With the closing of the college football season, top programs begin the yearly ritual of firing their overpaid coaches. Today’s victim is Rich Rodriguez of Michigan, joining others like Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen. Athletic directors at these institutions offer simple, though honest, explanations: not enough wins, not enough bodies in the seats. Rodriguez could not get his teams to end his three seasons well, meeting losses with old rivals and getting destroyed in bowl games. The Wolverine faithful are happy to see him go.
The problem? Win-loss records are simplistic, and often misleading, as evidence of success. They fail to appreciate deeper, more lasting reasons to have athletic teams at all: to educate students, to build strong bodies, and to nurture good people. No one is asking whether Friedgen’s players were engaged citizens of their campus, involved in public service or connected to classmates off the field. No one wonders if Rodriguez has built self-discipline, teamwork, and strong ethics among his players. And certainly no one seems to care if any of these football players are good students who want to learn.
I tire of the reaction that such thinking is naïve, and that “big time” college sports has everything to do with money and nothing to do with character. While I acknowledge the importance of finances and how a win makes players and fans feel better about the effort, I think that using win-loss records to measure success is lazy. Gathering real data and then building programming that encourages a deeper and more meaningful experience for the student-athlete takes time, thought and money. Athletic directors would rather have a simpler tool.
This is the equivalent of using GPA as the measurement of academic success. In “Dean’s List: 11 Habits of Highly Successful College Students,” I argue that GPA creates unhealthy incentives and fails to capture the need to nurture and satisfy curiosity. GPA may be useful and important, but it stinks as a richer measure of intellectual engagement. A win-loss record has the same failings of excessive simplicity.
We should worry less about when we win and more about what we have gained.