Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Brinksmanship in Lubbock 

The saga of Mike Leach, the mad genius football coach continues today in a Texas courtroom, at a hearing of his plea to be reinstated for Saturday's bowl game. This is the latest in a bizarre sequence of events, reminiscent of an 19th century duel.

Most readers know the precipitating events. A player, Adam James was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and in subsequent practices was isolated from the team and treated with, at a bare minimum, a big pinch of disrespect. James' father, ESPN commentator and former SMU star Craig James, complained to the university about the treatment, and subsequently made noise in the media that the issue was the coach failing to act in the interest of his players' safety given Adam's treatment after his concussion.

Here's my somewhat speculative take on the saga. The escalating event occurred when school president Guy Bailey attempted to deal with the issue by getting Leach to sign a letter of apology to James. Leach refused, forcing Bailey to execute his threat, suspending Leach from the bowl game. This is not the outcome Bailey wanted. As a school president, Bailey is a politician, and when he turned into a mediator between a well known TV analyst and his coach, he acted like one. Fairly typical, but in this case it was a big mistake.

Leach turned Bailey's move into a blunder by refusing to cooperate. Why? I think there's another game being played out in the background. Subsequent reports indicate that the coaches (not just Leach) had issues with Adam James, referring to him in one case as "unusually lazy and entitled." Unwelcome interventions from his father had apparently taken place before. So what's going on? James is a redshirt sophomore who doesn't get many touches, apparently a pain in the buttocks and perhaps corrosive to team chemistry (He may even have a "fat little girlfriend" a phrase comment from Leach that is somehow being used to imply he's unfit to coach!)

I think Leach & co. were trying to run him off. The concussion gave Leach the impetus to send Adam James to the proverbial woodshed. But instead of planning to transfer to another school (which will surely be forced by these events anyway), his dad decided to create a stir. Apart from the impetus and the response, the concussion has little to do with the story. This is a story about control of the program in the face of unwelcome intervention by parents and blundering administrators. The president should have anticipated that Leach would not go the apology route when control of the program is on the line.

A similar scenario played out at Clemson in January of 1990. Clemson's most successful football coach, Danny Ford, and the university president got into a tangle over building a dorm for athletes. The president had political capital tied up in an effort to ban these facilities (something that would ultimately take effect), and the coach had raised a few million bucks to build one. Neither would budge, and the feud escalated until first, Coach Ford was fired, and two four years later, the president. As is happening today in Lubbock, the fans in town were lined up on one side only, in favor of the most successful coach in school history, camping out in front of the President's house.

I've always thought this episode revealed a big flaw in the leadership ability of Clemson's president. Good presidents (and they are rare) can get past the politics and look at the end result. Danny Ford had raised the money for a new building, and the president should have let him build it. Once all-athlete dorms were banned, the president would have captured most of that dorm as the athletes were spread across campus. In turning the issue into an all-or-nothing fight, Coach Ford and the president destroyed a potential asset for the university, and lost their jobs on account of it. The football program stunk for most of the next decade as well. All of the above are in the cards for the duelists in Lubbock.

Update: Leach was fired, minutes before the hearing was to start! Ok, so you are firing a guy for not apologizing, and then for filing a restraining order?!! Omg, this is nuts. Texas Tech is out-Clemsoning Clemson!

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Coaches Vote Republican 

Steve Kornacki did the research, reported today in the WSJ. Not on votes, exactly, but on contributions to Federal Election Campaigns in the 2008 cycle. Kornacki states that 20 coaches are listed as having donated to Republican campaigns, versus 3 to the Democrats -- a landslide for the GOP! Perhaps this is the counterpoint to the observation that college campuses are filled with liberal faculty. ;)

The explanations? Tom Osborne jokes that liberals would claim that coaches are Republicans because, as former players, "they got hit in the head too much." Lou Holtz -- who recently considered a run for office as a Republican -- goes for the rugged individualism line, ironically blended with a bit of team collective spirit....
"You aren't entitled to anything. You don't inherit anything. You get what you earn—your position on the team," Mr. Holtz said. "You're treated like everybody else. You're held accountable for your actions. You understand that your decisions affect other people on that team... There's winners, there's losers, and there's competitiveness."
As usual, I'm not exactly sure what Lou said, but he does have the gift of the gab. My own stab at humor comes from former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, one of the three contributors to Democrats. It turns out that while at Arizona, Tomey decided that his staff would make an effort to .... get his players registered to vote. Say what? Tomey could perhaps have used a lesson in the economics of rational ignorance. With less attention on the part of his staff and players to politics (with a marginal impact of zero), and more time devoted to the passing game, Arizona might have won another game or two, and Tomey might have kept his job!

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two good reads 

Gregg Bell on the Sonics trial. The Sonics are making the argument that Seattle pols have been playing dirty pool, which would not be surprising. As I've said before, there are no angels in the stadium game.

Andrew Leigh, an Australian economist, opines on the economics of sports. He links a paper by Goodall, Kahn, and Oswald, which studies the impact of coaching changes in the NBA. Leigh's commentary:
They find a large positive impact: if a team replaces a coach who never played NBA basketball with one who played many years of NBA All-Star basketball, it can expect to move six places up the ladder.

One possible explanation is that a coach cannot push top players to their limit unless he has competed at their level. Or perhaps effective NBA coaching involves a considerable degree of ego-management, and only a former champion can win the players’ respect. Either way, the results have important implications for any high-performance workplace where the CEO must manage a large number of experts. From law to technology to universities, could it be that the best boss is a former all-star?
The paper seems worth putting in your stack of things to read. Leigh has a blog too, which looks interesting.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

One More Econo-coach 

LSU's Les Miles is profiled by Kelly Whiteside in USAToday. He comes across as an aw shucks feel good type. That the story reveals Miles has an economics degree from Michigan merits the post. The story also provides some cannon fodder to mitigate the "Crazy Les" stereotype he inherited from his gamble at the end of the Auburn game.*** As the latter link illustrates, critics can trip over their own feet trying to take down a guy. Check it out and play "spot the contradiction"!


***Down by 3 1 point with 15 seconds left, he had his team attempt a pass into the end zone with the clock running, eschewing a 39 yard field goal opportunity to put the game into overtime win it on an all-or-nothing kick. They caught the pass with 1 second left (must I point out that it would have been equally good with 0 seconds left?), and won the game, rather than attempt a kick which would produce an X% & (1-X)% opportunity of winning or losing on one play. Miles got two bites at the cherry, and didn't need the second. You do the math. (Edited thanks to DB's correction on the score at the time Miles made his decision. See comments.)

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Black coaches 

A congressional hearing took place yesterday on the issue of black coaches in college football. Jesse Jackson, the NCAA's Myles Brand,Kansas State's AD, and others particpated. The tone of some remarks reported here was emotional, and various remedies from bribing schools to suing them were proposed. Here are the numbers:
Of the 119 Division I-A schools, only six have black head football coaches. There are even fewer in the lower divisions: five in Division I-AA, two in Division II and one in Division III. The figures exclude historically black colleges.

In addition, there are only 12 black athletic directors in Division I-A, and not a single major conference commissioner is black.

Of the six D1A schools, there are black coaches at Buffalo (Gill), Kansas State (Prince), Miami (Shannon), Mississippi State (Croom), UCLA (Dorrell), and at my alma mater, Washington (Willingham). UCLA has a history of incorporating black talent in a discriminating market that goes back to Jackie Robinson, who played football there before breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Buffalo is a new program at which the allegedly discriminatory network of boosters is largely absent. This might contribute to their having a black athletic director as well. The economic theory of discrimination implies that non-discriminators will profit by employing talented people who the discriminators ignore. Buffalo and UCLA being members of this small club of six falls in line with the theory. But where are the other non-discriminators, and what is Mississippi State doing on the list? There may be a bit more to the story than what's being reported.

While the report suggests that the mood at the hearing was quite negative on this issue, I see things differently. Here just south of tobacco road, the roster of basketball coaches in the basketball-mad ACC was once all-white. Today, Clemson, FSU, Georgia Tech, Miami, NC State & UVa, along with northern outpost Boston College all have black head coaches. That's a majority of minorities, folks. Even the disaster at Maryland after the Bob Wade saga could not hold back the tide in this booster-heavy, but more importantly, highly competitive league.

A statistic I'd like to see is the number of black assistant head coaches and coordinators at D1A schools, relative to a decade ago. This is the wellspring of future coaching talent. If it is much better stocked with black talent than ten years ago, and I believe it is, the six current coaches are just the tip of the iceberg. If it can happen in tobacco road hooops, it can happen anywhere.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

GM v. Coach: Optimal Disagreement 

Marty Schottenheimer's firing last night came down to conflict with general manager A.J. Smith. SI.com reported Schottenheimer as saying
"There is and has been no relationship" with Smith. Since when? "How long's he been here?' ...

Schottenheimer tightened up the time frame a bit, saying: "In the last couple of years, there has been very little, if any, dialogue."

In San Diego, the GM survived the feud. A month ago, bad feelings between head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Floyd Reese led to the "resignation" of the the longtime GM. In the Reese v. Jeff Fisher bout, it appears that owner Bud Adams, who liked both, viewed a good coach as harder to replace than a good GM. In the Schottenheimer v. Smith case, the coach's age already made him a short-timer, so the GM won out.

Coaches and GMs walk a fine line. Some very successful partnerships, such as Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard in the 1980s were reported to be constantly on the brink. As economists, we like pointing out how there is an optimal amount of just about everything, even "bad" things like pollution. Disagreement between coach and GM fits the tag line. If they agree on every personnel matter, the GM is superfluous. If they disagree too much, well, you get Schottenheimer-Smith or Fisher-Reese.

In earlier days, the coach-GM duties often resided in a single person. (Lombardi may have been a better GM than a coach, but that's a different post.) Once revenue growth made specialization of the jobs and "decision rights" the norm, there has been continual friction. This friction led to a movement in the 1990s where successful coaches sought "total control" over football-related matters (the same happened in other sports also). Although the idea worked in a few cases such as Belichick (the second time around), it tanked for coaches like Mike Holmgren. I have preliminary evidence that combining the roles, on average, hurts performance. This makes some sense for several reasons. One is shortage of time for coaches to evaluate players. With combined roles, coaches must also struggle with personal relationships influencing personnel decisions -- cutting disliked players too quickly or holding on to liked players too long. The latter problem is especially acute in the salary cap era where holding on to good, but not great players for too long can quickly lead to salary cap purgatory. The Reese-Fisher breakdown likely had a lot to do with such issues.

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