After the entropy of Auburn's coaching search, this season's coaching carousel found equilibrium
Here's additional data that suggests this season's coaching carousel is pretty much business as usual
Before I get into today’s newsletter, I want to wish a Merry Camellia Bowl to you and yours! Whether you’re celebrating Christmas today, whether you finished celebrating Hanukkah last week or whether you’re celebrating another Harry Potter movie marathon, I hope that you’re enjoying time with family and friends over the holidays, either in person or virtually.
Let’s talk about the coaching carousel
Eight FBS head coaches have been fired since the start of the 2020 college football season, which is fewer than last season (12 firings) and the season before that (13), but the aggregate of the types of programs that have removed their coaches, based on conference winning percentage, has ultimately met the status quo, despite this season being the strangest of our lifetimes.
In the midst of Vanderbilt (Nov. 29), South Alabama (Dec. 6), UL Monroe (Dec. 7), Arizona (Dec. 12) and Illinois (Dec. 13) firing their head coaches, I had a working theory that worse programs, relatively speaking, might be disproportionately affected this coaching cycle – or rather, that the schools that had made coaching changes could suggest that less accomplished schools felt a greater need than their peers to affect change at their head coaching position during the pandemic. Sure, a winless season like those that Arizona and Vanderbilt had this fall could lead to a coaching change in any season, but maybe there was something to Michigan and Texas appearing to have decided to retain their head coaches, while some of the bottom feeders in the sport, relative to their respective conferences, had turned the page.
Then Auburn happened.
Auburn is one of the 10 to 15 schools capable of winning a national championship in the College Football Playoff era and its boosters ponied up more than $21 million – half of which has to be paid within 30 days – to remove coach Gus Malzahn, who led the Tigers to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game and who had previously served as the school’s offensive coordinator during its Cam Newton-led run to winning the 2011 BCS National Championship.
The resulting coaching search at Auburn was reportedly connected in some form or fashion to the head coaches at Louisiana, Ole Miss, UAB and West Virginia, and coordinators at Alabama, Clemson and, yes, even Auburn, before the Tigers hired Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, who had recently been trying to orchestrate a move for Boise State to join a new conference.
And somehow, all of that – the definition of entropy in college football – is what helped the college football coaching carousel find equilibrium this season, amid the pandemic.
In order to quantify the types of programs that have made coaching changes this season and in order to compare this year’s coaching cycle to past seasons (firings only; ignoring resignations, retirements and mutual agreements to part ways), I calculated the rolling, 10-year, regular-season conference winning percentages for every school in every FBS conference.
For each season, I calculated a school’s conference winning percentage over the previous 10 seasons, such that when analyzing a school that has made a coaching change during the 2020 season, the school is evaluated based upon its conference winning percentage from the 2010 season through 2019. Schools are obviously more likely to fire a coach during, or immediately after, a season with a low number of wins, so that’s why a school’s 2020 conference winning percentage wasn’t included in the evaluation of the 2020 coaching cycle, and why its 2019 conference win total wasn’t included for the 2019 carousel, etc.
Programs that were an FBS independent during a season in which they made a head coaching change were not included in this analysis, since they didn’t have conference games to track.
The only conference wins that were counted were those games won while a school was a member of its current conference, such that TCU’s 8-0 record in the Mountain West in 2010 wouldn’t skew its conference winning percentage when compared to its Big 12 peers over the last decade.
Through Dec. 24, the FBS head coaches who have been fired this season were employed at schools that collectively won an average of 42.91 percent of their regular-season conference games (once again, their current conferences only) over the previous 10 seasons, which is nearly identical to the average conference winning percentage of the schools that fired their head coaches during the 2018-19 coaching carousel, down to the hundredth of a percentage point.
The schools that fired their head coaches during the 2018-19 coaching cycle won an average of 42.90 percent of their games in their then-current conference from 2008 through 2017. The average winning percentage for last season’s coaching carousel was 44.37 percent, so just slightly higher than that of the 2018 and 2020 seasons.
I also calculated conference winning percentage percentiles, which identify what percent of a program’s then-current conference peers had a worse conference winning percentage over the previous 10 seasons, such that the percentile of a team whose 10-year conference winning percentage ranks 6th in a 14-team conference was calculated as 8 ÷ 13 (e.g. the number of teams in the conference with a worse conference winning percentage ÷ the number of other teams in the conference).
The percentiles are a way to compare the relative conference standings of different programs across 10, 12 and 14-team conferences, especially when, say, a 47-percent conference winning percentage from the 2010 season through 2019 would be the sixth-best mark in the Mountain West but it would be the ninth-best winning percentage in the Big Ten.
The table below shows the average conference winning percentages and the average percentiles of the schools that have fired their head coaches during the last five coaching cycles.
(Click the image below to open in a new window)
On average, the levels of success of the programs that fired their head coaches during the 2017 season were noticeably higher than that of the 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020 coaching carousels, as the coaching cycle three seasons ago saw openings at Florida, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Arizona State, UCLA, Arkansas and Tennessee. But it’s also worth noting that some of the conference winning percentages were arguably inflated in the first several years after conference realignment. From the 2012 season through 2016, Nebraska won more than 63 percent of its games in the Big Ten, but it has won just 33 percent in the last three seasons.
Texas A&M won six conference games in its first season in the SEC. In the next seven seasons, it won four SEC games on five occasions, along with one five-win season in conference play and a three-win campaign. And then there’s Georgia Southern, which won 75 percent of its conference games in its first three seasons in the Sun Belt from 2014 through 2016, before it won just 54 percent of its conference games over the next three seasons.
Auburn firing Gus Malzahn didn’t only raise the average conference winning percentage and average conference winning percentage percentile for the FBS programs that have fired their head coaches in this season’s coaching carousel but it also gave this cycle a premier opening, or even a second premier opening, when adjusted for conference affiliation.
Since joining the Mountain West (and through the 2019 season), Utah State won more than 63 percent of its conference games, which was the third-best conference winning percentage among current Mountain West programs from 2010 through 2019. A program that has shown it can repeatedly win six or seven of its eight conference games annually should be considered a good opening, both regardless of and relative to its conference.
But Auburn, obviously, is on another level.
Last season’s signature opening was Florida State, which had won more than 68 percent of its regular-season conference games from 2009 through 2018 – a mark that was only second in the ACC to Clemson’s 82.5 conference winning percentage.
You can argue whether Louisville or North Carolina was the strongest Power 5 program to fire its coach two seasons ago – North Carolina has a richer history and a closer proximity to recruits, but look at the Tar Heels’s last 20 years compared to the Cardinals – but the Cardinals won roughly 65 percent of their ACC games through the 2017 season. That’s admittedly a limited sample size of just four seasons, which included Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s time in Louisville, but only Clemson (28 wins) and Florida State (22) won more ACC regular-season games than the Cardinals (21) during that stretch.
The 2017-18 coaching cycle also saw prominent Group of Five openings, such as Western Kentucky (tied for a Conference USA-best 23 conference wins from 2014-17) and Houston (tied for the second-best conference winning percentage in the AAC through 2017), while Central Michigan and Bowling Green were upper-half jobs in the MAC – based on conference winning percentage over the previous decade – that opened after both schools fired their head coaches.
The graph below shows the FBS schools that have fired their head coaches this season, as indicated by a yellow dot that represents their conference winning percentage over the previous 10 seasons, with the rest of the schools in their respective conferences noted by a blue dot. Once again, the only conference wins that were included were those in a school’s current conference.
The graph illustrates how this season, like many coaching cycles, there have been a couple jobs that opened that are among the worst in their respective conferences (such as Vanderbilt and Illinois) and there are a few jobs that are arguably among the strongest in their respective conferences (such as Auburn and Utah State). But there will also be a significant chunk of FBS openings that are schools that won between 30 and 50 percent of their conference games over the previous 10 seasons, which will often translate to two to five conference wins per season.
That’s where a lot of FBS programs live, and even the Power 5 programs that live in that neighborhood can often schedule manageable opponents in the non-conference portion of their schedules to potentially add two, three or four wins to their regular-season win totals.
(Click on the graph below to open an interactive version in a new window)
Just because the regular season is over doesn’t necessarily mean that the coaching carousel has stopped spinning for this winter, either, and by any measure – from the number of coaching changes there have been, to who is making coaching changes, to what schools are paying to buy out a coach who has lost favor, to who schools are and aren’t hiring to become their new head coach, to how much schools are paying their new coaches – this year has largely been business as usual for the coaching market.
And on average, that means the schools that have fired their head coaches this season have lost slightly more conference games than they’ve won over the last decade.
Recap of the last newsletter
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“The lack of a bubble or controlled environment for college football’s most important games is either due to a lack of organization and communication – really, a lack of unity in a sport that’s too big to be unified – across all of the various stakeholders at the College Football Playoff, bowl, conference and university levels, or it’s due to some combination of hubris and greed from the aforementioned stakeholders, who are potentially unwillingly to front a sliver of the $400 million to $500 million in annual distributions in bowl revenue that would be needed to create a bubble.”
Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at email@example.com or on Twitter.