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So You Think You Want to Fire the Coach?

Keep your hands inside the ride at all times.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

You're an Athletic Director thinking about firing your coach. Or maybe just a fan certain the A.D. should fire the coach. You're probably in good company, especially this time of year. And you might be onto something - there is definitely a place and time to can the coach. But you might be biased. In fact we know you're biased because people like Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman have been studying and preaching about if it for decades. Trouble is it's hard to see own biases, much less fix them.

Organizations have started fighting these biases when they hire, evaluate and compensate employees. One way they do this is with checklists, inspired by Pronovost's work with hospitals. The idea is to remind decision-makers of some of the more common mistakes when evaluating people. There are no easy fixes, but awareness is a good first step.

So here's a checklist tailor-made for Athletic Directors. Arbitrarily capped at 10 psychological concepts, drawn up in quiz form. Scores range from +10 (Fire away!) to -10 (Don't be an idiot!). Though the scoring system is more Cosmo than AER, it should point you in the right direction. Take a moment, be honest with your answers, and tally your score before making any rash decision. Your more reasonable alumni will thank you.

Chance. Football game outcomes are a complicated mix of skill and chance. People have trouble giving chance its due, instead offering knowing stories for why things went down the way they did. Don't buy the stories.

- Your coach caught all the breaks, balls bounced the right way, referees erred in his direction. (+1)

- Chance events more-or-less stacked up evenly. (0)

- Your coach seemed cursed. Everything outside his control that could go wrong, did go wrong. (-1)

Context. We neglect situational factors when explaining behavior, so much so that psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error. Even when we try to adjust we don't go far enough.

- Your coach was dealt a great hand - roster was stacked, recruiting pipeline full, culture strong, administration supportive, schedule friendly. (+1)

- It was a mixed bag - reloading some positions, fighting some fires. (0)

- Your coach was given a terrible hand - roster especially thin in key places, recruiting pipeline a trickle, culture broken, administration dysfunctional, schedule unfriendly. (-1)

Process. One of the most pernicious problems in decision-making is outcome bias. Winners are brilliant, losers bums. This is fine for handing out trophies but a terrible way to evaluate talent. With outcomes as noisy as they are in football you have to focus on process. Just ask Saban. Or Battier. Or any quant who's made a living investing. How's the hiring? Recruiting? Are players developing? Does the team play hard?

- Outcomes have actually outpaced the process. (+1)

- Outcomes and process have looked about the same. (0)

- Process has looked a lot better than the outcomes. (-1)

Sample size. People tend to draw way too much from far too little. We believe small samples hew closely to what we'd see in a bigger sample, yet actually they depart dramatically. One antidote is more data. Another is reluctance to leave your priors (or base rates). Coaches who built their reputation with some of the best defenses in the country, for example, don't forget how to do that overnight. Unfortunately, in football even an entire season isn't that much data. You think it's more than it is.

- Your sample now swamps the reasons you had for hiring him. (+1)

- Your sample and your prior opinions net out pretty evenly. (0)

- Your sample is still small relative to the basis you had for hiring him. (-1)

Categorization. We have expectations of people based on the social categories they belong to, and our judgment is then biased in those directions. This is especially a problem when somebody is in an unusual job for his or her social category. An engineer running sales, for example. Or a kid from the south at a blue blood law firm in Boston. It's human nature. And even if there are true differences between the categories we tend to exaggerate them.

- Your coach's social categories have traditionally succeeded at your school. (+1)

- Your coach's social categories have a neutral relationship to past success at your school. (0)

- Your coach's social categories are unusual for his job, or are associated with failure there. (-1)

Objectives. We tend to think too narrowly about our objectives at any point in time. As Kahneman has said, "Nothing matters as much as when we are thinking about it." College football fans tend to focus excessively on whatever trait their coach seems most deficient on. You should pause and think broadly about all the traits you care about - offense, defense, culture, integrity, recruiting, etc.

- Your coach is deficient in achieving on most of your (long list of) objectives. (+1)

- Your coach has a number of strengths, but they are at least offset by his weaknesses. (0)

- Your coach is strong in most areas, even if he has one or two that are distinctly weak. (-1)

Independent perspectives. The "wisdom of crowds" is a more popular concept than ever, but people fail to appreciate how critically that wisdom depends on the members of the crowd having independent opinions. As A.D. you are no doubt taking input from many people. But how many different voices are you really hearing? If all your sources are talking to each other you might as well be hearing from only one.

- You actively seek out independent perspectives. (+1)

- A lot of people have your ear, some related, some not. (0)

- Most of the loudest voices you hear from also talk to each other. (-1)

Fixed mindset. Malleable behaviors are often seen as fixed traits. Turns out that a "fixed mindset" increases judgment and decreases learning. Coaches are going to have weaknesses and make mistakes, that should go without saying. The important question is whether they can learn from them.

- Your coach has been resolute in the face of mistakes, showing little inclination to learn. (+1)

- Your coach tinkers here and there with changing things up. (0)

- Your coach actively pursue new ideas and has shown a willingness to change directions. (-1)

Transactions cost. Outsiders tend to underestimate how much is involved with changing coaching staffs, and people in general tend to be wildly optimistic with how quickly they can complete projects. Make the hard decisions when needed, of course, but kidding yourself about their costs will only lead you to make them too often.

- The new coach would be practically an extension of the present staff. (+1)

- The new coach is schematically similar but would change most of the coaches. (0)

- The new coach would be a dramatic departure from the previous regime. (-1)

Overconfidence. Getting rid of one problem raises a new one: How to replace your coach? How confident are you about landing an improvement? Odds are you're overconfident. Identifying talent is hard, whether a coach, a player, or a CEO. Ratchet back your expectations on that front before deciding to pull the trigger.

- Your dream candidate is almost trying on visors in the back room. (+1)

- You have a reasonably attractive job, and the competition's not too tough. (0)

- You know a (supposedly) good search firm. (-1)

Look, everybody gets this stuff wrong. It's human nature. The best decision-makers, and the best leaders, know when to push against these biases and the crowds rabid with them. It's just that sometimes we need a checklist to remind us how badly that leadership is needed.