Gainesville Brain Drain: Why The The Florida Gators Problems May Not Go Away!

Gerald BallCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 02:  Head coach Urban Meyer of the Florida Gators against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are a number of theories for the hard times that the Florida Gators are experiencing this year. Urban Meyer's health issues. No Tim Tebow. The SEC catching up to the spread zone read option offense. John Brantley being a poor fit for that offense. Wide receivers that don't make plays (which allegedly was a problem last year, despite both Riley Cooper and David Nelson having a combined 16 catches and a TD in the first halves of their rookie NFL seasons). No Percy Harvin. No Cameron Newton's laptop. And so on.

While all of those things are true to a certain degree, none of them get to the core of the problem: the beeline of outstanding assistants that have left the Florida program in recent years.

The main ingredient to being a great head coach isn't being a master recruiter, motivator, game planner or play caller, but rather surrounding yourself with top assistants. As a general rule, head coaches who succeed do so because they have several future (or former head!) coaches on their staffs.

In the past, the top assistants would remain loyal to their head coaches and programs for decades, as happened with Joe Paterno and Penn State and Tom Osborne and Nebraska. Those days are over. Now, the best way to tell if you have a good head coach is the quantity and quality of programs attempting to hire your assistants. If no program wants your assistant coaches, then that is a major sign that your head coach isn't that good or successful either.

The problem, of course, is that when an assistant leaves, finding another assistant of equal caliber is not easy. And if several good assistants leave, that wrecks continuity, because you can't just assemble a mishmash of guys year after year. You need a good match of skills and personalities that fit into the way that you do things.

A simple example: a school that runs the option shouldn't hire a QB or RB coach from a school that runs runs those Mike Leach type passing spread offenses, or a school that runs a 4-6 defense shouldn't hire a LB coach from a school that runs a 3-4 defense. And in terms of personality...well let's just say that Rex Ryan wouldn't work out on Tony Dungy's staff, or vice versa.  

So, when Urban Meyer recently acknowledged that the problem with the Gators this season is poor coaching, he was being honest. Unfortunately, many of those fans scapegoat Steve Addazio as being the primary culprit.

That, however, is scapegoating to a great degree. First off, Addazio was elevated in to give the Gators a more pass-oriented look designed to both improve Tim Tebow's draft status AND better suit John Brantley's skills. Maybe it's working out, maybe it isn't, but the fact is that Gator fans fully supported the move at the time, especially since there was the idea that as SEC defenses would soon adapt to what the Gators were doing before—and as the "it won't prepare you for the NFL!" line had the potential to harm recruiting—the notion that going to a more traditional or mainstream offense while retaining elements of the zone read spread option was wise.

The problem is that it is easier said than done, because the result seems to be the "splitting the baby" thing: an offense that is neither good at throwing the ball or the option. And this is no surprise, because one recalls the struggles that Nebraska and Notre Dame teams had in the past attempting to mix the passing game with the power option: it didn't work well. 

But in addition to the "be careful what you wish for" theme, it is simplistic to blame it entirely on one guy. Instead, look at Urban Meyer's head coaching career to get a better picture.

A. When Meyer left Bowling Green to be the Utah head coach, his offensive coordinator at Bowling Green replaced him as head coach.

B. When Meyer left Utah to become Florida's head coach, his offensive coordinator at Utah became the BYU head coach, and his defensive coordinator at Utah replaced him as Utah head coach.

C. Since Meyer has been at Florida, his offensive coordinator became the head coach at Mississippi State. One defensive coordinator has become the head coach of the Louisville Cardinal. And another defensive coordinator moved on to become a defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.

Now consider two things. First, these are merely the coordinators. Meyer has lost plenty of valuable position coaches, especially when his former assistants raid Meyer's staff to fill their own staffs. Second, Meyer's being so prolific at moving his assistants up the coaching ladder has occurred at an unprecedented speed.

Look, all this has happened SINCE 2003 when he first left Bowling Green. Meyer has lost SIX COORDINATORS IN SEVEN YEARS, and again, this does not include position coaches, the guys who actually turn those four and five star recruits into good players for the coordinators to use, and also the guys who do the bulk of the job determining which recruits are overrated, and which recruits actually fit into your scheme and program.

Second, do not underestimate the quality of these coordinators. Granted, Gregg Brandon was fired from Bowling Green, but his taking that job—and staying there as long as he did—was unwise to begin with, as few MAC programs ever maintain success over any period of time (Brandon should have left after he went 22-6, including two bowl victories, in his first two seasons).

But Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall have been very successful at Utah and BYU, Dan Mullen has Mississippi State contending for the Cotton Bowl in his second season (and they would have gone to a bowl game last year if the Bulldogs hadn't had the toughest schedule in the country, including games against Georgia Tech and Houston out of conference), Charlie Strong has already matched Louisville's win total from last year with five games to go and Greg Mattison's defense in Baltimore (and they don't have the talent of Baltimore teams past) is great.

Also, several of these guys—especially Strong and Mattison—weren't just coordinators/assistants but helped Meyer run things, helping with some of the duties of head coach. Because of them, Meyer didn't need to be as involved with day to day things and details as he was at, say, Bowling Green. And since running an SEC football team is akin to running a corporation, that's a good thing, but this detachment makes it more difficult for Meyer to use his own skills as a coach to fix things when they go wrong.

What Meyer is going through isn't unique, especially in the south. Mark Richt's UGA program has never been the same since losing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, now defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and a future NFL head coach himself (though VanGorder should be the #1 candidate for UGA if Richt ultimately does not survive).

One of the reasons why Phil Fulmer's program declined was raids on his staff, including two of his top recruiters (Kevin Ramsey, Rodney Garner) and the mastermind on offense (David Cutcliffe).

Further, losing Richt, Chuck Amato, Brad Scott and various other key coaches were also a huge part of the decline of the Bobby Bowden regime at FSU, and Pete Carroll's regime at USC was never the same after he ran off Norm Chow (among other assistants like Nick Holt, Steve Sarkisian, and Lane Kiffin).

What separates Meyer from those guys is losing guys of that caliber so quickly, and also that Meyer himself has had three different jobs in such a short time, making it more difficult to put a program in place that is robust enough to lose a top assistant (or a star player, or a ton of starters on both sides of the ball). 

That's the bad news. The good news is...well that's just the thing. I am not sure that there IS any good news. First off, we can't just pretend as if the issues with Meyer from this offseason are just going to go away. Those things are problems for entrenched coaches running a stable program, just not a guy who has just been in the SEC six years, has just been a head coach for 10 years, and now has to totally rebuild or reinvent the program.

And what direction will this reinvention take? Is he going to look for the next QB who is equally good at passing as he is at running (such animals are rare indeed)? Or is he going to favor the pass over the run? And even were he to fire Steve Addazio...what is that supposed to accomplish? Meyer isn't running a more traditional offense like a pro-style attack where a qualified guy from any number of college or NFL teams could step in and do a good job.

Making it harder: how many people out there know Florida's offense enough to come in and do a better job? Keep in mind that Meyer's version of the zone read spread option (man, is there a shorter name for this?) is unique. It is not like the versions run at, say, Oregon, Penn State, Michigan, West Virginia or the Big 12 schools that play with it from time to time. 

Ideally, Florida's coordinator would be someone taught the offense on Meyer's staff, but again those guys are long gone, either head coaches themselves or on staffs at Utah, BYU, Mississippi State, Louisville or what have you. (No, Gus Malzahn doesn't run Meyer's scheme, and no Malzahn isn't coming to Florida to be coordinator when he will be a head coach himself in a year or two.)

So, hiring from without would mean changing the Florida offense in a significant way from being Meyer's unique offense to being merely an imitation of what other schools are running, except with talent recruited to fit the Meyer scheme. 

So, let Meyer get back involved, coordinate the offense and call the plays. Again, go back to the issues that Meyer had this offseason: can he handle the intense pressure and workload, especially for a long period of time? Second, as Meyer has lost so many of "assistant head coach" types, who plays the CEO role while Meyer gets back into the trenches? Addazio? Dan McCarney?

The thing is that there may be no solution to these problems. Now in a year or two, perhaps they will be able to get the defense back to the level of 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.

But you aren't going to recapture what made the offense so special from 2005-2008 (yes, 2008 counts because what Meyer and staff did with players recruited for a Texas Tech-type offense in order to get to 9 wins was probably their best coaching job), and it will be nearly impossible to assemble a cohesive group of assistants that has the, well, gravitas that Meyer's previous staffs have had.

It isn't that Teryl Austin, for instance, is a bad hire who will do a bad job, but his profile coming into the job is nothing compared to the same for either Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong, who were CO-COORDINATORS in 2006-2007.

If Meyer stays in Gainesville, yes they will improve on offense and defense. Yes they will win 10-11 games a year and the occasional SEC title and Sugar Bowl to go with it. But like the last few years of the Steve Spurrier regime (when he had no Danny Wuerrfel, SEC defenses basically figured him out, and oh yes he lost Bob Stoops to Oklahoma) it won't be special. Which means that there won't be any more national titles.

So, it is time to pull the plug on the Meyer era at Florida. It is in the best interests of both parties. Meyer can rest, spend time with his family, take care of his health and stress issues, and in a few years make a comeback in a situation where he can again assemble an All-Star staff of assistants and will be able to either teach his offense himself or hire a coordinator with his own scheme. (By then, Notre Dame, his dream job, will be ready and waiting.)

Florida will be free to go after the next big thing, or even a proven coach looking to step up (i.e. Gary Patterson of TCU). 

This is not an overreaction to Florida's losing three games. Instead, it takes a look at the big picture, which includes Meyer's health, his unique offense and the caliber of assistants that Meyer has lost in such a short amount of time.

This is something that will ultimately happen, so it will be better for all involved if it happens as soon as this season is over.


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