Does a mid-season coaching change ever work?

TORONTO — There’s a plethora of reasons why a team would make a coaching change mid-season.

Perhaps their team isn’t performing up to standard and the GM decides to move in a different direction with the man behind the bench. Sometimes the current coach needs to resign, leaving an open spot for someone new to step in.

Whatever the reason may be, does a mid-season coaching change ever work?

In order to answer that question, we’ll have to take a look back in CFL history.

There have been 61 head coaching changes made in-season since 1956 and only 18 of those changes have resulted in those teams going to the playoffs (29.5 percent). 18 of those new bench bosses led their teams to a record of .500 or better. Only three (4.9 per cent) have made it to the Grey Cup and two (3.3 percent) have resulted in a championship.

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Steve Buratto is pictured here before the Western Final in 2000 (The Canadian Press)

One of the two teams that won a championship after a coaching change was the BC Lions in 2000.

About half way through the year, Lions HC Greg Mohns resigned to join the XFL, leaving a vacant spot for Steve Buratto to take over. Buratto had only joined the team two weeks prior as a receivers coach and he helped the Leos win three of their last four games heading down the stretch into the playoffs. They finished 8-10. BC roared to victory over the Edmonton Eskimos in the Western Semi-Final followed by a win in the Western Final over the Calgary Stampeders. Then their season ended with hoisting the Grey Cup after defeating the Montreal Alouettes 28-26.

The only other time that a mid-season change led to a championship was in 1987 where Joe Faragalli took over the head coaching job from Jackie Parker, who was forced to resign due to illness after his Esks started 2-0. Faragalli went 9-7 for the rest of the regular season and went 2-0 in the playoffs before winning the Grey Cup.

Jim Popp was the only other replacement coach that appeared in the Grey Cup but his team did not come away victorious. Popp took over for Don Matthews in 2006 due to health reasons with four games left in the season. Popp helped the Alouettes to finish 10-8 and win the Eastern Final before losing the Grey Cup to BC.

How about we take a look at more recent memory. The last five coaching changes dating back to 2015 have produced no playoff appearances and a 16-26 record. Both June Jones (6-4 after taking over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2017) and Jacques Chapdelaine (4-2 after taking over the Montreal Alouettes in 2016) had winning records but failed to make the playoffs.

That being said, just because a team doesn’t make it to the Grey Cup, doesn’t mean that a mid-season coaching change was a complete failure. There have been plenty of instances that a change on the bench actually benefited the team, regardless of the fact that they did not play in the game in late November that season.

Here are a handful of replacement coaches that made a positive impact on their team:

Team Replacement Coach Year Record After Taking Over/Result Previous Team Record
Calgary Stampeders Lary Kuharich 1987 8-2, lost in 1st playoff game 2-6
BC Lions Adam Rita 2002 9-3, lost in 1st playoff game 1-5
Toronto Argonauts Michael Clemons 2002 4-2, lost in 2nd playoff game 1-5
BC Lions Greg Mohns 1998 6-3, lost in 1st playoff game 3-6
BC Lions Larry Donovan 1987 4-0, lost in 1st playoff game 8-6

There have been, however, many times where changing a coach mid-season didn’t do anything positive for the team. In fact, it did quite the opposite. There have even been teams, like the 2008 Toronto Argonauts and the 2017 Montreal Alouettes, that didn’t win a single game after a new coach was behind the bench.

Here’s a handful of teams that didn’t do so well after a coaching change:

Team Replacement Coach Year Record After Taking Over  Previous Team Record
Toronto Argonauts Don Matthews 2008 0-8 4-6
Montreal Alouettes Kavis Reed 2017 0-7 3-8
Hamilton Tiger-Cats Urban Bowman 1997 1-10 1-6
Hamilton Tiger-Cats Marcel Bellefeuille 2008 1-7 2-8
Ottawa REDBLACKS Bob Weber 1998 2-13 0-3
Ottawa REDBLACKS John Payne 1996 3-13 0-2
BC Lions Dave Skrien 1961 1-7-1 0-6
Toronto Argonauts Bud Riley 1978 1-6 3-6

Back to the original question, does a mid-season coaching change ever work?

Teams that have made in-season coaching changes have gone 330-702 in total (.320), with a 124-372 (.250) record before the change and a 206-330 (.384) after the change.

Based on the fact that only three teams changed coaches in-season and made it to the Grey Cup, it appears that changing a coach during the season rarely ever works. Burrato’s achievement is the only one of its kind since the other two teams were above .500 before the new coach took over.

That means there is usually some improvement when there’s a change behind the bench (due to desperation or illness) but it’s usually not enough to make a difference. That being said, there is sure to be an instance moving forward where a team will make a coaching change mid-season and perhaps they will become the third team to win a Grey Cup with replacement new coach.