Delayed but hot off the Hipcast: Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side, in part two of the EDSBS interview. We discuss how the Orgeron is a bit like Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Mike Leach, and other fascinating topics.
You may read/listen to part one here. Or you can buy The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game on Amazon, which would correlate the strength of viral marketing via brokeass blogger interviews and increased booksales. Which would be nice.
OS: Ed Orgeron is in the book, and he's a very large presence both literally and figuratively. What's it like being in the room doing an interview with someone whose dialogue is so colorful you have to write it in upper-case letters.
ML: (Laughs.) Well, I'm from Lousiana, and spent a lot of my youth in coonass country--in the bayous--duck hunting. And so I understand him, though it takes a while. Listening to him...he puts on a bit of a show being interviewed on the way to the lockerroom during games. He can speak in a way that's a little more understandable. When you come at him fresh...I don't know if you've ever been to see an English actor do Shakespeare, but it takes a little while before your ear gets acclimated and you can understand what the actors are saying.
Like Shakespeare...but scarier.
OS: About 9 minutes, I know what you're saying.
ML: That's the way he is. The problem is he doesn't talk for 9 minutes--he talks for two, or maybe thirty seconds. You never get acclimated unless you know what you're listening for.
I actually find him delightful. I really like him. And I thought he's basically an honest character, straight. Now, if you ask me if I were running a football program, would I hire him as a head coach? Probably--in fact, he'd probably be fine at it.
But what he really is is potentially a great defensive coach. I would take the offense away and put it in the hands of someone completely different. His mind is not an offensive mind.
And I don't think they've done that properly there. They have had offensive coordinators, but they don't have the right guy. He's either not independent or strong willed to say with is a separate operation that the coach has nothing to do with. That's what they need to do there, I think.
OS: Speaking of coaches with one little concern for one side of the ball...this brings us to Mike Leach, another one of your subjects you've profiled.
That article--in case you don't know--has circulated its way around the college football blogosphere and become part of the vernacular.
ML: Is it?
OS: It is. It's very common for us to post something about Mike Leach and someone will post "YARR" because of his fascination with pirates.
ML: You know what's funny about that? When you turn on their games now, you see all these students dressed up as pirates. I thought this might be my greatest achievement as a writer. He might singlehandedly end up changing the mascot of the university. And one day when you turn on the Red Raiders, there's going to be a pirate on the back of that horse when the Red Raider comes out before the game.
But I didn't realize that the article had gone around the blog like that.
OS: There's actually a student section in Lubbock that refers to themselves as "Mike Leach's Pirate School." The eyepatches, the plastic swords...without knowing it, you helped to popularize the phenomenon.
Interviewing him...is he really just...that out there in real life?
ML: Look--if you were interviewing him, and it would take you a while to appreciate it, it's not like he shows up to work naked. It's not that.
OS: Are you sure about that?
ML: Yes, I'm sure about that.
His mind is just different than most people's. Funny things come out of his mouth. In any profession--in every profession, including blogging about things--there is a powerful herd instinct, and people acquire the traits, the tics, the little habits of mind that people in that profession have, without even knowing it. Very seldom do people set themselves apart from their little peer group.
He has set himself completely apart from his peer group of college football coaches, and that's a very powerful peer group. And he just thinks--he's interested in everything, not just football. His mind's all over the place. He doesn't care if people think he's weird, and he is weird. Weird in a very lovable, charming way, but weird. And I don't think he would have generated the offense he has unless he was weird.
One little example. I was just having lunch with a man, an economist at Berkeley, David Romer, who wrote--
OS: Actually, I wrote him the other day, and he pleaded busy, but I'm going to interview him because he's the guy who wrote all the economics papers that Belichick reads.
ML: Romer's actually only written one economics paper about football, and it was about going for it on fourth down.
OS: Yup. Belichick's read that one.
ML: Romer said to me that yes, a couple of people have read the paper, but he's done the numbers, and NFL coaches are going for it even less on fourth down than before he published his paper. It's had no effect, even though it makes complete sense.
Now, Mike Leach goes for it on fourth down, maybe even more than he should. And he hasn't read the paper. He just figured out what makes sense, and an intuitive, commonsensical mind that's not burdened with the wisdom of one's peer group comes to the conclusions. But he makes these decisions that for anyone else would be brave and nervy because he doesn't have this little voice in his head telling him "You can't say this, you can't do this."
That's why he's different. You have to hang out with him a little while to appreciate just how radical that is.
OS: He's in Lubbock, which is in the middle of nowhere. It's kind of an ideal setting for him.
ML: Have you ever been to Lubbock?
OS: I've flown over Lubbock...
ML: Let me tell you this, and this is funny: the pure case study for illustrating the benefits of having a college in your town--the cultural benefits--is comparing Lubbock, Texas to Midland, Texas. Midland is probably what you think Lubbock is: a total wasteland in the middle of nowhere.
OS: That's in Friday Night Lights, right?
ML: That's right, they only have a football team. Lubbock has some good restaurants, a kind of fun nightlife, it doesn't feel like a backwater. It feels like a fun place to be. It just shows you how nice it is to have a university in your town, even if it's one where the football players aren't doing any homework.
OS: Even admitting that Mike Leach is beyond cool, which we'll do any day of the week...isn't Texas Tech still a bit of a sideshow? Looking at performance, at product, they're always going to be around 7-5, 8-4, maybe 9-3, and the offense can be countered with some pretty simple defense.
An example: this past weekend they played Texas, and Texas Tech went on one of their runs where they just scorched the Texas defense--
ML: You mean Oklahoma?
OS: No, this past weekend.
ML: They passed for 521 yards.
OS: Yeah, it was insane. But Texas makes a few adjustments and comes out and wins the game...handily.
ML: If it's that obvious, why didn't they make those adjustments before the game?
OS: A fine question--
ML: My diagnosis of the game is that those players from Texas Tech shouldn't be on the same field as those players from Texas. It's not fair. But you've got naturally inferior talent taking naturally superior talent to the wire because they're better coached. And if you gave Mike Leach Texas, then games would really be unfair. Those games would be 60-2. You have to take into account what Mike Leach will always be working with at Texas Tech in the way of talent.
What you just said about Leach quotes almost verbatim what Bill Walsh was saying to me when I was working with Walsh getting his stuff for The Blind Side. When he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, and in the first year with the 49ers, he took inferior talent and took teams to the wire that he had no business taking to the wire. And people said, "That's nice, but he'll never win playing rinky-dink football."
Then he starts to get some talent in there, and the 49ers kick everyone's ass for a decade. If you gave Mike Leach a big-time program--a USC, a Texas--he would really be a force.
OS: Well, we've done just that under as controlled and scientific of circumstances as possible, running Texas on NCAA 2007 for the XBox with the Texas Tech playbook. And you're right--they do thrash.
OS: But you think it's just a matter of time before some big program takes the system and runs with it.
ML: Or they take him. It takes a special kind of person, a person with nerve, who says "Yeah, he's a little weird, but let's just go with it." It would be a sad day in a way, because I'd love to see Mike Leach turn Texas Tech into a national powerhouse, but I don't know how that's going to happen. He'll never be able to attract the first year talent out of the high schools.
He's had kind of disappointing year, but in his last three games against three highly ranked opponents they've...they really looked like they could have gone either way. He may eventually have one of those seasons where things fall into place and he's competing for a national title. But I think it's much more likely that he goes somewhere else.
OS: Well, if they want to do something about that, scheduling four Sam Houston States will do nothing for their strength of schedule. You want to talk about crooked, their 1-AA scheduling and pitiful 1-A scheduling does nothing--
ML: Who did they play this year?
OS: I'll have to look here--
ML: Because they played Sam Houston State last year. There's a great story in this about one of those 1-AA schools that only exists to get the shit kicked out of it by 1-A schools.
OS: The Washington Generals of 1-AA football?
ML: Exactly. How do you get a kid to play for these schools knowing that he'll be going up against people who are going to maul him every weekend? If I was a parent of one of those children, I wouldn't let them go to the school. It just seems unsafe.
OS: Well, you want to talk about one of those cool economic cycles: small schools travel to get the shit kicked out of them, take the money, and then pour the money into facilities, recruiting, and grow their programs into larger programs.
ML: Yeah, but you know there's a school out there doing this just to get money for other things, which is probably what they should be doing. These kids are just cannon fodder, sent out there to get the poo knocked out of them so the school can get the money for other things.
Talk about someone who should be paid...those kids who have to travel to Texas one week and USC the next and lose 90-0. Those kids should be paid lots of money.
OS: If you'd like to see a perfect example of that in action, you can watch the Florida/Western Carolina Game on pay-per-view this weekend. Just as Florida edges their way into the BCS picture, here comes Western Carolina on the schedule.The timing could not be worse, but I'm hoping we somehow squeak through it.
One final question: you did a piece on Eli Manning, and on the New York Giants' Ernie Accorsi, and how he eyeballed talent.
ML: It was the opposite of Moneyball, a general manager making a gut decision.
OS: Do you land on one side of this equation? You're a disinterested observer, sure, but in covering these people--for example, watching the way the Patriots make decisions, that's a very compelling thing to watch.
ML: Sure. If you asked be in the abstract, do I land on one side or another? Sure, I land on the Moneyball side. This is what I think, and this goes back to my days on Wall Street. Some people just have a gut feeling or superior intuition they can't quantify. They just have a gift. On Wall Street the best example is George Soros. He can't explain how the hell for thirty years he beat the market, but he did.
The problem with sports is: on Wall Street, there's people objectively evaluating performance, and people can say "we don't know how Soros is doing it, but there must be something there." In sports, no one's sitting there objectively evaluating the decisions of the talent evaluators. In baseball, a scout can say the nonsense that comes out of his mouth one year without being checked. There's no way of telling who's got something worth saying or feeling and who's a fraud.
I don't want to dismiss intuition or gut feeling entirely. I just want to say that an investment for a general manager or an owner...you should be able to evaluate it. You should be able to say that though I don't know how he knows this player's going to be a future NFL star, he's done it so routinely in the past that I can't ignore his judgment. That's where I come down on the debate.
(Lewis discusses how he hasn't come up with his next book idea next, but in the interests of time we'll let you listen to the last two minutes yourself. )
Michael Lewis' current book is The Blind Side.