Dynastic lessons for coaches-in-waiting

When Paul W. Bryant left his kingdom to the strongest, it set into motion a period of chaos in the Alabama football program. Factions formed, and chaos followed. While the empire wasn’t divided like Alexander’s, the divisions and weak leadership destabilized Alabama Crimson Tide football. Would a succession plan have prevented the trouble? Maybe. But strong leadership throughout the university is even more important.

A succession plan would have allowed Bryant significant input. While Bryant might have been reluctant to name a favorite, such action (if taken) would have legitimized the successor. For more than a decade being a disciple of Bryant was tantamount to a job requirement at Alabama. Who can imagine the worth of being his anointed successor? Forget the Triregnum and the keys—no successor of St. Peter would have ruled with more authority. Beyond this, picking the right person (defined as someone with more loyalty and longevity than Ray Perkins) would have eliminated the Bill Curry era. While it might not have eliminated the troubles of the Mike Dubose era, more stability and leadership would have reduced the chances of such turmoil. (The problem of the Dubose era was a crisis of leadership. Nobody was in charge of the football program, or the athletic department. It continued for some time, and I’m still not sure that even Nick Saban has fully tamed the bureaucratic nightmare that exists in Tuscaloosa.)

But such conjecture is nothing but hindsight. Every hire is nothing more than a crapshoot, as an old publisher boss of mine liked to say. There are no guarantees that a succession plan would put the right person into power. In fact, it could just as easily be the wrong person. Therefore, the goal of succession plans is strictly limited to one goal—to eliminate uncertainty.

Uncertainty is poison to a business. Speculation over the health of a CEO can harm a stock’s share price, or undermine retention of important employees. Just look at all the fretting over Apple and Steve Jobs. Jobs’ health is highly related to the perception of Apple as a company. Where would Apple be without Jobs’ leadership?

Where would Alabama football be without Nick Saban’s leadership? It wouldn’t be good. Is there any team sport where the coach plays a bigger role than the head coach does in football? And just like in business, uncertainty is bad for college football.

When the head coach could be gone tomorrow, it hurts recruiting. This can be a product of poor performance, advancing age or general malaise—it doesn’t matter. In the world of recruiting, everything is exploited from Bobby Bowden’s age to Nick Saban’s inability to smile. Installing a coach-in-waiting eliminates some uncertainty. It provides a counterpoint on the recruiting trails. You can tell a player interested in Texas that the Longhorn’s next coach is Will Muschamp. And with the succession of Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, the promise made to FSU players recruited during the closing days of Bowden was fulfilled.

A coach-in-waiting is never really heir apparent, but always simply heir presumptive. He is always capable of being kicked from the succession plans at anytime for any reason. Tick off the head coach in meetings? You might not keep your title. Sure, you might get a settlement, but that doesn’t get you the job. Your benefactor loses too many games? He might not be the only one getting the boot out of the athletic complex. Fans, boosters and administrators are fickle—contracts notwithstanding.

And any coach-in-waiting must recognize they hold their position only through the goodwill of their benefactor. Ask Henry VI or the Duke of York about the Earl of Warwick. Warwick “the Kingmaker’s” support was not to the person but to Warwick’s own agenda.

Of course as Paul Finebaum noted in his column Tuesday, naming a coach-in-waiting can create “tension and animosity” and yield “disastrous” results on the field. This is a major problem for any succession plan. Someone else on staff will always feel entitled to the position. Will be aggrieved they did not get picked, and attempt a football version of a coup. Another source of tension is that naming a coach-in-waiting inevitably increases factionalism and divides loyalty. An assistant coach can please either his current boss or his soon-to-be boss. The old proverb that a man can’t serve two masters is accurate here. While the coach and his heir presumptive share similar goals, they are not always the same. One’s goal is the preservation of power; the other’s goal is the assumption of that power. Again these are close, but not identical. Look at the case of an offensive coordinator as coach-in-waiting. Would anyone argue that the OC’s goal is to make the offense more explosive and exciting? A better offense can help the overall team, but a quick strike is better than a clock eating drive for a person that is offensive coordinator. This is an inherent danger when assistants become larger than the head coach is.

By naming a coach-in-waiting, a school is attempting to minimize uncertainty, but it can introduce new problems to the organization by blurring loyalty and undermining the present power structure. The only way to control these forces is with strong leadership from within the University. This can come from either the president or athletic director. This leadership must restrain the factionalism that comes with any coaching change. Alabama’s leadership post-Bryant has not been up to the challenge of restraining the various forces at play. While Alabama football coach Nick Saban may not be “anywhere near the finish line of his career” as Finebaum noted, it would benefit Alabama to begin planning for a post-Saban world. Call it part of the “process.”