Friday, August 30, 2019

College Football's Impossible Task

As college football kicks off in all of its maniacal indecency, an enormous number of fans, pundits, and college students hopped up on memes are going to attempt to do one of the funniest things that anyone does in American sports and try to explain which college football teams are better than other ones.

This futile task consumes sophisticated numbers nerds with homebrew formulas and men on television with necktie knots so large that they affect the positioning of their cohosts’ neckties, all of whom can be shaken awake in the middle of the night during a natural disaster and still manage to sternly turn to anyone in the vicinity and say “I gotta say, I like that defense but they’re not gonna win if they don’t hold onta that ball;” the burden also falls on people who are drunkenly yelling at each other in parking lots.

College football’s innovators have come up with several key methods to examine whether a team is better than another one such as having them play games against each other. This method, though, remains fraught with uncertainty. The vagaries of a single game resolve little. After all, football analytics specialists tell us that games decided by seven points or fewer are basically random tossups. And even more decisive victories can be explained away by other issues—in 2015, for example, Stanford lost to Northwestern in the opening game and spent the rest of the season claiming that it should not count because the effect of flying to Evanston for an 11:00AM kickoff had so disrupted their Body Clocks that only an uncaring philistine ignorant in the basics of human physiology would expect them to have been able to win. Other hazards of games include poorly-timed injuries and athletics scandals, and, most importantly, uncalled holding penalties, a particular malady that aggrieves internet message board commenters.

But far thornier is the problem of the teams that do not play each other, which is the vast majority of football games. In order to deal with this issue, anyone attempting to rate football teams must take into account conferences, opponents, how badly they trounced other teams or found themselves the victims of Body Clocks, etc. In a normal sport, there would be a manageable number of teams to allow them to all play each other. But the college football universe is vast and unfathomable, and at some point the only way to divine true football ratings is to imagine an entire architecture of hypothetical football outcomes through computer models or by taking a vision quest aided by psychotropic drugs. 

Every year, this issue culminates in the controversy over the Playoff and the Championship.  College football has no idea how to handle this and keeps handing the job over to various cabals of bureaucrats and groups of people who attempt to persuade them by flying airplanes with banners over stadiums or by cutting wrestling promos on Paul Finebaum who has become the Mean Gene Okerlund of college football.  The whole enterprise continually reeks of conspiracy theories about preferential conference treatment and baroque Pynchonesque societies of mascot syndicates going back to the middle ages.  College football is the only sport where it is routine for teams to claim national championships like they are pretenders to a throne, their armies of fans surrounding NCAA headquarters under the banner of an AAC False Dmitry.

The forces of the University of Central Florida besieging a castle under the false flag of the Colley Matrix
Despite this grumbling, the playoff picture presents the most sane way of judging college football teams.  Those are where the very few colossus teams play-- the Clemsons and Alabamas, and handful of other teams steamrolling their way across hapless opponents in a grotesque spectacle.  Those teams are unmistakably good by any metric whether it is by S&P+ or press rankings or the trail of limbs and helmets strewn over the field by any team unfortunate enough to line up against them and spend the next several hours exploring the chemical composition of their soil or field turf from millimeters away.  There are also the unmistakably shitty teams too-- UCONN and whatever sorry squad has emanated from Lovie Smith's beard in any given season who spend most of their time advancing on ball carriers as effectively as a group of henchmen menacing Jason Statham.

But in college football's Roiling Middle, there is no way to weigh the performance of teams.  They play with an oblong ball in conditions raging from feverish swamp to blizzard, they are made up of teenagers, and everyone in charge is a red-faced maniac named "Chip" or "Bobby" who manages to ascend to histrionic heights not experienced by normal human beings-- imagine the angriest you have ever been in your life, so livid that no circumstance whether being in public or running short on time to evacuate before a volcano erupts can stop you from hollering as loud as you can at the target of your wrath and doing it for four hours at a time and that is how the persons in charge of football comport themselves on a normal Saturday.  An analyst can devise the most sophisticated model in the world that takes into consideration wind conditions and how players did on their midterm examinations or whether or not the coach is wearing shorts and still somehow a team will absolutely annihilate a good team standing in their way and then go out the next week and lose to Rutgers.

The combination of certainty and chaos makes college football so compelling.  In the macro sense, college football is dull-- the same cluster of teams get the best players, build the most ludicrous Harold J. "Zip" Clobbsmann Football Performance Centers With Waterslides, and ultimately win the trophy; most teams enter the season knowing they do not and will never have a chance for a championship short of simply claiming one.  But week to week, some team with a number in front of their name will get obliterated, embarrassed, field-charged and forced out of the playoff picture or even knocked down in the Great Hierarchy of Bowl Prestige and even the staunchest green-visored number zealots will rejoice while fans of the losing team get performatively angry online and demand that the offensive coordinator be fired.


We're not sure how, but the Northwestern Wildcats will play football again, even after scathing reviews.  The 'Cats lost every single out of conference game including one to Akron, a team that hadn't beaten a Big Ten team ever in more than 100 years of trying. They also won the Big Ten West and played in the Conference Championship Game then won a bowl game after going down 28-3.  They played hideous football, had no functioning running game for large chunks of the season, rotated quarterbacks with the capricious whims of a Football Caligula, and still won the Big Ten West with three weeks to spare.  They played 14 games, more than any other Northwestern team in history, inflicting themselves on the entire country.  It was one of the most confounding, silly, and greatest seasons in school history.

Pat Fitzgerald has put together his program, and that involves grinding the clock down to nothing and waiting for a Northwestern player to perform a miracle or for an opponent to do something transcendently, operatically stupid at the worst possible time and it's happened more often than not.  Fitzgerald is the only coach who watches Friday Night Lights for the gameplans.  But whatever it is that is happening, it is working, and Fitzgerald has grown more prominent in the coaching ranks, getting more resplendently red and coming up with increasingly weird grumpy takes.  So far, Fitzgerald has inveighed against communism and cell phones; this season, expect him to take aim at reckless Auto-Mobilesmanship and the designs of the Kaiser in the Ottoman Balkans.

The big story for Northwestern is a changing of guard at quarterback.  Clayton Thorson has graduated and gone to the NFL where Philadelphia's fans have greeted him with shoulder-mounted bazookas.  Fitzgerald has been coy about his replacement.  It will be either Hunter Johnson, the heralded transfer from Clemson or stalwart T.J. Green.  Most expect Johnson to play, but football coaches love not saying who the quarterback is because they enjoy pretending they are stentorian generals controlling Sensitive Classified (Eyes Only) information, and they will not compromise the integrity of the mission.

The 'Cats will face off against Stanford in a sequel to the 2015 contest.  That game was a stunning upset and, as always mentioned, a catalyst for the hundreds of Body Clock jokes I have made for the last four years.  Say "The Big Game" to most people in the context of Stanford football and they will conjure images of John Elway and players wending their way through the marching band before arriving in the endzone and obliterating a hapless trombone player who was riveted to the spot like a Godzilla victim, but for me it was the time that Stanford lost a game and then mentioned Body Clocks and then me never shutting up about it.  False start? Oh, that's a body clock. Incomplete pass? Better check on your precious bodily fluids.  Honestly, there's fairly compelling evidence that West Coast teams having to play early games further east are badly affected by this, but latching onto incredibly dumb shit is a time-honored and essential element of college football discourse and I will never stop.  I probably won't even know what the score to this game is other than body clock to non-body clock.
Precious Bodily Clocks

If it is, as I have argued, nearly impossible to tell what football teams will do this season, it is completely impossible to predict what will happen in a Northwestern football season.  They will beat teams they should not, they will probably lose inexplicably to a bad team, they will attempt to send every game into overtime whether they are winning or losing, and they will confound anyone insane enough to get into the football predictions business.  No analyst can pin them down, no formula can constrain them.  They are strange and infuriating and they are defending the Big Ten West crown.       

Monday, August 12, 2019

COLD COPY: Bill Carmody, Basketball Zealot

Bill Carmody retired on June 18. Here is a brief appreciation of that I wrote and half-heartedly and unsuccessfully attempted to get published elsewhere. Readers of this blog will note that there is not much that is new here as I've rhapsodized about Carmody in previous articles on Northwestern's sports gimmicks and the strange sensation of watching Carmody take Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament, but I am posting this here because I remembered that it exists.

Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein wrote that at a Northwestern basketball event, one fan asked head coach Bill Carmody a “long-winded and ill-informed” question about changing his Princeton offense to fit his star players.  “No,” said Bill Carmody.

The thing to know about Bill Carmody is that he is a basketball zealot.  Carmody, who retired in June from coaching after stints at Princeton, Northwestern, and Holy Cross, believes wholly and truly in the Princeton offense.  There is nothing that basketball has thrown at Carmody in nearly a quarter century of head coaching jobs-- not rule changes, stylistic revolutions, NBA players, the bludgeoning crew cuts of the Big Ten-- that Carmody has not tried to solve with a series of slowly-developing back cuts.  “The only active coach who has been loyal to an offensive system for longer than Bill Carmody,” basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy tweeted, “is Roy Williams.”

Carmody won but not a lot, appeared occasionally in the postseason but never led a team past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, made a few quips at press conferences but never made waves as the type of larger-than-life character bred by college basketball.  His greatest achievement was to take his slow, methodical, and grinding offense, fuse it with some disconcerting and undulating zone defenses, and stock his teams with strange beanpole physiques and odd, catapult jumpshooters and players with a general rec-spec handball aesthetic-- and to bring all of this into storied basketball arenas and sometimes win.

Carmody learned the Princeton offense at the hands of its inventor Pete Carrill.  He worked as Carrill’s assistant for fourteen years and then took over the program in 1996.  His Tigers made the tournament two years in a row; in the 1997-1998 season, they were ranked as highly as seventh in the nation.

But it was Carmody’s stint with Northwestern that allowed him to push his system to its absolute limit.  Here, in the Big Ten, he would face name brand programs, legendary coaches, NBA players, and raucous, hostile arenas on the road and at home, where visiting fans regularly overwhelmed the few Northwestern fans who could still stomach turning out to watch their historically moribund team get clobbered twice a week.  

The Big Ten in the early 2000s was, with few exceptions, not a home for fleet, exciting basketball.  It appealed to fans of violent, fundamental defense and lumbering. Carmody surveyed this situation and decided, as he always did, that he would slow it down.  Northwestern teams passed the ball around the perimeter and looked to find a lane for a cutter or an open jump shot for all 35 seconds if necessary; they’d wait for a sliver of daylight or missed rotation or for defenders to just get bored and walk off the court to try to find a game of basketball somewhere.  Then Northwestern would shoot, run to the other end, get violently dunked on, and start it up again.

Carmody had little time for any gladhanding niceties foisted on a college head coach, things that cut into his true love which was standing around a practice gym with arms folded muttering “aw, c’mon.”  He seemed ill-disposed to the slick salesmanship involved with recruiting and he did not have much to sell-- Northwestern had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and a spot on the team before Carmody offered only the opportunity to get glared at by Gene Keady or heckled by a visiting fan at close range because the only way for players to get to the court at Welsh-Ryan arena was to shoulder past the hot dog line.  Carmody and his staff convinced some talented local players like Jitim Young (a 6’2” guard who somehow led the team in rebounding) to join, but also began recruiting heavily overseas where Northwestern’s reputation as a basketball wasteland had less resonance. This international backcutting unit managed to pull off heretofore unimagined feats: in 2004, they managed to win as many Big Ten games as they lost for the first time since 1968; several years later, they made the N.I.T. 

Under Carmody, Northwestern did the unthinkable and became decent.  He found his greatest player, John Shurna, a spindly forward with a hideous but unstoppable jump shot that came from his chest and fired like the spring-loaded projectile from an action figure.  Those teams found themselves knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament. During the 2011-2 season, they came as agonizingly close to making the tournament as possible. The Wildcats took nearly every high-ranked team they needed to beat to overtime or the very last second and then someone would push a button for the buzzer and send them back to the N.I.T.  Shuna graduated, went on to play in Spain, and appeared in a New York Times article because he grew an enormous and ungainly beard.  They never made the tournament, and Northwestern fired Carmody after thirteen seasons.

Holy Cross hired Carmody in 2015, and something magical happened.  The Crusaders won ten games in the regular season. They lost all of their Patriot League road games and finished the regular season on a five-game losing streak.  Then, they somehow swept the conference tournament and cut down the nets. Bill Carmody was finally back in the NCAA Tournament with one of the strangest and least likely runs in the history of the sport.  And it was all there: the back cuts, the 1-3-1 zone lunging across the key, the one guy who could shoot threes, the offense grinding with the smoke and squeak of Victorian machinery designed to frustrate an opponent into just wanting to get this shit over with already-- this could have been any Bill Carmody team at any point playing the only type of basketball that he would ever allow himself to play.