No Less Worth Despite Their Girth: A Study of Overweight Coaches

By David Roher

If you missed Saturday’s post on RAP, a new college coaching stat, you should read it here.

Do heftier coaches like Mark Mangino perform worse as a whole?

When Kansas’ Mark Mangino and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis departed at the end of the regular season, many took the opportunity to mention their weight problems. Most of it is as a joke. But some are very serious: Jason Whitlock said Mangino’s weight was at the core of his poor performance and firing.

After these events, and an HSAC board meeting in which the topic was suggested, I decided to see if heavy-set college football coaches performed any differently than their less corpulent counterparts. The result? According to RAP, in 2008 and 2009, coaches performed the same regardless of whether they were overweight. For more details into the study and the results, read on.

It isn’t ridiculous to say that overweight coaches might be less successful, which is what led to the study in the first place. Leading a big football program can be very physically taxing because there’s so much to do. As Whitlock points out, obesity can lead to anger issues and depression that might interfere with the running of a program. The most obvious possible factors in my mind were weight discrimination and other people’s biases: a coach might be less successful in appealing to recruits if he was out of shape, and players might find demands to lose weight very hypocritical.

On the other hand, they might have some advantages as well. Their extra bulk might have initially come from having experience at a particular position conducive to being a better coach (though this could go the other way as well). They might relate better to the larger recruits and team members. And weight discrimination in the hiring process might result in only the best of the beefiest making it to Division I.

With all that in mind, I tried to find out the truth. It was a difficult study to conduct: unlike height and weight info for running backs, the same data for coaches does not exist. Since I don’t know any doctors of FBS coaches (or tailors), I was forced to judge by looking at photos of all 140 or so coaches of the past two years and determine whether or not they were overweight (I coded 0 for no, 1 for yes.) If you’re curious as to how judgmental I was, I had about 27% of the coaches down as overweight — wasn’t looking for morbid obesity. Obviously, there are more ideal ways to do this, at the very least because thousands of angry-looking middle-age men are now haunting my dreams.

I also didn’t have a way to determine how good a coach actually was, so I developed the Resource-Adjusted Performance, or RAP, statistic.

At first, I looked at 2009. An analysis of variance did not show any relationship between a coach’s RAP and whether or not he was overweight, and the correlation was near 0. Just to be sure, I added 2008 data. After all, the 2008 season saw the dismissals of  Toledo’s Tom Amstutz and Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer, key members of the Flab Five along with Weis, Mangino, and Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen.  However, there was even less of a correlation in 08.

1 is overweight coaches, 0 is non-overweight coaches. See any difference? Neither does ANOVA.

______________________________________

So what can we learn from all this? The most obvious conclusion is that coaches who are in shape don’t appear to gain anything on the field from their low body fat content.

But there’s another interesting one: since there is almost certainly a weight at which someone couldn’t be a successful coach (an example of the Anna Karenina Principle), and at the very least a weight that starts to interfere,  the study shows that there are not enough coaches at these weights for the effect to be seen. A weakness in my methodology was that I didn’t distinguish between a coach who was just pudgy and someone like Mangino, whose obesity probably greatly affects his health. The reason for this was that there simply weren’t enough coaches like him to make that kind of a category, which says something in itself.

Like most statistical analysis, though, it shows that the media shouldn’t be as quick to jump to conclusions about causality. To be fair, Whitlock’s article was only talking about Mangino, who is a special case, and he does give some compelling evidence. But he also attributes a lot to Mangino’s weight problems that is debatable at best. For instance, he talks about Mangino’s anger control issues:

We’ve known since his arrival at Kansas that Mangino labors to contain his temper. He berated refs at his son’s high school football game. We’ve watched him verbally undress his players on the sideline. We’ve seen assistant coaches bolt the program and heard the behind-the-scenes stories about the abuse they endured from their head coach.

Maybe it does have to do a little bit with Mangino’s weight, but there are so many examples examples of coaches who are similarly temperamental that I have trouble believing it. Mike Gundy, anyone? I would have been impressed if Whitlock had written this article in 2007, when Mangino won the AP Coach of the Year and KU went 11-1, or at any other point in Mangino’s 8-year tenure. When published after the fact, however, it leads me to think that Whitlock saw a coach doing badly and a coach that was obsese, and wrote an article connecting those two things. I doubt that Mangino’s weight was the primary factor in his dismissal.

All coaches with a weight problem or any other obvious flaw will have to deal with this type of thing as soon as they start to do badly. The media will find something wrong with them and connect it to recent struggles, when the two probably have nothing to do with each other. The only cure is an analytical approach. Within the next few days, I’ll look at the effects of a coach’s age in a similar vein. Until then, stay in shape.

Note: Thanks to the rest of the HSAC board for suggesting the idea in the first place, and to my friend Adam Levine for coming up with the title. He also suggested “Don’t Deride the Wide.” And no thanks at all to Adam Levine, Maroon 5 lead singer, who didn’t do a damn thing. Jerk.

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2 Responses to No Less Worth Despite Their Girth: A Study of Overweight Coaches

  1. Jim Conger says:

    Whats the old saying, Paralysis by analysis. These type of articles are opinions and a way of selling newspapers. Another way of categorizing people to create yet another way to stereotype them. We must see the article for what is, strictly entertainment reading, nothing factual.

  2. Pingback: Does Coach Age Predict Performance? (Yes, but be careful.) « Harvard Sports Analysis Collective

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