The coaching carousel in college football


According to reports, current Wisconsin Badgers coach Bret Bielema has accepted the vacant head coaching position with the Arkansas Razorbacks. (Gregory Shamus/GETTY IMAGES)
December 5, 2012

In college football, it’s all over but the bowls.

And that means one thing: The firing and hiring of college coaches has been happening at a furious pace in recent weeks, with new coaches named to vacated spots seemingly every hour. The University of Arkansas stunned the football world by hiring Bret Bielema from Big Ten champion University of Wisconsin. Auburn hired back Gus Malzahn, a former assistant who had left to coach the Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State. Boston College hired Temple’s coach. Purdue hired Kent State’s. The list goes on.

But we’re left with the following question: How much good will all these leadership changes do?

I understand that there needs to be accountability and consequences for these leaders’ performances. A team that has repeated losing seasons, shows a consistent lack of discipline over time, or that is led by a coach with questionable morals or ethics—whether the NCAA has gotten involved or not—probably needs new management. But this kind of revolving door at the top is also obscenely expensive for academic institutions, surely has an effect on the players and, says a study released in October in the journal Social Science Quarterly, may not do much good after all.

The New York Times reported last week on the study, conducted by researchers at three universities in Colorado. The researchers found that over a five-year period following the coaching changes they examined, teams that replaced their leaders performed about the same or worse as those that did not. The teams with the worst records showed similar results whether or not they kept coaches in place, while middling teams actually did worse than their peers when they changed coaches.

Potential culprits of the poor performance, the researchers told the Times, could be that coaches need to adjust to the new university, that players have to learn a new system or that the relationships in recruiting efforts are disrupted. It’s easy to see all three being at fault. As Corporate America shows us every day, what makes a leader effective in one place will not necessarily make him or her succeed in another. While there are certainly exceptions, leaders usually are not so easily interchangeable. The resources at their disposal, the relationships they’ve developed and the staff of deputies available to them all make a difference in their success.

Despite that, universities are willing to forego millions of dollars in severance packages to hire new coaches. Derek Dooley, who was fired from the University of Tennessee after just three years at the helm, will get $5 million for leaving, money that might have been given to the university for academic and scholarship funding. Auburn’s Gene Chizik, who led the Tigers to a national championship just two years ago, will receive $7.5 million in a contract buyout. Neither coach had been in the job for more than four years, so it’s hard to know how they might have fared had they been given more time.

Meanwhile, what seems to be missing in the discussion is how the lives of student-athletes are affected by all this change. These are 18- and 19-year-old kids we’re talking about here, players who sat with a coach in their mother’s living room and heard promises about the role that coach would play in their lives. College coaches do more than just call plays, make substitution decisions and recruit new players. Frequently, they act as on-campus guiding hands for some very young and impressionable minds.

This is big-time football, I realize. Several of the coaches in question did appear to be in a rut that called for a change. And yes, I’ve been known to make my own threats about my favorite team needing a new coordinator or coach when the going gets tough. But maybe it’s time more universities looked at the evidence of how much athletic leadership changes do quantifiable good. Their students—and their budgets—would probably be better off.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

How Nick Saban leads the Crimson Tide

Ohio State’s no-reward winning streak

Great leadership books in 2012

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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