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August 10, 2011
Minimum Age
Looking for a Stevens Effect

by Nic Reiner-Parra and Corey Schmidt


On the night last April when Butler beat VCU to clinch a second consecutive appearance in the national championship game, Zach Harper of TrueHoop tweeted, "There is some 2-year old out there that thinks Butler is the greatest college basketball school of all time." That toddler must also believe the best teams in the nation are usually led by the youngest coaches.

But as fans who've seen more than two NCAA tournaments we know how remarkable it really is for young head coaches like Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart to succeed so early in their careers. Most guys aren't even hired as head coaches until around age 40, yet Stevens reached the Final Four twice before he turned 35. So, inspired by John Gasaway's whimsical query, we decided to investigate whether there was a connection between Stevens' success and subsequent coaching hires across Division I basketball. Are younger coaches being hired more often now? Essentially, has there been a "Stevens effect"?

To find out, we looked at every instance where someone was hired as a Division I head coach for the first time in their career from 1991 through today. Then we obtained birth dates for these coaches to determine their ages upon being hired. The graph below presents the results of this exercise -- the average age of first-time Division I coaching hires in each of the last 21 years.

First-time D-I hires tended to be younger in the 1990s than were their counterparts in the 2000s. In fact the average age at point of hire for all the years in the 1990s (38.7 years) was more than a full year younger than in the 2000s (39.9). The gray line in the graph, a polynomial trendline, shows this phenomenon in the form of a gradually increasing slope over the course of the last two decades. Gradually increasing, that is, until the dawn of the latest decade.

For most of the 2000s the average age of hired coaches bounced up and down while hitting many peaks along the way. We see successive decreases in age following the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. Then, another year of decline occurs following the 2009-10 season -- only this time the descent approached a threshold of 38 years old, which had not been seen in ten years (see red line "B"). It may be merely a coincidence that 2009-10 was also the year then-33-year-old Stevens made that memorable run to the national championship game, but certain historical patterns suggest that he could have been partly responsible for this shift.

To see if a "Stevens effect" could exist, we wondered if athletic directors tended to fill head coaching vacancies with younger individuals in instances where the immediately preceding NCAA tournament featured successful young coaches. So we pulled out our historical brackets and found the ages of all the coaches who led their teams to a Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or Final Four over the 21 years studied. We then tested for correlations between the average age of head coaches at those stages of the tournament from each season and the average age of first time hires during the ensuing off-season. Unfortunately for our hypothesis, the data showed that such a pattern did not exist at the macro level.

While there may not be a relationship between the overall averages, there are nevertheless specific examples that point to the impact young breakthrough coaches can have on the hiring decisions of ADs. The case that's most similar to Brad Stevens in 2010 may be Billy Donovan in 2000. At the time Donovan was a fresh-faced 34-year-old, one who'd led the Florida Gators to an appearance in the national championship game. (Sounding familiar? Even more Stevens-like, Donovan's boyish looks were the talk of the tournament that year.)

Donovan was the youngest head coach to reach the final weekend of the college basketball season in at least a decade. And, just as we saw post-Stevens, there was a large dip in the average age of first time hires following Donovan's breakthrough (red line "A"). Save for two years in the early 1990s, the post-Stevens and post-Donovan years featured the youngest average hiring age over the course of the last 21 years.

So what about those two years in the early 1990s? Well, they appear to be outliers. There were not any particularly young coaches who had tournament success in the year preceding 1993-94, though it's worth mentioning that John Calipari took UMass to the 1992 Sweet 16 as a 31-year-old. But it wasn't until after 1994-95, the other "young hires year," that Calipari broke through to the final weekend. By then, though, he'd reached the ripe old age of 37.

Calipari, Donovan, Stevens, and Smart captured people's attention in part because their experiences were so unusual. The average age of the last 84 head coaches to reach the Final Four is 50.5, about 11 years older than the average for someone who's just secured his first D-I head-coaching gig. In other words Stevens and Smart, both of whom reached the Final Four at age 33, were 17 years younger than they "should" have been. No wonder they caused a stir.

Can these youthful ascents perhaps trace their origins to the 2007 tournament? That year's Final Four included the now-seasoned Donovan, who, together with UCLA's Ben Howland, Georgetown's John Thompson III, and Ohio State's Thad Matta, had an average coaching age of 42.5 years. Though the exceptionally low age of that year's Final Four coaching corps may not have immediately resulted in a drop in average hiring age across D-I, it certainly could have made it less outlandish for the college basketball viewing public (and, more relevantly, athletic directors) to see younger blood reach the summit of the sport. It's conceivable that the 2007 tournament cemented the foundation set by Calipari and Donovan, and gave way to Final Fours that could more regularly feature coaches like Stevens and Smart.

With that said, our data can only confirm one specific point: a young coach can indeed cause a national rethinking of how age plays into success only by guiding his team to the national championship game. The cases of Billy Donovan in 2000 and Brad Stevens in 2010 show as much. On the other hand, the 2011 Final Four featured two coaches under 35, and yet the downward trend in hiring age experienced the year before has not persisted thus far for 2011-12 hires. Still, the two-year string of late-round success by young coaches is without precedent in the past two decades. If a "Stevens effect" does exist on a national level, we'll need a few more years to see how seismic it really is.

Many thanks to statsheet.com, basketball-reference.com, and bbstate.com for the comprehensive and organized data that made our job much easier.

Follow Nic on Twitter: @nicreiner. While you're at it follow Corey there too: @HalcyonHoops. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.

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2011-08-10 - Minimum Age: Looking for a Stevens Effect

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