Dave Berri on Winning, Rivalries and Tanking in College Football


“What do fans want?” It’s a question anyone in sports management has to worry about. No person should be more concerned about this than college football coaches. Dave Berri examined some research from Paul Holmes in the Journal of Sports Economics over at Freakonomics today:

How Can A New College Football Coach Avoid Getting Fired?

Pleasing the fans is very important for college coaches. It turns out that college football fans are very fickle. So what important information does Dave have for them?

Fans care about winning, they don’t care about who*

* With an exception I’ll get to in the next section.

It turns out that your win loss record is what matters most for your job. And it turns out that strength of schedule does not appear to play any role in this evaluation. A win against a weak team (Dave calls them cream puffs in the article) is more valuable than a loss against a strong team. Of course, there’s a few caveats…

Fans care about rivalries

It turns out that wins in your conference are three times as valuable as “normal wins”. Paul also examined wins against rival teams and winning in bowl games. Guess what? Bowl game victories did not appear to matter (all else being equal), however wins against rivals did. I was curious if this same logic applied in pro sports. Dave doesn’t know of any studies off the top of his head, but I’d be fascinated to find out if there were.

History and Tanking

The bowl game part may be explained by the following. How well your team has done in the recent past (3-10 years) and the far past (11-30 years) matters. In essence, a bar has been set for any incoming coach. What’s more, Dave points out that any new coach gets a “grace period”, although not typically more than a few years — one third of all firings occur within the first four years of a coach getting the job.

Dave’s advice is that a new coach should play poorly to start their tenure. Thus, they’ll improve and the fans will be happy! See, we do like tanking in some cases.

Putting it all together

Dave kindly gives all college coaches a nice play book:

  • take over a team that historically played poorly
  • schedule cream puffs (assuming your poor school can find some)
  • start poorly and improve

What does that all mean for new coaches? Although you may be excited to be in your new job, just take it easy at first. In other words, don’t worry so much about winning next year.
And in a few years, see if you can get some of those “cream puffs” on your schedule.

Good luck!

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