The Implications for NCAA DI Football and Basketball Programs
by James E. Johnson, Ball State University
Intercollegiate athletic human resource decisions have historically been under-researched, leaving athletic directors to make choices based on a variety of anecdotal data. Considering such an absence, we have conducted five studies to help identify some academic and athletic outcomes associated with National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I football and basketball coaching changes. Thus, the purpose of this article is to summarize recent research on coaching succession in NCAA DI basketball and football programs to generate pragmatic managerial considerations for college athletic administrators.
The College Coaching Landscape
Consider the following scenario: Heading into conference tournament play, Coach Smith – the head men’s basketball coach at a mid-major institution – has a 14-16 record. Coach Smith is in his sixth season, and though the school is not thought of as a historical basketball powerhouse, the expectations of the program for the season were higher than a sub – .500 record.
Off the court and in the classroom, the team has a reasonable graduation success rate and mostly meets eligibility standards. The team Academic Progress Rate (APR) last year was 940 – just below the national average for men’s basketball and not far above the 930 threshold for NCAA-sanctioned penalties.
Coach Smith is liked by players, but the cohesion of the team has not been as strong since the start of a late-season losing streak. A few players may be considering transfer because of playing time and rumors that Coach Smith could be fired. Seeded towards the bottom of its conference tournament, the team is not expected to win more than a game in the tournament and subsequently would not advance to any post-season play.
Local and national media have highlighted the generally average performance of Coach Smith during his tenure, especially considering his relative longevity at the university. Because of the university’s strong alumni and donor support, the disappointing season has led to many stakeholder complaints to replace Coach Smith.
The athletic director knows increased pressure will occur if she does not work proactively to improve the basketball program, but she is concerned about what a coaching change could mean for the players in the program, the team’s APR score, and the resources needed for a national search. How can the athletic director make an informed decision?
The preceding scenario is common in university athletic departments, particularly in high-profile revenue sports like men’s basketball and football. Basketball and football programs in the NCAA Division I (DI) are big businesses.
As part of more than $1 billion in NCAA revenues for 2017, $821.4 million came from men’s basketball tournament television rights (Kirshner, 2018).
Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Football, which is the only championship the NCAA does not oversee, is estimated to be worth more than $600 million (Schrotenboer, 2017). Coaches who supervise these programs often make millions, with the most lucrative contracts exceeding $8 million annually for basketball and $10 million annually for football (USA Today, 2018).
Coaches at the low end of the DI spectrum have salaries just over $500 thousand for football, and a few hundred thousand dollars for basketball (USA Today, 2018). While the discrepancies between top-tier and lower DI head coaching salaries are wide, they are generally proportionate to athletic department budgets or traditional levels of program success. These economic realities create tremendous pressure on DI athletic directors to employ coaches who win.
Alumni, fans, and various other stakeholders want to see athletic programs succeed, but losing records or coaching scandals often result in pressure for athletic directors to replace their head coach. Such pressure helps to explain why NCAA DI football and basketball head coaching changes can occur for more than 10% of head coaches each year (Goodman, 2015; Johnson, Pierce, Krohn, Judge, & Scott, 2017). Replacing a coach, however, is a timely and costly process.
Considering the intercollegiate coaching landscape, we have conducted five different studies that directly address the impact of coaching succession in DI football and basketball. Although the studies differed in their variables, samples, and theoretical frameworks, each provides insight on the impact of a coaching change. Three of those studies have focused on academic impact, while two have focused on athletic impact.
My colleagues and I conducted three studies to investigate the impact of head coaching change on academic performance, specifically related to Academic Progress Rate. Although the APR often is critiqued by scholars (Ridpath, 2017), it is one of the most visible metrics of intercollegiate academic performance – and is the NCAA’s primary measure of academic achievement among student-athletes. The NCAA implemented the APR in 2004 as an assessment of semester-by-semester academic performance of athletic teams, based on student-athletes’ retention and eligibility (NCAA, 2018).
To determine the overall score, student-athletes’ points earned are divided by their points possible and multiplied by 1000. Each student-athlete can earn a total of two points per semester or four points per year, and these points are based on their athletic eligibility determined by GPA and Progress Towards Degree requirements, as well as by returning to their team the following semester.
Currently, average men’s team scores range from 961 (FCS football) to 992 (skiing; NCAA 2018). For women’s sports the range is narrower, with gymnastics boasting the top score of 993 and basketball being the lowest at 982. Scores under 930 are subject to immediate or long-term penalties from the NCAA, such as loss of practice time or post-season bans.
Results from FBS football, FCS football, and DI men’s basketball teams all indicated that a coaching change negatively impacted APR scores, particularly in cases where a coach was fired for poor athletic performance.
These findings also were consistent with Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory (Eidelson, 1997), which predicts that organizations operate as complex systems whereby a change in the system would have ripple effects throughout the whole system causing all components of the system to adapt. CAS theory predicts leadership changes are particularly impactful. Our results indicated that head coaches are significantly connected to the APR performance of their teams.
Impact on APR in FBS Football
Our first study used CAS theory to explain the potential impact of a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football head coaching change on APR (Johnson et al., 2013). CAS theory suggests that since head coaches’ roles are multifaceted a head coaching change will impact players in a variety of ways.
We collected information for all FBS head coaching changes between academic years 2003-04 and 2010-2011 (160 total head coach changes). The results supported CAS theory, as APR scores in the year of a coaching change were significantly lower than average APR scores.
Additional results found that the nature of a coaching change (i.e., positive [coach leaves to pursue a more prestigious and lucrative position] or negative [coach was fired due to poor performance or scandal]) did not impact APR scores. Furthermore, internally hired coaches produced the highest APR scores, and teams with the highest winning percentages had the strongest APR scores.
Specific results indicated the average FBS football APR score was 943.78. In the year of a coaching change, the APR average dropped to 938.42. A positive coaching change resulted in almost no change in APR score (943.66), but a negative coaching change led to an APR average score of 935.94.
Internally hired head coaches saw APR scores rise to 957.52, but an externally hired coach saw a 10-point drop in APR (933.83). While these results are significant, it is important to note that FBS football did not show as much of an impact in scores as FCS football and DI men’s basketball (see forthcoming explanations).
We hypothesized that FBS football programs have greater resources to provide support during coaching transitions, which could combat the adverse effects of FBS coaching change on academics – a luxury not available for many smaller DI institutions.
This explanation is conceivable considering the resources available in large athletic departments and the celebrity status of many FBS football coaches who are often one the most influential people on college campuses, and who are often the highest paid public officials in their states (Sander, 2011).
Impact on APR in FCS Football
We systemically replicated (Sidman, 1960) the FBS football study in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS; Johnson, Pierce, Tracy, & Ridley, 2015). This study also utilized CAS theory and had similar results to the FBS study. The sample included all FCS head coaching changes from 2003-04 and 2010-11 (120 total head coaching changes).
Like the FBS findings, results indicated APR scores were significantly lower in the year of a coaching change, significantly higher for teams with the highest winning percentages, and predicted strongest by average APR score. Different from FBS football, the results indicated that APR scores were impacted by the nature of change (negative changes produced lower APR scores) and did not differ based on the internal/external status of the new hire.
FCS football is the men’s sport with the historically lowest APR scores – an average of 929.69 which is below the 930-penalty threshold. In the year of a coaching change the average APR score was lower, falling to 922.87. A positive coaching change improved APR averages by more the 10 points to 941.53, but a negative coaching change negatively impacted APR by roughly 10 points to 919.36.
Interestingly, an internal hire in FCS football lowered the average APR to 917.43 while an external hire had an average APR score of 924.15. We concluded that head coaches at smaller schools may have to play a more hands-on role to hold their student-athletes accountable in academic, athletic, and social contexts.
When compared to FBS institutions, FCS universities offer lower coaching salaries and fewer benefits, but more importantly they lack the academic support services, facilities, and administrators of FBS programs (Petersen, Judge, & Johnson, 2018).
Therefore, FBS/Power Five institutions have more developed and better-resourced personnel, infrastructures, and financial resources for monitoring and supporting student-athletes in times of coaching transition.
A lack of resources would require an FCS coach to oversee more aspects of their program and prompted us to note, “the amount of interaction between FCS coaches and their student-athletes may be greater than that of FBS coaches, causing a more sensitive reaction to a coaching change” (Johnson et al., 2015, p. 43).
Impact on APR in Men’s Basketball
Most recently, we replicated the FBS and FCS football studies for NCAA DI men’s basketball (Johnson, Manwell, & Scott, 2018). NCAA DI basketball is immensely popular and provides a majority of the NCAA’s revenue from the $900 million men’s DI basketball tournament. However, some contextual differences from football, like smaller rosters and coaching staffs, can result in differences in team cohesion, contact with head coaches, scholarship distribution, and individual player impact. Thus, it was hypothesized that men’s basketball would have a more sensitive reaction to a head coach change.
The study considered all NCAA DI men’s basketball head coaching changes from 2003-04 to 2015-16 (539 total head coaching changes). Noteworthy findings included APR scores in the year of a coaching change were significantly lower than mean APR scores, mean APR scores were significantly lower when a negative coaching change occurred than for a positive change, and APR scores were significantly higher for teams with the highest winning percentages.
During the years of the study, the average APR score in DI men’s basketball was 946.12. By comparison, in the year of a coaching change the average APR was 932.36. More notably, teams that experienced a negative coaching change had an average APR score of 925.98, whereas teams that experienced positive coaching changes had an average APR score of 946.27, a large difference of 20.29 APR points. The APR score following a positive coaching change was consistent with the average APR before the change.
These findings are of particular importance when considering nearly 70% of men’s basketball coaching changes result from negative circumstances (e.g., fired for poor performance). Programs that hired externally had an average APR of 930.39, but programs that hired a new head coach from within had an average APR score of 941.45 – 11 points higher than teams with externally hired head coaches and only five points lower than the average score. Yet, over 80% of head coaches are hired from outside their current programs.
Findings related to the nature of positive change and internal versus external hiring suggest that coaching environments that are negative likely create a culture of low morale. If morale is low, particularly due to the lack of athletic success, emphasis on other aspects of student-athletes’ lives could be deemphasized (i.e., academic progress).
Basketball teams also have relatively small rosters, and coaches are involved more directly in coaching and with players. However, the smaller team size means that losing one player after a coaching change strongly affects the APR calculation. Between average APR scores and APR scores following a coaching change, there was a 13.76-point difference. This difference in men’s basketball was more than double the difference in each level of football.
Considering that men’s basketball historically has one of the lowest average APR scores (NCAA, 2018), a nearly 14-point change is substantial. Finally, when compared to the football studies, it was clear that the results from men’s DI basketball aligned more closely with FCS football than with FBS football. This result was likely because men’s basketball is not sub-divided, meaning that both FCS- and FBS-level institutions are included in the pool of men’s basketball teams, which causes considerable overlap between basketball and FCS institutions.
The similarity is also likely because of the lack of resources seen at small DI athletic programs who do not have the supporting resources to help sustain a coaching transition.
Summary of Academic Impact
From an academic perspective, a coaching change often is detrimental. Findings from FBS football, FCS football, and DI men’s basketball teams indicated that a coaching change negatively impacted APR scores, particularly in cases where a coach was fired for poor athletic performance.
Well-resourced FBS (especially Power 5 programs) are generally affected less by a coaching change than schools in smaller conferences or divisions. This finding highlights the role that academic support services can play in times of coaching transition.
The 13.76-point APR difference in men’s basketball between average APR scores and scores when a coaching change occurs (Johnson et al., 2018) clearly demonstrates that quantity and quality of academic support is critical because a void in leadership during a coaching transition could cause student-athletes to neglect their academic responsibilities.
Additional counseling, tutoring, study skills training, study table/hall requirements, and regular meetings with administrators are specific programming efforts that could assist in academic performance. These efforts also might decrease the likelihood that a student-athlete would transfer after a head coach leaves, which would save an APR point.
Based on three APR studies, athletic directors should understand that APR scores likely will decrease if a coaching change is made (Johnson et. al, 2015, 2017, 2018). A summary of APR impact from each of the studies can be seen in the Table below.
In the remaining two studies we considered the athletic impact of head coaching changes in Division I men’s and women’s basketball. Because athletic performance of a team is more publicized than academic performance, pressure from students, fans, alumni, and other stakeholders can leave an athletic director with a difficult decision in the absence of wins. Thus, most coaching changes result from unmet performance-based expectations.
Because winning is important to NCAA DI athletic programs it is also one of many significant criteria when evaluating potential candidates for head coaching positions. Past research related to hiring and firing decisions only considered a few isolated variables. The following studies considered a multitude of variables that could impact coaching success, but ultimately, results indicated that a head coaching change led to little (if any) athletic improvement.
Impact on Conference Wins in Men’s Basketball
We used the theory of Reciprocal Determinism (Bandura, 1977) to evaluate the impact of a coaching change on conference winning percentage in men’s basketball at the NCAA DI level up to four years after the change (Johnson et al., 2017). According to reciprocal determinism, people learn through observation and interaction with their environment, which suggests that coaches with the most playing and coaching experience would be the most effective coaches. The study considered data from all men’s basketball coaching changes from 1999 to 2014 (736 total head coaching changes).
Results of our study showed that many seemingly valuable demographic, environmental, and experiential variables widely considered important for wins were insignificant (e.g., age of coach, prior playing experience, total years coaching). However, we found that coach’s ability, the nature of the vacancy situation, and past program success were significant in predicting incoming coaches’ successes.
Coach’s ability was measured by the coach’s previous performance (win %) as a head coach, which often is the most important factor on a coach’s resume, especially when struggling programs are looking to have more athletic success. The more previous success as a head coach, the more conference-level success the coach would have in a new head coaching position, suggesting that it is preferred to hire successful head coaches rather than assistant coaches or moderately-successful head coaches that could appear desirable for other reasons.
Similar to the APR studies, the vacancy situation referred to the circumstance of the prior coaching change. Negative vacancies indicated coaches were fired due to excessive losses or rules violations while positive vacancies indicated coaches had programmatic success and moved to more prestigious coaching positions.
For negative situations hiring a new coach increased by .78 conference wins per year, while replacing a successful coach resulted in approximately .5 more losses per year. In both cases, analyses indicated little to no athletic improvement typically occurs after a head coaching change.
Past program success – referring to the historical success of the program in which the coaching change occurred – was determined as the most influential variable. The more successful a program was prior to changing coaches, the less likely it was to have more wins following a coaching change (i.e., regression to the mean).
The only exception to this finding was a small handful of elite and historically strong basketball programs that remained highly successful after changing coaches (e.g., North Carolina & Kentucky). Historical markers such as NBA draft picks helped to define the elite programs.
Program success findings appear to be linked to the nature of change because most successful college coaches are rarely fired, which indicated that programs who have been recently successful and lose their coach to a more prestigious program will likely suffer a small amount of regression following the coaching change.
Impact on Conference Wins in Women’s Basketball
Like our study in men’s basketball, the women’s basketball study (Pierce, Johnson, Krohn, & Judge, 2017) used the theory of Reciprocal Determinism to evaluate the performance of new coaches.
The study utilized data from NCAA DI women’s basketball coaching changes across 16 conferences from 2000 to 2009 (185 total head coaching changes) and considered 23 independent variables within six categories to predict incoming coach success.
Results demonstrated that prior coaching experience was a positive predictor of coaching performance after a coaching change, but over time, only one more win per season would be expected from hiring an experienced coach versus an inexperienced coach. No other characteristics of the incoming coach predicted performance.
Consistent with the findings for men’s basketball, the past program success (i.e., average wins per season and WNBA draft picks) predicted new head coach success for women’s basketball. Additionally, coaches who replaced previously successful coaches tended to have less success than their predecessors, and only coaches who entered a less successful program showed increases in wins – similar to the men’s basketball findings.
These findings suggest that program legacy is more important than individual characteristics of an incoming women’s DI basketball coach. Additionally, despite coaching experience being a significant predictor of coaching success, the impact of a coaching change was pragmatically inconsequential for both men’s and women’s basketball; the most powerful predictor of previous program success only resulted in 1.3 more wins per year for men and 1.4 more wins per year for women.
Summary of Athletic Impact
Overall, athletic results suggest that hiring a new coach is not as effective as most stakeholders would desire. Because almost 70% of men’s basketball coaching changes result from negative circumstances (i.e., fired due to poor performance), it is likely that athletic directors succumb to pressure from sub-par coaching records and hot seat discussions.
When firing decisions are made, and athletic directors are faced with hiring a replacement, the collective results counter the beliefs that a coach’s playing experience, coaching experience, or previous place of employment are the significant factors for improving winning percentages. Instead, the collective findings show that teams will likely have no more than an additional win per season than they did with the preceding coach.
While the coach’s experience was statistically significant for increasing wins, the practicality of one additional win per season should be weighed against the resources needed to conduct a nationwide search, hire a new staff of assistants, and negatively impact APR scores.
In aggregate, our five studies have resulted in a body of knowledge with implications for sport administrators. Though there are many pressures on athletic directors to change coaches, the five studies broadly suggest that a new coach is largely inconsequential from an athletic standpoint, and often hurtful academically. The pragmatic implications of these findings suggest that athletic directors should exercise caution when considering a coaching change.
Coach Smith Revisited
Returning to the scenario at the outset of this paper helps to demonstrate the pragmatic considerations of our research. With the team’s APR at 940, our results indicate firing Coach Smith could lower the APR score by enough points to put the program in danger of NCAA penalties. Athletically, a coaching change, on average, would result in fewer than 1.5 additional wins per season, even when the most previously-successful coaches are hired.
If Coach Smith was fired, and the averages were realized, a new coach could potentially improve the record to .500, which not would lead the program further in post-season play or bring about significant improvements from the current season. Additionally, Coach Smith is well-liked by players, a point that could lead to transfer or team cohesion issues if he were fired.
Based on the current academic and athletic status of the program, application of the research would indicate that the better choice for the athletic director is to maintain Coach Smith and seek other ways to boost program resources. Of course, we are not naïve to other interpersonal, institutional, and programmatic variables that are likely to influence human resource decisions.
The pressure from stakeholders is undoubtedly strong. However, the five studies highlighted in this paper do offer insight that would counter some popular opinions about what would happen if Coach Smith or similar head coaches were fired, as well as the types of candidates that are historically most successful.
In conclusion, if a new coach must be hired, results from the five studies counter popular notions that a coach’s playing experience, coaching experience, or previous place of employment are significant factors in improving team winning percentage.
Instead, athletic and academic success appears to be the result of program resources and tradition more so than the characteristics of the head coach. Such findings are worth consideration if NCAA DI athletic directors are faced with human resource decisions in the high-stakes sports of football and basketball, particularly if resources are not in place to help neutralize the impact of a coaching transition.
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