A toast to new coaches, if they win!

Sep 20, 2005 7:19 AM

Certainly coaching in football, more than in any other sport, is essential to a team’s success.

In the NBA, any team that has Shaq and Kobe, for instance, would be a very good team, and likely a dominant one. Even Brian Hill, a poor NBA coach, got to the NBA Finals in 1995 with a 22-year old Shaq in the pivot. In baseball, a team is essentially only as good as the starting pitching (or payroll). Joe Torre has won four World Series with the Yankees, but many forget he was run out of town after coaching the Mets and Cardinals to poor seasons.

Football is very different. There are so many players involved on the field that it requires an excellent coach and staff to teach, motivate and organize a successful unit. Think for a moment about football on-field personnel — 11 starters on offense, 11 on defense, special team players and backups. Even specialized personnel, such as third-and-long defensive backs or running backs used only in short yardage situations are involved in the process. It takes hours of time, patience and talent.

Never has this been clearer than this year’s Notre Dame squad. After several years of bumbling "cloud-of-dust" offenses under Bob Davie and Ty Willingham, first-year head coach Charlie Weis has completely jump-started the Irish attack with his playbook, ability to teach, and spread formations.

Notre Dame was an underdog in each of its first two games, winning both on the road at Pitt and Michigan. Pitt had no answer for the Weis-designed five-receiver sets, screen passes to running backs, and tosses to big tight ends isolated against small cornerbacks. Notre Dame out-gained Pitt 502-323, with a 275-103 edge in rushing.

Weis is not only innovative in his designs and approaches, but also has the talent to teach players. Teaching is an often overlooked element of coaching, but it is essential. Weis is the first Notre Dame coach since 1918 to win his first two games on the road. That coach in 1918? Some Irish fellow by the name of Knute Rockne.

In addition to organizing and teaching, a coach needs to break down game films on upcoming opponents. Each opponent can offer something very different and it’s up to the head coach to identify weaknesses and then figure out a way to exploit them.

One week an option-oriented team might be on the schedule (Navy, Air Force), and the coach has to work with defensive players on how to best play the run. Another week, they may be facing a mobile quarterback (UAB’s Darrell Hackney, Missouri’s Brad Smith) and the coach needs to work out special schemes with the linebackers to contain the two-dimensional threat. This not only requires watching game films, but figuring out a scheme, then teaching it, usually within one week.

There were a lot of other coaches who debuted in college football with wins. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier has already vastly improved the Gamecocks’ passing attack. New LSU coach Les Miles enjoyed a terrific comeback against Arizona State. Ole Miss coach Dave Cutcliffe got a victory in his opener, along with Ron Zook (Illinois), Skip Holtz (East Carolina) and Walt Harris (Stanford).

In Week 1 of the NFL, we saw Miami play like wild men for new coach Nick Saban (34-10 win over Denver as a home dog) and Mike Nolan (San Francisco’s 28-25 upset of St. Louis). Having a new coach on board can fire up a program.

However, some coaches aren’t always able to get the job done. There can be many reasons for this. Sometimes their schemes take a few games or even a few months to grasp. There may be a lack of talent on the field, or perhaps the teaching and coaching is faulty. There’s no better example than Pitt.

Dave Wannstedt was fired by the Dolphins last year after several underachieving seasons. Now the new coach at Pitt, the honeymoon is already over after his Panthers were embarrassed by Notre Dame (42-21) and Ohio (16-10) — favorites of three and 14 points respectively.