Jim Tressel Resigns: Is OSU Really Doomed To Failure?

For most college football fans, the surprising announcement of Jim Tressel's resignation has led to one major question: What does this mean for the Ohio State football program in the 2011-2012 season and beyond? Many articles will be written discussing this point, most touching on Tressel's impressive coaching resume. Coaches like Tressel are hard to come by, and therefore, so the logic goes, the immediate effect of his departure will be one or more dismal seasons for the Buckeyes.

But is that really the case? I'll leave it up to my fellow writers to talk about the psychological impact of Tressel's resignation on the Buckeye team and fanbase and how it will affect the fortunes of OSU in years to come.

Today, instead, I'll take a look at some hard data to see exactly how coaching changes have affected major college football programs around the country, both in the Big Ten and outside of it, and Ohio State itself. Is it the case that a changing of the guard is always a predictor of immediate failure? Or is it possible for Ohio State to weather this storm on the backs of their talented players?

To answer this question, I looked at several schools that have had coaching changes within the last fifteen years. Three of these schools were in the Big Ten - Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. I also looked at five other major football programs outside of the conference - Alabama, LSU, USC, Oklahoma, and Texas. Finally, I examined Ohio State's last coaching change, when Jim Tressel came on board.

I went and looked at various statistics for all of these schools to see if I could detect a change in performance before a major coaching change and after. First I looked at winning percentages - three years before a coaching change as well as three years after it. Then, because the short length of the college football season can lead to dramatic shifts in winning percentage with victories or defeats in only one or two games I dug deeper. I looked at the average points fielded and allowed per game for the three years before a change and the three years after. I also looked at the year right before a change and the year after, to see if the common wisdom that teams automatically decline in performance once a new coach comes on board is correct.

The Big Ten:

Several schools in the Big Ten have undergone coaching changes in the last fifteen years. Indeed, I could have selected any school in the conference except for Penn State to examine. I decided, however, to look at three schools whose coaching changes were relatively significant news. Those three are the transition of Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Hayden Fry to Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, and Barry Alvarez to Bret Bielema at Wisconsin.

The first comparison I did was winning percentage in the three years before the coaching changes occurred, and the three years after. These two graphs illustrate both the trend of winning percentages during these years, as well as an average of winning percentages in those three years before and three years after.

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Hewing to the traditional viewpoint, Michigan and Iowa both declined in winning percentage from the year before a change to the year after, from .692 to .250 and .270 to .090 respectively. Wisconsin actually increased in winning percentage, however, going from .769 to .923.

The circumstances at each of these schools can partially explain these trends. Bret Bielema began coaching at Wisconsin after already being a coordinator familiar with its system, and with a talented class of players and recruits left over by Barry Alvarez. Rich Rodriguez had decent players when he came on board after Lloyd Carr was fired, but he attempted to institute a completely different style of play. Kirk Ferentz came on to a team that largely had a bare cupboard at the end of Fry's tenure, so it's not all that surprising that Iowa's or Michigan's winning percentage declined.

Wisconsin eventually normalized a little bit after Bielema's first season at 12-1, declining in winning percentage for the next two years. Michigan and Iowa both started to improve in their coach's second and third years. Looking at their three year averages before and after the change, we see that Michigan suffered a significant decline, Iowa suffered a moderate decline, and Wisconsin had a slight increase.

What does this tell us? Well, at least in the Big Ten, it would seem that it is more likely than not that a school's winning percentage will decline in the year immediately after a coaching change. However, even if this occurs, the school in question is by no means doomed to obscurity for years.

Still, winning percentage is not really the best method for judging how a school is performing on the field. Rather, it's helpful to look a little closer at the statistics the team generates from year to year, specifically in average points fielded and average points allowed. Looking at the changes in these two numbers should tell us just how much a program suffered or benefitted in the first year of a new head coach, in a way that a record might not.

As with winning percentage, I charted these numbers on a year-to-year basis as well as in a snapshot form of the first year before a coaching change to the first year after. Below we can see the points fielded per game average:

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And the points allowed per game average:

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We see here that all of the schools either remained at the same level or suffered significant declines in their scoring averages per game in the first season of a new head coach. Even Wisconsin, whose record actually increased in that span, still performed at a worse offensive level in Bret Bielema's first season than they had in Barry Alvarez's last. However, the sophomore seasons of these coaches held better times, as all schools saw an increase in on field offensive performance.

The story is much the same on the defensive side of the ball. Both Michigan and Iowa saw increases in their points allowed averages before and after their coaching changes. Wisconsin, however, saw a decrease, which possibly explains their improved record despite their slight decline on the offensive side of the ball. This is shown quite clearly in the single year graph.

 

Schools outside the Big Ten:

Though Ohio State is in the same conference as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan, there are many who would argue that they aren't in fact in the same league, at least when it comes to recruiting. It's no secret that Ohio State is consistently in the upper echelons of college football recruiting classes, year after year. If anything helps a school weather the storm of a coaching change, it might be the quality of players that the new coach has to work with when they start on the job. In an effort to see if this was the case, I decided to look at coaching changes that occurred outside of the conference at other high profile football programs. These programs are usually in the same league as Ohio State as far as recruiting talent goes, so they might offer a more accurate comparison.

I chose five schools around the country for this comparison. One school - USC - was involved in the last major NCAA scandal, with Lane Kiffin taking over for the departed Pete Carroll. Two of the schools, Alabama and LSU were involved in a similarly dramatic coaching change. LSU lost head coach Nick Saban to the NFL and the Miami Dolphins, only to see him return to college football a short while later to take the head coaching job at rival Alabama. Finally, two Big 12 programs that usually battle each other for their conference crown, Texas and Oklahoma, round out the list.

As I did with the Big Ten section above, I started by looking at year-to-year winning percentages in the three years before the schools' coaching changes as well as the three years after. I also averaged these sets for each school and placed them side by side, as shown below.

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The fates of the schools in the years before and after all, with the exception of USC, show the same trend... exactly the opposite of the trend we saw with the schools in the Big Ten. Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and Texas all saw an increase in their winning percentages from immediately before to immediately after their coaching changes, perhaps a product of retaining strong playing and recruiting classes even during the turmoil.

Of these, Texas noticed the biggest impact in their change from John Makovic to Mack Brown - a winning percentage increase from .360 to .750 in just one season. The increases at Alabama and Oklahoma were more modest, but still present. And, at those schools, the increase in winning percentage from the first season with their new coach to the second was even more pronounced.

LSU also shows us that it's not the case that an increase in winning percentage only happens if the schools is terrible in the season prior to a coaching change. At some of these other schools, the reason that a coaching change occurred was that the previous coach had turned in one too many below expectations seasons. In those cases, as long as the newly hired coach is not an even worse fit for the organization, it's likely that the school would see an increase in winning percentage.

But LSU was a bit different. In the year before their coaching change, they had a winning percentage of .750, and .846 in the year thereafter. Rather than sending the Tigers into a rebuilding year, the coaching change to Les Miles seems to have brought them to new heights.

Of course, USC is the interesting outlier here. They are the one top program in this set that noticed a significant decline from the year before their coaching change to the first season of the new coach. However, this may have little to do with the change of coach. It's important to note that the program was heavily sanctioned by the NCAA and barred from post-season play in Lane Kiffin's first season. The loss of scholarships in the recruiting arena, as well as decreased motivation on the part of players who started the season knowing a bowl game was out of reach, might have contributed more to the decline in the school's record rather than than the coaching change.

Unfortunately for Ohio State fans, this story might hit closer to home if Jim Tressel's departure isn't the only blow the Buckeyes have to suffer in the wake of the scandal. The school already has several starting players suspended to start the season, and with the new revelations, the NCAA might revisit the issue and hand down further penalties. Should that happen, it's possible that OSU's coaching change will reflect the USC mold more than the mold of the other top tier programs.

The average winning percentage graph bears out what the trend lines already indicated. Every school except for USC (for whom we only have a single data point in the second set) experienced an increase in their winning percentages from the three years before to the three years after a coaching change. It seems that it is not at all the case that a decline in winning percentage is guaranteed for a top tier program.

But, as noted above, winning percentage isn't the most ideal measurement. So, like I did with the schools in the Big Ten, I went and took a look at the offensive and defensive year-to-year averages for the big name programs. Below you can find year-to-year graphs as well as single before/after comparisons for both average points fielded and average points allowed:

First the points fielded graphs:

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And then the points allowed graphs:

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Interestingly, every single top tier program, including USC, noticed an increase in their average points fielded per game in the first year of their new coaching selections. Some of the increases were slight, as with LSU's increase from 26.46 to 31, but others were more dramatic, like Oklahoma's increase from 16.72 average PF per game under John Blake to 35.83 average PF per game under Bob Stoops. Though Oklahoma would decline slightly two years later, it's clear from their graph that the coaching change in that instance brought the program to a higher level of performance, rather than crippling it.

The graph on the defensive side of the ball offers a slightly more mixed picture. Two schools: USC and Alabama, saw reductions in performance on the defensive end, as measured by average points allowed per game pre and post change. The other three schools, however, decreased their average points allowed numbers immediately after their new coaches came on board.

So what does this mean for Ohio State? Well, at the risk of sounding completely simplistic, it would seem that there is one mantra for the Ohio State athletic department: Don't fuck it up. Oh, and don't get sanctioned further by the NCAA. All of these high profile programs were able to bring in highly sought after new coaches when they needed to. They all had talented players and incoming recruits to go along with that. The only significant decline we saw was with the program that was dealing with more issues than simply locating a replacement head coach. Given the Ohio State brand name, it's likely that they'll be able to lure just about any head coach from a lesser program that they want. As long as they take their time in evaluations and don't suffer further setbacks from the NCAA, it's quite possible they will follow the path of these programs outside of the Big Ten and notice little-to-no adverse effects from Jim Tressel's resignation.

But can the University do that? Though past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results, we have an easy comparison to look at when it comes to judging whether Ohio State is capable of bouncing back from a coaching departure. That comes from the transition of John Cooper to Jim Tressel.

 

Ohio State:

As with the other sections above, I looked at the win percentage change from the years immediately before Jim Tressel came on board for the Buckeyes to the years immediately after. I also looked at the 3-year win percent average, and the average points fielded and points allowed.

First, the win percentage graphs:

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We notice here that, like the Big Ten programs we saw in the first section, Ohio State suffered a slight decline in win percentage immediately after Jim Tressel came on board. However, over the course of three years, the win percentage for the Buckeyes increased dramatically, suggesting that perhaps that first year was just a slight speed bump on the road to success.

To see if that was the case, I once again looked at the average points fielded and allowed stats for the Buckeyes. On the offensive side of the ball:

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A decline is present from John Cooper's last year to Jim Tressel's first, but it is slight, just 1.5 average points per game. In the next year there was an increase to pre-Tressel levels, and then another decrease. This would seem to tack with the win percentage graph: a slight decline in the first year, a massive increase in the second, and then a slight return to earth in the third.

Now to the defensive side:

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The story here is identical to that on the offensive side. The team saw a decline, though slight, in performance in Tressel's first season. Then they improved greatly, before normalizing a bit in his third.

Based on my comparison sets, it would seem that there are three distinct paths that Ohio State could take after this resignation. They could follow the path of some of the schools in the Big Ten, which saw immediate declines with a coaching change before improvement. Or, they could follow in the footsteps of the other big name programs and note a net increase after hiring a new coach. Finally, they could repeat their own history and see an insignificant decline in their first year, but great benefits over the course of subsequent seasons.

Which of these is most likely? I think it depends on three factors: (1) How long the university takes to hire a new permanent coach, (2) whether the NCAA sanctions the school further, and (3) whether this impacts recruiting in the short term.

To remain at a high level of play, it is absolutely crucial that Ohio State find a head coach that is not only good, but also right. A coach that doesn't fit the institution, no matter how flashy the hire is, could cause serious consequences. The only way to find such a coach, of course, is to take time in the search process. Rushing to replace Tressel on a permanent basis would be a terrible decision on the part of the AD.

Second, OSU has to hope that they don't suffer any further sanctions. If this becomes another USC situation, it's quite likely that we'll see a decline in performance on the part of the Buckeyes. Related to this, the interim coaching staff (and the eventual replacement HC) has to do everything they can to retain their high level recruits. This might be difficult, given the particulars of this scandal, but a high quality talent base is absolutely necessary to sustain high level football performance. Having little talent, or talent not made for the systems implemented by the new hire (as with Iowa and Michigan) will only lead to disaster.

At this point, I open it up to you all. What do you think of this data? Is it predictive? Where do you see Ohio State going from here?

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