Stephen A. Smith Ranted on Lovie Smith, But His Facts Need Checking

By Jason Lisk
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Lovie Smith was fired after two years and an 8-24 record. There are rumblings that the team didn’t want to lose Dirk Koetter. That may be a bad decision, but the larger question is whether there is any racial issue with removing Lovie Smith.

Stephen A. Smith, of course, thinks so. He started:

But on a bigger level this is more of the same. How many times do I have to sit up here accused of race-baiting and beyond, because I point out flagrant facts that are literally slapped in our faces on a daily basis?

Smith makes some valid points, though they extend to hyperbole, on assistant coaching opportunities in the NFL. He claims that only assistants who worked under a superstar (Romeo Crennel) or another black coach (Hue Jackson in Cincinnati as offensive coordinator) get credit for the successes of their side of the ball. (Todd Bowles, by the way, finally got his opportunity after getting plenty of praise in Arizona last year, with Bruce Arians as head coach).

Then Smith continues: “It’s not going to surprise me at all, Skip Bayless, if in a year or two, we don’t see an African-American head coach in the game …” I mean, that’s ridiculous. I think the hiring rates should be better. I think Hue Jackson will get a good job, Bowles just won 10 games in his first season in New York, and Marvin Lewis and Mike Tomlin are two of the longest-tenured coaches in the league and facing off this week.

But the issue of coordinator opportunities is also different than whether Lovie Smith was treated fairly, whatever that means, in head coaching opportunities. Is there evidence that Smith and others get the short shaft compared to other coaches?

I put together a quick study of NFL coaching moves, going back to the 2002 season. I think that qualifies as modern and relevant. So what I did was compare each season by an African-American coach to the results for other coaches, looking at the year in question, and if available, the previous two years with the same organization.

For example, I compared Lovie Smith to all coaches who had 2 wins in year 1 (or 1 or 3), and separately all coaches who were most similar to going 6 wins after year 2, following a – win year to start. And then I looked at firings. I found the 5 most comparable results for each season to see what the rate of other coaches getting fired looked like.

There were 72 qualifying seasons since 2002 by an African-American head coach. There were 13 firings after those seasons. By percentage, 18% of the seasons for the African-American head coaches resulted in firings. The comparable coaches were fired after 17.2% of their seasons (62 of 360 comparables). That’s within one firing of being equal.

Let’s take Herm Edwards, current ESPN analyst, and his tenure in KC as an example. He took over for a retiring Dick Vermeil in 2006, and won 9 games. None of his comparable were fired, nor was he. After year 2, he dropped to 4 wins. Three of the five comparables were fired after a similar drop from about 9 wins to about 4 wins. So Edwards survived when the majority did not. The next year, Edwards went 2-14. Every comparable to a 9-4-2 pattern was fired after year 3, as was Edwards. Edwards got a longer leash than the average coach with a similar win pattern.

Using the same method on Lovie Smith, he has been fired twice now, after 11 NFL seasons. Add up his comparables for each season, and they total 1.8 firings. Basically, in line with what you would expect if you glanced at his career results. Some of the individual seasons may surprise–being fired after a 10-win season in Chicago is not typical, but a decent number of coaches were fired after similar stretches to Lovie from 2007-2009, and again in 2009-2011, after being at one organization for 5+ years.

And yes, maybe it was slightly surprising to get fired after going from 2 wins to 6 wins. A majority of coaches who had as bad a year in year 1 as Lovie, earning a first overall pick, didn’t even get the opportunity to coach that pick. Lovie got as much opportunity as other coaches with similar starts, whether you think it’s fair or not.

This stat blurb is a bit deceptive. Most firings don’t follow a 4 win improvement. But most 4 win improvements don’t come by going from 2 to 6 wins. They come from 6 to 10 and those coaches always keep their jobs. The only two closely comparable situations since 2002 where a coach kept his job were Jim Schwartz in Detroit (went from 2 to 6 wins, and made playoffs in year 3, but were winless year before hire), and Steve Spagnuolo with the Rams (went from 1 to 7 wins–and had rookie Sam Bradford–was fired after next year).

So I don’t see any clear evidence that Lovie Smith and his 11 seasons have been treated more unfairly than coaches with a similar track record, and I don’t see any clear evidence that African-American coaches, once hired, get less chance. And again, that’s a different issue than whether the opportunities are still balanced to begin with.

Smith also then ranted about opportunities and being replaced after building something. He went in on Golden State going from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr as an example, then he said:

That’s the danger of them getting head coaching jobs where you have to struggle and build something, because you usually put in the work, and somebody comes in to take it to the next level.

Again, I don’t see actual evidence that those that have broken through and gotten opportunities recently have had it worse. Yes, Tony Dungy got fired in Tampa Bay. He then got to come in and take it to the next level with Peyton Manning. Jim Caldwell also got to continue that upon Dungy’s retirement, basically playing the role of George Seifert.

Mike Tomlin got an opportunity to take it to another level in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger already on board, and with a great organization that had won a Super Bowl two years earlier. Herm Edwards took on a loaded offensive roster in Kansas City after Vermeil retired–he certainly didn’t build that offense that had been among the league’s best. Marvin Lewis turned things around in Cincinnati, and has gotten an plenty of opportunity to take it to the next level–in fact, every comparable situation to Marvin Lewis resulted in a firing during that stretch where the Bengals won 4 games in two different seasons.

Owners have made bad decisions. Personalities and differences and not winning the big game has led to things like John Fox getting fired after last year, and Marty Schottenheimer getting canned after a 14-win season. (I’ll see your Dirk Koetter and raise you a “we want Norv Turner”). It sucks that Lovie Smith got fired. We can question whether the Bucs’ owners know what they are doing (recent history says no). But I also don’t see Lovie Smith as being the poster boy for racial injustice in the NFL. I think there are plenty of other valid avenues for that.

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