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Monday, November 30, 2015

When good isn't good enough

The University of Georgia has fired its football coach, Mark Richt. Longevity is not an attribute of the coaching profession, at least not in football or basketball at what used to be called NCAA Division I-A universities. Every coach knows the realities and negotiates for himself accordingly. Richt is a millionaire and I don't worry about his future. But what I read about the reasons for his firing is very troubling.
  • One comment on Facebook read "9-3 is not acceptable", referring to Georgia's win-loss record this season.
  • Richt's boss, Georgia AD Greg McGarity, said "We are judged upon the success, particularly in football, due to the level of interest and the revenue it does generate for our programs".
  • Richt himself said "I think the expectations have been built to the point that if you don't win a championship it's kind of miserable around here."
Those three quotes summarize everything that's wrong with university athletics.

Georgia administrators, alumni, and fans have a bad case of Alabama envy. If Alabama can win 95 games during the last eight seasons with three national championships already and the possibility of a fourth, shouldn't Georgia do that too? Problem is, mathematics get in the way. First, Alabama's current run is highly improbable — even though it's not yet a near-miracle like UCLA's run of 10 national basketball titles in 12 seasons or the DiMaggio streak. Second, football is a binary game: one team wins, another team loses. The sum of all outcomes is .500, and season outcomes tend to follow a Gaussian distribution. To put it differently, not all football teams can be "above average" in the language of Garrison Keillor. For every Alabama there must be some 9-3 teams, more 6-6 teams, and some 3-9 teams (unfortunately it's Georgia Tech's turn to be one of those this season). Eventually Alabama's run will end, as did UCLA's. But there are ten or fifteen schools who aspire to replace Alabama at the top of the mountain, and Georgia is just one of those. Will they? Possible but unlikely. If you use Alabama's run as the measure of success or failure, you are almost certainly dooming yourself to failure.

As for money, the Georgia AD is absolutely right. Fans may want the thrill of winning, but the university administrators want the money. They need the money. When Alabama fans say Roll Tide, they're thinking about the football team. But Alabama administrators are thinking about a roll of cash.

As for Richt himself, he has run a mostly clean program for fifteen years while having a better win-loss record than his predecessors Jim Donnan, Ray Goff, and Vince Dooley. That's good. In the eyes of powerful people, being good isn't good enough.