Big Ten Football Coaches: The Impact of Paterno's Long Tenure

Brett LissendenSenior Analyst IJune 6, 2011

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions during warmups before facing the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 11, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Big Ten has had eleven teams ever since Penn State joined the conference in 1990.  Penn State is currently the only football team in the conference to not have a head-coaching change since this time period.

In fact, Penn State has not had a head-coaching change since 1966 (45 years), when Joe Paterno was promoted to head coach.

Joe Pa's coaching tenure blows away nearly every coach history at all levels, but the stability at the coaching position has helped Penn State to be one of the most successful programs in the Big Ten.  For the other ten Big Ten teams (excluding Nebraska for now) have had an average of exactly four coaches since 1990. 

Paterno's coaching legend is even more staggering if we consider the average coaching span of other coaches.  Including all of the years that each team's coach in place for the 1990 season had prior to 1990 with the team, PSU's average coaching tenure of 45 years ranges from about three to eleven times as high as other Big Ten teams.

The following table shows the average coaching tenure since 1990 (as described above) for each of the eleven Big Ten teams, along with the teams total wins and bowl game wins since 1990.



Data: Big Ten Coaching Since 1990

Team Avg. Coaching Tenure Total Wins Bowl Wins
Penn State 45 years 181 11
Iowa 16 years 150 8.5
Wisconsin 10.5 years 167 10
Ohio St. 7.67 years 227 9
Northwestern 6.25 years 112 0
Purdue 6 years 119 4
Illinois 5.75 years 102 3
Michigan State 5.6 years 133 3
Michigan 5.25 181 10
Indiana  4.5 years
 91 1
Minnesota  4.17 years
 105 3



In addition to having the longest-tenured coach(es) in the Big Ten, Penn State also has the most bowl wins and is tied for the second most overall wins.  I argue that this is not a coincidence, as the experience and stability that Joe Paterno has brought the program has been an enormous asset for the program.

The effect of different coaching tenures is clear when looking at the table above.  The teams with the longest coaching tenures have the most wins and the most bowl wins.  The only slight exception is Michigan, who is tied for second in both overall wins and bowl wins and yet has one of the shortest average coaching tenures.  However, the vast majority of the Michigan program's success came under Lloyd Carr, who was the Wolverine head coach for 13 seasons.

Using the above data, there is a correlation of 0.56 between coaching tenure and bowl wins, and a correlation of 0.39 between coaching tenure and overall wins.  Correlation is a measure that ranges from negative one to positive one, where values above zero indicate that a higher coaching tenures relates to more wins.  The correlation for coaching spans to bowl wins is moderately strong, while the correlation to overall wins is weak to moderate.

Using this data, average coaching tenure is a significant predictor of bowl wins using a significance level of 10 percent.  This means that if coaching tenure could not be used to predict the number of bowl wins at all, then the data collected would occur less than ten percent of the time by random chance.



What about Nebraska?

Over the same time period (1990 to present), the Big Ten's newest member has had an average coaching tenure of 9.5 years, posting 202 overall wins and 10 bowl wins.  These measures would all be in the upper echelon of pre-existing Big Ten teams; clearly the pattern of coaches staying around longer correlating to more wins holds for the Cornhuskers as well. 



The duration of Joe Paterno's reign at Penn State is truly one of a kind.  The willingness of both Penn State and Joe Pa to continue their obligations for so long has provided a long-lasting success for the program. 

Even using the very basic measures of overall wins and bowl wins, it is clear that coaching tenure is at least one of the key factors behind success for Big Ten football programs.  Since joining the Big Ten, PSU has blown away their competition in their ability to keep a coach around; and that has translated to being one of (if not the most) successful teams in the conference.