The coaching carousel moves slower than you think

When a head coach like Villanova’s Jay Wright does something as remarkable as winning two national titles in three seasons, we like to draw lessons. Surely there must be something about how he coaches or the way he got to this point that spells success.

In that spirit, one point that’s been suggested is that Wright would never even have survived this long if he’d been hired by the Wildcats 10 or 15 years later than he was. Wright was hired at Villanova in 2001 and compiled just a 52-46 record over his first three seasons.

Surely, in today’s win-now-or-else culture, a three-year start like that would result in a pink slip, right? To get answers, I looked at every major-conference head-coaching hire since 2000, a total of 200 personnel selections by athletic directors over the course of 19 hiring cycles. Here’s what I found.

Most major-conference hires do not end with a firing

The good news for this cycle’s new major-conference head coaches is that, statistically speaking, any one of them probably won’t be fired from their current position. The bad news is that, collectively, one or even two very likely will be sacked.

Since 2000, 35 percent of head coaches hired at major-conference programs have eventually been fired from that same position. That number rises to 37 percent if we look only at hires made prior to March 1, 2017. (No coach was fired after his first season in his new position in 2017-18.)

If firings account for 35 or 37 percent of coaching outcomes, what happens to the rest? Well, as boring as it sounds, many coaches hired by major-conference programs over the past 19 cycles are still in the same job.

Other coaches move up and out, or at least out. From Bill Self and John Beilein to Brad Underwood and Chris Mack, the road from one major-conference head-coaching gig to another (or even to the NBA) is well traveled.

The rest of the coaching-tenure endgames are divided between cases where the incumbent agrees to “seek other opportunities” in an NBA front-office or assistant role, retires or transitions into some form of TV work. Firings are highly visible, always present and by definition newsworthy, but they represent a minority of major-conference head-coaching outcomes.

The average tenure of a fired coach is five years

Of the coaches who have been fired from a major-conference position since 2000, the average length of service clocks in at 5.2 years. That might seem like a high number, but what it represents, in part, is simply that some coaching tenures go south very late in the game.

Whether your preferred example is Lorenzo Romar at Washington (fired after 15 seasons), Thad Matta at Ohio State (13 seasons) or John Thompson III at Georgetown (also 13), tenures occasionally chart a long and rather protracted rise and fall. It’s a fairly rare career arc, all things considered, but it does happen.

Obviously, this number for average tenure of fired coaches drops as we get to more recent hiring cycles, but that’s equal parts mathematical imperative and impatient athletic directors. Yes, candidates fired from recent cycles were let go after a short time. Then again, there were other coaches hired at the same time who are yet to be fired, and they will show a lengthier term of service.

The “three years (or less) and out” rule does happen, but …

The important point with relation to our common understanding regarding the “win now or else” mindset is that there hasn’t been any increase in short-tenure firings in recent years. Take Kevin Stallings.

Pittsburgh fired Stallings after just two seasons, and, to my knowledge, there was little or no reaction in the vein of “Look at how demanding the pressure to win now in college basketball has become.” Instead the common view seemed to be that the parting was necessary.

This type of reaction to a short-tenure firing is the most common response to what is actually a rare occurrence. Just 9 percent of major-conference hires since 2000 have been fired after three seasons or less, and, even among coaches who are fired, a mere 26 percent are let go after such a short time.

If anything, short-term firings tend to be less questionable on the whole. When Billy Gillispie and Donnie Tyndall were let go after just one season at Texas Tech and Tennessee, respectively, few if any observers saw such decisions in terms of an impossible-to-please athletic director.

Nor were three-years-and-out tenures like Kim Anderson’s at Missouri or Eddie Jordan’s at Rutgers the occasion for much soul-searching on the question of demands placed on coaches today. True, the most telling exception to this rule is perhaps the example of Dino Gaudio, who was let go in 2010 after just three seasons at Wake Forest.

That firing was indeed held up as an abrupt and telling case study in unrealistic expectations, but the key words there are exception to the rule. Gaudio’s fate hasn’t turned out to be as paradigmatic as commentators feared at the time.

Wright is clearly a coach worth studying, but his early struggles (relatively speaking) at Villanova don’t necessarily constitute a sign of how much things have changed. In fact, a study of the coaching carousel over the past 19 hiring cycles suggests Wright would in all probability still have a job with the Wildcats even if he’d recorded that rocky start now instead of years ago.

Whether you’re talking about “now” or “then,” firings make up a small but highly visible and inherently dramatic share of coaching outcomes. Meaning, for all we know, the next Jay Wright could be struggling but, yes, still keeping his job in Year 2 or 3 right before our eyes.

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