Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
My first direct contact with a big-time football coach came in fall of 1966 when John Robinson — then an assistant at Oregon — blessed us incoming freshmen swimmers with a pep talk. It was all about what a great athletic family the Ducks were.
With a fist waving in the air, Robinson declared that when you go to the football games, you’ll see the swimmers in the stand cheering on the footballers. And when you go to the swim tournaments or meets or whatever you call them, you’ll see the footballers in the stands cheering on the swimmers.
Right, coach — football players passionate to support their swim team because, after all, they are fellow Ducks. If Oregon still had a swim team it might have happened in 2015. In 1966, no. But somehow we managed to keep straight faces, and, of course, it didn’t happen. Not that John Robinson would ever have known. I’m not sure he even knew where the swimming pool was.
Since joining the staff at FishDuck.com, my exposure to football coaches has grown, mostly as a result of post-game press conferences. Like Robinson, each coach has created his own culture. Three coaches and the cultures they have created are the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. Jim Mora of UCLA. It was October 26, 2013, and Mora’s Bruins had just gone down to the Ducks, 42-14 at Autzen Stadium. The game had been tied at halftime, obviously convincing Mora that his team was ready to play with the big boys. But it was only a tease, and Mora swallowed it hook, line and sinker. He came into the press conference livid.
His first words were something to the effect of, “That was entirely unacceptable!” He then went on a rant about how playing good for a half, coming close to winning, etc., were no consolation. It was all “win or nothing” for him. He calmed down enough to answer a few questions, but the seething was apparent. He did not bring a single player out to be interviewed. I was left with the conclusion that anger management issues were at play.
During the game, there had been a few plays that made me wonder about what sort of program Mora was running. On several occasions it appeared that Bruin players were more concerned about injuring Duck players — most specifically De’Anthony Thomas — than in making plays. One play in particular stood out. A flag was dropped for a head-to-head with Thomas as the victim, but the flag was curiously picked up, with no penalty assessed.
Fast forward a year to October 11, 2014. Not much had changed, but Mora’s culture had clearly permeated his organization. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes took exception to being pancaked by Jake Fisher, and on his way up threw a punch right in front of the referee, God, the country and Fox Sports.
Mora couldn’t be bothered to discipline Vanderdoes, but that was maybe because he was too busy dealing with his own issues with his defensive coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich.
Mora explained the tiff away, saying it was just two people passionate about their work, but Ulbrich did manage to find a different job shortly after the end of the season.
2. David Shaw, Stanford. On November 1, 2014, Shaw’s Cardinal team had just taken an Autzen Stadium beatdown from Oregon very similar to UCLA’s 2013 thrashing. Shaw’s reaction couldn’t have been more different from Mora’s. Shaw was grounded, polite and thoughtful. His disappointment in the game’s outcome was evident, but he was dealing with it in his own quiet way without the need to explode on those around him. If Yoda wanted to play football, he’d be happy to play for David Shaw — and he could probably meet the admission standards.
Coach Shaw brought out three players for post-game interviews. I only got the chance to talk to two of them — wide receiver Devon Cajuste and linebacker A.J. Tarpley. Both, like Shaw, were grounded and soft-spoken — the kinds of guys you’d want your sister or daughter to date.
Again, it seemed that the culture that the coach instilled in the program filtered down from the top. It is probably no coincidence that Stanford and Oregon are, so far, the only teams to win Pac-12 championships in football.
3. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State. Fisher has a slickness about him, but in the final analysis, would you buy a used car from him? I think not. After the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, Fisher first sincerely praised the leadership of his team, reminding everybody about the 29-game winning streak that had just ended like a fast one-way trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Led by Jameis Winston, the Seminoles’ lack of discipline off the field was the single largest topic of off-field behavior of the 2014 football season. During the Rose Bowl Game, the big news was the Seminoles’ lack of discipline on the field. Despite dry, ideal weather conditions for a football game, the Seminoles turned the ball over five times. Winston and Fisher got into a shouting match on the sideline after Winston’s fumble of the year. And when the chips were down in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles gave up. The team simply played without discipline, and you can be sure that the Oregon coaches had scouted it. Like unsecured crab legs, the loosely held balls were there for the taking.
During the 2014 season the Seminoles won too many games on talent alone, often digging themselves into first half holes, only to wake up and squeak out wins in the second half. While there was an element of “heroic comeback,” the problem is that it was the team’s own doing that there was a need for such a comeback in the first place. This was the leadership that Jimbo Fisher praised, and it was the leadership that went down — not with a whimper, but with a spectacular crash and burn.
One other coach that I’ve had the privilege of listening to during post-game pressers is Oregon’s Mark Helfrich. Like Stanford, the Ducks are in good hands.
Top photo by Kevin Cline