Commentary

Those newfangled succession plans shouldn't be just for coaches

Updated: January 23, 2008, 8:15 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming for this announcement. I've decided it's time to reveal my succession plan here at ESPN.com:

Mitchell Forde

M. Forde

Pat Forde

P. Forde

When I retire from column writing, it has been arranged for my 12-year-old son, Mitchell, to take over.

All the suits in Bristol have signed off on it. I'd introduce you to the Columnist-in-Waiting, but I can't get the Wii control out of his hand long enough to put on his clip-on tie and pose for pictures.

I know you'll be excited about this. Many of you already think I write at a seventh-grade level, especially readers from the great state of Ohio, so the transition should be seamless. But it won't be immediate.

Sometime in the next 20 years, I'll shut down the old laptop and turn it over to my kid. When in the next 20 years? I have no idea. Probably when they pry my stiff, dead fingers off the keyboard, but don't ask because I won't tell.

Determining a timetable is not the point. The points are these:

A. For me to exert control past the termination of my tenure and into the next.

B. To force my employer to buy into it.

C. To show how much political capital I've earned during my tenure.

This is the hottest trend in Sportsworld -- naming your own successor without naming a succession date. Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts did it this week, establishing assistant Jim Caldwell as the next coach of the Colts at whatever point Dungy decides to join his family in Tampa.

(I know it's almost sacrilege to say anything bad about Dungy, but does anyone else find it a bit odd that the alleged No. 1 family man in the NFL sent his family to Florida while he stays in Indy to chase another championship?)

Succession Mania is all over the place in college. Especially basketball: Bob Knight will be succeeded at Texas Tech by Pat Knight, time TBD; Lute Olson will be succeeded by Kevin O'Neill at Arizona, time TBD; Jim Boeheim will be succeeded by Mike Hopkins at Syracuse, time TBD. Sean Sutton, Tony Bennett and Keno Davis already have taken over for their dads at Oklahoma State, Washington State and Drake, respectively.

In college football, Kentucky just named offensive coordinator Joker Phillips as the heir apparent to Rich Brooks. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has been slotted to replace Bobby Bowden at Florida State, should Bowden eventually decide he doesn't want to coach until he's 100. Purdue just hired Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope as an apprentice to replace Joe Tiller.

The Purdue deal at least comes with a finite retirement date, effective after next season. The rest of them? Whenever the old buzzard in charge feels the urge.

Hey, lots of kids and/or other handpicked successors take over family businesses. But in most of those cases, the guy turning over the top job owns the business. In sports, there allegedly are school presidents and team owners calling the shots -- but apparently not all the shots.

Tony Bennett
Kirby Lee/WireImage.comWashington State's Tony Bennett is one successor who has been as good as promised.
Some of these agreements have worked out splendidly. Tony Bennett has dramatically improved the product at Washington State, and Keno Davis has done the same in a breakthrough season at Drake.

But the open-ended succession scenarios are probably worth about as much as the paper used for the press releases. They might last as long as a ninth-grader's oral commitment. Coaches already walk out on contracts and commitments all the time; what makes you think this will be any different?

For instance: Fisher came to Florida State last year for a handsome sum. On Dec. 7, the school announced that Fisher was its choice to succeed Bowden at a later date. About two weeks later, Fisher listened to West Virginia's overture about becoming the next head coach of the Mountaineers. He decided to stay in Tallahassee, but the succession agreement hardly deterred him from looking at another job almost immediately.

(One other thing about Fisher: He has a great rep in coaching circles, which helped earn him superstar coordinator pay at FSU. But in his first season the Seminoles deteriorated from 45th nationally in scoring offense and 70th in total offense under the excoriated Jeff Bowden to 90th in scoring offense and 80th in total offense under the sainted Fisher. Hm.)

Kentucky could be facing a similar situation with other schools making runs at Phillips. Brooks' oft-stated goal in Lexington is to become the longest-tenured head coach of the Wildcats. That would be 10 years on the job, and Brooks is halfway there. If Kentucky's offense keeps lighting up scoreboards the way it has the past two years under Phillips' command, do you really think he's going to sit around until 2013 waiting for a job?

My suspicion is that Kentucky and FSU were trying to pre-empt other job offers, while assuaging recruits at the same time. Most of these collegiate succession arrangements are used to convey continuity on the recruiting front -- so commit now, kid, and quit worrying about who your coach will be.

There probably are or have been other succession arrangements that went unannounced. Nobody was shocked when Bill Guthridge took over for Dean Smith at North Carolina, for example. But as Michigan football is likely to find out with Rich Rodriguez, breaking out of a familial mold can eventually serve a stale program well.

Change is often good. Job searches that expand beyond the usual suspects with ties to a school or a beloved coach can be beneficial. (See: Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Pete Carroll at USC, Urban Meyer at Florida, and so forth.)

But quite frankly, that kind of thinking is for other suckers. Here at ESPN.com, I'm riding the succession wave. My 12-year-old kid is taking over this space -- just as soon as he learns how to type faster than 18 words a minute.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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