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April 2, 2012
The Numbers Speak
Hiring a Coach is a Lottery

by Drew Cannon


Every spring and summer we watch the coaching carousel turn. Judgments are swift. Last November, 13 new major-conference head coaches make their first impressions on impatient fan bases. None of the those hires were universally approved, home runs. There wasn't a Roy Williams to North Carolina or a John Calipari to Kentucky in the bunch. So all summer we were regaled with reasons for doubt along with the reasons for optimism for all 13 coaches.

I've always felt that some of the reasons for doubt were a little simplistic, so I decided to check on the performance of new coaches, past and present.

Not including this latest crop of 13 rookies, there have been 101 new major-conference coaches since before the 2001-02 season (including Xavier, Memphis, and Big East teams who were then in the C-USA). I compared the "quality of the hire" to the quality of other major-conferece head coaching hires, so that half of all hires are considered "good" and half "bad." If the coach is still at the school and has been for more than four years, that's a good hire. If the coach was fired or forced to resign, that's a bad hire. Everyone else was divvied up subjectively -- deploying an objective measure like wins or average conference finish fails to recognize the undeniable truth that a performance such as that turned in by Bill Carmody will get you fired at Kentucky, while, at Northwestern, it's perfectly respectable.

So let's test some theories.

D-I head coaching experience
Zero: 7 successes out of 17 total hires with zero head coaching experience, 42%
1 year: 4 of 8, 50%
2-4 years: 11 of 20, 55%
5-9 years: 12 of 30, 40%
10 or more years: 17 of 26, 65%

"Not enough experience" is a common refrain among the doubters. I understand where it comes from; delegating to assistants, being in charge of practice, and handling the media are all tasks greatly aided by head coaching experience.

However, I wouldn't put too much stock into head coaching experience overall. If someone's proven they can coach, they're usually allowed to coach as long as they want. The true slam-dunk hires (Roy Williams, Bill Self, Bob Knight, Rick Pitino, John Calipari) were all 10+ experience guys, but they're not really useful in figuring out whom you should hire. If you can get someone who's already a coaching superstar, well, of course that's a good idea. We're not learning anything by saying hiring one of those guys is smart. Take them out, and it's basically a 50-50 success rate across the experience board.

Previous job
Mid-major head coach: 23 successes of 47 total hires, 49%
High-major head coach: 15 of 27, 56%
Promote from within (not included in major-conference assistants below): 9 of 15, 60%
Major-conference assistant: 1 of 5, 20%
NBA head coach: 3 of 4, 75%
NBA assistant: 0 of 2
NBA front office: 0 of 1

Pessimistic fans also get concerned about hiring mid-major coaches, thinking they aren't ready to deal with the pressures of major-conference basketball. The sample size just isn't big enough here for me to believe this matters at all, though. The logic goes like this: If there's a major-conference head coach and he's available, he's probably no program savior. He may be a perfectly fine coach, but unless you're overwhelming him with money or talent, you're not going to get anyone truly proven. Everyone who's currently a major-conference head coach had to come first from one of these other areas. If you're only going to be happy with someone who's currently doing well at a major-conference school, there are two things you need to recognize:

1. You're only going to be happy with about 30 guys, and 20 of them aren't going anywhere.
2. The other ten were at some point either mid-major head coaches or major-conference assistants. So your belief that someone in either of those positions isn't good enough make this jump is being defeated even as you argue.

Of the hires who had major-conference coaching experience, 54 percent were successful. Of those who had none, 48 percent were.

Let's address something more specific. It's often said that the real issue with mid-major head coaches is that they aren't prepared to recruit against the big boys, even if they're fine motivators and basketball minds.

So I took the 101 coaches and ranked them by average strength of recruiting class, considering the quality and quantity of top-100 signees. The top third -- the good recruiters -- brought in at least a typical class of one top-40 player or two players from the back half of the top 100. The bottom third -- the bad recruiters -- brought in an average class no better than one player from the back tail of the top 100. Everyone else is deemed "average."

And, in case you didn't believe this article, recruiting well certainly helps. The good recruiters had a success rate of 61 percent, the average recruiters had a success rate of 54 percent, and the bad recruiters had a success rate of 36 percent.

Of mid-major head coaching hires, 23 percent were good recruiters, 43 percent were average recruiters, and 34 percent were bad recruiters.

Of major-conference head coaching hires, 52 percent were good recruiters, 22 percent were average recruiters, and 26 percent were bad recruiters.

Of new head coaches promoted from within, 27 percent were good recruiters, 40 percent were average recruiters, and 33 percent were bad recruiters.

Coaches with previous major-conference head-coaching experience recruited better (54-17-28) than those without (22-45-36), despite (as discussed above) performing no better.

Previous major-conference head coaches do show more success in recruiting going forward, and successful recruiters show more success on the floor. That said, there isn't any significant difference between the overall success rates of coaches from any background. So, interestingly, this means that the typical mid-major hire brings more to the table in other departments (because something is obviously balancing out their relative lack of recruiting success).

What makes this even more complicated is that the overwhelming majority of coaches are coming from either mid-major or major-conference head coaching positions. So, part one of this equation makes sense: The mid-major coaches get major-conference jobs and learn to improve recruiting as they go. But part two clearly doesn't make sense: Why would the head coaches get worse at everything else?

I have three theories.

1. The major-conference coaches are getting jobs where it's easier to recruit anyway, because previous success at this level is getting them better jobs. This is the logical extension of the "slam-dunk hire" line I've used a few times already. I think this is true, but it doesn't explain why there is regression to the other parts of their coaching talent. That said, I feel like this string does have something to do with the real answer.

2. Worse recruiting actually isn't representative of the coaches' talent base. That is, worse talents are staying in school longer, and improve enough to overtake some of the better talents.

3. The typical major-conference coach who moves to another job is different from the typicalmajor-conference coach that stays where they are. Coaches who recruit at a high level and find some level of success but who don't create a giant of a program are the exact type of coach that finds himself switching jobs: Too effective and promising to get fired, but not so overwhelmingly successful that switching jobs would be a mistake.

To put it simply, there are no absolutes when hiring a coach. Every coaching change should be about the man hired, his track record, and his vision for the program. A lack of experience as a head coach or with major-conference basketball aren't harbingers of failure, just like seven years of major-conference coaching doesn't guarantee success. There aren't any codes to be cracked here.

Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Click here to see Drew's other articles. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewCannon1.

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Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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