Study Hall: "Coaches vs. Stats" excerpt now available at Football Outsiders

Brian Fremeau

Aaron at Football Outsiders was nice enough to both host a PDF version of Study Hall for me and feature a Study Hall excerpt. Right now at FO, you can read a healthy portion of Chapter 6, "Coaches vs. Stats," for free.

First, here's a bit of a further description of the book as a whole:

Study Hall is, above all else, a conversation. I didn't want to write a text book, and I didn't want to simply rehash the Varsity Numbers archive; my aim was to talk to as many smart football people as possible -- coaches, writers, nerds, a couple of former players -- about the topics I most enjoy about college football. The way things take shape, the first third of the book is about current events (why people love the sport, what threats it faces moving forward), the middle third is about stats (how coaches and fans use them and should use them, how we should re-imagine the box score), and the final third is full of random topics and tactics (the importance of finishing drives, underdog tactics, a couple of charting pieces).

Basically, if you are a newbie to the football stat world, Study Hall can serve as your freshman initiation seminar. But if you have read everything I have ever written (and lord help you if you have), you will still find value in the interviews and in the wealth of original content.

And then comes the excerpt:

Okay, so let’s just assume that, behind closed doors, with the shades drawn and the lights turned down, coaches tinker with stats of some sort. What are they doing?

“On Sunday, one of the first things I’m going to do is look at the overall picture of the opponent: strengths, weaknesses, et cetera,” says Ball State head coach Pete Lembo. “It puts you in a better state of mind when you look at the video. You have a background heading into the video.”

Count Stanford’s David Shaw, meanwhile, as a member of the “film first” camp. “I always start with the film. It’s your résumé, it’s who you are. After I watch a couple of games or cut-ups, I can look at the stats to see if they’re backing up what I’m seeing. Stats have become a significant part of our game-planning, but we’ll make subtle changes based on what we’re seeing.”

This is something Mitch Tanney of STATS, LLC, confirms. “Teams see something on film, and they can use the data to bounce it against their hunches. And sometimes you can use data to drive your video analysis.”

It is a circular relationship, but that is okay. As Gene Stallings would say, you coach the ways you know. And you probably go about things in a similar way that you did as a no-name assistant.

“We’re not any different,” Wake Forest’s Grobe says. “We look at every stat known to man. Break down game film ad nauseum. We know what you’re doing on downs, field zones, hashes. For just about every situation you can possibly imagine, we’ve got it on a stat somewhere. But how do you manage all of those stats? How do you pull it together in a game plan that makes sense?”

“The approach hasn’t changed through the years,” says New Mexico head coach (and former Notre Dame chief) Bob Davie. “We look at it first from a defensive perspective. Every team, every offense is unique. That’s different from the pros. Every week you’re starting on Sunday, and the first thing you do is figure out what that offense does in frequency. What do they do the most of? What do they do the best? You don’t formulate a defensive plan until you figure that out.”

UL-Monroe head coach Todd Berry, meanwhile, almost goes in the opposite direction. “We tend to use stats more as an affirmation rather than trying to discover things. We’re using them to ask, ‘Is what I’m seeing accurate?’”

Regardless of the approach, film study is everything in football – you just aren’t going to get the information you need about formations, tendencies, et cetera, without it – but stats are wonderful for setting the table. And, of course, film study itself has shifted dramatically through the years.

“What you do hasn’t changed,” says Davie. “What has changed is the volume of things people do. The resources you have to do more things from a breakdown standpoint – it was so elementary, and now it’s so advanced.”

In his first job as a graduate assistant under Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh, “the first prerequisite was taking the 16-millimeter film [of opponents], tearing it, hanging it by category, and splicing it. We used to have hangers all across our meeting room.” That isn’t so much a necessity in an age where graduate assistants can cut, splice and organize video clips in minimal time on a computer.

Enjoy. And then buy!

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