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The History of Replacing a Declining Coach

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It's got to be a piece of cake, right?

One of the best case scenarios
One of the best case scenarios
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

History is littered with programs who thought it couldn't happen to them. Oh, this place recruits itself. We have too many advantages. This place is a well-oiled machine and we just need to plug and play. We're too big to fail.

So let's get rid of the disappointing long time head coach, who has clearly lost his touch. This will return us to greatness and it will be nothing but good times ahead. It's a nice thought, but is so rarely works out that way. Or is that just our perception? Are LSU fans just too scarred by the transition from Charles McLendon to look at this with clear eyes?

The best way to look at the issue is to not look at just LSU, but the top programs around the country. I pulled the top 25 programs of the past 50 years according the CFB Data Warehouse, and then tried to identify the modern coach transition that was most similar to Les Miles. I tried to identify a coach who had a higher winning percentage than the program average, had a tenure close to a decade, and then experienced a downturn at the end. Of course, not every program had someone who met these precise criteria, but we tried to get as close as possible, favoring guys who left involuntarily.

Taking one coach from every school, we ended up with a sample group of 25 coaches who averaged a 703 winning percentage over a tenure of 11.7 years. Fifteen guys were fired or resigned under pressure, while ten left on their own initiative. How did their replacements fare?

On average, the next guy coached for just 4.4 years and posted a winning percentage of 603. The average program saw their winning percentage drop by 100 points. Measured by the median, program experienced a drop of 141 points to their winning percentage and a tenure of just four years. Let's look at the individual cases:

Team

Previous Coach

Term

Win %

Replacement

Term

Win %

Coach's Choice

Gap

Oregon

Mike Bellotti

14

678

Chip Kelly

4

868

N

190

Ohio St.

John Cooper

13

715

Jim Tressel

10

810

N

95

Colorado

Bill McCartney

13

624

Rick Neuheisel

4

702

Y

78

Florida St.

Bobby Bowden

34

756

Jimbo Fisher

6

829

N

73

Arkansas

Houston Nutt

10

610

Bobby Petrino

4

667

N

57

Washington

Jim Lambright

6

636

Rick Neuheisel

4

673

N

37

Auburn

Tommy Tuberville

10

680

Gene Chizik

4

635

N

-45

UCLA

Bob Toledo

7

617

Karl Dorrell

5

565

N

-52

Clemson

Danny Ford

12

760

Ken Hatfield

4

707

N

-53

Southern California

John Robinson

5

617

Paul Hackett

3

541

N

-76

Penn St.

Bill O'Brien

2

625

James Franklin

2

538

Y

-87

Michigan St.

Nick Saban

5

585

Bobby Williams

4

485

Y

-100

Georgia

Vince Dooley

25

715

Ray Goff

7

574

Y

-141

Miami (FL)

Dennis Erickson

6

875

Butch Davis

6

718

Y

-157

LSU

Charles McLendon

18

692

Jerry Stovall

4

511

N

-181

Notre Dame

Lou Holtz

11

765

Bob Davie

5

583

Y

-182

Oklahoma

Barry Switzer

16

837

Gary Gibbs

6

652

Y

-185

Texas

Fred Akers

10

731

David McWilliams

5

544

N

-187

Texas A&M

RC Slocum

14

721

Dennis Franchione

5

533

N

-188

Florida

Steve Spurrier

12

817

Ron Zook

3

622

Y

-195

Alabama

Gene Stallings

7

713

Mike DuBose

4

511

Y

-202

Nebraska

Frank Solich

6

753

Bill Callahan

4

551

N

-202

Tennessee

Phillip Fulmer

17

745

Lane Kiffin

1

538

N

-207

Stanford

Ty Willingham

7

549

Buddy Teevens

3

303

Y

-246

Michigan

Lloyd Carr

13

753

Rich Rodriguez

3

405

N

-348

Term

Win %

Term

Win %

Gap

Average

11.7

702.8

4.4

602.6

-100.16

Median

11

715

4

574

-141

Group One: The Unqualified Successes

Oregon: 2008, Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly, +190 Win%
Ohio St: 2000, John Cooper to Jim Tressel, +95 Win%

The transition to Chip Kelly bears little in common with the current situation at LSU. Bellotti was still winning at or above his career mark, but the powers that be forced him to the AD's office so they could promote his hotshot OC to head coach. The transition really had more to do with Kelly than Bellotti, and history shows it was a pretty great call. H

However, the Ohio St. situation is almost Les Miles to a T, minus the national title. Cooper had won a lot, but he brought no titles to Columbus, and he couldn't seem to beat Michigan. He went 8-4 in 2000, capped off with yet another loss to Michigan, and that was it. Ohio St. went out and hired Jim Tressel from Youngstown St., and he became the next version of Woody Hayes. Tressel is also the only replacement coach identified in this study who coached at his school for 10 years. This is the dream scenario for LSU. It is also, literally, a singular example.

Group Two: The Minor Success

Colorado: 1994, Bill McCartney to Rick Neuheisel, +78 Win%
Florida St: 2009, Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher, +73 Win%
Arkansas: 2007, Houston Nutt to Bobby Petrino, +57 Win%
Washington: 1998, Jim Lambright to Rick Neuheisel, +37 Win%

That's it folks. Every other program to replace their longtime successful coach and then post a better winning percentage under the next regime. Let the fact that two of these four scenarios involve hiring Rick Neuheisel sink in.

Bill McCartney wasn't fired and experienced no downturn, he just up and quit. Bowden also doesn't quite fit the parameters, it's just that Florida St has had such little coaching turnover. But FSU had a coach-in-waiting ready to go when they forced out the legendary coach.

Houston Nutt is a pretty good comp for Les Miles, relative to their programs. Nutt didn't win a title, but he did bring Arkansas to long since lost levels, and he coached in Fayetteville for a decade. He was forced to resign in 2007, and the Hogs hired Bobby Petrino, a hotshot up and comer who was up for the LSU job a year or two prior. Because of his motorcycle crash and ensuing fallout, no coach in this grouping lasted more than four seasons at their new job, despite raising the winning percentage, except the planned transition to Jimbo Fisher.

Group Three: It Could Have Been Worse

Auburn: 2008, Tommy Tuberville to Gene Chizik, -45 Win%
UCLA: 2002, Bob Toledo to Karl Dorrell, -52 Win%
Clemson: Danny Ford to Ken Hatfield, -53 Win%

Honestly, no one in this group would ask for a do over. The win percentage went down, but it's not like the decision was a disaster or anything. Both Tuberville and Toldeo were coming off seasons on either side of 500, and it could be reasonably argued that they had run their course at each program. Chizik did win a national title thanks to Cam Newton before turning into a pumpkin, and Dorrell essentially kept the program at just above 500.

Clemson wasn't thrilled to force out Danny Ford, but the NCAA cops had come a-calling, and that usually spells doom for anybody. Ford was eventually cleared, and he won 10 games in his final season, but it's still hard to second guess the decision making given the facts known at the time. And Hatfield didn't exactly crash the Hindenburg. None of these scenarios are all that similar to Miles except maybe Tuberville, so the question is: is four years of Chizik worth one out of nowhere national title run?

Group Four: Barely Comparable

USC: 1997, John Robinson to Paul Hackett, -76 Win%
Penn St: 2013, Bill O'Brien to James Franklin, -87 Win%
Michigan St: 1999, Nick Saban to Bobby Williams, -100 Win%
Georgia: 1988, Vince Dooley to Ray Goff, -141 Win%

These are programs which simply didn't have a coaching transition all that similar to what we're going through now. Penn St and Georgia both had long-time legendary coaches finally step down, and then a bunch of short-timers (except the obviously comparable Mark Richt transition, which we have no data on yet). I instead chose O'Brien because Franklin inherited the same probation situation, or even a slightly better one, but he's done less with maybe a bit more. Sparty just hadn't had a longtime successful coach until Dantonio showed up nearly 20 years ago.

The only one of this group that's even slightly helpful, and might belong in the group above, is John Robinson's second stint at USC. It only lasted 5 years, but overall, he was at USC for over a decade. I only used his winning percentage from the second stint, not his two terms combined. Robinson started off great, but then had two straight 6-5 years and was forced out. Hackett wasn't an improvement at all, but if we're looking for the silver lining, Hackett was replaced just three years later by Pete Carroll.

Group Five: It Couldn't Happen Here

Miami: 1994, Dennis Erickson to Butch Davis, -157 Win%
LSU: 1979, Charles McLendon to Jerry Stovall, -181 Win%
Notre Dame: 1996, Lou Holtz to Bob Davie, -182 Win%
Oklahoma: 1988, Barry Switzer to Gary Gibbs, -185 Win%
Texas: 1986, Fred Akers to David McWilliams, -187 Win%
Texas A&M: 2002, RC Slocum to Dennis Franchione, -188 Win%
Nebraska: 2003, Frank Solich to Bill Callahan, -202 Win%
Tennessee: 2008, Phillip Fulmer to Lane Kiffin, -207 Win%

This is where the list gets terrifying. Look at the list of programs and the guy who got forced out. These are the coaches MOST similar to Les Miles and the programs most similar to LSU. Hell, LSU is even on this list. Even more disturbing, here's their final full season records: 10-2, 7-5, 8-3, 9-3, 5-6, 6-6, 9-3, and 5-7. This is the guys who had it but lost it, so now we're going to find the guy who has it now.

And to a man, they all failed. Not just a little bit, but they all failed spectacularly. Mainly because winning at a greater than a 700 clip is really, really hard. Even at legendary places with seemingly unlimited resources like Miami, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, and so on.

Dennis Erickson was not fired, precisely. The alumni were pretty unhappy with him for not being Jimmy Johnson, but he outran the ax by running to the NFL first. Butch Davis came in and coached such legendary players as Ray Lewis, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey, and Ed Reed. What he didn't do was win a national title, unlike the three prior coaches at Miami. However, it is hard to call his 718 winning percentage and 11-1 season in his final year a failure. If LSU gets Butch Davis, we would be thrilled.

Lou Holtz also left on his own, though the rumbles were getting pretty loud the game has passed him by. He just never let it get past a rumble, and he stepped aside after an 8-3 season. Notre Dame, at this point, still had more institutional advantages than any other program in the country. Bob Davie used these advantages to post a 583 winning percentage over 5 years. He did go 9-3 twice, which is also the same number of losing seasons he had.

Barry Switzer also left by choice, but he was outrunning NCAA probation. The probation came, but the cuts weren't crippling. Gary Gibbs actually did better during the probation years, winning 7 then 8 then 9 games. Over his last three years, he'd post two 500 seasons and one 9-3 season. He'd only once finish as high as a tie for second in the conference. And after Gibbs left, the bottom fell out at OU nearly as badly as it did at LSU.

We don't need to rehash the Dark Ages of LSU football, but we can at least note that Stovall was a fill in for Bo Rein, who tragically died after being hired. Also, it's not like the program went directly off the rails. Bill Arnsparger might have only coached for three years, but he posted a 750 winning percentage, the same as Nick Saban at LSU. Still, LSU wandered in the football wilderness for about fifteen years due to the chain of events post Cholly Mack. It really was the worst case scenario.

The other four coaches in this group seem like perfect dead ringers for Les Miles. They are all coaches who had good but not great reputations, overshadowed by another legend at the school. They all coached for a decade or more, save Frank Solich. Solich and Fulmer both won national titles. All were forced out because the team was winning, but not winning enough, nor as much as it used to under the same regime. Only Solich posted a record above 500 in his final full year of the four.

These were guys ripe for replacement at schools that had the resources and the will to compete. And all four botched the hire. Texas hired David McWilliams and A&M hired Dennis Franchione. Each were barely above 500 in five seasons at the school, and did enough harm that it took two more coaching hires before they would return to the levels that were previously so unacceptable with Mack Brown and Kevin Sumlin.

But those hires are home runs compared to Nebraska and Tennessee. Nebraska, tired of their offense being trapped in the past, tried to convert to a spread team under Bill Callahan, with disastrous results. Lane Kiffin tried to bring the edge and excitement back to Tennessee, and nearly burned the program down in a one-year reign of terror. Neither program has fully recovered, so much so that now we talk about how neither school has the institutional advantages which made them great to begin with.

This is the group of coaches who look the most like Les Miles pre-transition. We better hope that history does not repeat itself.

Group Six: You Can't Replace a Legend

Florida: 2001, Steve Spurrier to Ron Zook, -195 Win%
Alabama: 1996, Gene Stallings to Mike DuBose, -202 Win%

Steve Spurrier quite out of nowhere, catching Florida a bit flat-footed. They ended up with an underwhelming hire of Ron Zook, who was good but not great. Zook last just three years, and Florida got a second bite at the apple, getting Urban Meyer this time and returning to their previous heights.

Gene Stallings gave Alabama a full year's warning he was stepping down, and the best they could come up with was Mike DuBose. Now, Bama did have some NCAA troubles, but not program killing sanctions or anything. DuBose brought Bama a series of mediocre years, which is where the program had largely settled until Nick Saban showed up and... well, let's not talk about that. But Bama spent a decade being average, too.

Group Seven: Oh God, It Burns

Stanford: 2001, Ty Willingham to Buddy Teevens, -246 Win%
Michigan: 2007, Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez, -348 Win%

Stanford has the excuse that Willingham left them to take the Notre Dame job. There was no hubris being punished here. Stanford went from 9-3 to 2-9 in one season. Teevens, by all accounts, is a wonderful human being and all around nice guy, but he was well out of his league as the head coach at Stanford. Even the press release announcing his firing called him classy. What it didn't do was call him good, as he failed to post a single winning season in three years.

The worst case scenario award goes to Michigan. Lloyd Carr does share some similarities to Miles, including having everyone compare him to a previous coach who, unfortunately for Carr, was still on campus in his case. Carr declined to 9-4 because of his outmoded, archaic offense and he resigned under pressure from the school. Michigan responded by hiring the hot young up and comer, Rich Rod, who was about as poor of a cultural fit as you'd think a guy named Rich Rod would be at Michigan. He didn't even post a winning record in his time at Michigan, which is borderline unthinkable.

But I'm sure our coaching search will go great and that there's no possible way the program could decline. I've got nothing but faith in Joe Alleva, don't you?