Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Smokey and the Frost-bit

There is a Big Ten football program that was once a national power. It was built on the backs of strong, corn-fed Midwestern farm boys wearing iconic uniforms that practically became their own mascot. When football changed they changed with it, finding speedy athletes in other parts of the country to bring into the fold, adopting new styles, and embracing innovation. Over thirty years they won over two-thirds of their games, boatloads of conference championships, nearly half a dozen National Championships, some of the biggest bowls in the game, and never finished lower than 5th in their conference.

After years of success, their long-tenured coach departed, taking an assistant role in the athletic department. Most assumed the successor would pick up where he left off. The decline started almost imperceptibly and took nearly a decade to pick up steam. Frustration from administration and alumni, tough questions from what used to be an obedient local media, increasing surliness by coaches, and suddenly what used to be considered “fluke” performances became something closer to the norm. After a decade or so, the fans looked around, realized that it was more trend than phase and started to wonder aloud what the hell happened.

If you think that sounds a lot like Minnesota football from the 30s to the 80s, well, you’re close but not quite.

After watching Purdue defeat Nebraska a few weeks ago, I facetiously tweeted something about writing a dissertation comparing Scott Frost to Joe Salem.

I was joking at the time, a nagging feeling caused me to actually look at the data. By my count I’d be at about 8 tweets right now. I’ll try to keep it below 100 but no promises.

A brief refresher on Minnesota’s glory years is in order for the handful of Gopher fans who haven’t fallen back on them as a desperate form of self-defense. When he stepped down after the 1921 season, Coach Henry L. Williams was followed by a series of moderately successful coaches. Two years after Bernie Bierman was hired in 1932 the Gophers were National Champions 3 times in a row and 5 times between 1934 and 1941. Bernie went off to war and when he returned in 1945 the game had changed and the magic dulled. The 50s were up-and-down, but Coach Murray Warmath brought the Gophers back in 1960 with another National Championship and two consecutive Rose Bowls. After a 3-way tie with Purdue and Indiana for the Big Ten title in 1967 the team’s performance slipped again and Warmath was replaced in 1972 by Cal Stoll and then in 1979 by “Smokey” Joe Salem. The bottom came in 1983 with a 1-10 season that cost Salem his job and set the stage for another 30 years of occasional small peaks and earth-swallowing valleys.

But what does that have to do with Nebraska?

Much has been said about Scott Frost’s comments following several weeks of disappointing performance and losses by the Cornhuskers. The first of these were his comments following the 34-7 loss to Minnesota. Specifically:

“I told them ‘just OK never existed in the locker room that I was in when I was at Nebraska’…I don’t want guys that go out in Minnesota with hoodies on everything for warmups. That just says to me that ‘just OK is enough’. You got ridiculed or beat up when I was playing if you did that.”

Frost was of course wearing a hoodie, indoors, when the comment was made but presumably his assistant coaches decided to lay off that Code Red that particular day. After a bye week, Nebraska was plagued with defensive miscues and sloppy play overall in a home loss against a backup QB which I was told was impossible in Big Ten play. After a firey halftime interview where he complained about his team’s “dumbass mistakes” Frost made it clear where he felt the blame should be placed:

“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team that really care, we’ve got some guys on this team that are tough and dedicated enough. We don’t have enough of them yet.”

“When there’s not enough attention to detail, not enough guys that care enough to do things perfect, then those mistakes show up on the field.”

The following week, fellow hoodie-enthusiast Jeff Brohm declined to hunt his counterpart down in the locker room, preferring to administer his beating on the field in a 31-27 loss to Purdue in the fictional hamlet of West Lafeyette. Post-game, Frost struck a more conciliatory tone, conceding that some of the fault lay with the coaches and even himself. Perhaps it’s a sign of growth towards building the culture he desires. If so it would be quite the turnaround from 2018 when his explanation for allowing a 99-yard scoring drive to Northwestern was:

“For one, I don’t call the defense.”

Frost has referenced learning his coaching from such NFL luminaries as Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, neither men known for waxing philosophic. Comments like these are not unusual from coaches, and there are plenty of folks and players unphased by them. There are lots of motivational styles and just because they are different doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Yet Coach Frost’s persona and public style seem to broadcast a desire or perhaps even a conscious effort to transport his team to a mythical past age where players were all tough-as-nails and could figure it all out on their own, and coaches existed primarily to put together game plans, yell, and project an air of toughness for their team to emulate. Frost was perhaps alluding to this in his introductory press conference in 2017 when he said:

“There was a formula that worked here for a long time and times have changed a little but some of those same things are what is going to make this work again.”

The tacit implication is that only a Nebraska Man could achieve this, a “one of us” level that surely causes Minnesotans to flush with unspoken envy. With his Jesse Plemons good-looks and wry smile, the stereotypical Cornhusker hero appears several years younger than his still-young 43. A Lincoln native and former Stanford transfer, Frost led Nebraska to its last (or if you’re a Nebraska fan, “most recent”) National Title in 1997 as a red-shirt senior. Frost had spent 7 seasons at Oregon as a successful wide receivers coach, quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator before taking over a struggling UCF squad in 2016, leading them to a 6-7 season, and then a 13-0 self-declared National Championship* in 2017. One wonders what his former Nebraska teammates would think of someone naming themselves national champions, but I digress.

The mind tends to seek patterns and find comfort in the familiar, so perhaps it was that which led my mind to Joe Salem.

Like Frost, Salem was a former National Champion quarterback for the team that hired him (though in this case, a backup on the 1960 squad behind All-American Sandy Stephens). When he was hired by the Gophers in 1979 he seemed like a fresh up-and-comer with experience beyond his 41 years. His resume showed 12 years as head coach at Division II South Dakota and Northern Arizona with a combined 77-56-2 record, 4 conference championships, and one appearance in the Division II playoffs. So confident was Paul Giel’s Athletics Department that they even put up billboards around the Twin Cities prominently featuring Coach Salem with a rose in his mouth.

But it was not to be. Salem took a team that had finished 5-6 under Cal Stoll in 1978 and finished 4-6-1 in 1979, 5-6 in 1980, and 6-5 in 1981. The injury-riddled 1982 season started with promise at 3-0 but quickly degenerated to 6 straight losses. The Gopher’s last home game of the season was against similarly-hapless 1-8 Michigan State on the evening of November 13, 1982.

One of the treasures (or curses, depending on your perspective) of Smokey Joe’s time with the Gophers is the online conversion of some episodes of “The Joe Salem Show” on KSTP, featuring interviews with the coach and players, rapid-fire game recaps, and previews of upcoming opponents. The November 13, 1982 edition of the Joe Salem Show aired prior to the MSU game at the Metrodome. The episode begins with a familiar theme for Gopher fans: pointed questions from interviewer Larry Burnett regarding Coach Salem’s future with the team. Salem handles the questions well but his facial expressions and body language betray his irritation at being in this position.

Tape review of the previous week’s loss to Ohio State at Columbus follows, dominated by porous O-line and D-line play, disorganized pass defense, sloppy tackling, and inspired but frantic play by quarterback Mike Hohensee and running back Alan Reid as they try to carry the team behind their overmatched, battered linemen, but it’s not to be and Minnesota loses 35-10. Salem talks at length about injuries and how badly Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler feel for his poor luck.

Things get interesting as Coach Salem previews MSU using footage from MSU’s 28-24 loss to Northwestern the previous week (bonus footage of Northwestern coach Denny Green). Around the 17:30 mark, Northwestern runs a halfback pass to the weak side but it’s read by the MSU safety who launches himself at the essentially defenseless NU halfback. Today, the play would almost certainly be called for Targeting. The safety lowers the crown of his helmet and strikes the NU player square in the side of his helmet near the ear, dropping him instantly. Of screen, Larry Burnett gasps and groans at the violence of the hit, but Coach Salem’s reaction is different. Experiencing what appears to be his only real joy during the entire gloomy show, he chuckles and exclaims:

“That’s what college football is all about!”

Considering the sloppy defensive play from the Gopher’s replays earlier in the show, one can’t help but think conditioning, tackling fundamentals, and scheme execution might take precedence over spectacular hits. Coach Salem seems to have disagreed; in the footage from the Ohio State game, several Minnesota defenders launch themselves at the ball carrier rather than executing fundamental tackling, with the almost universal result of big gains for the Buckeyes running backs and wide receivers.

The parallels to Coach Frost are obvious, but interview comments aren’t data. Is my mind seeing patterns where it wants to see them? Let’s look at the numbers. If MVofDT’s ghost-bot is reading, he might want to look away lest he experience a second, more painful demise at my amateur data reduction.

The “glory years” for the Gophers were the 1930s and 40s, with a second peak in the 1960s. The sun shown brightly on Nebraska from late 1960s into the early 2000s, and clouds started to descend after their 2001 BCS Championship loss to Miami. It’s not possible to do a direct comparison for these periods since football seasons were 3-5 games shorter in the Depression and war years and there were very few bowls, so we’ll look at National Championships, win percentage, bowl eligibility, and relative conference standings instead of total wins or bowl appearances.

The timeframe needs to cover both program peaks but can’t be selected to support the narrative, so we’ll use the arbitrary timeline of 10 years prior to the first consensus National Champion for each school (1934 for Minnesota, 1970 for Nebraska). For Minnesota that’s 1924, which puts Joe Salem’s last season (1983) at the 60 year mark. Applying the same 60 year period to Nebraska, we have 1960 as a starting point and 60 years later is…well, will you look at that. It’s 2019. How. Interesting.

Classifying 1924/1960 as Year 1, we can now compare the peak periods. Let’s start with National Championships. The pattern is similar for both teams: early peak of success starting at Year 11-20, a relative down period (more down for Minnesota than Nebraska), and then a second peak of success around Year 35-40. It’s a fascinating pattern and not something I was expecting to see, aside from the obvious fact that Year 11 would match.

Moving on to winning percentage, Minnesota’s winning percentage is 54.1%, compared to 74.2% for Nebraska, who benefits from a streak of 9-3 and 10-2 finishes in the 70s and 80s that fell just short of National Champion-worthy. The averages along don’t tell the story though; the chart below does a better job. I’ve added some statistically-dubious trendlines for more easy visualization.

Another way to compare would be bowl eligibility. From Year 10 to Year 43 Nebraska didn’t miss a bowl game whereas Minnesota went to only 3, but much of the comparison period for Minnesota was during a time with very few bowls, and only 1 or less assigned to the Western Conference/Big Ten. So instead, let’s apply the current standard of a 50% or greater winning percentage (currently that means 6 wins, but in 1934 when it would mean 4). Using this standard, Nebraska was bowl-eligible 52 times in 60 years (53 counting their 5-7 trip to the Foster Farms Bowl in 2015). Minnesota was bowl-eligible 34 times in their 60 year period. Not quite as good, but still not too shabby.

Another way to view the data is to look at conference finish. This again gets tricky once Nebraska gets into the Big XII and Big Ten where there are divisions, so for this comparison I took the divisions out and counted the finish based on overall conference record the old-fashioned way. Note that on the Y-axis in this chart, higher means a better conference finish.

Notice any similarities? The thing that sticks out to me is that for both teams, the first decade following the last National Championship certainly shows a dip in performance, but it’s not precipitous and there are still signs of life (Nebraska’s 2001 BCS appearance, Minnesota’s 1967 3-way Big Ten title split). But once you get past Year 50 (1973 for the Gophers, 2009 for the Cornhuskers) the trend is clearly down, and they track fairly closely as they approach Year 60. Note that while Year 60 is complete for Minnesota (1983), it’s still ongoing for the Cornhuskers…at the time of this writing their record is 4-5. Given their remaining schedule it’s unlikely to break this trend.

With apologies to Dan Carlin, Nebraska is like Minnesota, only more so.

So what’s the conclusion? It’s a big stretch to say that these programs are the same, and it would be extremely challenging to control for all the variables that this simplistic review doesn’t account for. But while all models are wrong, some are useful. This is retrospective. It isn’t a predictive guarantee that Nebraska is in for 30 years of suck. They’ve got resources, they’ve got energy, they’ve got a different media and competitive landscape.

If this is anything, it’s a warning. This is what can happen after a long enough waning period, and it’s not pretty. By the time you realize you’re deep into it, it’s already be getting to the point where it’ll take a lot more time to dig out. Think it can’t happen in Lincoln? Find a University of Chicago fan from the Roosevelt Administration (the first one) and see what they think. How’ve things been holding up in Knoxville? I know you don’t want to talk about them but Texas might have some perspectives too. The bottoms haven’t completely fallen out with any of those programs like they did for Minnesota, but given enough time, enough administrative dysfunction, and enough misaligned fan expectations and before you know it you’re losing 84-13 to Oklahoma.

The story of Paul Giel’s extensive and rarely-discussed mismanagement of Minnesota athletics during his 18 year tenure as University of Minnesota Athletic Director is another post, but it holds clues for what NOT to do if you’re a team on the decline. Be realistic about the limitations you face in terms of media, facilities, and recruiting. Accept that doing things the old-fashioned way, except harder, isn’t a strategy. That “back in MY day” isn’t a motivational approach for Gen Z recruits, and if you’re being honest it wasn’t for you as a Gen Xer either. Toughness alone isn’t going to get it done, and the “one of us” approach can be a bridle or a spur. Joe Salem was plenty tough, and so were a lot of his players. Toughness doesn’t see coverage gaps, pick up a blitz from a linebacker’s body language, or glimpse a momentary seam to the open receiver. Above all else, take responsibility if you’re a leader, whether a captain, a coach, or an athletics director. “That’s not my job” isn’t an answer, and “How was I supposed to know?” isn’t either.

Will Nebraska avoid these pitfalls? Looking back we can see it didn’t start off promising. In 2017, new Nebraska AD Bill Moos said:

 “You’ve got Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh thinking ‘We better put a little more into that Nebraska game coming up.’ And that’s the way we want it. They’re running a little bit scared right now.”

In fairness, he later told the AP that was a “tongue-in-cheek” comment but given Nebraska’s then-status as a 4-8 team it’s not a statement that leaves one to conclude solid grounding in reality. He appears to have since tempered expectations. As the Cornhusker hype train was running full-speed this summer, Bill Moos said at Big Ten Media Days that he considered six wins to be an immediate goal.

If there’s one thing Minnesota fans know from experience, it’s that the longer the drought lasts, the tougher it is to find water. Scott Frost’s public demeanor following his recent losses has seemed a lot more Salem or, dare I say, Tubby Smith than anything else. It’s important to hold players accountable; tough conversations and hard truths are part of that, but it’s fair to question the true motivational value of doing that in such a public fashion, especially when it keeps getting the same results.  I’d like to think that the public insinuation that players aren’t sufficiently tough or don’t care to try is probably a motivational technique rather than something Scott Frost actually believes. But it’s an approach every leadership course I’ve ever taken and all of my personal and professional experience tells me is doomed to fail or at least have a very limited ceiling.  

If I’m a Nebraska fan, I’m hoping to death there’s a personal touch I’m not seeing and that there’s more to this coaching approach than doing things like “when I played for Nebraska”. Nebraska’s highly successful strength program was one of the contributing factors to their success in the 1970s. At the time it was an innovation that few, if any, other programs had adopted because they were afraid it would slow players down. It’s going to take innovation like that, beyond doing things the old-fashioned way only more so, to bring Nebraska to where it wants to be and where the fans expect it. If Nebraska wants a quick recovery it could do worse than looking at everything Minnesota did from 1984 to 2016 and just do the opposite. The Joe Salem approach isn’t going to cut it.

“That’s what college football is all about!”

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