I think that best practice in educational theory may offer some insight as to why we suck on the road.This will not be an exhaustive discussion on why we suck on the road, to be sure, but I hope to offer some insight.
I will preface the conversation with two points:
- Hoke talks about mental toughness and physical toughness a lot. My intention here is to call into question what our team's "mental toughness" looks like. Many have already done it; I attempt to offer some level of explanation based on how much I'm aware of Hoke's teaching/coaching styles and philosophies.
- Leadership, under Hoke, seems to be defined using an "active constructive," "positive psychology" method of team- and relationship-building. Hoke's players will run through a wall for him; it seems that they are not, however, able to play effectively in hostile environments (specifically the offense). I intend to draw comparisons between coaching styles/philosophies under Bo and under Hoke.
And a couple definitions, in case you are unfamiliar:
Positive Psychology: a movement of psychology, largely led by psych researchers at U-M and UPenn, which attempts to be constructive in developing students' awareness of their abilities and their willingness to persevere
Active Constructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they can do something that they are trying to do
Active Destructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they cannot do something that they are trying to do
My conclusion is drawn from having built an awareness of what practice looks like under Hoke. I have attended one or two practices, and I have read press conferences from players + coaches, and I have seen the released practice videos by MGoVideo. I have observed the following:
- The coaches have historically been very high energy, doing a lot of encouragement and pushing via yelling. Yelling is not, in itself, active destructive.
- The coaches have always seemed highly positive toward the players for doing a good job, and their responses to players who screw up has always seemed encouraging, constructive, etc. I recall one specific example where Hoke said to a player, "You came up like a big pincher bug. You don't wanna do that. Come on. You're better than that."
- Devin Gardner has spoken of fans that are difficult to tolerate when on the road, especially when he is on the sideline.
- The primary tactic for coaching to hostile environments has, it seems, been limited making the environment noisy and creating other neutral environmental factors.
These different points suggest two things:
- That positive psychology is the primary tactic used in coaching under Hoke.
- That our quarterback (a lynchpin to our offense, which is cited specifically to suck on the road) has made special note of the hostility of opposing fans.
Positive psych encourages relationship building between coaches and players, and ultimately is considered a more effective educational strategy. This makes sense considering the commitment that Hoke's players have to him, and the level of recruitment Hoke has been able to achieve.
Based off of reading some of Bo's work, my understanding is that the way that he coached was different. Bo tells stories of using active destructive responses routinely. Rather famously, he routinely called Jim Brandstatter "the worst tackle in intercollegiate football." Woody Hayes is described as coaching in a similar (albeit more physically abusive) way. Active destructive is in many ways the opposite of active constructive: It is designed, essentially, to make you feel that you can never accomplish what you are trying to accomplish. This differs sharply from the techniques that it seems Hoke and co. are using to teach, and I wonder if, specifically, it affects road performance. Bo, in contrast to Hoke, went 14-5 on the road in his first four years as coach. Compare this to Hoke's existing 7-13.
My hypothesis is this: Because our coaches spend their energy primarily building a psychologically positive environment, they have lost a valuable aspect of the otherwise ugly response form known as active destructive: put differently, they have lost the "mental toughness" built by working and growing through hostility. Away stadiums are entirely hostile environments; if the hostility is not noticeable from the crowd because of distance from the sideline, it will be noticeable from the opposing team. If a practice environment fails to produce hostility, it seems unlikely that its players will be able to keep their heads when they face real hostility.
Just to be clear: I fully embrace positive psych and believe strongly in its efficacy, educational and otherwise. But I suggest that simulating hostility--not just simulating a hostile environment--may be useful to develop what Hoke calls "mental toughness." Furthermore, I do not suggest that the verbally and physically aggressive tactics of Bo and Woody must necessarily remain relevant today in order to produce great football teams.
I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated positive psychology into their practices, and I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated active destructive responses into their practices. Therefore, my thoughts will remain a hypothesis. But I think it is worth considering whether one of the reasons we fail to compete on the road is because our coaches have failed to produce hostility in practice, thereby failing to prepare our players to encounter that hostility.
Obviously, there are many limitations on my hypothesis and the "data" (anecdotal information, really) supporting. This is likely not the only reason for our failures on the road, but may help to explain a part of why we fail when put in these situations. In fact, active destructive responses do not need to be the default as they were in Bo's practices. Simply, it is possible to create a hostile environment where coaches are emulating active destructive comments to players in order to adjust them to the reality of hostility.
Furthermore, I accept and acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive look at coaching tactics given that I am missing a lot of information. Much further investigation into the tactics used to build "mental toughness." Bo also pronounced that one should never yell at a player in a game, which seems to reflect more of a positive psychology.
I would be interested to see what research might yield about the numbers of our OL and QB would look like on the road.
An alternative (or supplementary) hypothesis might note that our record on the road against ranked teams features a greater disparity than against unranked teams. "Mental toughness" may go out the window when players feel unprepared or discouraged by being overpowered, overrun, and outperformed, which may be more resultant of poor development.
It is worth noting that Bo had many players quit when he became coach. This could be because of the seemingly "inhumane" treatment of the active destructive response. In addition, it is worth noting that Bo often failed in high profile away games (namely bowl games), and that Bo and Hoke are limited samples. There are also numerous confounding variables, such as scheme, development of talent, et al.
One thing remains certain: Many changes must happen if we hope to compete, and especially if we hope to compete on the road.
tl;dr I hypothesize that one reason for our road gaffs may be the apparent absence of simulated hostility in practice. I find this argument compelling, but acknowledge that defaulting to active destructive responses as in the days of yore are not necessary to make a good football team.
Ohio State, as we all know, is 11-0. But there are some interesting statistics that came up in my research on our upcoming rivalry game regarding how OSU got to 11 wins: In 4 of their close games, OSU was outgained by their opponents.
|Total yards (opponent)||Total yards (OSU)||Turnover differential (OSU)|
The Purdue game can be thrown out because of B. Miller's injury. Of the remaining, 2/3 were decided only by a touchdown. Turnover margin for those three games collectively was +3 for OSU.
The most compelling statistic is the one against Wisconsin - a difference of 124 yards. Given that Wisconsin ranks #11 in total defense in the NCAA (against our #12), this is promising. We played a harder pre-conference schedule - Oregon State was the only tough competition for Wisco, against our Alabama + Notre Dame - and, Ohio game removed, Wisco would fall below us in Total Defense rankings.
That said, Wisconsin is very strong at defending the run (#9) and pretty good at defending the pass (#25). We are very average at defending the run (#51)* and excellent at defending the pass (#1). OSU is a team heavy on the run.
OSU is bad at defending the pass (#84) and good at defending the run (#17).* Since the advent of Devin Gardner, 63% of our yardage has been in passing yards. More than 500 of those 800 yards came against opponents ranked higher in pass defense than OSU (Iowa #58, Minnesota #16). Even correcting for strength of schedule would likely not fully resolve the parity between Minnesota and OSU's passing defenses.
Expect our run game to be stuffed but for our pass attack to move willingly down the field (Gardner starting). Expect OSU's rush to move downfield but for their pass attack to be stuffed.
Worry if our players turn the ball over. OSU will capitalize on turnovers. Gardner has thrown one interception per game since he has been the starter. Granted, that is with a remarkable play by Marcus Hyde, but nonetheless. We also had a fumble against Northwestern.
It is certain that we can outgain OSU and still lose the game. This is an important thing. At full strength, OSU has bested 3 opponents who have outgained them - 2/3 by 100 yards or more. That's unheard of by my ears. We cannot turn the ball over.
What does this tell us? OSU has come off with some miraculous wins. A +3 turnover margin still isn't that major. Being outgained by 280 yards in 3 of their wins makes those wins look remarkable and unbelievable. OSU has a stellar red zone defense. Otherwise, we learn little. Scheme is a better predictor than statistics like these, but I'm not a schematic minded fellow. Take this all with a grain of salt. Mostly, this is just interesting fluff that hopefully will help guide you in where you look today and tomorrow.
Who will win the game? I have a good feeling. I think we are clearly the better team this year. But this game is bigger than statistics. We haven't won in the Toilet Bowl in 12 years.
*It is worth noting that we have played rushing offense teams ranked #2, #16, #8, #27, and #33. OSU has played #8 and #17 in the same range. We face the #9 rushing team this weekend. Against #8 Nebraska, we allowed 160 rushing yards - significantly below their season average. #16 Northwestern put 248 up - slightly above their average. #2 Air Force hung 290 - slightly below their average. Alabama put up slightly above their average, and Notre Dame put up less than half their average. Wisconsin has only played #8 and #9 in rushing offense in the same range, holding OSU significantly below their average and Nebraska around their average.
A lot of Michigan fans like to throw around the tired phrase that Hoke and his coaches get it. They really understand "it", and what "it's" all about. We know the word "it" is ambiguous; MGoBloggers like to throw around the phrase sarcastically so as to make fun of those who think that a coach who gets it is somehow better than a coach who doesn't "get it," whatever that means.
"It" being loosely defined as tradition, then by and large, I think the Michigan fanbase popularly believes that having a coach familiar with the traditions of the program is a good thing. But why? Other than vain aesthetics, what does a coach familiar with the program do for our team beyond what an "outsider" might do?
I think many MGoBloggers have found themselves asking the above question. I'd contend that there are actually many positives to having coaches familiar with traditions than having coaches who aren't familiar with traditions. Things it benefits include (but are not limited to):
- It helps the players understand the program. It helps them to understand that they are not just playing football, but they are playing football for a cause. It increases their motivation. They are not just playing anywhere: they are playing at Michigan, one of the greatest college football powers of the past 132 years.
- It helps the coaches and the fan base find common ground. We've talked before about how a coach's job is not really PR, but PR is still a big part in our media-centric world. Fans have to like the coach. Tradition is a huge selling point for liking a coach. Someone who understands the tradition likes to listen to other people who understand it.
- It carries on the legacy of greatness. Rather than just trying to be a great school for football, Michigan has to be its own great school for football. We are more likely to sell ourselves to recruits well if we have an established "brand," as DB might call it. We have to protect the brand: to maintain the academic integrity, the clean record, the traditions, the alumni connections, the in-state connections and relationships...which brings me to #4.
- It attracts a certain type of recruit: namely, those in-state and in the state down south. It's good to recruit elsewhere nationally, of course, but winning in-state recruiting battles can make a huge difference. These are kids who have grown up watching Michigan football more than anyone else. Maybe their mom or dad or aunt or uncle went to UM. They will have a dedication to the program that a kid who comes just to play at a good school and a usual BCS contender will have. The motivations of the kids the tradition attracts are not selfish; they really want to serve the program rather than just rack up W after W and yard after yard. The great thing is: those who want to serve the program want to do that too. But it's more about honor and sacrifice to make it great.
None of this is to say that an "outsider" can't do the same as all the above points, but I think the odds are better with a coach familiar with the traditions and program, one who "gets it" rather than one who doesn't. There may also be drawbacks about keeping the coaching succession "in the family," as well, of course. But that doesn't mean it's without its benefits.
Frankly, I think it's best to have, in general, someone who has coached or grown up in the Big Ten area as our coach. I think Hoke's appreciation for tradition is not only a PR response to the tenure he follows, but something he actually does feel pretty genuine about as he coaches. After all, he grew up in Ohio and his family is closely connected to Bo and Woody. The question is: can he coach at the requisite level? Well...that's a topic for a different diary.