Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Kevin Wilson's War

Full disclosure, I have been pulling for Kevin Wilson ever since he became the head coach of Indiana prior to the 2011 season. I remembered him from such coordinating duties as North by Northwestern and Sam Bradford and the Fortress of Solitude. I had hopes that his brand of offense could bring a consistent winner to Indiana for the first time in nearly two decades. In four seasons, Wilson has gotten the offense humming, nearly pulled off bowl eligibility, and helped Tevin Coleman put up ridiculous video game rushing numbers. Alas, despite those successes, the Hoosiers have yet to have a winning season or qualify for a bowl. With that in mind, did it make sense to bring Wilson back for a fifth season? To answer this question, I looked at coaches from Power 5 (formerly BCS) conferences who did not post a winning season in their first four years and were brought back for a fifth season. I examined how long they lasted at their respective school after the fourth season and what record they produced. I went back and looked at any coach who was coaching during the BCS era (since 1998) because as far as arbitrary dates go, this gives us a decent sample of coaches. In all, twelve coaches in addition to Mr. Wilson, were able to coach four seasons without posting a winning record and were allowed back for a fifth season. The table featuring the twelve coaches is listed below sorted by winning percentage in the first four seasons. In depth analysis to follow.
I’ll start with what I think is the biggest takeaway. Among coaches with losing records in their first four seasons, winning percentage appears to have no impact on how long they stayed at the school or the success they enjoyed. The winningest coach among the cohort, Terry Allen (no, not that Terry Allen) lasted just one additional season at Kansas. In addition, the coaches with the longest tenure, Schiano and McCarney, ranked ninth and tied for eleventh respectively in terms of winning percentage. For me, the second biggest takeaway is that half of the coaches on this list qualified for at least one bowl, with four (one third of the sample) qualifying for multiple postseason appearances. And finally, and this takeaway should be obvious, is that with the exception of Colorado (and that is arguable now), none of these schools is a traditional power. That makes perfect sense. At a school like Alabama or Ohio State, you won’t keep your job for four seasons if you fail to produce a winning record. Meanwhile, at a school like Duke, you are afforded a little more leeway. Other interesting (to me) statistical minutia follows below.

Who is Tom Holmoe? I have been obsessively following college football for a decade now and was more than a casual observer for about twelve years before that, but I have to say, I didn’t recognize his name. Anyway, under his watch, the Cal program cratered before Jeff Tedford revived it.

Dan Hawkins actually got Colorado to a bowl game in his second season, but the Buffs lost that game to finish with a losing record (hence the asterisk). He probably would have been fired before his fifth season, but the school didn’t have the money.

My alma mater actually had the most patience, letting Jim Caldwell get away with six losing seasons before bringing him back for a seventh. Caldwell rewarded the patience with a bowl win, but was fired after another losing campaign in 2000. The move was good for both parties as Wake would go on to hire arguably the best coach in school history, while Caldwell would enjoy considerable success in the NFL. Granted he was asleep at the wheel in Super Bowl XLIV and proved himself to be a coward or slave to conventional wisdom this past January, but he won a bowl game at Wake Forest, a claim only three other men can make.

Another coach from this list (and from Indiana) also got to lead an NFL team. He did not have quite as much success.

So, in summary, if (relatively) recent history is any guide, bringing back a coach with four losing seasons to begin his career is not necessarily a bad move. With a Las Vegas over/under of six wins, statistical projections expect Indiana to be in the mix for a bowl bid in 2015. Waiting another year or two instead of blowing the whole thing up is probably a prudent decision.

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