Coaches-In-Waiting: New Hot Thing Now a Thing Of The Past?

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Coaches-In-Waiting: New Hot Thing Now a Thing Of The Past?
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

(Will Muschamp was a pioneer. Is he now the last of a dying breed?)

Not unlike the Spice Girls or a bad 24-flu virus, the whirlwind-popular trend of naming a "coach in waiting"—a planned successor, if you will—might soon come to a sudden, thudding end.

Not that it didn't have a good run. Just in the last six years, I can think of a handful of college programs and at least one NFL team that attempted to smooth the rough waters of transition by hand-picking a successor. Sometimes, it's worked, (Matt Painter) and sometimes, it hasn't. (Jim Mora, Jr.) But up until just a few days ago, it was possibly the hippest fad in bigtime coaching.

Just less than two weeks ago now, the NCAA passed a rule change essentially treating coaches-in-waiting just like head coaches, meaning their contact with recruits would be limited in various ways. This, predictably, sparked an outcry from interested parties in Austin, Texas, and College Park, Md., where successors—themselves talented recruiters—had already been established. Now, suddenly, the issue has reached a flashpoint.

But why did it ever start? What was wrong with the old way (throwing silly, Nick Saban money at an up-and-coming coach) of doing things? It all comes down to college football's newest Pandora's box of treasure and trouble: recruiting.

 

Creating continuity

A couple years back, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks started to get questions about his age on the recruiting trail. Now 68, Brooks had already done tours in both college and the NFL and was several years deep into a successful stint at Kentucky, so the questions were admittedly valid.

So Brooks sought to soothe such concerns. Thus, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips was announced as Kentucky's coach in waiting, ready to take the wheel whenever Brooks retired.

"What we did was establish continuity in the recruiting process," Brooks said. "Recruits knew that there wouldn't be any major change in the philosophy offensively or defensively."

Brooks was hardly alone.

After watching Gene Chizik slide off to Iowa State, Texas replaced him with another former Auburn defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, who turned quickly into a heavy hitter in recruiting for the Longhorns. Eager not to lose the fiery assistant, Texas locked him up as Mack Brown's successor in November 2008.

Of course, Florida State beat both Kentucky and Texas to the punch with Jimbo Fisher, and it paid massive recruiting dividends this offseason, when Bobby Bowden retired and the Seminoles' class just got stronger.

"Kids definitely want stability," Rivals recruiting analyst Greg Ladky said.

Ladky used the example of Jordan Hicks, a blue-chip Cincinnati linebacker who chose Texas over Ohio State because of, according to Ladky, the stability offered by the Longhorns' coaching set-up.

Such an arrangement also helps those within the program. When Brooks announced after the Wildcats' Music City Bowl loss that he was stepping down, Phillips was announced as Kentucky's next head coach within two days.

"I think it went about as smooth as it possibly could," Brooks said of the switch. "There was minimal disruption in the recruiting process. ... There were minimal problems in the transition."

 

What comes next

The problem, of course, is where this little trend goes from here, because right now, its most likely course appears to be the county landfill.

For his part, Brooks said he didn't think "it's a wave that is going to all of the sudden catch on and be the high percentage thing in coaching changes." But a look around the landscape before the NCAA's rule change says it wasn't a remote phenomenon either.

Maryland, where Ralph Friedgen's job status might soon be called into question, has already named offensive coordinator James Franklin as his successor. Purdue hired Danny Hope away from Eastern Kentucky and made him assistant head coach for a year before he took over for Joe Tiller, after taking a similar tack with longtime basketball coach Gene Keady and his successor, Matt Painter.

And Oregon, where then-offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti was plucked as Brooks' successor when the latter left for the NFL back in the 1990s, named now-current coach Chip Kelly to follow Bellotti before he stepped down.

Now, all that might be coming to a close. Steve Yanda of the Washington Post reported last week that Texas and Maryland will jointly seek exemptions from the NCAA's recent edict, which Yanda outlines:

Under a rule passed by the NCAA's Board of Directors and Legislative Council in January, Terrapins offensive coordinator James Franklin, whom Maryland designated as Coach Ralph Friedgen's successor in February 2009, would be limited to one off-campus visit with a prospect, and that visit could not take place during the vital recruiting period from April 15 to May 31. Were he not a coach-in-waiting, Franklin, Maryland's top recruiter, would be permitted two off-campus evaluations -- one for athletics and one for academics—per recruit during that same period, like all other assistants.

Even if the Terps and 'Horns are successful, others likely won't be able to follow in their wake. Recruiting has become a massive headache for the NCAA in recent years, as technology and attention have driven the practice, once widely ignored, to the forefront of the college football landscape.

Perhaps some teams will be willing to accept these limitations, though it seems unlikely. It probably wouldn't be the best idea.

And there are those who have pointed out , rightfully so, that in many situations, naming a coach-in-waiting circumvents a hiring process now structured to ensure that minority candidates are given fair consideration.

Yes, both Phillips and Franklin are black, but that doesn't guarantee other successors will be. As Kevin Blackistone points out in the above-linked story, it's likely that, with or without this rule, many supposed successors never would have been officially titled anyway, only given the appropriate raises when necessary to keep them in the fold long enough for their bosses to retire.

And at this rate, it was only a matter of time before a program was going to be strong-armed into hiring a coach and his successor together.

To tell the truth, I was always sort of ambivalent about this whole practice. It's easy to see both sides of the argument, and you can't argue against its positive impact—as Brooks pointed out, that it has introduced only the second African-American head coach in SEC history and the first in Kentucky history.

But it also creates lots of problems. It is a complicated topic in an already-too-complicated field, one that's spiralled dangerously close to Gimbal lock.

In certain cases, it fosters an unfair recruiting edge to those with the most clout and the most money to throw at would-be program princes. And given the NCAA's lack of jurisdiction over schools' individual hiring practices, there's no telling where it would have led next. 

In other words, its probably for the best that it's probably gone.

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