A few weeks ago, I summarized every head coaching hire in the Big Ten since 1995, the year Tom Izzo was hired. Since then, we’ve added one data point—Michigan hired Fab Five member Juwan Howard. Some interesting charts based on that data are shown below. Howard is included in every chart that you’d expect him to be.
Number of Hires By School
Let’s start with something simple—the number of head coaches each school has hired since 1995. No surprise that Rutgers leads the pack; until Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights have yet to have a hire that worked out.
Wisconsin and Indiana’s numbers are both a little inflated because they had interim head guys that ultimately didn’t get the full-time position.
Next, something else relatively simple—what job did these guys have before they got hired into the Big Ten? Most were head coaches at other schools, but not all.
That’s more promoted assistants than I thought, but half of those happened because of an unexpected firing or retirement.
Interestingly, of the three coaches who were hired directly out of the NBA, two of them happened during this offseason—Fred Hoiberg and Juwan Howard. The only other NBA hire was Eddie Jordan. Nebraska and Michigan fans hope that their new guys work out better than that.
Tenure of Ex-Coaches
Excluding the current fourteen head men, the chart below shows the number of years each coach spent in the Big Ten. The three shortest tenures are Dan Dakich, Brad Soderberg, and Kelvin Sampson. The first two were interims, and Sampson was let go in circumstances that had nothing to do with wins and losses.
We can see that the most frequent tenure for a Big Ten coach is six years, followed closely by three years. Of the coaches who made it three years, all except Bill Self were fired—Kevin O’Neil at Northwestern, Todd Lickliter at Iowa, and Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan at Rutgers. The last two were back-to-back hires. Wonder why Rutgers has been so terrible? There’s a big hint.
Of the coaches who made it six year, again, all but one were fired (or as good as fired). Dick Bennett retired a hero in Madison, but Mike Davis at Indiana, Barry Collier and Doc Sadler at Nebraska, Tommy Amaker at Michigan, and Tubby Smith at Minnesota weren’t so lucky.
The longest tenure of any ex-coach is Bo Ryan, who made it 141⁄2 years and has my vote for best coach in Big Ten history.
Non-Power Conference Coaches vs. Power Coaches
This is my favorite of all the charts. There were 33 hires that came from another college head coaching job. Twenty-three of those came from non-power-conference schools; ten came from power conferences. The non-power conference hires are shown on the left and the power conference hires on the right. The vertical axis shows Big Ten winning percentage.
The spread is more or less the same, but you can see that power-conference hires tend to cluster either right above or right below .500. Non-power-conference hires almost all come in below .500. The three positive outliers in that group are Bill Self, Bo Ryan, and Thad Matta. The Two negative outliers are Brian Ellerbe and Steve Pikiell.
The average Big Ten winning percentage of all power conference hires is .481. If you toss out Kevin O’Neil’s wtf-esque .188, that improves to .514. The average of non-power-conference hires is .413. So the difference between hiring a coach from a power school vs. a non-power school is about one win per ten Big Ten games.
(By the way, the positive outlier above .700 on the power conference side is Kelvin Sampson.)
Previous School Performance vs. Big Ten Performance
A natural question to ask is whether a coach’s performance at his prior school correlates to his performance in the Big Ten. And the natural first response is “duh.” But not so fast...
The thing to remember is that coaches with shitty records don’t get hired into Big Ten jobs. So for the most part we’re looking at guys who are over .500 in their conference. (Like everything in this analysis, I only included conference record since those are games against peer schools and aren’t affected by scheduling philosophy.) The question is whether there’s a difference in performance between a guy who went .600 in a mid-major league vs. a guy who went .800.
And the answer is not really. There’s a slight positive correlation, but the result is hardly statistically significant. So how well a coach did at their prior stop doesn’t have any bearing on how well they do in the Big Ten.
I can think of two explanations here. First, really good coaches sometimes take over dumpster fires and build them up, which is going to hurt their winning percentage. I don’t have this data, but it might be more insightful to look at their winning percentage over just their final two seasons at their prior job.
Second, as we’ve seen, power conference coaches are more likely to be successful. But those coaches come from leagues where it’s a lot harder to win. Winning 68% of your conference games in the Big 12, which is what Kelvin Sampson did, is a lot harder than winning 68% in the Horizon League, which Todd Lickliter did.
Ah, you say, but Lickliter was a disaster. If I was my school’s AD, I’d only make good hires. OK, let’s suppose for a minute that that’s true. Here’s the same chart, removing all hires who weren’t undisputed successes:
This is a small sample size, and we can see that not only is there still no statistically significant correlation, but the weak correlation that does exist is negative!
So what can we learn from this? Not much, to be honest. Hiring a coach is something of a crapshoot. If there was something that an amateur sportswriter like me could figure out, athletic directors or (more likely) search firms would have figured it out a long time ago.
We did see that hiring a power conference coach is more likely to work than a non-power conference coach. But it’s the richest programs that can afford to poach other power coaches, and those programs are better set up for success in a lot of other ways. Ohio State can poach a Chris Holtmann out of the Big East, but if how much of his subsequent success is due to Chris Holtmann and how much is due to Ohio State? Minnesota hired a national-championship-winning coach from the biggest power program in the country, and he never finished above .500 in the Big Ten in six seasons. I bet he would have if he had been hired at a Michigan State or an Indiana instead.
It takes awhile to know if a coach is going to succeed or not. Absent major NCAA violations, no school has gotten rid of a permanent head coach in under three years. Six years is more common. So if you’re an Indiana or an Illinois or a Wisconsin fan wondering if your current coach is going to work out or not, I don’t really know what to tell you other than to start watching basketball games once November rolls around.
That’s good advice no matter what.