It feels like I’ve written a lot about continuity on this site over the past couple of years. I’ve looked at in-season starter continuity in the SEC, in-season offensive line continuity for the Vols, and long-term coordinator continuity for the Vols. Funny thing is, putting it under the microscope often reveals that continuity doesn’t impact a team’s performance as much as you think it should.
For instance, the two conclusions from the post about in-season starter continuity in the SEC were (1) it probably matters at the quarterback position, but (2) it didn’t seem to be nearly as important at other positions. Other factors such overall talent, player development, and coaching mattered more. And when we dove into in-season offensive line continuity for the Vols, we found (1) that it improved in 2018 over an absolute disaster in 2017, but (2) it didn’t have much of an effect on the team’s ability to gain yards or score points. Either it didn’t matter or any gains in that area were undone by other factors.
And then last September, I looked at coordinator continuity for the Vols, which was a hallmark of the program under Phillip Fulmer from 1992-2008 but became a certifiable mess for the following decade. Until his final season as head coach, Fulmer had one defensive coordinator and two offensive coordinators over the course of 16 seasons. In the following 12 seasons, the Vols’ football program hired four new head coaches, five new offensive coordinators (one of them twice at two different times), and seven new defensive coordinators.
But that didn’t really answer the question of whether coordinator churn, generally speaking, was merely a result of poor performance on the field or whether it might actually contribute to poor performance. As a Tennessee fan longing for the success the program enjoyed during most of the Fulmer Era, it felt more like a cause than an effect, but over the past couple of days, I decided to look at the same data league-wide. After cursing every SEC team’s media guide for listing its assistant coaches alphabetically instead of by year or position, I finally wrangled everything into one place so I could draw a firm conclusion as to whether coaching churn was good or bad for a team.
And now I finally have a definitive answer: It depends.
The entire data set is below for you to look at yourself, but here’s the summary:
Basically, by replacing offensive coordinators over the past seven to nine years, SEC teams have been about as likely to make things worse as they were to make things better, at least in the first year after the change. They fared a little better replacing defensive coordinators, but programs often went backward then, as well.
Okay, but what about the second year in a new coordinator’s tenure? They have to get better once they hit their stride and all the players get up to speed in the new system, right?
Not necessarily, at least as to the offense. Out of 24 instances over the last nine seasons where a new SEC offensive coordinator was around for a second year in the same position, the offenses got worse exactly the same number of times as they got better.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to the question of whether that shiny new coach is going to make your favorite team better or worse. There is an answer. It’s just that the answer is that it depends. It depends on the guy you hired. It depends on the guy he’s replacing and how good the team has recently been at the thing you’ve hired the new guy to do. It depends on the roster and the relative health of the ecosystem into which all of this newness is introduced. It just depends.
Continuity, then, is like a garbage-in, garbage-out computer system. It only produces the results you want if the data’s good.
The good news for Vols fans is that the data looks good. All of the other factors seem to be improving, and the guys on staff have a track record of being on the positive side of the data set.
Because our analysis is limited to SEC head coaches and coordinators, it doesn’t include anything worthwhile on second-year Vols’ defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that Jeremy Pruitt has as much or more to do with Tennessee’s defense as does Ansley, and we do have numbers on Pruitt.
When Georgia hired Pruitt as defensive coordinator in 2014, the Bulldogs had just held opponents to 376 yards per game the prior year. Pruitt improved total defense his first season, holding opponents to 337 yards per game in 2014. He improved it again in 2015, this time holding opponents to 306 yards per game. After two seasons under Pruitt, Georgia’s defense was allowing 70 fewer yards per game than it had been before he arrived.
When Pruitt arrived at Alabama in 2016, he did the same thing even though Alabama didn’t have much room to improve. The Tide’s defense had held opponents to 276 yards per game in 2015, and in Pruitt’s first season, they held opponents to 262. He squeezed out another couple of yards in his second season, improving to 260 before taking the job at Tennessee.
Jim Chaney’s record at three different stops in the SEC during the same time frame is also one of improvement. Hired at Tennessee in 2009 by Lane Kiffin, the offense immediately improved an impressive 115 yards per game, from 269 to 384. As a holdover from Kiffin’s staff when Derek Dooley and company arrived in 2010, Chaney’s offense actually took a small step backward (20 yards per game) in his second season and then another of 31 yards in 2011, although the blame for that one probably lies at the feet of early injuries to Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter. In 2012, Chaney and his offense hit their stride and put up 476 yards per game, somehow managing to stay 5 yards ahead of Sal Sunseri’s defense. To put a bow on it, Chaney’s offense at Tennessee improved 115 yards in his first season, then went down 20 and down another 31 before going back up 143.
Hired at Arkansas in 2013, Chaney’s offense had 357 yards in his first season. His offense improved to 406 yards per game in his second season before leaving for Pittsburgh, where he turned Nathan Peterman into an NFL quarterback.
When Georgia hired Chaney in 2016, he again immediately improved the offense, this time from 377 yards per game to 385 in his first season and then again to 435 in his second season. By his third season in 2018, the offense was cranking out 465 yards per game. And then he returned to Rocky Top.
For more on Jim Chaney, check out this post, a re-publication of an article Will wrote for the magazine last year:
Teams don’t always get better when they hire new coaches. Generally speaking, they tend to get worse as often as they get better. Whether they get better or worse depends on a variety of factors, and the guy being hired is chief among them. History shows that both Pruitt and Chaney are both guys that make things better when you hire them. They tend to improve their teams immediately and then continue to do so in their second and third years and beyond.
In case you’re interested, here’s the entire list of head coaches and coordinators for every SEC team since 2011, along with the teams’ respective total offense and total defense numbers where available from the NCAA.