Thursday, October 11, 2007

Brian Kelly = Greatest Coach Ever

Here's something I haven't heard one person say since Brian Kelly was named head football coach of the University of Cincinnati: "Yeah, but he's doing it with Mark Dantonio's players."

This is funny, considering that's precisely what we've heard six million times about Tubby Smith (substitute Pitino for Dantonio) since he won a national championship in 1998, his first year at Kentucky. And I know what you're thinking. You think I'm going to bring up the issue of race again, but that's not the case, although it absolutely played a role in Tubby's situation. But anyway, why is one guy given complete credit, while the other was merely babysitting someone else's kids? Answer: I have no idea.

The public isn't very consistent with who it chooses to defend and why.

(Important note: You likely already knew this, but I'm an Ohio State football diehard, and the same is true about my passion for UC basketball. The reason this is important is because I rarely care about UC football--although this season has captured my attention--as for UK hoops...I loudly root against them during every single game.)

For the record, I happen to think Brian Kelly is an outstanding coach, and I staunchly supported Tubby Smith for being the main reason--aside from the actual players--that Kentucky won a title in 1998. Sure, Smith wasn't the ultimate decision maker of which players to recruit, although he played a significant role in that area as an assistant coach under Pitino, but he was the guy who had to push the right buttons during the season. He was the guy who had to call the timeouts and make the correct substitutions in crunch time. He was the guy who dealt with the media pressure (the Pitino thing always hung over his head) and took all the heat for losses. Hell, he was the guy who didn't panic when his team capped off the monster comeback versus Duke in the tournament (Elite Eight, down 17 with 12 minutes to go, I believe). And I didn't even mention the talent on his roster. Even if that particular UK team was loaded, which they weren't (Scott Padgett was easily their best player), Tubby still would have deserved full credit for cutting down the net. Rick Pitino deserves some credit, no question, but not anywhere near as much as his successor. I'm right about this.

Which brings me back to Brian Kelly.

UC is 6-0 for the first time in something like 400 years (give or take), and everybody (and I mean everybody) is convinced that Dantonio wouldn't have gotten the team to the same start. The same type of person who argued against Tubby has erased Dantonio from their memory, and I'm positive they don't smell the irony.

One of the reasons Kelly, and not Dantonio, is given the credit for UC's success is obvious: Brian Kelly is cool and Mark Dantonio is a dullard. Neither of those characteristics determine a coach's greatness, I grant you, but Kelly's style is imperative when building a limp program like UC. And by style, I don't necessarily mean his penchant for opening up the playbook versus Dantonio's philosophy of running on first and second down. What I mean is that Kelly gets it. He understands that winning ball games 17-14 won't get people to the stadium. He understands that winning over the fans is just as important as coaching up the team and convincing them they belong in the Top 25. In less than a year, that's what Kelly has done. In fact, I'd argue that his ability to create buzz and change the perception of the UC program is nearly as impressive as the W/L record. Maybe I'm overstating things, but you get the point.

I've strayed from original topic (i.e., Mark Dantonio's lack of credit) by praising Kelly. That wasn't the plan, but in a roundabout way I think I answered the question. But there's a flip side to that coin: if UC were 4-2, with hopes of playing in a crappy bowl game, the fan reaction would be something like "Wait 'til Kelly gets his own players in here, then we'll see what he's made of." Hell, I'd be saying that and I really don't care about UC football. Sports fans are a confused bunch.

To this point, I've made it seem as if--in every situation--the new head coach deserves the brunt of the praise/criticism. While I believe that to be true when the team is winning, it is not always the case when they're losing. Case in point: Mick Cronin. No one of sound mind would ever blame him for UC basketball's recent woes. But if they were winning, he'd be a combination of Norman Dale, Vince Lombardi and God.

The thing about this topic is that it's tailor-made for sports talk radio; the devil's advocate potential is off the charts. You can go in so many different directions with your argument--it's like arguing someone's case for the Hall of Fame. The same reason you want Terrell Davis to stay out of the Hall is similar to the reason you want Thurman Munson in. In both cases, the situations are incomparable, and not just because they played different sports, or that one guy injured his knee during his career while the other stopped breathing during his.

Head coaches, like potential Hall of Famers, need to be judged on a case by case basis. In the case of Tubby Smith in 1998, and Brian Kelly in 2007, they deserve the credit for their team's success.

Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to spend the next seven hours breaking down the following situations: Bobby Petrino/Steve Kragthorpe, Butch Davis/Larry Coker, Tyrone Willingham/Charlie Weis, 2003 Rich Brooks/2006 Rich Brooks, Dan Monson/Mark Few and the last twenty years of the Tulsa basketball coaching position. As for the seven hours after that, that's reserved for analysis of Bill Walsh/George Seifert, Jimmy Johnson/Barry Switzer and Dick Vermeil/Mike Martz.

Remember, despite my posts about fighting giraffes and/or my homoerotic podcasts, I'm a sports geek above all else. I could argue this crap all day long.

End of words.

More words coming soon. Keep checking back. And listen to the podcasts, dammit! I'll stop annoying you with that suggestion when you start providing feedback.

-Brad Spieser