MARCH MADNESS IS IN FULL SWING, with sports fans across the country fixated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament in which 64 teams battle for the national championship. The tournament is emblematic of the growing power and money of big-time collegiate sports and of the pressures facing both athletes and coaches on and off the field. Most certainly coaches are rewarded when their teams win, but it is less clear as to how athletes’ performance in the classroom affect their coaches’ fates. 

A new research paper co-authored by Christopher Avery, the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), examines that question in great detail. “Academics vs. Athletics: Career Concerns for NCAA Division I Coaches” is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  

“Division I college coaches can play a critical role in mediating the conflict between sports and academics,” the authors write. “Yet, it seems almost inevitable that coaches will be evaluated almost solely on the athletic accomplishments of their teams.”

By analyzing ten years of publically-available NCAA data – including yearly ratings of the academic records of players on each college team -- Avery and his fellow researchers reached a fairly surprising conclusion. 

“After controlling for the records of their teams, we find…a clear and statistically significant relationship between academic performance of players and coaching retention: all else equal, a coach of a team with a lower academic score is significantly more likely to be fired than a coach of a team with a higher academic score.” 

No relationship was found, however, between academic performance of players and the promotion of coaches by higher-paying institutions.  

“Together, these findings suggest that there may be a threshold in academic performance that is required for the coach to retain employment, but that coaches do not receive marginal benefit if their players exceed that threshold level of academic achievement,” the authors conclude.  

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