The college football season kicks off this weekend; every squad has a clean slate and most fans have rosy expectations regarding the fate of their favorites. However as the season progresses many teams will disappoint and the head coach will be forced to face the music. In fact it’s likely that as many as twenty of the current group of one-hundred twenty-five FBS head coaches will be replaced before next season. The volatile labor market begs the question, what factors determine success and failure in this extremely well paid but highly competitive occupation?
Head football coaches must be proficient in two primary areas. First they recruit talent, the primary input to success. Just as important, the talent on hand must be utilized to produce wins. The head coach, much like a corporate CEO, assembles a staff responsible for both of these aspects. A fair evaluation of a head coach's performance accounts for execution in both of these areas. My paper, just published in the Journal of Sports Economics, “Efficiency and Managerial Performance in FBS College Football to the Employment and Succession Decisions, Which Matters the Most, Coaching or Recruiting?”, examines coaches' performance in both realms and ranks the full set of FBS coaches each year from 2005-2011. The quantification of “talent” is derived from the annual Rivals.com recruiting class rankings. Efficiency is defined as how well each coach uses his resources relative to the average of his peers for each given year.
There are few surprises among the group that most efficiently utilizes talent (see the paper's table 3); Alabama’s Saban, TCU’s Patterson, Boise State’s Peterson, and Oregon’s Kelly are consistently represented in the top ten for the most recent years. More surprising are those comprising the bottom ten each year. This group is typically populated by coaches at premier programs, and thus able to recruit top talent, but whose teams were coning off mediocre or worse seasons, Texas’ Brown, Georgia’s Richt, Tennessee’s Dooley, and Neuheisel at UCLA, make multiple appearances among this group. Note that a frequent presence toward the bottom of the list typically leads to dismissal, e.g. Michigan’s Rodriguez, Dooley, and Neuheisel.
For the purposes of evaluating recruiting, the efficiency tests control for the football program’s reputation and resources. Even with the controls, coaches at high resource schools rank at the top of the yearly recruiting efficiency lists (table 5). However, that is not a surprise as there are some intangible factors that push blue chips toward these schools and effective coaches in recruiting as well as winning—those are highly correlated—move up to these highest paid positions at high resource programs. LSU’s Miles, Ohio State’s Tressel, and Oklahoma’s Stoops were regulars at the top of the recruiting efficiency list list during the sample period. Likewise some of those who fared poorly in talent utilization, like Richt and Neuheisel, are also frequently near the top in recruiting efficiency. The bottom groups in recruiting efficiency reflect an odd mix; some are coaches from high resource schools who had an unusually low-ranked recruiting class, Iowa's Ferentz for example. However, coaches of successful lower resource programs, like Peterson and Patterson, are well represented here. Likely those who employ a nontraditional style of play are less interested in the blue chips, those players who are rated highly by the recruit ranking services. Instead they successfully recruit lesser ranked high school and junior college players who fit their particular style of play. Most revealing was the examination of individual coaches' performances over time. The key finding is the trend among all coaches for recruiting efficiency to wane over their tenure, and this decline leads to eventual dismissal.
Both efficiency factors matter to firing and hiring, although talent utilization carries more direct weight in those decisions. Nonetheless, as recruiting efficiency falls of so does winning, which leads to dismissal. Interestingly, a consistent finding is that the new hires who best use the predecessor’s talent most likely go on to become the most successful coaches.
(The paper’s tables report the top and bottom ten coaches in each category for 2009 -2011 and the full set of rankings are available in the appendix.)