to play football, not to play trumpet
A common theme here lately has been that quality programs have no tolerance for failure. It got me wondering both whether that’s true, and whether it’s effective for those programs that practice it. How often do programs fire a coach after his first losing season? What are the ramifications of pulling the trigger, or not?
I’m going to ignore coaches who lose right out of the gate. Nobody’s on the hot seat in their first year or two at a school; nobody gets fired that quickly unless they were an interim hiring in the first place. I also don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at what happens in the MAC or the Sun Belt. So what I’m looking for are coaches…
- since 1970, who
- coached at a school that’s currently in a power-5 conference (or ND), and
had their first losing season at the school in year 3 or later.
The second criterion might seem a little odd because it’s going to grandfather in some schools that weren’t really power-conference programs in 1970, but I didn’t want to have an argument with myself over what was or wasn’t a power conference 40 years ago. If you want to pull Frank Burns out of what follows, I won’t argue with you. It also won’t materially change any of the results.
(And, to be clear, it’s that first losing season that needs to have happened since 1970. If the coach was already at the school before that date I’ll still include him.)
The plan was to pull the end-of-season Massey rankings for those schools for a ten-year period, starting four years before the season in question and ending five years later, compare the average rankings before and after, and see if there’s more improvement in the group of schools that fired the coach or in the group of schools that retained him.
63 coaches fit the criteria. Of those 63…
…only 7 were fired. 56 were retained.
Wasn’t expecting that.
Of course, there’s a big difference between a Mack Brown or a Frank Kush who’s a decade or two into a career and someone who stumbles in year 4. Maybe the inclusion of those more successful long-time coaches is skewing the results? So I split the list up into groups, based on how long they’d been at the school before the first losing season. Surely schools are more likely to fire someone if they’re already failing early than they are if they’ve established success at the school?
fired retained % fired Year 3-5 3 40 7% Year 6-9 3 7 30% Year 10+ 1 9 10%
Apparently not. If you want job security it’s best to get your losing out of the way early. Wait until year 6 or later and they’ve got the knives ready for you.
Of the 52 (not a typo—we’ll get to the other 4 in a moment) coaches that returned, 17 followed that losing season with another. Of those 17, 11 were retained again. Only 6 were fired.
That’s amazing. These are, by definition, schools that are used to winning. Fanbases tend not to be patient in the face of a losing season after a succession of winners; athletic directors apparently are. Only 11% of these coaches were fired after the first losing season; only 37% were fired after two successive losing seasons.
Unfortunately, the small number of firings is going to make it difficult to get any results out of the study because there aren’t enough examples to get us to anything statistically significant.
On the flip side, the list is so small that we can actually look at the cases in detail.
Let’s get the oddities out of the way first—these 4 coaches aren’t going to be included in the results because they never gave the school a chance to make a decision: they moved on to better jobs.
- 1970: Dan Devine’s first losing season in a hall-of-fame career at Missouri was his 13th at the school, and when it was over he was off to Green Bay to become head coach and GM of the Packers. Long-time DC Al Onofrio was promoted to the head job and after a rough 1-10 first season he had them back in a bowl game by year 2. We’ll pick up the Missouri story in a bit.
- 1976: Jim Young’s first losing season at Arizona was his fourth, and Purdue was impressed enough with his work the first three years to hire him away. He was B1G coach of the year two years later.
- 1981: Jerry Claiborne’s 4-6-1 season at Missouri was his worst in ten years at the school. He was hired away by his alma mater, Kentucky, and like Young he was conference COTY in his second year at the school.
- 1984: Darryl Rogers went 5-6 in his fifth year at Arizona State and was promptly snapped up by the Lions (we can argue about whether that counts as a “better job”). Rogers was not NFL coach of the year in his second year.
And now the firings:
LARRY JONES, Florida State, 1973.
Jones was hired in 1971 to replace the successful Bill Peterson, inventor of the “hot receiver” and progenitor of a coaching tree to rival Genghis Khan, who had left for a better-paying job at Rice(!). Jones had been DC at Tennessee and was considered a can’t-miss coaching prospect, and for two years he was able to maintain the level established under Peterson, going 15-8.
Then in 1973 he supposedly instituted a new and apparently rather harsh off-season training program. (I say “supposedly” because it wasn’t actually new—Jones had simply maintained a program already in place under Peterson. What was new was that players had brought it to the attention of the press.) Officially it was a PE course, “Physical Conditioning”, and was open to all students. In reality it was a required pre-spring conditioning program that rather flagrantly violated NCAA regs. Chicken wire was strung four feet off the floor in an unused part of the locker room and players forced to fight to submission in the resulting cage. There were no rules except for one against hitting below the belt; there was no attempt to segregate players by weight or strength, a QB might be going at it with a defensive tackle. And the loser had to stay in the cage and keep fighting new people until he won. Descriptions of it sound almost like a cockfight between human beings, with players completely covered in blood and vomit (anyone that vomited was forced to clean it up with his body).
Under Jones this all apparently got even worse, and there were allegations that he was using “The Room” as a harassment tool to run off players he no longer wanted to waste scholarships on. If so he got more than he bargained for. 30 upperclassmen quit the team, several assistants left, the St. Petersburg Times ran a three-part series exposing FSU as “everything that’s wrong with college football”, there was an NCAA investigation, and FSU went 0-11.
Jones was out; Darrell Mudra was hired from Western Illinois to replace him and went 4-18 during his two years at the school. You probably know who they hired next.
The Massey bar (the yellow cell in the center is 1973):
Grade: C+. I’m not sure what to do with this one. The immediate successor was no more successful than Jones; the eventual decision to hire Bowden was independent of the firing decision here. They also didn’t really have any choice and it’s hard to grade a decision that isn’t one.
WARREN POWERS, Missouri, 1984.
At the time, Al Onofrio’s tenure at Missouri must have seemed a bit of a downer. The 2- and 3-loss seasons that were common under Devine had turned into 4- and 5-loss seasons and they only had a winning conference record once in Onofrio’s 7 years. After a particularly poor 1977 campaign they turned the reins over to Powers, who had been an assistant under Devaney and Osborne at Nebraska and whose one year as a head coach at Washington St. had been a success (it was only their second winning season in the last 13).
Powers ran off a series of 8-4 and 7-5 seasons, taking Missouri to bowl games in 5 of his first 6 years. But there were no conference championships, none of the trips to the Orange or Sugar that Devine had pulled off, the fans were disgruntled, and when the 1984 season turned sour that discontent bubbled over into full-scale revolt. Attendance was down, there was grumbling about his “boring” ball-control offense and claims that he had only been able to win with Onofrio’s players. Powers returned the compliment with a shot at fans who just come to games “to coach and criticize” but pull their support when the team loses. “These people are a detriment. They don’t mean anything to the program.” At season’s end the university’s Chancellor stated that “there is a kind of negativity that has grown around the program and we believe that it is time to make a change.”
They didn’t know what negativity was but they were about to find out. Replacement Woody Widenhofer went 1-10 his first year, with the only win a one-point victory over Iowa State. It would be thirteen years before Missouri had another winning season, 23 years before they again cracked the top-20. And there are still no conference championships or major bowl games.
Grade: F. An absolute catastrophe, by far the worst outcome of the 63 cases here.
FRED AKERS, Texas, 1986.
Fred Akers’s ten years at Texas included three near-misses at national championships: Cotton Bowl losses following undefeated regular season in 1977 and 1983 (the latter a 10-9 loss to Georgia on a late TD following a muffed punt) and a #2 finish in the AP poll in 1981 after a Cotton Bowl win over Alabama.
Going into his last season Akers’s winning percentage of .759 was just a hair behind Darrell Royal’s .774. He’d been to a bowl game every season.
And Texas had never fired a football coach. Never.
But alumni wanted Akers gone.
Here’s a fascinating Houston Chronicle piece from the time; I can’t recommend it enough (I’d post the original but the link seems to be broken, so I’m linking a version quoted at shaggybevo that has the added attraction of a piece from SI that’s also worth reading). This sort of behavior among alums may seem commonplace now but at the time it seems to have been something of a novelty.
Summarizing and reading between the lines: Darrell Royal’s “retirement” in 1976 was less than voluntary—he’d been asked by a powerful alum to “break whatever recruiting rules he needed to” to win, and he resisted. He assumed his long-time assistant Mike Campbell would get the job and since Royal was the new AD he had reason to think he might have some say in the matter. Akers was hired instead, over the athletic director’s head, and a split was formed in the UT football community that still hadn’t healed ten years later. Royal’s boys wanted Akers gone regardless of what happened on the field. Fans were going to games hoping Texas would lose so Akers “would be that much closer to being fired.” The losses in ‘86 helped sway public perception, but the firing may well have been coming regardless.
“Akers is gone. They’re just waiting for the right reason to do it.”
“I think he’s gone. He could win the national championship and he’d be gone.”
“We have some that are absolutely violent on their position. And we can’t fire them; they’re alumni.”
“[After the ‘85 bowl loss] there were so many alumni calling in wanting Fred fired, you couldn’t get a phone call through. But DeLoss [Texas AD] took the position that if you fire him now, it’ll just be a message to the alumni that they run the program.”
They did. They do. Texas went 5-6, making the firing easier than it might have been. (And if anyone wants to study the ability of alumni to hamstring a coach by hurting his recruiting, I suspect mid ‘80s Texas would be a great place to start.)
It didn’t help on the field. Akers’s successor had three losing seasons out of five (remember, ‘86 was Texas’s first losing season in 30 years); we’re about to meet his replacement.
For his part, Akers was hired by Purdue. He wasn’t particularly successful there; their starting QB (Jeff George) immediately transferred because of the change of offensive system.
Grade: D. His replacement, David McWilliams, went just 31-26 over his five seasons with some humiliating losses (44-9 to Oklahoma, 47-6 at BYU, 66-15 at home to Houston, 50-7 at home to Baylor) and it was 15 years before they finished a season in the top 10, something Akers had done four times. And the firing did nothing to reunite the political factions behind Texas football—they’re still at it three decades later.
JOHN MACKOVIC, Texas, 1997.
Texas had never fired a coach before 1986 but by now they’d acquired the habit. McWilliams’s mediocre results led to his firing after five years and John Mackovic was brought in from Illinois as a reputed turnaround specialist. Mackovic was everything McWilliams wasn’t—McWilliams was personable but said to be a bit disorganized; John Mackovic is…well, let’s just say that John Mackovic isn’t personable.
Mackovic had modest success by Texas standards, making it to three bowl games and winning one conference championship in six seasons. Being John Mackovic, he also had the virtue of uniting the various Texas factions into a singular despite. When a somewhat fortunate B12 conference championship in ‘96 was followed by a 66-3 calamity at home against UCLA in week 2 the following year, the writing was on the wall. Six losses later he was gone.
Unusually for Mackovic, I can’t find any reports of players holding secret meetings with management to request his ouster. I guess they didn’t need to.
Grade: A. Has anyone ever regretted firing Mackovic? And Mack Brown had immediate success, going to 12 straight bowl games, with ten straight seasons of 3 or fewer losses plus a national championship along the way.
TERRY BOWDEN, Auburn, 1998.
OK, technically Bowden wasn’t fired. He tendered his resignation, then waited for two days for a phone call from the University president asking him to reconsider. When it didn’t come, his lawyer went to the University’s attorneys to try to undo the resignation, but eventually Bowden decided it wasn’t worth the fight.
I’m going to call that a firing.
Other than that I’m not quite sure what to think. I’ve read everything I can find about the end of the Bowden era and I still don’t know. Here’s a good place to start, if you aren’t familiar:
It all borders on the surreal…
- Bowden hires Bobby Lowder’s daughter as a secretary, presumably to get an in at Auburn. He gets the necessary political intel from his brother, who’s a coordinator there.
- When Dye’s staff was eventually and inevitably unable to “keep it down home”, Bowden was ready—he spent hours with Lowder rehearsing for his interview for the job (I’m not entirely sure why that was necessary; surely it would have been clear to everyone that Lowder’s choice would be Auburn’s).
- Bowden wins his first 20 games. And as so often, success breeds jealousy. Pat Dye’s still best buds with Lowder, after all, he even serves on his bank’s board. The rot begins to spread.
- Dye starts making regular appearances on Finebaum, a show sponsored by Lowder’s bank, and is critical of Bowden’s coaching. He’s abandoned traditional Auburn smashmouth football, for one thing.
- Bowden’s DC starts trash-talking Bowden within the department; Bowden fires him. Unfortunately, said DC was a Dye protégé and got married in Lowder’s home.
- His replacement, Brother Oliver, is fresh from scandal at Alabama and is hot for a head coaching job. He also, allegedly, begins accumulating a power base within the department in hopes of getting Bowden’s job. And he’s also an old friend of Dye’s.
- A star DB is dismissed for unspecified violations of team rules; Bowden explains that he’d gotten into debt gambling at a local dog track. The dog track owner is a wealthy alum, and is pissed about the public embarrassment.
- Rumors fly about a supposed affair between Bowden and his former secretary, Lowder’s daughter.
- An article appears in a Huntsville paper declaring that Bowden is done, no matter what. Lowder allegedly tells Bowden he’s the unnamed source; Bowden allegedly tells staff and players he doesn’t believe the rumors and they shouldn’t either; Brother Oliver allegedly brings a hidden tape recorder to a meeting hoping to catch Bowden on tape telling a lie.
I’m leaving out some of the sillier stuff, like fans being angry because the block AUBURN TIGERS in the end zone had been replaced by script.
And there’s no end of allegations of what was really going on behind the scenes during all this. There’s an alleged interview of Bowden by Paul Davis that’s made the rounds, especially on Bama boards. You can decide if you think there’s anything to it.
Whatever it was, Bowden was out, Oliver had his head coaching job if only briefly, Auburn football went on as it always had. If I was surprised by how few of the coaches in my sample actually got fired, I’m even more amazed at how frequently behind-the-scenes factional fights in the community were the cause, with on-field results just providing a convenient excuse.
Grade: C-. The rest of the season was a disaster and Oliver was also fired at season’s end; his replacement Tommy Tuberville was never able to get things back to where they’d been the first two years under Bowden but there’s no reason to think Bowden could have either.
PAUL HACKETT, USC, 2000.
Hackett, formerly OC for the Chiefs, was hired when USC fired or didn’t fire John Robinson after the 1997 season. Hackett had been an assistant under Robinson during his first stint at the school.
Recruiting went well during his three years at the school but the on-field results weren’t there yet. Hackett was disappointed when informed of the firing, stating that he felt things were moving in the right direction and he regretted that they wouldn’t have time to finish the job. AD Mike Garrett said he wanted immediate success and felt they should be competing for Rose Bowls and National Championships every year.
For once, that wasn’t just bluster. The next guy delivered in year two, and didn’t stop.
Although it’s maybe worth noting that the next guy was far from Garrett’s first choice. He wanted to hire a proven winner at the college level, and only moved to Carroll after he’d whiffed on Dennis Erickson, Mike Bellotti and Mike Riley.
Grade: A+. If you ignore the off-field scandal and the eventual vacation of the wins, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome than this. If Missouri was by far the worst result of the 63, this is easily the best.
GENE CHIZIK, Auburn, 2012
You probably know the Gene Chizik story as well as I do. He’d been a successful DC at Auburn and Texas but his record in his two years at Iowa State was a bit short of mediocre and he was high on the list of coaches expected to be on the hot seat the following year.
To say his hiring at Auburn was a surprise is understating the matter. Piecing out who deserves responsibility for what during his meteoric rise and fall at Auburn? Your guess is as good as mine. 3-2-8-14-8-3 is the most remarkable wins line of any coach I can think of. In four years he went from 2-12 to national champion and COTY to being replaced by his former OC, who’d left for Arkansas State in search of more autonomy after Chizik allegedly asked him to slow down the offense to protect the defense.
An aside: weirdly, Chizik’s very first college-level job was as a GA under Clemson defensive backs coach Brother Oliver. College football is a small world. Or maybe Auburn is.
Grade: INC. So far so good on Malzahn. Of course Chizik’s record looked pretty good two years in, too.
That’s it; those are the only 7 firings.
Pressing forward with the statistical analysis even though it’s hopeless, I’ve calculated :
- the improvement in the Massey ranking the next year over the current, losing, season
- the improvement in the average Massey ranking in the next three years, over the three years that ended with the losing season
- the improvement in the average Massey ranking in the next five years, over the five years that ended with the losing season
And the results:
|fired coach||retained coach|
are a great big and unsurprising nada. Any signal is completely lost in the noise.
The only conclusions I’d even tentatively propose:
- It’s suggestive, if completely inconclusive, that the biggest moves of any school in the sample in each direction (USC up, Missouri down) were both in the small sample of firings. That looks to be the high-variance risky move, as you’d probably expect.
- Again, it’s remarkable how many of the firings came out of weird backroom alumni/booster politics, or in the case of FSU backroom stuff among the players themselves. The two repeat firers here, Texas and Auburn, are two of the most politically-riven programs in the country, and I don’t think that’s an accident.
According to a number of reports, including one linked below. Interesting to see the impact on Derrick Green. On the one hand, he's a great offensive coach. On the other hand, he's a spread guy.
Last night's GoDaddy.com bowl had the greatest sign ever in the history of game day signs.
A 1-armed (yes, a guy with 1 arm) guy was holding up a sign that read "I Gave Up My Right Arm For Gus Malzahn".
Comedic genius. @LSUFreek even photoshopped the sign a few times.