Lovie Smith Shakes Hand of Nebraska Football Coach Scott Frost
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

We Need to Grade Coaching Hires on a Curve

February 02, 2020

Grades are in.

What I mean is that this is the time of year when everyone writes their pieces grading the latest round of coaching changes. I always read those stories because, well, it's the offseason and I'm usually interested to see what people think of hires. They're almost impossible to project, but that doesn't mean anyone stops trying.

But this year's round started to get to me. I think we have a grade inflation problem when it comes to this (not very serious) business of grading coaching hires. As I read through this latest round, I realized that maybe one guy a year gets something less than a C- and that doesn't seem very practical.

To test this notion, I grabbed 237 individual grades for 71 coaches hired between 2016 and 2018 (that includes Scott Frost twice). Sure enough, grade inflation. The average grade for this group was a B, which doesn't seem very realistic in an era when new coaches can get fired 20 games in. There was one coach, out of 71, that had an average lower than C-. That was Herm Edwards, who was all the way down at D-.

So far, in the real world, 16 of those 71 coaches (22.5%) have already been fired. But there's virtually no difference in how those hires were graded at the time. Coaches that have already been fired had an average grade of 3.45––within the B-range on the five-point scale I created to account for letter and number grades––and coaches that still have their jobs had an average of 3.54.

Maybe there shouldn't be a difference. These grades aren't really designed to be predictive. They're really grading the AD, boosters and search firms as much as they are the coaches and their perceived ability, fit, etc., etc. But if the average grade here is a B, it's worth knowing that and scaling appropriately, which defeats the purpose of using readily recognizable letter grades.

Or, we could grade these hires on a curve, give them a normal distribution and have something closer to reality. If we do that for those 71 hires––which is a small sample size, admittedly––instead of 57 coaches getting a B-or-higher grade, just 11 do. On the curve, two-thirds of those coaches end up with a C+ or C-.

It's more thought experiment than science, but I was interested in what it would produce in terms of results. Here are those results, separated by grades on the curve. We're not changing the order of those actual grades that were published in various outlets, just the letter grade assigned to it.

A (3 Standard Deviations Above the Mean)

The Name: Justin Fuente (Unadjusted Average Grade: 4.81, A+)
Fired Rate: 0%

With 71 coaches in the range, there's only room for one A and one F. Fuente, somewhat surprisingly, took the top spot comfortably. Pundits really liked this hire in the 2016 cycle, handing out A-plusses aplenty. It wasn't totally crazy. After going 7-17 at Memphis in his first two seasons, Fuente went 19-6 over the next two years with an AAC title in 2014. Still, the enthusiasm here feels a little strong but that's exactly how Fuente started his Virginia Tech tenure––strong. The Hokies went 19-8 in Years 1 and 2, but a step back in 2018––including an embarrassing loss to Old Dominion and a slew of transfers––had people wondering if Fuente might be in trouble. A 2-2 start in 2019 turned up the heat, but the Hokies went 6-3 the rest of the way last season with three decent losses. Fuente may be safe for now, but it's not exactly the resounding triumph the praise at the time of the hire would've perhaps led you to believe.

B (2 Standard Deviations)

The Names: Chip Kelly (4.69), Scott Frost (Neb., 4.65), Matt Campbell (4.64), Mark Richt (4.63), P.J. Fleck (4.55), Tom Herman (4.53), Willie Fritz (4.45), Charlie Strong (4.42), Dino Babers (4.35), Willie Taggart (FSU, 4.31)
Fired Rate: 20%

Frost's move to Nebraska was universally acclaimed with A grades, only trumped by UCLA (of all places) swiping Frost's former boss. Overall, this group makes a lot of sense. All averaged an A, downgraded to a B on the curve, and they were all considered big hiring "wins" at the time. Strong striking out so quickly at USF is the strangest one here, more so than Taggart at Florida State.

All that said, neither Kelly nor Frost has gotten off to blistering starts. Herman, the second-most lauded hire of 2017 behind Fleck, "chose to" fire or demote a handful of assistants. That's an escape hatch that can be used once. Campbell and Fritz might the closest to their original rankings right now.

John S. Peterson
Whether at Nebraska or UCF, the Scott Frost hire was a hit with pundits both times.

 

C+ (1 Standard Deviation)

Notable Names: Dan Mullen (4.30), Matt Rhule (4.15), Scott Frost (UCF, 4.09), Jeff Brohm (4.05), Jimbo Fisher (3.91), D.J. Durkin (3.63), Chad Morris (3.58), 17 others
Fired Rate: 21%

This entire group includes coaches given a B or better in the real world, with a a few A grades sprinkled in. Frost was one of those A grades. Despite it being his first head coaching job, people were high on what he was theoretically bringing to UCF. Durkin and Morris, now very much fired, were solid Bs. Mike Sanford, Minnesota's new offensive coordinator, was an A at Western Kentucky in 2017. He lasted two seasons.

C- (-1 Standard Deviation)

Notable Names: Barry Odom (3.54), Kirby Smart (3.54), Chris Ash (3.45), Luke Fickell (3.35), Tom Allen (3.23), Ed Orgeron (3.12), Nick Rolovich (3.00), Mario Cristobal (3.00),  17 others
Fired Rate: 28%

Getting interesting now. This tier tells us that the pundits that grade such things are pretty cautious when it comes to internal promotions at power programs (Orgeron, Cristobal). Maybe those coaches' 2019 success was a one-year blip, but it doesn't feel like LSU and Oregon are being built on a shaky foundation at the moment. Also, pundits were pretty cautious when it came to Smart at Georgia, perhaps rightly so at the time. It was a big job for a first-time head coach, but if you're re-ranking now, Smart is squarely in the top tier.

I don't necessarily think firings is the best way to measure the accuracy of these initial grades, but it serves as an interesting check and, on the curve, the firing rate is the highest here. That linear rise as we move down the letter grades doesn't continue after this. Be nice, for the curve, if it did and it could have if only . . .

D (-2 Standard Deviations)

The Names: Chad Lunsford (2.84), Jay Norvell (2.80), Matt Luke (2.74), Josh Heupel (2.74), Dana Dimel (2.68), Sean Lewis (2.68), Will Muschamp (2.63), Clay Helton (2.61), Mike Jinks (2.57), Jeff Tedford (2.57)
Fired Rate: 20%

. . . USC had fired Clay Helton like everyone expected. Had that happened the fired rate here would be 30% and, despite every coach in this group receiving between a C and C+, the curve would look like it was a closer representation than the original grades. That would be a little bit of a false positive, though these were the lowest-rated coaches based on original grades. There are a few misses in there, or so it looks right now. Josh Heupel has maintained UCF at a high level, though it seems there's still some skepticism around that, and Sean Lewis, a gamble at the time, has been great for Kent State. The big miss, however, was Jeff Tedford. There wasn't much buzz at all when the winningest coach in Cal history took the Fresno State job, but he engineered an immediate turnaround. The Bulldogs went 22-6 over Tedford's first two seasons before falling to 4-8 in 2019. Tedford resigned in December.

F (-3 Standard Deviations)

The Name: Herm Edwards (1.18)
Fired Rate: 0%

I was skeptical at the time, too, but I'm still sort of amazed at how much people hated the Edwards hire. He's the only coach in this sample to get a D, much less an F from the original graders. And because his first two seasons at Arizona State haven't been an outright disaster––the Sun Devils are 15-11 (.577) over that span, which is basically the same as Edward's predecessor, Todd Graham, managed over six seasons in Tempe (.589)––Edwards gets a little extra credit for being great just because the initial expectations were so low and the hire came out of nowhere.

The point here, from this entire exercise, is twofold.

One, coaching hires are really, really hard to project. There's a clear public formula for what will be received as a top hire. It's some basic combination of high achievement recently, program ties or familiarity, being in-demand and, for extra credit, being viewed as somewhat innovative. Does that reception hint at the success of those hires? In the majority of cases, not really.

Two, this makes how a hire will be graded way more predictable than how successful the hire will actually be. They're totally separate games though in theory they're about the same game. Evaluating coaching changes, then, starts to feel a little like recruiting in that nobody ever really loses. Even poorly received hires are often graded as little worse than average.

Except for Herm. Sorry, Herm. Guessing you'll be just fine when the Sun Devils start 2020 in the preseason top 25.

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