Why coaches fail.
One of the more perplexing and frustrating experiences of being a college football fan is when a coaching hire doesn't pan out; the young and promising wunderkind whose prior success evaporates on a larger stage, the seasoned veteran whose talent does not seem to accompany him to a new job, or the wizard who turns out to be a dud. Why does a coach succeed at Alabama and fail at Texas A&M, or win at Boise State and get fired from Arizona State or Colorado? How is it that John Robinson won 80.7 percent of his games in his first stint at USC but only 61.7 percent in the encore, then a mere 40% at UNLV? What causes coaches to fail? Here are some thoughts:
1.) Some coaches are just a bad fit for a particular school. For the most part college football head coaching positions are sui generis. Football programs, and thus the position of head coach, serve different purposes at different schools. Joe Paterno's position within the university community at Penn State was qualitatively different than that of Bill Walsh at Stanford. The jobs had different emphases, different powers, and different standards, and therefore required different skills and different personalities. All head coaches must have a variety of skills; they must be, among other things and to varying degrees, CEOs, politicians, salesmen, educators and social workers, and it is often those variations in degree that determine success at one program and failure at another. It is practically a truism that coaches succeed at one school and fail at another, simply because the jobs are so different. There is no background anywhere in college football that is universal preparation for any and all jobs.
One reason that coaches are a poor fit is that they do not understand the culture of a school or program. There was an interesting post on the front page of this site a couple of years ago that pointed out the Mike Brey first had to decide what his vision was for his team; i.e., what kind of team did he want to have? The same principle applies to football coaches. Do they want a disciplined, execution-focused team like Air Force; a brash, swaggering anti-social group like Jimmy Johnson's Miami teams; a flashy, high flying, hard crashing squad like John Jenkin's Houston teams, or something difficult to remember like Purdue? Institutions with long football histories inevitably have their own traditions and their own cultures, and these become part of the psyche of the students, fans and players.
A coach's vision for his team should be compatible with the character of the school, and a coach must realize that part of the job at a school like Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State or USC is to be a steward of that school's tradition and culture. This is the lesson that Howard Schnellengberger learned the hard way at Oklahoma. One of the reasons that coaches fail when they take jobs at schools with long histories of success is that they fail to realize the importance of the traditions and culture that grew from that success, and how they affect future success. Traditions endure for a reason.
Of course, coaches must keep up with the times. Oklahoma is not likely to win any more championships running the split T or wishbone, but a coach who can't distinguish between adding to a tradition and abandoning it, or between nurturing a culture and destroying it is not likely to have a successful tenure.
2.) Some coaches fail because they simply run out of the energy required to do a good job. Coaching is very energy-intensive, because a football team involves a lot of entropy. A team, left to itself, is always in the process of falling apart, and the entropy comes from mercurial and foolhardy players, meddling administrators, unrealistic parents, fickle fans, mercenary assistants, and unvarnished bad luck.
If one were to compose a list of all of the activities related to coaching football, it would likely go on for several pages, and still be woefully superficial. A brief example would include recruiting, practice planning, player evaluation, managing assistants and office staff, monitoring academic progress, ensuring compliance with school, league and governing body regulations, dealing with media, making or approving adjustments to schemes, trouble shooting, motivation, maintaining relations with administration and faculty, evaluation of equipment and facilities, coordinating with training staff for care of injured athletes and following health related protocols, etc., etc. Energy allocation is zero sum; the more devoted to one area of coaching, the less there is available for others, and this does not even consider non-football related demands on a coach's energy and time. Part of what makes a good coach is the ability to allocate energy appropriate to the environment and to the program. Programs with high expectations, those with more elite athletes, with more media scrutiny, with higher academic and player conduct standards inherently demand more energy, and when a coach's energy starts to wane, entropy seeps in, things start to wobble, and things get missed. Past successes become elusive and coaches get fired.
This of course is not to say that Red Bull and amphetamines will get a mediocre coach over the hump, or revive a has-been. Gerry Faust loved Notre Dame culture, had tons of energy and was a great recruiter. He was a high school coaching legend, and yet he was a bust both at Notre Dame and Akron. Poor cultural fit for a job and lack of energy are risk factors for coaching failure, not mechanisms. The process of failure is more basic:
The fundamental reason why coaches fail is that they either do not perceive or do not acknowledge when their teams are not prepared to play. This is coaching failure in a nutshell. Coaches fail because they do not effectively manage the multiple elements that go into preparing a team for a game, and they are unable to remedy the deficiency.
At its most basic level the role of a coach is to have his team prepared to compete in and win football games. Bob Davie, after a season opening loss to Nebraska admitted "I think it's obvious we were not prepared to play this football game." Not prepared---for the first game of the season. The subsequent losing record and pink slip practically wrote themselves.
There is a litany of possible causes for deterioration in preparation. Preparation involves far more than game planning and watching film. The essential end result of effective preparation is not so much strategy and tactics, important as those are, but performance. A team must know not only what to do but also be physically, mentally and emotionally capable of doing it. It must be ready to deal with the myriad factors that affect the outcome on the football field, including injuries, the weather, more talented or more experienced opponents, poor officiating, and capricious luck.
Preparation requires effective delegation of certain activities necessary to a team's preparation. Effective delegation requires prioritizing those activities, hiring capable people to whom to delegate things, delegating tasks rationally and ensuring that the delegated tasks are accomplished. Some coaches fail simply because the people to whom they delegated important tasks took other jobs. Some coaches delegated too much, others not enough.
There are not enough hours in a day to attend to everything that must be addressed in preparing a football team for competition, and if there were more hours, the number of things to be done would expand to fill them. Everything cannot be a priority; that is contrary to the concept of a priority. After Joe Paterno had beaten Gerry Faust he said "he's a good coach. He's just trying to do too much," by which he likely meant that Faust was trying to do too much of the less important stuff and not enough of the stuff necessary to win football games. The things requiring emphasis at Notre Dame are far different than those at Moeller High School and far different at Notre Dame than at many other schools, regardless of their size.
Good coaches know that in order to get their teams to win consistently they must get their players to perform. This is the number one on-the-field priority and getting his players to perform to their potential is the sine qua non of a successful football coach. The coach must understand not simply what makes a team functional. but what motivates and makes each individual player compete, improve and reach their potential. He must study and attend to all of the factors that affect the performance of each player and the team as a whole, such as confidence, chemistry, conditioning, player focus, attitude and leadership.
Now, all coaches who have had any measure of success have shown ability to prepare their teams and get their players to perform. So why do they fail when they change jobs, or are unable to sustain initial success? One reason is that preparation is tedious. It requires attention to detail and addressing the same issues over and over. Nick Saban told a coaching clinic "most teams work on something until they get it, then they move on; we work on something until there is no way we can get it wrong." The tedium makes some coaches look for shortcuts, forego necessary work, and convince themselves that they are prepared when they are not.
Another reason why coaches slack off on preparation is an unalterable drawback of being in charge: being the head coach means having to give up some things you really want to do in favor of things that you would rather not do at all. A coach may have to give up down and distance play calling to concentrate on game management, e.g. recognizing shifts in momentum, managing the clock, knowing who is and who is not on the field, working the officials, etc. He may have to delegate film breakdown or play design in order to focus on keeping players eligible and out of trouble, dealing with unreasonable parents and administrators, and keeping control of locker room dissension. Responsibility frequently involves things that are not fun, and some coaches respond by focusing on things they want to do rather than on things they should do.
Vince Lombardi once remarked that coaching involved a lot of mental anguish, and most people who have coached anything on any level know that this is true. As mentioned, coaching involves hundreds of different tasks and responsibilities, and some of these involve more mental anguish than others. When adversity strikes, when things start to sour, the natural emotional response is to neglect the things associated with anguish in favor of things that are not; whistling past the graveyard as it were. Unfortunately, preparation is dependent on those things that involve a lot of anguish: dealing with youthful indiscretion, recruiting disappointments, clash of egos, injuries, lack of commitment, etc., and when coaches resort to finger pointing, denial of the obvious, and persecutory delusions to stave off anguish, the real work of preparing a football team is neglected.
Finally, successful coaches must be a little cold blooded. They cannot become sentimentally attached to certain plays, practice habits, or schemes that were associated with past success but which are now obsolete. And of course, they cannot become overly sentimental about players or assistant coaches, or their perceptions of their own wonderfulness. Coaches fail because fondness and nostalgia cannot compensate for poor performance, and no amount of self esteem, blame-shifting or reference to past successes can change that.
In summary then, different jobs have different demands and conditions for success, and there are too many of these for a coach to give each all necessary attention. Coaches fail when they are unable to prioritize these and effectively manage them, and as a result they become less effective at preparing their teams to win football games.
That's what I think anyway.