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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Why Some Teams are Good, Part I - The Theory

The Army-Navy game in 1944 was bigger than bragging rights. The two programs were bloated with the best athletes preparing for war, and they were undoubtedly the two best teams in the country. Army won the game and won the national championship. Navy fell to 4th in the AP poll behind Ohio State and Randolph Field (aka “West Point of the Air”). The top 6 was rounded out with Bainbridge Naval and Iowa Pre-Flight. Also in the top 20 were Norman Pre-Flight, the El Toro Marines, St. Mary’s Naval Pre-Flight, Fort Pierce, and 2nd and 4th Air Force. Obviously, it was a good year for military academies—more military academies finished in the top 20 in that year than have done so since 1960.

Three years earlier in 1941, Minnesota was finishing up a second straight undefeated season and a second straight year on top of the AP poll. Minnesota won five national championships between 1934 and 1941 and achieved a level of dominance that has been surpassed only by the Yale teams of the 1880’s (8 championships and you didn’t need a full hand to count their total losses over the decade) and Oklahoma in the 50’s (5 championships from ’49 to ’56 and a 90% winning percentage for the decade). The Gophers fell Saturday to North Dakota State, Yale still plays in front of high school crowds, but Oklahoma might be making another run at a national championship.

Programs have good and bad years, good and bad decades, and, for Yale, good and bad centuries. When we talk about the success of a team in any individual season, we generally talk about individual players, coaches, or big plays in big games. But bigger forces, beyond the control of coaches, boosters, and even cheerleaders, can make or break programs. World War II generated dozens of new programs that flashed to prominence and quickly disappeared, but many forces work more slowly and subtly.

For example, when we look at the success that USF has had this year, our first inclination may be to congratulate Jim Leavitt or Matt Grothe. Of course, without good athletes and good coaches, the Bulls couldn’t have competed with West Virginia or Auburn. But how was USF able to congregate the necessary personnel?

Getting into the Big East was important for recruiting. This put the Bulls on television and made them more prominent in the national media, but why was USF given that opportunity?

1997 would have been a good year for Bulls fans—had there been any. The school fielded a football team that competed as a 1-AA independent. More important, in that year the Florida legislature created the lottery-funded Bright Futures Scholarship Program. The scholarship has allowed an unprecedented number of Florida high school graduates to attend Florida public schools. USF exploded, becoming one of the nation’s ten largest schools by enrollment in 2004.

With more students, the football program had more resources to draw on. USF was able to squeeze past UCF (which has actually surpassed USF in attendance) and other upstart Florida schools into the Big East. Other schools in the top 10 by enrollment are Ohio State (1 by enrollment and in football), Arizona State (2 by enrollment), University of Florida (3), University of Texas (5), Michigan State (7), Texas A&M (8), and Penn State (10). The University of Minnesota, which was the nation’s largest university until 1996, has fallen to 4th. It is expensive for a school to build a good football program, so bigger schools have a big advantage.

I think there are three immediate factors that can help a team have success in any football game, and if we work to explain these factors then, maybe, we can better understand why some programs are successfully and others are not. The three factors are coaches, players, and home atmosphere.

I’m not going to try to explain why some coaches are better than others, but why some programs have better coaches. A big part of it is money. Coaches follow money. Also, coaches tend to gravitate towards the schools with better tradition. This might be megalomania or the belief that it is easier to be successful at Notre Dame than Purdue, but it is definitely a major force. Finally, luck is important. A school might be willing to spend all the money in the world, but sometimes they just hire the wrong guy.

Teams with better players are generally better. Programs with more tradition and more recent success have an easier time attracted talent, as to programs with better facilities, and better facilities (and coaches) can also be important in how the players develop and perform once they are in the program. Having big crowds at the games and attracting attention from the national media also helps. It is easier to recruit athletes that are closer to the school, so larger populations and larger talent pools will, ceteris paribus, surround better teams. And, of course, a big part of it is luck—injuries, chemistry, and all that jazz.

Having a powerful home atmosphere is mostly driven by the size and support of the fan base. Larger schools will have more resources to build stadiums and more fans at the games. Older schools will have more and richer alum to donate to the program, and to yell from their luxury boxes.

I have come up with the following flow chart to illustrate why, I believe, some programs are successful and others are not.

And, of course, everything is shaded by luck. Even when the experts know before the season who the coach of a team is and how well most of the players have performed in the past, they still struggle to predict which teams are better. I won't be making specific predictions about team success, but, hopefully, I will be able to find some meaningful generalities.

Several things feed into each other. Success, in some ways, is just part of a giant feedback loop, with success producing more success. Other factors are "exogenous" - they evolve in the world outside of college football. Most important of these exogenous factors is local population.

Next week I will focus on population size and the effect that it has had historically on the success of a handful of programs.

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