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Forecasting Kingsbury: What previous similar hires can tell us about our new coach’s prospects

There have been a number of college coaches and coaches under 40 hired in the NFL since 2000. Can we learn anything about Kliff Kingsbury’s prospects after looking back at these similar coaching hires?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech
The arrow is pointing up for the Cardinals after hiring Kliff Kingsbury.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Just eight days after firing Steve Wilks, the Arizona Cardinals have a new coach—and they didn’t have to settle for a name way down their list like in years past. In swiftly hiring Kliff Kingsbury, the Redbirds made the kind of bold, splashy move that hasn’t really been part of their repertoire before. Kingsbury was easily the most exciting name on the market, and his hiring should go a long way toward rejuvenating a fanbase frustrated after suffering through the franchise’s worst season in almost two decades.

But the hire doesn’t come without risks. At 39, Kingsbury becomes (at the moment) the third-youngest head coach in the league (after divisional rival Sean McVay and new Packers hire Matt LaFleur). Even more concerning, he doesn’t have any NFL coaching experience, having spent 10 years in the college ranks—and he has a losing record as a college head coach, going 35-40 (.467) in five seasons at Texas Tech.

This is a high-risk, high-reward hire—it could either blow up in the faces of Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill or make them look like geniuses.

There is obviously no way to know how this move will work out. But can we learn anything by analyzing how previous similar hires worked out? In order to find out, I took a look at all head coaching hires since the 2000 season where the coaching hire either 1) came straight from the college ranks to the NFL (without regard to previous NFL experience, if any), or 2) was under 40 years old at the time of their hire.

What can these previous coaching hires tell us about Kingsbury’s chances of success with the Cardinals? Let’s find out.

A Look at Previous Hires from the College Ranks

College Coaches in the NFL (since 2000)

Name Year Team’s Previous W/L Record First-Year W/L Record 1st Season Win Differential 1st Playoff Appearance Seasons until Playoffs Overall Winning Percentage Length of Tenure (seasons)*
Name Year Team’s Previous W/L Record First-Year W/L Record 1st Season Win Differential 1st Playoff Appearance Seasons until Playoffs Overall Winning Percentage Length of Tenure (seasons)*
Butch Davis 2001 3-13 7-9 4 2002 2 0.407 3.5
Steve Spurrier 2002 8-8 7-9 -1 N/A N/A 0.375 2
Nick Saban 2005 4-12 9-7 5 N/A N/A 0.469 2
Lane Kiffin 2007 2-14 4-12 2 N/A N/A 0.25 1.5
Bobby Petrino 2007 7-9 3-10 -4 N/A N/A 0.231 0.5
Jim Harbaugh 2011 6-10 13-3 7 2011 1 0.69 4
Greg Schiano 2012 4-12 7-9 3 N/A N/A 0.344 2
Doug Marrone 2013 6-10 6-10 0 N/A N/A 0.469 2
Chip Kelly 2013 4-12 10-6 6 2013 1 0.553 2.5
Bill O'Brien 2014 2-14 9-7 7 2015 1 0.525 5+
Average 5-11 8-8 3 0.431 2.5
* Coaches who were fired during a season get credit for .5 of a season.

There are a few interesting points we can glean from the chart above:

  • The ten coaches on this list improved upon their team’s record the previous season by an average of three wins. If we get the same kind of performance from Kingsbury, we can expect the Cardinals to go 6-10 in 2019. That could be tough, but it’s not unreasonable.
  • Four of the ten coaches (40%) took their teams to the playoffs within two seasons, including the two most recent college coach hires. The other six did not make it to the playoffs at all during their tenure. Can Kingsbury lead the Redbirds back to the postseason by 2020? If not, he might not have a very long tenure (going by the numbers in this chart).
  • These coaches were collectively below .500, winning only 43% of their games during their tenure. The 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh, who won nearly 70% of his games and coached in a Super Bowl, was the only success—and he was gone after four seasons. Chip Kelly was above .500 as an NFL coach but is already back in the college ranks. Bill O’Brien has achieved moderate success in Houston. Every other coach was below .500, including national championship winners Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban.
  • The average tenure of these coaches is only 2.5 seasons, which is below the median tenure of 3 seasons as of the 2016 season. The only coach to last beyond 4 seasons is O’Brien, who just completed his fifth season with the Texans. He has three AFC North division titles in that span but is just 1-3 in the playoffs.

So what can we glean from these numbers overall? It seems that college coaches are somewhat successful in their first season but quickly flame out. There hasn’t really been a true, long-lasting success story in the timeframe we’re looking at here. Harbaugh was the closest, but a strained relationship with the front office in San Francisco sent him back to the college ranks after just four seasons. O’Brien has a chance to buoy these numbers somewhat, but the Texans would need to take a leap to true contender status next season.

So let’s hope Kingsbury doesn’t follow the career path outlined here. Perhaps we can find some reason for optimism by looking at how the under-40 coaches have performed.

A Look at Previous Hires under 40 Years Old

Coaches Under 40 in the NFL (since 2000)

Name Year Team’s Previous W/L Record First-Year W/L Record 1st Season Win Differential 1st Playoff Appearance Seasons until Playoffs Overall Winning Percentage Length of Tenure (seasons)*
Name Year Team’s Previous W/L Record First-Year W/L Record 1st Season Win Differential 1st Playoff Appearance Seasons until Playoffs Overall Winning Percentage Length of Tenure (seasons)*
Marty Mornhinweg 2001 9-7 2-14 -7 N/A N/A 0.156 2
Jack Del Rio 2003 6-10 5-11 -1 2005 3 0.489 9
Eric Mangini 2006 4-12 10-6 6 2006 1 0.479 3
Lane Kiffin 2007 2-14 4-12 2 N/A N/A 0.25 1.5
Mike Tomlin 2007 8-8 10-6 2 2007 1 0.659 12
Raheem Morris 2009 9-7 3-13 -6 N/A N/A 0.354 3
Josh McDaniels 2009 8-8 8-8 0 N/A N/A 0.393 1.5
Dennis Allen 2012 8-8 4-12 -4 N/A N/A 0.222 2.5
Adam Gase 2016 6-10 10-6 4 2016 1 0.479 3
Ben McAdoo 2016 6-10 11-5 5 2016 1 0.464 1.5
Sean McVay 2017 4-12 11-5 7 2017 1 0.75 2
Kyle Shanahan 2017 2-14 6-10 4 N/A N/A 0.313 2
Matt Nagy 2018 5-11 12-4 7 2018 1 0.75 1
Average 6-10 7-9 1 0.443 3.4
* Coaches who were fired during a season get credit for .5 of a season.

Here’s what we can take away from the numbers above:

  • The 13 coaches on this list improved upon their team’s record the previous season by an average of just one win. However, that number balloons to nearly four wins if you take obvious flops Marty Mornhinweg, Lane Kiffin, Raheem Morris, and Dennis Allen out of the equation. Could Kingsbury flop as badly as them? Well, he’d have to do worse than 3-13, which would be almost impossible. (But you never know after 2018.) If he doesn’t, could a 7-9 season be in the making? History shows that it’s possible.
  • Seven of the 13 coaches (54%) took their teams to the playoffs within three seasons—and four out of the last five made the postseason in their first season. No one is expecting that from Kingsbury in 2019, but it is an interesting trend. That these coaches have had reasonable postseason success bodes well for Kingsbury. Can he have the Redbirds playing in January by 2021?
  • These coaches were also collectively below .500, although they were marginally better than the college coaches (.443 versus .431). However, Mike Tomlin’s .659 record over 12 seasons is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, not to mention the phenomenal early successes of Sean McVay and Matt Nagy (.750 combined). They are balanced out by the truly putrid records of Mornhinweg, Allen, and Kiffin (.209 combined).
  • The average tenure of these coaches is 3.4 seasons, which is above that median of 3 seasons. But a closer look at the numbers reveals only two coaches lasted longer than 3 seasons—Jack Del Rio (9 seasons) and Tomlin (12 seasons and counting). The tenures of those two are propping up this figure—the average tenure is just a shade over 2 seasons not counting them. That said, I think it’s safe to say that McVay will make it past year 3, and while it’s early, Nagy is a good bet as well. Shanahan’s not on the hot seat right now, but who knows what might happen if the 49ers are well under .500 again in 2019.

From these numbers, we can see that there is a lot of variance with younger head coaching hires. Guys like Mornhinweg, Kiffin, Morris, and Allen were complete disasters. Coaches like Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase, and Ben McAdoo experienced varying degrees of early success but couldn’t make it last. You have Del Rio and, especially, Tomlin as the success stories. Then you have the new crop of McVay, Shanahan, and Nagy, who have all quickly made their mark on the league and who could boost the numbers of this group of coaches in the next few years.

This is quite an eclectic group, but as long as Kingsbury isn’t a catastrophic failure, there is reason for optimism—young coaches like him have been responsible for quick turnarounds, early playoff appearances, and even Super Bowl rings. Cardinals fans should be cautiously excited about their new coach.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of this exercise isn’t really to compare these two categories of coaching hires, as Kingsbury fits into both—he’s a young coach making the leap from the college ranks to the NFL. But these two categories provide two rough career paths he might follow.

So will Kliff Kingsbury fare like most college coaches who make the leap and largely fail to make an impact before being fired within 3-4 seasons? Or does he have a chance to emulate the success of other young head coaching hires like Mike Tomlin, Sean McVay, and Matt Nagy? (Keeping in mind there is an equal chance he’s a flop.)

To figure it out, there’s one more number to factor into the equation: 47. That is the average age of the college coaches in the first chart above when they were hired. That’s well over the cutoff of 40 years for the coaches in the second chart and Kingsbury’s actual age of 39. Most of the previous coaches who made the leap to the NFL were veteran college coaches—veterans who were perhaps too used to the college game and too set in their ways to truly succeed in the NFL.

Kingsbury profiles closer to the younger coaches in the second chart, so his career path will likely hew closer to the types of coaches we discussed above—bust, early but unsustainable success, or true success story. Let’s just hope the current trend of young coaching hires quickly turning things around holds true for Kingsbury and that we have the next Sean McVay on our hands... and not the next Lane Kiffin.