Last week, during halftime at Columbia basketball’s first bout with Cornell, football coach Pete Mangurian walked onto the court and gave a speech promising some on-field improvements in exchange for some fan support this coming season. Another promise for change from another new coach prompted me to reflect on the turbulent nature of high-level coaching and how it varies from other comparable jobs, especially at universities.
Before the college level, coaches take on a predominantly didactic role, and their administrative responsibilities are limited to taking care of things like jerseys and negotiating practice times. College football demands far more administration and political savvy on the part of coaches than youth soccer does, but head coaches are forced to stray from their primary role: teaching football. As it does with any professor at Columbia, the University charges Mangurian with helping students develop in a certain area, while also demanding that he handle a variety of ancillary tasks. For professors, these tasks include research and departmental administration. For Mangurian, these tasks include recruiting and alumni relations.
As much as the roles of professor and coach lend themselves to comparison, the analogy fails when we consider the differences in how we judge the performance of each. While academic jobs can be incredibly secure, coaches always seem to be one bad season away from losing their positions. Tenure allows professors to be effectively free of political pressures and gives stability to academic departments. Sure, tenured professors can be dismissed for consistently poor conduct or performance, but their dismissal doesn’t seem imminent after a bad year. Professor approval involves many determinants, including their teaching, publishing, and service to campus organizations. In contrast, the coaching world is results-driven, and it is hard for a coach to defend a losing season—winning percentage seems to be the only criterion of success.
Despite this easy way to evaluate coaching performance—and although a tenure system would be too generous and perhaps inappropriate for coaches—I think athletic administrators could learn a thing or two from their colleagues. It’s a shame that coaches do not get the same chance to experiment that professors on campus enjoy. In an ideal world, coaches could revamp their system after a failed season and restructure their experiment as a professor might.
With that in mind, we should give Mangurian a few years to overhaul the football program, since it is unclear what strategies might better our team. One of his main challenges will be how to make the most of his current roster while also having a recruiting vision—it might behoove the current team to focus the running game, but Mangurian might eventually want to transition to a spread offense.
Judging by his peppy demeanor last weekend, Mangurian may try to emulate Jim Harbaugh next season. Harbaugh, formerly the coach of Stanford, took over an 8-8 San Francisco 49ers team and brought them to the divisional round of the playoffs in his first year by being enthusiastic and fun on and off the field. Like Harbaugh, Mangurian could regularly introduce new plays during the season and avoid being dogmatic with his coaching. There are many ways to improve a football team, ranging from play-calling to general attitude, and most require a small step back in exchange for a long-term step forward.
As Mangurian said at the basketball game, he’ll take care of on-field issues. In exchange, he expects us to leave behind the last 50 years and support the program. I’d like to stress that we can only help the team by giving Mangurian time to experiment. After a half-century of persistent failure, some experimentation may be what it takes to turn our program around.
Benjamin Spener is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics-mathematics and Latin American and Iberian cultures.