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Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Coaches Waiting to Fail

There's a saying that goes something like "cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people." Try telling that to the college football world, where a more appropriate credo seems to be "never follow a legend."

Seriously, Homerism is struggling to think of one instance in the last three decades in which a coach was able to step in and successfully replace a legendary predecessor. (The situations at Miami in the '80s and LSU this decade come to mind, but the men who started these sustained periods of excellence, Howard Schnellenger and Nick Saban, both had relatively short tenures.)

Yet, you could write a biblical-like genealogy of successors who have failed to live up to the lofty expectations established by an icon:

  • Oklahoma: Switzer begat Gibbs, who begat Schnellenberger, who begat Blake;
  • Notre Dame: Holtz begat Davie, who begat Willingham, who begat Weis;
  • Nebraska: Osborne begat Solich, who begat Callahan;
  • Florida: Spurrier begat Zook;
I could keep going--Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Ohio State, USC--but you get the point. Looking at that list, that whole "ties to the program" hasn't worked out too well either.

So yesterday's news that Mike Bellotti had decided to hand over the reins at Oregon to predestined successor Chip Kelly got Homerism to thinking about this trend of "coaches-in-waiting." Specifically, other than money, why the hell would any up-and-coming assistant like Kelly be interested in this kind of arrangement? 

Kelly's situation isn't much different from that of Will Muschamp at Texas, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, or even Joker Phillips at Kentucky. All are highly regarded assistants with no head coaching experience who parlayed outside interest from other schools into lucrative guarantees from their current employers.

Now, whether or not Bellotti qualifies as a legend is certainly debatable. However, what shouldn't be debatable is whether or not he is the best coach in Duck history. He's leaving the Oregon football program in a completely different stratosphere from where it was when he inherited it. For Kelly, there's a little room to move up and a whole lot farther way to fall. That doesn't strike Homerism as a situation built to succeed for a first-time head coach.
At least the CIWs are getting paid, though. Considering the track record, athletic directors pushing these arrangements just look foolish.

Sure, the allure of "continuity" is understandable. And maybe coaches actually do benefit from apprenticing at the side of a legend.

In reality, though, when successful leaders leave any organization, seamless transitions just don't happen--the chain is broken. Likewise, the notion that iconic coaches can be cloned seems like pie in the sky. Sure, it's possible to impart strategies from one generation of coaches to another, but it's not like personality transplants occur. Also, obsessing over one aspect of a candidate's resumé, such as having a history with a school, can cause the people making a hiring decision to ignore what should be its goal: finding the best coach for the job.

Any time a school loses a coach who has become synonymous with its football program--think Bowden, Paterno, Spurrier--the specter of that figure is always going to loom large for whomever takes over. That's tough enough, but expecting the replacement to actually be his predecessor makes the task that much harder. Especially for a second banana taking over at the top.
When a legend steps down, bringing in an outsider may not play well with the boosters. After all, if it ain't broke. 
Know what will play even worse with the alums? Disappointment and a painful divorce a few years down the line.