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Managerial Reign in Sports

Published May 4, 2021

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From the fans to ownership, nobody enjoys a losing season. These lost seasons tend to be especially consequential for coaches, as traditionally they are the ones held accountable for the performance of the team. In sports, that boils down to wins and losses. If things don’t turn around fast enough, owners are quick to fire coaches and look to a new regime to usher in the improvement they are looking for. But how do fans feel about this carousel of change?

SportsBettingDime.com decided to dig into the topic and compare results across sports. We surveyed NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL fans to find out how much responsibility for a team’s success or failure fans put on coaches. How many wins does a coach need before they should be in the hot seat? We also analyzed data on coaching tenure to see how it correlated to win percentage. Is there a benefit for teams that stick with coaches for longer? Read on to see our findings.

Tenure Across Sports


Despite the coining of the infamous term “Black Monday,” coaches in the NFL actually averaged the longest tenure of any of the sports we analyzed. It was also the only sport to have an average tenure of over four years. Considering that the NBA had the shortest average tenure, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there are nine new coaches in the NBA for the 2021 season. It remains to be seen how the ongoing pandemic will impact all of these sports this year, but there’s no doubt that it makes the coaching job harder for new and tenured coaches alike. 

The four-year mark also had added significance in our analysis. For each of the sports we looked at, coaches tenured for longer than four years had a higher win percentage than coaches tenured for under four years. The NFL actually had the biggest increase in win percentage, jumping from a 0.412 to a 0.568 win percentage, a 0.156 increase. Additionally, after the four-year mark, each of the sports we analyzed went from under a .500 win percentage to above it. That’s the difference between a winning and a losing season. 

There is a chicken or the egg component to these numbers. One might argue that coaches who are tenured longer than four years have proven themselves to be good coaches and that’s why they have an above .500 win percentage. Conversely, it could also be argued that giving coaches more time gives them the opportunity to implement their strategy and to work with front offices to acquire the right players with the necessary skill sets to execute their vision. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, there is evidence that, at least in the NFL, teams are hiring and firing coaches more quickly. That puts a lot of pressure on new coaches to prove themselves … fast.

NFL Coaches by the Numbers

Highlights

  • 65.7% of NFL fans believe Bill Belichick is the best NFL head coach right now, while the numbers show Matt LaFleur is the winningest active head coach.

  • Bill Parcells has had the most head coaching tenures (4) since 1990 out of all NFL head coaches in that time frame.




 

Based on the survey results, it looks like fans agreed that the majority of the responsibility for a team’s success or failure rests on the head coach’s shoulders. Fans say that coaches are 55.5% responsible, on average, for their team’s success. Fans also believed that a record consisting of 10 wins reflected a successful season. This is significant because in most cases, 10 wins is good enough to make the NFL playoffs, especially with the recent playoff expansion. Following the 2020 season, the Chicago Bears made the playoffs as a wild-card team with just eight wins

Fans also ranked the top qualities of NFL head coaches. Player development was ranked as most important, followed by football IQ and innovation. Given these attributes, it should come as no surprise that Bill Belichick was ranked as the best head coach in the NFL. The “Patriot Way” has become so well known it is now taught to Harvard MBAs.

When looking at the correlation between the number of coaches since 1990 and the overall win percentage of a team, there’s no question that Cleveland fans have been put through a tremendous amount of turmoil and loss. Their 0.345 win percentage since 1990 is the lowest of any team, and their 15 coaches represent the highest number for any team. That said, things might finally be looking up on the Southern shores of Lake Erie. In 2020, the Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002, ending the longest playoff drought in the NFL. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are tied for the fewest head coaches since 1990 with three apiece. Both teams also boast win percentages above 0.56, an impressive mark well above the league average.

When it comes to winningest active head coaches in the NFL, the new guys on the block are dominating the top spots. With the exception of the legendary Bill Belichick, each of the top four active coaches by win percentage have been with their current teams for less than five years. Sean McVay, ranked fourth, is actually the longest tenured of these new coaches having been hired in 2017. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur is off to a blistering start to his career, guiding the Packers to back-to-back NFC championship game appearances. However, despite the fact that LaFleur currently ranks first in win percentage, he’s taken heat for the Packers failing to advance to the big game two years in a row. For historic NFL franchises like the Packers, the standard truly is the Big Game or bust, especially with Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback.

Among retired head coaches, Tony Dungy has the highest win percentage, a staggering 0.668. He’s followed by the legendary Don Shula. However, despite the fact that Don Shula has the second-highest win percentage of all time among retired coaches since 1990, he is the only one in the top five without a championship. This list is also certain to shake up when walking Hall of Famers like Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, and Mike Tomlin eventually decide to call it a day. 

Tracking NBA Coaches

Highlights

  • 53% of NFL fans believe Gregg Popovich is the best NBA head coach right now, while the numbers show Steve Kerr is the winningest active head coach.

  • Larry Brown has had the most head coaching tenures (7) since 1990 out of all NBA head coaches in that time frame.




 

The NBA is a star-driven league, and with that in mind, it makes sense that fans attribute just 51% of a team’s success to the head coach, the lowest percentage for any sport except MLB. However, that’s still the small majority of a team’s success, so while your team needs a superstar or two to hoist the NBA Finals trophy, ultimately the buck still stops with the head coach. When it comes to coaching attributes ranked by fans, basketball IQ actually ranked as the most important, followed by communication. The NBA was the only sport where player development was not the most important coaching attribute.

When it comes to NBA head coach tenure, the Utah Jazz have had the fewest head coaches since 1990 and boast a win percentage of 0.595, the second-highest in the NBA during that time frame. Unfortunately, despite that success, the Jazz have never won an NBA title. They made the finals in back-to-back seasons in the late ’90s, but were ultimately vanquished by Michael Jordan’s Bulls. 

The team with the most head coaches since 1990 is the New York Knicks. Despite the benefit of playing in the iconic Madison Square Garden, in recent years, the Knicks have been in the news more because of their often embattled owner, James Dolan, than for putting a winning product on the court.

While the fans ranked Gregg Popovich as the best head coach in the NBA, currently he’s second in terms of win percentage behind Steve Kerr at 0.692. NBA fans won’t be shocked to see Kerr at the top of this list, especially considering that the 2018-19 season saw the Golden State Warriors become the first team to reach five consecutive NBA Finals since the Boston Celtics (1959-1966). Unfortunately, their bid at a three-peat was denied by the Toronto Raptors. 

Aside from Kerr and Popovich, Erik Spoelstra is the only coach on this list with multiple NBA championships. Spoelstra’s championship Heat teams were spearheaded by the “Big 3”: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. LeBron James was also on the championship team for Tyronn Lue, ranked fourth on this list.

When it comes to retired head coaches and winning, Phil Jackson sets the standard. He retired with an astonishing 11 championships, far and away the most of any coach in any sport. He’s also the only coach, active or retired, to have a win percentage above 0.700. Surprisingly, he’s the only coach among the top four in terms of win percentage to have won a championship. Assuming Gregg Popovich’s win percentage stays the same or even improves, he would rank as the second-most winning coach of all time when he eventually retires.

Going Down Swinging

Highlights

  • 39% of MLB fans believe Joe Maddon is the best MLB manager right now, while the numbers show Rocco Baldelli is the winningest active head coach.

  • Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, and Jim Riggleman have had the most head coaching tenures (5) since 1990 out of all MLB managers in that time frame.




 

Despite the fact that MLB managers are the only ones who actually wear their team’s uniform, fans gave them the lowest percentage share of responsibility for a team’s success in any sport. However, the fans were not unreasonable, still attributing 50.8% of a team’s success to the manager. Player development and communication were the top qualities of an MLB manager, each pulling in 45.3% of fans. Innovation rounded out the top five with 26%. It’s also worth noting that there was less consensus among baseball fans as to who the top managers are in the game today. Joe Maddon of the Los Angeles Angels led the way with just 39% of the vote. The leading coach in every other sport had at least 44% of the vote.

Since 1990, the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins have had the most managers with 15 apiece. While each team has a record of under 0.500 during that time frame, recent history has been kinder to the Cubs. Back in 2016, they won their first World Series in over 100 years, breaking one of the most infamous curses in all of sports. No doubt the fact that Joe Maddon was the manager for the special season plays into why MLB fans currently viewed him as the best in the league. 

Another team of note during this period is the Minnesota Twins. They’ve had the fewest managers since 1990 with just three, however, their win percentage is a measly 0.478, putting them in the bottom half of the league. Considering that the team with the next fewest managers, the Atlanta Braves (4), has a winning record of 0.555, Minnesota fans would be well within their rights to expect more from the franchise, historically speaking.

While their record since 1990 is far from stellar, Minnesota Twins fans should be more focused on the present – their manager, Rocco Baldelli, leads the MLB in current win percentage. After shepherding the team to back-to-back division titles in 2019 and 2020, Baldelli will ultimately be judged on the Twins’ postseason performance. Currently, they have lost an astounding 18 playoff games in a row, a confounding streak that defies statistical explanation.

Another name that stands out on this list is Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi. Despite boasting a top-10 win percentage at 0.552 and winning a World Series championship with the Yankees, Girardi was fired from New York after the 2017 season. Sports can be a cutthroat business, and this is especially true in New York City, managing the second-most valuable sports franchise on the planet. While current Yankee manager Aaron Boone is off to a hot start with the second-best win percentage in the sport, pressure is mounting for the Yankees to make it back to the World Series. 

MLB traditionally has a 162-game season, which is by far the most of any sport analyzed. Even keeping that in mind, it’s still staggering to see that three of the most winning coaches of all time – Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Mike Scioscia – have each lost over 1,300 games. For context, Phil Jackson only lost 485 times, and Bill Belichick has only lost 136 games. Joe Torre is the only retired coach with a top-10 all-time win percentage to have won multiple World Series championships.

Tenure on the Ice

Highlights

  • 44% of NHL fans believe Barry Trotz is the best NHL head coach presently, while the numbers show Jon Cooper is the winningest active head coach.

  • Mike Keenan has had the most head coaching tenures (7) since 1990 out of all NHL head coaches in that time frame.




 

NHL fans attributed 57% of a team’s success to the head coach, which is the highest of any sport. With all that an NHL coach has to juggle, from deciding on the starting lineup to line changes to whether to pull the goalie, their average tenure of 3.5 years suggests that owners are also quick to hold coaches accountable for unsatisfactory results. Similar to other sports, player development and communication ranked as the two most important qualities for a head coach. With 44% of the fan vote, Barry Trotz was the fan choice for the best coach in the NHL.

Since 1990, the Calgary Flames have had the most head coaches of any NHL team. Similar to the trend in other sports, they also boast one of the lowest win percentages during that time frame at 0.44. The Vegas Golden Knights have only had two coaches, but considering they’re an expansion team that started in 2017, it’s far too small of a sample size to draw conclusions from, especially compared to the other teams. The Golden Knights are tied with the Winnipeg Jets for the fewest coaches, but the Jets are also a relatively new team. The Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to become the Jets back in 2011

Among NHL coaches that rank in the top 10 by win percentage, only two, Joel Quenneville and Mike Sullivan, have won multiple Stanley Cups. Joel Quenneville has the most career wins of any coach on the list with 945. He also has the most losses with 716. Jon Cooper, the current winningest coach in the NHL, is the only coach ranked in the top four who has won a Stanley Cup. 

Scotty Bowman ranks as the winningest coach in NHL history and also has more Stanley Cups than any other coach. Bruce Boudreau and Dan Bylsma rank second and third in terms of win percentage, boasting rates of 0.576 and 0.566, respectively. Interestingly, Gerard Gallant cracks the top 10 despite having a win percentage of just under 0.500. His precarious perch inside the top 10 will end as soon as some of the current winning coaches decide to retire.

Time to Stop Turning the Tables?

Regardless of the sport, the teams that have endured the most head coaching changes also have some of the worst win percentages. We also see a negative correlation between turnover and win percentage that, while present in all sports, is particularly noteworthy when it comes to the NFL and the NBA. 

Fans are quick to give credit to coaches, attributing at least 50% of a team’s success to the head coach, regardless of the sport. With that said, most consider a successful season for their team to be enough wins to qualify for the playoffs. While it might seem demanding, it’s far from unreasonable. After all, only one team can walk away with the trophy after the season. All any reasonable fan wants year-in and year-out is a chance to root for their team in meaningful games come playoff time. Given the increase in win percentage across all sports after the four-year mark, owners might be better served to give their new coaches time to implement their strategies rather than firing them at the first sign of trouble. 

While your team’s owner will ultimately decide whether to keep the current head coach or search for a new hotshot candidate, SportsBettingDime.com keeps you up-to-date. SBD has been connecting people with first-rate online sports betting sites for almost a decade. Whether it’s the latest news or the most recent odds, we get you the information you need when you need it, so whatever’s going on, you can take full advantage of it. 

Methodology and Limitations

We collected coaching data from www.sports-reference.com for coaches who were active in 1990 or later. Each of the coaches’ seasons was merged (by coach name and team) to create data points for each individual coach tenure. As a result, each coach had one data point for each of their coaching tenures. If a coach’s tenure began prior to 1990 but extended into 1990 or beyond, the entire tenure’s statistics were sustained.

No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only. Coaching data was collected between March 9th, 2021 and March 26th, 2021.

For the public perception portions of this study, we surveyed 300 fans per sport in four individual surveys. For the NFL survey, 70% of respondents were men, 29.3% were women, and 0.7% identified as nonbinary. The average age of these respondents was 37.5. For the NBA survey, 76% of the respondents were men, and 24% were women. The average age of these respondents was 36.8. For the MLB survey, 69.3% of respondents were men, and 30.7% were women. The average age of these respondents was 37.9. For the NHL survey, 66.7% of respondents were men, and 33.3% were women. The average age of these respondents was 35.1. 

The main limitation of this portion of the study is the reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping.

Fair Use Statement

We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading through the connections between coaching tenure, wins and losses, and what the fans think. Please feel free to share this study for noncommercial use; all we ask is that you link back to the full study so that people can see exactly what we did and how we did it.

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