By Ross Benes
Leading up to National Signing Day, coaches new to their schools get a boost in media visibility and can sell recruits on the "new direction" they're taking their programs in. Athletic directors would like you to believe that their new hires tend to improve recruiting. But is that actually the case?
Of course, there are examples of coaches with reputations as great recruiters or as talent developers that will swing things in both directions. Nick Saban might be the best recruiter in college football, so it was pretty obvious Alabama would improve its talent once he came to Tuscaloosa. Bill Snyder somehow puts together conference-championship-caliber teams with recruiting classes that resemble those of the MAC, so Kansas State fans likely knew his re-arrival in Manhattan would come with a regression in recruiting rankings.
To see if there's actually a trend running through all these anecdotes, we examined recruiting classes of coaches fired for on-field reasons and their replacements. We compared the last two classes of a fired coach to the first two classes of a new coach, which allows us to partially restrict the effects of single-season outliers while also keeping the timeframe short enough so that the replacement coach would still be considered "new" to his school.
We avoided using the transition year, since that class generally reflects the timeframe when a coach got hired, rather than his recruiting skills. Michigan's 38th ranked class of this year has less to do with Jim Harbaugh and more to do with lame duck Brady Hoke. To get two full seasons beyond the transition year, only coaches with at least three years at a school were included, which leaves off Turner Gill at Kansas and Lane Kiffin at Tennessee, for example. Rivals.com rankings were used to measure recruiting. The sortable table below features coaches fired and hired from 2003-2012 and their average class rank, sorted by their differences.
|2004||Ty Willingham||Charlie Weis||Notre Dame||51.5||8.0||43.5|
|2010||Robbie Caldwell||James Franklin||Vanderbilt||66.0||24.0||42.0|
|2003||Carl Franks||Ted Roof||Duke||89.0||51.0||38.0|
|2012||Tom O'Brien||Dave Doeren||NC St||70.0||32.5||37.5|
|2012||Joker Phillips||Mark Stoops||Kentucky||62.5||26.0||36.5|
|2004||Walt Harris||Dave Wannstedt||Pitt||54.0||23.5||30.5|
|2009||Steve Kragthorpe||Charlie Strong||Louisville||66.0||35.5||30.5|
|2006||Glen Mason||Tim Brewster||Minnesota||58.0||28.0||30.0|
|2003||Frank Solich||Bill Callahan||Nebraska||41.0||12.5||28.5|
|2004||Ron Turner||Ron Zook||Illinois||50.0||25.0||25.0|
|2010||Bill Lynch||Kevin Wilson||Indiana||76.0||52.5||23.5|
|2009||Al Groh||Mike London||Virginia||47.0||26.0||21.0|
|2004||David Cutcliffe||Ed Orgeron||Ole Miss||41.5||21.0||20.5|
|2011||Paul Wulff||Mike Leach||Washington St||82.0||61.5||20.5|
|2007||Guy Morriss||Art Briles||Baylor||66.0||47.0||19.0|
|2011||Dennis Erickson||Todd Graham||Arizona St||46.5||27.5||19.0|
|2007||Karl Dorrell||Rick Neuheisel||UCLA||28.5||11.0||17.5|
|2006||John Bunting||Butch Davis||North Carolina||37.0||20.5||16.5|
|2011||Mike Stoops||Rich Rodriguez||Arizona||46.5||32.5||14.0|
|2006||Mike Shula||Nick Saban||Alabama||14.5||1.0||13.5|
|2011||Mike Sherman||Kevin Sumlin||Texas AM||22.0||8.5||13.5|
|2011||Rick Neuheisel||Jim Mora||UCLA||26.5||13.0||13.5|
|2012||Derek Dooley||Butch Jones||Tennessee||15.0||5.0||10.0|
|2008||Tommy Tuberville||Gene Chizik||Auburn||13.5||5.5||8.0|
|2010||Rich Rodriguez||Brady Hoke||Michigan||14.0||6.0||8.0|
|2012||Frank Spaziani||Steve Addazio||Boston College||51.0||44.0||7.0|
|2007||Ted Roof||David Cutcliffe||Duke||67.5||61.5||6.0|
|2011||Houston Nutt||Hugh Freeze||Ole Miss||18.5||13.0||5.5|
|2004||Ron Zook||Urban Meyer||Florida||6.0||1.5||4.5|
|2006||Dirk Koetter||Dennis Erickson||Arizona St||30.0||25.5||4.5|
|2008||Tyrone Willingham||Steve Sarkisian||Washington||30.0||25.5||4.5|
|2009||Bobby Bowden||Jimbo Fisher||Florida St||8.0||4.0||4.0|
|2007||Ed Orgeron||Houston Nutt||Ole Miss||21.0||18.0||3.0|
|2006||John L. Smith||Mark Dantonio||Michigan St||34.0||32.0||2.0|
|2004||Paul Pasqualoni||Greg Robinson||Syracuse||51.5||50.0||1.5|
|2010||Randy Shannon||Al Golden||Miami||15.5||14.5||1.0|
|2012||Gene Chizik||Gus Malzahn||Auburn||8.5||7.5||1.0|
|2006||Larry Coker||Randy Shannon||Miami||10.5||10.0||0.5|
|2008||Sylvester Croom||Dan Mullen||Miss St||41.5||41.0||0.5|
|2008||Tommy Bowden||Dabo Swinney||Clemson||14.0||13.5||0.5|
|2006||Chuck Amato||Tom O'Brien||NC St||39.0||41.5||-2.5|
|2010||Ralph Friedgen||Randy Edsall||Maryland||31.0||34.0||-3.0|
|2009||Charlie Weis||Brian Kelly||Notre Dame||11.5||15.0||-3.5|
|2011||Ron Zook||Tim Beckman||Illinois||56.0||61.0||-5.0|
|2012||Danny Hope||Darrell Hazell||Purdue||63.5||70.0||-6.5|
|2006||Dan McCarney||Gene Chizik||Iowa St||60.5||68.0||-7.5|
|2007||Bill Callahan||Bo Pelini||Nebraska||16.5||25.0||-8.5|
|2007||Chan Gailey||Paul Johnson||Georgia Tech||37.5||46.0||-8.5|
|2012||Jeff Tedford||Sonny Dykes||Cal||20.0||37.5||-17.5|
|2004||Gerry DiNardo||Terry Hoeppner||Indiana||73.0||91.5||-18.5|
|2010||Tim Brewster||Jerry Kill||Minnesota||45.0||67.0||-22.0|
|2008||Greg Robinson||Doug Marrone||Syracuse||48.0||77.0||-29.0|
|2008||Ron Prince||Bill Snyder||Kansas St||32.5||66.0||-33.5|
|2007||Bill Doba||Paul Wulff||Washington St||53.5||92.0||-38.5|
Charlie Weis tops the list in outdoing his predecessor. But that's largely because Rivals gave 2004 Notre Dame an unfavorable 91st team rank. For comparison, Scout ranked them 30th, and 247Sports 33rd. It seems the further back you go, the less recruiting services mimic each other. Another example is that 247Sports had the 2007 UCLA class ranked 87th while Scout ranked them 36th and Rivals 40th. We stuck with Rivals because commitments were always accounted for, while earlier seasons had missing recruits in the 247Sports Composite, like the 2007 UCLA class, which only lists six commits.
It's a bit surprising to see Wannstedt near the top, especially since Harris was more successful (0.619 winning percentage) at Pitt than Wannstedt (0.575 winning percentage). James Franklin, Todd Graham, Art Briles and Charlie Strong all improved their programs' on-field product significantly, so their placement here is expected. Callahan, Orgeron and Weis have good reputations as recruiters, and are solid assistants for that matter, but failed to meet expectations as head coaches.
Looking at the other half of the chart, in their initial years Beckman and Pelini didn't keep up with their recruiting guru predecessors. Wulff and Chizik (at Iowa State) transformed marginal programs into awful programs. Snyder and Kill have turned their programs around despite meager recruiting. In recruiting, Snyder pales in comparison to his predecessor, Prince, who had a losing record at K-State but brought in guys like Josh Freeman, Daniel Thomas, James Johnson and Collin Klein. Snyder, meanwhile, brings in pedestrian recruiting classes but has put together three top-20 finishes while finishing at least .500 each season during his second stint.
Of the 54 pairs of coaches here, 74 percent (40 pairs) brought recruiting improvement to their schools. On average, the improvement was by 7.8 positions in rank. And it's not just Rivals data. We ran the numbers using 247Sports data, and found pretty much the same thing, that 70 percent (38 pairs) improved, and average improvement was by seven spots.
But there was some recruiting downside in getting a new coach. The transition year is a bit of a loss. From a fired coach's last class to the transition class, these schools regressed 1.6 spots. But on a brighter note, new coaches overcame the bump as their first full class on average improved 13.2 spots over the transition year.
A preliminary conclusion from these results indicates that bringing in a new hire does tend to improve a program's talent, at least in the short run. Maybe the amplified media attention subliminally enters recruits' minds, and that increased awareness nudges a few guys over. Or the coaches are able to win over prospects with hints at increased playing time as they install new systems that the players they inherited might not be suitable for. It could also be that ADs significantly favor coaches who will likely bring immediate recruiting boosts (as opposed to, say, player development), so that they have a splashy positive story to spin for fans and media. And perhaps the fired coaches were hitting a slump leading up to their firing, and maybe that's a big reason they got canned in the first place. Or it could just be that the new coaches are better at gathering talent, because they in fact are better coaches than the guys they replaced. It's likely there are many contributors to any causality.
Showing that new coaches tend to bring on recruiting improvements might sound like common sense. But a lot of times "common sense" in sports theories turns out to be hot-air punditry. While we're pretty much all aware of the sabermetric-revolution and how great Moneyball is, "truths" commentators hold about things like beating the draft or the effects of conference realignment often turn out to be false or negligible. The fact we found an effect here is significant. Even if it's what you might've been expecting.
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Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.