Two years ago, I dissed the hiring of Gene Chizik by Auburn. I didn't predict failure but highlighted how poorly his track record fit the hiring of a relatively premier job.
On the downside, and the very, very unusual aspect of this hire is Chizik's performance as a head coach. No reasonable person would expect Iowa State to challenge AU's win totals. Yet, most of the stories I've read seem unaware of ISU's record pre-Chizik: from 2000-2006, they were 9-3, 7-5, 7-7, 2-10, 7-5, 4-8. So, the worst two seasons in those six exceeded Chizik's win total at ISU. More stunning, though, is a coach "moving up" in the coaching world after losing his last 10 games.
Now, his team sits on the brink of a national title. Turner Gill, the choice of Charles Barkley and others, endured a miserable first season at Kansas this year. (One season isn't the final word, but the season fell below performance the prior year).
Chizik's tale with Auburn points toward the importance of matching. Just like the NFL draft (See 2009 post, Shotgun Marriages v. Marriages for Love), the team-coach hookup is a two-sided match. Most of the econ and related work on matching deals with very thick markets -- many buyers and many sellers such as hospitals-residents. In contrast, the team-coach match plays out with very small numbers. In the NFL, for example, there may be 2-5 openings in a year, and the number of viable candidates may number less than a dozen. Thick markets allow for a continuous range of important skills of attributes interested parties to be evaluated by the other side. In contrast, thin markets involve much more discrete jumps or comparisons between job environments or job candidates. Uniqueness of team environment and/or coach dominates. With unobservable unique traits between the parties, luck plays a larger role in arriving at good (much less optimal) matches in thin markets. The same logic applies to why option premiums are higher and bid/ask spreads wider in thinly traded financial markets.
The most talented coaches may succeed almost regardless of the environment and others who would fail no matter what. In the middle, where most of the job candidates reside, success or failure hinges on the highly risky/lucky matching of unique environments-skills. Even coaches who are demonstrably "good" may benefit from better matches. Tony Dungy, for example, helped make the Bucs a strong team, but taking his defensive and team management skills to Indianapolis raised both his and Indy's performance. Bill Belichick faltered in Cleveland, but the (relatively lucky) insertion of Tom Brady after Drew Bledsoe's injury coupled with other players and the owner's support help to launch him into the upper echelon of NFL coaches. This is also why I tend to rate coaches with very long-lived success more highly. Scotty Bowman, John Wooden, or Tom Landry won with different sets of players, opponents, and rules. Vince Lombardi or Chuck Noll may have enjoyed huge success, but their wins came with the same core set of players and particular QBs.
As the Chizik case demonstates, the way these environments and skills link up can be hard to predict. As an assistant coach, Chizik's excelled on defense. Ironically, Auburn ranks only 54th in Team Defense -- down with the likes of Army, Texas, and Illinois -- while sitting 6th in Total Offense. Rather than his defensive skills, his team management skills have driven the Tigers. In particular, the hiring of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, a spread offense proponent who might seem at odds with a defensive-oriented coach, stands as as does the recruitment of Cam Newton. Of course, that element of his success might bring suspicious looks from some circles.