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Head Coach Retention Rates

In the footnotes (always read the footnotes!) to one of Neil’s posts at 538, he included a fun chart displaying the likelihood that a baseball manager would be retained by his team X seasons from now. That made me wonder: what is the NFL head coach retention rate? And, as is often assumed by the football commentariat, are coaching seats hotter than ever in this “win now” era?

Just nine teams will have the same coach in 2014 as they did entering the 2009 season. Those nine men are Mike Smith, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin, and John Harbaugh.  A 28% five-year retention rate sounds pretty low, but is it? Does a 28% rate back up the claim that trigger fingers are itchier than ever, and owners are impatient and irrational Donald Trumps?

No. Let’s flash back to the start of the 1993 season. Don Shula was in Miami, of course, while Marv Levy had just taken the Bills to three straight Super Bowls. Levy had been the head coach in Buffalo since the middle of the 1986 season, which is the same year Jim Mora began as head coach in New Orleans. Mora was still with the Saints in ’93, and… well, that was it. Those three coaches were the only ones who had been with their teams for five straight years.

The same fact was true six years later: at the start of the 1999 season, only Dennis Green (Minnesota), Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh), and … Norv Turner (?!?) had been with their teams for five years. The graph below shows the percentage of head coaches who were still with the same team five years later for the period 1970 to 2009:

head coaches retain

For the 40-year period beginning in 1970, the average number of teams that had the same head coach five years later was just 25%, lower than the current average. Now I recognize that retention rate has some flaws; it can be over-inclusive as coaches who quit or retire are not “retained” so the word is non an antonym of fired. But while it’s easy to think of isolated examples such as Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells or Joe Gibbs, I don’t think this is a significant issue to worry about. I think the results are robust enough to disprove the “win now = fire sooner” theory that the burden of proof has shifted; a disbeliever would have to show that significantly more coaches in the past quit or retired (or switched teams), which is what skews the results. And it’s not like we don’t have those coaches in modern times, too: Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, and Bill Cowher all voluntarily left their most recent coaching jobs.

If we switch the period from five to three years, do the results change? Only eight head coaches were with the same team at the start of the ’94 and ’97 seasons.  Right now, there are 14 head coaches who were around three years ago: the nine from the beginning of this post, and John Fox, Jason Garrett, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, and Ron Rivera. Still, a 44% three-year retention rate is nothing special: in fact, that’s the exact same rate from the period from 1970 to 2011:

head coaches retain 3

It’s easy to say that coaches have shorter leashes now than ever. Unfortunately for easy narratives, the data don’t support that theory.

  • Sunrise089

    Nice post.

    “Shula had been the head coach in Buffalo since the middle of the 1986 season…”

    Either the coach or team is wrong there 🙂

    • Chase Stuart


  • JeremyDe

    Norv Turner being the Skins coach for nearly 7 years (94-2000) was sort of a fluke. Turner was hired in 1994 and probably would have been fired after the 1996 season, if not for owner Jack Kent Cooke’s failing health and eventual death in April 1997. Cooke left the team’s ownership to his foundation with instructions to sell the team. His son John, who ran the foundation, spent 2 years keeping the status quo and trying to raise money to purchase the team. Eventually, John Kent Cooke failed and the team was sold to Dan Snyder in May 1999. It was too late in 99 to fire Turner, so Turner had a year stay of termination. The Skins responded by winning a weak NFC East, saving Turner for 1 more season. In 2000, despite being 1 game out of the playoffs after 14 weeks, and having just beaten defending Super Bowl champion St Louis 3 weeks earlier, Snyder pulled the trigger and Turner was finally fired.

    No idea how he got 2 more head coaching jobs later.

    • curt durt

      I like to watch misconceptions die but the darn things are like zombies.

  • Kibbles

    “Unfortunately for easy narratives, the data don’t support that theory.”

    I often say that there are few things more dangerous than a plausible-sounding idea. The more plausible-sounding it is, the more likely everyone is to simply accept it at face value without any critical analysis.