At Maryland and Florida State, succession plans fuel speculation

By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Few things can throw a major college athletic program off-kilter the way a football coaching transition can. In recent years, some schools have sought to mitigate such upheaval by publicly naming successors years before their current coaches are ready to give up their jobs.

Such coach-in-waiting plans have paved the way for smooth transitions at some schools -- namely Wisconsin, Purdue and Oregon -- but for Maryland and Florida State, who meet Saturday in Tallahassee, the strategy has only heightened speculation on the futures of the men currently in charge.

Bobby Bowden, after an illustrious 34-year tenure with the Seminoles that includes two national titles, and Ralph Friedgen, after nine mostly successful seasons at Maryland, have dealt with competitive struggles on the field and rampant speculation off it this season. Entering Saturday's game, Florida State is 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the ACC; Maryland is 2-8, 1-5.

Florida State's Jimbo Fisher is guaranteed $5 million if he is not head coach by January 2011, and Maryland's James Franklin is owed $1 million if he is not head coach following the 2011 season. But at both schools, fan bases are divided and school officials are mum over whether the change should come sooner, and the visible presence of the apparent successors might be undermining the very stability they were supposed to provide.

"Expectations have to be clear, timelines have to be understood, and if that is not the case, then you run the risk of undermining the very reason you undertook the process in the first place," said David Carter, the executive director of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It is not about whether everybody should do [succession plans]. The real question is: If you're going to do it, are you going to do it properly?"

At Florida State and Maryland, there is considerable disagreement on what that means. The Terrapins are in the midst of their fourth losing season in the past six and are in danger of posting their first 10-loss season. And Florida State, which is one win from becoming bowl eligible, is a shell of the team that finished in the top five for 14 consecutive seasons between 1987 and 2000. Since then, the Seminoles have won 10 games just once.

Morgan Burke, the Purdue athletic director who instituted head coaching succession plans in men's basketball and football, said: "There is always a risk. You would like to be able to time things perfectly so that one coach leaves on a high and the other coach comes in on a high, but if you look at 120 [teams], the predominant record is going to be 6-6, 7-5, 5-7. If you get fixated on trying to time it, it's kind of like trying to win the lottery. You may get there, you may not."

Fisher, who was named Bowden's eventual successor in December 2007, is reportedly working with Florida State President T.K. Wetherell on a contract for him as head coach, and if Bowden were to return in 2010, Fisher could have the authority to make staff decisions as early as the end of this season.

While the Seminoles have faded from the national radar, Fisher has been in charge of an offense that ranks 13th nationally in passing and 19th in total offense this season. If quarterback Christian Ponder returns for his senior season, Florida state's offense could be even more prolific next season.

If Franklin were to assume Maryland's head coaching duties next season, he would be stepping into his first head coaching job with less momentum. He is the current play-caller of a team that is 2-8, leading an offense that ranks 108th in rushing and 106th in total offense. The silver lining is that that the team has just 14 seniors and offensive line injuries and inexperience have been too significant for the offense to overcome.

Franklin carries the reputation of an impressive recruiter; has named him one of the nation's top 25 recruiters on multiple occasions. And Friedgen has said that he has been impressed with recruiting this season despite the record; no recruit has decommitted. But it remains to be seen how fans would react should the play-caller of the worst Maryland team this decade be elevated to head coach the next season.

"If the program is trending the wrong way, in other words, if they have been losing a lot or losing more than normally lately, then the coach in waiting may have lost a lot of its luster," said Scott Rosner, the associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. "It is a huge risk associated with it. You certainly want to be trending upwards or close to your peak when you do those things, because if you are trending downward, the coach in waiting is not going to be as attractive."

Among the issues Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow will need to weigh is the cost to keep Friedgen against the more than $4 million it would cost to fire him. Three of the Byrd Stadium crowds this season rank among the smallest home crowds since 2002. Season ticket sales have declined for five consecutive seasons. The school's projected season ticket number for the 2009 season was missed by $600,000, a school official said. Whenever Franklin he is named head coach, he is contractually guaranteed a five-year contract and a salary no less than the average salary of the ACC's head football coaches.

On-field struggles, combined with nebulous timelines, make for awkward situations such as the ones that have arisen at Florida State and Maryland. Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver believes the only way he would even consider a succession plan in the future -- and Coach Frank Beamer has given no indication he is near retirement -- is if it involved a short transition period.

"We do not think it is a particularly good approach for a long-term situation," Weaver said after last season. "By that I mean when you don't know how long the current head coach is going to remain in the current role. I think the only way it really works well is if it's a one- or two-year term, but beyond that there are too many uncertainties that arise."

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