Head coaches as managers: how well can they assess talent?

Author:Dole, Carol


As football fans watch their favorite teams, you hear many complaints about the head coach's ability, especially if their team is losing. However, the head coach is rarely the one making the calls or responsible for the day-to-day coaching of the players. College athletic departments have become multimillion-dollar enterprises, and as a result the choice of a head coach becomes a critical decision for the department's financial success and strategic planning. This paper addresses the fact that coaches are now corporate executives in a sense. It is their responsibility to acquire coaching and playing talent so that the firm succeeds, or in this case, the team wins.

As coaches move through the coaching ranks from graduate assistant to position coach to assistant coach to coordinator, they tend to learn only their side of the team. If the coach played defense, he usually ends up coaching on the defensive side of the ball for his entire career. That is, unless he becomes a head coach. At that time, he's expected to know how to manage both sides of the ball--or know how to at least pick an effective manager for the offense and recruit talented players. This is probably a more important question for football because the offense and defense are entirely different teams and require different skills. How well do head coaches perform in managing both sides of the ball? How well are coaches acquiring management skills as they move through the ranks to become head coach, or the CEO of the team?

Due to the division between offensive and defensive units in football, a natural experiment exists to study how well a coach from one side of the ball performs once he becomes responsible for both sides. The experiment is also more valid for college football because the head coach is responsible for hiring all assistant coaches and has complete decisions regarding each player. For the NFL, a general manager and owner usually have more control over player decisions regarding draft decisions and trades. Some coaches have only a minor say in these decisions.

This paper examines to what extent a head coach's specialty affects his team's success on both offensive and defensive units using data from the 2013 NCAA football season. For all coaches in the sample, results show that head coaches' functional areas of expertise do not have much of an impact on performance on the offensive unit. However, offensive-minded coaches tend to negatively impact defensive performance in terms of yards. Once adjusting for coaching success, results show that to achieve a winning record and longevity, coaches need to have a positive impact in the functional area of expertise. It also appears that coaches learn how to become better coaches outside their area of expertise though the impact appears to be negative, just less so.


A university athletic department is similar to a traditional corporation on several management levels. For example, an athletic department has an athletic director that is responsible for hiring coaches for a variety of sports and managing strategic planning for the university's sports programs. A corporation has a board of directors that also has the responsibility of hiring the CEO, leading strategic planning and creating a culture for management development. The head football coach, in turn, is responsible for hiring his coordinators and assistant coaches and recruiting players. The head coach is also responsible for the team's success. Likewise, a CEO is responsible for hiring the management team and developing managers and is judged on the firm's performance. Following Kahn (2000), this paper uses the sports environment as a "laboratory" for studying applications of management theory.

A variety of management theory and research has investigated the characteristics of successful CEOs and managers using quantitative data. At one end of this spectrum of CEO performance research, the role of managers as coaches is examined (Grant and Cavanaugh (2004)). In these papers, research examines how well the firm "coaches" or provides coaching training to this new manager to become an executive skilled in motivation--encouraging his/her new employees to greater productivity. However, as much as coaching and managing would seem to have a strong link, very little research reverses the question and asks: how do coaches perform as managers of their "employees" (i.e. assistant coaches and/or players)? For example, Dawson and Phillips (2013) point out that little work has been completed on career development of coaches. Another strand of management literature investigates succession theory, the characteristics of new CEOs and the impact on the firm's success, (Grusky, 1960). Adapting this research to sports, Grusky (1963) using data from Major League Baseball finds a negative relationship between succession rates of coaches and winning. Erhardt, McEvoy and Beggs (2011) look at the characteristics of coaching successors and show that hiring an outsider is more likely to lead to a team's success. Finally, one last strand of literature takes an "upper echelon perspective" which suggests that a CEO's functional area of expertise plays a significant role in the firm's success. Hambrick and Mason (1984) ask why do organizations "act as they do?" Their paper takes the approach that "organizational outcomes-strategic choices and performance levels--are partially predicted by managerial background characteristics." Koryuncu, et al. (2010) show that hiring a CEO with operations experience leads to better performance in operations, compared to like firms validating the functional area idea.

Along this vein of management research, this paper examines to what degree a coach's experience in either offense or defense, his functional area, affects performance levels in these team units. This paper hypothesizes that a coach's specialty (say, on offense) at the coordinator or assistant coaching level significantly affects his ability to attract talent in terms of coaches and players on...

To continue reading