Goal Posts

Commentary on the complex relationships between motivation, performance, competition, cooperation, and goals.

Bobby Bowden and Charlie Weis: A Tale of Two Coaches

Why does the coaching carousel inspire intrigue in fans?

One of the cognitive benefits children can derive from sports is the ability to think critically. These critical thinking skills can be developed in a multitude of ways, ranging from calculating statistics to making snap decisions on the field based on estimating probabilities to evaluating the decision making of others.

Recently in Goal Posts, we have talked about irrational beliefs in sport. These belief systems too often permeate sports, with the media and fans holding unrealistic expectations of players and coaches. In the past week, two notable college coaches ended their tenure at two of the more prestigious football institutions in the country: Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

Charlie Weis was the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots when he took over as head coach of Notre Dame. Immediately, Irish fans believed their football program would return to its rightful place of prominence in the football world. Few teams captivate the public's attention the way Notre Dame football does - it is one of those love/hate relationships where fans feel strongly one way or the other about the Fighting Irish.

Five years ago, Coach Weis took over a 6-5 program and said, "You are what you are, folks, and right now you're a 6-5 football team. And guess what? That's just not good enough. That's not good enough for you, and it's certainly not going to be good enough for me." Two years later, Weis had taken Notre Dame to back-to-back BCS Bowls and had a 10-year contract. His brash, even arrogant attitude rubbed some the wrong way, while others rejoiced in their coach who talked big and backed it up. A mere three years later, Weis' record is worse than his predecessors Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, fans were calling for his firing, and this week, that is exactly what happened.

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Bobby Bowden coached at Florida State for the past 34 years. During the 1990's, Florida State was arguably the top team of the decade, racking up top-5 national finishes year after year. FSU was the gold standard in college football. However, over the past decade, the Seminoles have not been nearly as successful. Yesterday, Bowden decided to retire after several years of fans calling for a change in leadership.

In both cases, lifelong football coaches who had ascended to superior heights in their careers saw their current positions end rather unceremoniously. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am neither an ardent backer nor a critic of Weis or Bowden. As such, I am not especially moved, nor saddened that either man is leaving his position. Both men were compensated extraordinarily well for coaching young men in the game of football.

What does intrigue me from a psychological perspective is why fans find so much intrigue in the coaching carousel. Each fall, it is like clockwork, where fans of teams that are enjoying success begin to worry that their head coach may leave for greener pastures. If a team struggles, fans turn their attention to whether or not the coach should remain.

Why is it that sports fans spend inordinate amounts of time and energy thinking about, speculating, debating, and even arguing about the head coaching position at their alma mater or hometown university? Are fans rational and reasonable in evaluating coaches? What is it about the coaching profession that engenders such passion with regards to who is the coach?

John Tauer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas.

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