Replacing the Legends -- Schools Follow a Very Predictable Pattern
Brady Hoke says if his first year at Michigan doesn't end with a Big Ten title, he'll consider it a failure. That's pretty strong language, and it's fair to wonder why a coach would expect so much in his first season. Yet the pressure of living up to that expectation is nothing compared to the pressure of following a legend.
No, not Rich Rodriguez.
Hoke is Michigan's fourth coach since Schembechler retired. He'll report to work every day in a building which bears the name of the Michigan legend. He has to shoulder Michigan's post-Schembechlerian legacy that includes Gary Moeller, who was forced out after an ugly non-football incident, Lloyd Carr, who won a national title but couldn't beat Jim Tressel, and then Rodriguez. Now he comes in with a career 47-50 record and losing marks in five of his eight seasons at Ball State and San Diego State.
You know what? I like his chances, and here's why:
I've been following the coaching carousel for years and I've noticed a pattern. When a legendary coach steps down, the process of determining who coaches next nearly always follows an orderly procession. There are a few exceptions but generally speaking this is what happens when a school has to replace a larger-than-life coach.
Step one: Hiring one of the old coach's top assistants. This is always step one. If it isn't step one, then by definition the coach was not a legend.
It's the same logic that gives us movie sequels and TV spinoffs. "If you liked the original, this is going to be just as good!" Sometimes that's true and we get great stuff like "The Godfather Part II" or "Frasier." Sometimes we get sad, soggy dreck like "Home Alone 2" or "Joey."
There are some great success stories involving assistant coaches who proved to be the equal of their mentors. Tom Osborne kept Nebraska at the same high level Bob Devaney established. Bret Bielema has proven himself to be more than just Barry Alvarez Part II. But there are many failures down this road as well. Frank Solich wasn't quite up to replacing Osborne. After replacing Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, Gary Gibbs went 2-15-1 against OU's chief rivals. Gibbs had to pay the price for Switzer's recruiting naughtiness, but still, Oklahoma expected more. Some schools stay stuck on step one for years. (I'm looking at you, Alabama). Others realize the legendary coach can't be replaced and strike out in a different direction. But it's always the same different direction.
Step two: Hiring somebody who won big someplace else. At this point a school still believes it has a Program with a capital P. The alumni think the school has its choice of any coach in the country. The talent pool is never quite that thick, and many of the coaches looking for work don't want anything to do with this lower-case program and its staggering expectations.
Occasionally a school finds a gem at this stage. I could think of two: Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and Urban Meyer at Florida. In both cases they replaced coaches who were in way, way over their heads, trying to replace coaches who had won national titles. Ron Zook you know about. Gerry Faust, Dan Devine's replacement at Notre Dame, you may have forgotten.
But oh, the failures in step two. Think Dan Hawkins, who looked like a sure thing after Colorado had burned through the two brightest stars on Bill McCartney's coaching tree. Think Bill Callahan at Nebraska. Larry Smith at USC. Jim Donnan at Georgia. John Cooper at Ohio State. And, again, Rich Rodriguez. Step two hardly ever works. And step two is not optional.
At this point, some schools try to game the system by going back to step one or its evil twin, hiring a former player from back in the day. It's a logical strategy, but all it does is delay progress for a few years. You don't believe me? Two words: Mike Shula. Forget it. When the step two coach's former success fails to show up, or he bolts for the NFL, or he retires to spend two weeks with his family before taking another job, you'd best move on.
Step three: The huge honkin' gamble. By now, the athletic director knows his or her career depends on the success of this hire. No established home-run candidate will return phone calls. In fact, even their agents are ignoring phone calls, e-mails and hastily scrawled notes wrapped around bricks. It's time to call up the hot assistant who hasn't ever been a head coach, the guy with an ugly NFL resume stain, or some equally unpromising member of the coaching ecosystem.
This is where many great coaches have come from. Bob Stoops had no head coaching experience before he took over at Oklahoma. Pete Carroll had failed in two NFL jobs. Mack Brown had no connection to Texas whatsoever. He had won in the ACC but had never beaten Florida State. Yeah, there have been some notable failures here as well, but at least there's good news.
When step three fails, a school gets to start over from scratch.