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# The year-two effect: Evidence and antecedents for second season success in NCAA division I football

#### Abstract

In recent years, it has become common for media members and other college football affiliates to associate a program’s turnaround with the Year-Two Effect, a phenomenon whereby an NCAA Division I football program is expected to make large improvements during a head coach’s second season in charge. However, like many of the mass media’s sport truisms, this phenomenon has gone untested and unexplored in the broader realm of empirical literature. Given the big business that is modern day college football, where revenues have reached the billions of dollars, and tens of millions are being spent on coaching salaries, bonuses, contract extensions, and buyouts, further examinations into the Year-Two Effect, its causes, and its implications are warranted from both the analytical and economical perspectives. Using two-way fixed effects panel regression models to analyze 11 seasons (2007-17) of data for 114 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs, this study found support for the Year-Two Effect’s existence, particularly in situations where coaches were replacing a prior coach that had been fired for on-field performance reasons. In addition, teams also tended to significantly improve their recruiting rankings and commit fewer turnovers during a head coach’s second season at the helm.

## 1Introduction

During the 2017 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I football season, the University of Georgia’s second-year head coach, Kirby Smart, led the Bulldogs to a 13-2 record, a Southeastern Conference (SEC) title, a Rose Bowl victory over No. 2 Oklahoma, and the program’s first appearance in a National Championship since 1980. Such achievements were notable because they stood in sharp contrast to Smart’s first season in charge, when his Georgia squad went 4-4 in the SEC and 8-5 overall. Following the quick turnaround, Smart was singled out by members of the media for exemplifying what many in the industry refer to as the Year-Two Effect (Emerson, 2017).

The Year-Two Effect can be defined as the expected improvement by an athletic program during a head coach’s second season at the helm. In addition to Smart, a number of other head football coaches have been associated with this phenomenon over the years, including Bob Stoops at the University of Oklahoma (7-5 to 13-0 across the 1999-00 seasons) and Bill Snyder at Kansas State University (1–10 to 5-6 across the 1989–90 seasons), to Smart’s former mentor, Nick Saban, at the University of Alabama (7-6 to 12-2 across the 2007-08 seasons). Even Smart’s predecessor at Georgia, Mark Richt, enjoyed his best season with the Bulldogs during his second season in charge of the program (8-4 to 13-1 across the 2001-02 seasons).

Like many other clichés that have taken up residence in the mass media’s archive of generalized assumptions, the Year-Two Effect finds itself recycled and repeated nearly any time a second-year Division I football coach manages to find themselves on the positive end of a year-two turnaround. “It [the Year-Two Effect] definitely happens a lot,” notes former college football player and current ESPN analyst David Pollack. “It’s confidence. It’s familiarity with the coach. It’s knowing expectations and rules” (Emerson, 2017, para. 6). But is the Year-Two Effect simply taken at face value because a handful of the sport’s more prominent coaches were able to improve their programs in season two? Does historical and statistical evidence actually support this assumption, or are the media and the public falling victim to an availability heuristic1 of sorts? Furthermore, if the Year-Two Effect is an actual thing, what factors are likely contributing to its existence?

With the NCAA Division I football industry currently responsible for a large portion of the NCAA’s more than $9 billion in annual revenues, and coaching salaries now reaching into the tens of millions of dollars (Fulks, 2016), it is an appropriate time to examine the merits of the Year-Two Effect and whether or not it offers any practical suggestions to college coaches, administrators, fans, and media members moving forward. Seeing as the answers to these questions might yield valuable insights for researchers and key stakeholders in the college football industry, this study set out to investigate whether or not the Year-Two Effect is supported by statistical evidence. From there, it proceeded to examine those factors that may be driving its existence, and how those involved with the year-to-year projections of college football teams can benefit from this knowledge. ## 2Background The context of this study is stationed within intercollegiate athletics, primarily within the NCAA’s Division I member institutions. Division I members are informally classified as Power Five or Group of Five institutions. Power Five institutions include member schools within the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference (SEC), and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The Group of Five includes member schools within Conference USA (C-USA), Mid-American Conference (MAC), Sunbelt Conference, Mountain West Conference (MWC), and American Athletic Conference (AAC). Both classifications fall within the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), college football’s highest level of competition. FBS programs, and Power Five institutions in particular, have recently been on the receiving end of increased revenues and greater autonomy in the NCAA legislation process. For example, the SEC recently paid out over$40 million to each member school based on revenue generated by the SEC Network, tournament ticket sales, and appearances in football bowl games (Kirshner, 2018). This revenue provided to member schools does not include the revenue each school generates on its own campus for home events or fundraising efforts to cover expenses like scholarships and new facilities (Huml, Pifer, Towle, & Rode, 2019). The reaction to this significant increase in revenue potential has seen athletic departments spending more than ever before in an attempt to field more successful teams.

In recent financial reports from the NCAA, median expenses increased for FBS schools from $28.9 million in 2004 to$66.3 million in 2015, an increase of 128% (Fulks, 2016). Football coaching staffs have been some of the largest benefactors of these rising expenses, as the number of positions available and the salaries for coaches and coordinators have risen dramatically. Scholars have recently identified significantly increased salaries and more lucrative contract incentives within coaching contracts (Fogarty, Soebbing, & Agyemang, 2015; Hoffer & Pincin, 2016). Hoffer and Pincin (2016), for example, found that coaching salary increases were outpacing increased expenses connected to student-athletes by more than 750% since 2006.

The tendency to take college football’s rising revenues and apply them to head coaches and their staffs highlights the risk/reward model of college athletics. FBS athletic departments are constantly increasing their expenses in order to maintain or recapture success on the playing field, often with the promise to university leadership of it leading to an increased bottom line. At the forefront of this risk is hiring an expensive head coach in the hopes that they will bring greater success to the program. Therefore, being able to structure contracts and buyout clauses around realistic ideas and expectations for when a program should turn around could prove helpful in this setting. In a similar vein, further knowledge of the potential drivers for rapid success could assist these programs and their coaches in identifying areas of strength and weakness. In these regards, the Year-Two Effect certainly positions itself as a phenomenon in need of further examination for both its relevancy to analytics and the economics of FBS athletic departments.

## 3Literature review

A wide-ranging review of the NCAA football coaching literature found rather limited evidence of the Year-Two Effect being directly examined in academic studies. Rather, there existed just a small collection of popular press articles that had examined this phenomenon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these examinations were more anecdotal in nature and incorporated limited timeframes in their samples. Connelly (2016), for instance, assessed how FBS teams’ ratings from 2011 to 2015—as derived from an analytical model—changed based on the tenure of the head coach. He found that teams with first-year and third-year head coaches dropped in the ratings by an average of –0.2 and –0.1 adjusted points per game, respectively. Second-year coaches, however, tended to improve by 3.0 adjusted points per game. Even so, when average changes in the ratings were held against the light of both coaching tenure and a team’s prior three-year average for those ratings, there appeared to be a pretty clear trend; that is, teams that had suffered from bad performances in the past tended to improve dramatically, regardless of coach year, while those that had been performing at a high level tended to regress before their ratings slightly rebounded in a coach’s second season.

In a separate examination, Hokanson (2008) took more of a case analysis approach, compiling a lengthy list of FBS coaches at reputable programs who had enjoyed second-year success and speculating on the reasons for why they were able to experience these jumps in their second seasons. Among the explanations were the new schemes and attitudes instilled by a fresh staff, and the additive effect they had on the playing talent that had carried over from the previous regime. In addition, the suggestion was made that the second season instills a new level of optimism and confidence in a team as it works harder to improve while getting more of its pieces in place. Nonetheless, while these base-level examinations offered some intriguing food for thought, they were neither subjected to the rigors of peer review nor bolstered by analyses that were capable of revealing significant effects.

In terms of peer-reviewed literature that has examined the potential effects of coaching tenure on performance, there exists a subset of studies that have lent insights to this area. One such study was conducted by Dohrn, Lopez, and Reinhardt (2015) to look at leadership succession in NCAA football and the impact it had on FBS teams’ financial and athletic performances over one, two, and four-season timeframes. Following a series of regression analyses, it was reported that new coaches positively and significantly impacted the on-field performances of teams over these time periods, as determined by absolute increases in Sagarin ratings, Sagarin ranks, and winning percentages. Second-year improvements, however, were not notably better than those occurring in the first and fourth seasons. However, the results yielded additional insights once all of the programs in the overall sample had been bucketed into smaller samples based on football-related revenue. High-revenue programs, for instance, did not experience significant improvements over any time period when hiring a new coach. In low-revenue programs, the effect was the opposite, as new coaches almost always tended to improve the program over the one, two, and four-season timeframes. In the tier of mid-revenue programs, results indicated the potential existence of a second-year effect, as the year-two improvements following a coaching change showed both the strongest levels of significance and the largest effect sizes of the three timeframes and revenue groups in the sample.

Shedding further light on the relationship between coaching tenure and performance was a study by Maxcy (2013) on FBS coaching and recruiting efficiency. This wide-ranging analysis showed that the replacements for retired or fired coaches performed significantly worse on the field during their first seasons in charge, but that the significance of this effect wore off from the second season onward. A subsequent analysis of the effects that performance in prior seasons had on recruiting lent support to the possibility that improved recruiting efforts were at the source of greater success in year two. Indeed, there was a significant drop-off in a program’s recruiting rankings when a new coach was hired to replace a coach who was fired or had moved on, but this effect reversed and showed significant improvements in the second year after a fired coach had been replaced. A more recent study by Huml et al. (2019) provided additional evidence that improved recruiting from a newly hired coach could be at the root of the Year-Two Effect. Looking at the effects that newly renovated or constructed facilities had on programs’ year-to-year recruiting rankings in Division I football and basketball, control variables for a coach being in his second season were seen to be significantly related to improvements on the recruitment front.