What if we're wrong about what makes a good college football coach?
On paper, three of college football's biggest programs made perfect hires. It clearly isn't working. What if we were wrong about everything?
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points. I hope you all had a safe and relaxing Thanksgiving! I know I did.
A few quick housekeeping notes before the newsletter today:
1) A few years ago, I wrote a book on some of the biggest What Ifs in college football history, from the Metro SuperConference, to a world where LaVell Edwards takes the Miami Hurricanes job, or where Michigan never rejoins the Big Ten. If you’d like a signed copy of that book, I have ten left, and they make pretty good holiday gifts.
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2) Speaking of subscriptions, I’m going to extend the 20% Thanksgiving Week Sale one more day. If you buy an Extra Points subscription using this link, before 5:00 PM God’s Time Zone, you can still use that 20% off discount code. That’s a pretty good deal! After that, it’ll go back to regular pricing. $7/mo, $70/year.
To keep up with the Giving Season, this week, I’m going to give 100% of my revenue to the Irving Park Food Pantry, which helps Chicagoans struggling with food insecurity out in my neck of the woods. That’s not just new revenue from signups over the next few days, but all revenue I earn, M-F, this week. Whether you decide to subscribe to Extra Points or not, I also encourage you to look for ways you may be able to help your struggling neighbors this holiday season.
3) Our community interview series will continue again late this week, with former UGA swimmer Andrew Gemmell answering your questions. I’ve gotten a few submitted already, but if you have questions about what it’s like to be a D-I athlete, the future of collegiate swimming, or just want to say mean things about Florida, drop me a DM, an email, or a ping in the Extra Points Discord room, which our paid subscribers have access to.
Now, let’s talk about coach hirings for a second.
The conventional wisdom says this is going to be a quiet coaching carousel.
After all, nobody really knows what their revenue situation is going to look like next year. Will stadiums be 100% full next season? 50% full? Will alumni and corporate giving return to pre-COVID levels? Will enrollment decline, draining revenue from student fees or institutional transfers? With balance sheets already on fire, and with so much short-term uncertainty, few schools are going to want to stomach paying a fat buyout to a fired coach…right?
It’s not a bad theory. The men’s basketball coaching season turned out like that, after all, with only Wake Forest making a coaching change among major conference schools. And over the last few days, I’ve even had consultants who work in the coaching search space tell me they expect a slower season.
And yet, coaches are getting fired. Southern Miss made a change before October. Utah State pulled the plug after just a few games. Vanderbilt let Derek Mason go yesterday, and South Carolina is apparently going to pay a gazillion dollars to Will Muschamp to have him not coach there anymore.
And you know what? Crazy buyout money aside here, I get it. I understand why even now, amid a bizarre proto-season that barely resembles a conventional campaign, why a school may want to make a coaching change. Of all of the single variables within a school’s control, none has a bigger impact on whether their program will be successful than who they hire as head coach.
You can’t move your campus to be a better recruiting territory. You (probably) can’t change the school’s institutional mission. You can’t erase a hundred years of history. But for all but the most hopeless programs, you’re just one really good coaching hire from at least competence.
So if it’s not working, I understand the impulse to blow it up and go back to the drawing board.
But what if we don’t really know how to really hire a good football coach?
I’ve been thinking a lot about three coaches who, on paper, looked like absolutely perfect hires: Tom Herman at Texas, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, and Scott Frost at Nebraska.
Those are three different jobs, and the three coaches differ in some important ways, but they share some important similarities. All three enjoyed great success as college head coaches. All three had ties to their new region or job. It’s hard to think of any resume-related box they didn’t tick. And yet, they haven’t achieved the level of success expected of them.
It’s probable none of them will. Harbaugh’s Wolverines are 2-4 and are almost certainly headed for a sub .500 finish, and recruiting has trailed off. Herman’s Longhorns have lost at least three games in every season, and major 2022 recruits are jumping ship. Frost has more rope than the others, but deep in year three, the Cornhuskers aren’t even ready to compete for bowl bids let alone division titles.
This wasn't supposed to happen! If a school with a rich history, deep pocket books and shiny facilities hires the hometown hero with a winning resume…they’re usually supposed to win…right?
Sure, it’s a small sample size and all, but if these three can’t make it work, with so many things going in their favor…how is anybody else supposed to feel confident about their hire?
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy. So I reached out to a bunch of my writer buddies to see what they thought.
Bud Elliot, a national recruiting expert at 247, agreed that it sure seemed like all three programs hired the right guy.
I think all three were no-brainer hires. All three had success elsewhere, as coordinators and coaches. All three knew the programs they were going to. All were met with excitement. And as far as I recall, all were the top choices. On the Barton and Bud Show, we are grading hires on a new scale: no doubt, OK fine, and I don't get it. I suspect all three would have gotten the no doubt tag. That they failed might say more about those programs than it does about those coaches.
ESPN’s David Hale also thought Michigan absolutely made the right move:
“I genuinely thought Harbaugh was a home-run hire for Michigan. I believe I actually equated it to Alabama getting Nick Saban because the comparison of wandering in the wilderness with failed "next big thing" hires before backing up the Brinks truck to get the one guy everyone said you needed to get from the beginning seemed reasonable at the time…”
Looking back a few years ago, I honestly don’t think that was a bad take!
Both Hale and his ESPN colleague, my buddy Bill Connelly, also reminded me, the Ohio State guy, that just because Harbaugh hasn’t won the Big Ten or made the playoff doesn’t really mean he failed, or at least, failed in the sense that Herman or Frost might. Here’s Connelly:
..He did succeed at Michigan. For a while. He achieved a sustained height that Herman hasn't come all that close to and Frost hasn't even sniffed. His problem was always the Death Star in Columbus. Michigan was a top-10 team on average from 2015-19, but Ohio State was a top-3 team. This year's team is a mess that, even if he stays, could take a while to turn around. But he achieved a level the other two wish they could have achieved.
That’s true! I mean, Jim Harbaugh was a single Good Spot away from likely making the playoff back in 2016. You can argue that a consistent run of Very Good but not Elite, judged against the resources and expectations at Michigan, is not good enough. But it would be unfair to insinuate that these Michigan teams have struggled at exactly the same clip as Texas or Nebraska.
Hale and Connelly hedged a bit more about Herman and Frost, but both agreed that on paper, they seemed like good hires. My pal Alex Kirshner, over at Moon Crew, agreed, telling me:
There was basically no reason not to think any of these three hires would be very good, aside from the standard caveating we all do where we say, 'Well, it's college football and anything can happen.' There is nothing you could want other than those track records of winning at multiple levels, having local ties, QB development history, etcetera, and all three of them had it and seemed to really want these jobs.
But, at least judged against expectations, those three haven’t worked out. Why?
In one of my many pre-sportswriting careers, I worked in the staffing industry. I’d chat with a company about what sorts of skills, credentials or background they felt correlated with a successful employee in a particular job, and then we’d try to hire somebody. If the people hired weren’t working out, or if they weren’t getting the right candidates, one thing we’d do is go back and reassess if we were looking at the right candidate profiles.
If the previous profile of “capable recruiter, head coaching experience, QB development history, ties to the region” did not produce a winning result, even when the candidate fit that profile perfectly, is the profile bad? Are we looking for the wrong skill sets? Was it just bad luck?
Earlier this year, Hale, along with his colleague, Andrea Adelson, wrote a deep and well researched story on what really went wrong at Florida State. This profile painted a picture that showed Florida State’s football decline wasn’t just about making the wrong hiring decisions, but about the interpersonal conflicts between boosters, athletic department leaders, coaches, university administrators, and more. It really captured the ethos of this entire newsletter, which is that the stuff that happens off-the-field shapes what we see on it.
He told me:
I think the biggest takeaway in all of this is that too much gets put on getting the right head coach, when in actuality, much of the drama and struggles stem from problematic relationships with boosters and administration folks whose names are rarely known outside of the most devout fans. The word I always hear from college football folks is "alignment," and that's a tough thing to find and often equally difficult to predict. It's why Herm Edwards or Mack Brown have turned out to actually be fairly solid hires, and guys we assumed would be terrific like Frost and Harbaugh have struggled.
I completely agree, and also agree that trying to nail down “alignment” is a real challenge, even for the people making the actual hiring decision. Fans, and honestly, even most reporters, don’t have great visibility into the institutional cultural challenges and interpersonal conflict that actually shapes athletic departments. And hey, sometimes “alignment” or “cultural” norms even have to be challenged, as old ways of doing things may also lock out say, candidates of color, or from less-traditional employment backgrounds.
This makes the entire enterprise of trying to figure out who made a good hire…feel pretty impossible. We often don’t have access to the right data!
Nichole Auerbach of the Athletic agreed, telling me:
I do not think writers know who will work someplace and who won't. This is why awarding grades days/hours after a hiring cycle has always seemed silly to me. I do think when you are more familiar with a program (an alma mater, a beat you previously covered) you're more likely to be closer to right. But there are always potential landmines within each individual situation that we won't be able to see from the outside. Or we assume recruiting at a certain level will work. Or that the coach will recruit better in a similar footprint with a bigger name on his chest, and that just isn't the case.
Honestly, my "never try to be wrong about something twice" pursuit has long since rendered me pretty hedge-y with coaching hires. Any hire can work or fail, so I've found myself generating pretty vague opinions about either aesthetics (boo, old retired guy getting hired over a young up-and-comer) and a simple "Yeah, that makes sense." It's pretty clear at this point that good hires are about some combination of culture (which makes good hires more likely), timing and luck.
Luck is what I keep coming back to.
This may not be popular in some administrative circles, but I’m convinced luck plays a significant role. Fumble recovery percentages are based, on some level, on luck. A team’s injury level across a season? Partly luck. The timing of your success versus the peaks and valleys of your conference opponents? Partly luck. We like to pretend that we are all masters of the universe, completely in control of our fate, but in college football, that just isn’t completely the case.
If wins and losses are ultimately the final metric that determines who gets fired and who gets retained, well, there’s going to be luck involved.
Which then makes the decision making process that ADs and boosters are facing right now particularly challenging, as the costs for making a coaching transition are higher than ever. How much can you value what you see on the field this year? How certain can you be that you’ll make a superior decision if given another chance? Have all possible other remedies been exhausted?
Hale mentioned that hey, maybe firing the head coach isn’t always the best option anyway:
Ironically, empowering struggling coaches more might actually be the better recipe for success because it forces some of those other pieces to realize that, if the coach isn't going to change, maybe they have to. But I don't expect we'll ever get to a point where we see that type of decision making because the safe thing to do is cycle through coaches every 3-4 years and keep blaming them for the same problems recurring again and again.
Of course, being patient carries risks as well. You risk alienating ticket holders, fans and boosters. You risk alienating potential recruits. And hey, firing a coach means you get to hire a coach. That means press conferences. Excitement. Rebirth. That may all be easier to sell than “no, year seven is the year we really turn this around, you’ll see.”
Every situation is different. But as we head into the silly season, truncated or not, it’s important to remember. There are no sure things.
You can nail the highly regarded, hometown hero of a hire, and win the press conference and adulation of your fans and boosters….and then still need to can the guy after five years. You can strike out on your top few choices, back into an outside-the-box candidate, and end up building a dynasty. Or, hell, that could be a disaster too.
There’s a lot of other factors at play here, beyond a candidate’s acumen on the whiteboard or on the recruiting trail. Some of those factors are clear to fans and analysts. Some are not.
If you’re the person making the decision to go in a different direction this cycle, you better feel like you got as much quality information as possible. Now, more than ever, there’s a lot riding on that call.
The right call isn’t always to fire your coach. And if anything, it isn’t always to hire that perfect candidate either.
Take it from a Big Ten fan. Sometimes, the right move really is to punt.
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