Leadership & Management

What Happens When Pro Coaches Get Cut from the Team?

Lessons from a deep dive into 30 years of NFL and NBA management turnover.

October 31, 2023

| by Lee Simmons

Former Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was fired in May 2023, two years after leading the team to an NBA title. | Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Why are some pro sports teams perennial contenders while others can’t seem to get out of the cellar? Great players are essential, but that’s not enough. Often, the unheralded MVPs of a successful team are people who wear suits, not uniforms, to work.

Courtside Seats

As director of the Sports Management Initiative, Foster has taught alongside big names from the sidelines and the front office, starting in 2002 with Bill Walsh, the legendary coach and GM of the San Francisco 49ers (who twice coached Stanford’s football team).

“We’ve had so many MBA students in the program who’ve gone on to great success, like Amy Brooks, MBA ’02, who is president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer for the NBA,” Foster says. “And quite a few have returned to teach, sharing that wealth of real-world knowledge.” Among them: Paraag Marathe, MBA ’04, executive vice president of football operations at the 49ers; Dave Kaval, MBA ’03, president of the Oakland Athletics; and Sam Hinkie, MBA ’05, the former president and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

In his research, George Foster, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has highlighted the crucial role of leadership and effective organizations in sports. His recent work has focused on the importance of strategic alignment among owners, general managers, and head coaches.

In the ebb and flow of a game, sports announcers often talk about which team “has the momentum.” Teams also have momentum from season to season, Foster says, and it has a lot to do with making good decisions off the field. “Building a solid organization with alignment between key stakeholders is just as important in sports as in any other kind of company.”

In a new study published in Sport, Business and Management, Foster looks at what happens when team leaders “aren’t on the same page,” to borrow a cliché trotted out when firings are announced. Working with Norm O’Reilly, dean of the University of Maine’s Graduate School of Business, and Stanford students Jim Best-Devereux and Matias Shundi, Foster analyzes “exits” in pro sports clubs — voluntary and involuntary changes of coach or GM from one season to the next (most of which, of course, are not voluntary).

They started with a large dataset capturing all head coach and GM exits in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association over 30 years. Then they ran a software analysis of media articles to find out how those departures were explained or interpreted at the time. The results offer fascinating insights — and some implicit guidance for struggling teams.

Canning the Coach

For starters, the data shows job security in both leagues to be almost an oxymoron. Annual turnover among head coaches in the NBA was 30%; in the NFL, it was 21%. On “Black Monday,” the day after the last regular-season football game, losing teams waste no time handing out pink slips.

General managers had a longer leash, with a median tenure of around five seasons in both leagues versus coaches’ three. “It takes longer to evaluate a GM. You need a few years for the players they draft to reach their potential,” Foster says. “Though fans might not agree.”

While coaches’ exits were highly correlated with recent win-loss records, GMs’ exits weren’t. “The general manager function is more multi-faceted,” Foster says. “They’re judged on a wider set of criteria, possibly including the business success of the club.”

Another interesting finding was that coaches and GMs were often fired simultaneously. Sports reporters call this “cleaning house” — a recent example being the Chicago Bears’ dual firing in 2022 after finishing the season with 6 wins and 11 losses. In 29% of the NFL coach exits in Foster’s data, there was also a GM exit.

“This reflects the fact that the GM-coach relationship is so interdependent,” he says. “The talent selected by the GM can make the coach look good or bad, and the quality of the coaching can make the GM’s choices look better or worse. It’s often hard to sort out where the fault lies.”

Holes in the Roster

Intriguingly, Foster and O’Reilly found that teams with a pattern of high coach and GM turnover often continued to have high turnover in succeeding years — a frantic churn of personnel with no apparent improvement. Teams with more stability tended to stay that way.

“This really gets at cultural differences between clubs,” Foster says. “Again, it starts at the top. How competent are the owners? How much are they second-guessing player-side decisions? How patient are they with the process of building a team the right way, which can take years?”

Building a solid organization with alignment between key stakeholders is just as important in sports as in any other kind of company.
George Foster

Frequent turnover can be counterproductive in a number of ways. For one, it creates trust issues. Established coaches and GMs may spurn the job, and new hires may demand higher salaries or contracts with full payouts if they get fired, burdening the team with millions in dead money.

It affects the rest of the coaching staff as well. On winning teams, Foster says, “great coaches attract great assistant coaches. They may even sign for less money because they know they’ll be learning with the best, and the branding will advance their own careers.” He cites the great San Francisco 49ers coach and GM Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls in the 1980s, and whose protégés — and their protégés — have won many more as head coaches themselves.

Doubts about the stability of a team’s leadership also affect the ability to sign top players. “Free agents care who their coach is,” Foster says. “They’re often going to want a proven commodity. But if they feel they can’t even know who the coach will be in two years, that’s a real negative.”

What does it look like when you do it right? Something like the Golden State Warriors, Foster says, where lead co-owners Joe Lacob, MBA ’83, and Peter Guber built a world-class organization, resulting in four NBA titles since 2015. “The Warriors’ success really demonstrates what great business leadership can accomplish in sports — on and off the court.”

Foster’s research and ongoing activities at the GSB are supported by the generosity of John and Kathy Kissick and Family.

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