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The Multidimensional Nature Of Talent... And Success

Talent is multidimensional.

After four days of NFL Draft coverage, Scipio Tex found himself reflecting on the disastrous 2010 season for Texas and asking what, exactly, we mean when we say a player has talent.

Talent is actually a pretty slippery concept. On the football field and in the corporate world. I've noticed folks often tend to confuse talent with potential, talent with an expression of raw numbers, talent with scheme.

The problem, Scipio argues, is that we have a tendency to apply the descriptive label 'talented' loosely, in at least three ways.  We hear football players described as talented for their potential/raw ability, as when they are identified as highly athletic and/or skilled.  But we also describe players as talented based on outcomes -- that which has already happened, and irrespective of how it happened.  And on top of that, the talent label gets applied to players who thrive in certain roles in certain circumstances.  

The problem, of course, is that one can be 'talented' by one definition but not by the other(s).  Scipio uses the example of Texas Tech's Eric Morris, a player who decidedly lacks talent by the "potential" definition, but is talented by the other two.  A commenter provides an example the other way in John Chiles: We know he was loaded with talent (i.e. potential) when he arrived at Texas, but his career on the 40 Acres was anything but that of a "talented" player by the other two definitions.

The problem identified, Scipio turns his attention to resolving it by, in essence, rejecting all of the common usages of 'talent' as adequate. To paraphrase: "Potential is potential. Production is production. Schematic fit is schematic fit. And none of those is talent."

But all of them might be:

I'd like to create a working definition of talent - a common vernacular - beyond the Potter Stewart definition of "I know it when I see it." Because it's pretty clear one does not exist.

Here's my attempt at a unifying definition: Talent is the expression of your developed potential within a scheme.

Scipio's proposed definition is interesting/appealing for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it incorporates all three of the concepts captured in the semi-adequate definitions. Talent is not your potential, your production, or your fit within a scheme; it is all of those things.  Or, as Scipio neatly puts it in the comments section:

I think I'm pushing for a definition of talent that is not static and is multidimensional rather than some linear plane of progression. It is not solely the sum aggregate of your genetic material. Nor is it purely your natural aptitude revealed by some scheme. Talent can be learned and instilled and being in the right schemes doesn't just reveal your innate talent - it may actually create it.

Bingo, and once again, Scipio has demonstrated his considerable intelligence and thoughtfulness.  And if his astute observation was all that there was to his post, that alone would be worth highlighting.

But I think there's more to it even than that. And though he didn't extrapolate, from the first sentence of his post I suspect that Scipio does, too.

Success in college football is multidimensional.

If we were to take a broad view of the last decade of college football and summarize the most important lessons, I'd suggest that pinning down the proper definition of top-level program 'success' is a whole lot like capturing a complete definition of player 'talent.'  For we would see:

(1)  Teams stacked with players possessing gobs of 'potential' who failed to develop and/or produce.  (For example: Tennessee of the last several years, who as recently as 2007 had the No. 3 recruiting class in the country.

(2)  Teams able to churn out magnificent production for whom sustained success was elusive. (Notre Dame under Charlie Weis leaps to mind.)

(3)  Teams thriving within an effective scheme, but falling short of capturing what we mean by program success. (Texas Tech under Leach would be the best example.)

Now, the point is not to suggest that the two concepts are perfectly analagous.  But I think that the dynamics underlying the two concepts are critically alike.  That is, like 'talent,' top-level program 'success' is, to borrow Scipio's words, "not static and is multidimensional."

Charlie Weis fundamentally misunderstood this when he infamously said upon arriving in South Bend, "Now it's X's and O's. Let's see who has the advantage now."  And though Mack Brown demonstrated an understanding of much of this -- more than most, certainly -- it took last year's fiasco for him to get it with respect to both the offense and player development. Insanely great players like Vince Young, Colt McCoy, and Jordan Shipley allowed him to get as close as one could get without getting all the way there, but last season the clock struck midnight.

The truth is that the best program needs to have all of it.  You need recruiting. You need player development. You need schematic competency. And you need execution. Among other things, but those four, above all else.  In other words, success is mutlidimensional, and over the long run, no amount of competency in one area can overcome substantial deficiency in one or more of the others.

Just like... talent. You need raw ability.  And you need to be able to develop it.  And you need to be able to apply it.

We have a tendency to focus on factors individually, without sufficient attention paid to their interplay.  And whether evaluating player talent or program health, we'd be better off if we did.