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November 9, 2008Professionals will almost always beat amateurs. There are several very obvious reasons for this, of course, not the least of which is that professionals are professionals rather than amateurs because they are better. Professionals become professionals because they demonstrate superior ability at the amateur level.
But there is another reason why, particularly in sports, professionals are consistently better than amateurs: they approach the game as if it is a task to accomplish rather than an outlet for emotions, a forum for displays of individual prowess, or an opportunity to get one's kicks.
That is not to say, of course, that professionals are emotionless automatons, utterly selfless beings assimilated to the Borg, or that they don't enjoy what they do. On the contrary, they are human beings, and as such, are prey to the distractions and diversions that affect us all. But the focus and consistency of the professional is of a different order than that of the amateur. This is indisputable.
And I believe the concept of professionalism, oddly enough, goes a long way toward explaining Mike Leach's dramatic success helming the Texas Tech football program.
The most common explanation for Leach's achievements in Lubbock is that his offensive system is to current defenses what a nuclear warhead is to a bamboo hut. Naturally, there's truth in this statement. Leach does seem to have devised a scheme that is intrinsically and inordinately difficult to defend.
Other observers point to the increasing talent at Leach's disposal. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, for instance, may be the two best skill position players in college football. And an offensive line studded with the likes of Rylan Reed and Louis Vasquez takes a backseat to none.
But there are other coaches who run offensive schemes similar to Leach's, and there are several teams out there that possess probably more overall talent that Leach's current Red Raider squad. Those teams, however, are not ranked No. 2 in the land. Texas Tech is.
So what is that secret ingredient that makes the 2008 Red Raiders, like grandma's fried chicken, taste so danged good? I believe it is the professional ethic mentioned above.
In the post-Oklahoma State drubbing press conference, defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill dropped the hint when he mentioned that the current Tech team does not get "giddy" (his term) with success. He noted that even after knocking off No. 1 Texas, in one of the greatest games in college football history, the Red Raiders were calm in the locker room.
The fans, in all their unbridled amateur enthusiasm, went berserk, stormed the field, and elicited a pair of penalties. The team, with all its professional composure, went about the business of stopping Texas' final kick return, answering questions in the press conference, preparing for Oklahoma State, pulverizing Oklahoma State, and then again, fielding questions in the press conference.
Leach, McNeill and his players provide further clues by stating repeatedly that the only thing the team needs to do to be successful is for each player to "do his job."
And doing one's job may be the very definition of professionalism.
The professional hones his skills, focuses on the job at hand, shunts aside distractions, and melds with his teammates to produce the optimal outcome. Leach's Red Raiders possess the components of professionalism in superabundance. More, indeed, than some professional football teams such as the one that lives 325 miles east of Lubbock.
And arguably more than any other program in college football.
The vast majority of college football teams wear their emotions on their sleeves. They are fueled by emotion and their play shows it. The result? Inconsistency, because emotions themselves ebb and flow. They do not exist in a steady state.
Leach's Red Raiders are so consistent and often overachieve precisely because they are bound by professionalism rather than pushed and pulled by emotionalism.
Moreover, they are not distracted by the external stimuli (the media, the fans, statements by other players and coaches, the general hype) that trigger emotions. Leach's team does a remarkable job of fencing off the madness and concentrating on their job. And again, this is a hallmark of professionalism.
So, improbably enough, Mike Leach has constructed a professional football team with college players. Leach's band of professionals plays against amateur collegians. The results are what one would expect from a clash between a professional team and an amateur team. And now that Leach and his team have mastered the professional approach, there is little reason to believe that those results will change anytime soon.