College football fans, be warned: The chance that your favorite team’s hotshot new coach will actually succeed is less than one-in-three.
That’s according to detailed research from Jon Wefald, the former Kansas State University president, who recently produced a 22-page deep dive on the subject. He looked at a series of coaching hires at 13 Power 5 schools, starting as early as the 1930s, and figured out that 30% of those coaches ended their tenure with a winning record. He named that ratio for himself: “The Wefald Rule.”
It’s obviously of particular interest in Manhattan at the moment, with Chris Klieman five games into his K-State tenure. Wefald has generally said Klieman seemed like a good fit at K-State, and so far the coach is ahead of the curve, entering Saturday’s game against TCU at 3-2. But there’s no guarantee the Wildcats will end the season above .500. Or, that whenever Klieman’s tenure concludes in the future, that he’ll leave with a winning record.
It’s a testament to how difficult it is to find the right coach at the right time for any Power 5 football program.
“This rule means simply that the chances for the great majority of Power 5 schools over many years that were able to hire the right coach is ... about 30% — or less,” Wefald wrote.
What compelled Wefald to put in the painstaking hours of research necessary to write such a detailed piece was borne out of frustration. He simply got tired of hearing the same question from K-State fans over and over.
How could you have hired Ron Prince?
Wefald, who was K-State’s president from 1986 to 2009, served in that position both times Bill Snyder was hired as head coach, immediately preceding and following Prince.
“We had real success with Bill, like 1997 to 2003,” Wefald told The Mercury. "We won 11 games in six out of seven years. Any of those teams could have played with the best teams in the country. That’s the kind of personnel that we had. But even as recently as last year, I might run into somebody who would say, ‘Hey, how could you make a mistake like hiring Ron Prince?’”
After finally saying he’d heard that question enough, Wefald went to work. The first school that came to mind, for him, was Minnesota. A native of the state — he now resides there full-time, as he’s selling his home in Manhattan — he recalled how truly golden the Golden Gophers once were. They won three consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1936. They won two more in 1940 and 1941, all under the leadership of legendary head coach Bernie Bierman. His successor, Murray Warmath, captured a national title of his own in 1960. Warmath’s final season was in 1971, ending with an overall record of 87-78-7.
Since that time, only one Minnesota head coach, Glenn Mason, has departed with an above-.500 record. (This doesn’t account for the Golden Gophers’ current head coach, P.J. Fleck, who is 6-0 this season and 18-13 in the middle of his third year at the helm.)
Following Wefald’s deep dive into Minnesota’s program, and the knowledge he already had of K-State’s history prior to Snyder, he went on to do the same for 11 other Power 5 schools. The list ranges from historic blue bloods like Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Alabama to schools that have notoriously struggled in football — especially compared to their prestigious basketball programs — in Indiana, Kentucky and Kansas.
Wefald has a theory for why those three have struggled so mightily on the gridiron compared to the hard court.
“In general, I would suggest that they either spent less time or money and far less checking and analysis looking for a new football coach compared to hiring a basketball coach,” Wefald wrote. “Of course, let us face it: hiring the right basketball coach is easier because when you scout for a new coach, you are watching that coach and his top seven to eight players. I know in football, any great team needs close to 50 scholarship players who are in the rotation.
“In short, it probably is harder to judge football coaches because they have over 85 scholarship players. In basketball, if you have two great players, you can win the conference championship. If you have three great players, you can make it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.”
At the time of Prince’s hire, Wefald felt the search committee hadn’t made those types of judgment errors.
“When Bill retired and we hired Ron Prince, I had two or three guys who went to Virginia, where he was the offensive coordinator, and nobody said he had a temper or wasn’t easy to get along with,” Wefald said. “He had a book that showed, ‘Here are the coaches I’m going to hire.’ But it just turned out that it was a mistake. He couldn’t win friends and influence people. He irritated all of Bill’s former players. The fans just found him to be impossible to talk with, and then he started firing coaches. He just did some weird things. So after two and a half years, we let him go, and of course, we brought Bill back in 2009.”
Wefald concluded his paper with a list of recommendations for how schools could find — maybe not their Snyder; Hall of Fame coaches don’t grow on trees — a coach who wins at a rate that satisfies both the fan base and his superiors.
Wefald’s recommendations include ensuring the president/chancellor of a university is “centrally involved” in the search for a new football coach to asking famous alums and the president of the school’s faculty to be part of the committee — “and the school’s AD might even want to add a well-known shaman who might bring good fortune to the committee’s task of finding a good new coach,” Wefald wrote. Other recommendations are fairly straightforward, too.
One was that every member of the search should “carefully review the entire record of every candidate” to find out how they treat assistant coaches and players as well as their willingness to attend the various alumni-related events that are a staple of the spring in college football. Finally, the person Wefald calls the “university CEO” as well as the athletics director should be in agreement on the final decision.
The two recommendations that aren’t standard fare deal with topics that have nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Wefald wrote that schools should place more of an emphasis on a coach’s mental makeup, suggesting that some schools should require the final candidates to take a psychological profile, perhaps similar to the ones NFL teams administer to college players entering the draft.
“There is a good chance that some candidates might be eliminated just by taking the test,” Wefald wrote. “It would be at least another test that the coaching applicant would take to determine especially if that coach would be the right fit at that school.”
In addition, Wefald felt it important for schools to include a sports psychologist on the search committee, paying special mind to the coach’s letter of recommendation. Wefald further stressed that the psychologist should have at least a half-hour to interview every finalist.
“The sports psychologists should focus in on the candidate’s personality,” Wefald wrote, “because, as we all know, coaches that win many games and are open, accessible, and treat people with respect — and have a good sense of humor — all of this will unquestionably help that coach not only win games, but its fans as well.”