Few would blame you if you have little interest in rehashing the South Carolina loss this weekend. Or in talking about the Georgia, UMass, or Florida games before that. And what is there to say about Tennessee being a 34-point underdog to Alabama this week?
With all that’s been happening, and with what appears to be more and more likely to happen, it got me thinking about the criteria used to evaluate coaches. For fans, a lot of it is just unadulterated emotion; this person is currently making us mad, and we believe this other person would make it all better.
An athletic director, though, isn’t likely to make important decisions based on his emotional state. He’ll develop the criteria he uses to make his own judgments and then use them to evaluate current coaches and, when the time comes, to evaluate candidates for vacancies.
The question then is this: What criteria should an athletic director use when making these decisions?
I. The lag measure: A consistent winning record
Winning within the rules has to be number one on the list. It’s the primary goal, the trophy you’re chasing. For anyone perhaps bristling at the idea that winning matters more than anything else on a college campus, that is not what I’m saying. I’m saying it is the primary responsibility for one of its key employees, namely the college football coach.
A University is a large institution with many goals, the most important of which is education. The institution, though, is made up of many different components, departments, and business units, each with its own limited purpose that makes a contribution to the overall goal. For example, campus security has little direct effect on education, but it is still integral to the efficient functioning of the institution. In other words, security provides an indirect contribution to the goal. The same goes for landscaping and maintenance, and marketing, and a host of other University groups that indirectly further the school’s primary purpose.
That includes the football program, too, and although the football program has several sub-purposes and sub-groups, the head football coach is charged with basically only one thing: winning within the rules.
Wins are easy to measure. You’re looking for a consistent track record of success. That could be some combination of a solid winning percentage over time and the number of pinnacles reached, such as Top 25 finishes, number of wins over rivals, division championships, conference championships, playoff appearances, national championship appearances, and national championship trophies. And it has to be consistent and sustained.
A quick word on fit and culture
To say that winning is number one on the list does not mean that it is elevated over the culture of the program. You want someone who accomplishes the goal of winning at the expected level and does so both within the rules and consistent with the culture of the program. That does not mean that every program has to do it the same way, but a wise athletic director will look for a candidate who is a naturally good fit for the school’s culture. If character, integrity, and other such virtues matter to the program, then the program should actively search for a candidate who can both win and mesh with the culture. I doubt BYU is hiring Bobby Petrino or Rick Pitino.
II. Lead measures
Winning is a “lag measure,” as it’s the main thing you’re trying to accomplish at the end of it all. “Lead measures,” on the other hand, are those things that generally have a direct impact the lag measures.
What are some lead measures for college football coaches? What things tend to produce wins within the rules and the culture of a program? Here are just a few of the most important ones:
It is well-established now that recruiting rankings matter. There have been numerous articles that show this to be true, including the Team Talent Rankings that we publish each year in our annual preseason magazine, Gameday on Rocky Top.
The main takeaway from that regular feature is this: With only two exceptions over the past 14 years, the national champion for any given season ranked somewhere in the Top 8 of our rolling, four-year aggregation of the annual recruiting rankings published by major recruiting services. The only two outliers were Cam Newton’s Auburn in 2010 and Clemson last year. Both were ranked #13, and both featured quarterbacks who went on to have some success in the NFL. Alabama, by the way, has been #1 in Team Talent Rankings every year since 2011, and they have been in the mix for a national championship every season during that span.
If you’re not convinced by that, check out SB Nation’s annual blue-chip ratio analysis, which concludes essentially the same thing but with a slightly different talent metric.
So, an athletic director would do well to have a good recruiter as his head coach. The key information to review would be something like the guy’s average recruiting class as a head coach, some custom metric like our Team Talent Rankings or SB Nation’s blue-chip ratio, or the number of Top 10 or Top 5 classes the coach has put together. The recruiting services also rank individual coaches by recruiting prowess, so that could serve as another point of reference for assistants.
B. Player development
Recruiting well is necessary to success in college football, but it is not sufficient. There are likely many reasons why talent alone is not enough – poor team chemistry, poor play-calling or schemes, poor coaching decisions – but one of the most common is lack of player development, which is the responsibility of both the player himself and the coach. A coach who can both persuade talented players to play for him and also improve them as players once they get on campus is extremely valuable.
Measuring a coach’s ability to take a player who is X good and make him X+Y good is difficult. Although not a perfect measure, looking at how many players the coach has sent to the NFL is at least some indication of possible proficiency in this area.
C. Team management
When I refer to “team management,” I mean basic management skills, both of players and staff.
I’m beginning to believe more and more that the quality of a head coach’s coordinators is an extremely undervalued factor in the head coach’s success. Having a highly-developed ability to identify, hire, train, and retain good coordinators and staff is key. How many times have we seen successful coaches undone by poor coordinator hires? Fulmer, Clawson. Dooley, Sunseri. There’s an argument for one happening right now.
And have we ever seen a coach be successful primarily because of his coordinators? Maybe Fulmer, with John Chavis and David Cutcliffe? Gene Chizik, with Gus Malzahn? Anyone else?
Being a “CEO” coach is sort of the equivalent of being a “game manager” quarterback in that it’s viewed as a bit of an insult when it shouldn’t be. Both get too little credit for managing the group. It’s an incredibly important skill. Doing it well can get you places, and making one key mistake can undo it all in a hurry.
Similarly, the ability to manage players well is probably undervalued. It has to be a challenge to out-woo rival schools for elite high school players and then “de-recruit” them once they get to campus without losing your credibility.
There’s also likely an underappreciated difference between managing mid-level players — like those at non-Power 5 schools — and rosters full of blue chip recruits. The latter is one of the things that made NBA coach Phil Jackson so good for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. The man knew how to manage egos and get them working together. This may also be something that explains the difference between the success Butch Jones had at Central Michigan and Cincinnati and the struggles he has had at Tennessee.
III. Media savvy
This one is weird. It should first be noted that it is secondary to everything else. If a coach is succeeding at everything else, then he doesn’t need to be a media darling. See Saban, Nick; Belichick, Bill.
And if a coach struggles after his honeymoon with fans is over, then nothing he can say to the media will help.
But what being media savvy can do for a coach is buy time, which is an incredibly precious commodity for coaches in an age of impatience.
So, those are the things I think an athletic director should be looking closely at when evaluating current coaches or coaching candidates. What do you think? Are we looking at the right things?