WVU fiasco textbook case of how not to appoint coach-in-waiting
West Virginia's failed coach-in-waiting plan ended with Bill Stewart's resignation
Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin provided blueprint for how to make transition work
AD Luck will go down as architect of worst coach-in-waiting plan ever conceived
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck fired football coach Bill Stewart on Nov. 14, 2010, effective -- both hoped -- sometime in January 2012. In December, the plan became official. Stewart would supervise his eventual successor, Dana Holgorsen, and a bunch of coaches hired by and loyal to Holgorsen.
What could possibly go wrong? Other than everything?
The bizarre professional partnership of Stewart and Holgorsen ended Friday when Stewart resigned after it became apparent that a pro-Stewart faction -- possibly led by Stewart himself -- attempted a smear campaign against Holgorsen. (To catch up on the entire sordid tale, read the last three weeks of posts from The Smoking Musket blog.) Friday, Luck did what he should have done in January. He elevated Holgorsen to head coach.
Luck, who came to West Virginia after a successful run as an executive in several pro sports ventures, will go down as the architect of the worst coach-in-waiting plan ever conceived. Financial necessity may have forced Luck into the arrangement -- West Virginia would have owed Stewart more than $2 million had it fired him without cause in January -- but how much will this PR fiasco cost West Virginia in the long run? Maybe Luck should have passed the hat. Some succession plans have been quite successful, but this one never stood a chance. Seriously, this isn't in a management handbook somewhere?
If you run an organization and have a high-visibility, high-salary employee who doesn't perform up to expectations, you fire him immediately. You pay him the agreed-upon severance and offer a reasonable phase-out period, but he has to be gone in a reasonable amount of time. George Clooney would come to the office and ask the employee what he kept in his backpack, a security guard would watch the employee pack the Beyonce CDs he kept in his desk and the employee would exit the premises with a handshake he might not accept and a wish of good luck down the road.
You do not, however, inform said employee of his firing more than 400 days ahead of his termination date and then ask him to work for a year with the guy who will take his job. Because the employee might get a little ticked about that, and he might do something that embarrasses himself, his boss and -- most importantly -- the company.
To use a non-business analogy, you don't tell your wife you want a divorce in a year and then move your mistress into the spare bedroom. It's just common sense.
But since common sense doesn't always prevail, maybe there should be a handbook for these types of decisions. So athletic directors, feel free to clip and save this handy-dandy guide to coaches-in-waiting. Think of it as a two-point conversion chart for coaching hires.
When To Appoint a Coach-in-Waiting:
When the outgoing coach will still be the new guy's boss: Why did things go so smoothly at Wisconsin and Oregon? Because Bret Bielema would still have to answer to Barry Alvarez and Chip Kelly would still have to answer to Mike Bellotti. Alvarez and Bellotti, as athletic directors, would maintain power over Bielema and Kelly in the future. Even if they had wanted to, the coaches-in-waiting wouldn't have dared undermine someone who could eventually fire them. The AD gig didn't work out for Bellotti, but it made for an easy transition.
When the outgoing coach is retiring of his own accord within the next two years: Rich Brooks didn't need to be Kentucky's football coach to feel like a man. In fact, Brooks probably would have been hired for the Dos Equis commercials if he didn't already have his own competing product. So it didn't bother Brooks one bit that Joker Phillips was tapped to replace him, and the torch pass went smoothly.
When Not To Appoint a Coach-in-Waiting:
When you already have a successful, not-old head coach and you're using the deal to keep a hot coordinator: Take it away, Mack Brown. "What I think happens with it is the longer you go, the more question marks it allows fans and media to bring up -- especially if things aren't going well," Texas coach Brown said in a March interview. As the Longhorns faltered last season, everyone began wondering when Brown would pass the torch to defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Brown had no intention of stepping down, which just made everything more awkward. "I didn't think it was fair to Will or our team when there wasn't a plan," Brown said. "There wasn't a deadline." Now Muschamp is Florida's coach, and everyone in Texas realizes that when Brown finally is ready to retire, there will be plenty of qualified applicants for the job.
When you have a not-so-successful, not-old head coach and you're using the deal to keep a hot coordinator: Maryland made James Franklin the successor to Ralph Freidgen before the 2009 season. Then the Terrapins went 2-10. School officials couldn't make a change because they couldn't afford to fire two head coaches. Then, in 2010, Friedgen turned things around. But when Franklin left for the Vanderbilt job, Maryland could suddenly afford to fire Friedgen.
When you have a fading legend who wants to stick around a while: The plan seemed perfect for Florida State. Bobby Bowden would bow out gracefully after the 2010 season and give way to offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. But when it became clear by the end of the 2009 season just how much FSU had stagnated, Bowden was forced out in an ugly divorce. After Fisher's first season as head coach, it's clear the move should have been made earlier. There is never an easy way to bid farewell to an icon. It's probably best not to bring in another contract to complicate matters more.
When you have a coach you know is in over his head but you want to hedge your bet by keeping him around to work with the new guy: Which AD said this? "I didn't believe that we had an opportunity to win a national championship with the direction of the program. At the end of the day, results matter. And we weren't getting the results."
The mystery AD is Oliver Luck. He said those words in December about Bill Stewart. If you're an AD and those words pass your lips in reference to your football coach, it's over. Fire him, effective immediately. Hire someone new.
In that order.