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Statistically Speaking

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Second Year Stagnation

In the last post we looked at what to expect after teams experience a ‘Second-Year Surge’. Now I want to examine the aftermath of the opposite—the ‘Second-Year Stagnation’. Sometimes a coach steps into a great situation in his first year on campus. Perhaps the previous coach left the cupboard fully stocked, maybe the schedule was unusually easy, or maybe the team just experienced a great deal of good fortune. Then, in Year 2, when fans and administrators expect continued success, the team regresses. Perhaps star players graduated, maybe the team experienced an influx of injuries, or the new coach didn’t recruit very well. Whatever the reason, the team stagnated, and now the coach finds himself in need of a rebound to keep his job. In the macro sense, what are his prospects for a rebound? To answer this question, I looked at the results of all FBS coaches who debuted at a school from 2005-2012 and set the arbitrary definition of ‘stagnation’ to a decrease of at least three regular season wins. If you recall, I used four wins as the baseline for a ‘surge’, but frankly, if we use four wins as the baseline for stagnation, we won’t have very many teams to examine. Using three wins as the baseline yielded nine teams. They are listed chronologically in the table below. The table includes the record in the coaches’ first year, second year or Stagnation Year, and third year or Follow-Up Year. The Dif column is the difference in the Stagnation Year and the Follow-Up Year. Stanford and Temple are color-coded differently because their coaches left after the stagnation (Walt Harris was fired and Steve Addazio took a better job), so they are actually coached by a different guy in the Follow-Up Year.
You’re an adult. You can view the table and judge for yourself, but I will throw out some averages for you. In the ‘Follow-Up Year’, the nine teams that ‘Stagnated’ improved by an average of 1.5 wins in the regular season. However, if we remove the two teams that changed coaches (which we probably should since coaching change represents a great deal of upheaval), the seven remaining teams improved by an average of 1.86 regular season wins. So we know the average team improved by around 1.9 wins, but what if we look at a different kind of average? Yes, I am talking about one of the most unappreciated averages, the mode.

Using the mode, we see the average team improved by one game the following season. However, the mode for this sample is only two teams. This low number should set off a sample size alert. If we look at it another way, five of the seven teams improved by at least one game, six of the seven teams won just as many games the following season, and only one team continued their descent. Here is a visual look at what I just wrote about.
So the most likely expectation after a ‘Stagnation’ is for a modest improvement the following year. With this in mind, which teams from 2014 ‘Stagnated’? Glad you asked.
These four teams declined by an average of three wins in 2013, and Auburn was the lone squad to play in the postseason both years. The good news for this quartet and their head coaches is that they are likely to see modest improvement in 2015. Of course, modest improvement would impact each team differently. An extra two wins would put Auburn in contention for the SEC West title, while modest improvement for the other three teams would get them closer to bowl eligibility.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Second Year Surge

What images come to mind when I mention the word ‘Surge’? Perhaps the word conjures images of a strategy in the most recent Iraq War. Or perhaps a mid-90s soda. Or perhaps it brings to mind an awkward seven foot basketball player. Unfortunately, this is neither a political, soda connoisseur, nor college basketball blog, so when I speak of surges, I am referring to dramatic increases in win totals for college football teams. Of particular interest here is the ‘Second-Year Surge’. Sometimes when a coach takes over a team, his first season is a lost cause as he must deploy players who were recruited for a different system and likely had a different skill set, or in some cases were just plain bad. With his own system in place for a year and some of his own recruits, the team can sometimes make a dramatic leap forward in his second season. Hence the name, ‘Second-Year Surge’. Well, what happens in the third season or the afterglow if you will? After the team improves, does the arrow keep pointing up, does the team plateau, or do they decline? To answer this question, I looked at the results of all FBS coaches who debuted at a school from 2005-2012 and set the arbitrary definition of a ‘surge’ to an increase of at least four regular season wins. This research yielded 22 teams that surged. They are included with the two tables below listed chronologically (I split the table in two so it would be easier to view). The tables include the record in the coaches’ first year, second year or Surge Year, and third year or Follow-Up Year. The Dif column is the difference in the Surge Year and Follow-Up Year. Kent State, Miami, and San Diego State are color-coded differently because their coaches left after their surge, so they were actually coached by a different guy in the Follow-Up Year.

You’re an adult. You can view the table and judge for yourself, but I will throw out some averages for you. In the ‘Follow-Up Year’, the 22 teams that ‘Surged’ declined by an average of 1.98 wins in the regular season. However, if we remove the three teams that actually changed coaches (which we probably should since coaching change represents a great deal of upheaval), the 19 remaining teams declined by an average of 1.71 regular season wins. So we know the average team declined by around 1.7 wins, but what if we look at a different kind of average? Yes, I am talking about one of the most unappreciated averages, the mode.

Using the mode, we see the average team stayed the same the following season. Seven of the 19 teams finished with the same regular season record in the ‘Follow-Up Year’. Three teams declined by either a half or a whole game (a negligible decline in the grand scheme of things). One team declined by two games, two declined by three games, two declined by four games, one declined by five games, two teams declined by an astounding seven games, and only one team improved (but by an amazing five games). Here is a visual look at what I just wrote about.
So the most likely expectation after a ‘Surge’ is for either a similar record the following year or a slight decline. With this in mind, which teams from 2014 ‘Surged’? Glad you asked.
These six teams improved by an average of almost five wins in 2014, with four playing in postseason games. While it may be tempting to pencil them in for even more success in 2015, recent history suggests we should pump the breaks when projecting their 2015 win total.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

So You Want to Get Fired?

In the last post, I looked at how coaches performed as underdogs and favorites, not Against the Spread (ATS), but in terms of actually winning or losing on the field. Feel free to read that post as a primer to this one. At the end of that post, I promised an additional post on the ‘portability’ of this ‘skill’. Instead I want to focus on a few other coaches in great detail. We’ll save the portability aspect for the next post.

How to Get Fired

In the previous post, I shared with you the bottom ten coaches in terms of wins below expectation according to the spread. Five of the coaches on the list were fired, forced to resign, or gently nudged out the door. Four others enter the 2015 season either under intense or moderate scrutiny based on their recent job performance. Thus, I theorize that coaches who vastly underperform according to the number of games they would have been expected to win based on the spread who are also lacking in the conference or national title department will be good candidates to be fired. To test this, I again calculated the most underperforming coaches in the ten-year period from 2005 through 2014 who also lacked either a conference or national title. If a coach tied for a conference title, I only gave him the benefit of the doubt if his team garnered the conference's automatic BCS bid. Those gentlemen are listed below.
Not to pat myself too hard on the back, this method is pretty accurate in determining who will be fired. Of the 13 coaches on this list, all save Kirk Ferentz (and his voodoo magic) and Kevin Sumlin have been fired (Ferentz did tie for the Big 10 title in 2002 and 2004 but did not lead Iowa to a championship from 2005-2014). I already gave brief overviews of Tedford, Zook, Ferentz, and Shannon in the last post, so I’ll move on to the other nine coaches.

Initially I was not a fan of Pelini’s firing by the Cornhuskers, but viewed in this light it is hard to argue with. In seven seasons, Pelini only sprung four outright upsets, and lost twelve times as a favorite. Despite winning at least eight games in the regular season during each year of his tenure, his firing was probably justified. Watson Brown (Mack’s brother, it runs in the family) coached UAB for just two seasons in this study, and lost nine times as a betting favorite. His 2005 team, led by quarterback Darrel Hackney was an underdog in an early season game to Tennessee and in two conference games, but was favored in each of their other contests…and finished only 5-6. Houston Nutt got Arkansas to the SEC Championship game in 2006 and engineered a huge turnaround in his first season at Ole Miss, but lost nine times in four seasons as a favorite in Oxford. Kevin Sumlin lead Houston to a pair of Conference USA Championship Game appearances in his four seasons at the school, but lost both times as a large favorite. Gregg Brandon took over for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, and while he did lead the Falcons to a division title in his first season, he could not replicate that initial success. He was fired after six seasons despite a 44-30 record because according to the oddsmakers he should have won about 50 games. In just three and a half seasons, at a school not known for elite football teams (since the 1960s), Tim Brewster managed to lose nine times as a favorite. Lane Kiffin was famously fired on the tarmac after an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Arizona State. At least the Trojans were not favored in that game. Noted maniac John L. Smith lost nine times as a favorite in just three seasons. If we examine more of his career, I can only assume his resume would be even more egregious. Dave Wannstedt did return the Pitt program to respectability, but he was never able to win a conference title in the watered down Big East. Judging by the small margin by which Pitt lost the 2008, 2009, and 2010 races, his inability to close out games in which he was favored exacerbated his demise.

Before we go, I’ll discuss a few other coaches who did not make the list.

Bill Blankenship won Conference USA at Tulsa in just his second season, but lost six times over the next two years as a betting favorite and was let go.

Urban Meyer won just a single regular season game as a betting underdog at Florida (and lost ten times as a favorite). At Ohio State, he already has three times as many underdog wins, not counting the College Football Playoff.

Nick Saban has lost ten times as a betting favorite at Alabama. He has just four underdog wins, primarily because has only been an underdog once since the beginning of the 2009 season.

Rich Brooks pulled off ten underdog wins as Kentucky’s coach from 2005-2009 against just four defeats as a favorite.

That’s all for now. In the next post, I promise, we’ll cover portability.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Winning More or Less Than You Should

I have made no secret on this blog of my affinity for Bill Snyder. I always enjoy watching his Kansas State teams and his second tenure has included two of the more surprising elite seasons in college football history. The statement has been made by numerous pundits and fans alike that he ‘does more with less’. That’s a nice platitude, but what does it mean? One way to measure doing more with less would be to compare recruiting rankings with wins and objective power rankings to see which coach has done the most with the least talent. Alas, that has been done before. Plus, just because athletes are lightly regarded does not mean they can’t play football. Perhaps coaches like Snyder have a keen eye for unpolished talent or ‘diamonds in the rough’. In the interest of doing something original, I decided to look at another way a coach might get the most out of the talent at their disposal, and like most of the posts on this blog, it involves the point spread.

The point spread is often a pretty good indicator of which team is ‘better’. For starters, it takes a great deal of information into account (game site including weather and homefield advantage, perceived talent level of the two teams, injuries, etc.) and is subject to market forces. It the ‘smart’ money thinks the point spread is ‘off’, the number will be adjusted either up or down in order to minimize the bookmaker or casinos potential loss. With that in mind I decided to look at all regular season games since 2005 (ten years), determine which team was the favorite, and in the case of a point spread ‘upset’ award each coach either an ‘Underdog Win’ or a ‘Favorite Loss’. Is this method a perfect gauge of how good a coach is? Of course not. Here are a few strengths and weaknesses.

The main strength of this method is that it adjusts for new information. While a team might be undervalued in the preseason, a few upset wins will mean the oddsmakers and general public will start to view them as a strong team. Take for example Kansas in 2007. The Jayhawks came out of nowhere to win eleven regular season games, play in the Orange Bowl, and finish ranked in the top ten. Mark Mangino deserves a great deal of credit for such an accomplishment at a non-traditional power. Before the season started, anyone proclaiming Kansas to win eleven games would likely be thought a fool and exiled to Patmos. However, once the season began, Kansas proved to be better than expected and their schedule was not nearly as daunting as one would expect from a major conference team. Consequently, Kansas was only an underdog twice in the regular season. Kansas won one of those games, so they only finished one game better than their implied record based on the point spread.

One problem with this method is that it treats each game the same in terms of win probability. A coach that is a field goal underdog is given the same reward as a coach that is a touchdown underdog. A better system would assign portions of wins based on the point spread. I am very lazy, but if you would like to do that, have at it. Another issue with this system is that it underrates coaches at traditional powers. Nick Saban has not been an underdog at Alabama since 2009. Saban is unlikely to rank very high on this list since he is rarely an underdog. Similarly, coaches that toil at non-traditional powers might be overrated here. Since they are often underdogs, they will have more opportunities to pull off upsets. Perhaps a better method would be ‘Underdog Win Percentage’ or ‘Favorite Loss Percentage’. Once again, I am lazy. Feel free to do this research on your own.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s look at the top ten coaches in terms of biggest net difference between underdog wins and favorite losses.
The leader in this category is likely a surprise. I suspect most college football fans could not pick David Bailiff out of a lineup. However, he has accomplished quite a bit at Rice, a non-traditional power. In fact, non-traditional power is putting it nicely. Rice was very bad for a long time, but in his eight seasons at the school, Bailiff has guided the Owls to four bowl games, two ten-win seasons, and a conference title. My main man Bill Snyder comes in second place tied with former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. I always thought Friedgen was underrated and the Terps were wrong to let him go. This of course, does not confirm that empirically, but it does confirm it in my biased opinion. In addition, Friedgen’s three best years are not even included in this examination. From 2001-2003, Friedgen led the Terps to an ACC title and a trifecta of ten-win seasons. David Cutcliffe, the architect of the Duke renaissance ranks fourth. He is tied with Rick Neuheisel, perhaps the most surprising entrant on this list. Neuheisel never lost a game he was favored in during his time at UCLA, but he was obviously not favored in enough to hold onto his job. Pat Fitzgerald has kept Northwestern in bowl contention for nearly a decade and Tom O’Brien did just enough to make the natives restless at two different schools. Randy Edsall did most of his heavy upset lifting at UConn, where he led the Huskies to the Big East title in 2010. Jim Grobe is probably the most successful head coach my alma mater has ever seen (unless you want to make an argument for Peahead Walker). Pete Lembo won consistently at Ball State for four years, and I am as surprised as anyone that he has not moved up to a Power 5 job. Finally, Paul Rhoades has pulled off some of the biggest upsets of the last decade, and that is part of the reason he remains employed despite just one winning campaign during his six-year tenure in Ames.

Now we come to the other side of the coin. For every underdog that wins, there is a favorite that loses. These coaches have been among the most prolific losers as favorites.
‘Big Game’ Bob tops the list. I am by no means insinuating that Bob is a bad coach, but with the Sooners failing to meet expectations over the last few seasons (they have not won an outright Big 12 title since 2010), you can see why rumors were circulating about his impending departure from Norman this offseason. Be thankful for what you have Sooner fans. Need I remind you of the Gomer Jones or John Blake eras? I was shocked by Jeff Tedford’s appearance on this list. He brought the Cal Bears to great heights during his tenure, but as you can tell from the high number of losses as a favorite, he probably should have won a few more times. Next up is Ron Zook. Keep in mind this does not include his ill-fated tenure at Florida when he succeeded Steve Spurrier for three seasons from 2002-2004. No, The Great Zooker lost 20 times as a favorite at Illinois! in seven seasons. Like Bob Stoops, Frank Beamer is another long-tenured coach without a league title in the last half-decade who is also feeling a little heat from the fans. Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa seemingly since it became a state in 1846. While he has often been the subject of NFL rumors, Ferentz continues to coach the Hawkeyes to both bowl games and inexplicable losses. Mark Richt is perhaps one of the best coaches to have never won a national title, but his last SEC championship was in 2005 and like Stoops and Beamer, his seat is becoming a little warmer. Bobby Bowden was forced out retired following the 2009 season, so his 17 losses as a favorite took place over just five seasons. Mack Brown, like Bob Stoops, oversaw a program rich in resources and found his team the favorite the majority of the time the Longhorns took the field. Larry Fedora has been an underachiever at two places. He did guide Southern Miss to the 2011 Conference USA title, and while that is one of the better teams in school history; they did manage to lose twice as double-digit favorites. Randy Shannon was shown the door at Miami after just four seasons, and with 13 losses as a favorite, it is not hard to see why.

That is all the damage I can do in this post. Check back in a week or so when I examine if this ‘Upset Ability’ is portable and explore in detail some other coaches who didn't quite make the Best or Worst Of lists.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: UNLV

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our fourth stop takes us to Sin City and the Rebels of UNLV.

UNLV is not an easy place to win football games. Since 1990, UNLV has employed five head football coaches. Those five gentlemen, including one who won a previous mythical national championship at Southern Cal and one who produced an absurd winning percentage at FCS Montana prior to arriving on The Strip, produced a cumulative record of 89-205. For those new to college football, winning less than a third of your games is not typically the hallmark of a successful program. Their last three coaches have included an eventual College Football Hall of Fame inductee who won five Pac-10 titles and posted a 104-35-4 mark in two separate stints at Southern Cal, the offensive coordinator of a BCS buster, and what appeared to be an up-and-coming coach from the FCS level. Now the Rebels have gone where (almost) no team has gone before and hired a coach straight out of Compton high school. Will this risky move succeed or are the Rebels doomed to be back at the craps table looking for a new coach in five years?

Tony Sanchez has accomplished nearly everything at the high school level. Coaching at Bishop Gorman High School (in Nevada), he won a state title in each of his six seasons. Noticing his great success, and in need of a head football coach, UNLV hired him to lead their program in December.

It is not unprecedented for successful high school coaches to transition to successful coaches at the FBS level. Art Briles and Gus Malzahn spring to mind as two former high school coaches who have enjoyed great success at the FBS level as well. However, both Briles and Malzahn began their FBS careers as assistants. Based on my research, the only coach in the last decade to jump straight from the high school ranks to an FBS coaching position prior to Tony Sanchez was Todd Dodge. Like Sanchez, Dodge was an uber-successful high school coach. Dodge coached Southlake Carroll High School in Texas to three consecutive state titles in the 5A classification before heading to North Texas prior to the 2007 season. The Mean Green had fallen on hard times, winning just five games in the two years preceding Dodge’s arrival, but they had experienced success in the not too distant past, winning four consecutive Sun Belt titles from 2001-2004 in the first four years of the conference. Dodge’s arrival did not produce a renaissance. In three and half years, his teams won just six of 43 games and finished with a 3-23 Sun Belt record.

So the track record for high school coaches moving directly from Friday Night Lights to the top spot of an FBS program is both short and uninspiring. A sample size of one doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what to expect. In the absence of a good sample, let’s take a look at how UNLV performed the past four seasons under head coach Bobby Hauck relative to their conference brethren in terms of record, Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (YPP Net), Offensive Touchdowns (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). The number in parentheses is UNLV’s ranking within the Mountain West.
The Rebels were below average in terms of Yards per Play for each season examined. In fact, based on Yards per Play, their ‘breakthrough’ campaign in 2013 was roughly equivalent to their 2012 season when they won just a fourth of their conference games. The Rebels were more efficient (or perhaps luckier) with their yards in 2013, ranking a respectable fifth in APR. That efficiency (or luck) deserted them (Las Vegas is in a desert, get it?) in 2014 and the Rebels were back to their losing ways. Despite their bowl appearance in 2013, the Rebels have not put an above-average mid-major team on the field in quite some time.

How will Tony Sanchez do at UNLV? Your guess is as good as mine. He has not been on a college football staff since 1996 when he was a student assistant at New Mexico State. UNLV is obviously taking a big risk in hiring a high school coach to lead their program. However, a team like UNLV needs to take risks. If Sanchez fails, so what? He will be in lockstep with pretty much every other coach the Rebels have had. Instead of hiring a retread (see Turner, Ron) or a hot young coordinator (see McElwain, Jim), the Rebels took a chance on a local high school coach with a great track record (in high school of course). If nothing else, UNLV will likely give Sanchez plenty of time to succeed. Mike Sanford won two games each of his first three seasons and was allowed to stay for five years. Bobby Hauck did about the same, winning two games during each of his first three seasons without being fired. In fact, he was not even let go after the disappointing 2014 campaign as he submitted his own resignation. What college team could be more conducive to taking a big risk than one housed in Las Vegas? Sanchez may not succeed, but if nothing else, the Rebels have tried something different. 

Grade: B

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Buffalo

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our third stop takes us to the frigid northeast and the Buffalo Bulls.

Buffalo won the MAC in 2008 under the guidance of Turner Gill. However, the Bulls were far from the best team in the MAC, so a decade long run at the top of the conference should not have been expected. After some anticipated regression in 2009 (though a 5-7 record at Buffalo should still be considered successful), Gill departed for Kansas and the Bulls hired Jeff Quinn as his replacement. Quinn had never been a head coach before save for two previous stints as interim head coach for bowl games at Central Michigan in 2006 and Cincinnati in 2009 (both times following the departure of Brian Kelly). Quinn was fired midway through his fifth season after a 3-4 start, and he finishes his Buffalo career with a middling 20-36 record. However, one could make the argument that he was relieved of his duties a bit prematurely. The table below lists Buffalo’s record, Yards per Play, Yards per Play Allowed, Yards per Play Net, Offensive Touchdowns (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). Keep in mind these numbers include conference games only and the ranking in parentheses is their standing against the rest of the MAC.
As you can see, Buffalo steadily improved after bottoming out in Quinn’s first season as coach before becoming a MAC contender in his fourth season. After that breakthrough, some regression for year five should have been expected with the defense losing a top-ten draft choice in Khalil Mack. Sure enough, while the offense remained potent, the defense declined and the Bulls sputtered to a 3-4 MAC record (their game with Kent State was canceled due to hazardous weather). The Bulls fired Quinn after a 1-2 start in MAC play, and under his replacement, they split their remaining four games. So yes, the Bulls probably rushed in pulling the trigger on letting Quinn go (let’s not forget this team was 30-99 in the eleven seasons preceding Quinn's arrival since returning to FBS in 1999). However, despite their haste the Bulls may have actually traded up as they were able to nab Lance Leipold as his successor.

Who is Lance Leipold? Growing up with The Simpsons, when I hear the name Leipold, this is what I think of.
Alas, Lance is not that Leipold. This Leipold has been the head coach at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater for eight seasons where he has compiled a ridiculous 109-6 record and won six DIII national titles. You might say Leipold had accomplished all he could at the DIII level. Now the Buffalo Bulls may have found a market inefficiency and hired themselves a great coach for the foreseeable future. Naw, who are we kidding? If Leipold has even a modicum of success at Buffalo, he will be snatched up by a Power 5 school in no time. What about the other point though? Are successful coaches from the lower divisions of college football (not intended to be a derogatory term) an undervalued resource? If they are, they may not be for much longer. From 2000-2012, seventeen FBS schools hired coaches away from lower-division programs (NAIA, Division III, Division II, or FCS); an average of roughly one and a half per year. These coaches achieved varying degrees of success and notoriety (from Jim Tressel to Mick Dennehy to Jim Harbaugh to Paul Wulff). This does not include successful lower-division coaches who took coordinator positions before moving up to FBS (like Hugh Freeze and Mark Hudspeth. In the past three offseasons nine such coaches have been hired by FBS programs, including six prior to the 2014 season.

How do these coaches who move up from the lower divisions perform once they get to the big stage of FBS? To answer that question, I ran a regression analysis using the seventeen coaches hired from 2000-2012. I used 2012 as the cutoff because that means each coach spent at least three seasons at his FBS school. The dependent variable in the regression analysis was the coach’s winning percentage at his FBS school. A few housekeeping notes on winning percentage: First, I used winning percentage because it was simple and easy to calculate. A better measure would probably be winning percentage above or below recent historical precedent. I am very lazy, so feel free to follow up using that. Second, I only included the first FBS stop the coach made. For example, Jerry Kill was hired as the coach of Northern Illinois prior to the 2008 season. He coached the Huskies for three seasons before taking the Minnesota job. His Minnesota career has nothing to do with whether he was a successful hire for Northern Illinois. The dependent variables I used to predict winning percentage were tenure as a lower-division coach (in years), winning percentage at the lower-division, and games above/below .500 at the lower-division. For tenure, I used consecutive years as a head coach at lower divisions even if it was at different schools. Thus Jerry Kill’s experience at Saginaw Valley State (DII), Emporia State (DII), and Southern Illinois (FCS) count as fourteen years even though he never spent more than seven years at any one school. I figured a coach with a longer tenure would be a better bet than one with a shorter tenure. I used winning percentage because duh, that is the object of the game. I used games above or below .500 as sort of a more advanced version of winning percentage to give more credit to coaches who produce good winning percentages over a longer time period. The complete list of the seventeen coaches included in this study can be found at the end of this post.

Here is the correlation for Experience and FBS winning percentage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the correlation is positive. In the aggregate, the longer a coach spends at the lower-division, the more successful they will be as an FBS head coach. The R Squared value of .2866 is on the low side, but all things being equal, a coach who spends a decade in the lower-divisions would be preferable to one who spent just a season or two there (I’m looking at you Mike London).

Here is the correlation for Lower Division winning percentage and FBS winning percentage.
Again, the relationship is positive. It would of course be preferable for a lower-division coach to have a great winning percentage. The R Squared is lower than that for Experience, but there is probably a little selection bias at work here. Lower-division coaches who are not successful do not get FBS jobs. They get pink slips.

Finally, here is the correlation for Lower Division Games Above .500 and FBS winning percentage.
Once again, the relationship is positive and the R Squared value is the highest of the three variables examined. Intuitively this makes sense. Games Above .500 is a combination of the other two variables, Experience and Winning Percentage. Games Above .500 can help us weed out some of the randomness. This is not a perfect analogy, and it involves a different sport, but consider Andy Enfield. He was the head coach of Florida Gulf Coast, a school that took the nation by storm almost exactly two years ago. Dunk City became the first 15 seed to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. After their run, Enfield became the coach of Southern California, a huge step up from Florida Gulf Coast. However, Enfield had only two seasons of head coaching experience under his belt and a middling 21-15 record in the Atlantic Sun. Since being hire by the Trojans, his charges have won a grand total of five conference games in nearly two seasons. Without only a short track record prior to being named the head coach at Southern Cal, it’s likely the powers that be in LA were Fooled by Randomness. Andy Enfield just happened to be standing around when some good sh*t happened. We should all be so lucky.

So back to Leipold. How does he measure up based on the three variables? Well, he spent eight years at Wisconsin Whitewater which is a solid run and makes him about average experience wise when compared to the lower-division hires examined in the study. His winning percentage of nearly 95% is tops by a healthy margin (Paul Johnson won 86% of his games in five seasons at Georgia Southern) and his games above .500 is twenty more than Brian Kelly accumulated in 13 seasons at Grand Valley State. If you are hiring a lower-division coach to lead your program, they don’t come much better than Lance Leipold. Add in the fact that Buffalo was probably a little better than their record indicated last year, and it’s easy to foresee a return to the postseason for the Bulls. As always, nothing guaranteed, but Buffalo appears to have made a great hire, even if he is likely at worst to double his number of career losses by the time he leaves upstate New York.

Grade: A

Coaches in Study (Alphabetical Order):
David Bailiff
Todd Berry
Terry Bowden
Mick Dennehy
Rich Ellerson
Jim Harbaugh
Bobby Hauck
Bobby Johnson
Paul Johnson
Brian Kelly
Jerry Kill
Pete Lembo
Mike London
Hal Mumme
Steve Roberts
Jim Tressel
Paul Wulff

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Florida

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our second stop takes us to Gainesville.

Three bowl appearances in four seasons, including a bid to the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 campaign were not enough to keep Will Muschamp employed at the University of Florida. You would be hard pressed to blame the powers that be for giving Muschamp the axe. Under his predecessor, Urban Meyer, the Gators were perennial contenders and winners of two national championships. In fact, outside of the outlier 2012 season when the Gators went 7-1 in SEC play, Florida was just 10-14 against league opponents under Muschamp. That kind of mediocrity might fly at Kentucky and get a statue erected in your honor at Vanderbilt, but Florida fans are used to the finer things in life (excluding leg wear of course). To replace Muschamp (a defensive-minded coach), the Gators have tabbed Jim McElwain, a former quarterback at Eastern Washington, offensive coordinator at Alabama, and head coach at Colorado State to be their new leader. How did McElwain perform at his previous head coaching stop in Fort Collins?

The Colorado State Rams were a mid-major force in the 1990’s under Sonny Lubick. The Rams finished in the top-20 of the final polls three times between 1994 and 2000. However, as the new millennium began, the Rams fortunes declined. After finishing 10-4 in 2002, the Rams went just 24-36 over Lubick’s final five seasons and finished with a winning record only once in that span. Lubick was replaced by Steve Fairchild, a Colorado State alum, who was also an assistant under Lubick in the glory days of the program. Fairchild’s tenure began with promise as the Rams went 7-6 and won the New Mexico Bowl in 2008. However it was all downhill from there as the Rams finished with identical 3-9 marks over the next three seasons and won just three of their final 23 conference games. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was hired to return the Rams to prominence, but early on the tide was against him. The Rams began McElwain’s first season 1-6 before rebounding to win three of their final five games and finish 4-8. The Rams improved to 8-6 in his second season, including an epic bowl win over Washington State, and were 10-2 in the 2014 regular season before he was snatched up by the Gators. So, after starting 1-6, the Rams won 21 of the final 31 games they played under McElwain. They also entered the top-25 (albeit briefly) for the first time since 2003 and beat a pair of Power Five programs (Colorado and Boston College) in 2014.

So we know how McElwain’s Rams performed by basic wins and losses, but how did they perform in relation to their conference brethren in other areas? The table below lists Colorado State’s performance under McElwain in terms of Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (Net), Offensive Touchdown (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). Keep in mind these numbers include conference games only and the ranking in parentheses is their standing against the rest of the Mountain West.
In McElwain’s first season, their poor record (3-5 in Mountain West play) belied their ability to move the ball more effectively than their opponent. The Rams actually possessed a positive yards per play differential (though this had more to do with their defense). Unfortunately, they were not able to turn that yardage advantage into points as their opponents scored ten more touchdowns than the Rams in 2012. In 2013, McElwain got the offense back on track and the Rams surged, scoring more than two additional touchdowns per game. The offense again improved in 2014 and the defense held steady giving the Rams the second best yards per play differential in the Mountain West in 2014. Oh, and the Rams did all that with just two players drafted in 2014 (Weston Richburg, an offensive lineman in the second round and Crockett Gilmore, a tight end in the third round) and just one projected to be drafted in the first two days this spring.

So what does that mean for Florida in 2015 and beyond? Well, Florida's issue under Muschamp was scoring points. The defense was either above-average or elite as compared to the rest of the SEC in Muschamp’s tenure. Hiring a proven mid-major coach with an offensive background was a logical progression. Of course, Muschamp was a defensive guy, so the possibility exists that the offense will improve just as the defense collapses and leave the Gators in the same position they are currently in four years from now.

So now that we know a little about McElwain, what do we know about BCS or Power 5 programs that hire successful mid-major coaches? I have examined all the successful mid-major coaches hired by BCS (now Power 5 programs) since 2008. I have made a few arbitrary decisions about which coaches we should exclude because it is too early to tell how they might end up. Feel free to disagree if you want. Here are the coaches we are excluding and why in no particular order.

Bobby Petrino, Louisville, 2014 – Second tenure at Louisville. Bowl game and top-25 finish in first season back. How long will he stay? Only his real estate agent knows for sure?

Dave Doeren, NC State, 2013 –Winless in conference play in first season, bowl win in second.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest, 2014 – Blew things up. Terrible offense and only one conference win, but did beat the team that beat the eventual nation champions.

Al Golden, Miami, 2011 – Been in south Florida for four seasons, but the Hurricanes have had a dark cloud hanging over the program in the form of Nevin Shapiro and possible NCAA sanctions. If you want to rate him as mediocre or a failure, I won’t argue too hard.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina, 2012 – Similar situation as Golden with a scandal dangling over the program like the Sword of Damocles.

Todd Graham, Pitt, 2011 – Did not have quite the longevity of other legendary Pennsylvania coaches like Joe Paterno, Chuck Noll, or Bill Cowher.

Tim Beckman, Illinois, 2012 – Will be entering his fourth season. Just 4-20 in Big 10 play, but did guide the Illini to a bowl in 2014.

Darrell Hazell, Purdue, 2013 – Early returns are not great, but the Boilermakers did improve in his second season.

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin, 2013 – Stayed just two seasons. One Big 10 division title.

Sonny Dykes, Cal, 2013 – Winless in conference play his first season and one win away from a bowl game in his second.

Chris Petersen, Washington, 2014 – Not easy leaving the Boise bubble. Lost six games in 2014. Did not lose his sixth at Boise State until his sixth season.

Mike MacIntyre, Colorado, 2013 – Just 1-17 through two seasons of Pac-12 play.

Butch Jones, Cincinnati, 2010 – One could argue he stayed long enough to evaluate his tenure. Two bowl games and one top-25 finish in three seasons before leaving for the riches of the SEC.

Willie Taggart, South Florida, 2013 – South Florida was technically a BCS program when he arrived. Improved in his second season, but still an also-ran in the American Athletic Conference.

So with that out of the way, here are the successful mid-major coaches we will include in our analysis (sorted chronologically).

Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech, 2008 – Johnson turned the Navy program around and brought the triple-option to the big leagues. In his seven season in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have gone 37-19 in ACC play, won three division crowns, an ACC title, and finished ranked three times. Good hire.

Art Briles, Baylor, 2008 – The former high school coach had turned around the fortunes of the Houston Cougars before he was given the unenviable task of attempting to turn the Baylor program around. With a boost from Robert Griffin, Briles got the Bears to 10 wins in 2011, and it looked like the team might have peaked. Little did we know, the best was yet to come. The Bears have played in five consecutive bowl games and have won 22 games over the past two seasons. Great hire. Briles has also written a book I recommend you check out if you are into that kind of elitist stuff like reading. Beating Goliath is the title.

Turner Gill, Kansas, 2010 – Gill turned the woebegone Buffalo Bulls around, winning the MAC championship in 2008 (on the strength of some unsustainable turnover luck). However, his tenure at Kansas was as short as it was abysmal. The Jayhawks won just five of the 24 games they played under Gill. He probably should have been given at least another year, but since he wasn’t you have to rate the hire as poor.

Skip Holtz, South Florida, 2010 – Fresh off two consecutive Conference USA titles at East Carolina, Skip Holtz was hired by the Bulls to replace the only coach they had ever known, Jim Leavitt. His first squad finished 8-5 and his second began the year 4-0 before losing seven of their final eight games. His next team again finished with a losing record and he was canned. The 2011 and 2012 teams are anomalies under Holtz as they posted a wretched 3-8 mark in close games. In his other 13 seasons, his teams have gone 40-30 in one-score games. Thus, his 2011 and 2012 teams were probably not as bad as they appeared. We’ll say bad hire, but Holtz probably should have been given another season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011 – His tenure as Michigan head man began in such a promising manner. His first team won the Sugar Bowl and finished in the top-15. His second team went 6-2 in the Big 10 and only lost to very good teams (Alabama, Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and South Carolina combined for a 58-8 record). His third team began the season 5-0, but lost six of their final eight games to put Hoke squarely on the hot seat entering his fourth season. His final team posted a 3-5 Big 10 record and finished 5-7 overall. The offense was impotent over his final two seasons and greatly contributed to his firing. Mediocre hire.

Jerry Kill, Minnesota, 2011 – After leading Northern Illinois back to the MAC mountaintop, Kill assumed the head coaching position at Minnesota. After a ho-hum first year, Kill and the Gophers qualified for a bowl in 2012 thanks to a soft non-conference schedule. Then the team continued to improve in both 2013 and 2014. Now they just need to win a bowl game. Good hire.

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss, 2012 – After one season at Arkansas State (unbeaten in Sun Belt play), Freeze headed to the Grove where he was an assistant under Ed Orgeron. His time there is chronicled in Meat Market, another book I would recommend. The Rebels have improved in each of his three seasons, and despite the fact that 2014 ended on a sour note, Ole Miss appears to be in good hands. Good hire.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, 2012 – After nearly leading Houston to a BCS bowl in 2011, Sumlin stayed in-state, but moved up in class. His tenure at Texas A&M has coincided with the Aggies shift to the SEC. The Aggies have won three bowl games and finished ranked twice in three seasons under Sumlin. Oh, and some guy won the Heisman Trophy. We’ll call this a good hire, but mention in passing that the Aggies win total has declined each season since their breakout in 2012. Perhaps Sumlin set the bar too high?

Gus Malzahn, Auburn, 2013 – Yes, he has only been at Auburn two seasons (after a one-year stint at Arkansas State), but Malzahn led the Tigers to an SEC crown in his first season as well as a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers declined in his second season, but still finished ranked in the final poll. Good hire, and perhaps a slam dunk.

By my estimation, of the nine hires included in this unscientific study, six were either good or great (Johnson, Briles, Kill, Freeze, Sumlin, and Malzahn), one was average (Hoke), and two were bad (Gill and Holtz). I will once again remark that Gill and Holtz were not given ample time to fix their struggling programs, and that in regards to Skip Holtz, he was probably more unlucky than bad. Now, some might argue that I have cherry-picked who to include here, and I have to a certain extent. However, I just don’t think we can yet judge relatively new hires like Golden and Fedora because of the off the field messes they stepped into and others like MacIntyre because he took over such a bad program. In other instances, like Beckman and Hazell, I feel those programs are at a crossroads like Bone Thugs N Harmony, and shouldn’t be judged just yet. If you want to lump those two in with the bad hires, be my guest.

Based on the data I examined, employing a proven mid-major coach appears to be one of the safer crapshoots in hiring a coach. Think of it as a roulette wheel with 22 black spaces (and you are betting on black) instead of 18. If you hire a successful mid-major coach, you will probably at worst get to one bowl game in his tenure. Of course, Florida has more ambitious aspirations that getting to a bowl game. Were I a betting man, I would bet against Florida winning a national title under McElwain, but that has more to do with the fact that it is damn hard to win a national title (pretty sure they only award one per season) than anything to do with McElwain specifically. McElwain revived a dormant program in a short time and appears to have the offensive bona fides to get the Gators back near the top of the SEC. He’s not the slam dunk hire Urban Meyer was a decade ago, but there is a lot to like.

Grade: A-
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