For Some Colleges, Coaches-in-Waiting Are the Way to Go

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

More than a decade has passed since DeLoss Dodds last had to hire a football coach, and in that time much has changed about the task. When Dodds, the University of Texas men's athletic director, brought Mack Brown to Austin in 1998, the process was fairly simple: Identify a desirable coaching candidate, make him an offer and sign him up.

These days, the process is often a fierce competition involving buyouts, counteroffers and even potential lawsuits, and Dodds figured he could do without the extra headaches. So even though Brown, 57, has stated no intention of retiring anytime soon, Texas announced last month that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, 37, eventually will assume the reins of the Longhorns' program.

Texas is one of a handful of schools that have utilized the "coach-in-waiting" tag in recent years. As the practice of hiring head coaches has become increasingly complicated and the benefits provided by the appearance of long-term stability have become more diverse, Florida State, Oregon, Kentucky and Purdue also have developed succession plans to deal with upcoming or eventual changeovers.

"It seemed to us that it was such a problem to go through all that [trouble] when the program's in good shape, and that you can train somebody from the inside and have a seamless kind of transition when the time came," Dodds said. "So if the right person was in the ranks, it seemed to us that it was best to keep them there and grow them and put them in the position when the time came."

The recent trend of college football programs naming coaches-in-waiting began in July 2005, when longtime Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez announced he would retire at season's end and turn over the program to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema. Since taking control in 2006, Bielema has compiled a 28-10 record. Tomorrow, Wisconsin (7-5) will meet Florida State (8-4) in the Champs Sports Bowl.

School officials were quick to point out this method is not right for every situation and that football programs must possess certain qualities to pull off such an approach.

At Purdue, for instance, succession plans have been executed in both football and men's basketball over the past five years. In each case, according to Athletic Director Morgan Burke, the respective programs already were headed in the right direction and needed a fresh, yet familiar, hand at the helm.

In the spring of 2007, football coach Joe Tiller approached Burke about setting a time frame for the end of his career. After establishing that Tiller would retire following the 2008 season, Burke set out to identify candidates who would be amenable to learning under Tiller's tutelage for a year before taking control of the team.

Burke's search team, which included Tiller, selected Danny Hope, then the head coach at division I-AA Eastern Kentucky and someone who previously had worked with Tiller at Purdue. Hope, who was hired in January, signed two contracts -- one stating he would serve as the team's associate head coach for one season and another designating him the team's head coach effective Jan. 1, 2009, through the following five seasons.

"Danny's responsibilities were clearly defined," Burke said. "He was going to be the offensive line coach, which was what he had been with Joe in the past. He wasn't going to be the offensive coordinator. And we had an understanding that Danny was pretty much off the media platform in terms of commenting on the program."

Schools that make a coaching change at the conclusion of a season often have to rush to hire a new leader, then rush some more to fill out a recruiting class in the six weeks between the conclusion of the regular season and the mid-January signing day.

Even for coaches whose jobs are not at risk, recruiting can become treacherous territory. Bobby Bowden has led Florida State to two national championships, 12 conference titles and more than 300 wins since he took over in 1976. But at 79, Bowden knows other programs will try to lure away recruits by pointing to the uncertainty of his coaching future.

"Given Bobby's age, you know that opposing coaches will say, 'Well, you don't know who's going to be coaching you when you're a junior or a senior,' " said Bill Proctor, formerly the interim athletic director at Florida State. "But we put the university in the position to say, 'Hey, you're going to get to play under one of the winningest coaches in the history of college football and on top of that, you're going to get one of the fine, outstanding young coaches when he retires.'"

On Dec. 10, 2007, Proctor and Florida State President T.K. Wetherell tapped offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher as Bowden's successor. Like Brown at Texas, Bowden has set no timetable for his retirement, which means Fisher remains in limbo in more ways than one. His name is mentioned frequently whenever high-profile coaching positions become vacant.

At Virginia Tech, where Frank Beamer, 62, has led the Hokies since 1987, a coach-in-waiting designation would be used only if it was certain Beamer would retire in the following season or two, according to Athletic Director Jim Weaver.

"Beyond that," he said, "there are too many uncertainties that arise."

Dodds listed "in demand" as the quality that set Muschamp above other Longhorns assistants who had coached under Brown longer. But Dodds also said Muschamp -- whose agreement to serve as coach-in-waiting is strictly oral while a proposed contract passes through Texas's administration and Board of Regents -- has no restrictions binding him to the Longhorns as part of the oral or written agreement.

"He's free to go at any time he wishes," Dodds said. "But he's committed to us that he's not doing that."

So long as both parties keep their word, Muschamp will provide Texas with the steadiness it desires and Dodds with reassurance that Brown's eventual retirement will bring about a relatively headache-free transition.

"I think the stability of the program is the big thing," Dodds said. "It tells the world: This is where we are. This is where we're going. This is where we're going to be in the future."

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