By now, most casual sports fans are familiar with the fun little concept of 'Moneyball.' What started as a way to describe an overachieving baseball team is now a concept thrown around to describe any 'new' strategy across sports.
But what is Moneyball, really? Well, if you saw the 2011 film Moneyball that was nominated for six Academy Awards, you'd have a basic understanding. Teams with limited resources must find ways to compete with their wealthy competitors through "market inefficiencies" to succeed. The Oakland A's teams of Moneyball fame bought low on a group of players that had been undervalued by others. This was their inefficiency.
After Oakland's success 15 years ago, the idea of searching for 'inefficiencies' has spread. Fenway Sports Group, the ownership team that mirrored Oakland success with the Red Sox, is attempting to champion the strategy in soccer through their purchase and management of Liverpool FC. Other teams, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, have found success through statistical analysis similar to the work done on Wall Street. In sports where there is no salary cap, finding an edge when financially disadvantaged is the name of the game.
So what about the underdogs in college football? As the gap between haves and have-nots widens, where do the inefficiencies lie?
We've discussed how abandoning the spread for slower, more powerful schemes offensively can lead to a significant strategic advantage, but what about off the field? There are no salary caps for coaches. And as the sport grows, so do the coaching contracts.
Recent ESPN features have highlighted how Power 5 schools are using the playoff to incentivize success. Even struggling programs such as Colorado are able to pony up a $750,000 bonus should the day come Mike MacIntyre leads the Bufs to a national title.
In addition to paying for trophies, boosters are finding new ways to lace contracts with perks in addition to the base salary. If the University of Arizona's Rich Rodriguez is still the Wildcats' coach eight years from now, he will be owed shares of a corporation run by a booster that ESPN reports will be worth $6.3M.
That's a lot of shares. But see, I have no problems here. If Power 5 schools have the resources to seduce top flight coaches with stock options, private planes, and country club memberships, fine. But not all schools are getting a piece of that sweet PAC12 television money like Colorado. Nor do they have boosters willing to bend over backwards for some stability or to lure prodigal sons back to campus from the NFL.
So, just as with the Oakland A's, just as with Liverpool, competing for top flight coaching at the Group of 5 level becomes a unique challenge. Still, just as the financially disadvantaged were able to find ways to stay relevant in other sports, certain G5 schools have found their niche within the coaching carousel.
Certain schools such as Cincinnati, and now Colorado State, are positioning themselves as the stopgap for coaches who do not yet have the resume required for a major Power 5 head coaching gig, but have the talent and training for it.
Here we have Cincinnati's head coaches over the past decade:
Mark Dantonio (2004 - 2006). Left for Michigan State.
Brian Kelly (2007-2009). Left for Notre Dame.
Butch Jones (2010 - 2012). Left for Tennessee.
Tommy Tuberville (2013 - current).*
*If Tuberville is still UC's coach in 2016 I'll eat my arm.
There is no mystery to the strategy here. Cincinnati can tell its head coaches that if they put in three years, and succeed, a Power 5 dream job awaits. The coaches understand UC doesn't have the resources to keep them long term should they reach the upper levels of success. But, Cincinnati does offer enough in terms of resources, recruiting base, and commitment to winning to facilitate a program that skirts around national relevance.
Since 2004, the Bearcats have won at least 9 games seven times, have won 5 conference championships, and missed out on post season play only twice. All while never keeping a coach more than three years. This is tremendous!
Look at Michigan, a Power 5 program with similar turnover. Their last decade has been a constant stream disappointment. When each new coach hits the reset button, the players must adjust to a new way of doing business. It's no wonder they can't win. But not at Cincinnati.
By turning over big name assistants or inexperienced head coaches, the found it possible to build a successful program.
Interestingly enough, Colorado State seems to be on its way to mirroring UC's success. In replacing Steve Fairchild, CSU hired Jim McElwain, previously the Alabama OC. McElwain spent three years in Ft. Collins, turning a 3-9 team into a 10-3 team before being hired as the head coach of the Florida Gators. McElwain made the program relevant in the Mountain West, and even more so, relevant in the region when compared to the PAC12's Colorado.
Despite only spending three years at CSU, the Rams got everything they needed out of the relationship to copy Cincinnati's blue print. Not only is the program moving in the right direction, but because of McElwain's success and subsequent job offer from the Gators, the CSU job looks real enticing to Power 5 assistant coaches on the rise.
So, who did CSU hire to replace McElwain? Georgia's OC and long time Mark Richt assistant Mike Bobo. The Rams will now have been run by disciples of Saban and Richt, two of the SEC's most prestigious.
Now Bobo is poised to build on McElwain's success. When Bobo leaves for a Power 5 job, because he surely will, the trail will have been blazed. Want a major Power 5 head coaching gig? Go put in 3 years at CSU, win 10 games a year, and you'll be set.
Fan bases at CSU and Cincinnati should be thrilled with this system. Are they hiring mercenaries? Sure. But a consistently good football team with mercenary coaches is preferable to a Bobby Bowden-type lifer who's consistently coming in below .500.
These coaches don't have the resume for the big time jobs, but they've been trained by the best. They need a place to hone their craft. If you're a struggling G5 program, be that place.