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Hot Reads: The Coin Flip of Coaching Changes
Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj - USA TODAY Sports

Hot Reads: The Coin Flip of Coaching Changes

June 08, 2017

Lincoln Riley’s first car was a Ferrari. Metaphorically, of course. Growing up in Muleshoe, Texas, I assume Riley’s actual first car was a beat-up farm truck or something, but in this metaphorical universe where first coaching jobs are first cars, Oklahoma is a Ferrari. And Riley’s driving.

That probably sounds pretty good — what kid doesn’t dream of a Ferrari? — but it can be a lot to handle for a first-time head coach. Barry Switzer got a Ferrari, drove it hard and fast for 16 years, won three national titles, then left it smoldering by the side of the road. Tom Osborne got a Ferrari, kept it between the lines, seemed to occasionally chafe at the responsibility of owning such an impractical thing, won three national titles (though it took 22 years to get there) and then quietly parked it in the garage, wiped the fender with a shop rag and left it better than he found it.

While those two ownership records are wildly different, they’re both exceptions in that they both worked. Two first-time head coaches, both former offensive coordinators and internal promotions, take over powerhouse programs and keep the titles coming. Sure, Switzer left Oklahoma in disarray, but with all of that in the past now, does anyone look at Switzer’s tenure and view it as a failure? Of course not. Switzer, thanks to his personality, is still the king of Norman.

But most succession plans work out that well only about half the time. Riley looks like a great replacement for Stoops. The Sooners are fortunate he was waiting in the wings, but it will be slightly more surprising if it works than if it doesn’t.

These are the 10 winningest programs all-time (based on winning percentage): Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, USC, Nebraska, Penn State and Florida State. Some facts about that group.

>>Collectively, those 10 schools have made 57 coaching changes since 1968, the start of the modern AP poll era. Thirty of those hires (52.6 percent) failed by my count. Fully aware that “failure” is somewhat subjective, but that number includes coaches who were either fired or given the forced-retirement option. Coaches who won a national title but were then fired or ridden out of town on a rail — e.g. Jim Tressel — are not included because delivering a national title is the thing that matters most at these programs. Tressel’s tenure had a messy end, but it was a success.

>>Those 10 schools have had to replace national-title-winning coaches 19 times since 1968. There are four instances (21.1 percent) when a national-title-winner’s immediate replacement also won a national title during his tenure. Here’s the list:

Notre Dame: Ara Parseghian (73) to Dan Devine (77)
USC: John McKay (72, 74) to John Robinson (78)
Nebraska: Bob Devaney (70, 71) to Tom Osborne (94, 95, 97)
Florida State: Bobby Bowden (93, 99) to Jimbo Fisher (13)

>>On average it has taken one of these schools — the surest bets in the game — 2.1 coaching changes to get from one national title winner to its next national title winner.

Point being, I have every reason to believe Lincoln Riley is a very good football coach. But so were a lot of guys on this list over the past 50 years. Schools like Oklahoma don’t hire guys who don’t look like very good football coaches.

And it’s still a coin flip, at best, as to whether or not it works out.

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