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Coaches By The Numbers dives into why UCLA was foolish to hire Rick Neuheisel.
“...when [Dennis] Franchione bolted in 2000 to coach Alabama, TCU barely considered Patterson. He and his second wife were separated, and he hardly projected the smooth leader-of-men look so beloved of chancellors and players’ moms.”
The above passage is from S.L. Price’s recent SI article on Gary Patterson.
If you have ever read Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink, you are familiar with what Gladwell calls the “Warren Harding Error.”
Warren G. Harding, regarded by many as one of the worst presidents in American history, received 60% of the national vote in the 1920 election, the highest percentage ever recorded in a U.S. presidential election.
So, how did the American people get it so wrong with Harding? According to Gladwell, people simply used the superficial clues to make a snap decision about a job that requires everything but superficial abilities.
As the quote at the beginning of this article indicates, athletic directors and university presidents are just as susceptible to the Warren Harding Error as the American voting populace.
Far too often head college football coaches are chosen because they look the part. In fact, from our observations, college football coaches are far too frequently hired using false and meaningless clues. Some of those clues include:
1. The school in question is their alma mater.
2. They are from the same area of the country.
3. They are fit and attractive.
4. They can “communicate.”
5. They have “energy.”
6. They have NFL experience.
7. They are young.
8. They just had a great year.
9. They have a “plan.”
10. They are a dynamic “recruiter.”
11. They will be able to relate to the fans.
12. Their interview went really well.
13. They have “integrity” (see Jim Tressel).
14. They can “motivate.”
The whole point of Coaches By The Numbers is to help fans, ADs, Chancellors, media, and anyone who pays any attention to college football and college football coaches in particular go beyond the gut and use additional analysis to make better informed decisions.
For a case in point, let’s turn to UCLA Head Coach Rick Neuheisel.
After the 2007 season, the UCLA Bruins hired Rich Neuheisel to replace outgoing coach Karl Dorrell. He appeared to be the perfect candidate. If you asked someone to draw a picture of what UCLA’s head football coach should look like, they would more than likely draw Rick Neuheisel.
He played quarterback at UCLA.
He is fit and handsome.
He is a motivator.
He is a recruiter.
He looks great in a suit.
He can give one heck of a speech.
He can impress a booster at a cocktail party. He has won 10 or more games three times as a college coach. He won a Rose Bowl in 2000. He has NFL experience. What more analysis do you need?
We could keep going with some of the deeper analysis of Coach Neuheisel, but we think you get the picture: looks can be deceiving.
UCLA went with their gut and a guy that fit every meaningless attribute they considered important in their next head coach. They paid attention to where we went to school, how he looked, how he talked, his NFL experience, and the fact that 10+ years ago he had a decent season or two.
What they didn’t pay attention was the deeper analysis that could be done on Coach Neuheisel. For example, is NFL experience really important for college football coaches (see answer here)?
How do you possibly define or quantify a coach’s ability to “motivate.” Why does it matter if a coach went to the school he is coaching? Why does it matter if he can give a really good speech or dress up and impress a bunch of boosters?
Do soft factors like the ones discussed in this article matter? Of course they matter. The legendary investor Warren Buffett has often stated that he will not purchase a company if he doesn’t trust the character and integrity of its CEO. However, Buffett will not even think to question the character or integrity of the CEO if the balance sheet isn’t appealing. Buffett knows that you have to study the hard factors (the data) before you study the soft.
If you are thinking that analyzing football coaches cannot be done with data, then we humbly welcome you to Coaches By The Numbers: the home of 2+ million pieces of data on coaches and counting. With the information at hand and available for use, why in the world do so many decisions get made at the surface level and based on soft, unmeasurable factors?
Do fans watching a game in 2011 really care if Rick Neuheisel played quarterback for the Bruins in the early 1980′s? Do they care if he can give a rousing speech at the pep rally or after beating a mediocre Tennessee team in 2008? The answer is yes they do. However, they only care about these factors if they are accompanied by winning.
In the world of college sports, for better or for worse, winning covers all.
For example, Georgia Tech’s head coach Paul Johnson is known for his blunt manner, stubbornness, and acerbic wit. When Tech won 21 games, an ACC Championship, and a trip to the Orange Bowl in Johnson’s first two years as the Jackets’ head coach, the fan base was buzzing about how much they loved Johnson’s personality.
When he would stick it to a member of the media after being asked a ridiculously ignorant question about his “high school offense”, the message boards would light up with support for Johnson’s brutally honest personality. However, after last year’s 6-7 season and bowl loss to Air Force, fans were stating that Johnson was too stubborn and that his crabby personality was off-putting to fans, recruits, and the media.
The same could be said for Georgia’s Mark Richt.
In his first five years when the Dawgs were winning 80% of their games and SEC titles, the fans praised Richt’s cool, calm, and collected demeanor. In the last four years, with Georgia winning 64% of its games, fans have started to state that Richt is too calm and passive and not intense enough to win in the vaunted SEC.
Do you think people in Alabama are naming their kids Crimson Tide because of Saban’s shining personality and gentle manner? Or do you think winning SEC and National Championships might be the reason behind such fanatical behavior?
We could go on-and-on with these types of examples, but we think you get the picture.
To come full circle, let’s revisit the quote that started this article: “…..he hardly projected the smooth leader-of-men look so beloved of chancellors and players’ moms.”
There really is nothing smooth about Gary Patterson. In fact, he is outright awkward in just about every way. This being said, he has taken TCU to heights the TCU fan base no longer thought possible, and has done it without being a “motivator”, “recruiter”, “leader”, or “insert meaningless superlative here.” He is more than likely perfectly capable of all of these things, but above all else, Gary Patterson is one heck of a football coach and the hard data is definitely on his side.
Too many AD’s worry about winning the press conference when they should be worried about winning more games. Rick Neuheisel certainly won the press conference, but he hasn’t won much since.
So, the next time your school is in need of a new football coach, be sure the AD, President, and Board don’t treat the decision making process like they are buying an ice cream cone. Demand that they look beyond the surface of how boosters or media will receive him and dig a little deeper to see if the guy can really coach or not.
In the end, if you want to please boosters, fans, and the media, all you have to do is one thing: WIN!
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