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What the Data Tells Us About Hiring a Defensive Coach

All right, let’s debunk some myths. We hope.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of Vanderbilt’s search for a new head football coach two weeks ago, Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee said that she was looking for an offensive-minded coach with head coaching experience.

And then she went out and hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who’s neither of these things. And everybody who was looking forward to an exciting offense was disappointed.

But! Is hiring a defensive-minded coach really such a bad thing? Well, let’s try to see what some data tells us. I looked through every SEC head coach since 2000 (that’s counting head coaches who were employed in the league in the year of our Lord 2000 even if they were hired prior to that) and found 58 non-interim head coaching tenures — not 58 head coaches, with seven different coaches leading two different schools during this time period (plus an eighth, Tommy Tuberville, whose Ole Miss tenure predated my arbitrary cutoff.)

Of these 58 tenures, I looked at the background of each head coach (source: Wikipedia) and determined three things: whether they’d been a Power 5 head coach before (this involved a judgment call with the former Big East and 2004 Utah, neither of which I deemed to be “Power 5,” but also a judgment call with the old SWC, which I did, in fact, deem equivalent to a Power 5 conference), whether they’d been an FBS head coach, and whether they’d ever been a coordinator. Then, I assigned a side of the ball to each head coach based on where they spent the majority (or, in most cases, the entirety) of their pre-head coaching experience.

That gave me 20 defensive head coaches, 37 offensive head coaches, and one unknown, because Lou Holtz is so fucking old that Wikipedia has no idea which side of the ball he was coaching in his assistant coaching days in the 1960s. And then I had to get to the subjective part of this: what is successful?

I settled on a very simple measure: were you fired after five years on the job or less? If the answer is “yes,” you failed. If the answer is “no,” then you passed. The only exception to this is that if you weren’t fired after five years, BUT you never had a winning season at the school, you failed. This exception includes exactly one coach. (Did I create this exception entirely to put Derek Mason into the “fail” bucket? I will let you, the reader, be the judge of that.)

Why five years? Five years is where the wheat generally gets separated from the chaff. If you make it to a sixth year, you’ve definitely gotten at least one contract extension, and you’ve probably won enough to satisfy at least the rational members of your fan base, even if you may or may not have placated the people who inhabit your school’s Rivals board. And obviously there are different degrees of success, but this measure does control a bit for the difficulty of the job, or at least the boosters’ perception of it. It’s why Mark Stoops can win 49 percent of his games and have four winning seasons in eight tries and be considered a success, and Ron Zook can win 62 percent of his games and never have a losing season and be considered a failure, because it’s Florida.

Note that for coaches who were only at their schools for a year or two — I count seven such coaches, including four active ones — I simply assigned an “incomplete” grade and moved on. For active coaches with less than five years, I’ve made value judgments which you probably won’t argue with — Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen pass, Jeremy Pruitt fails, because that seems to be the direction those situations are headed. That gives us 51 coaches with a grade, and the split of pass/fail is almost exactly 50/50: 25 coaches pass, 26 coaches fail.

SEC Coaches

Coach School Hired P5 HC FBS HC Coordinator Side of ball Years Winning Pct. Winning Seasons Pass/Fail
Coach School Hired P5 HC FBS HC Coordinator Side of ball Years Winning Pct. Winning Seasons Pass/Fail
Nick Saban Alabama 2007 Y Y Y Defense 14 0.879 14 Pass
Steve Spurrier Florida 1990 Y Y Y Offense 12 0.817 12 Pass
Urban Meyer Florida 2005 N Y N Offense 6 0.813 6 Pass
Dan Mullen Florida 2018 Y Y Y Offense 3 0.806 3 Pass
Kirby Smart Georgia 2016 N N Y Defense 5 0.785 5 Pass
Les Miles LSU 2005 Y Y Y Offense 12 0.77 11 Pass
Ed Orgeron LSU 2016 Y Y Y Defense 5 0.759 4 Pass
Nick Saban LSU 2000 Y Y Y Defense 5 0.75 5 Pass
Phillip Fulmer Tennessee 1993 N N Y Offense 16 0.743 14 Pass
Mark Richt Georgia 2001 N N Y Offense 15 0.74 14 Pass
Jimbo Fisher Texas A&M 2018 Y Y Y Offense 3 0.706 3 Pass
Tommy Tuberville Auburn 1999 Y Y Y Defense 10 0.68 8 Pass
Dennis Franchione Alabama 2001 N Y N Offense 2 0.68 2 Incomplete
Jim Donnan Georgia 1996 N N Y Offense 5 0.678 4 Fail
Bobby Petrino Arkansas 2008 N Y Y Offense 4 0.667 3 Fail
Kevin Sumlin Texas A&M 2012 N Y Y Offense 6 0.662 6 Pass
Gus Malzahn Auburn 2013 N Y Y Offense 8 0.66 8 Pass
Jim McElwain Florida 2015 N Y Y Offense 3 0.647 2 Fail
Steve Spurrier South Carolina 2005 Y Y Y Offense 11 0.637 9 Pass
Gene Chizik Auburn 2009 Y Y Y Defense 4 0.635 3 Fail
Ron Zook Florida 2002 N N Y Defense 3 0.622 3 Fail
Gary Pinkel Missouri 2001 N Y Y Offense 15 0.618 10 Pass
James Franklin Vanderbilt 2011 N N Y Offense 3 0.615 2 Pass
Houston Nutt Arkansas 1998 N Y N Offense 10 0.61 7 Pass
Hugh Freeze Ole Miss 2012 N Y N Offense 5 0.609 4 Fail
David Cutcliffe Ole Miss 1999 N N Y Offense 6 0.603 5 Pass
Dan Mullen Mississippi State 2009 N N Y Offense 9 0.6 7 Pass
Will Muschamp Florida 2011 N N Y Defense 4 0.571 3 Fail
Butch Jones Tennessee 2013 N Y N Offense 5 0.557 3 Fail
Eli Drinkwitz Missouri 2020 N Y Y Offense 1 0.556 1 Incomplete
Lane Kiffin Tennessee 2009 N N Y Offense 1 0.538 1 Incomplete
Joe Moorhead Mississippi State 2018 N N Y Offense 2 0.538 1 Fail
Mike Shula Alabama 2003 N N Y Offense 4 0.531 1 Fail
Mike DuBose Alabama 1997 N N Y Defense 4 0.511 2 Fail
Lane Kiffin Ole Miss 2020 Y Y Y Offense 1 0.5 0 Incomplete
Barry Odom Missouri 2016 N N Y Defense 4 0.5 2 Fail
Jackie Sherrill Mississippi State 1991 Y Y Y Defense 13 0.493 7 Pass
Mark Stoops Kentucky 2013 N N Y Defense 8 0.49 4 Pass
Will Muschamp South Carolina 2016 Y Y Y Defense 5 0.483 2 Fail
Houston Nutt Ole Miss 2008 Y Y N Offense 4 0.48 2 Fail
Lou Holtz South Carolina 1999 Y Y ? unknown 6 0.471 3 Pass
Jeremy Pruitt Tennessee 2018 N N Y Defense 3 0.471 1 Fail
Bret Bielema Arkansas 2013 Y Y Y Defense 5 0.46 3 Fail
Rich Brooks Kentucky 2003 Y Y Y Defense 7 0.453 4 Pass
Hal Mumme Kentucky 1997 N N N Offense 4 0.435 1 Fail
Derek Dooley Tennessee 2010 N Y N Offense 3 0.417 0 Fail
Matt Luke Ole Miss 2017 N N Y Offense 3 0.417 0 Fail
Guy Morriss Kentucky 2001 N N N Offense 2 0.391 1 Incomplete
Sylvester Croom Mississippi State 2004 N N Y Offense 5 0.356 1 Fail
Joker Phillips Kentucky 2010 N N Y Offense 3 0.351 0 Fail
Derek Mason Vanderbilt 2014 N N Y Defense 7 0.325 0 Fail
Bobby Johnson Vanderbilt 2002 N N Y Defense 8 0.305 1 Pass
Sam Pittman Arkansas 2020 N N N Offense 1 0.3 0 Incomplete
Ed Orgeron Ole Miss 2005 N N N Defense 3 0.286 0 Fail
Woody Widenhofer Vanderbilt 1997 Y Y Y Defense 5 0.273 0 Fail
Mike Leach Mississippi State 2020 Y Y Y Offense 1 0.222 0 Incomplete
Chad Morris Arkansas 2018 N Y Y Offense 2 0.182 0 Fail
Robbie Caldwell Vanderbilt 2010 N N N Offense 1 0.167 0 Fail

So! What does the data tell us?

  • Sorting by side of the ball they came up on, 9 of the 20 defensive coaches pass, while 15 of 30 offensive coaches do. That’s basically no difference.
  • What if we only limit it to recent years? Well, 5 of 14 offensive coaches hired since 2010 pass, while 3 of 9 defensive coaches do. Again, no difference. (The interesting part here is that the pass rate in general is lower, in part because there have been a considerably larger number of two- and three-year tenures in the last decade; this means that Tennessee has three failed head coaches this decade instead of two.)
  • How much of a difference does having been a Power 5 head coach previously make? Quite a lot, as it turns out: 12 of 17 such head coaches were successful at their new school, though this list is inflated a bit by the fact that both Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier appear twice. And three of the five failures — namely, Will Muschamp (South Carolina edition), Woody Widenhofer, and Gene Chizik — had bad records at the previous jobs.
  • The Group of 5 head coach bucket — that is to say, coaches with FBS head coaching experience but not Power 5 — is 5-for-11, and it goes up to 7-for-11 if you count Bobby Petrino and Hugh Freeze (fired, respectively, after four and five years, but entirely for, ahem, off-field reasons) as successes. What’s interesting here, though, is that these coaches are 2-for-8 since 2008 (again, counting Petrino and Freeze as failures.)
  • (As an aside, I don’t have a non-FBS head coaching column, but there are only four former SEC head coaches whose only prior head coaching experience came below the FBS level: Bobby Johnson, Hal Mumme, Jim Donnan, and Joe Moorhead. They’re 1-for-4.)
  • And what about the guys with no FBS head coaching experience? They’re 8-for-23, though this actually gets slightly better if you limit it to guys who had been coordinators. There have been three head coaches who had never been a head coach or a coordinator at the FBS level (Hal Mumme, Robbie Caldwell, and Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss edition) and they all failed, with only Mumme even having a winning season.
  • And finally, the answer you were probably looking for here: how do first-time FBS head coaches who were defensive coordinators do? They’re 3-for-9, with Mark Stoops, Bobby Johnson, and Kirby Smart being the hits (and, uh, Bobby Johnson was an FCS head coach and also the commenters will debate whether that qualifies as a success.) The failures are Mike DuBose, Ron Zook, Will Muschamp, Derek Mason, Barry Odom, and Jeremy Pruitt.
  • Then again, the offensive coordinators don’t do that much better: 5-for-11, and one of the successes is David Cutcliffe, whose fifth year in Oxford also happened to be Eli Manning’s senior year. That list does at least include two major successes in Phillip Fulmer and Mark Richt, though.
  • Interestingly, this effect largely disappears for coaches with prior head coaching experience: 10 of the 17 offensive-minded guys with previous head coaching experience succeeded, while 6 of 10 did on the defensive side did (and, again, three of the four failures here had failed at previous stops.) Interestingly, the offensive group included six Power 5 head coaches and five of those were successful (Steve Spurrier twice), with Houston Nutt being the only failure here.

So what’s the point here? Well, what this tells us is that first-time head coaches who were previously defensive coordinators have the lowest hit rate of anyone (with the exception of guys who haven’t even been a coordinator, but that’s a small group.) The other point, though, is that hiring somebody who’s never been a head coach at this level before is extremely hit or miss.