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Using The WAR Statistic To Measure Coaching Success At WVU

If you boiled down human existence into three simple sentences, I think it would look something like this:

A girl is judged by her looks.  A guy is judged by his girl’s looks.  And a college football coach is judged by his success.

But how do we define looks?  There two main areas by which a girl is ogled, er...judged are 1) Her face; 2) her body.  The body is broken down into two sub-parts: a) boobs and 2) butt.  I have heard fantastical tales of judging a girl by her "brains" or "personality," but I pass that off as mythical yarns akin to unicorns and Huggins recruiting a shooting guard.

But how do we define a coach’s success?  Much has been made in the last couple months, before and after Ol’ Billy Stewart jammed one too many feet into his mouth and was shown the door, about what defines a "successful" coach.  Most coaches will tell you that they judge success by the personal relationships they develop with their players and the differences they make in their player’s lives.  They would, of course, prefer to make a difference in the life of a kid that has poise in the pocket and pinpoint accuracy.

Oliver Luck said he judged success based upon the bottom line of a balance sheet and national championships.  I think the appearance of success can be determined by stealing and significantly simplifying baseball’s WAR stat (WAR stands for "wins above replacement" and is meant to quantify a player’s overall value compared to a fictitious average AAA player).  My formula looks like this: Good Wins – Bad Losses = Coach’s WAR.  I realize Charley did a similar analysis last year, but bear with me.

The formula is based on the premise that an average football coach would beat all inferior teams on his schedule based on talent and average coaching, lose to all superior teams and lose all the tossup games.  For instance, Joe Schmo-0 WAR-football coach, could coach WVU in 2011 and defeat Norfolk St., lose to LSU, and lose to South Florida.  If Joe Schmo lost to Norfolk St., he would be -1 WAR.  If he beat LSU he would be 1 WAR.  The overall attitude of fans towards Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart since 2002, is almost directly related to the WAR formula.

To wit, the following is a breakdown of WVU’s good wins vs. bad losses since 2002.   This is a qualitative decision, but I think you would generally agree with my good wins and bad loss decisions:

Good Wins -     @ Virginia Tech,  @ Pitt
Bad Loss -        None

Good Wins -     Virginia Tech, Pitt
Bad Loss -       Cincinnati

Good Win -       Maryland*
Bad Losses -    BC, @ Pitt

Good Wins -    Louisville, Georgia
Bad Loss -       None

Good Win -      None
Bad Loss -       USF

Good Win -      Oklahoma
Bad Loss -       Pitt

Good Win -       None
Bad Losses -    @ East Carolina, @ Colorado

Good Win -       Pitt
Bad Losses -    @ USF, Florida State

Good Win -       None
Bad Losses -    Syracuse, @ UConn

2002 – 2007:     8 – 5 = 3 WAR
2008 – 2010:     1 – 5 = -4 WAR

*Obviously, the win against Maryland in 2004 turned out to be a victory over a team with a losing record, but a win has to be viewed as it was at the time.  That win was huge for support of Rich Rod.

There are some obvious problems with the formula.  The difficulty in determining the WAR of a coach with this formula is that with the increased success of a program, what once was considered a toss-up game becomes considered a “gimme” and a game-we-should-lose because a tossup, making gains in WAR more difficult.  See Bob Stoops.

Thus, coaching a bad team gives you more opportunities for WAR than coaching a good team.  On the other hand, coaching a good team is easier than coaching a bad team.

The 2006 team that finished 11-2, defeated all but one inferior opponent and was generally a joy to watch finished with a -1 WAR, while the 2003 team which started the season 1-4, finished with a 1 WAR.  I think we would all prefer the 2006 team, but it’s a matter of expectations.  A team with Pat White and Steve Slaton is easier to win with than Rasheed Marshall and Kay Jay Harris.  Perhaps it is unfair, but that is the nature of success.

The formula should be tweaked to possibly add a higher increase and decrease in WAR for big wins such as Georgia and terrible losses such as Colorado, but I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible here.

It might also help to factor in margin of victory, as a 48-7 win over Marshall increases coaching capital more so than a 24-21 3OT win.

Despite the weaknesses of the formula, the idea that each unexpected victory brings coaching capital and each unexpected loss, decreases coaching capital is sound.  You can see how Rich Rod slowly built his coaching capital and Bill Stewart quickly lost it and dissension has grown the last three years.

Dana Holgorsen now faces the same high expectations that Bill Stewart faced.  The talent in the program and watered down Big East means that the schedule only provides one game – LSU – to gain an automatic boost in WAR this year.  Perhaps another team could develop during the season, a la Cincinnati in 2008, and provide an unexpected opportunity for a big victory, but as it stands now, absent ridiculous blowouts wins, it will be difficult for Dana Holgorsen to increase his WAR.