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Why Conventional Wisdom Fails; A Brief History of Football Innovation

I am not a fan of conventional wisdom when it comes to Football. I am not a very conventional fan and I don't take conventional points of view. This has been true for as long as I have been following the sport. Growing up in Ohio there are three acceptable choices for programs to like. Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame. Following one of those last two would put you in the minority for sure, but it was an acceptable choice. Me while I rooted for Ohio State their wins or losses wouldn't make and/or ruin my day. But I also cast a wide net and enjoyed following all the programs a good Ohio boy should hate. Miami, Oregon, LSU, Oregon ect. The reason that I latched onto all those other programs is clear in retrospect.

Football in the Big 10 is played one way, 3 yards and a cloud of dust. It's still a trueish statement today, though the spread revolution that took hold first at Northwestern and Purdue and slowly started to move outward from those centers still has some converts. But only those two teams and Illinois can be accurately described as "spread" teams today. With Brady Hoke returning Michigan to a more TWIQ (Tall White Immobile Quarterback) friendly offense. The spread offense has reached it's high water mark in that conference. The reason that I as a young man was drawn to the sedition programs else where in the country was that I saw "The Big 10 Way" as being too staid, too conservative too boring to be worthy of my enraptured attention. Not when there was so much innovative and intriguing football being played in too many other places.

Let's get the obvious point out of the way first. UC can never really compete with the elites of the elite in the country using conventional strategy. Many have tried, very few indeed have succeeded. Mark Dantonio, Tony Mason and maybe Ray Nolting. That's it. That's the entire list. Most of the coaches in the past have succeed as the head men for UC have done so by thinking outside the box and being innovators. Sid Gillman shaped the foundations of the west coast offense at UC, and 60 years later Brian Kelly stepped onto campus with the same envelop pushing mentality. That is what a successful coach at UC has to have.

Conventional wisdom in college Football is always a failing strategy, and that is true for a pretty simple reason. and it goes back to the NFL. For the early years of professional Football talent and innovation was diffused from the bottom up. The College game was the one that was setting the pace and tone for the entire sports. Tactical innovation always came from the college game and would then be replicated in the NFL, usually at a lower level. That was how it worked until about the 60's when it sort of flipped and the NFL became the tactical cauldron of choice rather than the college game. When that switch happened the game became more and more homogenized. They say that the NFL is a copycat league, and it absolutely is. A staff will go lock themselves in a room for an offseason and create a new package that will take the league by storm, like the Wildcat with Miami three years ago. Dutifully the next year saw an explosion of teams running Wildcat iterations until defenses kind of figured it out and another staff is surely sitting in a room looking for the next great wrinkle. That cycle plays out unending on the professional level because the difference in talent level is essentially naught. The difference on pure talent terms between the best team in the leauge and the worst isn't vast. On the field that presents itself in much smaller increments.

On the college level the difference in terms of talent between Auburn and Akron is bigger than the Grand Canyon. While the quality of the game and talent in general has risen quite a lot since the advent of scholarship limits. Double so at the lower levels of competition. Guys starting and starring for MAC schools today would have been buried on the practice squads of Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State three decades ago. While parity is greater than it has ever been in the sport. But the talent gap is as vast and expansive as ever.

If a team is an underdog in terms of talent to shrink that gap there really is one option, and that is to take chances that if successful shorten the gap in your favor. At the college level the conventional wisdom is to use the sort of ground and pound offenses used by Ohio State or Wisconsin. It has been for years because former assistants proliferate the coaching population and they almost always fall back on what they have known, which is the conventional approach to the game. That recycling effect means that the same strategies that have carried the day in the decades before will continue to carry the day in the future. The issue though is that the conventional strategies that have proliferated for years at the lower level. Those strategies only work when a team has a decided advantage over their opponents. For example if you take over a program, let's say Toledo and decide that the play you are going to build your offense around is the power and counter trey in the model of Wisconsin. That's fine, but there is a big problem with that. Wisconsin's system works because they annually have one of the biggest and most physical offensive lines in the country. Schematically that offense is sound, they build around 4 base plays and have counters to all of them. But it isn't the scheme that makes that offense works or not because they run an offense that requires you to have a size and strength advantage over everyone to be truly effective. That works if you are Wisconsin. But if you are Toledo and you head into the Horseshoe trying to use that strategy its an unmitigated disaster.

And this is the problem with conventional wisdom in Football. Conventional strategy enables a more talented team to go out there and put on a show against equal or less talented opponents. But when you run up against a team that has bigger and stronger players that team finds itself in a position where they are clearly at a disadvantage physically, and they don't have a way to shorten the odds.

What does this have to do with UC? A lot because for UC to have any sort of sustained long term success it is imperative for the Bearcats to be coached by someone who understands this point. Rick Minter is still the longest tenured coach in UC history. He was in Clifton for nine years and he generally did a hell of a job. His teams were very physical with a lot of defensive difference makers. But he was fired with a losing record, the record he compiled was 53-63-1. Minter suffered from the problem outlined above. His CV was lengthy with stints at LSU, Arkansas and Notre Dame and he took many of things he learned in his previous stops and applied them in the Queen City. Predictably it never really came off. He had some good teams, the 1997 group stands out to me. But his tenure could never be described as scarcely better than average.

I firmly believe that UC is capable of becoming a year in and year out top 25 team in Football. But getting the program to move from it's equilibrium point of being average all the time and great occasionally requires a coach who gets that at a place like Cincinnati taking chances isn't a luxury it's a requirement. Who gets that conventional wisdom will always result in average results. There are long standing barriers to Bearcats Football yes. But I don't believe that any of them are insurmountable, all it takes is a coach who is wired to take those kind of chances. The question before us all? Is Butch Jones that guy?