The Tricky Economics of Firing a Football Coach

The recent firings of prominent college head football coaches, particularly Derek Dooley of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has drawn news-media scrutiny of the practice this week, along with attention to a study, published in the October issue of Social Science Quarterly, that questions the wisdom of such cannings.

As a New York Times article noted, firing coaches in the middle of increasingly lucrative contracts can cost universities big money. The University of Tennessee must pay Mr. Dooley $5-million to buy out the four years remaining on his coaching contract; the institution could owe an additional $4-million to buy out his staff. The decision to fire Mr. Dooley has led UT’s athletic department to cancel $18-million in planned donations to the university’s academic programs over the next three years.

Administrators make these decisions ostensibly because coaches don’t win games, not least because of the big money that a winning football program can bring in. But the Social Science Quarterly study found that while losing football teams may improve their records after they hire a new coach, drastic improvement is rare. Teams that win about half of their games, by contrast, may lose more games after a new head coach arrives, compared with teams with similar records that don’t make a change.

In other words, when a coach like Jon Embree says he “needed more time” to turn a team around, he may be right. Mr. Embree was fired recently as head coach at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he had one year left on a contract paying him $742,000 annually. (The Buffaloes’ record was 4-21 during two seasons under Mr. Embree, so maybe the administrators were right.) The Denver Post reports that the next football coach at Boulder could make as much as $2.5-million a year, the sort of salary being used to lure top candidates these days. Thus if the next coach doesn’t satisfy administrators, they could wind up paying even more to get rid of him.

As the Post’s Field House blog observed, Boulder officials might have had reason to think twice before pulling the trigger: E. Scott Adler, the study’s lead author, is a political-science professor at the university.

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