Friday, December 16, 2011

Ask an Expert: Mike Leach Responds, Part I

We've finally got the answers to the questions you posed to Mike Leach, even if they were a bit late. We had a pretty long conversation with him, so we've decided to break up the content into four parts. Today is Part I.

Q: Do you think that fans and the college football media will ever become fully accepting of coaches who coach to win by doing things like going for it on fourth down and not punting as often, as opposed to conservative coaches that simply try not to lose?

A: I think the fans are in favor of going for it on fourth down and have been for a long time. I mean, you know, it’s funny. There’s two things fans want, and it’s a little bit like if you go up to a kid and say, "I’ll give you an ice cream cone right now or $50 later," typically they’ll take the ice cream cone.

By that same token, fans are result-oriented, too. If you get it, it’s brilliant. If you don’t get it, you should have punted, but I’ve been in some situations where I wouldn’t even dare go for it on fourth down. I mean, the fans are screaming, "Go for it!  Go for it!" You know what I mean?

So I doubt that they're not going to complain about the results if it doesn’t come out right, but I think the fans are wholeheartedly in favor of going for it on fourth down.

Not all of them, obviously, but I think most are. I mean, some of it’s just the euphoria. The games provide surprise and opportunity, I think going for it on fourth down is part of it.

Q: Moneyball revolutionized professional baseball. There exists a similar economic imbalance in college football. Do you think college football will ever embrace a quantitative approach to recruiting, and if so, do you think it could be as successful?

A: I think they’re trying to, as we speak. They’re trying to figure it out. You know, you range from open-minded totally zany ideas where you don’t have core beliefs and you’re trying everything and some of the bizarre stuff too. And stuff like, you know where this is how we’ve always done it and this is the good old days and all that. I think it’s mixed.

But I think football is trying to embrace stuff like that. You don’t know quite how to do it. Baseball lends to itself better because you have a lot of numbers. Now football has all the numbers you need. They may not be measuring the right things and should measure more stuff, like obviously time of possession is ridiculously overrated and the rest, but there’s plenty of numbers.

And nobody ... it’s the most technological sport in the world, football. So they don’t lack in technology and numbers. What they lack is baseball, you know, there are standing, static situations. A batter is up to bat. A pitcher pitches. Okay, and then what happens? And then you measure it. The trouble with football is you’ve got twenty-two moving parts on any given play. I mean, there’s twenty-two people moving at once. A variance switch could affect the outcome.

I think being able to bottle that up and measure that I think presents a different set of problems and I think it’s more difficult.  We just release a book called "Sports for Dorks" for football -- make sure you blog "Sports for Dorks" for football and "Swing Your Sword" -- but at any rate, uh, yeah, [laughing] because many people will buy them in Boston. [Editor’s note:  For the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.] The first book is "Swing Your Sword," which is on my path into coaching and kind of some of my influences.

Yeah, I just don’t want to belabor the point. If you hadn’t heard of it, I was going to tell you -- if you haven’t heard of it -- to just stop me. But "Sports for Dorks for Footbal" is inspired by "Moneyball," "Freakonomics," and the Malcolm Gladwell books. What we did is we reached out to mathemeticians, statisticians -- in fact you should write an article for our next one when we do one again -- statisticians, mathemeticians, an astrophysicist, a world backgammon champion, an expert on the history of the spread offense, and a face reader for the FBI. He talks a little bit about recruiting and measuring individuals, and what’s revealed in expression and things on their face. So there’s a lot of dimension to that question.

You know, football has rating systems, a lot of them are effective and some of them are ineffective. The most ineffective, of course, are the recruiting services. You know, the kids have this many stars and so many stars, and it’s based on the media being involved, and obviously if you cover a team all the time, you put recruits on their list that you’re recruiting, and all of a sudden, they’ll get more stars and whatever. So, a lot of that is pretty artificial and ineffective.

I think that football is trying to. But the challenges are that they are so many people moving so many different directions and different variables. They are trying to capture it, and I think they’re going to make progress.  I do think it's going improve recruiting, and I just hope I’m at the top of the curve when it happens.

Part II will be available on Monday the 19th.