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Hiring and firing.

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Kent Sterling is the producer for the afternoon radio show hosted by overexposed Indy Star blowhard Bob Kravitz and some other guy.  Sterling writes a blog focusing on Central Indiana sports, and today he wrote a lengthy post about the coaching situations at Indiana, Michigan, and Notre Dame concerning the respective fates of Bill Lynch, Rich Rodriguez, and Charlie Weis.

Eddie made an astute point about firing people that is absolutely true. You don't fire anyone without knowing who you are going to hire, and that person shouldn't just be an upgrade but the best person for the job. If Jack Swarbrick is going to fire Charlie Weis, he needs to be able to get his guy. If that guy is Urban Meyer (and it's not), you make sure you've got him before Charlie gets shot. Otherwise, you don't pull the trigger.

Far from astute, this point strikes me as wrongheaded and confused.  At a certain point (and nearly all schools agree that five years is sufficient), it may become apparent that a particular coach isn't going to achieve what the school expects of the program.  Once a school reaches that point, what should be done? Sterling and Eddie White say no school should make a move unless 1) the replacement is already in hand; and 2) the replacement is "the best person for the job."  I'm not sure that makes sense.  First, I think part 1 of the argument presumes that retaining a failed coach has no cost.  Obviously, Sterling is focused on the risk of firing a known quantity and hiring someone with no guarantee of success.  That's a risk, but changing coaches is always a risk.  It's important, however, not to ignore the risk of sticking with a coach who is a failure (i.e., not "failing," but "failed").

 

Sticking with the Charlie Weis example, it seems clear that Weis never will have a better opportunity to succeed than he had in 2009.  He faced a manageable schedule and arguably had (in Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate) the two best offensive skill position players in the country.  He is, plainly, a failure based on Notre Dame's historical position, current resources, and the quality of the roster.  Yet, Sterling suggests that even a clear upgrade would not justify Weis's termination.  Notre Dame should fire Weis only if the replacement is the "best man for the job. " My problem is that I don't know what he means.  Sterling assures us that Urban Meyer is not "the best man for the job."  Why not?  Urban Meyer would be the best man for any job.  Few coaches in the history of college football have accomplished so much in such little time.  I agree that Meyer is unlikely to leave Florida in the near term, but if he isn't the best man for any job, who is?  So, by "best man for the job," Eddie and Sterling must mean something less than "literally the best person in the world for the job," but they mean something more than a mere "upgrade."  Where the line belongs is anyone's guess.  Still, I think these guys underestimate the cost to recruiting, program morale, fan support and the like that would result from retaining a coach who is a demonstrated failure.  I tend to think that a university should err toward firing a demonstrated failure, even if it means taking a risk on a replacement.  There are very few "sure thing" hires.  Alabama's hiring of Nick Saban is the only one in recent memory.  Bob Stoops had no head coaching experience.  Pete Carroll was a two-time NFL loser whose hiring was universally mocked.  Urban Meyer seemed like a solid bet to transfer his success from mid-major to the big time.  Then again, so did Dennis Franchione and Dan Hawkins.  Action always involves risk.  Inaction always involves risk.  And I tend to think that sticking with a failed coach is at least as risky as firing a coach without a replacement in hand.  (It's also worth noting that absent a signed contract, there's always a risk that the "in hand" replacement is not in hand).

Next, Sterling turns his attention to the Hoosiers:

At Indiana, the question isn't - is Bill Lynch the guy who can coach us to national prominence? It's can we get a coach who can get IU to the Rose Bowl? History tells us that the answer is no. So, define the goal of the program. I'm sure Fred Glass has done that. My guess is that Glass would like IU to average seven wins a year. Who and what do they need to do that? The new facility at the end of the north end zone is one step. Maybe more important than the perfect coach is the same coach. IU needs some stability.

I'm not sure why history tells us that IU cannot get a coach capable of going to the Rose Bowl.  It's only happened once, but it has happened.  Of course, contending for a BCS bowl every year probably isn't a realistic goal for IU, but I don't think any Big Ten program should take the ultimate goal off the table.  Instead of shooting for a Rose Bowl, Sterling contends, IU should shoot for an average of seven wins a year.  The way to reach this goal?  Sticking with Bill Lynch because "IU needs some stability."  There are a couple of tiny problems with this thesis.  First, does Sterling have any idea how hard it is to average seven wins a season at IU?  IU has won seven games in a season exactly once in the last 15 years.  Seven wins a season means that for every 5 win season, there must be an offsetting 9 win season.  Bill Mallory is the gold standard for IU's postwar history.  His 13-year average was 5.2 wins per season.  Even if we ignore Mal's horrid first two and last two seasons and focus on his nine-year heyday, he averaged 6.6 wins per season.  Has anyone seen a shred of evidence that Bill Lynch is even half the coach that Bill Mallory was?  Let's not limit our inquiry to IU coaches.  Joe Tiller was Purdue's most successful coach of the last 40 years.  Any IU coach who had a 12-year run as solid as Tiller's would be the best coach in school history.  Tiller did, of course, take Purdue to the Rose Bowl, and had the Boilermakers in contention late into another season (2003, I think).  What was Tiller's average win total?  All of 7.25 wins per season.  How about Kirk Ferentz?  Ferentz has led Iowa to one BCS bowl and numerous New Year's Day bowls.  Entering this season, what was Ferentz's ten-year average?  Exactly 7.0 wins per season.  The conclusions I draw from this date are these:

1) it's damn hard to win 7 games per season at IU;

2) there's no evidence that Bill Lynch is capable of averaging 7 wins per season at IU;

3) A coach who can average 7 wins per season at IU is capable of taking IU to the Rose Bowl. 

I'm not clamoring for the firing of Bill Lynch.  It's not going to happen this off-season.  If I have a point, other than wasting some time on a slow news day, it's that whether the program is of the historical elite or the historical basement, it's futile to stick with a coach who has failed.  I suppose Bill Lynch isn't there yet.  But just as it's well-established that programs like Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and USC can't attain championship-level success with just any coach, it's equally true that a historically unsuccessful program like IU can't reverse 125 years of futility with just any coach.  Unfortunately, there's always a risk that a hire, even an accomplished hire will end up being worse than his predecessor.  But the alternative is sticking with an arrangement that has already failed.  Bill Lynch will have his chance in 2010 to prove that the competitiveness of the 2009 Hoosiers was progress and not a turnover-fueled fluke. But the notion that any old coach can win 7 games a year at IU if we give him time is absurd.