This Time It's Different: Assessing the Transition from Mike Leach to Tommy Tuberville

There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.  – Will Rogers

Abstract

Since 1980, over the past 30 years, a review of six major BCS conferences covering 337 coaching tenures and 65 FBS football programs reveals that only four universities have subsequently improved their football programs after dismissing a head coach with a record greater than Mike Leach’s win winning percentage, and replacing the previous coach with a new hire.

Introduction 

Over the past 30 years (1980-2009) within the major BCS conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, PAC 10 and SEC), there are only 18 instances amongst 337 coaching tenures in which a university dismissed or forced the resignation of a sitting coach with a record equal to or greater than Mike Leach’s 66.1% winning percentage.  These 18 cases represent 5% of all coaching tenures over the past 30 years.

Among those 18 cases, there are only four instances in which a football program achieved subsequent success, as Texas Tech hopes to do, after firing a sitting coach with a winning percentage greater than Leach’s record, and replacing the coach with an outside coach (i.e. not promoting an assistant). 

Similarly, among those 18 instances, there are only three other cases in the past 30 years where a coach was fired for reasons not related to on-field performance or NCAA allegations, as is the case with Mike Leach. 

Of the 337 coaching terms examined, 67 of those tenures featured coaches who were able to achieve a winning percentage greater than or equal to Mike Leach’s 66.1%.  By this broadest of definitions, we equally consider a coach with a two year tenure and a coach with a 20 year tenure.  According to this measurement, Coach Leach’s winning percentage places him at the top 20th percentile of all 337 tenures – regardless of duration.  Dennis Erickson’s 87.5% winning percentage at Miami (1989-1994) is the most successful of all tenures in this survey. 

If we limit our evaluation of the above coaching terms to those tenures that spanned a minimum of 10 years, then Leach becomes one of only 23 coaches to preside over a program for at least 10 years and achieve a 66.1% winning percentage or greater, a distinction that places him in the top seventh percentile of all coaching tenures in this survey.  It is fair to say, as the list below suggests, that Leach is in some legendary company.

Top Coaching Tenures (10 years or longer), 1980-2009

Conference Coach Team Tenure Winning Percentage
ACC Bobby Bowden Florida State  1976-2009 0.758
Danny Ford Clemson 1978-1989 0.744
Frank Beamer Virginia Tech 1987-Present 0.665
Big 10 Bo Schembechler Michigan 1969-1989 0.785
Lloyd Carr Michigan 1995-2007 0.753
Joe Paterno Penn State 1966-Current 0.749
John Cooper Ohio State 1988-2000 0.703
Big 12 Tom Osborne Nebraska 1973-1997 0.831
Barry Switzer Oklahoma 1973-1988 0.826
Mack Brown Texas 1998-Current 0.826
Bob Stoops Oklahoma 1999-Current 0.801
Fred Akers Texas 1977-1986 0.723
R.C. Slocum Texas A&M 1989-2002 0.715
Bill Snyder Kansas State 1989-2005 0.663
Mike Leach Texas Tech 2000-2009 0.661
PAC-10 Don James Washington  1975-1992 0.722
Mike Bellotti Oregon 1995-2008 0.678
SEC Steve Spurrier Florida 1990-2001 0.813
Paul W. Bryant Alabama 1958-1982 0.808
Philip Fulmer Tennessee 1992-2008 0.745
Vince Dooley Georgia 1964-1988 0.698
Pat Dye Auburn 1981-1992 0.697
Tommy Tuberville Auburn 1999-2008 0.680

Another way to evaluate Leach’s success is to compare Texas Tech’s performance over the past decade with other FBS programs.  Over 10 years, from 2000-2009, Texas Tech recorded the 19th highest winning percentage of all FBS teams ranking ahead of traditional powers such as Florida State, Nebraska, Tennessee, Michigan, Penn State, Alabama and Notre Dame. This comparison is specific to the football programs irrespective of coaching tenure.

Leach’s overall record, as impressive as it is, understates the trajectory in which he was taking the team.   From 2005-2009, during the latter half of Leach’s tenure, the Red Raiders’ winning percentage increased to 71.5% making it the 17th most successful program in the FBS (ahead of 23rd ranked Auburn).   To give you an indication of this measure’s sensitivity, had Texas Tech won just 2 more games over this five year period, it would have been the 11th most successful program in the FBS.  It goes without saying that Leach never suffered a losing season.

To characterize Leach’s termination as an event commonplace in college football or to downplay his accomplishments as pedestrian is inaccurate.  Leach was a great coach by any objective measurement.  Tech’s firing of a coach of Leach’s caliber is highly extraordinary and is preceded by just three such cases among the cited 337 tenures (less than 1% of all tenures in this study).  Attempts to diminish the rarity of Tech’s and Leach’s circumstances ignore the historical record.

Methodology

From the previously cited 337 coaching tenures, we review 18 instances (excluding Leach’s dismissal) in which coaches with records greater than 66.1% irrespective of tenure length were dismissed.  We define these coaches as ‘Elite Coaches.’   

We categorize their resignations or dismissals as follows:

  • Elite Coaches who resigned  or were dismissed due to NCAA allegations
  • Elite Coaches who resigned  or were dismissed due to on-field performance
  • Elite Coaches who resigned or were dismissed due to pressure from a school’s administration

Of the 18 cases, six coaches resigned or were dismissed as a result of NCAA allegations.

A further nine coaches resigned or were dismissed due to underperformance in the latter stages of their tenures.

That leaves us with three cases that best compare to Leach’s circumstances whereby an Elite Coach was forced to resign or was dismissed by a school's  administration.

Finally, we evaluate the extent of a program’s subsequent failure after dismissing a Elite Coach and the length of time it takes, if ever, for a university to return to the success level achieved by the deposed Elite Coach.

Elite Coaches who Resigned or were Dismissed Due to NCAA Sanctions

Elite coaches have been pressured to resign or dismissed six times in the past 30 years due to NCAA allegations.

This study does not equate those instances to Leach’s dismissal, because in most cases, proven NCAA allegations particularly those that directly implicate a head coach, can be a legitimate cause to remove a head coach especially if the allegations pertain to serious violations (unless of course you are a former head coach at Auburn where even after Pat Dye was pressured to resign as a result of  NCAA sanctions, the school named its field after him).

Elite Coaches Forced to Resign or Dismissed because of NCAA Allegations

 

Team Coach Tenure Winning % Replacement Tenure Winning %
Oklahoma Barry Switzer 1973-1988 0.826 Gary Gibbs 1989-1994   0.638
Clemson Danny Ford 1978-1989 0.744 Ken Hatfield 1990-1993 0.696
Auburn Pat Dye 1981-1992 0.697 Terry Bowden 1993-1998 0.723
Alabama Gene Stallings 1990-1996 0.805 Mike DuBose 1997-2000 0.511
Colorado Rick Neuhiesel 1995-1998 0.702 Gary Barnett 1999-2005 0.563
Washington   Rick Neuhiesel   1999-2002   0.686 Keith Gilbertson   2003-2004 0.304

 

Washington dismissed Neuheisel for NCAA allegations which it was later unable to justify in legal proceedings.  Washington ostensibly terminated Rick Neuhiesel  because of NCAA violations relating to his alleged gambling in an NCAA basketball tournament pool (a case which he later settled with Washington for $4.5 million) and for lying about interviewing for the head coaching position for the San Francisco 49ers.  Although Neuheisel’s past run-ins with the NCAA as the head coach at Colorado are well documented, this unfortunate past did not necessarily mean he was guilty of the misconduct as Washington alleged.  Over the past 7 years, Washington has not since achieved similar success.

Summary Results for Dismissals due to NCAA Allegations:

  • Number of Elite Coaches Terminated:  6
  • Best Outcome:  Terry Bowden  replacing Pat Dye, Auburn
  • Worst Outcome:  Keith Gilbertson replacing Rick Neuheisel, Washington
  • Average Decline in winning percentages between subsequent coaching  tenures:  -23%
  • Outcomes:  5 out of 6 cases resulted in declines
  • Average Duration of Subsequent Tenures:  4.75 years

Elite Coaches who resigned or were dismissed due to on-field performance

Coaches are often forced to resign or are dismissed because their most recent performances do not measure up to the success achieved earlier in their tenure.  As we see in the analysis below, adopting the "what have you done lately for me" posture is in almost all cases a bad idea.

Once again, this study does not compare these cases to Leach’s circumstances.  Leach’s teams were steadily improving throughout his tenure.  After reloading in 2009, many expected Leach’s 2010 squad to achieve similar results to the Leach’s 11-2 squad in 2008.  Furthermore, on field performance was not cited as a reason for his dismissal, nor has this reason been suggested.

In the two most extreme examples of such cases, two coaches deserve special mention.

Philip Fulmer whose Tennessee team won a national championship in 1998 was terminated in 2008, just two years removed from an 11-2 season. Fulmer’s teams suffered two losing seasons after winning the 1998 championship (a 5-6 season in 2005 and a 5-7 season in 2008).    Fulmer’s demise appears to begin before what would be his final season in 2008.  After a successful recruiting performance in 2007 which saw Tennessee land a top 5 recruiting class, the 2008 class did not register in the top 25.  Fulmer also lost four assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who accepted the head coaching job at Duke.   In the offseason, eight of Fulmer’s players were arrested for off field transgressions ranging from public intoxication to drug possession.  Tennessee opened the 2008 season on a down note losing to an eventual 4-8 UCLA team.  Tennessee was 3-6 by the time Fulmer was asked to step down, a record which included close losses to eventual 5-7 Auburn, 7-6 South Carolina, and an underwhelming 13-9 home victory against Northern Illinois.  The week of Fulmer’s resignation, the team lost to unranked Wyoming at home in front of 99,000 less than enthusiastic fans.

Likewise, Larry Coker of Miami won a national championship in 2001, finished 2002 ranked #2 overall  (losing a heartbreaker in the National Championship game), and won the ACC in 2003.  In 2004 and 2005 his teams went 9-3.  The 2005 season, however, marked the beginning of the end for Coker. Coker’s Miami team ended the 2005 season suffering its worst ever bowl defeat at the hands of LSU losing 40-3 in the Peach Bowl which was marred by a brawl in the tunnel following the game.  In 2006 the wheels came off. Miami opened the year 1-2 which included surrendering a come from behind victory to an eventual 7-6 Florida State team and a 31-7 defeat to #5 ranked Louisville. The same season also featured the infamous brawl with Florida International which saw 31 players suspended from both teams. Miami also had to deal with the tragic mid-season murder of defensive tackle Bryan Pata.  Coker’s 6-6 performance in 2006 was the worst performance at Miami in 30 years.  Despite, being just a few years removed from a national championship, Coker was fired at the end of the season amid concerns about player discipline, poor offense, mounting losses to inferior opponents and a gradual decline of the program.

As bad as things might have seemed for the two programs, neither has been able to return to previous success levels of their now-deposed coaches.  Tennessee has now endured the embarrassing defection of Lane Kiffin and instead has been forced to hire Derek Dooley, former head coach and athletic director of Louisiana Tech (WAC) where he accumulated an anaemic 17-20 record.  Dooley hardly seems to be Tennessee’s ideal first choice.   Similarly, Randy Shannon, Miami’s former defensive coordinator, endured an inaugural 5-7 season in 2007, but he does seem to have the team heading back in the right direction evidenced by a 7-6 season in 2008 and a 9-4 season in 2009.  Still Miami looks a long way from returning from returning to championship form.

Elite Coaches dismissed or pressured to resign due to on-field performance: 

 

Team Coach Tenure Winning % Replacement Tenure Winning %
Texas
Fred Akers 1977-1986 0.723 David McWilliams
1987-1991 
0.544
Texas A&M
RC Slocum
1989-2002 0.715 Dennis Franchione
2003-2007 0.533
Tennessee Frank Fulmer
1992-2008 0.745 Lane Kiffin
2009 0.538
Nebraska Frank Solich
1998-2003 0.753 Bill Callahan
2004-2007 0.551
Miami Larry Coker
2001-2006 0.800 Randy Shannon
2007-Present 0.553
Auburn  
Terry Bowden
1993-1998
0.723 Tommy Tuberville 
1999-2008
0.680
Auburn
Tommy Tuberville 
1999-2008 0.680 Gene Chizik
2009-Present 0.615
Ohio State John Cooper
1998-2000 0.703 Jim Tressell
2001-Present
0.817
Georgia Jim Donnan
1996-2000 0.678 Mark Richt
2001-Present 0.788

Replacing an Elite Coach for poor performance has only worked twice over the past 30 years 

John Cooper (1988-2000, 70.3% winning percentage) replaced by Jim Tressell (2001-present, 81.7% winning percentage)

Despite a 111-43-4 record and finishing second overall in the final 1996 and 1998 polls, John Cooper’s dismissal came down to his 2-10-1 record against Michigan, a 3-8 bowl record, a bowl-less 6-6 season in 1999, and academic and discipline problems amongst his players.   

From the Cleveland Fan:

An Ohio State coach is judged almost solely by how he fares against Michigan. That's the way it is and the way it's always been. And Cooper fared disastrously. He lost to Michigan when he had the inferior team- 1988-91, 1997. He lost to Michigan when he had the superior team- 1993, 1995-96.  He went 0-6 in Ann Arbor, where Jim Tressel has already won three times.

Even given his Michigan nightmare, it can be surmised that Coach Cooper fell just one game short of being a Buckeye legend. Imagine how his tenure would be perceived had he beaten the Wolverines in 1993, or in ‘95, or in ‘96, or, had his team protected that 24-9 third-quarter lead against Sparty in ‘98. Winning any one of those four games would have made all the difference between a saint's laurels and a dunce's cap. Keith Jackson said of Doug Flutie's Hail Mary in Miami, "One play- a life it makes." In Coop's case, it's one game- a legacy it breaks.

Jim Tressel took over an 8-4 Ohio State team, and would end his first season in 2001 with a 7-5 record before leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated season and national championship in 2002.  In 2007 and 2008, Tressel’s Ohio State teams played and lost in the national championship game.  Tressel has an 8-1 record over Michigan, and is 4-3 overall in bowl games.    Fans and critics have a variety of views on Tressel which are well captured in this article.  

Jim Donnan (1996-2000, 67.8% winning percentage) replaced by Mark Richt (2001-present, 78.8% winning percentage)

Despite a 40-19 record, Jim Donnan was fired in 2000 after the Bulldogs struggled to two consecutive 8-win seasons, and 3 consecutive losses against Georgia Tech. Donnan’s firing is attributed to his inability to return the program to the national prominence of the Vince Dooley era and to his inability to compete with SEC East rivals Tennessee and Florida.   In Donnan’s final 2000 season, Georgia, which was ranked #10 in the preseason, finished a disappointing 7-4. 

Georgia turned to Mark Richt, a coach with no previous head coaching experience, but someone who had been the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Florida State, where he coached two Heisman Trophy winners (Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke) and was part of two national championship teams (1993 and 1998)  After matching Donnan’s 8-4 record in his first year, Georgia completed the 2002 season with a 13-1 record.   Richt's teams have won two Southeastern Conference Championships (2002 and 2005), three SEC Eastern Division titles (2002, 2003 and 2005), represented the SEC in three BCS bowl appearances (with a record of 2-1), and finished their season ranked in the top ten of the AP Poll five times (2002-2005, 2007).

Tommy Tuberville, Auburn (1999-2008):  One can make the argument that Tuberville might be better placed in the" elite coach who resigned or was dismissed due to pressure from the administration" rather than in this category.  Tuberville has certainly experienced his fair share of run-ins with the Auburn administration.  Ultimately, however, Tuberville’s perceived underperformance on the field, at least in the eyes of certain Auburn administration members and trustees, justifies including Tuberville’s tenure in this category. 

Tuberville’s detractors point to the 2003 and 2008 seasons in particular as two seasons whereby Auburn started the year with high hopes and failed to live up to those expectations .  In 2003, Auburn would begin the year ranked as the pre-season #6 team, only to end the year 8-5 and unranked.   In Tuberville’s final season in 2008, Auburn was ranked #10 in the pre-season polls, but would finish with a disappointing 5-7 season. 

In between of course, Tuberville had one of the greatest runs of any coach in college history amassing a 42-9 record between 2004-2007 – a span which included Auburn’s incredible undefeated 2004 season which his detractors tend to conveniently forget.  

Tuberville’s critics also cite his penchant for suffering the ‘bad loss’ pointing to the following as examples of games which blotted Tuberville’s tenure:

  • 2001, losing 31-7 to a then 4-5 Alabama (7-5, NR).  (Note: in this list numbers in parentheses represent final season records followed by end-of-season rankinng
  • 2003, as a pre-season #6 team, Auburn started  the season 0-2 after losing by a combined 50-3 against eventual BCS co-champion USC and unranked Georgia Tech (7-6, NR)
  • 2005, losing the season opener 23-14 to unranked Georgia Tech (7-5, NR) at home as the #16 ranked team
  • 2006, losing 27-10 to then unranked Arkansas (10-3, #15) at home as the #3 ranked team
  • 2006, losing 37-15 to then unranked Georgia (9-4, #23) at home as the #5 ranked team
  • 2007, losing 26-23 to South Florida (9-4, NR) at home as the #17 ranked team
  • 2007, losing 19-14 to Mississippi State (8-5, NR) at home
  • 2008, despite a #10 preseason ranking, Auburn would lose to then #19 ranked Vanderbilt (7-6, NR) on the road (the first time Auburn had lost to Vanderbilt since 1955)
  • 2008, losing 25-22 to Arkansas (5-7, NR) at home as the #23 ranked team
  • 2008,  losing to then unranked West Virginia (9-4, #23) on the road

(Author’s note:  Just so that we are clear, personally I believe Auburn made a serious mistake by forcing Tuberville to resign.  Tuberville was a great coach for Auburn, and losing Tuberville will be a decision I believe the school will regret for some time. 

I spend a bit more time on Tuberville here for several reasons including  a)  I feel that placing him in this category requires additional explanation given his turbulent  relationship with the Auburn administration, b) Tuberville is Texas Tech’s new coach, c) Tech fans know little about Tuberville's background,  and d) since we are on the topic, to address the  hope  by some that Tuberville can help Tech eliminate the occasional bad loss – an assumption that is not necessarily supported by Tuberville’s track record.) 

Despite the unrealistic expectations that some fans and administrators place on Elite Coaches to maintain success, as the above records indicate, for the most part it is a mistake to replace an Elite Coach just because a coach experiences a rough season or two.

Penn State, for example, despite rumblings from their fan base, remained steadfast in their support for Joe Paterno throughout a challenging 5 year period of underachievement.  From 2000-2004, Joe Paterno’s Penn State teams went 5-7, 5-6, 9-4, 3-9 and 4-7; a 44.1% winning percentage.  However, since that time, his teams have gone 51-13; achieving a 79.7% winning percentage.

Certainly there are instances where replacing an Elite coach who has lost his spark can be warranted, however, as this discussion suggests, in the rare instances where such a dismissal occurs, football programs do not usually recover immediately,  if ever.

Summary Results for Dismissals due to On-field Performance:

  • Number of Elite Coaches Terminated:  9
  • Best Outcome:  Tie:  Jim Tressell replacing John Cooper, Ohio State and Mark Richt replacing Jim Donnan.
  • Worst Outcome:  Randy Shannon replacing Larry Coker
  • Average Decline in winning percentage between subsequent coaching  tenures:  -13%
  • Outcomes:  6 out of 8 cases resulted in decline
  • Average Duration of Subsequent Tenures:  5.50 years

Elite Coaches who resigned or were dismissed under pressure from the administration

This category includes Elite coaches who, like Leach, wore out their welcome with their respective administrations and whose dismissal was not a function of NCAA allegations or on-field performance.

Team Coach Tenure Winning % Replacement Tenure Winning %
Clemson Ken Hatfield 1990-1993    0.696 Tommy West 1993-1998 0.525
Boston College  Jeff Jagodzinski 2007-2009 0.714 Frank Spanziani 2009-Present 0.615
Arkansas Lou Holtz 1977-1983 0.723 Ken Hatfield 1984-1989 0.753

(Author’s notes:  Like the Leach case, there are multiple theories behind these dismissals, and it is difficult for me to know the precise circumstances for each case.  Instead,   l try to provide the overarching storyline behind each coach’s dismissals.  If any of the DTNers have some knowledge to impart on these cases, I would welcome them – not that any of you need encouragement.)

 Ken Hatfield, Clemson (1990-1993; 69.6% winning percentage): Hatfield compiled a 31-13-1 record at Clemson, but was never really accepted by Clemson fans that still remained loyal to Hatfield’s predecessor Danny Ford (who was dismissed due to NCAA allegations, most of which proved to be relatively minor).  A common saying among Tiger fans was "Howard built, Ford tilled it. Hatfield killed it."  A 5-6 season in 1992 seemed to have sealed Hatfield’s fate, despite rebounding to 8-3 in 1993.   Largely due to fan dissatisfaction, school officials refused to grant him a one-year extension on his contract after the 1993 season.  Hatfield resigned at the end of the regular season citing lack of support from the administration

Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College (2007-2009; 71.4% winning percentage):  Jagodzinski was named head coach at Boston College in January 2007 to replace Tom O'Brien, who resigned to become the head coach of North Carolina State. In Jagodzinki’s first year at Boston College, he led the Eagles to an 11-3 record, a #10 finish in the polls and an ACC Atlantic Division Championship.

Following the 2008 season, Jagodzinski interviewed for the vacant New York Jets head coaching job, despite being warned not to do so by athletic director Gene DeFilippo.  He interviewed for the position, and was fired the next day despite only completing  two years of his five-year contract with Boston College.  Jagodzinski did not get the Jets job, although he was hired as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Bucanneers in January 2009 only to be fired right before the beginning of the season.

Lou Holtz, Arkansas (1977-1983; 72.3% winning percentage):  At the time of Holtz’s resignation, following a 6-5 season, Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles claimed that Holtz (1977-1983, 72.3% winning percentage) resigned because Holtz was burned out.    Twenty years later Broyles admitted that he fired Holtz for his off-field activities, which apparently included offering political support to the controversial former senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.   After resigning from Arkansas, Holtz accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota from 1984-1984 where he led his teams to a 10-12 record before taking the reins at Notre Dame and leading them to a National Championship in 1988.

Summary Results for Dismissals or Forced Resignations by a School's Administration

  • Number of Elite Coaches Terminated:  3
  • Best Outcome:   Ken Hatfield replacing Lou Holtz, Arkansas
  • Worst Outcome:  Tommy West replacing Ken Hatfield, Clemson
  • Average Decline between subsequent coaching  tenures:  -15%
  • Outcomes:  2 out of 3 cases resulted in declines.
  • Average Duration of Subsequent Tenures:  NA.  (Shannon and Spanziani are still early in their tenures)

Note that this survey does not include Gary Moeller (Michigan, 1990-1994, 73.3% winning percentage) in this group.  Moeller was forced to resign after several  witnesses reported him being drunk and disorderly in public.  This sort of unusual incident would qualify for this category, however, Moeller was replaced by his assistant Lloyd Carr, who by then had been an assistant coach at Michigan for 15 years.  

Returning to Glory

Having dismissed an Elite Coach, how long did it take these 18 programs to equal or exceed the success of the unseated coach?     

In half of the 18 cases, the following programs have yet to return to their past glory. 

School     Coach      Tenure Winning % Reason for Dismissal Years to Return to Previous Success Levels Coaching Changes
Auburn Tommy Tuberville  1999-2008 0.680 Onfield Peformance

1 year - have not returned

1
Tennesee Philip Fulmer 1992-2008 0.745 Onfield Performance

1 year - have not returned

2
Boston College Jeff Jagodzinski 2007-2009 0.714 Administration

1 year -have not returned

1
Miami Larry Coker 2001-2006 0.800 Onfield Performance

3 years - have not returned

1
Washington Rick Neuhiesel 1999-2002 0.686 NCAA Allegations

7 years - have not returned

3
Texas A&M RC Slocum 1989-2002 0.715 Onfield Performance

7 years-have not returned

2
Colorado Rick Neuhiesel 1995-1998 0.702 NCAA Allegations

11 years-have not returned

2
Auburn Terry Bowden 1990-1993 0.723 Onfield Performance

12 years-have not returned

2
Clemson Danny Ford  1990-1993 0.696 NCAA Allegations

16 years-have not returned

4

 Among the other 9 cases where the teams have managed to regain success, the turnaround time has averaged just over 5 years and ranges from less than one year to thirteen years.

School     Coach      Tenure Winning % Reason for Dismissal Years to Return to Previous Success Levels Coaching Changes
Ohio State John Cooper 1988-2000 0.703 Onfield Peformance

<1 year - Hiring Jim Tressell

1
Georgia Jim Donnan 1996-2000 0.678 Onfield Performance

<1 year - Hiring Mark Richt

1
Auburn Pat Dye 1981-1992 0.697 NCAA Allegations

<1 year -Hiring Terry Bowden

1
Auburn Terry Bowden 1993-1996 0.723 Onfield Performance

<1 year- Hiring Tommy Tuberville

1
Arkansas Lou Holtz 1977-1983 0.723 Administration

<1 year - Hiring Ken Hatfield

1
Nebraska Frank Solich 1998-2003 0.753 Onfield Performance

6 years - Hiring Bo Pelini

2
Oklahoma Barry Switzer 1973-1988 0.826 NCAA Allegations

10 years - Hiring Bob Stoops

4
Texas Fred Akers 1977-1986 0.723 Onfield Performance

12 years- Hiring Mack Brown

3
Alabama Gene Stallings  1990-1996 0.805 NCAA Allegations

13 years-Hiring Nick Saban

5

Here we define a return to previous success levels in broader terms that are not necessarily dependent on strictly comparing winning percentages.  For example, although Bob Stoops’ overall winning percentage is not greater than Barry Switzer’s record, this survey defines Oklahoma’s performance under Stoops as a return to elite status as evidenced by OU’s BCS championship in 2000 and 6 top ten finishes in 11 seasons. 

 This portion of the analysis also defines the circumstances for Alabama and Nebraska in a similar fashion.  Nick Saban has now won a championship returning Alabama to its previous heights last seen under Gene Stallings, and Bo Pelini, whose selection here might admittedly be premature, seems to have positioned Nebraska at its previous levels under Frank Solich.  

I include Tommy Tuberville’s tenure at Auburn in this list, because Tuberville was able to match Terry Bowden’s performance at Tuberville's peak.

So what are the common threads that we see in the five examples where Elite Coaches were dismissed regardless of circumstances and whereby the successors were able to subsequently equal or exceed the success of their predecessors?

  • In 1 of the 5 instances, the replacement coach had prior head coaching experience at a major FBS program where he experienced some  success (Tuberville, Mississippi, 25-20 record).
  • In 3 of the 5 instances, the replacement coach had prior head coaching experience at minor programs with excellent results (Ken Hatfield, Air Force, 26-32-1; Jim Tressell, Youngstown State, 135-57-2; Terry Bowden, Samford, 45-23-1). Note that Hatfield took Air Force from a 2-9 record in his first year to a 10-2 record in his final year before taking the job at Arkansas.
  • In 1 of the 5 instances, the replacement was a long-time assistant coach at a successful program (Mark Richt, Florida State).
  • In 2 of the 5 instances, the team had won 8 games before dismissing an Elite Coach (Ohio State 8-4, 2000; Georgia 8-4, 2000), while the remaining 3 programs won six games or less (Auburn 5-5-1, 1992; Auburn 3-8, 1998; Arkansas 6-5, 1983).

None of these examples specifically reflect Texas Tech’s current circumstances.    In the two cases where a school had at least 8 wins prior to dismissing an elite coach (Texas Tech was 9-4 in its final year under Leach), one of the new hires, Mark Richt, was a highly regarded assistant coach from a successful program while the other replacement, Jim Tressel, had been extremely successful as a head coach of a minor program.  In Mark Richt’s first season, Georgia finished the season with an 8-4 record ,  identical to the previous year’s record.  In Jim Tressel’s first season, Ohio State slipped slightly from 8-4 to 7-5. 

Based on just two somewhat similar cases, even if you are the world’s biggest optimist, at best you could only expect Tuberville to match the Texas Tech’s victory count from the previous season.  Given the major upheaval that accompanies any head coaching change, especially at the upper echelon of college football where room for error is minimal, even the best coaches (i.e. Jim Tressel, Mark Richt) require time to stamp their imprimatur on a program.  

It is unrealistic to expect Tuberville to exceed Leach’s accomplishments in his first year.  Similarly, it is not enough to say that the Administration is replacing Leach with a better coach in Tuberville  (and other such arguments which ignore Tuberville’s own failings).  As this survey indicates, no matter who is brought in, the odds of improving on an Elite Coach’s previous success is slim to none – and in the very best of circumstances, those cases which represent less than 1% of the coaching tenures examined here, will likely require at least one year.

Furthermore, using his terms at Mississippi and Auburn as a guide, Tuberville’s history suggests that it will take him several years before he is able to equal Leach’s record and do so on a sustained basis.  Should Tuberville fail to outperform Leach, we should not be surprised. 

Final Comments

One of the objectives of this analysis is to better understand the context of the Tech administration’s and Board of Regent’s decision to terminate Mike Leach.  In the rare instances that an Elite Coach has been dismissed or forced to resign, each time the respective administration and ever hopeful fans have chimed, "this time is different"--claiming that the previous experiences replacing an Elite Coach no longer apply and that the new situation bears little similarity to past disasters. This analysis sadly proves that premise wrong.

The remarkable thing about Leach is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

Mike Leach was not just any coach.  He is an Elite Coach and one of the best coaches of his generation.  When you look back at Leach’s peers, among those top 23 coaches possessing a minimum tenure of 10 years as mentioned earlier, what stands out is that Leach’s record was not accomplished at a Michigan, Ohio State or other traditional power.  Leach’s record was developed at school possessing far less resources and far less talent.  Leach’s innovation and his ability to inspire his players to outwork and outsmart their opponents is what put Texas Tech into the national discussion. 

Many have tried to marginalize Leach’s accomplishments by writing him off as a good offensive coach who was never able to put it all together.  That characterization is categorically false.  Leach’s performance, measured by the bottom line of producing wins, suggests otherwise. Over the past 5 years, Texas Tech’s winning percentage increased to 71.5%.  Many fans were expecting 2010 to be another breakout season which offered a real possibility of winning the Big 12 South and playing in the Big 12 championship.   If you are looking for an offensive coach trapped in a head coach’s body, look no further than Charlie Weiss or Rich Rodriguez.  Leach is not that coach.

Others have dismissed Leach’s chances of getting another job, a presumption which does not withstand even minimal scrutiny.   Among the twenty-six active coaches aged 45-54 heading up major BCS football programs as defined here, Leach has the sixth highest winning percentage (following Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly, Bob Stoops, Mark Richt, and Paul Johnson).

The majority of FBS football programs are starving for success and an Elite Coach of Leach’s caliber rarely comes onto the market.  UCLA jumped at the chance to hire Rick Neuheisel whose Colorado team  incurred  51 NCAA infractions, who sued the University of Washington,  and who was censured by his coaching peers

Few will buy the concussion and insubordination canard being peddled by Tech Administration once they familiarize themselves with the facts.  Athletic directors at competing schools should be salivating at the chance to bring in Leach. 

When you review the historical precedents, you have to ask yourself what kind of management team throws out a coach with Leach’s accomplishments for a de minimis chance of marginally improving upon that success?  Which of you would make a similar decision running your own organization?

When the dust settles, Leach will brush himself off, and be back coaching in no time.  That’s because Leach is a winner and that’s what winners do. 

In Leach’s place, Tech has hired a different kind of coach who is also a winner.  But the question lies not in whether or not Tuberville is good enough.  He is.

The question is whether Tech will find itself in a once in a generation situation as did Georgia when it hired Mark Richt or will it become yet another rudderless team, like Clemson, left to wander for 16 plus years in the college football wilderness.   If Tech is successful, then Tuberville will deserve the credit.  He will have pulled off the equivalent of a historical miracle.

However, should Tuberville fail, the responsibility for that failure will rest squarely with the Tech Administration and Board of Regents.

In the meantime, Mike Sherman is treading water in College Station, while ghosts of David McWilliams awaken and memories of pine boxes resurface.

History is not on Tech's or Tuberville's side.  Will this time be different?

Author's note: I am putting the coaching data on google spreadsheets and will make it available for everyone's review as soon as I can.

 

 

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