by Keith Aksel
On Tuesday we wrote that college football coaches win national titles in chunks at the beginning, middle, or end of their careers, but not across eras. Coaches that win multiple titles win them within a ten year window, outside of which they may have league success, but not win it all.
This historical chunking trend has big-time implications for today’s college game. It shows us that it is just as reasonable for programs to stick with a coach for the long-haul as it is to cycle through new coaches every few seasons. One explanation offered regarding modern college football coaching careers is that fan bases demand winning faster from new hires than ever before. Commentators seem fixated on what they think is a new era of intense “win now” culture in sports. The reality is that college football coaches have dealt with impatient fan bases for many decades. Ohio State's Woody Hayes was famously being run out of town before the 1968 season, just seven years removed from his THIRD national title. “Win now” has always been a part of college coaching at the highest level.
And yet, the modern era has seen plenty of administrative patience in coaching as well. One only need look at the list of individuals who won in the middle or end of their tenures to be reminded that patience is just as valuable a virtue as haste. In other words, athletic departments should think hard before firing a title-less coach who has not yet hit their hoped-for ceiling. From Don James of Washington to Bobby Bowden at Florida State, a decade or more may pass before a coach reaches the sport’s pinnacle. Repeatedly firing coaches after only a three or four year tryout brings with it massive administrative headaches that, in the end, have about the same success rate as simply staying the course with one coach.
Oddly enough, Nebraska may be the most glaring example of a program that jumps ship too early. Since Osborne’s retirement in 1998, the Huskers have shown none of the same patience shown to Osborne. Nebraska fired Frank Solich after four years, Bill Callahan after three, and Bo Pelini after seven and a winning record. History tells us that staying the course with Solich would have been just as reasonable (and less messy) than cutting and running to Callahan and Pelini.
Another implication of this trend is that we can use it to locate a coach on their career trajectory to understand if they are likely to win a national championship in the future. Applied to a figure like Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, we see that his career so far slots him firmly in the early-peakers category. Stoops won his first and only championship in 2000, his second year on the job. Because of the long time period between then and now, fans and administrators should become comfortable with the idea that it is highly unlikely that he wins again. Stoops certainly has had enough success in league play to warrant a long stay in Norman, but his early-peaker career arc is historically difficult to change.
There are multiple reasons for this ten year window trend. The fire a coach ignites in a program by winning early inevitably fades; their panache in recruiting or unorthodox play-calling (i.e. Spurrier) eventually becomes routine and predictable. After a time, eighteen-year-olds may find playing for a new charismatic first year coach more appealing that hitching their wagons to an old but successful mainstay in the game. This probably explains the inability of Paterno to really attract the best of the best in his later years. Kings do not get to rule forever (even Saban), and it is wise for fans to use the ten year window when evaluating where their coaches lie on their career arcs.
This chunking theory is more challenging to apply to other sports. NFL coaches jump from team to team quickly, and have shorter tenures overall, which can make tracking career arcs like splitting hairs. European soccer coaches are famously on the hot seat from game one, resulting in a number of one-season stints, regardless of trophies won (Chelsea’s Roberto Di Matteo was fired in 2012, less than one year after winning the first and only Champion’s League title in Chelsea history). Baseball managers may be an exception, as they enjoy longer tenures than their counterparts in other pro sports.
In any case, placing coaching careers in a long view helps us see that historical trends underline the ebbs and flows of a team’s success. For fans becoming restless with a title-less coach, jumping ship may be feel better in the short term, but in the long run, patience has been proven to be rewarded just as often.