Coaches in Waiting

The hot new trend in big-time college sports: Tap a key assistant as the head coach's eventual successor. Is that smart planning, does it diminish opportunity for minority candidates, or both?
February 23, 2009

Given the high stakes of big-time college football and basketball -- and how badly things can blow up when a coaching transition goes awry -- university presidents and athletics directors have always sought ways to hold on to up-and-coming assistant coaches when they think they have a winner on their staffs.

In recent years, institutions have steadily ratcheted up the incentives they've used to hold on to coveted coaches, including massive pay increases and inflated titles like associate head coach. Sometimes, with a wink and a nod, university administrators have made an informal promise that when the current coach leaves, the job will go to the assistant.

Now, at some institutions, that is shifting from an informal promise to an outright commitment. In the last year, at least a half-dozen big-time college football or basketball programs -- at high-profile institutions such as Florida State University and the Universities of Maryland at College Park, Oregon, and Texas at Austin -- have officially designated top assistants as their eventual head coaches. The universities' stated goals in taking this approach are similar: holding on to a sought-after commodity (a talented coach), ensuring continuity for current and future players alike, and embracing the sort of succession planning that is all too often seen as lacking elsewhere in higher education, such as in the selection of college presidents and other leaders. (Note: This article has been updated to correct information from an earlier version.)

In that way, athletics officials say, the tactic is no different from a big pay raise or the other previously embraced tactics.

But in other at least one other key way, identifying a "coach in waiting" is quantifiably different. At a time when the National Football League has gone so far as to require that teams interview minority applicants for open coaching positions -- an approach that some have advocated for college football, too, given the relatively small proportion of minority head coaches -- the idea of selecting a future coach without a full-blown, open search troubles some legal experts and advocates for affirmative action.

"It's just not an open search," says Floyd Keith, president of Black Coaches and Administrators, which has pushed for equitable consideration for members of minority groups in college hiring. "It happens behind the door, and no one knows what actually goes on. For better or worse, that's not good for inclusion and diversity. It doesn't lend itself to what we're trying to accomplish."

Behind-the-Scenes Search

Officials at the universities that have gone this route vigorously dispute the suggestion that they shortchanged diversity by choosing a new coach in this nontraditional way. The University of Texas at Austin announced in November that the defensive coordinator Will Muschamp would become head coach of the Longhorns football team upon Mack Brown's eventual retirement. Texas had been contacted by three other universities seeking permission to talk to Muschamp about their head coaching jobs, says DeLoss Dodds, and the assistant coach "seemed like the guy we thought would be our future." University officials were drawn to the prospect of holding on to "one of the top assistant coaches in the country" and to ensuring that its highly successful program had a level of continuity. "If the program's in great shape, why not build from the inside instead of having to go outside again?" Dodds says.

Before making that call, though, athletics officials did a thorough, behind-the-scenes scan of the coaching market place, Dodds says, to "tell me who would be on the list of people we would consider if we were going to do a search." With an eye toward ensuring a diverse pool, the university "pinpointed the people we would potentially be interested in -- including minority candidates," Dodds says. "And in the end, we still felt that if we could have any of the people on the list, Will Muschamp would have been the one we would have hired."

William Powers, the university's president, says he was involved throughout the process. "We are absolutely dedicated to diversity, on our faculty and student body and in our coaching," says Powers. "We went through every available coach in the United States, including looking for African American coaches, and came to the judgment that Muschamp was the right person. We went through as much consideration on diversity as I believe we would have if we had done a traditional search." Powers says he is "quite confident," too, that the university "followed all appropriate procedures" to ensure fair hiring.

Gary R. Roberts, dean and Gerald L. Bepko Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, and an expert on sports law, agrees with Powers that planned successions in college sports are unlikely to raise any legal issues as long as college officials "follow your own internal procedures." Most institutions have policies under which requirements to conduct national searches can be waived under certain circumstances; "the idea of not doing a search is not foreign on college campuses, whether it’s in athletics or anything else."

There is a legitimate policy question, Roberts says, of "whether or not widespread use of [this approach] would somehow undermine the efforts of the NFL or the NCAA to get more African American coaches hired." But "if enough of these situations elevate minority coaches, it probably isn’t going to be a problem," he adds. "It may end up that we have more hired."

And indeed, at least two of the institutions that have designated assistant football coaches to succeed their bosses eventually have hired black men: the University of Kentucky in January 2008 and the University of Maryland at College Park this month.

But plenty of other decisions haven't added any diversity, and in at least one case, at Texas Tech University, officials actually mandated in 2005 that its then-basketball coach, Bob Knight, would be succeeded by his son Pat, and he was, in February 2008.

Those concerned about what they perceive as underrepresentation of black coaches in big-time college sports generally believe that the "coaches in waiting" approach works against greater opportunity for minority candidates. Richard E. Lapchick, whose Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida just published its annual report card on minority hiring in college sports, recently called for an NCAA requirement (like the NFL's Rooney rule) that colleges interview minority candidates when they hire coaches and administrators.

In Lapchick's view, transparency is key; Congress, he notes, essentially forced colleges to start publishing the graduation rates of their athletes, and suggests that lawmakers might similarly seek to ensure that colleges give minority candidates a fair shake in hiring by requiring them to publish data about diversity on their athletics staffs.

To Lapchick and Keith, of the Black Coaches and Administrators group, any process that pushes the decision making about a new coach further out of the public eye can't be good, since "everything we've been working toward has been to get an open process," says Lapchick. Even if the process has ended up with some minority candidates being their institutions' designated successors, says Keith, "this is not something that we think is a good thing, in principle, for diversity in coaching."


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