Revisiting the “Law of the Snake-bit Coach”

I just finished the Insiders “2014 Seed Guide.” It’s always a huge undertaking, not quite as taxing as getting the Excel sheet and bracket models out the door after Selection Sunday, but a lot of research and data queries.

As I went through every seed match-up, I was struck by how often I advised steering clear of what I call “snake-bit” coaches. Last year, when I wrote about the subject, member William Wilson took me to task on the term. He rightly pointed out that “snake-bit” suggests an element of bad luck and what really might be at play is just poor coaching.

That’s more or less what I’m suggesting—without coming right out and saying it. I don’t know whether it’s luck or fortune, but here’s the deal: coaches who don’t perform well in their first five tournaments rarely perform well after that.

A quick analysis will show you what I’m talking about. 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.

Of the 105 snake-bit coaches (5+ trips, no Elite Eight runs) whose teams were seeded one through six, only 19 of them made it to the Elite Eight. That’s a 18.1% success rate. What’s more, the 105 teams posted an underachieving PASE of -.323. Meanwhile, there were 591 one-to-six seeds not led by snake-bit coaches. Their success rate in reaching the Elite Eight was 31.1% and their PASE was +.057.

If you do this comparison at individual seed positions, the numbers are even more telling. Seven of the 11 snake-bit coaches with top-seeded teams made the Elite Eight. That rate is close to the rest of the coaching pool (73 of 105). 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-bit coaches, it’s a dreadful -.717. Only one of those 11 teams beat expectations. That would be Rick Barnes in 2003, who promptly lost in the Final Four.

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

  • Two seeds: six of 19 snake-bit coaches reached the Elite Eight (31.6%) and they owned a -.247 PASE…while 48 of the remaining 97 coaches saw the fourth round (49.5%)
  • Three seeds: five of 19 snake-bit coaches reached the Elite Eight (26.3%) compared to 25 of the remaining 97 coaches (25.8%). But the snake-bit crowd had a -.125 PASE.
  • Four, five and six seeds: A grand total of one out of 56 snake-bit coaches has gotten to the Elite Eight (1.8%) and the group earned a -.339 PASE…while 38 of the 292 remaining coaches have made the quarterfinals (13.0%)

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. Just look at last year. Yes, two coaches did get the snake-bit monkey off their backs. Buzz Williams got Marquette to the Elite Eight on his fifth try. And Gregg Marshall took Wichita State all the way to the Final Four on his ninth appearance in the dance. But you would’ve been far better off in 2013 avoiding snake-bit coaches. Mark Few flamed out for the 14th time with top seed Gonzaga. Steve Alford and his Lobos got upset right out of the gate. And Mike Brey did his underwhelming job with Notre Dame.

All this begs the question: who are the active snake-bit coaches? Here’s a list, ordered first by the number of tourney appearances, then by PASE:

  • Fran Dunphy, Temple (15 Trips | 10.7 Seed | -0.345 PASE)
  • Mark Few, Gonzaga (14 Trips | 6.6 Seed | -0.175 PASE)
  • Mike Brey, Notre Dame (11 Trips | 7.3 Seed | -0.440 PASE)
  • Dana Altman, Oregon (9 Trips | 9.6 Seed | -0.287 PASE)
  • Stew Morrill, Utah State (9 Trips | 12.9 Seed | -0.271 PASE)
  • Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt (8 Trips | 6.3 Seed | -0.345 PASE)
  • Tim Floyd, Texas El Paso (8 Trips | 7.6 Seed | 0.012 PASE)
  • Ben Braun, Rice (8 Trips | 8.8 Seed | 0.164 PASE)
  • Oliver Purnell, DePaul (7 Trips | 8.2 Seed | -0.819 PASE)
  • Steve Alford, UCLA (7 Trips | 6.1 Seed | -0.531 PASE)
  • Leonard Hamilton, Florida State (7 Trips | 6.6 Seed | -0.331 PASE)
  • Lorenzo Romar, Washington (7 Trips | 6.4 Seed | -0.092 PASE)
  • Matt Painter, Purdue (7 Trips | 6.6 Seed | 0.073 PASE)
  • Herb Sendek, Arizona State (7 Trips | 8.1 Seed | 0.107 PASE)
  • Dave Rose, BYU (6 Trips | 8.0 Seed | -0.320 PASE)
  • Rick Byrd, Belmont (6 Trips | 13.8 Seed | -0.195 PASE)
  • Cy Alexander, North Carolina A&T (6 Trips | 15.5 Seed | -0.034 PASE)
  • Cliff Ellis, Coastal Carolina (6 Trips | 6.0 Seed | -0.010 PASE)
  • Jim Crews, St. Louis (5 Trips | 9.6 Seed | -0.290 PASE)
  • Randy Bennett, St. Mary’s (5 Trips | 9.6 Seed | -0.255 PASE)
  • Todd Bozeman, Morgan State (5 Trips | 10.6 Seed | -0.193 PASE)
  • Greg McDermott, Creighton (5 Trips | 10.0 Seed | -0.171 PASE)
  • Mick Cronin, Cincinnati (5 Trips | 9.6 Seed | -0.133 PASE)
  • Trent Johnson, TCU (5 Trips | 8.0 Seed | 0.117 PASE)
  • Fran McCaffery, Iowa (5 Trips | 13.4 Seed | 0.176 PASE)
  • Mark Turgeon, Maryland (5 Trips | 7.4 Seed | 0.209 PASE)

I can forgive the snake-bit coaches on the list that either own a positive PASE or are saddled with a low average seed. That includes Stew Morrill, Tim Floyd, Ben Braun, Matt Painter, Herb Sendek, Rick Byrd, Todd Bozeman, 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.

Right now, eight of the coaches on this list have their teams ranked among Ken Pomeroy’s top 30 most efficient teams. They’re highlighted in bold. Odds are, many of these squads will get high seeds—and you’ll have to assess their chances against their coach’s record of underachievement.

Proceed cautiously. You’ve been warned: don’t get bit.

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5 Responses to Revisiting the “Law of the Snake-bit Coach”

  1. Eric Timm says:

    Pete, as a Wisconsin fan, there is constantly mixed opinions about Bo Ryan’s ability to get the most out of his players in March. I find it interesting that he is nowhere to be found on any of your lists, good or bad. Is he truly as middle-of-the-road as it seems?

  2. Gary Diny says:

    As a fellow UW “fan”, Bo Ryan has a good record but generally meets the seed expectation. He has 1 Elite 8 run in 2005 beating 11, 14, 10 seeds to get there as a 6 seed. He also has some loses to lower seeds (UNLV, Davidson, Butler, Ole Miss). Generally UW lacks the offensive firepower to make consistent Elite 8 type runs.

    Just my thoughts on the Bo Ryan subject without using bracketmaster info to make other substantiating claims.

    Gary

  3. Andy says:

    I have to echo the thoughts of the Wisconsin fans above. Yes it’s true that Bo Ryan has made an Elite Eight appearance, back in 2005. However, since then, he has had teams as a 5 seed or higher six times and has yet to repeat that success. He still has also never taken a team to a Final Four. In that essence, I would call him “semi- snakebitten.” His SOAR is 50%, doing so in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012, but his PASE is still in the red. I dunno, I just think he would need to be seeded on the 1 or 2 line to have a real chance right now. It seems like a lot of coaches who go a long time without an Elite Eight run since their last one struggle too. Even Coach K was for a while after the 2004 run, though he did promptly win the title on his next run in 2010.

    However, I would also say that if the debate comes up with a truly snakebitten coach, and one who has previous success several or more years back, I would probably take the latter to the Elite Eight first.

    • Andy says:

      As soon as I posted that, I just remembered one even more glaring example of what I was talking about. Take a look at Bruce Weber sometime. He has been to an Elite Eight – a year in which his team finished as the runner-up at that – and his PASE is positive. Seems like a pretty good coach, right?

      Well, take at look at his numbers beginning the year after that run, which was in 2005. Yes, since 2006, Bruce Weber has not even been to a Sweet 16! His PASE is also -.660 and he has only overachieved once in the tournament since then, when his 9th seeded Illini (who was lacking momentum coming into the dance, I might add) knocked off a very weak UNLV team in 2011.

      Now is this a guy you want to take deep in the tournament?

      • ptiernan says:

        You guys are all beating me to the arguments. I love it. For years, I’ve had Wisconsin fans complaining about Ryan.

        I’ve got Ryan rating out as a coach who plays about to seed expectations (+.063 PASE). He’s beaten seed expectations in 7 of 12 dances, but only his 2005 ELite Eight run as a six seed was more than a game over expectations. And that year he benefitted by only having to beat an 11 seed, a 14 seed and a 10 seed to get to the Elite Eight.

        The biggest knock I hear from fans is that he never beats anyone in the dance that is higher seeded than his team. That’s a pretty fair assessment. Ryan’s record against higher seeds (no matter the gap) is 1-7. The only higher seeded team he beat was fifth-seeded Florida State, back in 2009 when the Badgers were a 12. Oh yeah, and Wisconsin has suffered five upsets.

        All in all, not a sterling resume. And I do think that the slow-down style has something to do with it. It’s just not suited to going on a long tourney run.

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