The law of the snake-bitten coach

Long-time Bracket Science insiders may recall a few tourneys back when I had this irrational obsession with advancing Pitt in my personal bracket. The obsession went on for at least three dances, from 2008 to 2010. No amount of statistical evidence would shake me off the Panthers. Never mind their offensive deficiencies…or late-season struggles. I had to have me some Pitt. Maybe it was the fact that I lived there in the late sixties.

What finally cured me of this odd malady—aside from three straight busted brackets—was some analysis I did on the history of what I call “snake-bitten” coaches. Before 2010, there was a lot of talk about the fact that Jamie Dixon hadn’t taken a team to the Elite Eight in five tries, despite getting seeded third twice, and fourth and fifth once. So I wondered: do coaches behave like Newton’s first law of motion? That is, does a coach who’s underperforming remain an underperformer?

It turns out, the answer is yes—not a hard and fast yes, but enough of a yes that you may want to think twice before advancing a snake-bitten coach too far in your bracket.

Here’s how I did the analysis: for the top six seed positions, I compared the performance numbers of coaches who had been to the dance at least five times without making an Elite Eight run to all other coaches. What I found was a marked difference both in their PASE values and the rate at which they advanced to the Elite Eight. In other words, veteran coaches who’ve never gotten to the quarterfinals are less likely to get there as time goes on.

The numbers tell the story. Of the 101 snake-bitten coaches (5+ trips, no Elite Eight runs) whose teams were seeded one through six, only 18 of them made it to the Elite Eight. That’s a 17.8% success rate. What’s more, the 101 teams posted an underachieving PASE of -.306. Meanwhile, there were 571 one-to-six seeds not led by snake-bitten coaches. Their success rate in reaching the Elite Eight was 31.2% and their PASE was +.054.

If you do this comparison at individual seed positions, the numbers are even more telling. Seven of the 10 snake-bitten coaches with top-seeded teams made the Elite Eight. That compares almost dead-on with the rest of the coaching pool (72 of 102). But here’s the thing: the typical one seed wins 3.42 games, so getting to the Elite Eight doesn’t even constitute overachievement. When you look at the PASE of the top-seeded snake-bitten coaches, it’s a dreadful -.575. Only one of those ten teams beat expectations. That would be Rick Barnes in 2003, who promptly lost in the Final Four. It wouldn’t be Jamie Dixon, who promptly destroyed my bracket in 2009.

The numbers for the rest of the top six seeds are more telling:

  • Two seeds: six of 19 snake-bitten coaches reached the Elite Eight (31.6%) and they owned a -.262 PASE…while 46 of the remaining 93 coaches saw the fourth round (49.5%)
  • Three seeds: four of 17 snake-bitten coaches reached the Elite Eight (23.5%) with a -.092 PASE…while 24 of the remaining 95 coaches got that far (25.2%)
  • Four, five and six seeds: A grand total of one out of 55 snake-bitten coaches has gotten to the Elite Eight (1.8%) and the group earned a -.246 PASE…while 36 of the 281 remaining coaches have made the quarterfinals (12.8%)

Clearly, coaches who’ve gone to the tourney five or more times without making a solid run are not the sort of leaders you want to bet your bracket on. And that begs the question: who are the active snake-bitten coaches? Here’s a list, ordered first by the number of tourney appearances, then by PASE (coaches whose teams are ranked among Ken Pomeroy’s top 30 in Pythag are in bold):

  • Fran Dunphy, Temple (14 Trips | 10.8 Seed | -.403 PASE)
  • Mark Few, Gonzaga (13 Trips | 7.1 Seed | -.006 PASE)
  • Mike Brey, Notre Dame (10 Trips | 7.3 Seed | -.409 PASE)
  • Stew Morrill, Utah State (9 Trips | 12.9 Seed | -.261 PASE)
  • Dana Altman, Oregon (8 Trips | 9.3 Seed | -.515 PASE)
  • Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt (8 Trips | 6.3 Seed | -.344 PASE)
  • Gregg Marshall, Wichita State (8 Trips | 13.4 Seed | -.135 PASE)
  • Tim Floyd, UTEP (8 Trips | 7.6 Seed | .000 PASE)
  • Ben Braun, Rice (8 Trips | 8.8 Seed | +.164 PASE)
  • Leonard Hamilton, Florida State (7 Trips | 6.6 Seed | -.338 PASE)
  • Lorenzo Romar, Washington (7 Trips | 6.4 Seed | -.094 PASE)
  • Matt Painter, Purdue (7 Trips | 6.6 Seed | +.078 PASE)
  • Herb Sendek, Arizona State (7 Trips | 8.1 Seed | +.108 PASE)
  • Oliver Purnell, Depaul (6 Trips | 8.2 | -.818 PASE)
  • Dave Rose, BYU (6 Trips | 8.0 Seed | -.323 PASE)
  • Steve Alford, New Mexico (6 Trips | 6.7 Seed | -.313 PASE)
  • Blaine Taylor, Old Dominion (6 Trips | 12.3 Seed | -.217 PASE)
  • Cliff Ellis, Coastal Carolina (6 Trips | 6.0 Seed | -.012 PASE)
  • Roger Reid, Southern Utah (5 Trips | 9.4 Seed | -.270 PASE)
  • Todd Bozeman, Morgan State (5 Trips | 10.6 Seed | -.191 PASE)
  • Rick Byrd, Belmont (5 Trips | 14.4 Seed | -.116 PASE)
  • Trent Johnson, LSU (5 Trips | 8.0 Seed | +.111 PASE)
  • Fran McCafferty, Iowa (5 Trips | 13.4 Seed | +.184 PASE)
  • Mark Turgeon, Maryland (5 Trips | 7.4 Seed | +.211 PASE)

You’ll notice that Jamie Dixon didn’t make this list. So why do I lead off the article tossing his name to the snakes? Because he ruined my 2009 bracket, that’s why. No, not really. I think of Jamie Dixon as a “snake-bitten coach in disguise.” His only Elite Eight run came as a top seed—then he promptly lost and failed to meet seed expectations. The only other active coach with at least five trips whose Elite Eight run came as an underperforming top seed was St. Joe’s Phil Martelli. I might give these guys wide berth in my bracket as well.

I can forgive the snake-bitten coaches on the list that either own a positive PASE or are saddled with a low average seed. That includes Fran Dunphy, Stew Morrill, Gregg Marshall, Ben Braun, Matt Painter, Herb Sendek, Blaine Taylor, Todd Bozeman, Rick Byrd, Trent Johnson, Fran McCafferty and Mark Turgeon.

It’s the other guys on the list who give me the yips when I’m considering pushing their teams too far in the brackets. Mark Few, Mike Brey, Kevin Stallings, Leonard Hamilton and Steve Alford in particular all have a penchant for short, heart-wrenching cameos in the dance.

Once bitten, twice shy.

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11 Responses to The law of the snake-bitten coach

  1. steve thomas says:

    Any list of snake-bitten coaches that does not include Barnes-door from Texas is incomplete and needs to be scrubbed. NEVER has a coach had so much talent and done so little in the “dance”. I am still smoking from the year when he had Aldridge etc. and lost to Big Baby’s LSU to destroy my bracket and cost me mucho dinero!!!! He has not had the opportunity to blow me up a second time, but all others should BEWARE!!!!

  2. Wm Wilson says:

    You have apparently jumped to an unwarranted conclusion, by using the loaded term “snakebitten”, which suggests some substantial evidence of just bad luck. It’s just as likely that the repeated failure of a veteran coach to advance in the tourney is an relatively incompetent coach.

    • ptiernan says:

      Fair enough, Wm. I guess you’re right on the term “snake-bitten” applying to luck. My point was essentially the same as yours: steer clear of coaches that haven’t gotten it done in five or more tourney tries…because they’re unlikely to get it done going forward. It may indeed be a case of poor preparation or incompetence.

  3. Jeff Lerner says:

    Herb Sendek is the coach at Arizona State, not Arizona. ‘Zona’s coach is Sean Miller, who had 2 Elite 8 trips, 1 with Xavier and 1 with Arizona.

    • ptiernan says:

      Thanks Jeff. Nice catch. I made the chance. Miller is actually one of the top overachieving coaches, with a PASE of +.754. You can see him in the Bracketmaster or the Top Performers lists.

  4. Clint Stevens says:

    How about a forum for giving these coaches some suggestions.

    • ptiernan says:

      Actually, some ADs might want to look at coaches’ PASE performance numbers before they hire them. I have a story about that which I’m not allowed to share…

  5. Clint Stevens says:

    In a nutshell, Few shortens his bench too much, plays too much to his current opponent instead of using the regular season to get his team tournament ready, and has trouble with player selection (not playing Kyle Dranginis and Przemek Karnowski more). Finally, Few comes in with a great game plan, but doesn’t adjust well to the other teams adjustments. This is his best team chance since that giant comeback by UCLA to make the Elite Eight and it may be hsi best squad ever. I might need to look at the 3 vs 14 or 2 vs 15 upset spotting list to see if the current Zags qualify as a pretender.

  6. Jeff Lerner says:

    Love this list as a tournament indicator. So long again, Steve Alford, Mike Brey & Mark Few. (Which is why I picked OSU in the West.) But Dana Altman and Gregg Marshall are each just 1 win away from coming off the snake-bit list as a 12 and a 9 seed respectively.

    • ptiernan says:

      Marshall never was a legit snakebit coach, just because of so many low seeded appearances. Altman is among the worst…so it’s a big reversal of fortune for him. Of course, that one win will be much tougher for Oregon than Wichita State.

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