The Chicken Of Leadership, The Egg Of Harmony

Submitted by Brian on July 31st, 2014 at 12:14 PM

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One of the main themes coming out of Big Ten media days is that Michigan's locker room was massively divided last year and that this was a major reason for the fractured splat mess that Michigan's season ended in. (And pretty much started in.) Frank Clark:

"There's no point in yelling at someone. Yelling to another grown man isn't going to get you very far. You've got to have a certain level of respect for that individual. And if he respects you, then there's not going to be that type of level of disagreement."

The implication is that this is a change from 2013.

This is both unusual and not. You often hear about chemistry problems in the aftermath of an unpleasant season; lord knows that I have heard it and fervently believed it about Michigan hockey the last couple years. It is a standard trope whenever sports people have to talk to media before a season, up there with Leave Touted Freshman Alone and We Are Only Motivated By Our Haters. That it's emerged after Michigan's 2013 is no surprise.

The unusual part is the not-quite-on-the-record vehemence being directed at one particular player. That would be Taylor Lewan. No one wants to come out and say it directly, but read between any two particular lines about locker room divisions and they land squarely on him. The result: regular threads on message boards about what a bad captain he was and how unity will unify us all now that he's gone.

I am not buying this.

I don't come to praise Caesar here. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence that Lewan was a dick, from his role in the Gibbons mess to the still-pending assault charges to his increasingly unhinged behavior in last year's Michigan State game. When Mike Spath did his annual piece from Big Ten Media Day in which he gives players anonymity in exchange for real talk, a couple of them called Lewan out for being over the line:

"I don't know how that plays at Michigan, but if my teammates were doing that, it'd be like dead silence in the room, and everyone would know what he's really about.

"That's not the guy I want leading my team."

So yeah he's not exactly Denard. No one is disputing that.

That said, the NFL grabbed him in the first half of the first round. And his performance matched that during the year. He took piles of criticism because Michigan couldn't move the ball, all of it ridiculous since the guy next to him—sometimes both guys flanking him—were blowing the play as he executed his assignment.

You know what doesn't get talked about when you're winning football games? How much of a dick player X is. "Chemistry" is often an effect of other stuff, not a cause. Before the departures of CJ Lee and David Merritt tanked a Beilein team I would have gone with "always" in the previous sentence; nowadays you have to acknowledge that sometimes it is a real thing.

It's not likely to be a big factor in last year's collapse—insofar as a pile of rubble can collapse. Fracturing was always going to happen once that offense was so so bad and the defense got sick of running on the field after a three and out six times in a row. There was always going to be a falling out with the coaches after their ham-handed attempts to fix things made them worse. If Michigan's players weren't questioning what the hell they were doing on offense, there's about to be some bad news about their ability to pass classes at Michigan.

I mean:

When [Hoke] arrived at Michigan in 2011, he routinely discussed that the group's seniors would carry the club. They'd be the backbone, and the team would be playing for them.

In 2011, it worked. Hoke's senior group was close and welcomed everyone in -- and the team won 11 games. In 2012, it seemed to work again. Even during the moments when the team struggled, it never seemed to unravel.

But with a mostly younger group in 2013, it never clicked. The team stopped fighting for one another, and became disconnected.

When did the team "stop fighting for one another"? During the Akron game like two games into the season? Or on the two point conversion that might have beat Ohio State at the end? It "worked" in 2011 because Michigan got lucky repeatedly; it did not in 2013 because they did not. The offensive line was a shambles against Notre Dame, but Gardner played out of his mind.

There is no narrative in which the fight goes out of Michigan. The pattern here is not one of increasing incompetence, but game-to-game variability: beat Minnesota with a good ground game, get that tackle over set annihilated by Penn State. Run the ball against Northwestern, get 150 yards of offense against Iowa, put up 41 on Ohio State in consecutive weeks.

They were up and they were down and that was mostly because they weren't any good and the offense was mismanaged. Taylor Lewan's affability was at worst 1% of a problem that started with Rich Rodriguez's offensive line recruiting. Losing him isn't going to solve a problem. Winning will.

Comments

Ron Utah

July 31st, 2014 at 12:32 PM ^

Chemistry is always a tricky thing, and your chicken and egg analogy is a good one.  In my experience, teams that like each other play much more to their potential.  Teams that don't like each other show fractures in games, and I do believe it leads to more losses.

I don't think the bad locker room chemistry takes you from a 12-0 team to a 7-6 team; talent, motivation, and scheme have a huge impact as well.  But I do believe that when things start to go poorly, if guys don't like each other, it gets worse, and fast.

I do believe our chemistry cost us a win or two last year--if these reports are true, and it certainly appears they are--and that improved chemistry could yield an extra win or two this year.  But there was a plethora of problems in 2013, and blaming it all on chemistry would be rather silly.

"Play with each other, and play for each other."  This is vital to be a successful football team...let's hope we do better this year.

dragonchild

July 31st, 2014 at 1:27 PM ^

There are two camps of sports chemistry; those that think it's a cause and those that think it's an effect.  I think both are wrong.

It's neither.  It's part and parcel of failure.  Just because Michael Jordan was loathed as a person doesn't mean they didn't have chemistry.  Chemistry isn't the gooshy feelings being played up in this article; it's communication -- knowing what you gotta do based on what others do.  It's responsibility -- giving someone the professional respect to show up to meetings, carry out your assignment and prepare, even if you want to shove his head down a toilet.  Tinkers, Evers and Chance supposedly HATED each other but damn if they didn't know how to turn a double play, and it wasn't by not trusting each other and playing heroball.  At work I'd rather work with an asshole who pulls his/her weight than a person whose gregariousness is only matched by incompetence.

Consider the O-line woes from both sides.  So here's Taylor Lewan, who stayed on an extra year when he could've been making millions in the NFL playing next to guys who know what they're doing.  Imagine his frustration as he's reduced to slide protections and everyone's running away from him.  To his left, Funchess (whom spent half the season with Borges believing he's a TE) is barely grazing the DE before turning around and running himself out of the play.  To his right, the guard is immediately releasing a DT to whiff on a blitzing linebacker for the 20th time.  The play is stuffed, the crowd boos, he did nothing wrong but the team is well on their way to another loss.  You don't have to be a dick to be dead sick of incompetence, especially when you're so much better that you could've punched your ticket out.  He's all like, WTF am I doing here??

Meanwhile the freshmen, bewildered at the various schemes they're being thrown into week to week, are getting humiliated on the field in ways they've never felt in high school.  Then this asshole who they didn't know prior to the season and for all they know is thinking about his NFL career comes in and yells at them for mistakes they're already worked up about.  They want to enjoy campus life, maybe go drinking for the first time (yeah it's illegal but like that stopped anyone) yet not only are they working harder than they ever have in their lives, they have nothing to show for it but this jackass all up in their faces.  Who's taking control?  Taylor was probably done with these n00bs by midseason.  The freshmen were completely outclassed with nowhere near enough mentors to pick up Borges' 126th scheme.  Is this chemistry or not?  How about, isn't that the absolute dumbest question you can ask about top-to-bottom dysfunction?

Lack of chemistry doesn't cause the team to fall apart, nor does chemistry fall apart because of failure.  If you're disorganized to begin with you're destined for failure, and the finger-pointing is just a formality long after the lack of "chemistry" has played its part.  This is not unique to sports; it applies to any situation.  People don't like to show dysfunction until after the damage is done.  But when a team effort fails, in my experience the dysfunction was always there all along.  Wins improve the situation but only on the emotional level.  You have to fix the problems to win in the first place, and that starts with getting everyone to communicate.  Getting them to like each other really isn't all that important, though it does make it easier.

Hoke came in emphasizing senior leadership, but there were very few seniors last season and most of them were on small units that needed no help (WR, special teams).  The O-line had. . . Taylor Lewan.  This was a unique challenge to Hoke's established method and kudos for Hoke to making the necessary change.  It won't fix the team by itself, but the team's practices should be more productive if the teammates communicate better.  If they do, they'll enter the season with a lot more brain-sharing and thus better preparation.  If they don't, then they'll be confused again and that will result in losses.  And everyone will again wonder which came first.

dragonchild

July 31st, 2014 at 1:54 PM ^

I stand corrected, but not invalidated.  The off-field word on Schofield is that he's a wallflower.  Nice guy, but not exactly the halon to Lewan's gasoline.  I could be wrong, but either way there's little doubt the O-line was overwhelmed and rudderless.

Blue in Seattle

July 31st, 2014 at 2:17 PM ^

Many phrases become cliches, but only from people using them incorrectly or globally, nit because they aren't true. Your response identifies the key element of any team functioning well, communication and trust. For me, the larger fix, or the fix to the larger problem, was changing Borges for Nussmeier. The quote from Taylor Lewan that sticks with me was from a post game press conference where he responded to a question on the poor OL play with, "people are thinking too much and just have to go and block". I believe he thought that was the correct leadership thing to do, and would be if the only problem had been short term effort. But the two weaknesses were inexperience and complexity of scheme. That issue is best dealt with internally, both trying to teach the inexperienced players AND going to your coach and saying, "You are asking for too much too fast."

Does that make Taylor a bad player? Not at all. A bad person? Nope. But he was a poor leader, and he was chosen as a captain, so did he fail in his job? Yes.

Does this mean the new leaders will fail? Maybe. But the season hasn't started, anything is possible, so why not start out on the side of hope?

dragonchild

July 31st, 2014 at 2:47 PM ^

I'll meet you most of the way but to be honest the more I learned about Lewan, the less I liked him.  He got in trouble off the field, was unsportsmanlike on it, and to top it all off I thought his leash was a lot longer than many of the underclassmen's.  I'll miss the talent but I'm glad to see him out of a winged helmet because he was NOT fun to watch.  I think there's no doubt he was a dick.

However, being a dick has no bearing on chemistry.  None.  Lewan didn't have chemistry either, but his dickishness had nothing to do with it.  I think you're speculating but I agree with your reading; Lewan probably expected the underclassmen to keep up whereas after five years the stuff he was doing was second nature to him.  That could've happened even if he was the nicest guy in the world.  I think Hoke's "seniors = leaders" approach put Lewan (who mouths too much), Schofield (who talks as much as Silent Bob) and the underclassmen (who needed someone in the middle) in a collectively worse position when being inexperienced was bad enough.

I'm not a hopeful guy, but I will say this -- I think Hoke is making the right changes.  I hope they pay off because this is like running a struggling business through a recession.  All the right moves won't matter if things don't turn around in time.

Ron Utah

July 31st, 2014 at 3:45 PM ^

Bad chemistry can most certainly be a cause of underachievement, especially in high school and college.  Your examples of Jordan, Tinkers, Evers, and Chance are all grown, professional men.  While we can argue about whether or not college players should be getting paid or are already employees, the fact is that they have NOT developed the maturity (in the vast majority of cases) to trust and work effectively with people they hate.

I have played and coached at the high school and collegiate levels.  By the time I was a senior in college, I had figured out the whole "do your job and trust others to do theirs" thing, but it took me that long and I'm quite certain it took most of my teammates at least that long.  My experience in coaching has been similar.

That said, success breeds happiness, and it's easier to like people when you're happy.  A winning team can learn to like each other and trust each other, even if they don't always get along off the field.

What I can tell you--factually and with zero doubt--is that team chemistry DOES have an impact on team success and wins/losses, but also that it is just one factor and that other factors (coaching, organizaiton, scheme, talent) can affect it.  All of these things are interrelated at some level and contribute or detract from overall success. 

Ron Utah

July 31st, 2014 at 7:08 PM ^

One factor among many.  You need enough chemistry to trust each other on the field and be able to communicate and cover for one another.

Talent is certainly required, and good talent makes winning easier which leads to better, easier chemistry (usually).

ca_prophet

July 31st, 2014 at 5:52 PM ^

With one quibble. Responsibility - in particular trusting someone to do their job while you do yours - requires respect and trust. Those are squoooshy feelings that have to be compartmentalized if you're working with someone who is competent but untrusted and unrespected on other levels.

Communication is also impeded by those squoooshy feelings - it's hard to go the extra mile and interact, often intensely, with someone you don't like. Yes, it's part of being a grownup and "professional" ... but these guys aren't (yet).

Put another way, chemistry can be achieved with people you don't like, but it's a lot harder and consequently rare. This is why the 1972-1974 Oakland A's are widely cited as the canonical counterexample to chemistry - they won three consecutive World Series while hating each other's guts to point of semi-routine clubhouse brawls. (They were aided by the fact that baseball is in many ways not a team sport the way the others are, but still ...)

JeepinBen

July 31st, 2014 at 12:39 PM ^

One thing I will say, is it really didn't seem like Lewan's version/style/etc of leadership worked for who he was supposed to be leading. Anecdotally it seems that Lewan was a yeller, a "that's embarassing, get your shit together" type of guy, not who the young team needed. You can't coach everyone the same way. There are some players who come off the field and they need to be yelled at in front of the team - they'll respond positively. Other players will sulk (Kelly GIF?). Some players you need to have a calm talking to (Hoke with Hagerup after the GIF).  It's common to hear about people trying to make themselves a more "vocal" leader - it's acknowledged that there are different types. By all accounts, Michael Jordan was a horrible teammate - he'd try to break you and if you broke, you had to go. Yet he's still credited (rightly, and once paired with the "Zen" Phil Jackson) for leading teams to 6 championships. Often you'll hear about a "players coach" getting replaced with a hardass and vice versa - look at Charlie Strong at Texas vs. Mack Brown. It seems that Lewan's didn't mesh with the team.

Did that cause 27-for-27? Not in my mind. But I am a sucker for positivity, so go new leaders.

iawolve

July 31st, 2014 at 1:26 PM ^

The guy turns down millions to come back to win and ends up with a historically bad offensive line including reporting how he is now overrated. If yelling at guys was his bad habit, that situation would only make it worse. That does not make it right, but I can't say I had all my interpersonal skills together at 22 with those sorts of pressures added to the mix. Just having a competent to average line last year likely changes this entire narrative.

cobra14

July 31st, 2014 at 12:32 PM ^

Brian this is where your lack of playing a sport really shows in your understanding of how important team chemistry is to winning. Sure you can still win games here and there but you can't produce good to great seasons without chemistry. It's as important as X's and O's.

There was no leaders last year that held the other players accountable. Lewan just happened to be the biggest issue all around. . The young guys looked at some of these upperclassmen and didn't like what they saw and had a big problem with it. I know that for a fact. Hoke's recruits came there for a purpose. That is why you see guys from all classes involved in talking with Hoke.

Corey

July 31st, 2014 at 12:54 PM ^

I hate to say it, but I sort of agree. Bad chemistry doesn't equal bad results, but it certainly doesn't equal consistently good ones either. When you don't have somebody who can help gel a team, you may still get results, but things unravel much more quickly if adversity rears its head (e.g. A freshman starts having a bad day). Team chemistry is huge, and you can either get it accidentally, or you can have somebody emerge is good at helping the process along.

Good leaders are often--but not necessarily always--the more experienced people. When they aren't, and the young'ns aren't quite up to the task yet, (or worse, the seniors actively resent the younger players trying to step up or vice versa,) you have a recipe for likely disaster.

Reader71

July 31st, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

I've played sports, and I have disagreed with Brian on a lot of things, but he is dead on with this piece.

Winning cures all. Losing leads to scapegoating. Chemistry is a byproduct of results.

Lewan might have been a dick, but Steve Hutchinson was allegedly the meanest person to have ever worn a winged helmet, and no one complains about him. Why?

I Like Burgers

July 31st, 2014 at 1:24 PM ^

I don't know or remember about the lockeroom stuff with Hutch, but in games, yeah he was a dick.  The difference is that when teams are winning, being a dick in games is called a "nasty streak" and its lauded by generally everyone.  Early on in his time in the program, Lewan was praised for having that nasty streak.  But as things fell apart, "nasty steak" turned into "hot head" and "loose cannon" and "bad leader."

If Michigan finishes off Lewan's career with a great season, he's probably praised for providing a tough nosed mentality that the team needed.  Instead, he's called a dick and then stories come out of the woodwork about how he was a bad influence in the lockerroom.  As Brian said, that doesn't happen when you're winning.

Reader71

July 31st, 2014 at 1:53 PM ^

FWIW, I never played with Hutchinson. But I heard stories. I don't know if he was an asshole, but he was a mean motherfucker. And the guys all loved him.

Which sort of proves my point. Mean can be good or bad, depending on how the team performs.

Rabbit21

July 31st, 2014 at 2:59 PM ^

I think that's somewhat mitigated by the fact there were other strong leaders on those teams to be the yin to Hutchinson's Yang(similar to how Art Shell and Gene Upshaw kept the Raiders together in the 70's despite the cast of "colorful" characters that were on the roster).  I wonder if there was much of a counterbalance to Lewan's style from a similarly strong personality.  If there wasn't then I can see how chemistry could have been a problem last year and made things worse once the cracks began to show.

Seth

July 31st, 2014 at 6:00 PM ^

In the micro: Lewan played with a "nasty streak" in 3/4 games against MSU, and was a dick in the last. Rubbing a facemask in the ground after a guy tried to break your arm: football. The shit he was pulling against MSU last year: inexcusable, and definitely not football.

VectorVictor05

July 31st, 2014 at 1:17 PM ^

"Winning cures all" and "Team chemistry leads to positive results" are not mutually exclusive.  Teams have won despite poor chemistry, but the most successful teams tend to lack issues with leadership and buy-in amongst the players.

I'm a huge fan of advanced stats and analytics, but the problem I've seen, is where proponents of analysis on a numbers only basis who don't have a history of playing the sport they are analyzing, discount any factor that can't be quantified.  This is necessary for their analysis, but it ignores intangibles that likely have a legit impact on bottom lines Ws and Ls.

Gulogulo37

July 31st, 2014 at 9:07 PM ^

Great comment. Yes, football can be broken down and analyzed, but if you think about it from an experimental standpoint, do you realize how complicated a system it is and how many extraneous variables there are? And with only 12 games to measure. I think rationally the proper conclusion regarding how chemistry affected last year's team or not is, "We just don't know dude."

TheCool

July 31st, 2014 at 1:21 PM ^

I've played and coached (and still do both) and chemistry undoubtedly effects outcomes. It won't be the difference between 7-6 and championship. A team with great chemistry plays for one another and when you play for each other you can go that much harder. Having great chemistry doesn't mean everyone has to love one another, but if there's fracturing it will show up in the results.

IIRC, Hutchinson was on a more veteran team that could handle his assholery better than some young guys. Also, some people can deal with yelling, asshole leadership, others can't.

Reader71

July 31st, 2014 at 2:00 PM ^

I think you're talking about two different things.

Leadership is very real. The seniors give the team it's mentality. This is absolutely true.

Some guys are better for some teams. Kevin Millar was the clubhouse leaders for the World Champion Red Sox "Idiots". It worked for that team. Put Millar on the Yankees and that doesn't work.

But chemistry is another issue altogether. Winning makes it easy to love the guy next to you. But when you are losing, you start to look for reasons, and people tend to look outwards rather than inwards. That's just how our brains work.

Everyone Murders

July 31st, 2014 at 2:14 PM ^

I was in the midst of drafting a separate comment along the lines of the differences between leadership and chemistry, but you've done so succinctly.  To me, "chemistry" is such a slippery concept that people can argue ad nauseum about "chemistry" because they are often talking about different things.

My son plays soccer with a keeper who is an absolute dick.  The kind who bitches at the ref, taunts other players, etc.  He's reputedly been a dick since he was a weejun, and there's some evidence it may be genetic.  But he directs his defenders and makes plays, and is an asset to the team - there's no evidence of bad chemistry.  He just isn't worth anything as a leader because nobody likes him.

WolverBean

July 31st, 2014 at 2:18 PM ^

David Molk provides another example of a surly offensive lineman, famous for head-butting Jack Miller before games. Indeed, offensive line recruits in particular are often praised for having a 'nasty streak.' In other words, being a dick is sometimes considered a GOOD trait in an O lineman.

enlightenedbum

July 31st, 2014 at 3:42 PM ^

There's a fairly large difference between being a dick on the field and off of it.  Lewan was fairly clearly both, while IIRC there were stories about Molk turning it on and off depending whether or not he had a helmet on, basically.

I think shit leadership is more likely to make things spiral out of control like they did last year, while better leadership probably rallies the team before the Ohio State game and we play a bit better and end up 8-5 or 9-4.

But I also started hating Lewan the more I read about him so this narrative fits into my preconceived notions, so maybe that's all that this really means.

GoBLUinTX

July 31st, 2014 at 1:11 PM ^

wasn't so much Lewan that was the problem but the younger players?

The young guys looked at some of these upperclassmen and didn't like what they saw and had a big problem with it.

I actually think you made an unintentional but very good point.  There was a significant divide on the team, especially on the OL.  A divide of both age and experience.  I can easily understand younger players looking at and blaming the older players when things go bad.  They're the ones with the experience, they're the ones that are supposed to have the answers, and they are the ones that should be carrying the team.  Oh, yeah, I get it completely.  I've seen it, and I've lived it from both perspectives.  From my experience this can become quite the problem when the younger inexperienced players are the large majority of players.  Lewan, being quite open and wearing his emotions on his sleeve, made for an easy target for fan animous.  I imagine he was scapegoated by the underclassmen as well.

MichiganTeacher

July 31st, 2014 at 2:16 PM ^

Yeah, I'm shocked - shocked - to see Brian discounting the psychological side of sports.

On the other hand, Brian is a pretty perceptive guy, and he apparently has changed his opinion on this issue somewhat already, so I have hope that he will see the light. :)

Basically, yeah. Chemistry is huge. As a coach and a player, I've seen it ruin games, win games, ruin seasons, and make seasons. Obviously talent is important too, and it's easier for superior talent to make up for chemistry problems than it is for superior chemistry to make up for talent problems. And beyond a certain point, it's impossible for chemistry to make up for missing talent. But it's also true that there's almost no talent advantage that sufficiently bad chemistry can't nullify.

Now, just how bad was the chemistry on last year's team? Dunno. I suspect it wasn't really all that bad. There were a host of other issues - talent and coaching among them - and they did manage to finish 7-6. I'd say USC (and probably a lot of other teams) had worse chemistry issues through most of last year.

HipsterCat

July 31st, 2014 at 12:32 PM ^

Everybody loved Lewan when he was riding around on the twosie and picking those personal foul penalties on the field. Hell even the first time the Gibbons stuff was brought up most people dismissed Lewans involvement or at least didnt hate him. But the gibbons stuff comes back up and everybody gets on his case and sees conspiracy everywhere. Then he gets in a bar fight, against an OSU fan, which most of us would have dismissed but it fit the new narative of Lewan being sleazy and was more stuff we could pile on him. We have mostly forgotten Frank Clark and his laptops, or the variious DUIs.

I have never met Lewan, and he may be a dick or might be a chill dude with a funny fake mustache tatoo I'll never really know. But I hope he does well in the NFL and the rest of his life because he came back for his last season after being a 1st round lock and I liked watching him play. 

JeepinBen

July 31st, 2014 at 12:44 PM ^

Oh, I don't mean to disparage Devin. Devin was a goofy kid too, but he also has already graduated, is getting an MSW, and is doing lots of good in the community. He's talked about wanting to be a captain and hopefully he does well with the opportunity.