Monday, November 8, 2010

Fans Rarely Know Reasons

I recently went to a high school soccer playoff game. I don’t really know much about soccer, but a friend of mine was coaching and his team was playing a team ranked in top-5 in nation. Not in the state mind you, the nation. Having had lunch with this friend and listening to him detail his strategy for countering this powerful opponent, I wanted to see how things worked out. Soccer fans will have to forgive my ignorance of major terms, but basically my friend’s strategy was keep the majority of his team back on defense and load up in front of the goal to prevent this powerful opponent from getting clean shots. Having faced the team earlier in the year and having been blow out 6-0 it made sense to play with a defense first mentality and hope to catch a break or get into a shootout where he might have the stronger goalie. To a great extent my friend’s strategy worked. His kids played a great defensive game and even though they allowed 27 shots on goal and only got three, they went into overtime tied 1-1 before losing 2-1 in that OT period. In a contest against a vastly superior opponent with a top-5 ranking and two players who will likely by high school All-Americans you’d think people would have been impressed with the way the game stayed close. Especially since this opponent beat their other playoff competition like a drum. I’m sure most were, but behind me one fan kept saying, “What the hell is the coach doing? Is he just playing to tie? We need to get more aggressive!” Personally, I wanted to turn around and pick a (verbal) fight with the guy, but I restrained myself. Another friend of mine did try to point out the earlier 6-0 loss which showed our side simply couldn’t play such a strong team heads-up, but this gentleman (term used loosely) would have none of it. He didn’t understand why it was a good idea to play such a strategy. He thought the way the game was setup up was “wussy” and not tough enough. Now, this post isn’t meant to be an exercise is ripping a random soccer fan whose name I don’t even know. The guy is entitled to his own opinion. My point, though, is that his opinion is based on total ignorance of the situation. He didn’t have the insider knowledge to know why a defensive game plan made more since. Such a state of mind, however, is not uncommon amongst fans. In fact, we’ve all been there more than not.

As we start the basketball season and come into a potentially dark time in the football season, I think this is a point worth noting. I’m not saying we as fans shouldn’t criticize coaches, but let’s be aware of just how ignorant we are. I sat with my friend at lunch and he explained his strategy and the reasons for it. It wasn’t a random decision at all. It was a choice he agonized over and eventually made (which went against his team’s usual style of play) because he reasoned out that it gave his team their BEST CHANCE TO WIN against a vastly superior opponent. It almost worked. In fact, if not for a deflection on a corner kick it probably would have. That’s the coach’s job. Develop a game plan which after careful thought you believe gives you the best chance to win. You do this after careful study of past games (both yours and the other sides) and after careful consideration of the abilities of your players and their performance in practice and previous contests. You don’t just walk into the arena and start haphazardly calling plays. The plan might not work, but you didn’t choose to play that person or call that play without truly doing the work to think it was the right choice.

Despite all this work done by coaches, we as fans still think we know better. Now, I say it’s totally fine for us to offer our opinions. But, let’s be realistic about it. Even if the game plan looks odd to you (which my friend’s did to that guy behind me) the coach has to honestly thinks his plan gives his team the best shot at victory. We need to respect that. I have no problem saying or listening to fellow NU fans say that the 1-3-1 defense is scary and I hope Bill Carmody plays it less or that if Mike Hankwitz goes to three down linemen again this week he ought to be looking for work at the end of the year, but let’s be honest. Do any of us know more about basketball than Bill Carmody? Honestly. Has anyone else out there devoted their entire life and livelihood to studying the game? (If so I’d love for you to contribute to the blog, but you’re probably busy coaching your own team). Do any of us have more defensive football knowledge than Coach Hank? I suspect the fact he’s been coaching longer than many of us have been alive means likely not. Whether we agree with them or not, let’s keep that in mind and respect they have a reason for the strategic choices they make. After all, their ability to feed their families is based on making the right choice. Considering that, we have to admit that jumping all over coaches without truly having inside knowledge of who does what at practice or without having broken down every play of another team’s season makes us look pretty ignorant. Now, will this stop me from offering my opinions on what defense NU should play? No. But, I want to go on record right now saying that I know Bill Carmody has a plan and a reason for his moves and really does believe he is doing the right thing. Just like every other coach. I’m just a fan with passion who sometimes can’t help but share how he feels.


macarthur31 said...

Thanks for your post. It's akin to the Rally to Restore Sanity -- sportsfan style.

On one hand, I'm glad that more and more folks are bothering to post about the team (in football and basketball). That means fan interest is on the rise, and ultimately a better thing for the athletic program.

However, I do get bummed out at some of the posts because they're so extreme. Yeah, I get that fan-boards are a place to vent, and the team itself probably is better off not reading those boards since they have way more important things to go (like getting ready for Iowa or NIU).

On the other hand, I wish there was more accountability. Would half these guys say this stuff to the player's faces, to their parents' faces? To Coach Carmody or Fitz's faces? I get there's being a fan, but I don't think that's mutually exclusive in being decent to each other.

Anyway, I appreciated your post as a reminder that these guys are doing their best, and that it is a sport played by 19 and 20 year olds.

Does that mean we can't criticize? Of course we can. And I really dig the types of criticism that try to use statistics and objective information (i.e. our poor defensive rating, and our substandard defensive rebounding) as opposed to insights based on anecdotes and biased frames (i.e. "Carmody has negative body language", "The team just gave up in the 4th quarter against Penn State.")

Anyway -- thanks for taking the time to write your blog. I look forward to reading it this year, and hopefully we'll both be celebrating on Selection Sunday (and in the weekends to follow)

jhodges said...

I, too, thank you for this very sane post. I don't frequent this site (I'm more of a football guy), but this was a very solid piece and is something you almost never hear online (especially on a blog).

The best example I can think of is this season against MSU (in football) - on defense, NU generally kept 6 or more guys close to the line of scrimmage in order to shut down the run, and it worked very well (NU easily outgained the Spartans on the ground). Unfortunately this meant that the 'Cats had to play zone behind that because there is no way that the DBs could play man against MSU's WRs all game. Eventually, Cousins flat out beat the zone by finding his guys and hitting them. To the casual observer it may look like "the secondary stinks and can't cover anyone" but it was really by design - NU dared them to beat them through the air, and that's what they had to do to win the game. And, as you mentioned, the strategy put the 'Cats in a position to win the game, holding a lead with 2:00 left in regulation.

Also, there are two sides playing every game - two sides full of players who want to go out and win and two sides with coaches who want to outscheme and outteach the opponent. Something has to give and it's completely unreasonable to expect one side to always come out on top. Even the most talented and best coached teams falter in college football today.

The best a fan can do is support their team whole-heartedly and appreciate the game.

PS: I don't hate the 1-3-1 as much as some others do as I've seen how it can give the 'Cats a shot at the upset from time to time; until the past few years there honestly wasn't enough talent to go around for Carmody so I can't blame him at all for employing some of the strategies that he has. My only beef is that he's had over a decade to turn things around and has only recently climbed the first rung of the ladder. But as has been tossed around, he is likely NU's best option right now especially since he has one of the most talented teams we've seen in a long while and they are ingrained with his system.

Go 'Cats!