Which is worse for a coach's reputation: losing the big games, or losing the small games?
That's not rhetorical - there is an answer, as we'll soon see.
Of course the topic relates to Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll. During the last two weeks we’ve seen continuations of trends that many thought would end this year. Ohio State lost (yet again) to a top-five opponent, and USC lost (yet again) to an unranked conference foe. There has been a lot of vitrol flung at Tressel and Carroll in the last few days, everything from deconstructing why Tressel is a bad tactician, to dissecting why LA makes Carroll a bad coach, to the ever entertaining analysis by MS Paint. So instead of piling it on, let's be constructive and figure out how these two can get out of the holes they've dug. We'll start by putting their coaching of the last few years into context.
Along with Carroll and Tressel at the top of the coaching food chain are Urban Meyer, Mack Brown, and Bob Stoops. Most folks would have these five in some order at the top of their list of current best coaches, so let’s take a look at the five’s records and other miscellaneous stats over the six seasons.
|Five Coaches, 2003-2008|
|Bowls (BCS)||5-1 (5-1)||5-1 (3-0)||5-1 (3-0)||1-5 (0-5)||3-3 (1-3)|
|Losses to non-ranked teams||5||6||5||4||4|
|Wins over Top-10 teams||11||10||6||4||6|
|Wins over Top-25 teams||24||18||18||18||21|
|Losses last 3 years||@ #5 Oregon|
|@ #1 LSU|
|vs #1 Ohio St|
|v #1 Florida|
|@ #1 USC|
|@ NR Oregon|
|@ #11 Auburn|
|@ #6 TX Tech|
|v #5 Texas|
|v #2 LSU|
|vs NR Stanford|
|v #20 Georgia|
|v #10 Oklahoma|
|v #7 Texas|
|v #2 Florida|
|@ NR Oregon St|
|v NR Michigan|
|vs NR, TX A&M|
|v #9 Boise St|
|v #3 Penn St|
|@ NR UCLA|
|vs NR Ole Miss|
|vs NR Kansas St|
|v #11 W. Virginia|
|v #3 Texas|
|vs NR Auburn|
|@ NR TX A&M|
|@ #18 Oregon|
|vs NR Illinois|
|@ NR Kansas St|
|@ NR Colorado|
|@ NR TX Tech|
I can hear the complaining and I know what you're saying - what about other great coaches, like Les Miles, Frank Beamer, and Mark Richt? Why aren't they in the top five? Well, they have numbers pretty comparable to the ones above - but not the ones below.
|Proximity to the Title Game|
|2003||denied title game||one loss out||one loss out||lost title game||one loss out|
|2004||won title game||denied title game||one loss out||lost title game|
|2005||lost title game||won title game||one loss out||BCS #4|
|2006||one loss out||won title game||one loss out||lost title game|
|2007||denied title game||one loss out||denied title game||lost title game|
|2008||denied title game||won title game||denied title game||lost title game||one loss out|
*one loss out = one loss more than a title game participant
Over those same six years...
Miles won the title once (2007) and was one loss out once (2006),
Beamer was denied the title game once (2007) and was one loss out once (2006), and
Richt was denied the title game once (2007).
They were only close to the title game maybe two years out of six, while the other five were close in 25 of 30 seasons combined. That's the difference between the top five and the rest of the coaches out there. If we're going to figure out a way for Tressel and Carrol to break the cycle, we can turn to these similar coaches who have succeeded at similar levels.
On the surface, the solution seems easy: Tressel needs to win the big games, and Carroll needs to not lose the small games. Simple - and wrong. Wrong because part of the problem here is that expectations for these two programs are too high. But aren't the expectations for Meyer, Brown, and Stoops just as high? No, mainly because:
1) Those three are in the top two conferences of the past few years. Their expectations are tempered by the fact that, in many eyes, they play a harder schedule (if only because they have one extra championship game to contend with) - playing in easier conferences makes the margin of error for Tressel and Carroll much smaller.
2) More importantly, Meyer, Brown, and Stoops have had down seasons in the last few years. By down season I don't mean sub-.500 - I mean down from the heights they have recently attained. In 2007, Meyer and the Gators went 9-4, not even making the SEC championship game and losing their bowl game. In 2006 & 2007, Brown and the Longhorns lost 3 regular season games and didn't make the Big12 championship game. In 2005, Stoops and the Sooners lost 4 regular season games, and in 2006 & 2007 they lost two each plus bowl games. Tressel and Carroll haven't had those types of down seasons with their current group of players. They're on streaks of 4 and 7 consecutive conference championships (some shared, sure), respectively. So their expectations are sky-high, making their seemingly inevitable falls even farther & harder.
Their individual styles haven't helped them deal with these falls either. Tresselball is characterized by a primary focus on field position, strong but vanilla defense, and conservative playcalling. It's old-school, which is why when the Buckeyes lose the big games & get beaten by faster, more modern teams, it seems like Tressel is in over his head. Win Forever is loosey-goosey, uber-competitive, and high-risk/high-reward. Carroll likes the high expectations and pushes the bar up as far as it'll go, which is why when the Trojans lose the small games and get beaten by a seemingly inferior opponent, it seems like Carroll is reckless.
The other part of the problem is that Tressel's & Carroll's losses are unbalanced. Their peer coaches have faced the same types of adversity: in the last three years, Bob Stoops has lost just as many big games as Tressel has, and Mack Brown has lost just as many little games as Carroll has. But the difference is that Stoops has also lost little games, and Brown has also lost big games. To go along with his bowl losses, Stoops has lost to Colorado and Texas Tech along the way. Along with his bad losses, Brown has lost to three top-10 teams. There's balance there. Sure, in 2007 Carroll lost to #5 Oregon and Tressel lost to unranked Illinois, but one game does not balance out their almost cariacture-like personas of winning/losing the big games. Even Urban Meyer, who many would put at the top of any great coaching list right now, is balanced: He's lost to highly ranked teams, unranked teams, won bowl games, lost bowl games, and has even gotten soundly defeated once or twice.
So to answer our opening question, which type of loss is worse? Both are equally detrimental. And the solution isn't to just win, because that keeps expectations unrealistically high. The way for Tressel and Carroll to get out of their holes is to keep digging - probably the best thing for each coach to go through right now is a down season. Tressel needs to lose some small games, and Carroll needs to lose some big ones. Their jobs are secure - nobody is calling for Carroll's head, and Tressel has earned enough points to weather a storm. This season might be the perfect time for a down season too - Michigan and Penn State are making waves, Cal is surging and on track for a stellar year... Reputation is a big part of the rankings, and Tressel and Carroll need to change theirs around before they can move forward.
If nothing else, it would break up the monotony.