The Three Year-Hump in SEC Football

I reviewed the coaching record of SEC football since the date Nick Saban became the head coach at Alabama. In that time, there have been sixty-three coaches (counting interims) of SEC programs, with the average duration of those hires now officially below the three-year mark (for a 2.9 year tenure on average).

On the surface, it is understandable why there has been such high turnover. In their first three years, SEC coaches have won fewer games than they have lost, sporting a .443 winning percentage. If a school spends millions of dollars on a coach’s contract, of course you want to win now.

After 3? Since Saban began coaching at Alabama, coaches in their fourth year onward have a winning percentage of .643, noticeably better than their first three years after joining the SEC. Some of it can be explained by those coaches leaving the SEC to play in easier conferences, and some of it can be explained by survivorship bias as bad coaches don’t receive additional head coaching opportunities. But I don’t think these two factors fully explain the difference, as fifty-three of the sixty-three coaches in the data are still head coaches and the ones that have remained in the SEC have winning percentages of .622, within hailing distance of the non-SEC figures.

What I believe is happening is that the school which gives a coach his first opportunity in the SEC is effectively underwriting the tab for experience to teach him how to become a good coach, and then, after he gets fired there, he is able to take the accumulated knowledge and experience and apply it to his next job. This creates an unfortunate circumstance for the first hiring school, as they must repeat the process and start the process over again while they have essentially equipped the exiled coach with the additional tools to beat his alma mater.

For intelligent people with strong work ethics, improvement occurs by making mistakes. You try something, it doesn’t work, it leaves a lasting memory, and then you analyze the situation and come up with a second idea that is subjected to the same process. At some point, you will discover the process that works, and you will carry it with you through the rest of your life.

That is why I profane short-termism. The coach, player, boss, capitalist, employee, independent contractor, you name it—is not the same person in Year 5 of Area X that they were in Year 1 of Area X, and they won’t be the same person in Year 12 of Area X that they were in Year 5.

I suspect you will see much regret among top-tier collegiate programs in the coming years. This trend towards firing coaches after two or three bad seasons assumes the recency bias that the poor results will continue to project outward. It takes a disciplined thinker to consider the possibility that such a coach will be different in year 3 or year 4, having learned from the same mistakes.

The category of Sports Blogging has become pitifully short-sighted, as the announcement of every coach’s firing is accompanied with the headline “It was time for him to go” coupled with the citation of a disappointing win-loss record the tenure. There is almost no effort to analyze the adverse externality factors that will no longer affect the coach going forward, nor is there any analysis of how the coach’s decision-making and recruitment improved or reached a fixable point. Then, the coach learns from the experience and makes fewer mistakes at the next school that hires him.

Thomas Edison, the inventor and founder of General Electric, was known to say: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not know how close to success they were when they gave up.” It can apply institutions as well. Many of these Division I football schools are increasing the likelihood that they will sow the seeds of their defeat. They hire someone for a few years who makes the mistakes but then ends up actually applying the learned lessons at School #2. If I were an athletic director, I would compare the record of my program’s coaches to the records of my program’s fired coaches after the fact. Patience, supplied with the courage to go against the trend and practice long-term thinking rather than paying lip-service to long-term thinking, remains your best competitive edge.