Hot Reads: Doing the Most With the Least
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Doing the Most With the Least

June 28, 2018

What's your gut feeling on Pat Fitzgerald? Overrated coach or underrated?

It seems like context matters in these discussions, as I've always gotten the sense that Nebraska fans chafe a little bit any time Northwestern is expected to be good or Fitzgerald is highly ranked on one of those offseason best-coaches lists. Maybe my context is incomplete, but I'm generally much more surprised when Fitzgerald's name comes up, in the circles in which I travel, to hear "yep, what he's doing at Northwestern is amazing," than I am to hear something about his .572 career winning percentage. Can a coach really be among "the best" with an average regular season record that pencils out to about 7-5 each year?

I think a coach can when you factor in expectations, resources and all of the other factors that make coaches' jobs more or less difficult. The best coaches, in my mind, are those that consistently make the most of what they have. At some places, like Northwestern, that can look closer to .500 than it would at, say, Oregon.

So the question for me isn't if Fitzgerald is over- or underrated, but does he over- or underachieve? The numbers are pretty clear on that.

Bill Connelly of SB Nation updated his list of over- and underachieving coaches for 2018 this week. Fitzgerald ranks fifth on that list with his teams winning an average of 0.88 more games than expected per year. If you limit that list to coaches with a résumé of at least 10 years, Fitzgerald is third behind Kansas State's Bill Snyder (+1.12 wins per year) and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo (+1.10).

Connelly uses his win expectancy numbers for this calculation. That is defined as: "It is intended to say 'Given your success rates, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc., you could have expected to win this game X% of the time.' It has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments." So what that's saying is that when Kansas State's numbers say the Wildcats should be 7-5, they tend to be 8-4 under Snyder. (The records are just examples here, could be 10-2 and 11-1, the point is the consistency of +1.12.)

Last spring I used a much less elegant method to look at this on a program level (not coach) over the previous decade (2007-16). I updated that tally with 2017's results and it turns up mostly similar results.

Using scoring differential, Northwestern is still the most overachieving Power 5 team of the past 11 seasons at 6.1 wins above expectation (0.555 per year). Wyoming leads all schools at +9.4 wins (0.85 per year). Navy is in the top 10. Kansas State doesn't rank nearly as high using this method, which is likely an indication that the Wildcats tend to win and lose close. While I like Connelly's calculation more as it includes more data, scoring differential and Pythagorean wins suggest that while Snyder was consistently overachieving the Wildcats arguably could've been winning a couple more games than they did. (Literally a couple, 2.1, over that 11-year span.)

Whichever method you prefer, I think the larger takeaway is that depending upon the circumstances sometimes 7-5 is succeeding. Northwestern fans, like any others, aspire to more and should. But that's not a slight at what Fitzgerald has done –– as it's sometimes presented as, i.e. "show me the trophies" –– more a reflection of college football's long establish hierarchy. For that reason, I'll always seek out and celebrate the guys doing the most with the least, and I'm not talking about facilities or recruiting budgets here but actually finding ways to win games you maybe shouldn't. Coaches like Fitzgerald and Snyder do that consistently.

Chip Kelly did it too at Oregon, which was easier to notice but harder to recognize. His sample size is smaller but his Oregon teams overachieved by 0.53, 0.31, 0.59 and 0.59 wins each year (in order) between 2009 and 2012 based on Pythagorean wins, an average of .505 wins per year. Connelly's method at +0.25 wins per year over that span, which ranked in the 73rd percentile. Those teams finished in the top 11 of the final AP poll each year (and the top five twice), offering an idea of what overachievement looks like near the top of the polls.

And if you're curious what Scott Frost's two years look like, he doesn't qualify for Connelly's list yet (three season minimum), but his first UCF team had a win differential of zero (expected to win six games, won six games). Last year's team outperformed expectations by 1.3 wins for a two-season average of +0.65 wins per season. That would put Frost in the 93rd percentile on this list if he had enough seasons to qualify.

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