As usual when I’ve got nothin’, I turn to the work of brighter thinkers and better writers. Hence, the Z Man’s thoughts on the “free market” in NFL coaches, as exemplified by Bill Belichick. He asks a very reasonable question: Given that the NFL is an all-but-libertarian free market, why aren’t there more Belichicks?
Belichick isn’t some kind of super-genius. Nor does he have some unique insight into the game. He’ll never write a book on “The Bill Belichick System,” because unlike every other celebrity coach, he doesn’t have a “system.” He simply does what he needs to do to win, one game at a time, with the pieces he has. That’s just leadership, in the traditional sense of the term, but so few people in our modern Media-driven culture have seen it that it totally fries our circuits. Surely he must have some double-secret grimoire of football excellence that he consults on the sidelines…?
Nope. Belichick’s secret is what he doesn’t have: A huge ego, a “system,” the my-way-or-the-highway mentality that infects nearly everyone given the tiniest smidgen of real power. An example: He once countered (and, of course, defeated) a ferocious defense on crappy field conditions by lining up a sixth offensive lineman as a tight end. Perfectly legal, but nobody else would’ve ever dreamed of doing it.
The Patriots are famous for using their (perennially excellent) tight ends more than any other team in the league, so naturally the opponent spent all week scheming to take away the TE. When Belichick kept his tight ends off the field, the opponent had no idea what to do; their quick cover linebackers got plastered by the extra linemen, and the Patriots’ running backs ran wild.
The lesson from this is twofold: First, that he would think to do it in the first place. Again, it’s perfectly legal. Teams do it all the time, actually, except they do it in goal line situations — instead of cramming the ball up the middle, they send a soft-handed lineman over into the corner of the end zone. He’s too big for anyone back there to cover, so if the QB can get it to him it’s an easy score. All Belichick did was run the same personnel out in the middle of the field. Simple, but football is the most conservative sport in existence — nobody does anything that hasn’t been done a million times before.
The second takeaway is that Belichick had enough control to pull it off. Nobody likes getting his playing time reduced, and tight ends in the modern game are highly-paid gentlemen accustomed to frequent success. Even if they wanted to, most coaches would’t be able to take their glory boys off the field for an extended period — the players would riot, the Media would crucify him, and the fans would go nuts. Belichick’s guys bought in enough to follow the gameplan without complaint. He gave them the credit when the team won, but he would’ve taken the heat if they’d lost. Again, that’s not some special football coaching technique; it’s just leadership.
Which answers the question of why there are so few Bill Belichicks around, I guess. Born leaders are rare; made leaders are even rarer.* But it doesn’t answer the Z Man’s larger question, which is: Why aren’t there more bright, ambitious young men going into coaching?
I say the answer is: Institutional incentives. I’m not a football coach, but I was an academic — there’s a surprising amount of overlap in their institutional structures. Let me explain: In both cases, working conditions for everyone except those at the very tippy-top are brutal. We’d all willingly endure them, I think, for the kind of money and bennies big league coaches / tenured professors get, but below that tiny handful of folks everyone works even worse hours for far less compensation. Even coaches at dinky little high schools in the middle of Flyover Country spend countless hours breaking down film — he might only have fifteen kids on the team, but he’s expected to win with those fifteen kids, damn it, and win now.
Consider, then, what type of person would willingly sign up for such a life. Leave aside the question of whether or not what academics do has any intrinsic value.** The fact remains that simply writing one’s dissertation takes, at minimum, a year or two of grinding toil. I’m the laziest sumbitch in captivity, and nobody’s better than me at gaming the system (especially a droolingly stupid system like academia), but even I pulled more 80+ hour weeks in grad school than I care to remember. It’s simple economics: You’ve got X dollars in grant money to hit the archives. Archives are always located in expensive cities in distant states, if not on different continents. Your X dollars run out pretty goddamn fast in a place like London, even when you’re staying at the cheapest hostel, living on ramen noodles and water, walking everywhere. Given that, you work, for as long as they’ll let you in the building, for as long as your eyesight holds.
And all that is to complete the bare minimum requirement for the possibility — by no means anywhere near the certainty — of securing an entry-level job. I’d ask “Who in his right mind would ever do that?”, but the answer is obvious: Nobody in his right mind would. You have to either really, really want to be an academic (coach), or have absolutely no other choice. Most academics, of course, are the latter — they’re twitchy closet cases with the social skills of autistic badgers. But wannabe-coaches, I hypothesize, face a similar dilemma: You’re an athlete who has made his living off his body. And a nice living it was, too, while it lasted… but now you’re 35 and your body just can’t do it anymore. You have no other skills. What else is there to do, but try coaching?
Since this is a political site I suppose I must close with something related to politics, so: We need to figure out a way to pick up these folks. Anyone who can endure that kind of grind — and for every made guy in coaching / academia, there are ten who said “fuck it” and picked up a job stocking shelves at WalMart — is someone we need on our side. Give them a sense of purpose, a clear cut goal, and turn them loose.
*Belichick seems to be a paradigm case. His first pro head coaching gig, with the Cleveland Browns, was a disaster. He went 36-44 and cut local legend Bernie Kosar, who went on to be part of a Super Bowl-winning club in Dallas.
**It doesn’t, of course, but that’s a rant for another day.