Friday, November 16, 2012

Throw the Bum Out?

Few people are as ready to send a coach packing as college football fans. In my own beloved state, there is one school with a devoted fanbase (many of whom actually attended the school) that regularly alternates between calling the head football coach a genius and a troglodyte who couldn't hit the ground with his visor. Earlier this season, a loss to Kansas State made for much cause of rumbling and grumbling, until subsequent convincing wins -- especially one over a certain school to the south -- made it obvious that the coach was again the Einstein of the gridiron and could do no wrong.

There are plenty of cases where replacing a coach has seemed to improve a team's performance. But how often does that actually happen? Scott Adler, Michael Berry and David Doherty, in a paper published in the Social Science Quarterly, studied the performance of college football teams between 1997 and 2010 and measured what kind of impact a coaching change could have on a program.

They found that when the program performs poorly, changing coaches makes little short-term difference. That's probably expected. But they found little difference in the long run as well: If your program stinks and you change your coach, you're not going to be much better off than a program that sticks with their poor schlub instead of showing him the door.

When programs aren't bad, but just mediocre and nothing special, then replacing a coach actually hurt team performance when compared with teams that kept their coach.

The online abstract of the study doesn't show if it examined what kinds of records those coaches had when they were hired -- were they successful elsewhere or not, were they young coaches just learning or old ones playing out a last string till retirement, were they top-notch talent at a lower level of competition looking for a foot in the door to move up, and so on. Those elements could have an impact on how the coach performed, but it seems that overall, a lousy program is more than just a lousy coach.

Of course, one of the main interesting facts about the study is that it shows how the wisdom of many sports fans, the ones who call for the coach's head when a game result is anything less than a 77-0 blowout, is not so much wisdom as it is knee-jerk silliness.

But no study is really needed to prove out that theory.

(Hat tip: The Sports Economist)

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