What Is The Purpose of A College Coach?

Posted by: Avinash on Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Watching Marshawn Lynch piledrive his way into the end zone on Sunday against the Raiders yesterday, I can’t help but look back upon his exciting tenure at California. There were times when he looked unstoppable in open field, not even six feet of power driving past tacklers and defenders. I remember him against the Huskies, leading the team back with all the casualness of a dud. “Come on, let’s do this, then we’ll all go to Applebee’s. My treat.”

There’s no doubt of Lynch’s explosiveness, but what these higlights don’t pick up is how much stronger a blocker he’s become. The measure of a great running back has not just been his ability to hop step into traffic but also to stand back in the pocket and defend his quarterback. You’d see him stay in the pocket and pick up the blitzer, or rove to make sure any new tacklers stay away. He made up for the offensive line’s mediocre performance on more than one occasion.

Much of the credit for Lynch’s development (as it does for most of Cal’s current NFL talent) needs to go to Jeff Tedford, who instilled his players with the fundamentals of football. Good blocking, good route running, good play reading has been the cornerstone of a successful Tedford offense, which relies on brains rather than brawn to accomplish its goals. You could argue that this is the reason Aaron Rodgers earned the starting job from Brett Favre, and how DeSean Jackson is making all the doubters look pretty stupid right now.

Contrast that with talent from other schools. Vince Young and Reggie Bush were both spectacular talents in college, but success came too easily for them there. When they reached the pro levels they were flummoxed by the adversity they faced, and they still haven’t developed the skills necessary to succeed on the professional level. Tedford shielded his players from that success, keeping them grounded and keeping them working toward improving their play every week instead of ‘turning them loose’.

(This is not meant as an insult toward Kevin Riley fanboys, but if you really want Riley to succeed in the long-term, letting him air the ball out is not the answer. His development will be contingent on his ability to manage the offense, and he is still ways away from accomplishing that goal.)

But Cal fans probably don’t care too much about what happens outside of Strawberry Canyon. So this brings us to a theoretical question about a good college coach: Should you get the most out of your players while you can, or should you sacrifice a few losses now and then to keep them grounded in their development?

Playing smart has its drawbacks. Players will have off-weeks. They’ll miss routes. They’ll fail in their blocking schemes. Their throws will be a little off. It’s hard playing smart. Even the most talented individuals will screw up, and a dumb team will come along and steal a game or two from you. In the worst case scenario, maybe more. Undoubtedly, you can point at last season’s collapse, when Cal’s most talented individuals were on different pages, chapters, books. Growing pains at their worst.

Yet when you watch a player like Lynch (and others like Aaron Rodgers and DeSean Jackson) succeeding on a week-by-week basis, you realize that all of it has a payoff. They get to keep on playing, keep on growing.

I’m fairly pleased with winning seasons and developing solid NFL talent. That’s what a good college coach that’s not at a football factory is supposed to do. But I wonder how many people would beg to differ. Is developing NFL caliber talent more important for a college coach than earning BCS berths year after year?

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