January 28, 2009

Schools aim for stability with succession plans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Now that Danny Hope is Purdue's football coach, he finally gets a chance to breathe.

Besides putting in 60 hours a week as the Boilermakers' offensive line coach this past season, Hope also took the lead on any issue that concerned the 2009 team from recruiting to academics.

" '09 was always getting here in a hurry," Hope said. "The closer you got, the fuller your plate got."

The life of a coach-in-waiting isn't so much waiting as it is preparing. Hope rejoined Joe Tiller's staff a year ago knowing he would succeed Tiller at the end of the season. While coaching the line in '08, Hope kept one eye on '09.

"It allows you to do inventory of every phase of the program," Hope said. "You see it from in-house. That's one of the top benefits of being a coach-in-waiting."

Successful tenured coaches aren't just leaving legacies at their schools they're leaving successors. Florida State (Jimbo Fisher), Kentucky (Joker Phillips), Oregon (Chip Kelly) and Texas (Will Muschamp) already have announced their intentions to promote an assistant once their current coaches retire.

"It's a great weight off my shoulders," Texas coach Mack Brown said at the recent American Football Coaches Association convention. "I know the kids will be instilled with the same philosophies. I know the [assistant] coaches will have a chance to be retained."

As with Florida State, Oregon and Kentucky, the Longhorns have an accomplished coach with the clout to hand-pick a successor, who just happens to be a younger assistant highly coveted by other programs.

Muschamp, Texas' fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons, was rumored to be a target when Auburn was looking to fill its coaching vacancy. But Texas offered what Muschamp considered a more appealing opportunity a raise to $900,000 a year for now and one of the nation's top coaching jobs in a matter of years. Just how long Muschamp will wait is unclear: Brown's contract runs through 2016.

"I'm willing to wait and be the head coach of what I think is the best job in the country," Muschamp said.

Four programs have officially announced succession plans. Just as newsworthy are two that did not.

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is rumored to be the successor to Joe Paterno at Penn State, though Paterno has not acknowledged such a plan. Virginia Tech also appeared to fit the mold of a team that would designate a future coach. Frank Beamer, 62, is the longest-tenured coach at a school after Paterno and Bowden. Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster interviewed at Clemson during the offseason. Virginia Tech officials said a succession plan would make sense only if Beamer planned to retire in the next year or two.

Not everyone is pleased with the trend. Some are concerned this process will diminish opportunities for minority coaches; Phillips is the only black coach among the four designated successors.

"We really need to emphasize that designating a successor closes off inclusion, it closes off opening up interviews for all top candidates. And if you close that off, you will inevitably close off the opportunity to diversity the ranks of college football," NCAA vice president for diversity and inclusion Charlotte Westerhaus told USA Today in December.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a year younger than Brown, said he might have reservations for more pragmatic reasons. He said he had not spoken to coaches who have created a succession plan but has watched Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Purdue go through the transition. Tressel acknowledged the advantages, such as retaining a standout assistant and creating stability, but he questioned the effect on players or other assistants who may be confused by divided leadership.

"The guy it's easiest on, in my mind, is the athletic director," Tressel said. "Maybe who it's hardest on is the other coaches and the players."

At Oregon, Mike Bellotti was in the uncomfortable position of telling assistants Michael Gray and Robin Pflugrad to start looking for new jobs because they would not be retained when Kelly is elevated to coach. Bellotti also has told current recruits he won't be the coach for their entire time at Oregon.

Oregon has a succession plan that extended beyond the coaching position. Bellotti, 58, will replace athletic director Pat Kilkenny, and Kelly will replace Bellotti.

Bellotti said he will make a decision on whether to coach this season in March, and he also said he would not coach more than a season or two if he does return to the sideline.

"I'm at a point in my career where I can see the timeline, I can see the end of it," he said. "I feel comfortable that I can pass the program on to keep it at the same level or do greater things. I'm not walking away. I'm just walking across the hall."

Top coaches appointing their successor hardly is a new phenomenon in college sports. For instance, when North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith retired in 1997, he left the program to longtime assistant Bill Guthridge. And Joe B. Hall said he knew for three years he almost certainly would take over when Adolph Rupp retired at Kentucky.

"I don't remember if I had anything in writing," Hall said. "I didn't worry one way or another."

Then again, Rupp and Hall didn't have to contend with the modern media.

Kelly, Muschamp, Phillips and Fisher have been rumored as candidates for head-coaching positions elsewhere. Their current bosses also are on retirement watch to varying degrees. Any recruit with access to the Internet is aware of the rumors; thus, programs are putting plans in writing to reduce any chatter.

"The reason it's been made more public is because recruiting is so public now," Phillips said. "Recruiting wasn't as big as it is now. Recruiting the way it is, with the Internet, the world has shrunk. Kids know about your program. Kids want to know who they're going to be playing for."

Before Brooks named Phillips his successor, recruits were concerned how long Brooks, 67, would remain in Lexington. Now, it's known Brooks will turn the program over to Phillips, one of three assistants who have been with Brooks at Kentucky since 2003.

"They can't use Rich Brooks' age against us," Phillips said. "Kids know who will be coaching them."

Though the coach-in-waiting maneuver was intended in part to soothe recruits' fears, reports indicated the departure of Pflugrad played a role in Chandler (Ariz.) High athlete Markus Wheaton committing to Oregon State instead of Oregon. Pflugrad was the Oregon assistant in charge of Wheaton's recruitment.

A recruiting benefit of a succession plan is a way to sidestep the so-called "Saban Rule," which forbids head coaches from recruiting visits during the evaluation period. Assistants even if they are going to be the head coach one day are permitted to visit recruits during the spring.

Hope saw the advantage on the road this season. While other head coaches were barred from visiting recruits during the spring, Hope could meet his first freshman class face-to-face because, on paper, he was the offensive line coach.

"That's an important part of the recruiting process to go on the road to evaluate as an assistant before you take over," Hope said. "It takes the middle man out of the recruiting process. It takes the assistant out of the process. You can make all those assessments yourself."

With those kinds of benefits, Hope doesn't expect the coach-in-waiting trend to end anytime soon.

"A lot of major corporations promote in the same fashion," he said. "It's a trend in some ways. It will continue to grow. It makes a lot of sense."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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