How Will Coaching Issues Affect Bowls?
by Trevor Whenham - 12/19/2007
This year's college football coaching carousel hasn't been abnormally busy, but it does seem as if there are more bowl teams affected this year than we are used to. Of the 64 teams set to play in a bowls starting tomorrow, nine - Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Houston, Michigan, Navy, Southern Miss, Texas A&M, UCLA and West Virginia - have experienced a change in their coaching status since the regular season ended. On top of that, several other programs like Rutgers, LSU and Missouri have had to deal with rumors about their coaches' potential new destinations.
All of that change and upheaval creates a handicapping challenge. Obviously, any team that has come to rely on a coach and no longer has that coach around will be affected. Your job as a handicapper is to decide how much of an impact the change will have. The one thing you can usually rely on is that the public is going to react strongly to a coaching change. Next to a quarterback injury, there is nothing that the public dislikes more than coaching turmoil. If you can determine that the impact of the coaching change will be less significant than the public thinks then you have found value. On the other hand, you may find situations where the public's pessimism doesn't go far enough.
To determine the impact of a coaching change on a bowl team there are some questions you can consider. You'll want to take a look at them before you make your bets to ensure that you aren't overcompensating for a departure:
What were the circumstances of the departure? - Not all departures are created equal. When Paul Johnson left Navy, for example, it was as smooth as it could be. He was a well-liked coach, everyone in the world knew that he would eventually leave, and a replacement was obvious and quickly in place to run the same basic systems. Rich Rodriguez, on the other hand, left West Virginia in chaos. Nobody saw his departure coming, the entire state is in turmoil over it, and it appears that he is taking his whole staff right down to the cleaning lady with him to Ann Arbor. West Virginia's case is obviously much more of a distraction than Navy's, and it seems very reasonable to assume that the Mountaineers will be more impacted than the Midshipmen.
Who's coaching the big game? - This can happen in three ways. In some cases, like Michigan, the departing coach will stick around to coach the bowl before riding off into the sunset. In other cases, an interim coach from inside the program can be named to lead the team. That's most often an existing assistant, so the transition can be seamless. Finally, in rare cases the new coach will be in place and at the helm for the big game. That's the case with Ken Niumatalolo at Navy. Understanding the type of transition that the team has been faced with will help you determine how the team will be prepared.
What type of coach was he? - Some coaches are the classic CEO type - they oversee the running of the program, but they don't get their hands dirty from day to day. Others are much more involved, calling plays, guiding players, and generally being a part of every aspect of the game. Since the bowl is just one game, the loss of the former type will have much less impact than the latter.
What was the coach's relationship with his team? - Johnson and Rodriguez were both popular with their players, and those players seem to be sad to see them go. Karl Dorrell at UCLA, on the other hand, was an unpopular coach at the end of yet another disappointing season, and his players are probably relieved to see him go. The impact of a coaching loss is often directly related to the appreciation for that coach.
How much uncertainty was there around the change? - The biggest distraction over the short term in a coaching change isn't the arrival of the new guy, but rather the speculation over who the new guy is going to be. A quick and painless coaching change will provide little angst and confusion, and teams can focus on preparation. That was the case in places like Georgia Tech, Navy and Texas A&M. On the other hand, a long and drawn out search can keep player's minds off the matter at hand. We don't yet know how long West Virginia's process will last, Michigan's was a month of high-profile embarrassment, and UCLA seems as if it may never hire a coach.
What else is going on with the team? - It's way too easy to attach too much importance to something like a coaching change. What else is the team facing? Are the players healthy? What kind of form has the team had in recent games? How well do they match up to their opponent? How motivated are they likely to be for the game? All of those factors are important in every game, and they are just as important in a bowl game regardless of who is coaching the team.