The Pittsburgh Steelers have not fired a head coach since Bill Austin in 1968, an amazing stretch that has seen the team transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin. Before that, Pittsburgh was the worst franchise in the NFL, and had 16 different head coaches. Is it a case of stability leading to success, or success leading to stability at the coaching position?
Maybe both, but we don’t really know. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt has held the Steelers up as his model franchise.
“I’m a strong believer that continuity at the head coaching position is very important to long-term success,’’ Hunt said then. “Probably you could point to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the best example of that. They do a great job of drafting players, developing them and playing them and they have tremendous continuity with their head coaches. They have a system and an approach about how they do it and it’s important we develop that kind of mind-set here.’’
Hunt, though, has a quandary. Believe in continuity in the face of a 1-9 season and the worst team in the league, or believe in change to improve those outcomes?
This got me wondering, because I think the Pittsburgh Steelers happen to be a chicken/egg thing. No team would have fired Mike Tomlin at this point. Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls, was a Hall of Fame coach, and got a few extra years when the team wasn’t as good. Some owners might have fired him, but probably not a whole lot. Bill Cowher was good right away, and had the Steelers in the playoffs most years. Same thing there.
To try to measure which franchises have been the most/least patient with head coaches, I came up with a +/- rating for each season based on how other owners behaved. To do that, I looked at both wins in a season, and length of tenure. Coach firings are not linear based on wins and tenure. While every loss affects the odds of losing a job, every win above a 9 win season has a minimal effect on getting fired. The longer a coach goes, the shorter the leash can get, sometimes. For example, only one coach was retained since 1990 after going 3-13 worse in year 3 or later.
The three categories were a) first two years, b) years 3 and 4, and c) years 5 or later for the coach. If a team faced a 50/50 situation (for example, half the coaches since 1990 who went 5-11 in year 5 or later were fired), then the franchise that fired got +0.50 on the scale, and the one that retained got a -0.50. If it was an extreme situation, like a 10+ win team, then the firing team (think Schottenheimer in San Diego) got a +0.95, while all the retaining teams got only a -0.05.
A few gray areas came up. How to treat forced resignations? I went through newspaper archives and tried to make judgment calls. If it was a retirement, like Noll or Cowher, I did not penalize the team. If it was a Petrino or Saban situation where it was the coach who chose to leave, I likewise did not penalize. I did count Jimmy Johnson resigning in Dallas as equivalent to a firing, since Jerry Jones made public statements that exposed a dispute, leading to the split, even if Johnson technically resigned. I did the same with Seifert in San Francisco.
Here is the list, using all seasons since 1990. Think of this as a +/- of expected coaching changes by the franchise versus actual, based on performance. The expansion franchises are listed with their ratings, but ranked on the list based on prorated numbers.
Pass the sniff test? Oakland laps the field on coaching changes once we account for team record. Next up is Jerry Jones in Dallas. At the other end, we get Bob McNair in Houston, who stuck with Dom Capers for four years, then stayed with Gary Kubiak after he didn’t make the playoffs for five more years. Based on league averages, the typical franchise would have made almost two more coaching changes based on those results. If Clark Hunt wants the most patient franchise, though, he needs to look to Mike Brown, who has stayed with coaches, from David Shula to Bruce Coslet to Marvin Lewis, far longer than most franchises would under similar circumstances.
An overall look at the list doesn’t necessarily speak to coaching stability for its own sake as being a good or bad thing. The bottom of the list features volatile franchises who haven’t been tolerant of mediocrity, and most reached a Super Bowl over this span. The top features successful franchises like Pittsburgh mixed with others that had a history of losing.
In this way, I think coaching continuity is a bit like time of possession. It’s something you want, but it alone doesn’t tell you everything. Continuity is great when you have a top coach. It’s not so great when you don’t.
[photo via US Presswire]
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