Whenever a new coach takes over a program, they are immediately confronted with expectations. However, expectations are rarely based in reality. Instead, those expectations are based on a wide variety of factors including but not limited to the perception of the program, the success of the previous coach, and the new hire’s reputation. Chris Collins, in his first season coaching a historically bad Big Ten team, will face much lower expectations than whomever faces the daunting task of eventually replacing Tom Izzo, who is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten who happens to coach one the historically best Big Ten teams. As with any coach, much of the talk early in Richard Pitino’s career with the Gophers has surrounded what we should expect. Some expect him coach as well as his father, while others have looked at his one season as the head coach at Florida International and decided he has no business coaching in the Big Ten. Only time will tell how his career will proceed. In the meantime, it seems worthwhile to try to define what the first few season’s of a Big Ten coach’s tenure can tell us.
We looked at the Big Ten regular season records of the last two coaches hired by each Big Ten team (sorry Nebraska, you haven’t had two new Big Ten hires yet) during their early Big Ten coaching career. We are defining “early career” as five seasons because the fifth season with a team is typically the first season when the entire roster is a coach’s recruits.
There are many ways to judge a coach early in their career. One of the most basic ways for a coach to be deemed a success is to have a season more successful than the season prior to arrival. In the coaches’ first seasons, 11 of their teams had a better winning percentage than the season before their arrival, 9 had a worse winning percentage, and 2 had the same winning percentage. Unsurprisingly, the condition of the team that was inherited helped determine the new coach’s impact. Of the 11 coaches who improved a team’s winning percentage in their first season, only three (Bruce Weber, Kelvin Sampson, and Bo Ryan) had inherited a team with an above .500 record. There wasn’t much room for improvement, but these three coaches found a way. There were five teams with .500 or above records prior to their new coaches record that had a losing record with a first year head coach. However, Dan Monson and Tom Crean inherited NCAA sanctions from their predecessors. Only Todd Lickliter, Pat Chambers and John Beilein led previously winning teams to a losing record.
Records improved for second year Big Ten coaches. Twenty-one of the 22 coaches completed at least two seasons, and 14 of the 22 had a better record in their second season than their predecessor had in the final season. Tom Izzo had not yet emerged from the sizable shadow of Judd Heathcoate. Tom Crean and Dan Monson continued to struggled with sanctions. Both Penn State coaches along with Todd Lickliter continued to take their teams backwards. Meanwhile, John Belein and Matt Painter matched their predecessors success.
Year three was something of a make or break season for new Big Ten coaches. The wheat was separated from the chaff, and two coaches, Todd Lickliter and Kevin O’Neill were separated from their teams. For the first time Fran McCaffery, Tom Izzo, and Dan Monson could claim their program was in better shape than they found it while Izzo, Thad Matta, and Matt Painter elevated their programs to national prominence. Tom Crean continued to endure the sanctions regime, while Beilein and Bennet saw their teams step back. They were able to keep their jobs while Lickliter and O’Neill weren’t because they had shown promise in season two. If history is any indication, Pat Chambers may very well be coaching for his job this season.
By season four, 15 of the 16 still employed Big Ten coaches had one season better than their predecessor’s final season. However, season four tended to be a tough one. Ten of the coaches won fewer games in season four than they did in season three. While no one was fired, after season four, the writing was on the wall for several coaches. Tubby Smith, Tommy Amaker, Bruce Weber, and Ed DeChellis showed the first signs that their careers were starting to sink. Gene Keady, Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, John Beilein, and Dick Bennet had much improved teams in season four.
By season five, thanks to Indiana’s improvement, every surviving coach could finally claim their programs were in as good or better shape than they found them. Otherwise, the trajectory set in the first four seasons continued in season five. Weber, Smith, Carmody, and Monson continued to slip further and further away from .500. Izzo, Keady, and Ryan struggled relative to their success, but those proved to be momentarily blips.
The first season for most Big Ten coaches is notoriously tough. Despite many of them taking over teams left in shambles, the 20 first time Big Ten coaches we looked at had lower collective winning percentages in their first season than their predecessors had in their final season. By season two, our collection of coaches had their best seasons. While there is small drop off in seasons three through five, there is remarkable consistency after the first season.
The data suggests that at the conclusion of season three judgement no longer needs to be reserved. It is not unprecedented to fire a coach if they have failed to improve the program by season three. A coach has begun to stand on their own two feet in season three, and that season seems to be a pivot point, determining which direction the rest of their career will tilt. Depending on the situation of each program, I still think sanction-free coaches should generally be entitled to five seasons to fully implement their system. If season three is the first season of significant adversity, the coach should be given an opportunity to demonstrate they are about to fix their problems. John Beilein shook up his coaching staff, and his teams have only gotten better since. Tubby Smith didn’t change anything, and eventually lost his job.
If season three is something of a tipping point, the dye has been cast by season five. A coach’s performance during their first five seasons in the Big Ten is an excellent predictor of their career performance. Thirteen of the 20 coaches we looked at completed greater than 5 seasons in the Big Ten. Seven of those coaches had a better winning percentage in their first five seasons than they had in their careers. The records of Ed Dechellis, John Beilein, and Thad Matta generally improved after their first five seasons. Dechellis endured a truly brutal first five seasons, but was eventually able to bring Penn State a certain level of stability and success, including a trip to the NCAA tournament. Beilein and Matta, while having some very good seasons early in their Big Ten careers, didn’t establish themselves as consistently elite until later in their career. Most coaches either had improving records as their careers went on or had a stable level of success. However, Bruce Weber and Jim O’Brien clearly were worse coaches as their careers wore on. After a difficult first season, O’Brien appeared to build a successful foundation. However, his final two teams finished below .500, and he was ultimately fired in the midst of an NCAA investigation that eventually led to sanctions. Bruce Weber inherited a program from Bill Self that was in great shape, and went to the Sweet 16 and national championship game in his first two seasons. In his final seven seasons, his teams never won more than one NCAA tournament game, and he was finally fired in 2012 after a 6-12 season.
The sports world is full of pundits and prognosticators who are ready to claim a coaching career has gone boom or bust after every game. As a general rule, don’t listen to any of them at all until the end of season two. By the end of season three, feel free to start guessing how a career is going to progress. The adage that things are never as good or bad as they seem holds true for the first few seasons of a Big Ten coaching career. But by the end of season five, past is prologue.