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Bruins Nation, Sunday Morning Quarterback, and the Right Way to Argue Over Expectations

(Author’s Note: I apologize in advance for the length of what follows, but it concerns recent events of note in the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere which I believe warrant attention. Your patience and understanding are appreciated.)

Since the Diamond Dogs’ win over Stanford on Monday night frees the Georgia baseball team from having to play another College World Series game until Friday, I am at liberty to turn my attention to what now is fewer than 75 days away; namely, football.

On Sunday night, Sunday Morning Quarterback asked what had happened to U.C.L.A. fans’ great expectations. He was referring specifically to Bruins Nation’s demands that Karl Dorrell win nine games and beat Southern California in 2006 and that he win eleven games, capture the Pac-10 title, and beat Southern California in 2007. In justifying last year’s expectations, Nestor explained:

It’s now or never for Karl Dorrell. If it becomes clear during the middle of the season Karl Dorrell will once again fail to deliver on these expectations, it will be time for him to go. And this time a season ending win over Southern Cal should not be enough to save his job should at the bare minimum one of the end zones of Rose Bowl do not have UCLA letterings on January 1, 2008.

Due to these clear-cut demands for 20 total wins, a conference crown, and back-to-back victories over a squad that has gone 70-8 in the last six seasons, SMQ found somewhat surprising the fact that 6-6 would be considered a success this year. Nestor concluded his overview of a possible 3-9 season thusly:

[W]hat we need to look for is to see whether Neuheisel can field a team that doesn’t quit despite the expected difficulties this coming season. Keep in mind, even a coach like Howland kind of "lost" his team his first season. So it wouldn’t be a total surprise if we see the football team look a little dispirited despite the unending enthusiasm, experience and skills of the Neuheisal and his coaching staff.

What will be more important than ever for all of us to remain patient and maintain perspective and a sense of reality while the coaching staff and players work to right the ship for the long term in what I think is going to be a very difficult season.

SMQ had some questions about Nestor’s game-by-game analysis, wondering a bit about the decision to deem a home game against Arizona a toss-up and a road trip to Washington a certain loss while judging the season-ender against U.S.C. one of three sure victories, but his real quarrel was with the divergent expectations imposed upon Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel.

For the former, a Rose Bowl berth was "the bare minimum," but the latter deserved to have his fan base "remain patient and maintain perspective and a sense of reality." Is it possible, SMQ wondered, to square the maintenance of realistic perspective with an insistence that the Granddaddy of ‘Em All represented the minimum standard?

After addressing Nestor’s season summary in succession, examining one outing at a time, SMQ took care not to overstate his point. "It’s not that these projections are destined to be wrong," he noted, acknowledging that "I happen to think, as BN has always maintained, that L.A. should always expect a winning season, including this season" and that "I never disagreed with Bruins Nation that Dorrell should probably be canned."

However, SMQ considers the current expression of "willing[ness] to accept losses to the high end of the Mountain West and to Pac Ten bottom-dwellers" as "staggeringly hypocritical" and "an admission that the ‘expectations’ for Dorrell were ridiculous [and] intentionally constructed to be beyond not only any independent projections but beyond the realistic grasp of anyone in his position."

For this nuanced and exacting analysis, Sunday Morning Quarterback received considerable praise, not just from fans of U.C.L.A.’s conference rivals, but also from devotees of the Washington Redskins, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, South Carolina Gamecocks, and, yes, even the U.C.L.A. Bruins. Nevertheless, when Erik T offered kudos for "the willingness of SMQ, mgoblog, et al to tear into other writers when necessary," I responded with a caveat:

Although I know Erik was paying SMQ a compliment, I believe praise for his "willingness . . . to tear into other writers when necessary" should include a nod to what this posting proves: SMQ’s disagreements with other bloggers, no matter how vehement or heartfelt, never descend to the level of personal attacks.

This posting is a prime example, as SMQ meticulously built a case, offered numerous lengthy quotations with links and in context, and articulated his argument without passion or prejudice. Nowhere in there were there the sorts of cheap shots, sweeping overgeneralizations, or ancillary sideswipes which all too often typify disputes in the blogosphere.

SMQ gets, and deserves, great credit for intellectual consistency, breadth of knowledge, and keenness of insight. What he does not get, but deserves to get, great credit for is the class and calmness with which he methodically spells out his position. You may or may not agree with him, but there is no malice in him.

Nestor is a friend of mine, and I understand where he was coming from where Karl Dorrell was concerned; had sports blogs been extant in the universe when Ray Goff was coaching at Georgia, I likely would have been the Nestor of the East Coast, so I cannot fault him for the approach his singleminded devotion to U.C.L.A. led him to take. He was true to his school.

While the members of the Bruins Nation community may not like what SMQ has written here, though, SMQ steered clear of attacking the singer rather than the song. More bloggers (including me) should follow SMQ’s example not only in how they construct an argument, but in being mindful of the tone with which they present it. Too many other bloggers have demonstrated a "willingness . . . to tear into other writers" which was unnecessary, excessive, and meanspirited. Not so SMQ.

I will confess to a certain sensitivity upon this point, since the other weblog Erik T noted by name has taken the aforementioned willingness to tear into other writers a bit too far at times, in my opinion. Accordingly, SMQ’s unfailing class seems particularly praiseworthy to me, which is why I thought it ought to be noted alongside his obvious analytical skills.

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. Instead, in a posting tellingly titled "Bring Out the Tin Foil Hats," Nestor’s co-author Menelaus accused SMQ of "lash[ing] out at Bruins Nation" with "sly jabs." While admitting that SMQ’s piece was "very polite" and expressed "with good prose," Menelaus minced no words:

[H]e's calling us liars. He's attacking our motives and credibility. He's saying we don't write what we believe. Instead, we have some dark hidden agenda. Before, it was to get rid of KD. Now, it's to support Nueheisel out of some "all-out investment in coach-worship." In short, it is, at best, a lame conspiracy theory and, at worst, an ugly personal attack.

What comes in between the above quoted introduction and conclusion is an amusing mish-mash of snark, obfuscation and flawed analysis. . . .

[T]hroughout his commentary, SMQ also misses perhaps the most critical point. Specifically, he wrongly compares our collective expectations for a first year coach (Neuheisel) to one who'd been on the job 4 and 5 years (Dorrell). . . .

[D]on't buy into any of the sham details in SMQ's team-by-team analysis. It's so replete with inconsistencies as to be laughable.

As usually is the case when a weblog posting fails to strike a high mark, the comments that followed took a similar tack, directing SMQ to "a ‘we never landed on the moon’ convention," referring to the singular Sunday Morning Quarterback as the plural "trigger happy mudslingers," and lumping the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere’s most universally respected football analyst in with the "people who are never right." Menelaus’s retort even alluded to the description of Bruins Nation as "a single-issue blog" . . . a description offered by someone other than Sunday Morning Quarterback.

At this juncture, full disclosure is warranted: Nestor and SMQ are friends and colleagues of mine here at SB Nation, and I have a great deal of respect for both of them. I provided aid and comfort to Bruins Nation’s campaign against Karl Dorrell, and Nestor and I have agreed to campaign jointly for a Georgia-U.C.L.A. home-and-home football series. Nestor and I are blood brothers who are capable of finding middle ground even when it comes to the East Coast bias.

However, when SMQ examined the Rick Neuheisel hire last December, he cited my misgivings about the former Bruin quarterback. This was my take on Coach Neuheisel’s return to Westwood:

The Bruin faithful are happy with the hire, so I am happy for them. At any other N.C.A.A. institution, the unmistakable downward trajectory of Coach Neuheisel’s teams would cause me to view this as an unqualifiedly bad hire, but, at U.C.L.A., bringing home the prodigal son who maybe, just maybe, has learned his lesson could be the shrewdest move the Bruins have made in a generation, making the Battle of Los Angeles instantly more competitive and undeniably more intriguing. My gut instinct is that Coach Neuheisel will put the "ruin" back in "Bruin," but what I lack in faith I make up for in hope where the new U.C.L.A. skipper is concerned.

In short, while I share Sunday Morning Quarterback’s general reservations regarding Rick Neuheisel (a man I wanted nowhere near my alma mater’s football program when he was available), I believe SMQ’s lengthy exegesis of the divergent expectations imposed upon the former and current Bruin head football coaches deserves better than the short shrift given it by Menelaus.

A fundamental premise of Bruins Nation’s crusade against Karl Dorrell---a crusade, it should be noted, that SMQ and I each supported in principle---was that coaching matters . . . a lot, in fact. Coach Dorrell took over a program that had gone 25-24 in the 49 games just prior to his arrival and proceeded to win six of his first eight games in Westwood.

What happened after that---most immediately, six straight losses in the Bruins’ next half-dozen outings---demonstrated that Coach Dorrell’s fast start was a chimera, an unrepresentative early surge that preceded a discouraging run for U.C.L.A., culminating in a five-year ledger of 35-28 and, ultimately, his deserved termination.

Even so, though, Coach Dorrell’s initial run of success ought to offer at least some hope that even an ill-considered coaching change can produce a brief upswing at the outset, of the sort stockbrokers describe as a "dead-cat bounce." Indeed, the praise heaped upon Coach Neuheisel at Bruins Nation regularly has been rooted in his immediate impact on the program.

There is, of course, an argument for the proposition that, since the Bruins went 6-7 in Karl Dorrell’s last season, they will not do better than 6-6 in Rick Neuheisel’s first season. After all, Coach Neuheisel took over a Colorado program that went 11-1 in 1994 and guided it to a 10-2 record in his first season in 1995. He later took over a Washington program that had gone 6-6 in 1998 and led it to a 7-5 ledger in his first year in 1999. Initially maintaining the prior level of play with the former coach’s players appears to be Coach Neuheisel’s modus operandi.

That, though, does not appear to be the argument Menelaus is making. He characterizes Rick Neuheisel as "a first year coach," despite his eight prior years of head coaching experience at the college level, and challenges Sunday Morning Quarterback: "To be sure, we had higher expectations for a coach who had several years to establish his system and recruit in his players. Come back next year or in 3 and see if things change (they will). It's that simple."

If it is, in fact, "that simple," the lowered expectations SMQ questions may have to become the norm. In his first two years in Boulder, Coach Neuheisel took Bill McCartney’s players and produced a 20-4 record; he was 5-6 in his third year there and his final season with the Buffaloes saw them winning seven regular-season contests.

The same pattern was repeated in Seattle, where an 11-1 campaign capped off by a Rose Bowl win in his second season declined to 8-4 and a Holiday Bowl loss in his third year and, finally, to 7-6 and a Sun Bowl loss in his fourth. The high water mark of Coach Neuheisel’s career---a 34-24 win over Purdue in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 2001---was separated by less than two years from its nadir, a 34-24 loss to Purdue in El Paso on New Year’s Eve 2002 in his last game as a college head coach.

In his second year at Colorado, Rick Neuheisel’s Buffaloes went 7-1 in Big 12 play; in his fourth year, C.U. went 4-4 against the league. In his second year at Washington, Rick Neuheisel’s Huskies went 7-1 in Pac-10 play; in his fourth year, U.W. went 4-4 against the league. In his last 17 games as a collegiate head coach, Rick Neuheisel compiled a ledger of 8-9.

Will history repeat itself? Maybe, maybe not. However, the case for heightened expectations for Coach Neuheisel in 2008 (when he has what Phil Steele calls "the best set of coordinators in the NCAA in OC Norm Chow and DC DeWayne Walker") seems rather better than in 2010 or 2011, as the evidence that a Rick Neuheisel-coached team will improve in his third and fourth years on the job is nonexistent. Unless the new Bruin head coach has improved dramatically---unless Rick Neuheisel’s past performance is not prologue to his future achievement---the defense of Coach Neuheisel in his later years will require steadily declining expectations every bit as much so as the campaign against Coach Dorrell involved (but, as SMQ notes, did not require) ratcheting those selfsame expectations invariably upwards.

In any case, Sunday Morning Quarterback offers a fair criticism, complete with copious links, multiple quotations, and reasonable comparisons, of "this snap shot in time" provided after spring practice has been concluded and as the summer preview magazines are hitting the newsstands. Even if the authors and commenters who make up the highly-respected Bruins Nation community take issue with SMQ’s latest contentions (much as they did when he agreed with them about Karl Dorrell), Menelaus should know that SMQ is a pretty thoughtful guy, known for in-depth analysis and doing his homework.

Menelaus should know that, in part, because Menelaus said so as recently as last Friday.

Disagree with SMQ if you will, but give the man his considerable due. He did not offer a personal attack; indeed, one of the many ways in which his posting was noteworthy was for its lack of invective and its evenness of tone. Perhaps this merely is a clash of personalities---Bruins Nation and Sunday Morning Quarterback are, respectively, the most and least partisan college sports weblogs at SB Nation---but, if SMQ is to be taken to task, let it be for what he actually wrote, not for some caricature of it.

Sunday Morning Quarterback did not outline a conspiracy theory and I would take issue with anyone who accused Nestor, Menelaus, and the rest of the Bruin faithful of such a thing. However, Menelaus’s recent diatribe against SMQ was over the top and unfair to an extent that did nothing to help me make the case that Bruins Nation is a forum for impassioned yet reasonable fans. If Menelaus’s response is representative of his approach to constructive criticism---and, to be clear, I do not believe it is---he should steer clear of tin foil hat analogies, which do him no favors after a posting like that one.

Go ‘Dawgs!