Sunday, August 05, 2007

Posted by Dr Fro 2:40 PM

Evan Grant wrote an article in today's Dallas Morning News about Moneyball. It was something of a Where are They Now piece on some of the draft picks discussed in the book. Nick Swisher and Prince Fielder were two players about which much was written in the book, and Evan certainly writes about them. Evan takes the benefit of hindsight to attempt to criticize Michael Lewis and Billy Beane. However, the only thing he accomplishes is to illustrate that he didn't get it when he read the book (or perhaps that he didn't read the book.)

Billy Beane never claimed to have a "magic formula", certainly not a "magic formula" in the way Evan uses the phrase. You absolutely can not predict with perfect accuracy how each draft prospect might turn out. However, by looking at observable, quantifiable data, you can make better decisions than you would if you ignored the same data (or, more commonly, only observed the data that supported your preconceived notions and ignored the rest of the data.)

To say that Billy Beane was wrong in his draft picks would be like saying it was wrong to play pocket aces - after they get cracked. Think about it - it is always the right decision to call heads up and all-in with aces pre-flop. If you get into a raising war and find yourself in that situation, you are pleased. Five cards later, the aces might win, but they might get cracked, too. Irrelevant. It was the right decision at the time, and if you do it often enough, you will win more than you will lose. The A's win in the draft more often than they lose.

Of course, I wouldn't expect a sports columnist to get this. Sports columnists are, by their nature, results-oriented. Nobody ever writes a column about the team that was clearly the best team but managed to lose due to some bad luck. The story is about the champion, the winner. Results-oriented.

(Billy Beane was so opposed to letting results cloud his decision-making, he wouldn't even watch the games. Get the statistical advantage, and let the long run play out.)

Poker players, on the other hand, are precisely the opposite. They are EV-oriented and care little about results. This is why in poker, people say, "Dude got all-in with the nuts, and some donkey made his one-outer on the river. What crap." Sports columnists never write, "Dude, the Mavericks were so the best team all season long, but the donkey Warriors drew out on them on the river." No, the headlines read, "Dallas=losers; Golden State=winners" Until Golden State loses of course, then they become the losers de jeur.

Being a poker player, I often struggle reading the sports page because I simply can not put up with the ridiculous opinions that writers spew forth based on a results-oriented mindset.

That brings me to Mack Brown.

Mack Brown was one of the most criticised coaches in sports, probably the most criticised in college football. The shtick on Mack was that he was a great recruiter off the field, but he was a loser off the field. This reputation was created by and reinforced by every sportswriter with a keyboard and half of a brain.

In typical fashion, the opinion was first determined, then the critics went about to selectively find facts that supported their opinion and ignore those that didn't support it.

I actually read in the Dallas Morning News once prior to the 2005 game, "Mack Brown has never beaten Oklahoma." There was a retraction later that said, " Mack Brown did beat Oklahoma (1998), but he has never beaten Bob Stoops." That retraction was never retracted, but it should have been. Mack Brown beat Oklahoma twice - in 1998 and 1999. Bob Stoops was the coach of OU in 1999. Never mind the facts. We want to believe the Mack Brown can't ever win the big one.

The other fact that was commonly cited was how many years Mack Brown went without ever winning a conference championship. This statistic of course included his many years at UNC. This was simply unfair. He made UNC, a terrible team, the second best team in the ACC. Although they never beat FSU, they were competitive with them. FSU was absolutely dominant on a national level during this time, and to take a crap school like UNC and make them consistently competitive with FSU should be an accomplishment to be praised. But alas, it made him a loser. I wish I could be such a loser.

Mack Brown was constantly criticised for "never winning the big game." This was folly. He beat NU in 98, 99, 02, and 03 to go 4-0 against them in the regular season. He beat OU twice. He beat A&M in 98, 00, 01, 02, 03 and 04 to go 6-1 against them in his first 7 years. He beat Washington, Mississippi State and LSU in bowl games before beating Michigan in a BCS game. He beat Kansas State and Arkansas and plenty of other teams that would have been considered "big games" if we had lost. But only one game mattered - the game against the best team in the nation, OU. With them as the measure, he went 2-5 in his first seven seasons. It seemed that once again he was in the same conference with the best team in the land, a team that he could not beat.

And this was the one and only criticism of Mack that was ever accurate: He did not do well against OU.

All other statistics that seemed to point to him being a terrible coach were just double-counting his lack of success against OU. His record against top 5 opponents, against top 10 opponents, against ranked opponents, on neutral fields - you name it - they seemed to paint a picture that he sucked. But if you adjust each of these for the 2-5 record against OU, they painted the picture of a winner.

Stop with the facts! Mack is a loser.

Here is a great fact, even with the poor record against OU, Mack Brown had a better winning percentage than any other coach in college football.

People that understood that fact would then point to the lack of Big XII championships, but I would again suggest that this is double-counting. In four of his first seven years, OU was the reason he didn't get to play in the Big XII championship game. Again, there is no denying that he sucked against OU, but any other criticism is simply double-counting.

Where did this perception come from?

I think it comes from one stereotype, one image and one game.

The stereotype is that Texas high school football is bar none, hands-down, the best football in the universe. Since Mack Brown was successful recruiting in Texas, he must have the best talent in the nation. Therefore, anything short of winning it all would be "doing less with more." The problem is that although Friday Night Lights, Athlon's and Lee Corso might think that all Texas high school football players are just short of superheroes, it simply isn't true. At a minimum, it isn't as true as they might think. The talent is good, no doubt, but if Texas talent was that much better than anywhere else, why didn't Texas universities win sixty straight national championships from 1900 to 1960? I know that in the 70's and 80's, our talent went out of state, but what about before then? Why do the Texas all-state teams lose when they play other all-state teams? Why does USC keep winning championships without any Texas talent?

If Billy Beane were a college football coach, he would do his recruiting outside of Texas. This isn't denying the quality of the talent, just saying that it doesn't live up to the hype.

The image that just killed Mack was the one of Chris Simms getting sacked to effectively end the OU game in 2001. Chris Simms, the crowl jewel of Mack's recruiting, gets crushed by OU's Roy Williams. It made the cover of a few magazines and most sports pages. Mack Brown could bring the recruits such as Simms in, but he would be dominated by Bob Stoops' Sooners on the field.

This image just killed Coach February in the eyes of sportswriters. Article after article, they made the point that Bob Stoops could "do more with less." This was all just based on perception of course. Bob Stoops, in reality, did more with more. Bob is a heckuva a recruiter himself. He did well in Oklahoma, and he did very well in Texas. He also had a no-name kid from South Dakota win him a national championship. In fact, he had so much talent on his team, that when Nate Hybel got injured in the UT game, a kid came off the bench that just destroyed Texas. That kid won the Heisman Trophy in 2003. You tell me who has more talent when one team had a Heisman Trophy winner riding the pine.

The third and final blow to the perception of Mack Brown was the UT-Colorado Big XII Championship game in Dallas in 2001. This was a big game. (UT had beaten Colorado earlier in the year. No sportswriter would give Mack credit for that as a big game. )

So here is Mack. If he wins this game, he wins a conference championship, goes to the national championship game and proves the doubters wrong. That is what happens if he wins. Late in the game, UT commits a penalty that allows Colorado to kick what proved to be the game-winning FG. We also rough the punter which may have kept us from being able to win. Early in the game, our best running back and best offensive lineman ran into each other. They both got hurt. All together, we had some really crappy and unlucky things happen to us, and we lost the game by 2 points.

Two points.

Mack Brown was ostracised as a choker and a loser. Had we scored 3 more points? He would have been a champion, a gamer.

This is the logic of the sportswriter.

I do not mean to suggest that the losers of sporting events should be applauded as if they had won. What I oppose is the massive extrapolation of results into broad generalizations. To say that Mack Brown didn't win a championship was factually correct. To say that he never would was foolish.

It is all so funny to me. If you (or I) saw a poker player make the final table at the Main Event 10 times without winning, your reaction would be that they are a great player and that surely they are very likely to win one of these days. A sportswriter would observe the same pattern and declare it as proof that the poker player was a loser.

Mack Brown never was a loser. The program was going one direction for eight years. There was some deviation along that trajectory, but the trajectory was clearly going up. At least it was clear to this poker player.

3 Comment(s):

Posted by Blogger Johnnymac, at 9:30 PM, August 06, 2007  

Moneyball is such a good book.


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:12 PM, August 06, 2007  

As a casual observer let me give you me thoughts on your write up and on Mack Brown. You are obviously passionate about it - quite a write up. You are much more of a fan and thus probably more knowledgeable of UT football and their coach than I. But these are some points I think you missed (or perhaps more appropriately stated, that I disagree on):

1) The complaint I have heard most often about Mack Brown is that he does not inspire or get the most out of his players. I believe that Mack Brown has had more talented players than Stoops but has done less with it. I disagree that White or Heupl had more God-given talent than Simms, I just think Stoops knew how to better use his players strengths. I will give Mack credit that he finally figured that out with VY and we saw the results.
2) Along those lines, I have heard that Mack is not a decisive coach. I believe the Major/Simms quarterback controversy highlights this.
3) Your argument re: “why hasn’t a Texas school won the National Championship for the last 60 years, How is USC able to do it with non-Texas talent?” is the same thing the pundits ask. most everyone agrees that Texas talent is at least top 3 in the Nation (Texas, Florida, California). Mack should have won more with the talent he had. Pete Carroll has plenty of talent, but he has gotten more out of it as well. He schemes better.
4) You state that Mack has the highest winning percentage – but don’t forget that every one of those years he played Rice, Baylor, aTm, and probably a Sam Houston State. I would no think that his winning percentage on a strength of schedule basis would not be #1. (Again, this is my perception, I do not have numbers to back this up).
5) Your comments regarding the loss to Colorado, sound a little pathetic. Anyone can always state, “that they had some crappy and unlucky things happen”. But that is football. Quality coaches and teams either a) don’t let them happen or b) overcome them. Your comments remind me of the Sean Connery movie line, “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”
6) All that being said. I can understand your arguments, and I learned something along the way. But, I do have to ask… would you have written that prior to January 4th, 2006? Or is it just easier to write now? Didn’t that one season rewrite how Mack is now viewed? Is this even still an issue?


Posted by Blogger Dr Fro, at 11:25 AM, August 09, 2007  

Thank you for the comments. In response:

2) I agree.

4) Some day I will do research to see if I am right, but I think our SOS has compared quite well to other ranked teams, bolstered mainly by the strength of the Big XII and, in particular, the Big XII South

1) & 3) at the end of the day, your conclusion and mine start from a different assumption as to the relative strength of Texas HS football. If you buy it, you come to your conclusion. If not, you come to mine. The only way I can fathom "proving" anything here would be something like the % of all NFLers from Texas HSs versus, say, the population of Texas as a % of the U.S. Without the manpower to do such an exercise, I will just assume I am right ;-)

5)&6) These are the most important comments because they get to the point of the whole post. The post was never about UT football or Mack Brown. I was trying to make a point and UT/Mack made an excellent example to illustrate my point. That point is that making broad generalizations and extrapolations based on results of games/season that were ultimately decided by a small number of somewhat random events (that could have easily gone the other way) is foolish. However, this is the modus operandi for sportswriters. A good gambler would have a broader perspective.

And by the way, we obviously don't know each other (or at least not well) because my UT rants date back well before 1/4/06. Put a couple beers in me, and I would wax poetic about the Horns for hours…


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