Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Jun 2012

Is it Wise to Promote an Interim Head Coach?

The short answer: No. The long answer: Promoted interim head coaches are most successful when they're first-time head coaches and overhaul the coaching staff once they reach permanent status.

Make no mistake, this is the most comprehensive analysis of interim head coaches I've ever seen. However, I do have a couple of critiques:

1) I've always been of the mind that the most successful coaches who take over bad teams tend to completely clean house. When Mike Singletary takes over the 49ers, but keeps almost all of the same roster (in addition to most of the coaching staff), failure is as inevitable as a Carl Lewis national anthem.

2) One of Scott's main arguments is that successful promoted interims tend to be in their first head coaching gig. That hits a nerve with me because one of my pet peeves of football stat analysis is seeing a successful outcome, and then looking back to determine the profile of what led to success. What I want to know, and perhaps Scott can tell us ex post facto, is if the subsample of promoted interims in their first head coaching gig had a better record than those in their second-or-more head coaching gig. The answer may very well be the same, but it's better to go about things in a prospective way than a retrospective way.

Anyway, despite those criticisms, it's one helluva post, so give it a read.

Posted by: Danny Tuccitto on 20 Jun 2012

32 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2013, 4:49am by reviews of raspberry ketones


by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 12:58am

I wasn't really trying to argue that it's best to be a first-time head coach (though I might here, haha). Just pointed out that was a common trait of the guys that won post-interim.

Honestly I didn't break down the 42 by how many HC jobs they had in the NFL, though looking at the last 20 hires (all since the 80's), I count 16 as first-timers. Hank Bullough had one game he co-coached for the Pats when they suspended Fairbanks, so I'm not sure he should count.

Generally, you want to see a successful coach as someone that sustains that high job title throughout his career. If you go from head coach to someone's coordinator, then you have been demoted. Or worse, you go from head coach to positional coach, and then you're basically Jim Zorn right now.

Sure, Bill Belichick went from disappointing HC in Cleveland back to Parcells' top assistant, then to great success in his second try with the Patriots, but that's a rare example of a great coach taking that path.

Let's do a grouping of some of the best coaches (most in HOF) and how their careers went:

Coached just one team in the NFL - Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, John Madden, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Steve Owen, Bud Grant, Greasy Neale, George Halas (9 HOFers/legends; Mount Rushmore-worthy).

Built their name in one place and gave it a shot elsewhere without a lot of success - Vince Lombardi (GB), Curly Lambeau (GB), Hank Stram (KC), Paul Brown (CLE).

There are 21 coaches in the HOF, and some were from the 20's and served as players which I didn't really acknowledge (sorry guys). So this means 13/21 are known for their first HC gig. Mostly all the greatest coaches ever too.

Marv Levy, Tony Dungy and Tom Coughlin had it much better in job two. George Allen won at both RAM/WAS, but never won a title.

Don Shula is a rare breed, because he won in two places. Notice no coach has ever won Super Bowls with different franchises. Weeb Ewbank won titles with the Colts and Jets.

Nomads like Parcells are rare. Bill Cowher might get in some day, and he did it all in Pittsburgh.

I think the point I had above about being demoted is something that would work against an interim coach that gets promoted to another shot at being a HC.

If Romeo Crennel did a better job in Cleveland, he probably would have been someone else's head coach in 2009. Jeff Fisher didn't coach anywhere last year, but notice that he's maintaining that HC job title as he gets a new opportunity to turn the St. Louis Rams around. His success in Tennessee vs. Crennel's failure in Cleveland created that gap between the two.

Does that clear things up?

by Turin :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 5:35pm

That's not really a fair characterization of Lombardi. He wasn't dismissed after his one season in Washington (with a winning record) - he died of cancer.

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by Yuri (not verified) :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 10:21am

I think there's one additional angle to consider:

Interim head coach that had served as coordinator or as position coach. I would guess that the former are more likely to be given the job on a permanent basis, but wonder how the success compares.

by justme_cd :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 10:57am

Watch out, a Carl Lewis national anthem is coming!

Thanks for the work, I thought that was a very thoughtful read.
What I take out of it is that this study says more about the franchises. If the franchise is bad enough to have to get rid of the HC in the middle of a season, then the remaining games are such a small sample size it doesn't tell you if the coach is good or not - but he's probably not. If the coach has a bad record, maybe there was bad coaching, or maybe there was great coaching but not enough to overcome a poor franchise situation? For example I think BB in Clev could possibly be argued either way.

I did want more data to come to the "long answer" conclusion though. When you say they are better to overhaul the coaching staff, I don't see as much of a study as the first part, but some examples given. Maybe I would want the historical master list divided by if they did or didn't overhaul the staff, did I miss that or is it not necessary to come to that conclusion?

I appreciate the off season work!

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 5:30pm

I'm not confident I can find good information on older coaching staffs. A team like the Bengals have their complete coaching staff listed year-by-year in their media guide. That's rare.

by dcaslin :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 11:25am

Excellent article, and I think the data is useful. I do think that it's important to separate correlation and causation. I think its more likely that promoted interim head coaches are a symptom of a sick team, and therefore they tend to correlate with bad outcomes. I wouldn't be surprised if hiring a different head coach for these organizations might not improve outcomes without major shifts (like the great point about head coaches being more likely to fire everyone).

To give an anology, I suspect you'd find a correlation between families hiring aggressive divorce attorneys and psychological problems in their kids. But its not b/c the lawyers beat the kids, they're both symptoms of a nasty divorce.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 12:34pm

One of my pet theories about interim coachs is that when they start off they tend to get results.

Look back to 2010 when the Cowboys and Vikings fired Phillips and Childress, I believe both Garrett and Frazier both won their first games with teams that were on long losing streaks.

Now I believe I've seen that happen in a lot of other sports and I attribute it to a number of things:
1) the coach comes in and says "I've only got a few days to prepare so just get out there and do your stuff" and doesn't try to install anything too major
2) the players are usually underperforming because they're thoroughly hacked off with the old coach
3) the players are now trying to impress the new coach because he likely decides their future career

Then once you're through the season, things have settled and the headcoach starts to think "Right now I can start to getting these guys to do MY thing" and so he starts to put pressure on the players and install his system.

But while they're in the honeymoon period everything is great.

by chemical burn :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 12:56pm

I think you can also add to that:
4) Interim coach is intimately aware of a few solvable problems that the current HC is clinging on to as a matter of "philosophy" and drops them immediately because they're clearly not working. Could be a QB switch (from a bad one to a mediocre one), calling better line protections or a less aggressive defense. Stuff that's easy to implement.

Then the following year, opponents adjust to the changes with the benefit of an off-season to review tape and, as you mention, the new guy also decides to implement his "philosophy" and, bang, they're right back where they were...

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 2:34pm

Indeed - good point.

A quote from Giovanni Trappatoni - international soccerball manager - "A good manager, at best, can make a team 10% better. But a bad manager can make a team up to 50% worse"

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 06/22/2012 - 12:28am

On the other hand, one of the problems with interim coaches is that they're on the team because they share a football philosophy or coaching tree to begin with. This is less of a problem if you have a defensive coach replacing an offensive-minded HC (e.g., Frazier replacing Childress), but still, the problem remains. If the franchise is unsound because of a head coach making bad personnel decisions, an interim coach selected internally is not going to fix those mistakes. You might get a short-term bump -- a win or two -- by relieving the internal stress and uncertainty at the top, but it rarely translates into a long term solution. Leslie Frazier parlayed Brett Favre's 2010 swan song into a 2-14 2011 season. Jason Garrett still has the Jerry Jones millstone around his neck that Wade Phillips had, with an aging Tony Romo on top. I expect no miracles in Dallas.

by Olbermann For President (not verified) :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 1:31pm

It would have been nice to include an analysis of teams that did NOT promote their interim head coach. Then you can make a comparison between the two groups (Promote Interim Head Coach vs. Hire New Coach.)

Are there any situations where a team didn't promote their interim coach and became successful?

by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 5:32pm

Hmm, may go back and do something like that.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 5:44pm

I think you'd also have to consider what happened to the coach who followed an interim coach.

For example, Tom Cable was slowly rebuilding the Raiders 4-10, 5-9, 8-8
Then he got dumped for Hue Jackson who did no better with a 8-8 season.

In fact in the context of his successors (Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin) who between them gave the Raiders double-digit losing seasons every year from 2003 I'd argue he was actually quite successful!

by tuluse :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 5:49pm

I think you mean his predecessors.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 2:30pm

Another interesting thing to note about interim headcoaches is that it seems to go in cycles.

From the 1979 - 84 there were no interims.
Then from 84-91 there were about 2-3 each year.
From 92 - 2000 there were only two in the those eight seasons.
Three in 2001-02
Then no-one until 2008 and now about five since.

I recall when I read the Ravens book - Next Man Up - Ozzie Newsome warned against firing the haedcoach midseason because it looks like the franchise is unstable and desperate; better to see the season through and then make a change. Think he was referring to Marchibroda in 1998.

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 3:16pm

Yeah, it was that book. I have a hard time understanding firing a coach midseason unless the team is close enough that it could turn things around and make the playoffs, or you are auditioning the interim for the HC job.

Good book, by the way. I love that it looks at a team that had, considering their expectations, a disappointing season. Most football related books are about the good times, the champiosnhips. This was a season of disappointment after another for the Ravens.

by Independent George :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 3:23pm

I have a hard time understanding firing a coach midseason unless the team is close enough that it could turn things around and make the playoffs, or you are auditioning the interim for the HC job.

What if he starts interviewing for a college football job midseason?

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 4:19pm

Is this about Petrino (who quit) or Jim L. Mora (who stayed the whole season)? I might be missing the reference.

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 06/22/2012 - 12:31am

Nick Saban would be my guess.

by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 06/22/2012 - 5:07pm

But didn't he also make it through the season?

by AJ (not verified) :: Thu, 06/21/2012 - 3:52pm

I know scott mentioned this, but it does feel like selection bias. The interim head coach is going to a bad team and thus has a disproportionally high chance of ending with a losing record. it would've been interesting to compare interims to first time hired head coaches and their records.

Interim head coaches are further proof that nfl teams are far more influenced by the media than they ever admit. Its partly the reason they do the qb controversies and make coaching changes etc. Its trying to sell the fanbase that the organization cares or is trying to win, since careful methodical end of season review just doesn't quite the ring to it like firing the lame duck head coach.

by Chill (not verified) :: Fri, 06/22/2012 - 5:07am

There is one major problem with the mentioned idea that successful head coaches are those who clean house. Specifically, his example of how the 49ers didn't clean house is extremely flawed. Singletary was not doomed by it. To put it simply, neither did Harbaugh! With very few exceptions, the 49ers that just went 13-3 (1-1 playoffs, with the loss respectable) were the same exact players as those in Singletary's reign. Most of those players had been on the Niners for years, and there was really only one significant new starter (Carlos Rogers) on defense, and another (David Akers) at Kicker. The offense had no new to the team starters excepting the fullback! (Not counting injury starters). The 49ers were perhaps the most similar team in personnel between Singletary's last year and Harbaugh's first. Fire the people who aren't good at their job, keep the ones that are.

If you want to use the 49ers as a point, point out that they didn't give the job to their latest interim head coach, Tomsula, despite a very nice performance in that job, and instead went out and got Harbaugh. So far, this was a very promising decision. (On a side note, Harbaugh is great, and the coordinators seem promising, but the team wouldn't have been the same if they had failed to get Tomsula back coaching the defensive line. Tomsula is an excellent coach).

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