Four Better or Four Worse? – Part 1

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Four Better or Four Worse? – Part 1

Every team in the SEC wants to hire a high impact head coach

Southeastern Conference coaching changes since 1980 – Western Division

This article started as statistical investigation into the coaching changes that have occurred on Southeastern Conference teams in recent history.  As it progressed, I widened my search into the way coaches were hired, what the expectations were from the various administrations and how each and every team progressed over the years. As it progressed, I was surprised that what I found had almost no relation to what I anticipated. My expectations were that I would find good coaches were retained, bad coaches were fired quickly and great coaches that led their teams for up to a decade or two until happy retirement. 

I must admit to an historical bias in this expectation.  In my youth, I had seen such Southeastern football legends like Charles McClendon, Shug Jordan, Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley do precisely that – retire in honor from their respective schools to lasting acclaim by the fanbase.   Similar exits from the college football coaching ranks for coaching greats like Tom Osborne, Ara Parseghian, and seemingly a host of others over the years were the norm, or so I thought.  Good coaches were hired and either did well and aged into a graceful retirement as ‘great’ coaches or were quickly fired until a better coach was found.

It seemed that only Johnny Majors was the exception, and at the time, that was deemed an insult by the media.

But as I progressed back from the present time and looked at each team’s coaching changes, I began to notice a troubling pattern since the 1980 season. It turns out this’ graceful retirement’ model is an incredibly rare and almost impossible event. The fact that four SEC coaches did so in a span of just thirteen years between 1975 and 1988 was actually an incredible aberration and a tremendous tribute to their legacies at each school they coached.  In this light it is little wonder that Georgia named it’s playing field after Vince Dooley this season.  When that man left the sidelines for the last time, it was actually the last graceful exit the Southeastern Conference would witness until Gary Pinkel retired from Missouri in 2015.

And those two gentlemen have been the only ones to do so in the Southeastern Conference since Bear Bryant left the game in 1982.

Between 1980 and 2019, forty seasons of college football have been played and 94 coaches have been hired onto Southeastern Conference teams.  What I sought to determine was a means to judge how well a coach did initially, how was this measured against the team as they found it when first hired, and what impact their efforts had as their time with the team progressed.

In choosing my measurements, I wanted to avoid a strictly won-loss record approach in relation to all other teams.  Depending on the team, school and depth of booster pockets, few measures would be fair to expect a coach of Vanderbilt to compete in terms of wins alongside of programs like Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia. So since this was team specific, I decided on an approach of a class of seniors for each coach – in other words, the four years before a coach arrived and the subsequent four years after his hiring. In this way, the measurement of success or failure had relevancy specific for each team. Likewise, I only considered coaching experience as a head coach with a given team currently in the Southeastern Conference after 1980.

The question I wanted to know was –  Did the coach improve or diminish the team in the exact same environment as the previous or subsequent coaches? Additionally when deciding if a coach was a ‘good hire’ , how would that be judged? Was the team better off than before? If so, how about longer termed coaches with many years at any given school? What if they were subsequently hired at another SEC school (there are actually quite a few of these)?

There were many variables, but in the end, I decided to keep it as simple as possible, but still give meaningful feedback on the relative merits of any given coaching hire. So I came up with the following questions to be answered:

What happened four years before a coaching change (winning percentage)?

What happened in the first four years after a coaching change (winning percentage)?

Was the team better or worse when he left than when he arrived, or was there even any difference at all?

Lastly, as I looked through the data, I set a bar that I think has given me a sound measurement for determining the differences between a simply ‘good hire’ and a great college coach for a given program. Namely, that he was there for longer than four years, showed significant improvement from when he was hired and left the program where he served at a better state then when he arrived and winning at least at .600 in the last four years he was there. In the tables below, great coaches are highlighted in the school colors and current coaches with the potential for greatness due to their current win-loss records are highlighted in green. 

Due to the length of this analysis, I’m going to break it down into three articles – SEC West, SEC East and the conference as a whole.

Alabama Crimson Tide

It doesn’t take much football acumen to determine that Nick Saban is considered a great coaching hire for the University of Alabama. But until I did this analysis, it wasn’t evident just how much of an impact he has had until you put his numbers on the page.  In the first four years of his hiring, he took a barely .500 club and hit almost .800 as his first full recruiting class grew into seniors. But that’s only half the story. In the last four years, he’s even exceeded that by reaching a neigh impossible .910 winning percentage for his current class of seniors.  The only other person I found who did anything like this was Bear Bryant in a bygone era.

He is and remains the gold standard for all coaches that follow in this analysis. What makes him even more unique is that this is the second time he’s done so in the Southeastern Conference.  Not just that he was a second time coach, but that he had unrivaled success in both places. Three other Alabama coaches since Bear Bryant also had other SEC teams they coached, but none of them approach the success that Nick achieved on either team. In this respect he rivals Bear Bryant, who successfully did so at three current SEC teams (Kentucky, Texas A&M and of course Alabama).

The surprise for me was how Gene Stallings fared in this analysis. I always thought well of him, but his improvement was actually the lowest allowable improvement for a coach to be considered ‘good’ as opposed to simply marginal – a .080 improvement in winning percentage in his first four years at a school.

And other than Gene and Nick? A whole lot of bad or mediocre coaches have been hired by Alabama over the years since 1980.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas was another surprise. As I always thought well of Houston Nutt and expected that both he and Bobby Petrino’s numbers would put them into the Great category. But Bobby was only there for four years before his debacle of a scandal and Houston Nutt’s last few years were much worse than I remembered at the time.  The Hogs dropped a significant number of games before Nutt was fired.

Other than Ken Hatfield, no one else has even been close to success for the last three decades of Arkansas Football.

So two good hires, one marginal hire whose improvement to great took a season or two longer but otherwise a long series of poor choices has left the Razorbacks with an empty larder, a third straight failed coach and a program in turmoil.

Hopefully Sam Pittmann can turn it around, and any difference at all would be an improvement, but the odds are heavily stacked against the Hogs becoming a contender any time soon.

Auburn Tigers

Auburn was a pleasant surprise when I looked at the numbers. We’ve actually been very fortunate in coaching hires. The one ‘bad’ hire was not too shabby relative to others in the conference, and Gene Chizik did secure a second National Championship before he left. All of the other hires were either really good choices with immediate impact or marginal choices that actually developed very positive growth over time.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t firings, as every one of the former Tiger coaches above was fired for one reason or another, but the end results were either at an improved rate of return or not that far off from what they started with. 

We even had two marginal initial hires grow into improved teams and great coaches well  past the average tenure of most other teams in this analysis.

LSU Tigers

LSU is where you see an interesting series of hires. I was just this shy of listing Gerry DiNardo as a ‘great coach.’ If either of his last two years had been more productive, he would indeed have crossed the line from good to great. He took LSU from their lowest point in the last forty years and began a rise in prominence that Nick Saban, Les Miles and now Ed Orgeron have continued until the present day.

Here you also see a curiosity. In addition to the excellent improvement that Nick Saban showed,  Les Miles’ contributions were equally impressive and sustained until he was suddenly fired. He had LSU at a consistent level of achievement, well stocked with quality athletes that has made the transition to greatness enjoyed by Ed Orgeron possible.  Les Miles was a great coach whose firing was highly questionable.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

The brutal truth of the Mississippi State program is that there have been just two coaching hires that can be considered good in the last 40 years and as a team have been over the .500 mark consistently just a few times since then.  Dan Mullen was their only great coach and he was also the only one to voluntarily leave in that time – for a much better SEC program with a deeper recruiting effort.

You’ll see this time and again with other mid-tier SEC programs. Coaching talent comes in and goes out of programs like Mississippi State.  But even when it stays a bit longer, there is only so much that can be done in Starkville over time. With LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and now Texas A&M recruiting in the same fields, the talent such a  program can draw will be limited by the quality of programs and coaching talent in those neighboring schools.

Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss falls into that same category of mid-tier programs in which coaching talent arrives and leaves for greener pastures. The exception since the days of Billy Brewer has only been Hugh Freeze. Even the likes of Houston Nutt, Tommy Tuberville and David Cutcliffe with their experience elsewhere could not do that much with the program.

The idea that Lane Kiffin will change this reality is unlikely. I seriously doubt any success to be sustainable in the new reality of the SEC West with the other coaches currently in the division. Once you look at the conference in general, you’ll begin to see that the Kiffen countdown clock will start almost immediately.

Much like other coaches that have been in Oxford and even Lane himself out of Tennessee, I foresee a midnight exit in the future.

Texas A&M Aggies

Despite what you see from 1981 until 2002, Texas A&M is in an entirely different world in 2019. Since joining the Southeastern Conference, their numbers have been dropping from the days of RC Slocum and Jackie Sherrill. As Jackie himself found out at Mississippi State, the SEC is not the same as the old Southwestern Conference. The talent pool is deeper, the recruiting trail is longer and it takes a bit more to be successful year to year than in the old days.

I’m not sure the current Texas A&M culture has caught up with the speed and quality of the game as it is currently played in the SEC. Witness the numbers generated by Kevin Sumlin and realize that his dismissal had probably more to do with that ancient history in the SWC than it did with his job performance in the six years he was there.

I believe this is what Jimbo Fisher is just beginning to understand.

SEC Western Division Coaching Hires since 1980

Coaching in either division of the Southeastern Conference is a tough job. It’s unrelenting pressure from fans, contributing alumni, administrations and your competing rivals in the most coveted recruiting turf in the nation. Nearly every team in the NCAA combs all the southern states for high school talent and the bar of coaching competency is at the highest point every year. 

Hurdling that level of achievement takes the very best in coaching talent at all levels, but it starts with the head coach of the program. In the SEC West, only about one in four hires are able to do so, no matter what they achieved elsewhere in their careers. Only one in three can achieve good results in their first recruiting class from Freshmen to Senior.

That is, if they are ever given the chance to do so. 

Next week, the SEC East.

Note to readers: This is a change from my usual Tiger-Eye Review. Rather than summarize the season now, I am going to wait until after the Bowl Season to finalize that thread. In the mean time, I’ve come up with another series in three parts – an analysis of all coaching hires in the Southeastern Conference since 1980

Why 1980? Well, that’s the year I met my wife at Auburn. Hence the tongue-in-cheek title.

The post Four Better or Four Worse? – Part 1 appeared first on Track 'Em Tigers, Auburn's oldest and most read independent blog.

from Track 'Em Tigers, Auburn's oldest and most read independent blog

No comments:

Post a Comment