This offseason the North Carolina State athletic department repeated the past, expecting a different future. It fired its football coach after a few up and down seasons that resulted in a .500-ish overall record.
Newly-fired coach Tom O'Brien had an Atlantic Coast Conference winning percentage of .458 during six seasons, a figure not significantly different from the seven-season .446 conference mark of fired predecessor Chuck Amato, or the seven-season .464 record of Amato's fired predecessor Mike O'Cain. Each coach had taken the Wolfpack to between three and five so-so bowl games during his tenure.
"Over time, you make judgments whether you're going in the right direction and whether you have a chance to get where you want to go," said North Carolina State athletic director Deborah Yow about the decision to fire O'Brien.
In a 15-minute phone conversation, Yow explained how athletic departments must mitigate risk. Those departments responsible for poor and mediocre football teams throughout the country have generally decided that firing a coach fits into this strategy.
In an average year at the Division I-A level, about 10 percent of college coaches get fired and replaced, according to a study by University of Colorado political science professor Scott Adler, Colorado-Denver political science professor Michael Berry and Loyola University Chicago political science professor David Doherty. These new coaches often are paid more. According to an analysis by the Post-Gazette, only 13 of the 59 BCS-conference head coaches employed in 2012 whose salaries had been reported by USA Today made less than their inflation-adjusted predecessor's salary. Nearly 40 percent of them had a starting salary at their school higher than the final salary of the coach they replaced.
The market has decided the value of a college football coach, but another question arises: Does the average high-major college football coach actually make a difference?
Important or not?
You're not alone if you've ever wondered exactly what your boss does. The importance of management has been debated for centuries. As pointed out by Dave Berri on the Freakonomics blog, father of modern economics Adam Smith argued in 1776 that the "principal clerks" who ran the daily operations of a firm were homogenous: "Their labour of inspection and direction may be either altogether or very nearly the same."
College football has taken an opposing stance. In 1982, Texas A&M wrested coach Jackie Sherrill away from Pitt with a $280,000 annual salary ($656,000 in today's dollars). The amount was reported by the New York Times to be a salary higher than any university had paid any employee for any job and so controversial that the Texas A&M president threatened to resign.
Since then, coaches have been determined to be increasingly valuable commodities. According to the Post-Gazette analysis, which used the USA Today database for 2012 coaching salaries and drew from a multitude of local newspapers for previous salaries, the average annual salary in 2012 for a current coach of a BCS conference football team was $2.37 million, 43 percent higher than his immediate predecessor's and 143 percent higher than the salary of the coach who came before his immediate predecessor. All previous values were adjusted for inflation.
Last year, two academic studies were released that questioned strategies common amongst college football programs regarding coaches.
One was authored by Towson professors William Tsitsos and Howard L. Nixon. It found that of the 25 programs who paid coaches the highest salaries from 2003-2011, the range of those programs that ranked in the top 25 at season's end was between 40 and 56 percent. Fewer than 30 percent experienced a short-term or long-term climb in the rankings during this period. The majority stayed the same and about a fifth got worse. The notion that higher pay leads to better coaching and thus better results didn't hold.
The other study was Adler's. Examining all 263 Division I-A football coaching changes from 1997 to 2010, Adler, Doherty and Berry discovered that most changes led to a neutral or negative effect on the team when tracking the results over a five-year period.
Whoever the coach, the bad teams continued to be bad teams, performing the same as similarly bad teams that didn't replace their coach. The mediocre teams, those who went about .500 before making a change, continued to be as bad or worse as similarly mediocre teams who didn't replace their coach.
Adler said universities continue to make the inefficient choice of replacing a coach because they don't know what else to do and have few options.
"Really, the only feasible thing other than perhaps investing boatloads of money in the facilities is just to fire the guy who is in charge," he said in an interview. "That's long been done as the way to get quick results. The question is whether or not it makes a difference. I think we're only beginning to look at the data."
Adler's main observation would be to not replace coaches as often. With any coaching change, he suggested, there are "start-up" costs involving disruptions in recruiting patterns, team culture and the management style directed at players, which could be why many mediocre teams in his study became worse.
Adler said consulting firms had contacted him about his study but not any athletic departments. Tsitsos hadn't heard from any of them either.
"I'm not surprised athletic directors aren't eager to bring any attention to this," Tsitsos said. "They have so much to lose, and nothing is stopping them."
It may seem on paper that schools are making irresponsible decisions by hiring and firing and upping the salary for football coaches when their program is unlikely to change positively. The problem is sometimes they're forced to.
The search for status
Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke says Danny Hope, the coach he fired this offseason, did a good job for the school. Last year, Hope led Purdue to a 6-7 record and a bowl game. The Boilermakers also came within two heartbreaking finishes of beating Notre Dame and Ohio State.
But Hope is gone, replaced by Darrell Hazell.
"We lost the fan base," Burke said. "I don't care how much you market or rehabilitate, the fan base has moved on and that generally drives most decisions."
The Boilermakers could have kept Hope longer, aware that he'd likely be the same or better as any replacement, or they could replace him, attracting more fans in the short run and hoping the new coach becomes a difference-maker even though the odds for change are against them. Purdue had to pay more for this second option.
Hazell's annual salary is $2 million annually, news organizations have reported, which is a 106 percent increase over the $970,000 Hope made last year. Richard Sheehan, a Notre Dame business professor and author of "Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports," said a popular belief attached to college football salaries is the "winner takes all theory," which suggests that prices have risen up and down the coaching food chain because the competition for top coaches is so intense. But he doesn't completely agree. He said that schools aren't trying to hire away Nick Saban of Alabama or someone similar -- their question is, "Who is the next Saban?"
Universities try to find someone who can raise their program to an elite status. Because of the still-rising influx of revenue into big college football programs, Sheehan said, they have a greater incentive to seek and pay handsomely for a new coach who might be a savior, as well as a greater incentive to dump that coach after a couple of down seasons.
Sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist said, "The whole system gets pulled up on this notion that 'Let's get this wonderful coach and then we'll get the best quarterback in the nation.' That can't happen for every team."
Zimbalist has written for years that pay packages for college coaches "defy one of the central principles of a competitive market," with college coaches being compensated for the value of their players and for the value the school receives from recruiting those players. These conditions lead to head coaching salaries on par with NFL head coaches, even though NCAA football teams make a fraction of the amount NFL teams make.
Likely the only ways the market value of coaches would freeze or go down would be if schools had to start paying players or if the NCAA applied for an antitrust exemption to cap salaries. Or, athletic departments could start thinking more like Adam Smith.
A lot of coaches out there
A potted house plant -- i.e. something with no football skills -- might not be able to do what Jerry Kill is doing as head coach for the University of Minnesota, but somebody else probably could.
Kill, in two years, has led Minnesota to a 9-16 record and to a bowl game named after a car repair company. Talking to him, you get the sense that he's friendly and smart and not as much of a salesman in a refreshing way. He knows football, but so do many others, a concept he and a handful of other Big Ten coaches were happy to admit without any loss of pride.
"There's probably someone more deserving to sit in my chair than I am that just didn't get the opportunity," Kill said.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said he has numerous friends who coach lower-level college football and has "no doubt" some of them and their peers would be qualified to coach at the Division I-A level.
"There are a lot of coaches out there," he said.
According to Grant Teaff, president of the American Football Coaches Association, there are 89,000 at the college and high school level. The difference in salary between the average BCS coach's salary of $2.37 million and those myriad other coaches is enormous. If the belief that college coaches aren't difference makers became popular and more potential coaches were considered to be equal, a school might consider gambling on a nontraditional choice that would be less expensive but not necessarily less productive for the school.
"They should be looking to a wider pool to drive down the cost," Adler said. "If you want to replace poly sci professors, there's a pretty big pool. Therefore the starting salaries are pretty middling, and my guess is the same would be said for sports writers. But for college football coaches it's a completely different realm."
This scenario is unlikely, Zimbalist said, because athletic directors are driven by short-term interests. Further, they are rewarded for hiring expensive coaches -- the more money they manage the more money they will make.
"The incentive for the AD is to go out and hire these expensive coaches," Zimbalist said. "Not to innovate. Not to experiment with a $100,000 coach."
At North Carolina State, Yow hired Dave Doeren, a hot commodity who had spent the past two years leading Northern Illinois. Doeren will make $1.8 million annually under his first contract, less than Tom O'Brien's ending salary of $1.9 million but nearly double O'Brien's starting salary at North Carolina State, accounting for inflation.
When she was Maryland's athletic director, Yow had a track record of hiring successful coaches in major sports, including football coach Ralph Friedgen and women's basketball coach Brenda Freese. At Doeren's introductory press conference, Yow said Doeren had "a total package of skills and values that will be required to elevate our program to national prominence over time."
Essentially, she said Doeren could do what his predecessors couldn't at North Carolina State, that he could be the difference-maker. She's the leader of a big-time college football program with fans to please and money to dispense. What else could she say?
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791, Twitter @mdent05. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM