How Can A New College Football Coach Avoid Getting Fired?

(Photo: John Martinez Pavliga)

More than 25 college football teams have decided to change head coaches in the past few weeks.  As the new coaches get hired and settled into their new jobs, one suspects that all of them believe that they will be the person who will change the fortunes of their new schools.

Unfortunately – as published research seems to indicate – it doesn’t seem likely that many of these coaches will really make a difference. Aside from that ambition, these coaches are definitely hoping to stay in their current position until they decide to voluntarily leave for an even better paying job.  In other words, these coaches hope to avoid getting fired.

Fortunately for these coaches, published research in sports economics doesn’t just convey the depressing news that coaches are probably not much different from each other (i.e. once again, new coaches don’t seem to make much of a difference). Research – from Paul Holmes and the Journal of Sports Economicsalso indicates why coaches get fired.

Let’s begin with a somewhat disturbing statistic for these new coaches.  As Holmes notes, “… a third of all dismissals… take place in the first 4 years of a coach’s tenure.”

Why is this disturbing?  Because college football isn’t like the NFL. NFL teams can trade for players and sign free agents. For the most part, though, college football teams can only acquire talent from the ranks of high school players.  And since new coaches are at a disadvantage in the current recruiting season, these new coaches are really not going to start bringing in their own players until next year. 

But for the coaches in Holmes’ data set that get fired, many don’t get to see their first recruits graduate.  This means that many coaches are getting fired with players their predecessor – who the school often thought was a failure – recruited.  That hardly seems fair.

Of course, this fate can be avoided if the team wins with the new coach.  Holmes’ research indicates that winning – as one would suspect – will allow a coach to stay.

All wins, though, are not created equal.  For example, an increase in…

  • winning percentage in the current season
  • winning percentage in the last season
  • and a conference winning percentage

will all reduce the probability of a coach getting fired. But of these, conference winning percentage appears to be the most important.  As Holmes notes, “an additional (conference) win this season could offset three losses last season.”

So conference wins are clearly important.  And a win today offset many losses from yesterday.  That means the timing of wins matters (more on that in a moment).

But what about victories against rivals, winning bowl games, or making sure your team faces a relatively strong competition? One might think that all three of these factors would help a coach keep his job. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Holmes found that – of these three factors — only winning games against rival schools mattered. 

And that means coaches have an incentive to schedule “cream puffs.” Strength of schedule has no impact on the probability of a coach being fired.  And winning definitely helps.  So coaches shouldn’t try and seek out the best competition for their team.  In addition – and this is important at this time of year – winning bowl games also doesn’t appear to matter.   Again, it helps to win enough to get to the bowl game. But victories in the latter part of December or January don’t really help a coach keep his job.

Of course, a coach definitely has to win.  And if you are taking over for someone who got fired, chances are you are inheriting a poor team that isn’t like to win.

So how much time does the new coach have to turn it around?  It appears a coach has a few years, although how many depends on issues such as the race of the coach, is the coach an alumni, can the coach follow NCAA rules, etc.

In addition – and this is a key contribution from this research – it also appears to depend on how a team has performed in the past.  Holmes considers a team’s winning percentage from three years ago to ten years ago. He also considers performance from 11 years ago to 30 years ago.  Both of these historical performance measures indicate that the better a coaches’ school performed in the past – whether or not the coach was at the school or not – the more likely the coach will get fired today (holding all else constant).  In other words, coaches are evaluated relative to the historical record of the school.

And that means if a coach takes over a team that has historically done well he will see a fairly short leash.  In contrast, taking over a team that has not done well in the past will help.

Putting this all together, what should a coach do to keep his job?  From Holmes’ research it appears a coach should:

  • take over a team that historically played poorly
  • schedule cream puffs (assuming your poor school can find some)
  • start poorly and improve

This latter observation is derived from the finding that wins today – especially conference wins – are worth more than wins in the past.  Given that a new coach does have a brief grace period, it is better to lose at first and get better than win at first – encourage high expectations – and then fail to meet these expectations.

What does that all mean for new coaches? Although you may be excited to be in your new job, just take it easy at first.   In other words, don’t worry so much about winning next year. 

And in a few years, see if you can get some of those “cream puffs” on your schedule.

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  1. Mike says:

    Ask anyone familiar with the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. If your coach can’t win that game, he’s going to get fired.

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    • Bob says:

      Auburn coaches are often sliced off following losses to in-state rival ‘Bama–especially if stomped by the Tide.

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    • Pdubble says:

      I think that falls under the “rivalry” and “taking over a team that historically done well” categories.

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  2. Mike B says:

    Big name coaches needs to start having clauses put in their contracts that they cannot be fired for at least 4 seasons. It isn’t about money, which is often guaranteed and needs to be paid even with a firing, but the right to be there on the sidelines to coach the team until all the players have been recruited by that coach. Without this clause a coach risks reputational damage by playing with a previous coaches players.

    Another idea for state universities with huge football programmes would be to make the position of Head Football Coach a state wide elected position that candidates run for and the citizens choose every 4 years.

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  3. Ally says:

    I’m pretty sure Bill Snyder at Kansas State figured this out 25 years ago. When you start with the worst team in all of college football, there’s nowhere to go but up. Now he’ll never be fired.

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  4. A says:

    On the topic of scheduling cream puffs. A few of the fellow alums from my alma mater and I had a conversation on this topic recently. We’ve actually heard from a few high profile recruits that my school missed out on that they felt the schedule was boring. They wanted to play against big name school with rich history and tradition, and felt wins against nonames were cheap. So this interesting– yes perhaps wins matter to athletic directors, rich alums, and whoever else has some direct influence on on coach firing decisions, but it has the potential to lower your recruiting base, thus costing wins down the road. So perhaps in the “grace period” when you start poor it makes sense to schedule strong teams, then turn to cream puffs for your initial improvement stage, and then gradually grow strength of schedule as recruiting improves. Of course this is all difficult to manage as schedules are often set many years in advance.

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    • Pdubble says:

      That would depend largely on conference. If you are in the SEC going undefeated is enough to get a national championship. Finishing 4th in the conference is considered a feat. If you’re in the Sun Belt Conference, your alumni might want you to compete for the big time, so they want you to win against those SEC opponents you schedule. Finishing 4th in the Sun Belt will get you fired, so it really only matters that you win the conference. A win against an SEC team would make you legendary. Look at the difference between LSU and ULL. An hour away from each other. Coach Hudspeth (ULL) is a local celebrity because he gets the team to a bowl game and wins. Les Miles (LSU) is considered a dope because he makes some crazy decisions in games that cause losses to Alabama and in bowl games. Hudspeth has been blown out by OSU and Florida. Les Miles has won a national championship and never gets blown out. It is in Hudspeth’s best interest to schedule teams out of his league on the off chance he wins. No one expects him to win those games. LSU should never schedule anyone from a big conference or a Boise State if they want keep Les Miles. It only has downside.

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      • Pdubble says:

        I guess what best illustrates my point is that last year LSU beat Oregon, a really good team, in the first game of the season. All LSU fans will remember about that season is how LSU lost the national championship. ULL got blown out by OSU and Florida. All their fans will remember is the game winning kick against San Diego State University in the NOLA Bowl. Making it to the NOLA Bowl was considered a monumental achievement at the time.

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  5. Skip Montanaro says:

    > coaches are evaluated relative to the historical record of the school.

    Ignoring the fact that this is a discussion of NCAA Football, I would name this the “Wooden effect.” To make matters worse in UCLA’s case, John Wooden was generally in the stands at home games for a couple decades after he retired, a constant reminder to the current occupant of his old office how good the basketball program had been historically.

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  6. Cory says:

    Jerry Kill (Minnesota) can sleep well tonight.

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  7. Andrew says:

    Win early and you can get a nice contract extension. Then who cares if you get fired, you’re making better money and chances are you’ll land a job with some other team that saw you started out well.

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  8. Brian says:

    Really….I bet Gene Chizik disagrees.

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    • Bob says:

      Chizik should send Auburn a postcard, “Enjoying the Bahamas, this honkin’ National Title ring and some cool millions. War Eagle!”

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