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I couldn’t help but notice that Northwestern has just built the Taj Mahal of practice facilities on its campus, spending $270 million on something that is pretty incredible. The headline on Pete Thamel's story about it on Yahoo.com says "Move over Clemson, Oregon and Alabama ... Northwestern's ridiculous new practice facility is on another level." Then Pete gushes about it even more.
The story raises certain questions (like why didn’t Northwestern invest the money in that dump of a stadium they play in) but will also provoke questions at other schools (like "why don't we have something like this?"). The whole concept that spending that kind of money will gain a competitive edge in college football is something I’m not certain is always true, and many alumni when they’re not winning rationalize the lack of success by saying it’s because other folks have more money, more alumni, more “something we ain’t got.”
So I've gone back 12 years in the world of college football to test a theory, because I believe that no matter how well you've figured anything out in college sports, every 12 years another generation of athletes enters school and there's no guarantee each generation will look at things the same (if you've ever been a parent, you pretty much can guarantee they won't look at things the same). Thus by going back 12 years, you can compare the power players of the last generation to this generation. And I think you do see a trend.
In 2006, for example, Florida won the National Title. A lot of money, a lot of alumni, great weather, great facilities. They were so good they won the National title again in 2008. But then they dropped to 8-5 in 2010, 7-6 in 2011, 4-8 in 2013, 7-5 in 2014, then had a couple of decent seasons before falling to 4-7 last year. Did the money dry up? Less alumni? Bad weather? No, Urban Meyer left and they hired the wrong coach. Two different times.
In 2005 Texas won the National Title. A lot of money, a lot of alumni, great facilities. But these are their records starting with 2010: 5-7, 8-5, 9-4, 8-5, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6. No less money, no less alumni. But their coach didn't change with the times, then when they made a change, they hired the wrong coach.
In 2004, USC won the National Title, with all the alumni and money of the others I've mentioned. Then in 2010, they dropped down to ordinary, with records similar to many in the middle of the pack: 8-5, 10-2, 7-6, 10-4, 9-4, 8-6, 10-3 and 11-3 last year. What happened? Pete Carroll left and they hired the wrong coach. In fact, they had 4 different coaches over a 3-year period before Clay Helton survived the battle royale and has held the job the last 2 years.
Go back a few years to 1998 and Tennessee won it all. They've lost 6 or more games 8 times in the last 11 years. Phillip Fulmer was fired and three times they've hired the wrong coach (now Fulmer’s the AD and has a chance at the rare “double-double” of being the wrong choice as AD who then hired the wrong head football coach; if he somehow can become University president, he could get the even rarer “triple double”).
The year before that, Michigan won the National title. And in the last 11 years, they've had two 10-win seasons, but also a 3-9, 5-7 (twice), 7-6 and 8-5 seasons that suggest a level of average at best. Hiring Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Jim Harbaugh as coaches will do that.
Obviously there's a trend here. These brand-name programs have all the money in the world, all the shiny facilities you'd ever want, and alumni out the wazoo. And yet because they did not hire a competent coach who could put the right people in the right seat on the bus when it came to recruiting, coaching and teaching, they did not win. To me, that's the key stat.
Don't get me wrong, money's nice. But it's like when the Redskins hired Joe Gibbs the first time. Everybody went "who?" and I'm sure at the time he was probably the 32nd highest paid coach out of 32 teams. But he was the right man for the job at that time and for a decade, he made magic. When he came back the second time, he was not the right man at that time for the job. Times changed.
Obviously you can't be so poor your facilities are falling apart and you can't afford the market price for a quality coach. But many – like my beloved Virginia Tech - are not, and I'm pretty sure that the decision makers at any of these programs I've listed above are not thinking if they had only had a new football dorm with an indoor bowling alley, they would quickly have gotten back to the top (several probably had such fare already).
So will building a new $270 million facility get Northwestern in the top 10? It might. But I think how good a coach Pat Fitzgerald is and how good his assistants execute under him is far more important.
I also believe right now Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are trying to figure out how to buy a lake and have it delivered right outside their practice facilities. Because if Northwestern has one, then by god, Alabama and Clemson are going to need one too….