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Friday, June 10, 2011

Why is Succession Planning So Difficult?

Exhibit A: West Virginia's handling of head football coach Bill Stewart. It's a mess.

Exhibit B: Penn State and Joe Paterno. Another mess, and, yes, risking heresy and vitriolic attacks from Penn State fans, it's gone on for way too long. JoePa should have had a graceful and gracious exit many years ago.

Exhibit C: Fill in the blank.

In the case of Stewart, they had hired a coach in waiting, which was fine, but now the WVa faithful and brass are impatient and want that successor manning the conning tower now. The problem is that they failed to tell Stewart that, and they have a mess on their hands.

In the case of JoePa, well, they let him become larger than Penn State itself, which is ironic given that Paterno, through large donations, has shown his love for Penn State. Except, unfortunately, Paterno's love for himself exceeds his love for the institution to which he's added so much. When someone becomes bigger than the institution, well, then you'll have the makings for a disaster in succession planning. Other examples are Bob Knight at Indiana, when accountability for outbursts (but never integrity) became and issue and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, who occupies a perch in a somewhat inaccessible tower in Cameron Indoor Stadium and for whom succession plans are unclear (although Coach K is in great shape and his teams are performing at a high level, so there are no issues there, but there could be some day).

Succession planning anywhere is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake. It's hard to find good and patient successors, and it's hard to get leaders to step aside, especiallly if they won't have anything to turn to or think that they won't or, plain and simple, will miss the adrenaline rush. Combine the two, and you'll have major problems. Look, Texas had Will Muschamp as a coach in waiting to replace Mack Brown, only to have Florida pluck him away when Urban Meyer surprisingly retired. Score one for Texas for having a good plan, but now they'll have to go back to the drawing board. So, even when you do it right, you run the risk that an opportunistic program will grab your program's successor, thereby getting a free ride off your school's planning. Penn State had John Sandusky and then Fran Ganter in waiting; the former left to work with troubled youth (where he's had some personal problems) and Ganter, who turned down the Michigan State job, ended up timing out, so to speak -- Paterno didn't leave and Ganter's offenses had their troubles.

So, what to make of all this? I suppose that the coaching trees of life are such that there are ample successors anywhere, and that the meritocracy is such that a halfway decent coach will succeed a coach who retired or was terminated. And, perhaps the problem that I identify is only for schools with older coaches (of whom there aren't many) and legends (of whom there are even fewer). And that compels a question: can you name a school where someone followed a legend and excelled? Let's think about that.

John Robinson did a pretty good job at USC after John McKay. Bill Guthridge did a good job at UNC after Dean Smith, but then Matt Doherty failed (and somewhat miserably at that). Mike Davis couldn't fill Bob Knight's shoes at Indiana, but Joe Hall did a good job succeeding Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. And that's pressure, isn't it? Would you want to succeed Coach K? Or, would you rather carve out a path -- like Brad Stevens at Butler -- where you could build your own name without following a legend? After all, Coach K was one game over .500 after about 7 years at Army when he got the Duke job. He was by no means a sure thing (and it took John Wooden 15 years at UCLA and perhaps Pete Newell's retirement at Cal before he won his first national title).

So, perhaps it's a slow sports news day. Dallas's 3-2 advantage over Miami is yesterday's news. Hitting is down in Major League Baseball. Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith had a jovial dinner -- yesterday. And if you think that the labor skirmish in the NFL is bad, wait to you see the sabre-rattling in the NBA.

But, for now, contemplate succession planning for all your teams. Both for coaches and position players.

It's much harder than it seems.


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