Taking A Step Back Part III: Staying the Course

I know that much of what I will write here will alienate some people because that is what facts and information do these days. Why not build a narrative, support it with tangential and correlative evidence? Seems pretty easy these days, in and outside of the realm of sports. We elected Donald Trump in a post-truth era, so why not create a narrative that gets our venerable head coach fired.

Seems appropriate. Doesn’t make it right, but this is the world that we live in. Most of you that read this blog regularly know that I am a social studies educator as well as a football coach. For much of my professional career, I have always thought of myself as a coach second and an educator first.

That perspective affords me the ability to engage in coaching from an entirely non-emotive perspective. Just as importantly that perspective has allowed me over the years to take an evidence based approach in evaluating the programs, personnel and philosophies of the sports that I have coached.

Maybe the best piece of advice I ever received from a college professor was, “just because you want to believe it doesn’t make it true, just because you know its true doesn’t mean you can prove it.”

We should lock up Bob Stitt for another three years. 

Do it now. Without delay. Not because he is Vince Lombardi, Tom Osborne, Bill Walsh or Don Read. Do it because it is what is best for the program now, and for the future of it.

We want simple answers for complex problems and hence why we elected a man with grand answers but no solutions. Drain the swamp? Nope, he is going to flood it. Firing Bob Stitt right now or after year three is akin to electing Donald Trump president. Yup I said it.

We have arrived at this point in Grizzly football because many people, including fans, administrators and coaches put an emphasis on the present without a consideration for the future. We can spend the next twenty years debating how the cadillac became a Dodge Neon, but that doesn’t get us any closer of getting the vehicle in the shop and fixing it.

We want change without complete understanding what that change indicates. We want immediate results in a situation that cannot provide it. Firing Bob Stitt now or next year isn’t a plan to restore Grizzly football to its highest peaks, it is merely believing a narrative that isn’t necessarily backed up by the right information.

I’ll use a historical analogy. Andrew Jackson became convinced the 2nd National Bank was the implement of the rich to shackle the poor. Might have been partially true, in that it was nearly impossible for a common person to get loans of any significant amount in the 1830’s, but there were more things at play than the 2nd National Bank limiting access to wealth creation.

Despite cogent advice from his own political and economic advisors Jackson killed the bank. The result was as Jackson intended, allow common citizens greater access to capital, but there were a thousand after effects that did more harm than good. Jackson satisfied a short term goal, but with significant short and long term impacts. A run on banks, an inflationary spiral and a depression were the result. People had their money, but it came with a significant cost which was the destruction of the American economy that lasted nearly a decade.

Stylistically Bob Stitt was always going to provide a sharp dichotomy from the Delaney era, and maybe Stitt couldn’t offer as much early success as he promised. You can make an argument that Stitt’s ego might have been a big role in that, but the program frankly is no worse off than it was two years ago. In other words, it was highly unlikely the program would have been any better off or even worse off with Delaney or anyone else at the helm. Yet Stitt at least perceptively and narratively seems to be the nadir of the program when it was showing signs of decline far before it.

Not enough success, not enough Montana kids, not enough defense, not enough offense. Whatever your stylistic complaint might be, we get wrapped up in a narrative that you have come to believe is true even when it isn’t backed up by facts. Perceptively the same criticisms the same individuals have had of the last five Grizzly football coaches (Dennehey, Glenn, Hauck, Pflugrad, and Delaney) are levied upon Stitt. We like who we like, and we hate who we hate. Never mind the same criticisms are true of all.  I think it is high time people recognized that. Until the criticisms evolve beyond the standard and stylistic, there isn’t much merit to the removal conversation.

We can live in a post-truth world and just inundate our opposition in a litany of ‘facts’ but we have to trust those people who actually hold the cards and the information. I believe we have to trust Kent Haslam, and that he has a plan for the success of the program. If that part of the success of the program is signing up Stitt for another three years then we have to do it.

Firing Stitt at this point or a year into the future only fixes the short term problems, but it does nothing to fix the long term challenges of the program. Bringing in a power offense and defensive minded coach isn’t going to create immediate results. Again that is stylistic not substantive.

Just as many laud the Board of Regents for axing Engstrom in early December, again that is a largely stylistic fire that won’t correct the structural problems facing the University of Montana. Substantive issues that not only did Engstrom ignore, but President Dennison and the Board of Regents ignored as well. Sometimes you fire the guy to cover up your own ignorance and ineptitude.

That isn’t the case here. First there is a tremendous amount of supportive data that says Kent Haslam has a plan, he knows how to effect the type of change necessary and who to lead those individual programs. He has hired a bevy of office personnel, several coaches and overseen transformation of an athletic department out of a mom and pop operation into one that will help each of its individual athletic programs and mission succeed in both the short term, and in the long term. He doesn’t need to be muscled by a bunch of petulant boosters who have capital only in the monetary sense to promote a political agenda that isn’t backed up actual facts. At least facts that are defensible in an objective sense of the word.

Despite the impression otherwise, Stitt doesn’t win at Mines with the personnel he had without understanding how to make it work within the unequal academic expectations of his peer institutions. Stitt may not be everything and a bag of chips, he may not even Beau Baldwin, but he was longitudinally able have success in a place that was not the easiest place to have success. Stitt has shown a willingness to think outside of the box, to eschew traditional modalities (which makes him a fan in my world) and to take ownership for his and his staff’s own short comings.

He may not arrived at the UM with a scheme and style capable of producing immediate results, but again I don’t think you turn a Neon into a Caddy or high performance model car by merely replacing a few fenders and a new paint job. You don’t necessarily achieve it by buying a brand new cadillac either.

What made ‘Montana,’ Montana was there was an understanding that tradition and continuity made up a significant portion of the recipe of success. The tradition is only here in name only anymore and is spoken of in past tense and continuity was thrown out the window with three coaches in the past seven years, three offensive styles, the same defensively, and a bevy of turnover in staff and players.

I don’t think Stitt necessarily has the answer, but I think he should be given the opportunity along with his staff to see if his recipe works. Stitt has taken the car into the shop, whether we like it or not, and decided to overhaul the whole thing. Thrown out just about everything from the last two regimes and has decided to build his own model, his own style of vehicle. He doesn’t want a Cadillac, maybe he wants a Tesla. I don’t know.

When you commit to hiring a coach who advocates an overhaul you better let him complete the overhaul. I don’t see him taking short cuts or changing course midstream, rather he seems to have adjusted his methodology and willing to make some hard decisions about the factors of production here. Stitt won the job over a large pool of very qualified applicants because he convinced them (Administration and boosters included) that he could rebuild the program.

He recognized as many others did that a paint job wasn’t going to fix the program. Haslam did as well. Haslam has engaged in an all out offensive to help not only the football program be more competitive but the rest of the programs in the Big Sky. Montana used to be enough in basketball and football to win more than not. That isn’t enough to Haslam. He wants the program to be competitively regionally and he has a plan to achieve that goal. Stitt is a part of that, as is the champions center, student-athlete complex, and the myriad of other personnel, places and entities. I don’t think Haslam will cut-bait unless he sees a sharp deviation from that goal.

Stitt still has a mountain to climb, the disappointing end of the year makes it more difficult, and is mostly likely very aware the type of expectations that he has to meet. The best thing at this point is to allow not only Stitt enough time to fully show his chops but to give him the time to complete the overhaul. At this point, I am of the belief you can’t cut bait unless it is completely aware that his regime and his message aren’t working. I don’t necessarily believe the late season swoon was fatigue of message, though I am quite sure some have made that argument.

For the best interests of the program, I think you have to give Stitt and his staff five years to implement his vision. There are obviously things that will short circuit that plan, but I haven’t seen much over the past two years that is indicative of the type of institutional failure is imminent next year.