Coaching and Luck 2004-12

The Final Four will feature two coaching greats in Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino along with two well-respected head coaches in Gregg Marshall and John Beilein, but who is the luckiest?

Expanding on some earlier numbers I collected around the past four seasons, I added three more seasons of luck data to coaches to try and figure out if some are luckier than others (and attempt to explain why). While I can’t prove it, I think that in-game coaching aptitude does have a lot to do with a coach’s luck over multiple seasons in a BCS conference.

Who does this benefit in the Final Four? Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange.

I had a two-pronged selection criteria for this study: Coaches had to have coached at least five seasons total between 2004-2012 and they also had to have coached at least four seasons at a BCS conference school. There were 68 coaches that met both criteria. The highest average luck? Former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. The lowest? Former USC head coach Kevin O’Neill.

In between is a who’s who of college basketball coaching greats. In fact, the top 10 is a pretty impressive list.

  1. Bruce Pearl
  2. Bill Self
  3. Mike Kryzweski
  4. Trent Johnson
  5. Tom Izzo
  6. Fred Hill
  7. Thad Matta
  8. Jim Boeheim
  9. Roy Williams
  10. Mick Cronin

There are a few odd names in that list – Johnson and Hill don’t quite fit in – but the rest are highly respected for their X-and-O’s coaching acumen amongst pundits. After Matta, Coach K, Self and Izzo bowed out this past weekend only Boeheim is left standing.

In case you’re curious, Pitino ranks 45th on the list right above Buzz Williams (who would move up considerably if 2013 numbers were included), Beilein is 36th. Marshall – who has been the head coach at Wichita St. in the Missouri Valley Conference and Winthrop during this time – doesn’t qualify obviously, but his average luck would rank him right around Pitino.

Do I think this means anything for this weekend? Not particularly. I can’t find anything that suggests that coaching luck is hugely predictive (maybe 30% or so of a team’s luck in one season could be related to its coach according to some of the initial work I’ve done), but I do find the tails fascinating. For instance, here are the bottom 10 coaches in terms of luck using the same criteria.

  1. Kevin O’Neill
  2. Paul Hewitt
  3. Seth Greenberg
  4. Frank Haith
  5. Bruce Weber
  6. Oliver Purnell
  7. Tom Crean
  8. Jim Boylen
  9. Johnny Dawkins
  10. Gary Williams

O’Neill, Weber, Purnell, Dawkins and former DePaul head coach Jerry Wainwright are the only head coaches meeting the criteria to never have a season of positive luck during this time period. (I guess that says something about the DePaul program too.) On the flip side, no head coach has avoided having negative luck during the study (the average it should be noted is actually -0.018).

What does this all work out to? Well on average the difference between having Bruce Pearl as your head coach instead of Kevin O’Neill would work out to about three wins per season. (Now you know why Greenberg was on the bubble all the time.)

I’m still not convinced you can win games and be “lucky” thanks to in-game coaching skill, but I’m pretty darn sure you can lose them. Think about it the next time your favorite team blows a big game.


A. Other interesting rankings out of 68:

  • Ben Howland – 14
  • Jay Wright – 19
  • Bill Carmody – 31
  • Tubby Smith – 32
  • Mark Gottfried – 33
  • John Thompson III – 38
  • Rick Barnes – 42
  • Buzz Williams – 46
  • Bob Huggins – 48
  • Scott Drew – 51
  • Billy Donovan – 52

B. Only two coaches in all of college basketball have coached more than four seasons during this time period without having at least one negative luck season: Rob Jeter of Milwaukee and Derek Waugh, the former head coach of Stetson University. Jeter’s streak will end once 2013 data is taken into account, as the Panthers finished with negative luck this season.

Tom Penders (Houston), Anthony Grant (formerly of VCU now at Alabama) and Saul Phillips (North Dakota State) are the only other coaches without a positive luck season in the study. Grant will get off the list this season, but Phillips’ NDSU team finished with negative luck during a 24-10 campaign in 2012-13.

The only major conference coach leaving the list of negative luck for the entire study is Weber (KSU ranked 51st in luck in 2013). Stanford (Dawkins), DePaul (Purnell) and Southern Cal (partly O’Neill) were once again amongst the “unluckiest” teams in college basketball this season.

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