Greg McMackin: Product of Panic, Victim of Perception

Since I have no social life to speak of, it isn’t always easy to find things to write about. However, it must be kismet that I briefly caught a glance of Lee Cataluna’s column in the Advertiser regarding “Coach Mack,” and Tamas’s Facebook status reads:

“Signs Your Football Team is Bad #214: When your head coach is finding inspiration in MJ’s ‘Man in the Mirror’.”

I generally don’t agree with anything Lee Cataluna writes, but I do agree in part with the point she’s making. Essentially, the situation McMackin is in precludes any kind of success. I suppose that only grants him membership in the same club as the Mets, married men, any sit-com starring Taye Diggs, any team playing Iowa this week, and just about everyone else except for Parker Lewis.

The heart of Cataluna’s piece:

“Many fell in love with McMackin on the rebound after June Jones left so abruptly. Hearts were broken, promises were made. Like a rebound romance, it wasn’t so much who McMackin was, just that he was close by and willing. All those dreams for the future were pinned to his round shoulders. He was a surrogate June, a June Junior, a man who stayed when others left. Then one day, Hawai’i woke up, rolled over and went, “Whoa! Who is this guy?”

While I agree in principle, what Cataluna seems to forget is that the majority of the people in Hawaii were frothing at the mouth for UH to sign McMackin once it was clear that Jones was going to leave. In fact, my friend Brett and I had a 20-minute conversation when it was happening about all of the people on the Advertiser site who were pleading (in poor grammar) with the decision makers at UH to ink McMackin as soon as possible. It’s revisionist history for Cataluna to suggest that the fans of Hawaii simply awoke and realized they had no idea who Coach Mack was- they essentially elected him to office.

The focus of her article is McMackin and the unenviable position he’s in. Well, as unenviable as it is, I’d still like to make $1 million dollars to coach football. She’s mostly right, except she tries too hard to link the situation to the local economy and glum state of affairs, going so far as to call the UH football team the “one entity that can lift up the hearts of the entire state no matter how badly people are suffering.” That’s probably a little overstated. It’s still just a football team. 2007 was the dream realized. There isn’t going to be another one of those for a long time.

What she only briefly covers is the context of his hiring, which is the far more interesting subject. It starts with the WAC, UH, and June Jones. UH plays in the WAC. Based on the kind of schedule for a usual season, it will never challenge for a National Title. That would take wins over Florida, USC, and Oklahoma, all on the road- and they’d have to win all their other games, too. That’s just the way the college football system works. Boise State can go 22-0 this season if it wants, it’s not going to play for the BCS Championship. During the Sugar Bowl season, UH’s “big” out of conference game was against the University of Washington. UW beat USC this year, but they were atrocious two years ago. And that’s it. That and Boise State. Those were the signature wins for the BCS Bowl-bound Hawaii team.

While it was widely reported at the time that Jones left primarily due to financial reasons and the failure of the school to meet certain promises regarding facilities, I think there’s more to it than that. While the money and facilities certainly influenced Jones’s ultimate decision, I think it was more of a practical decision than anything else. For all intents and purposes, June Jones took UH as far as the program could go. Sure, the final step would have been to win the game, but um… UH’s personnel and philosophy under Jones never matched up well with squads composed of top-level athletes (more on this later). In a sense, Jones had done all he could do at UH. He stayed with the program long enough to take it to the mountain top. Maybe they got punched in the face by Georgia when he got there, but you can still admire the view even with a black eye. What more could he have done with UH? Won the WAC? Again? It was pretty clear that the best players on the team were all leaving, and well, he already did that rebuilding thing at UH. He’s doing at SMU what he did at Hawaii: he’s trying to revive the program. The man was a professional football player. He needs challenges.

Once it became clear that Jones was leaving, panic gripped UH officials who were half-shocked (that Jones would really leave) and half-terrified (that they’d bear the brunt of the blame for Jones’s departure). As a result, they overreacted and hired McMackin without really doing a thorough search of candidates. Poring over McMackin’s resume, I can’t really find fault with it. He’s been around at the collegiate and NFL level, so it’s not like the hiring wasn’t warranted. It’s just that, well, he’s not June Jones.

The major conflict here is a problem of perception. Jones raised the program’s profile to such heights that people in general have forgotten the truth about UH football: in most years, the team is competitive, but mostly inconsequential to the national picture. The 2007 squad changed that, and while many of the key players on that team are gone, the hangover remains. People think the UH football team should always win, when history shows UH wins sporadically.

Another problem of perception: UH’s defense sucks. Maybe it does, but it’s really no worse than an average June Jones year. Let’s be fair, UH has never been able to stop a good running game. The problem is the offense. When Jones was the head coach, defense didn’t really matter because the offense could score often and quickly. A 45-44 win of Louisiana Tech (’07) is great, but they still gave up 44 points. That season, opponents posted scores of 37 (Utah State), 35 (San Jose State), and 30 (Fresno State). AND THAT WAS MCMACKIN’S DEFENSE!  However, it didn’t matter nearly as much as it does now because those teams could score. And that’s the problem with UH now: convention.

Jones is a disciple of the run-and-shoot offense, and he ran an extreme version of it. He even once said that he’d joked with his coaches that he dreamed of a game when he didn’t have to call a single running play. The truth is, a school like UH (or Texas Tech or Houston) needs an extreme system like that to be competitive. UH will never recruit on the same level with the college football power houses. It won’t. It can’t even keep the best local high school prospects, how the hell is it supposed to bring in the best ones? Strictly in terms of personnel, UH will always be at a disadvantage. UH will never match up well with physical teams (I still have no idea why UW stopped running the ball against UH in ’07, they were killing it) or teams with speed. UH just doesn’t get the best pure athletes. What Jones’s offense did was create match-up problems for other teams. It was so unconventional that defenses on teams that were evenly matched against UH had difficulty keeping up with it (particularly in ’07: Brennan and the 4 receivers executed the shit out of those plays).

The great equalizer, though has always been speed. Elite teams always smothered UH’s offense the same way: play the corners off the receivers and give them the underneath routes, banking the pressure that a bigger, stronger d-line created would be enough to disrupt those short routes and thus prevent movement. If you don’t believe me, check out tape of the USC games and the Sugar Bowl: they’re letting UH have those 5-yard routes, but it doesn’t matter because the QB doesn’t have enough time to execute. This is the glass ceiling. I believe Jones always knew that.

When Jones left and took his offense with him, McMackin promised that the offense would “keep elements of Jones’s” offense while inserting more a more traditional running game. In doing that, they gave up the single “gimmick” that kept UH in games, and rendered the defense of only secondary importance: UH could make it rain. They can’t anymore. And that’s why UH, and Coach McMackin for that matter, can’t win.

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