfort. Standing up for Morey’s rights, while not exactly a vilification of China’s treatment of Hong Kong, is nonetheless a risk on behalf of something greater than the bottom line. I thank Adam Silver for that dignity, however small it appears. May we all not rush to slice the knees of those whom we turned into giants. Besides, from a big picture standpoint, basketball is one of the only exports we have to help even that darn trade deficit.
P.S. If you want a real reason to be ashamed of American Leadership, have a look at what Turkey is doing to the Kurds as you read this. (I apologize for my dip into politics.)
The Disappointing Time Slot
So you’re hunkered for games. The grill’s going, the dips are made, the feet are up, the two-year-old is in a benadryl coma. Corso just put something on his head. All. Is. Well. Then the games start, and that gargantuan matchup between powerhouse programs that you’ve agonized over, bet on, maybe even written on, is decided midway through the first quarter (A la Michigan-Wisconsin). What do you do? Do you watch out of grim appreciation of the dominance? Do you hope the Boston College-Clemson game will turn into something? Do you scout specific players? Do you nap? Nothing of consequence is coming until 3:30, and you’ve penciled this in for the next two hours. This risk, the greatest of sports fandom, is that all of our anticipation will evaporate with the stark realities of the actual competition. We could go for a hike, or go bowling, or visit a farmer’s market, but man, what if we miss THAT GAME? There’s nothing like realizing you’re in the middle of watching something great, and maybe the not knowing beforehand, and suffering a few duds, is the most beautiful part of it all. May LSU-Florida and Oklahoma-Texas do our hopes justice.
The Precarious Lives of Back-up Quarterbacks
Yes, this is more than partially inspired by the ruminations of Big Brother Ryen Russillo, who is the true and only champion of the back-up quarterback conversation. He makes the point that we usually don’t really figure out who these guys are before we cycle them out. For Panthers fans, this has never been more relevant. We just spent a shiny new 3rd round pick on the latest Will Grier Action Figure, to replace…...the backup who had done nothing but throw touchdowns in his only year of action? What grounds did we have for thinking that our QB stable wasn’t already stable, other than a league-wide compulsion to replace back-up QBs like iPhones. It’s like they’re judged harshly on a test they never even get the chance to take. This itchiness will probably never fade on the NFL decision-making epidermis, as GMs chase the hope of the “next big thing”, but an equal extreme mitigates this severity.
Kyle Allen never has to throw another ball in this league to walk away from the game with a cool $70 mil, or so. He’s played three decent games, and they are all he needs to leverage backup QB contracts for the next ten years. Backup quarterbacks sell hope. Teams need to believe there’s a chance they can win when their No. 1 goes down, that the wheels won’t fall off their season. Kyle Allen can lose a few more games, even look horrible, but GMs will still say “remember that stretch he had when Cam went down?”. He’ll make seven million a year for three games of work. Gardner Minshew is probably already laughing about it.
How Little I Know About Football
Read Robert Mays’s breakdown of the Browns’ offensive struggles for The Ringer. It’s clear, articulate, and paints a devastating picture of the NFL’s latest cautionary tale. He explains defensive, route, and protection concepts that are beyond this flimsy-minded fan, and reminds me that the best analysis engages what happens on the field, not on a spreadsheet. You can have your Bill Barnwell’s DVOAs and Efficiency metrics (along with a truly hapless podcast). I’ll take the guy who can tell me why all of that stuff is actually taking place, and make me a smarter viewer of this intricate sport.
Until next time readers…...
This week in Gainful Employment has been a fever dream. I know it’s Thursday, and I know that Monday must have happened, but I can’t very well remember how it started, and am a little hazy on how I arrived, out of breath and sticking to my sheets, in front of this keyboard. Some weeks are like that: sporadic rhythms of energy and distraction that flow loosely together into a story you hardly understand, and wouldn’t read again. Thank God this restless sleep is almost over; and what better to wake up to than a sports blog.
I apologize, devoted reader, for denying you my lukewarm Takes on this week’s pod. But I will not go quietly into this good weekend without sprinkling the WhichCarolina recipe with some of my meager commentary. Without further ado, here are The Things I’m Thinking about:
The Strange Alchemy of a Head Coach (A Rather Large Thing)
As the Will Muschamp era at South Carolina spirals into unplumbed depths of futility (despite a confusing win over Kentucky), I’m left to consider the most important and abstract question for every armchair AD: what makes a good head coach? I wanted so badly to believe in the Muschamp Era when he barged in like only he could, while comments about “Florida’s Sloppy Seconds” rubbed my tender Gamecock ego raw. Sweet nothings like “Injuries ruined him at Florida” and “He’s still the guy Texas wanted” gave my fragile hopes a feeble comfort. There were things that could have annoyed me if I’d let them--his tired cheesiness, his deer-in-the-headlights press conferences, his blind loyalty to a milquetoast staff (I see you Kurt Roper)--but I stayed true to my convictions: He was The Guy because he had to be The Guy. Hell, he was the only guy who seemed to want us. Now, I’m choking on the dusty shambles of my arguments.
Four years have passed, and he’s spent most of them proving the peanut gallery right. He hired the same dudes who got him fired at Florida, stuck by them for as long as possible, then hired different versions of them. He’s failed to develop top recruits, and Agatha Christie would struggle to devise more mysterious game management strategies. It’s almost as if the guy vowed not to learn a single lesson from his time at Florida. But this is not a piece about Muschamp. If anything, I’m just thankful I’m not waking up to reports of him insinuating himself into the activities of local law enforcement (thanks for the memories, Jeremy Pruitt). I do not dislike Will Muschamp. I think he’s a good guy, and a capable Defensive Coordinator. He’s just not a good head coach. Which leaves me with the $18 Million Dollar Question: How in the hell do you find one?
As far as I can tell, the best criteria for a great head coach is winning where you aren’t supposed to. What Spurrier did at Duke, what James Franklin did at Vandy, what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech, those are the ones you look to first. Winning at places where you don’t have the cache and resources takes creativity. Which, it appears, a good head coach needs. Guys like Jeremy Pruitt and Will Muschamp won big, but mostly at places like Texas, LSU, Florida State, and Georgia, where competitive advantages are heaped like plates at a Golden Corral. This is also a cautionary tale for programs looking to hire the “Next Big Thing” from those upper-level Group-of-Six programs like Memphis, South Florida, and Cincinnati. They may be the shiniest rings in a box of dull trinkets, but that doesn’t mean you need to propose with them. Sometimes winning at this sort of place is impressive, but sometimes it’s fool’s gold, and for every Brian Kelly there are two Justin Fuentes or Butch Joneses.
Which brings us to another truism: beware the coach who’s riding a generational quarterback. Good quarterbacks certainly require some development, but let’s be clear that a head coach usually benefits from a great QB more than a QB benefits from the head coach. Jimbo Fisher burned Florida State to the ground, and was still able to ride Jameis Winston’s greatness to a $75 million dollar donation from the benevolent people at Texas A&M. Justin Fuente looked awful pretty when Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson were doing his makeup. Now he looks pretty awful. Cam Newton mailed Gene Chizik a damn National Championship, and made Guz Malzahn look at least a few million dollars smarter than he actually is. Quarterback development is a huge part of coaching, but the best guys can still win without a stud QB. James Franklin won with Jordan Rogers, Steve Spurrier won with Conner Shaw, Les Miles won with Jarrett Lee, and now he’s at Kansas beating ACC teams on the road. Anyone can win with Drew Brees, but what happens when he stops walking through that door (hopefully we find out about Dabo soon, after this unreal run of QBs at Clemson)?
But what makes these guys special? Because they are great in maddeningly different ways. Saban is a manic, relentless, iron-forged control freak. Dabo? An engaging, passionate, inspiration-soaked Mascot-CEO. Urban? A slippery, battle-hungry offensive mastermind with an eye for weaponry. Kirby? Well, we’re not sure yet, but he sure seems Smart (I’ll see myself out). All different, and all the same, but in what ways? Where in this misty ineffability does the stuff of a Head Coach emerge?! I’m not sure, but I have my musings, and those musings their murky conclusions.
First, it starts with, as Bagger Vance poetically puts it, “seeing the field”. So many of these “next big things” are stuck in the rise-and-grind tinkering of a top-flight offensive or defensive coordinator. They swallow film, regurgitate game plans, and then call someone to clean up the mess. Their’s is a life of minutiae, of addictive, suffocating focus. They often don’t answer to the press, lead the recruiting charges, or glad-hand with boosters. For Pete’s, they probably don’t spend more than ten minutes a week thinking about the success of the other units on their own football team. That’s just the job. But it doesn’t prepare them for HeadCoachinghood any more than teaching math prepares you to be a principal. Head coaches have to be able to take a step back, and see the field. To have the breadth to notice everything, the discretion to prioritize it, and the sense to delegate it, all while meeting with boosters and handling Thursday Night Call-in Shows. It takes a Presidential type of awareness.
Some coordinators are flexible enough to take this step back, but many are not. Will Muschamp sure isn’t, Jeremy Pruitt’s life is a hellscape, Joe Morehead is treading water, and Tom Herman still can’t buy himself a defense. Position coaches, however, might have a little better window into the overall running of a program if they only had the chance to show it. Dabo certainly has risen to the task in revolutionizing the role of head coach in Pickens County. Sean Elliot just brought Georgia State a win in Neyland Stadium, and he wasn’t even a good offensive line coach at South Carolina. The position-to head coach promotion might be one of the last secret efficiencies in college football. Too bad so few will ever get to make that leap (just don’t bring up Matt Luke).
If understanding the parts of your football team is one thing, however, bringing them all together is another; which is why a Head Coach, before he can control a team, has to control his message. It may sound corny, hell it probably is, but nearly every consistent program is authentically devoted to an ideal. This ideal appeals to recruits, and powers the energy of their players and coaches. It gives everyone a story to become a part of--and being a part of something breeds commitment. In Alabama it’s perfection--a dogged pursuit of football’s platonic ideal, an unprecedented devotion to detail. Lincoln preaches innovation, mixing offenses to fit his players and maximizing individual skill. People go to Oklahoma to be at the cutting edge of offensive football. Chip Kelly was Lincoln Riley once upon a time. He used one word to build his teams: speed. And that mantra became a drumbeat for a whole offensive movement out of Eugene, Oregon. Dabo, as painful as it is to say, has succeeded with the revolutionary idea of “fun”. They’re gonna sling it around, they’re gonna get you in space, they’re gonna throw it deep, dress in purple, fly to the quarterback, and run down that godforsaken hill--and have a damn good time doing it. They might make mistakes, but they play free, loose, fast football that draws people in (the ungodly salaries of their coordinators notwithstanding). Great head coaches are great communicators, plain and simple. They establish a narrative for their program and then live it out. Which story, South Carolina, will you tell about yourself?
Sorry if that was a little long but if you’re looking for an excuse to stay on the toilet and not face your life……..Here are some Small Things I’m Thinking About:
Two points about Chapel Hill (couldn’t help myself): Yes, the playcall was bad. Run anything other than Howell to the right, but that’s not where they lost the game. They lost the game with 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter when Clemson had that 3rd and 6 from the UNC 38. Chapel Hill’s defense had been perfect--beyond perfect--ethereal, even. Then they matched up an honest-to-god linebacker against Tee Higgins in the slot. A Linebacker. Against a top two-or-three receiver in the country on what will certainly be their most important defensive play of the season. I wonder if Tee was giggling as he sauntered into the endzone.
The NFL has a lot of bad teams. This is not a paradigm-shifting observation, but it has to be stated. There is A LOT of straight-up butt in the NFL right now. Let’s do a quick run-down. Arizona, Cincinnati, The Jets, Miami, Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and the Redskins are nigh unwatchable. And the mayonnaisy mediocrity floating just above them is unconvincing at best. Tell me again that I should be excited about the thick white paste that is Minnesota, Tennessee, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Chargers, Jacksonville, the Giants, and the Colts. These are all tough watches, and the teams just above them, the Chargers, Raiders, Bears, Panthers(wishful thinking), Green Bay, Bills, all have glaring weaknesses in key position groups. I’m hoping this is just a symptom of limited pre-season practice and live reps, and that these teams will coalesce by November. Until then, the NFL is not easy on the eyes.
I’ll end how I began, with a reflection on senseless, inexorable exertion. Like any working drone who wins their own personal Super Bowl every week just to wake up on Monday and do it all over again, the college football fan ought to be in something of an existential crisis. So much energy, hope, and scouting reports, combing through the data, scrutinizing schedules to be left with this. Five weeks in, and there are maybe ten teams left who can win this thing. Let’s see if you recognize these names: Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Clemson, Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame ( I wanna throw in Oregon and Washington, but what’s the point.). The blood in college football has never run bluer, time is a flat circle, what has been will always be, and you might as well jump on a bandwagon unless you wanna die without tasting sweet victory. The poetry of this maniacal sport rests in those fans who have spent decades having their courageous hope suplexed to the mat and full-nelsoned into submission, only to have it re-emerge every season like Punxsutawney Phil in the Groundhog Days of September. Those most deserving are the least rewarded. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back despite all the futility: because when you aren’t born into privilege, every victory feels earned, and all the sweeter for it. Here’s to you, Demon Deacons, Sun Devils, and Cavaliers. May you finally get what you deserve.