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Don’t Let Your Coach’s Hot Seat Make The Whole Organization Burn

7 min read


Which of the above four coaches would you rather have leading your men’s basketball program? The records they accumulated over their first three seasons are pretty much identical, and there really isn’t much evidence to suggest that one would do better than the other moving forward. While there are other factors that go into being a successful head coach other than wins-and-losses, even if we assume they’re doing all the right things off the court, it doesn’t necessarily make any of these candidates that much more appealing.


Let us instead for a moment pretend that you in fact hired one of these coaches. It’s been three years of below average results, your fan base is restless, the local media is rancorous, and your president wants to know when he won’t have to begin donor meetings with atonement for the basketball team’s performance the previous night. What do you do – hang in for another year and hope the coach turns it around or fire them and hire someone new that will infuse some fresh blood into the program?


Chances are you’ll respond the same way you would if faced with any uncertain and ambiguous problem in your athletics department. If you’re like most executives, you’d rather do something than nothing, even if it’s counterproductive. It’s called action bias, and it’s more likely that your impatience will lead you to make a bad decision than a good one. Standing around with your hands in your pockets feels like you’re giving up, and so you act; in this case firing the coach.


Even though it goes in the face of all evidence to the contrary, athletic directors still choose to fire coaches at an alarming rate. After any given season, Division I universities turnover between 15-20% of all football and basketball coaches, which would be the equivalent of one hundred current Fortune 500 CEO’s being fired on a yearly basis! A recent study of Division I football coach changes between 1997 and 2010, encompassing 263 changes across 115 universities, found that replacing the coach of a poorly performing team had “little effect on team performance,” and in the case of mediocre teams, “results in worse performance over subsequent years than comparable teams who retained their coach.”


At the core of any successful college program is a coach’s ability to attract quality recruits from the high school ranks. Unlike professional sports where teams can trade for players or sign free agents, a new coach on the collegiate level is almost always at a disadvantage because they start so late in the recruiting cycle, and consequentially cannot bring in their own players until the next season. When taking into account that a third of all dismissals come within the first 4 years of a coach’s tenure, the end result is that coaches often end up being fired because they couldn’t win with their predecessor’s players! Not exactly a logical business strategy by those making personnel decisions. Sadly, any college coach that takes over a program does so knowing that it is far more likely they will be terminated than see their first recruits graduate.


We don’t have to make much of a leap to infer that the extreme pressure put on coaches to win does not create the most conducive of work environments. Management science provides an abundance of evidence that such pressures helps breed a toxic culture that causes employees to become risk-averse, stifles innovation, and curtails an organization’s ability to operate effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, these findings have eluded the majority of professional and collegiate sports organizations.


How then do we avoid falling for the constant self-sabotage of action bias, which drives us to make premature and ill-advised decisions, especially when it comes to retaining coaches? According to Daniel Parker, Managing Director of Sports at Parker Executive Search, it starts with having a plan to hire the right person in the first place.


“What you don’t want to do is get caught in a cycle of constantly hiring and firing coaches without first figuring out what type of leader your program actually needs,” explains Parker. “Before you terminate a coach you should know why they weren’t succeeding and then seek to insure that whomever you hire next is equipped to deal with those issues. Time and again you see ADs who rush to make hires without 1) understanding the state of their program and 2) whether any coach on the market actually has what it takes to be successful in that type of environment. If you’re firing your coach just for the sake of doing something, than just maybe you should think twice,” he adds.


Indeed, Parker’s observations speak to the root of avoiding action-bias – the more you prepare for the problem before it actually arises, the more likely you are to not react irrationally when it does happen. Leaders who are successful at avoiding action bias not only maintain a great deal of confidence in the decisions that lead them to the current circumstances, but also have the discipline and courage to standby those decisions when everyone around them says otherwise.


It is equally important to recognize that due to the unique financial operating constraints surrounding the hiring of coaches in revenue-producing sports, an entirely different set of accountability issues arises when it comes to other members of the organization as a whole. Based on natural focus on basketball and football, a dichotomy is created where other coaches within the athletics department operate in an environment in which they are held to a different standard than their counterparts.


While a field hockey or tennis coach may be expected to win by nature of their job description, from a purely economic standpoint, whether they are successful or not makes no difference to the overall bottom line of your department. Although you may never openly admit this to yourself or anyone else, it still causes you to have a different set of accountability bias towards such individuals. If the pressure is not there to win, and it makes no difference to the bottom line, the margin for leniency suddenly becomes substantially larger.


Take a moment to compare and contrast the differences between hiring a top-level employee in a revenue-generating unit of a traditional business versus hiring a football or basketball coach in a college athletics program. Below is a partial list of similarities and differences that you should come up with:



The problem of accountability bias in college athletics becomes very evident when looking at the above list. While a particular athletics department may employ several hundred highly skilled workers, have over two dozen individualized “divisions of labor”, and as whole may produce in excess of a hundred million dollars in yearly revenue, exactly two of those, football and men’s basketball, are responsible for generating the vast majority of that revenue. Based on this unique organizational structure, the pressure on athletic directors to hire and retain a successful basketball and football coach intensifies the implications of accountability considerably. This is exacerbated even further by the possibility of the power struggle that may occur if the coach becomes inexorably linked to the university’s brand.

There is little doubt accountability becomes a challenge when the majority of your department’s revenue depends on the performance of just a few individuals and/or business units. But if you still think you can outsmart your own biases, ask yourself the following questions:
Is it fair that athletic directors are judged primarily by the performance of the football and men’s basketball teams, when the mission of the college athletic programs is to provide a first-class experience for student-athletes in all sports, regardless of wins and losses?


Whom would you rather hire: (Option 1) a coach that wins 90% of his games, but graduates only 50% of his players, or (Option 2) a coach that graduates 90% of his players, but wins only 50% of his games? Does your answer change depending on the sport?


Can an athletic director really avoid having an accountability bias towards non-revenue producing coaches (e.g. tennis, soccer, golf), when from a purely economic standpoint, whether they are successful or not makes no difference to the overall athletics bottom line?


If you’re going to avoid accountability and action bias, you must become very comfortable with the fact that your work environment predisposes you to becoming biased, and then consciously work to overcome the inclination to treat your employees differently depending on how valuable they are to the bottom line of your organization. Otherwise, you are likely to make decisions that will lead you and your organization to failure.


This means that you cannot let the pressures created by the positive or negative performance of such teams unduly influence your decision-making processes when it comes to hiring/firing their head coaches. It also means you should be willing to give your coaches more time to turn around a team, particularly because it is likely to take longer for the coach to recruit players that not only fit their own philosophies, but also the unique culture of the university. Incremental progress, no matter how slow, is better than restarting the process over and over again every few years. The importance of consistency and continuity in leadership cannot be overemphasized.


And if you were wondering about the coaches at the beginning of this article, those are in fact the actual records of the first seasons of four future hall-of-famers, including the last two national championship winners. College athletics owes a debt of gratitude to their AD’s for having the patience and self control to let them find their way as coaches.