Recency Bias is Controlling Athletic Departments… And It’s Not Good for Coaches
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The date was December 11th, 2020. Fresh off back-to-back 10 win seasons and New Year’s Six Bowl victories, Dan Mullen’s tenure at Florida couldn’t be going any smoother. Ranked 6th in the country and in control of their own destiny to reach the College Football Playoff for the first time since its formation in 2014, Mullen was viewed as one of the premier coaches in the SEC.
Meanwhile, after a collection of 10 win seasons in his first few years in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines had played their last game in an abysmal 2-4 abbreviated Big Ten season. After failing to beat Ohio State in each of his first 5 attempts, people wondered if Jim Harbaugh could ever get Michigan over the hump to win big time games and into CFP contention.
In the offseason entering this season, both coaches received adjustments to their contracts, but not in the same fashion. Despite struggling down the stretch and finishing 8-4 after a competitive loss to the eventual National Champion Alabama, Mullen was rewarded with a three-year contract extension through the 2026 season that raised his annual salary to $7.6 million a year. The thought was he had the Gators in position to challenge perennial powers Alabama and Georgia for the foreseeable future.
Following Michigan’s underwhelming 2020 season and the perceived distance their rival in Columbus was creating between them, there was a thought that Michigan would fire Jim Harbaugh. However, the Wolverines administration decided to stick with their coach, but not without stipulations. Harbaugh’s guaranteed salary was cut in half, which is something you rarely see happen. Coming into 2021, one coach was on the hot seat, and it definitely wasn’t Dan Mullen.
Fast forward to where we are today. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines finally got over the Ohio State hurdle to win the Big Ten East. They’ll play this week for a spot in the Playoff despite a preseason betting win total of 7.5. Dan Mullen, less than six months after signing a contract extension, is out of a job. While there certainly were issues pertaining to recruiting and obviously performance on the field, Mullen went an impressive 34-15 in his four years in Gainesville.
Mullen wasn’t the only coach to be fired by their respective school this coaching cycle on a whim. Less than two years after winning a national championship, LSU’s Ed Orgeron was fired. Before even coaching his 14th game at Washington, Jimmy Lake was let go after going 7-6. In his third year at Texas Tech, Matt Wells was fired despite a 5-3 record at a program that had only finished above .500 once in the previous seven seasons. While there were certainly unique variables that played a role in each of these changes, it’s clear that recency bias and external influences are having a major impact in a university’s decision making process.
With all the financial advantages boosters can provide to an athletic department, they might come with expectations for some form of influence on crucial decisions including who is leading their program. In some cases, this has led to university officials and athletic directors losing firm control over the hiring/firing process. It isn’t rare to see coaching searches drag on because of a power struggle between prominent boosters. And when a coach fails to have success soon after getting hired, the amount of patience certain individuals have is lessening year by year.
However, if Michigan had the same quick trigger that Florida had with Dan Mullen, would the Wolverines be in the Big Ten Championship this week? In the same vein, if Notre Dame would’ve fired Brian Kelly after the Irish’s 4-8 season in 2016, would they have made two CFP’s and be in contention for another one this year? Whether it’s firing a coach too early in their tenure or terminating them after one down year, recency bias is more prevalent than ever before in college sports. Coaches need time to bring in their recruiting classes to fit their program. Additionally, teams have bad seasons, it’s part of sports. A couple of bounces here and there can turn a 9-win season into a 6-win season. While nothing can be certain, who’s to say that Florida couldn’t bounce back next season just like Michigan did this year?
An interesting test case to watch will be Nebraska’s faith in Scott Frost. Unlike Mullen, Frost hasn’t had success in his current job. However, Nebraska is giving him another chance at a reduced salary. Although they went 1-8 in Big Ten play, Nebraska was not outscored in terms of cumulative point differential. If Nebraska improves next year, I think schools across the country should really question if caving to recency bias is really worth it. We’re up to $62 million in total buyout money spent by public schools this year, which is just not a good look for college sports. On the flip side, coaches need strong language in their contracts to protect against this ongoing trend.
Brendan Bell is currently a Junior at Auburn University majoring in Finance with aspirations to attend law school. He is passionate about the business of college athletics and would love to obtain a career in the industry some day. You can follow Brendan on Twitter @_bbell5