Win It For Coach! How Bowl Teams Perform During Coaching Changes

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Larry Fedora of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles holds up the Conference USA trophy with Ryan Balentine #80 and Tim Green #43 after defeating the Houston Cougars 49-28 at Robertson Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

What happens to a team when its coach leaves before a bowl game? What happens when he sticks around for one final game? Let's take a look.

Bowl season means many things to many people. While some people love the bowls and some very much do not, there are a couple of constants come December: the list of bowl swag is always going to be entertaining, and quite a few teams are going to be playing with interim coaches.

The coaching carousel typically begins in late-November and early-December, and it doesn't stop for quite a while. Inevitably, before the bowls are played, some coaches are going to leave for bigger jobs, and some are going to get fired; either way, it results in a rather awkward situation for the players and administrators. Does Coach stay on to coach the bowl? Does he step aside and let an interim coach run the show?

This is a topic Michael Felder and I covered Tuesday on his In The Bleachers podcast. Around the 4:30 mark, I mention the following in regard to Larry Fedora sticking around to coach Southern Miss despite having already taken the North Carolina job. (For your sake, I removed the "ums" and stammering. And when a new thought bubble is forming above my head, there is a lot of stammering.)

It's just such an awkward situation because the players themselves, they feel loyal to their coach, but he just left them. We should do a study on this at some point -- if a coach is fired and he gets to coach the bowl game, I'm betting that they probably perform pretty well. We're going to talk about UNC in a little bit -- Everett Withers is going to coach the bowl game, so they kind of have that "Win it for Coach" mentality. That's bitten Missouri a lot through the years; they lost to Bill Snyder in his last game at Kansas State (the first time around), they lost to Iowa State and Dan McCarney in 2006. So maybe there is that factor if you get fired. But if you leave, and then you stay to coach the bowl game, that is … that's just weird, because the players have to feel relatively abandoned about that. If you're at a mid-major school, I guess you might expect it; still, you still have to take orders from him and listen to him even though you know he's not going to be around much longer…

I should look into this at some point because I do have the feeling that if you're leaving voluntarily for a bigger job, your team probably doesn't perform at an amazing level.

It didn't take long for "at some point" to become "now."

Since 2005, 50 teams have played in bowl games before beginning life with a new coach the next season. Nineteen of these saw their coach announce his departure (or have it announced for him) after the bowl game. Sometimes there were rumors that it would happen (Jim Harbaugh), and sometimes it happened quite a while later (Butch Davis). For the purposes of this post, however, we are going to look at the other 31 teams, the ones that either knew their coach was about to leave or had already seen him walk out the door.

We're going to break these teams into five categories:

  • Coach Is Leaving For a Better Job (Interim Coach In Bowl). Teams: 11. Ball State (2008), Boston College (2006), Central Michigan (2006), Central Michigan (2009), Cincinnati (2006), Cincinnati (2009), Houston (2007), Miami-Ohio (2010), Navy (2007), Northern Illinois (2010), West Virginia (2007)
  • Coach Is Leaving For a Better Job (Sticks Around To Coach Bowl). Teams: 1. Boise State (2005).
  • Coach Resigned Or Was Fired (Interim Coach In Bowl). Teams: 11. Alabama (2006), Arkansas (2007), Colorado (2005), Georgia Tech (2007), Marshall (2009), Miami (2006), Miami (2010), Pittsburgh (2010), Texas A&M (2007), Texas Tech (2009), UCLA (2007).
  • Coach Resigned Or Was Fired (Sticks Around To Coach Bowl). Teams: 3. Arizona State (2006), Maryland (2010), Southern Miss (2007).
  • Coach Is Retiring. Teams: 5. Florida (2010), Florida State (2009), Kentucky (2009), Michigan (2007), Wisconsin (2005).

To gauge if one of these groups performs better than another, we're going to look at actual wins and losses, but we're also going to look at Adj. Score, which gives us a better, more opponent-adjusted look at how a team actually performed.

Category Record Win% Adj. PPG Adj. PPG
Adj. Scoring
Leaving (Interim Coach) 7-4 0.636 32.6 26.9 +5.7
Leaving (Not Gone) 0-1 0.000 26.0 24.0 +2.0
Resigned/Fired (Interim Coach) 4-7 0.364 25.5 22.8 +2.7
Resigned/Fired (Not Gone) 1-2 0.333 29.2 20.2 +9.0
Retirement (Planned) 4-1 0.800 33.0 23.9 +9.1
ALL 16-15 0.516 29.6 24.2 +5.4

A few observations:

  • First of all, Urban Meyer had it all figured out: figure out a way to retire every year, and you'll get a Grade-A effort from your team. Only Rich Brooks lost his retirement game; the other four (Meyer, Bobby Bowden, Lloyd Carr, Barry Alvarez) were all sent off with top-notch performances.
  • Teams with coaches who were leaving (or had left) for better jobs went 7-5, while teams with fired/resigned coaches went 5-9. We could say there was a mental impact here in some way, but we should probably just conclude that teams whose coaches leave for better jobs are usually better than teams whose coaches had to leave because of disappointing results.
  • Ralph Friedgen set the bar last year in terms of getting his team to play up for him in his last game. The other two in the "Resigned/Fired (Not Gone)" category -- Dirk Koetter at Arizona State, Jeff Bower at Southern Miss -- did not fare as well. Maryland's performance last year skewed the Adj. Scoring Margin averages in this category quite a bit; they were plus-29.4 against East Carolina last year, while Koetter and Bower combined to average minus-1.2.
  • Larry Fedora's situation at Southern Miss this year is unique. Since 2005, only Dan Hawkins at Boise State stuck around to coach his team in the bowl after accepting another job. Boise State lost to Boston College, 27-21. I honestly thought that would have happened a few more times.

Coaching changes are the bane of our Football Outsiders season projections. For every coach to hit the ground running with his new team, there is one that struggles mightily, and in the end, it is hard to get any sort of read for which coach will or won't succeed. Evidently the same can be said for teams in bowls. Over time, teams experiencing coaching changes do just as well or poorly as teams with all the continuity in the world. Circumstances are so incredibly different from job to job that it is nearly impossible to figure out how a team is going to respond to a move. That is disappointing, of course -- it's always more fun to draw a stark, "Eureka!" conclusion.

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