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Coach-in-waiting agreements in college football seen as risky propositions

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 12:14 AM

In a matter of days this past week, the coach-in-waiting trend that was all the rage in college football two years ago appeared in danger of extinction. Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin - the two remaining members of the coach-in-waiting fraternity - departed the programs they were in line to take over eventually, instead assuming head coaching positions elsewhere .

Then West Virginia sustained the movement Wednesday by hiring Dana Holgorsen, who served this past season as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, to become Coach Bill Stewart's successor following the 2011 season.

Coach-in-waiting arrangements are viable only when an explicit endpoint is laid out, according to first-year West Virginia Athletic Director Oliver Luck.

"Over the years, as someone who has followed college football, I've looked at these arrangements, and I haven't been, quite honestly, a big fan of them," Luck said in a telephone interview. "The reason in my mind was the lack of a definite date in most of the cases."

In December 2008, five division I-A programs employed coaches-in-waiting. Two months later, Maryland said Franklin either would assume the reins from Coach Ralph Friedgen by January 2012 or he would be paid $1 million. However, Friedgen was under no obligation - contractual or otherwise - to step down during that time period.

Since then, only West Virginia has elected to go the coach-in-waiting route.

One deterrent has been the recruiting restriction the NCAA put into effect last spring that bound coaches-in-waiting to the same rules as head coaches. That meant such designated assistants - often a staff's best recruiter - would be severely limited in the number of in-home visits he could make and in the times during the year in which he could make them.

Texas and Maryland - the only two schools affected by the new rule at the time - were granted reprieves so that the new rule did not apply to them. Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds said his school's fight to abolish the rule is ongoing.

"Yeah, I think it's a deterrent because you want all of your assistant coaches viable to recruit," Dodds said in a telephone interview. "We've got some legislation that's pending. The first one we did was to grandfather us out of it, and the second one was to do away with the rule. It's a rule that shouldn't be there. It's something that will be looked at this year by NCAA membership."

The concern also exists that coach-in-waiting arrangements carry the potential of dividing players, staffs and fan bases, especially if a team's performance spirals downward.

When Jimbo Fisher, then Florida State's offensive coordinator, was tapped as the program's coach-in-waiting in December 2007, no timetable was established for when Coach Bobby Bowden would retire. Following a disastrous 2009 season during which unrest in and around the Seminoles' locker room became the norm and Fisher drew interest from other programs in search of a head coach, Bowden was forced to step down. Since then, Bowden has displayed bitterness toward his former employer in his public comments.

The potential for such fallout was a central concern for Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver when he took part in preliminary discussions with Coach Frank Beamer and university president Charles Steger more than a year ago about the possibility of naming defensive coordinator Bud Foster the program's coach-in-waiting.

In the end, all parties involved agreed that doing so could be detrimental to the team's recent pattern of success.

"I think it causes conflict in terms of the fact that there's one head coach," Weaver said in a telephone interview. "Because when you have a head-coach-in-waiting, some people start talking with him. We want to keep it clean. . . . I guess you might say we're conservative and old school."

Coach-in-waiting plans also do not ensure that the man programs want is the one who will be their next head coach. On Dec. 11, Muschamp left Texas to become the head coach at Florida. On Friday, Franklin was named Vanderbilt's head coach.

"It's got to be a perfect thing when you put it together," Dodds said. "I don't think it's something we'll do again, unless everything's right to do it again. . . . Had we not had that agreement, Will would have been gone after the first year. So we got three years with him, and that's a positive."

During Muschamp's three seasons in Austin, the Longhorns owned one of the top defenses in the nation, and it was Muschamp's youth (39) and potential that led Dodds and Coach Mack Brown to try to entice him to stay in Austin. But Brown, 59, gave no indication that he planned to step down in the near future, leaving plenty of room for Muschamp to grow impatient.

Luck, West Virginia's athletic director, said he was influenced by the coach-in-waiting models executed at Wisconsin and Oregon. In July 2005, longtime Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez announced he would retire at season's end and named Bret Bielema, then the Badgers' defensive coordinator, as his successor. Wisconsin went 10-3 in 2005 and 12-1 in 2006. Oregon went 10-3 during in 2008, Mike Bellotti's final season as head coach, and 10-3 in 2009, the first under former coach-in-waiting Chip Kelly.

On Jan. 10, Oregon will compete in the Bowl Championship Series national title game in Kelly's second season at the helm.

Luck acknowledges there are differences between those situations and the one he is overseeing at West Virginia. For instance, Alvarez and Bellotti left their positions by choice. Stewart was informed of Luck's intentions in a mid-November meeting between the two men. Still, Luck believes the basic commonality between the coach-in-waiting arrangement at his school and those at Wisconsin and Oregon is most crucial.

"In both those cases they were date definite; people knew," Luck said. "It's just like if you were the sophomore quarterback or the second-string guy and you're playing behind the senior, and you think you've got a pretty good chance of being the starter once the senior graduates. But if you know [the senior] has unlimited eligibility, that's another thing."

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