When Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger fired his football coach in late September, he made a series of value-based judgments about the future of the program.
In plain terms, Zenger was placing another bet on tomorrow. He believed that paying Charlie Weis the remainder of his guaranteed contract to walk away — a total of $5.625 million in monthly installments through 2016 — was more prudent than another day with Weis in charge of the program.
It was a familiar position.
Just three years after Zenger fired failed coach Turner Gill, paying him $10 million for two seasons of work, Zenger was making the same decision, this time hoping for a different result.
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“We have not made the on-the-field progress we believe we should,” Zenger told The Star then.
It is not hard to understand Zenger’s calculus. In the past five years, the Jayhawks are just 12-47, suffering through the worst stretch in program history. And the bill for losing has added insult to the ineptitude.
During the past five seasons — for just 52 total games — the Jayhawks invested $22.5 million in two football coaches. The expenditure on Gill and Weis resulted in just 11 victories and $11.625 million in what amounted to severance pay. By comparison, rival Kansas State has paid Bill Snyder close to $12 million in base salary over the same period, winning 44 games and a Big 12 title in 2012.
Zenger says the sunk cost of firing two coaches won’t limit Kansas’ financial resources as they continue the search for the next head coach. If the next coach commands a sizeable investment, KU will be prepared to make that investment.
“We feel like we can do whatever is necessary for whomever fits our needs the best,” Zenger said earlier this season.
But as Kansas, 3-8, concludes its season Saturday against K-State and prepares to hire a new head football coach, it’s worth taking a look at past precedent. Because according to years of college football data, it doesn’t always pay to gamble on the future.
“Everybody is always looking for the hot, young coach,” says Scott Adler, a political science professor from the University of Colorado who has studied the effects of firing football coaches. “In most cases, the hot, young coach is not going to work out.”
Adler is not saying that Kansas erred in firing Weis or Gill — only that years of data show that KU fans should not necessarily expect the next guy to be the answer.
A few years ago, Adler and two colleagues — Colorado-Denver political science professor Michael Berry and Loyola University Chicago political science professor David Doherty — studied all 263 Division I-A football coaching changes from 1997 to 2010. They found that most changes had no positive effect on a program over a five-year period. In some cases, the effects were even negative. And while some particularly bad teams showed immediate improvement, the effects were often short-lived.
Some of this is obvious, of course. College football is a zero-sum experience — there will always be as many losers as winners. But for a school like Kansas, Adler believes there are important lessons in the numbers.
Adler mentions that there are “significant costs” when firing a football coach, much like a new business will face start-up costs. Recruiting may lag; rosters are often depleted; and it takes time for a new coach to instill his own schemes. This could explain, Adler says, why awful teams generally remain awful and average teams often see a dip.
“There are some significant costs to doing this,” Adler says, “and as we show in the study, there is no guarantee that they’re actually going to turn things around. And to some extent, we show that they’re actually going to take a bigger hit.”
While Adler would recommend that schools think harder about firing coaches, he recognizes that there are other factors at play. Sometimes, big-money donors throw their weight around. Sometimes, declining attendance and revenue figures will force an athletic director to deliver hope to fans in the form of a new face.
But if history shows that most new coaches have little effect on their programs, Adler sees this as an opportunity for schools to be different.
“Maybe you don’t give out these long-term guaranteed contracts,” Adler says. “Perhaps (schools should be) looking for coaches with other types of experience that aren’t going to cost as much.”
In practical terms: Why shouldn’t a school like Kansas experiment or think outside the box? What if Zenger hired interim coach Clint Bowen for $1.25 million — half of what Weis was making — and used the remaining funds on hiring a staff of talented assistants and recruiters? What if Kansas looked at a coach like Bob Stitt, a revolutionary offensive mind at Colorado School of Mines? Stitt coaches at the Division II level, so most athletic directors would fear the backlash of what would be perceived as a gamble. But considering that most hires fail anyway, Adler believes schools should look at a wider pool of candidates — including some that might not cost as much money.
“There are lots of ways to think about it,” Adler says.
In any case, Adler knows what will happen next. In a few weeks, Kansas will hire its third full-time head coach since 2010. A press conference will be held. The new coach will be introduced. And the same message will be delivered.
Forget the past. The future will be different.