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Succession Planning At Texas: Avoiding Transition Pitfalls

Avoiding a few of the pitfalls that plague coaching transitions.


It's one thing to call for changes at Athletic Director and head football coach (not to mention basketball and/or baseball) - and the time for change at Texas is past due - but it's another thing to engineer that change in a way that allows the program to re-energize quickly and optimally.

How can Texas best be served in making its transition?  Here are some common pitfalls to avoid and some good practices to embrace.  Please chip in with your own.

Athletic Director first.

It's vastly preferable to get the new AD in first.  You don't want to sour strong prospective AD candidates with a botched coaching transition (or secure the hot coach of the moment in advance of grabbing his boss - it's clear who the real boss is) and you don't want DeLoss Dodds making a Lou Holtz or Sonny Dykes TAKE THAT hire on his way out. Actually, I don't think he'd do that.  But he might leave the decision to a few alums.  Because he has before. We'll likely have more than a football coach to replace - the three most important men's sports at UT will probably all have new head coaches soon.  The new AD needs to choose his guys.  That decision can't be guided by a lame duck.  Or some ad hoc committee of billionaires who value access to the head coach and ring kissing over substance.

So, AD first.  But not yet.  December.

No interim coach.  NO.  INTERIM.  COACH.

Interim coaches are a trap.  They almost always fail - even when they "succeed" in the short term with a team rallying around a popular assistant.  We went to the GalleryFurniture Bowl after a 1-2 start!  Hurrah! And who cares?  You're hiring for the next decade - not the Iowa State game.  Now you're probably going 25-23 over the next four years with an unqualified head man doing a job well above his pay grade and a fan base in anarchy.  For every Dabo Swinney at Clemson, there are ten Bill Stewarts at WVU.  And I'm not sure the final results are in on Swinney.  This is the case at all levels - college football, basketball, NFL, NBA.

That means Mack Brown coaches until the end of the year.  Don't let your desire to punish Mack Brown overwhelm common sense.  Yes, you'll suffer.  And his press conferences will make your ears bleed.  It's vastly preferable to the alternative.  Suck it up.

On some very rare occasions - usually having to do with misconduct - you have to appoint an interim coach.  So announce publicly that this coach is operating on a six month contract and he is not a candidate for the future job.  If he feels humiliated by that, tough.  Get another assistant.  Or if you had a designated head coach in waiting, you might hire that guy instead of the dude who quit working on the job.  Hi, 2010!

Far too many Longhorns are clamoring for a Major Applewhite interim coaching situation. Sigh.  1). When will you people learn that personality cults are unhealthy? and 2). Major hasn't exhibited much more readiness for that gig this year than Bruce Chambers.

Interim coaches are stupid, short-sighted, and motivated entirely by a mob mentality and a desire to humiliate the current failed head coach.  It places an insecure, placating athletic department at the mercy of a dumb fan populist movement that will almost always ultimately fail and set you back another 3-4 years.

I also just described all political elections.

No, Mack Brown can't be the AD.

Jesus Christ, people.  Does this even have to be explained?

Identify and hire the new AD ASAP.

Not tomorrow.  Not in a panic.  But with alacrity.  He needs a little time to strategize and suss out his candidates so that his appointment and the new coach's appointment are seamless events and not embarrassing public displays of hand-wringing, doubt, and potential humiliation (David Shaw turned us down?  How dare he!).  Give him some time so you're not left with hasty coaching search that bumps up against National Signing Day and bowl season.

Avoid amateur hour.

Texas Athletics is a multi-hundred million dollar enterprise.  Hire accordingly.  Hiring a PE coach or a telegenic former player with sentimental attachments to the fan base is bad business.  See Mike Garrett, USC.  You're hoping they learn on the job.  That doesn't mean you rule out former athletes or coaches, but they'd better have some other things going for them.  The ability to crack 1200 on the SAT (the old one, not the fruity one you youngsters take now) would be a good start.  I'm not asking much.

Don't oversteer.

Whether in relationships or coaching hires, there is an understandable human tendency to oversteer to the characteristics your previous coach lacked.  We want Nick Saban for his cold efficiency, X & O acumen, and organizational competence.  We wanted Mack Brown for his warmth and charm over the chilly Mackovic.  We chose Mackovic's offensive "genius" and outsider status as a response to McWilliams, the unimaginative Longhorn family failure.  McWilliams, the beloved Longhorn son, was a response to Fred Akers, the outsider (selected over Royal's handpicked "family" successor, Mike Campbell).  McWilliams made that right.  Akers was the youthful, well-dressed energetic response to the staid end-of-Royal years.  He was seen as an offensive improvement, too - if you can believe it.

You can make a good hire while oversteering.  But trying to hire what the previous guy wasn't is a dangerous game.

The previous guy is gone.  Just hire a coach.  Pretend Mack was never here.

No staff retention deals.

Never force an incoming coach to retain any member of the staff.  First of all, it's a potential deal breaker to any self-respecting head coach.  Secondly, it's a huge source of potential resentment for an incoming staff, while also serving as a source of entitlement for those retained - "I'm bulletproof."  We've had quite enough of that around here, haven't we?

If that staff member's accomplishments are that obvious and his resume that flawless, whether as a coordinator, position coach, or recruiting asset - the new coach will retain him anyway.  He'll want some continuity in some form. But he needs to make that hire.  And the retained coach needs to know that his new head coach made that decision. He's not a protected special boy with extra privileges.  He's not shielded from on-high.

As with the interim coach situation, I see an alarming number of fans offering opinions on who must be retained. Please stop that.  The answer is no one.  No one on this current staff MUST be retained.  Do you even watch us play football?  I'm fine with some of them being retained, if deemed worthy or they fit into future plans.  There are some good coaches on this staff.  But a clean break wouldn't leave me teary eyed, either.

Don't be afraid of a deep cleaning.

Coaches don't fail by themselves.  They create cultures that fail.  And when the coach is excised, if that culture isn't scrubbed away with him, the new coach and AD spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy battling careerists and creating work arounds.  What better describes our current program?

Whether the alums who excused the failed culture for too long, the blowhard propagandists abusing the concept of metaphor every week on, or the failed coaches and athletic directors themselves, an alarming number of programs are overly interested in the retention or opinions of the people who created the culture of failure. Talk to an Ole Miss fan if you ever want an earful on that subject.  We need a good deep cleaning.  Deep doesn't mean indiscriminate (Randa Ryan has absolutely nothing to worry about), but Mad Dog should be updating his CV. I've never quite understood the passive tolerance of the old guard as if keeping around a few awful relics is an olive branch to tradition.  It's such a weird, persistent misreading of the situation.  The fans want the cleaning, too.

Don't be a jerk, and by all means, treat the outgoing staff with dignity, but open the windows and get out the Clorox.

Be open-minded.

I wrote this piece last year with that in mind.  Be willing to hire competency over flash, hard work over name recognition, and substance over reputation.  And don't assume that coaching or ADing is a strict meritocracy - at least in any brief snapshot of time.  USC is a top job.  Lane Kiffin is not a top coach.  Texas is a top job.  Mack Brown is no longer a top coach.  LSU is a top job.  Les Miles is...what the hell is Les Miles?

Before Urban Meyer was at Florida and Ohio State - top jobs by any definition - he was at Utah and Bowling Green. Did he require anointing by Florida to become a good coach?  Not in my book.  Though for the average fan - probably.  It was clear he was a great coach long before that.  The jobs eventually catch up.  There's nothing wrong with grabbing the next Urban Meyer.  If you have the willingness to look and the capacity to find those attributes.  It's not easy.

Before dismissing these possibilities and saying "a job of UT's stature requires a known quantity" etc, in 2009, Mack Brown was a known quantity.  And a lot of schools would have killed to have him.  So was Kirk Ferentz.  Nick Saban coaching Michigan State to 7-5 seasons in the late 90s wasn't on a lot of short lists.  And, of course, there was that green unknown with a middling collegiate record named DKR.  And that scrub from the Pioneer League, Jim Harbaugh...

Since I wrote that article, Andersen is now the head man at Wiscy, MaCintyre is heading up Colorado, and Doeren leads NC State.  Early returns are promising, but not enough to meaningfully evaluate.  These aren't exactly plum jobs - they're firmly in college football's middle class.  Will all three be major successes?  Probably not.  Are they - or other coaches like them - worth a look?  Worth our consideration?  Worth some research?  Of course they are.  If we only look at "big names" this is a failed process.


What would you add, take away, dispute?