Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fallow Years

As a suburban guy, my knowledge of farming is largely limited to historical advances in the realm of agriculture. I can't tell you what the best crops to grow are for the soil type you have, and I can't tell you anything about futures or the like. But I do know about the concept of the fallow field as it related to crop rotation. The idea is that by leaving a field empty (or changing the type of crop grown in a field) during a given year, the soil will replenish the nutrients during that fallow period and the crops that grow in the next year will be stronger, heartier, and more disease resistant.

It is my guess that by now, you see where I'm going with this.

Michigan has been, in the words of Jeremy, exceptionally adept at "not sucking". Which is to say that while we have not always had the fantastic season, we have also not had the seasons of dread either. It's been 40 years since the last losing season; so certainly, we have very little experience in the modern day with regard to this. But what about the other major football powers, the all-time winningest FBS schools? Have they had the same kind of success over the last 40 years?

(Hat tip: As I was writing this piece and doing the research, similar points were raised by Dave at Maize 'n' Brew. We're on the same page here essentially, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the similarities.)

In this PDF chart, I examined the 13 winningest programs in FBS which play in BCS conferences (sorry Boise State) that had been around for the entire 40 year time span of my research (sorry South Florida). I used 60% as my divider for "Fallow Year" wherein any season that had a winning percentage of less than .600 was considered to be a "bad year". 60% was chosen as it is the rough divider between the Top 20 winningest teams of all time.

My research looked at Michigan (OK, I actually knew it without looking) as well as Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Nebraska, Southern Cal, Tennessee, Penn State, Florida State, Georgia, and Louisiana State. A sub-.500 year was noted in bold on the spreadsheet. I also noted when fallow years led to coaching changes in the following season, whether or not a team played in a bowl game during their fallow year, and if the fallow year occurred in a coach's first season (denoted in green on the spreadsheet.) Lastly, I examined the record of the team the next season to see if it was a harbinger or bad things to come, or an outlier. The results of the data:

Michigan Two fallow years since 1968 (1984 and 2005).

This one is very simple. When a portion of your fan base calls the 7-5 record of 2005 (which was one more lateral away from being an 8-4, I'll note again) "The Season of Infinite Pain", even in jest, you don't have a whole lot of down years to make reference to in recent memory. Couple that with the fact that Michigan would have 10+ win seasons after each of them and we see that the pain did not last long. Again, not always the best team, but the best at not sucking.

Notre Dame 13 fallow years since 1968 (1981-86, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2007)

We tend to forget as football fans that Notre Dame has many more ups and downs than we would think. Last year's 3-9 record under Coach Weis was certainly a low point, but the 32-25-1 record of Gerry Faust during the early 1980s were rather lean times as well, even if it did include two bowl appearances. Notre Dame also had a losing season during Lou Holtz's first campaign and a pair of losing seasons under Bob Davie sandwiched around a 9-3 year. It's worth noting that three of the fallow campaigns led to coaching changes for the Irish, which might have been more if not for the considerable patience shown Gerry Faust.

Ohio State: Five fallow years since 1968 (1971, 1987, 1988, 1999, and 2001)

Had I not just read War as They Knew It, I would have never suspected that Woody had a fallow year during this run, but he did, 1971. That was followed up by a 9-2 campaign the next year (which, coincidentally, marked the arrival of Archie Griffin on campus. So even when it was a "bad" year, Woody still got players) and the first of six straight Big Ten championships, won outright or shared as Woody installed the I formation to make better use of his personnel. A 6-4-1 campaign in 1987 saw Earle Bruce get shown the door in Columbus during the week of the Michigan game, making way for the sainted John Cooper, who proceeded to go 4-6-1 in his first year as the boss at the 'Shoe. (By the way, the Wikipedia section on Cooper in the Ohio State football history is unrelentingly negative. The man was 111-43-4 at Ohio State and was handed his walking papers over the 2-10-1.) That leaves room for our final OSU fallow season, 2001, when Senator Tressel took over and guided the Buckeyes to a 7-5 record, which did include a victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor as well as a perfect second season in 2002 (also notable for the arrival of a freshman running back on campus.)

Texas Ten fallow years since 1968 (1976, 1980, 1986-89, 1991-93, and 1997)

Even beloved Darryl Darrell Royal had a "bad" year in 1976, going 5-5-1 and leading to his retirement as UT's football coach (though he remain on as AD.) The following season saw Fred Akers lead the 'Horns to an 11-1-0 campaign (powered by Earl Campbell's Heisman season). Akers had two "down" years, 1980 and 1986, the latter leading to his resignation to take the Purdue job. David McWilliams was brought in as his replacement and he proceeded to reel off four fallow years in the next five, his job saved only by 1990's "Shock the Nation" tour and his ultimate dismissal to make way for Illinois coach John Mackovic in 1992. Mackovic had two more fallow years before reeling off three good years in a row (including the 1996 inaugural Big XII title) before a 4-7 campaign saw him ousted to make way for Mack Brown. From that point forward, the Longhorns have yet to look back. Five losing seasons in the last forty is more than you might expect for Texas, but the proof is in the numbers.

Oklahoma Five fallow years since 1968 (1994-1998)

The Sooners are a fascinating case because they have one of the lowest number of fallow years during the last forty, but they all occurred consecutively. It also is a classic case of botching not one, but two hires before landing on the right guy. The end of the Gary Gibbs era saw Howard Schnellenberger come on board, only to lead the Sooners to a 5-5-1 record and his resignation at the end of 1995. That led to three years of John Blake, who won a grand total of twelve games during his three years leading to Oklahoma hiring Bob Stoops. In this case, the Sooners are a much clearer example of "when it rains, it pours." with regard to fallow seasons.

Alabama Nine fallow years since 1968 (1969, 1970, 1984, 1997, 2000, 2003-04, and 2006-07)

Though it should not have surprised me, it was amazing to see that even legendary coaches had down years. Bear Bryant actually had a couple of fallow years in 1969 and 1970, only to turn things around in 1971, roughly the same time that the Crimson Tide began recruiting African American players. Ray Perkins had a losing year for 'Bama in 1984, his only losing campaign as Tide head coach. Mike DuBose had two losing season, the latter leading to his dismissal, the hiring and dismissal of Mike Price, and then the Mike Shula era, three down years mixed in with a 10-2 season in 2005. Nick Saban's 7-6 campaign last year was his worst collegiate season since he was the boss in East Lansing and included a loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe, but that fallow 2007 appears to be bearing fruit in 2008 (a heck of a recruiting class can also help that cause.) (Update: As I was writing this, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports makes a similar case on Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.

Nebraska Three fallow years since 1968 (2002, 2004, and 2007)

I'll admit it right now, this is the parallel that scares the heck out of me because it's arguably the closest example to Michigan's current run in a number of ways. Fewest "down" years of any program on this list that isn't Michigan, a coaching change after a successful season deemed by some to be not successful enough, a brand new offensive scheme brought in by a coach that is different than anything run in the past there, and a short leash and a new coach brought in when the campaign does not bear fruit relatively quickly. Frank Solich's 7-7 campaign in 2002 was followed by a 2003 where he went 9-3 and was fired before the bowl game (which Bo Pelini won as interim coach.) 2004 sees the arrival of Bill Callahan and the West Coast Offense, and a 5-6 season. Two solid years later, Callahan has a "disastrous" 5-7 season in Lincoln, sees all of the old foes rise up to trounce them (Kansas, Missouri, etc.) and is shown the door to bring back Solich's defensive coordinator as the new boss. If you're a Michigan fan, pray that this is not what we are in the midst of, in part because we do not know the end game as yet with Pelini.

Southern Cal Twelve fallow years since 1968 (1970-71, 1983, 1985-86, 1991-92, 1996-97, and 1999-2001)

Like Texas, it's hard to remember when USC wasn't a perennial contender, but that dominance extends back only to Pete Carroll's second season in the City of Angels, having gone 6-6 in his first season as the Trojans' boss. John McKay followed a pair of 6-4-1 seasons with a perfect 1972 campaign, while three "weak" seasons mixed in with one 9-3 record saw the end of the Ted Tollner era in the Coliseum. Larry Smith's 3-8 in 1991 was followed by a 6-5-1 record in 1992 and his being shown the door for John Robinson, whose second stint in Troy ended with a 6-6 and a 6-5 campaign, making way for Paul Hackett, who had saw two "down" years, including a 5-7 record, leading to Carroll's hire, and remember, Carroll was USC's fourth choice after Erickson, Bellotti, and Riley, after a crazy 18 day search. Sound familiar?

Tennessee Ten fallow years since 1968 (1975-1980, 1982, 1986, 1988, and 2005)

Tennessee is a strange case to me until I did a little research. How did Johnny Majors get away with pulling off so many losing seasons in a row and not get fired? Well, it helps if you played at the school, and even more so if you're a legend there. If you're coming off a National Championship at your previous job, as Majors was at Pitt, which should buy you some time, and if you show improvement, say a 7-5 record in 1979, that should help. Majors accounts for seven of Tennessee's ten fallow years. Phil Fulmer, a national championship winning coach has also had a down year, 2005, which he followed up with a 9-4 campaign. Early returns on 2008 aren't promising either, which have lead to the grumblings around Knoxville that this may be his last go round.

Penn State Eight fallow years since 1968 (1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004)

Penn State provides us with an interesting case because it has had the same coach during the entire tenure of the period being examined, Joe Paterno. The data shows us a few strange things, for starters, JoePa seems to lose focus during leap years (maybe it's the Presidential campaign, who knows. It does make 2008 all the more remarkable, if only in coincidental fashion, then again, in 1980 and 1996, PSU had ten-plus win seasons capped by Fiesta Bowl victories. So it's just sort of random.) Paterno's "down" years include a losing season in 1988, and then the "Lion in Autumn" period in the earlier part of this decade. Oh and how has Penn State been since 2004? 11-1, 9-4, 9-4, currently 6-0, so yeah, maybe you can teach an old lion new tricks.

Florida State Seven fallow years since 1968 (1973-1976, 1981, 2006, and 2007)

The Seminoles are another strange case, because part of the fallow year premise is that your fan base is conditioned to expect your team to be successful. However, in the pre-Bowden days in Tallahassee, you had a couple of nice seasons under Bill Peterson in the 1960s, the presence of Fred Biletnikoff, but not an expectation to be a national power. Bowden's arrival at FSU has seen the 'Noles win 300 games on his watch and had the amazing run of ten straight ACC championships and the constant presence in the end of the year polls. But, 2006 and 2007 have seen the Seminoles fall back to among the average (heck, Wake Forest has beaten them three straight) and of course, this has lead to the Jimbo Fisher succession plan at Doak.

Georgia Ten fallow years since 1968 (1969-1970, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1989-90, 1993, and 1995-96)

My lack of SEC knowledge is showing, but I know that Vince Dooley won over 200 games in his career and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and he even had five "down" years during his tenure (at least during the period upon which we are focused.) His 1979 campaign was a 6-5 season, which he immediately followed up with a 12-0 season and a national championship. The difference? A freshman running back named Herschel Walker. Any coach can look good when you bring in superior talent. Ray Goff, who played under Dooley, was a young head coach and mixed "down" years with successful ones, including a Top 10 finish in 1992, but a 6-6 record in 1995 was his last season, paving the way for a losing year in Jim Donnan's first campaign, who was dismissed after two eight win seasons. Of course, Georgia found the right successor in Mark Richt and the 'Dawgs are a power once more.

Louisiana State 13 fallow years since 1968 (1974, 1975, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1989-1994, and 1998-99)

If you want to look at how winning makes you a power and how a couple of coaches can make the difference, it's clearly LSU, who suffered 11 losing seasons under coaches like Charles McClendon, Jerry Stovall, Mike Archer, Curley Hallman, and Gerry DiNardo, but not one since the Saban-Miles era began. (Hallman's tenure consisted of four straight losing years on the Bayou before he was booted.) The right coach and perhaps the right recruiter can change everything.

So, what have we learned? Well, several things come to mind.

The right player can turn everything around (Archie Griffin, Earl Campbell, and Herschel Walker). That "down years" under first year head coaches who end up being successful are not all that uncommon (Lou Holtz, John Cooper, Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll, and Bobby Bowden).

That even legends have down years on their watch (Schembechler, Hayes, Royal, Bryant, McKay, Paterno, Bowden, and Dooley, all members of the College Football Hall of Fame.)

That there is no "perfect" solution on a coaching change (Nebraska and Georgia both changed coaches after eight win seasons to vastly different results.)

That the college football world is far more competitive in 2008 than it was in 1968.

And perhaps most importantly, that history may show us what has happened, but it does not guarantee what shall happen.


Jon Schneider said...

Excellent research and post. Thanks for this. Another reminder of how fortunate we all have been as Michigan fans, despite not being a national championship contender every year.

Unknown said...

Absolutely outstanding work!

Nathan said...

Great job with this. As a Longhorn who somehow survived the fallow-thon of the late '80s and early '90s, I envy your long-term success. Don't take it for granted. However, as a Longhorn, I also gotta tell you that our coaching legend's first name is D-a-r-r-e-l-l Royal. Hook 'em!

Craig Barker said...

Thank you Nathan. I apologize for the error and it has been corrected. Thank you for reading!