Smart Links – Lauren Hill, McKinley Mac, Leach’s Celebrity, James Joyce – 7/2/2012

“It’s just all made up and flagellant.” – Fred Davis, Redskins tight-end, attorney. (Transcripts here.)

- Gene Stallings, Alabama Football, and passing/rushing efficiency.

Blutarsky on the four-team playoff.

- Mike Leach’s celebrity status.

- Lauren Hill’s (potential) novel federal sentencing arguments.

- Louis Menand on James Joyce.

- Poetry and the Olympics.

- Behold: The McKinley Mac.

- Like Smart Football on Facebook.

What I’ve been reading — Waiting for the Fall, When Saturday Mattered Most

Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football, by Mike Casazza. West Virginia fans clearly love their football, clearly love their state, and clearly love their football team. But they don’t always love their football coaches, particularly after they’ve left, often messily, on acrimonious terms. And what unique football coaches they are. Casazza, a beat reporter for the Daily Mail, chronicles the ups, downs, and just plain weirdness in the West Virginia football program over the last several years, from the emergence of Rich Rodriguez and his nasty exit to Michigan, the appointment of Bill Stewart as his successor (partially because he was the only coach Rodriguez did not invite to go with him to Michigan), and then busted handoff that was to be the Dana Holgorsen coach-in-waiting situation. And yet over that timespan West Virginia won three BCS bowl games and countless others, and generally looks well poised for success in the future. Casazza’s book sheds light into the personalities and figures making up the drama surrounding West Virginia — which really has been as wild as any program I can think of — with humor and clarity. The book isn’t as behind-the-scenes-Rich-Rodriguez-cried-into-his-hands as John Bacon’s book on Michigan, but Casazza has watched the WVU program carefully and leaves no major turn unreported. I enjoyed the book a great deal.**

When Saturday Mattered Most

- When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, by Mark Beech. This book is a bit different than Casazza’s, given that it chronicles Army’s 1958 season, but has more parallels than one might have initially thought: Red Blaik, Army’s coach, like Rodriguez and Holgorsen, not only have to hold their teams together during trying circumstances, but do it with the assistance of some forward-thinking offensive schemes. But while for those WVU coaches it was (and is) the spread offense, for Blaik it was the “Lonesome Polecat.” Blaik, who had previously counted Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman among his assistant coaches, had overcome a great deal of adversity to lead Army to an undefeated year in 1958, and I really enjoyed Beech’s telling of the tale. This is a very well-written book and is definitely a must for any football history buff; I learned a great deal.**

- The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds, by Maneet Ahuja. I give this book a definite thumbs up but note some reservations for the would-be reader. The book consists of ten or so vignettes chronicling the backgrounds of various successful hedge fund managers, like Ray Dalio, Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb, John Paulson, and so on, and in that way is completely non-linear. (Not that there’s anything wrong with non-linear books.) And the information on their actual trading strategies is of uneven quality: For some, you can get a good sense of what kinds of investments the managers like and how they go about finding and executing on those opportunities. But for others not much was conveyed; I am no closer to explaining why Ray Dalio’s fund has been so successful now than I was before I read the book. And finally, the foreward, by PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian, and the afterward, by Nobel winner Myron Scholes, were almost entirely useless and poorly edited. All that said, I actually really enjoyed the stories in the book because, with some exceptions, I thought the book briskly told the stories of how these managers came to operate their funds, get started, find investors, and eventually find success. Almost all of them described failing at some job early in life and having to change career directions a few times before landing in their current spot, and almost all also described starting their funds with limited capital and just hoping someone would respond. John Paulson, who made a bajillion in the 2008 subprime debacle, and who had already shifted his career gears several times before launching his own merger arbitrage focused fund, sent out cards to every single person he knew only to receive nothing in return, and started his fund with his own money and little else. These stories were told well and make the book worthwhile, but only if you enjoy this kind of subject matter. (I do.)

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What Does (or Should) It Mean to be Crowned “Champion”?

Given that some form of a college football playoff now seems to be a reality, I am glad the BCS is gone and generally think this move to a playoff is a good thing, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently better about a playoff over any other system. There’s no “right” way to determine what a champion is in almost any sport. In thinking through this I was reminded of a piece I wrote a few years ago on the old site. I’ve included it below:

One way or the other

[A]ll this made me wonder what the designation “National Champion” is supposed to capture, anyway. The baseline that everyone – including the President-elect – seems to push for is a playoff. So we can use that to ask about each view.

Doyel’s argument seems to be that Utah doesn’t deserve to be #1 because –“People, please” – you wouldn’t really expect them to beat Texas, OU, or Florida, right? I mean, just look at all their bare victories over mediocre or mid-level teams. In other words, one could phrase the Doyel view as the “National Champion” is the team that you think is the absolute best team in the sense that, were they to be matched up against any other team in the country, they would always be favored to win.

That can’t be right, though. That’s not at all what a single-elimination playoff gives you. Had the 2007 Giants played the 2007 Patriots the week following the Giants’ Super Bowl win, would Eli and Co. suddenly have become the favorite? I think not. In March Madness, with teams playing every couple of days, do we really think that the better team always wins each game? No, and that’s kind of the point of a playoff.

Indeed, series-based playoff systems, like with MLB or the NBA, are presumably based on the very idea that one-game is not enough to determine the best team. So, if we still think the playoff is the best solution, then it makes no sense to say that Utah can’t be the National Champion just because you think the other teams might actually be better overall. Though, if you subscribe to the Doyel view of “National Champion,” then the BCS probably does a better job for you than a playoff would, because the system is all about crowning the perceived best overall team. Although it lacks the precision of a playoff, it gives you fudge-factors so that Florida’s and Oklahoma’s (though not Texas’s) losses can be overlooked.

So, maybe instead of crowning as National Champion the best team in absolute terms, that distinction is a reward for having the best overall season. I don’t really watch racing, but that seems to be what they go for with their points system. And many BCS defenders say that it makes “every week a playoff,” so the best overall season gets rewarded (let’s just pretend like that is true). Well, a playoff doesn’t give you that either: Exhibit A – the 2007 New England Patriots. They played unbelievably all year, blew everyone out, and then lost. No one — not even them — tried to argue that they should get a share of the Super Bowl via media vote or whatnot.

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NCAA’s Academic Policy for Recruits

The following piece is by Ben Malbasa, a head high school football coach in Cleveland, Ohio.

We have all seen the ads.  NCAA athletes compete in their sports as they transform into accountants, teachers, doctors, and other professionals while a voice reminds the viewer: “There are more than 380,000 student-athletes and most of them go pro in something other than sports.”  While certainly true, the airing of such ads during championship football and basketball contests featuring young men who often turn pro and do not remain in college calls to mind the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”  The fact that the NCAA chooses to run the commercials, despite such an obvious disconnect between the mission of the NCAA and the reality of the young men competing in its revenue-generating sports, shows just how important it is to the organization to continue to market the noble ideal of the amateur scholar-athlete.

Think of the hat as a tie-breaker

While the NCAA does not sponsor a football championship, the marketability of the scholar-athlete has been on constant display as the powers that control college football have worked to implement a play-off system.  During the past several weeks, college football fans have followed the meetings with great interest, and if future national championship games are as fiercely competitive as the negotiations that produced them, then football fans will be in for a great treat.  Unfortunately, sports administrators engaged in far less negotiation, and college football fans gave far less attention to the process resulting in the NCAA decision to raise the minimum standards for incoming freshmen beginning in August of 2016 (students beginning as high school freshmen this Fall will be the first group evaluated under the revised system).  As a teacher and head football coach at a college preparatory school, I find these changes to be frightening; indeed, it appears that the NCAA has chosen to sacrifice academic rigor on the alter it has built to the highly marketable image of the NCAA scholar-athlete.

For the sake of clarity, it is important to understand the current and proposed systems. Today, a student must earn at least a 2.0 GPA in NCAA approved classes and earn at least an average of 21.5 on the four sections of the ACT.  In other words, a student earning a 2.0 GPA must score in roughly the 55th to 60th percentile in order to be eligible to compete at the highest level of college sports.  Under the regimen that will begin in 2016, a student earning the minimum 2.3 GPA must attain an average ACT score of 23.25 in order to obtain full eligibility.  Such an ACT score would place the student in roughly the 70th percentile. 

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Smart Links – Trick plays, TESF, Gruden’s Game Plan, Play-calling Jargon, All-22 – 6/25/2012

Let’s bring this one back — the old “Starburst” play, run by, of course, Spurrier’s old Florida Gators:

- That said, not all trick plays are worth repeating. This one worked but, well, I think we can keep it on the shelf. The over-the-shoulder:

- The Crystal Ball Run reviews The Essential Smart Football. Also, Amazon dropped the price on the paperback version, and you can also find it on Barnes & Noble’s website.

- My small role in inspiring noted author and gamesman Spencer Hall to write this must rank among my greatest accomplishments.

- A scouting-report style look at Jon Gruden’s offensive gameplan.

- Kirk Ferentz now owns the “Stanzi.”

- Will NFL play-calling evolve into something simpler? I’m curious what role helmet-radios play in all of this. Also, there needs to be some argument for why they will not become simpler other than path dependence.

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Watch the left guard

While watching the clip below, that’s all you need to do: watch the left guard.

Getting excited for football season.

The Essential Smart Football: Now under $5 on Kindle

It looks like Amazon is running a deal on The Essential Smart Football for Kindle, as it is available for less than $5. The paperback is also available for under $10.

After the jump is a further update on the book (thanks to all!):

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Cool “trick” formation empty set series

Via Derek Leonard of Rochester high school. Note that the quarterback for Rochester was Wes Lunt, who is now the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State.

My favorite method for running a reverse to a wide (or slot) receiver

This method is very simple. I like it because it is not a reverse in the sense of being a true “trick” play, but instead you can actually count the blockers and evaluate your numbers at the point of attack and the associated leverage and numbers at the point of attack. The points are simple:

  • Fake an inside run to the side the reverse is going to, so the runningback can both fake a run and become a lead blocker to block an edge rusher.
  • Have the quarterback front out away from the side the reverse is going to.
  • The quarterback either fakes a quick swing or bubble pass or a true speed option away from the side the reverse is going to. Some kind of motion helps this; either “bullet” motion by a second runningback in the backfield or a slot receiver in “orbit” motion behind the quarterback, again in each case away from the side the reverse is going to.
  • The reverse player, the slot receiver, takes a narrow split and immediately begins his path towards the quarterback. His aiming point is two yards behind the quarterback. By taking the narrow split he can get to the opposite side quickly. The crease is often not all the way around end but instead just outside of it.

Gus Malzahn is the first I saw using the play, as shown below. Gus used it with orbit motion and a speed option look:

The above clip took place in Auburn’s spring game. In the first part of the video below, Gus shows how they used this very play to attack Alabama to the boundary side, as Saban and Kirby Smart have a strong tendency to bring a lot of “field pressure” — blitzes to the wide side of the field.

But Gus isn’t the only one I’ve seen use it. Dana Holgorsen has used it with much success the last few seasons, both at Oklahoma State and at West Virginia. In the first clip, Tavon Austin scores on an 80 yard touchdown run — in a blizzard — against Rutgers. In this circumstance, it is a great play in terrible weather conditions as it freezes Rutgers’ defensive players while West Virginia’s best athlete, Austin, gets the ball at full speed with blockers in front of him.

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Smart Links – MMQB, Newspapers, WVU, Fire Zones, Reddit, Solo Cups – 6/11/2012

Peter King of Sports Illustrated and Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe on The Essential Smart Football.

- Go vote for your Verbies.

- Bruce Feldman on West Virginia: “The biggest change is that everyone’s getting along with each other.”

- Is Buffett Right About Newspapers?

- Matt Bowen on fire zones from a Cover 2 look.

- Quickish and Dan Shanoff are now a part of Gannett. Congrats to Dan.

- The culture that is Reddit.

- Simon Schama on Shakespeare’s histories.

- The most important thing you’ll see today.

- Finance bloggers on what has changed or shaped how they think.

- Like Smart Football on Facebook.