Coach Eric Taylor: a Maker of Men. A father figure to every player who ever walked into one of his locker rooms. A man with a steely gaze who wears a windbreaker like it’s no one’s business. And most of all, a great high school football coach. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Except the part about the windbreaker. That’s true. Still, Coach Taylor’s methods are harmful to his players individually and the long-term health of his programs.
Eric Taylor came to Dillon High School as a rookie coach with sky-high expectations. He inherited a team expected to contend for state. Loaded with All-Everything quarterback Jason Street, Tim Riggins, junior running back James “Boobie” Miles Brian “Anchorman” “Smash” Williams, and (presumably) an offensive line that makes holes, a smothering defense, and—what the hell—maybe a decent receiver or two, the Dillon Panthers had every reason to expect big things in 2006.
The Year of Voodoo
All things considered, that the Panthers would lose both a five-star quarterback in Jason Street and an explosive dual threat quarterback in Ray “Voodoo” Tatum and still win state with a team whose impressive regular season record (6-2, including a forfeit loss, 5-0 in the playoffs) despite a very narrow point differential would seem to be a testament to Coach Taylor’s ability to keep his team together under pressure, and even overachieve in the face of it.
Coach Taylor gets the credit because he is the face of the program. But he did not recruit this team, he only managed it. And at times, did so poorly. His decision to knowingly let an ineligible Voodoo Tatum suit up cost them games and could have cost the team their playoff run and Coach Taylor his job. It’s not without prececedent.
But even beyond that, his management of Voodoo as a player left a lot to be desired. Coach Taylor made it clear that he was above recruiting players by shady means. He was so much above recruiting by shady means that he got in a car with a booster to go out of the district to tell Voodoo Tatum that he was above recruiting players by shady means. Voodoo joined the Panthers. At this point, Coach Taylor debates whether or not to start this guy who he 1) illegally recruited and is 2) ineligible, or spaghetti-armed sophomore Matt Saracen.
Now, Coach Taylor pretty much doesn’t bother with weighing either 1) or 2) against Voodoo, instead opting to make the decision on the basis of their football playing abilities. Fine. One the one hand, Voodoo is a super-athletic senior who just carried his team to an effing state title. On the other hand, Matt Saracen has Character and Integrity.
So, Coach Taylor, in his infinite wisdom, does not tell his team which quarterback is starting, giving both reps with the first team in practice. Eventually, Coach Taylor does go with Voodoo, at which point he makes no adjustment to his play calling, and the hot-tempered Tatum (note: googling “hot-tempered Tatum” returns this and this) ends up calling his own plays, resulting in a touchdown. However, because Coach Taylor must always be right, Voodoo’s freelancing leads to an interception when Smash elects to not catch one of Voodoo’s passes. This insane decision of Smash’s is somehow rendered as Voodoo’s fault. No, no, a million times no.
Coach Taylor then berates his thin-skinned star in front of the whole team and benches him. This works out fine, as the Panthers score once in the second half and eke out a win, but it is emblematic of Coach Taylor’s uncompromisingly rigid view of how players should be treated.
Time and time again, Coach Taylor fails to show understanding for his players. There are times when this makes sense, as in when Bobby Reyes senselessly beats up that nerd and gets thrown off the team. (Aside: Kyle Chandler claims he went off the script when he refused to take Reyes back on the team. How much money did that ad-lib cost poor Walter Perez?) There are other times when Coach Taylor’s Gruff But Fair Act doesn’t work. When Voodoo (and later Vince Howard) want to run an offense more suited to his skill set and natural athleticism, Coach Taylor has to do things His Way, The Right Way. A better coach would take input from his players. They have the unique advantages of being on the field and knowing their abilities, both of which are incredibly useful in making on the fly adjustments during a hectic football game.
He also mismanages the JD McCoy situation, to the point where McCoy’s father is trying to extort a promise from Coach Taylor to start his son every game the year after he was given the Dave Camel Award for the nation’s top high school quarterback. The Dave Camel, you guys! As a sophomore.
On the whole though, Coach Taylor’s in-game strategies usually are the least of his problems as a high school football coach. Sure, he could delegate to his assistants a little more (at least when he had competent ones), but the results speak for themselves. Coach Taylor’s teams win, and win often. In five years at two schools, Eric Taylor’s teams went a combined 42-16, with a state title at two schools in the same school district. This, despite no noteworthy influx of talent from Dillon to East Dillon following Coach Taylor’s departure.
Still, one has to assume that no matter how good of a coach Eric Taylor is, there is some talent on these teams. They are Texas state Champions after all. And yet, he hardly helps any of his players get to the next level while smugly acting as if he knows the recruiting process better than they do.
From Coach Taylor’s state champion 2006 Dillon Panthers, exactly one (1) player ended up with a football scholarship, and it had nothing to do with Coach Taylor’s help. No defensive players, no linemen, none of that year’s graduating seniors. The only player to get a scholarship was sophomore fullback Tim Riggins, and it was to a mid-major school (right?), San Antonio State. This is not just a failing or a mistake, it’s morally reprehensible.
To be fair, Smash Williams would have had more interest if he had not blown out his knee, but Coach Taylor had advised Smash–who, remember, was the best player on back-to-back state title game teams–to walk on at a small HBCU rather than pursue a scholarship, because, you know, big-time college football is evil, which, stupid. Big-time college football pays for big-time college education, and sometimes leads to big-time NFL paychecks. Anyone coming up in Dillon, TX (or anywhere, really) is unlikely to find a more lucrative career path than that.
For comparison, take 2010 Texas 5A (Dillon’s classification) state champs Pearland High School. On 2011 signing day, it had two guys sign with a major D-1 programs (Boise St. and W. Virginia), two more to D-III schools and about a dozen more to jucos. They also get a monument. And these are just the seniors–you have to assume there is talent in the junior and sophomore classes as well. And it’s not Pearland overwhelming their opponent in terms of scholarship athletes. The team they beat, Euless Trinity, sent guys to OU, Baylor, SMU and Texas-San Antonio. So, between these two teams, six guys getting D-I scholarships. Between Eric Taylor’s team, just the one (and maybe Vince Howard down the road).
Coach Taylor does his players no favors on the recruiting trail. He benches Smash during an important game during his junior year where a prominent scout is in attendance due to poor play. You know how Coach Taylor is always going on about how his job is to make men, and football is more than just a game, and it’s not all about wins and losses, and blah blah blah?
Well, the best thing a high school coach can do for his players—and he can only do this for the best of the best—is help them to play football at the next level. Particularly if it means a chance at otherwise unaffordable higher education. Particularly if that player does not have a reliable father to guide him through the process or another adult knowledgeable about the intricracies college football recruiting.
It really is a confusing process, and at times the flattery can prove disorienting. However, most schools are honest most of the time, particularly if they extend a scholarship offer. While offers can be revoked, it is regarded as an outrage and a betrayal if this happens after a player commits, even in light of a new injury. Schools tend not to make promises they can’t keep because if word of their lying spreads, it is not good for business. Honesty is the best policy and all.
Coach Taylor constantly rebuffed Vince and his father’s efforts at self-promotion, generally believing that if you’re good enough, you’ll be noticed. For Vince, this actually seems reasonable. Like JD McCoy, Vince was the kind of player that is more than just a regional star. He didn’t need to recruit schools.
But for more middling talents, whose ability to play at the next level is a little more borderline, players like Matt Saracen, Luke Cafferty, Tim Riggins and post-injury Smash Williams, a coach who is willing to sell his players is a good thing. This categorization may apply to other players such as Hastings Ruckle, Dallas Tinker and any number of others. All of those players were on state championship teams in Texas, so at some point or another, colleges probably were aware of them. But still, it is impossible to know if a player is on the radar of a school without talking to someone at that school. It is also impossible to have that player attend that school if his grades and SAT scores are not up to par. And who was in these players’ lives that was going to make sure they, you know, took the SAT? Who was going to call up UC-Davis and see if they had any scholarships available for a quarterback/wide receiver? It sure wasn’t Grandma Saracen.
These kids are seventeen or eighteen, many work full time. They don’t have time to assemble highlight reels, game footage, and contact schools, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the slightest idea of where to begin with doing that (see: that weird Tim Riggins infomercial Billy put together. Although…). It had to be Coach Taylor. And he failed them.
Matt Saracen was the starting quarterback on a state champion as a sophomore. Impressive! No interest from any recruiters. Vince Howard wants to play at a big-time program like Oklahoma Tech, and the school appears interested in him. Coach Taylor inexplicably believes their offer means nothing.
So, instead of having Vince, you know, commit to Oklahoma Tech, the one of the best programs in the country, and a tremendous launching pad into the NFL (or at the very least, a free college education), Coach Taylor insists that sitting on his hands and doing nothing is the best course of action. And he is of course proven right (but not really) when OTU takes back their offer, having signed another quarterback.
In Vince’s case, it’s probably not a huge deal, but when you play a position like quarterback, and you know where you want to go, you may as well sign quickly because colleges can only play one quarterback at a time, so most signing classes include either zero, one or two quarterbacks. If you’re the fifth best quarterback in the country and the school you’re interested in signs the top guy, you might not get your first choice.
Coach Taylor has to understand that an important part of recruiting the next generation of Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Wildcats is being able to tell people, “I will get you into college,” and meaning it. Obviously winning matters too in recruitment, but so does having a system that consistently launches its players to the next level. Coach Taylor’s programs do not win his players scholarships, so it is hard to see why someone with college or professional football aspirations would put their trust in Eric Taylor.
Of all the things Coach Taylor does wrong both for his team and its star players, the one thing that he is inexplicably troubled about is his ambition, which is far less pronounced than his internal struggles would imply. He takes an assistant job at Texas Methodist, quickly quitting to return to his family in Dillon. Accepting that job is taken as some sort of betrayal–it is not. And it certainly is less of a betrayal than walking out on TMU in the middle of a season.
And yet, for taking this superior job (although quite possibly taking a pay cut), the local media blasts Coach Taylor, and one player (Saracen) effectively accuses him of betrayal. This is, of course, off base. The same cycle repeats a few years later with an even better opportunity at Shane State, and again, everyone is upset with Coach Taylor for potentially leaving.
Instead of realizing that having its coach be so successful in high school that he can immediately jump to a college head coaching job has positive effects as well as negative ones, everyone is immediately on Eric’s case. Although eventually he just ends up going to Pennsylvania anyway, and we realize that his entire arc on this show was just the reverse of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.