Does Firing Your Football Coach Lead to Success? We Don’t Think So.

There is an old adage that states head coaches are hired to be fired, and a vast majority of the time, this is true. In the NFL over the past couple of decades, the average tenure of a head coach has been 3.3 years. According to Business Insider, that average is higher among FBS college football head coaches, but not by much (3.8 years).

Another way to examine coaching turnover is to calculate how many NFL and FBS head coaching changes are made each year. The following table shows data from the last 10 NFL seasons.

We see that there have been 65 coaching changes during this time period, an average of 6.5 per year, which equates to 20.3 percent head coaching turnover each season.

We now turn our attention to the same data for FBS college football.

We see that there have been 241 coaching changes during this time period, an average of 24.1 per year, which equates to 18.5 percent head coaching turnover each season.

For both professional and college football, that is a significant amount of head coaching turnover. The question is: how successful have these changes been?

First, let’s take a look at the NFL. Since the average head coaching tenure is 3.3 years, we’ve examined all the head coaches over the past decade who had a tenure of 3 years or less, and compared their record to the record of their successor over the same period of time.

Green indicates the successor had a higher winning percentage, red indicates the successor had a lower winning percentage.

At first glance, these results look pretty good. There are 38 coaching changes in our table, and 23 of those moves (60.5%) resulted in improvement. However, a closer look reveals something quite different.

When a team makes a head coaching change, they are not looking to take a team with a losing record and improve it to a slightly better losing record. Of the 23 “improvements” noted in our table, 13 of those coaches still had a losing (or even) record over the same number of years that their predecessor was given.

If we consider a successful coaching change, one that results in a winning record (and a better record than the previous coach), only 10 (26.3%) of these qualify.

The following table includes data for FBS college football teams. The teams listed here made the most coaching changes over the past 10–15 years, and the chart includes coaches with a tenure of 5 years or less.

Note: there were a number of schools not included here that experienced as many or more coaching changes than the schools listed in the chart, but those were typically smaller programs that had a consistent pattern of losing head coaches to larger programs, so those changes can be ignored for the purposes of this study.

Of the 23 coaching changes listed here, 12 of them (52.2%) resulted in improvement. However, much like the NFL data above, that percentage drops significantly if we use the “winning record” criteria described previously.

Only 6 (26.1%) of the FBS coaching changes resulted in a better record than the previous coach, and a winning record.

The fact that so few head coaching changes result in a winning record and improvement over the previous regime points to some serious issues in the pro and college football hiring process. So we ask the question, why are football coaches fired so quickly over and over if the data says that’s wrong?

Coaches are completely aware of the fact that performance is everything; if they don’t produce, they will be fired. And, they probably won’t be given very many years to prove themselves as we have seen from the data.

This cycle produces what we call a ‘culture of fear’ in the coaching profession that no other industry deals with on a daily basis. Coaches know they are on a short leash from the day they are hired, and this lack of job security and peace of mind creates tremendous pressure and anxiety among head football coaches.

So we ask, is mental health important for NFL and college football coaches?

The numbers suggest that the current system of hiring and firing is not working.

The initial step is to hire the right person to begin with — more specifically, hire head coaches for the right reasons. Too often coaches are hired for reasons outside of what the right ‘fit’ for the organization might be.

A stellar win-loss record, a family history of coaching success, a history with successful teams and/or coaches, and personal or professional connections are all criteria currently used in the hiring of coaches.

Is this right?

Having won elsewhere, having the right last name, having been an assistant coach under a great head coach or for a great team, or having a comfort level with someone because you’ve worked with them before are not always good indicators of how successful a head coaching hire will be. Even something as obvious as past success can be misleading if not thoroughly investigated and taken into account with many other factors.

Hiring the right head coach is not an exact science by any means, but the process is made even more difficult by using criteria that is often more beneficial for public relations or self serving to the administration (Ie., selling the hire to a fan base or to boosters) or networking (working with your friends in the profession) than it is for producing on the field.

So why doesn’t the administration have more patience?

The data shows that having a revolving door of head coaches does not lead to future success. If you believe in the head coach you hired because he was brought in for the right reasons, why are schools giving up on them because there are some bumps in the road in the first, second, or even third year? There is an old quote that “business is bad news, but if you can deal with the bad news each and every day, you’ll have success in business.”

We all know that professional and college football is definitely big business but it seems like so many times today, organizations and college athletic departments just run from the so-called bad news instead of working through it and ensuring each other that they supported by all.

So what if we administration thought differently? What if professional and collegiate football coaches knew they were not going to be dismissed if they don’t win right away? What if the culture of fear wasn’t in play and ‘psychological safety’ was instilled by the administration? Many global case studies show people are much more likely to do what it takes to build a team/program the right way, rather than focusing on shortcuts that might bring the team quicker success but not necessarily sustained success.

There have been a number of situations where NFL teams or college programs have chosen a head coaching candidate they believed in (who perhaps wasn’t a traditional or popular hire at the time), then stayed the course when things became tough.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have only had three head coaches in the last 51 years. The first coach in that trio, Chuck Noll, began his tenure in Pittsburgh with a 12–30 record during his first three years at the helm.

That is the kind of record that will typically get a coach sent to the unemployment line. But, despite that rough start, the Steelers kept their faith in Noll, who rewarded them with a dominant run that featured four Super Bowl victories (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980).

Bill Cowher was the next head coach of the Steelers, but unlike Noll, he got off to a fast start. However, in the middle of his run in Pittsburgh, he ran into some difficulties, going 22–26 from 1998–2000.

The team decided to stay the course, and Cowher turned things around quickly, leading to a great deal of further success and a Super Bowl victory in 2006.

Pittsburgh’s next and current coach, Mike Tomlin, also got off to a great start, winning the Super Bowl in 2009 in only his second year with the team.

But, much like his predecessor, his team hit a snag after a few years and posted back-to-back 8–8 records in 2012–13. As they are prone to do, the organization remained firm in their support of their head coach, and he bounced back with a 45–19 record over the next four seasons.

The New England Patriots are an example of an NFL franchise that made a hire that went very much against the standard hiring trends, and it paid off big-time.

When the Patriots hired Bill Belichick to be their head coach in 2000, his only previous head coaching experience in the NFL was his five years with the Cleveland Browns from 1991–95.

Belichick compiled a 36–44 record in Cleveland, but despite that, New England took a leap of faith, handing not only the head coaching duties to Belichick but nearly complete control of the team’s football operations — a very bold move given Belichick’s failure in his previous head coaching stint.

The result of this decision is legendary; Bill Belichick has established himself as arguably the most successful head coach in NFL history, appearing in nine Super Bowls, winning six.

The Patriots organization thought they saw something in a coach who had a losing record in his previous head coaching stop, and they chose to take the public relations hit because they believed in his ability to get the job done in New England.

The Minnesota Vikings are a team that has had among the lowest head coaching turnover in the NFL over the last several decades. In 1967, the Vikings hired Canadian Football League coach Bud Grant to lead their team.

Grant didn’t fare too well early on, going 11–14 during his first two seasons. However, things started to click in Year 3, and Grant went on to guide his team to four Super Bowl appearances in the ’70s, including a run of three out of four during the span 1974–77.

There are also many great examples of unusual hires and patience paying off in the college ranks…one of those is Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.

Ferentz was the head coach at the University of Maine from 1990–92, posting a rather poor 12–21 record. Hiring someone with this head coaching background is a hard sell to fans and boosters, but Iowa had confidence they found the right man for the job.

Things didn’t begin well at all for Ferentz at Iowa, as he compiled a 4–19 record in his first two years. It would have been easy to hit the eject button on Ferentz at this point, but the university did not.

Kirk Ferentz has gone on to a long and illustrious career leading the Hawkeyes program, winning three conference titles and appearing in a whopping 17 postseason Bowl games.

Texas Christian University (TCU) has shown patience with their head coach through several down periods, and that loyalty has been rewarded with a stellar 20-year run for the Horned Frogs football program.

TCU has had tremendous success under head coach Gary Patterson, who has elevated the team from a middling Division I program to one that many would consider a national power.

Despite Patterson’s outstanding record with the Horned Frogs, he has encountered some down years from time to time. The team dropped to 5–6 in 2004, only to rebound to 11–1 the next season.

By current TCU standards, the 8–5 season of 2007 was not a good one, but an 11–2 result followed in 2008. The team posted a two-year record of 11–14 in 2012–13, but again, came back very strong in 2014 (12–1).

2016 saw the Horned Frogs dip to 6–7, but an 11–3 mark followed the next season. Clearly, Patterson’s tenure in Fort Worth has had its ups and downs, but the school has remained steadfast in its support of Gary Patterson.

Pulling the plug on Patterson after a rough year or two, as some schools might have done, would have also potentially erased the most successful seasons in school history (11–1, 12–1, 13–0, 12–1), all of which came after these brief lulls.

For our final illustration from the college ranks, we’ll move to the Clemson Tigers. Dabo Swinney was named interim head coach of the team after Tommy Bowden’s resignation midway through the 2008 season.

Swinney posted a pedestrian 4–3 record for the remainder of 2008. Clemson supporters wanted the administration to hire a big-name head coach or at the very least a prominent assistant with previous head coaching experience.

The university decided to offer Dabo Swinney the head coaching position, which was a very unpopular decision among Tigers faithful. He had never been more than a position coach other than his seven games as Clemson’s interim head coach, and those results were not impressive.

As Swinney’s tenure began at Clemson, the masses who were so against the hire felt vindicated. Dabo Swinney’s teams went 19–15 in his first three years, a rather poor showing by Clemson standards.

But, the school stuck with their embattled head coach, and an incredible run of eight conference championships and two national championships began.

Making a quality hire based on what an organization believes is the right ‘fit’ is essential no matter where the candidate has coached in the past or what his last name is. Hiring is hard but ‘fit’ is something that needs to be explored more. Making million-dollar hiring decisions based on ‘one-year wonders’ or who will win the press conference is proving more and more to be wrong. And trust me, we are the first to know that having patience with your chosen coach doesn’t guarantee that your team will win a Super Bowl or a College Football Playoff National Championship. But, history and the data included in this article certainly states that working through troubled times together and getting better at your working relationships with your hire, can maximize your odds of success.

And that’s what successful decision-making in sports is all about.

  • *Keep an eye out for the next article in this series as we shift our focus to coaching hires in the world of NBA and college basketball.

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