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Corporate executive pressures also at play in NBA coaching tenures

Monday, September 10, 2018

LAWRENCE — Instead of a simple reflection of wins and losses, the ability of NBA coaches to keep their jobs is also tied to corporate world concepts like accumulating power and managing expectations, according to a new study by a University of Kansas professor and two KU alumni.

"You get power the longer you are in your position. This is very common in the corporate world," said Vincent Barker, KU's Edmund P. Learned Professor of Business Administration and professor of strategic management. "You end up knowing more people in the organization and likely establish a better relationship with the owner. Maybe you've outlasted the first general manager, and so time does matter. But most don't make it there."

Sport Management Review, one of the top journals in the field, released the group's findings this week. Barker, who researches how top managers influence strategy, is co-author of the study with School of Business alumni David Wangrow, now of Marquette University, and Donald Schepker, of the University of South Carolina.

In a comprehensive look at coaching tenures, the researchers examined the number of NBA coach dismissals from 1986 through 2016. This data involved 296 different coaching tenures, of which 215 ended with a dismissal. The rest either left or retired voluntarily or were still coaching the same team after the 2016 season, including Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, who both have won multiple NBA championships.

Barker said in the past, researchers have sought to better understand conditions and the effects of executive and coach dismissals. In this study, they developed an innovative measure of expectations that can capture the effects of a coach's recent performance. This measure included the team's winning percentage the prior year, how far it advanced in the playoffs, fan attendance, the team's player salary expenses and a measure of a team's "expected wins."

"Our idea was we can take a look at these same ideas, such as power, expectations and reputation, which are effects in the corporate world along with how people perceive your performance, on whether or not you can get fired or keep your job, and see if these apply in the basketball world," Barker said. "In essence, they do."

For example, the Dallas Mavericks fired coach Avery Johnson in 2008 after a first-round playoff loss. Another postseason berth was not enough to save his job, even after four consecutive playoff appearances and one NBA Finals trip in 2006.

While those lofty expectations potentially doomed Johnson in 2008, he also likely lasted that long in the job because of his success.

As a baseline, the researchers found 51 percent of NBA coaches never saw a fourth season. Typically after an initial honeymoon period of one to two years, the coaches who don't perform well become more at risk. The team's expectations also come into play.

An individual coach's reputational capital, likely built upon past success in the playoffs or earning an NBA Coach of the Year award, also helped reduce the likelihood of dismissal.

Those coaches who are able to secure more control over player personnel decisions, such as a dual general manager role, also on the whole decreased their chances of being fired.

"It shows that individual coaches can develop power bases outside of winning or losing. The longer they are in their position and also have been successful, those things accumulate and they build a power base for a coach," Barker said.

In addition to contributing a comprehensive look at NBA coaching tenures over three decades and the measure on team expectations, Barker said their findings tended to support most perceptions about issues surrounding coach dismissals in what is a high-pressure and difficult business.

"It's nice to know," he said, "that our eyes aren't deceiving us when we think something is common sense."

Photo: Nate McMillan gives a high-five to a fan in 2009 when he was head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. McMillan, currently head coach of the Indiana Pacers, has coached three NBA teams. A recent study that included Vincent Barker, professor in the KU School of Business, and two business school alumni looked at factors related to the tenures of NBA coaches. Credit: U.S. Government Work

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