Commentary

Transition of power awaits coaches

Updated: January 17, 2009, 11:21 AM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

When Rich Brooks left Oregon for the NFL's St. Louis Rams after the 1994 season, he wanted to make sure the Ducks were left in good hands.

So Brooks persuaded the Oregon administration to hire then-offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti, who had worked for Brooks for six seasons. That decision helped the Ducks win the Pac-10 title in 1994.

[+] EnlargeMike Bellotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireThe transition from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti was a smooth one for Oregon.
"There wasn't a big shakeup of things when I left for the Rams," said Brooks, who just completed his sixth season as Kentucky's coach. "When I decided to leave, I told them they needed to name Mike Bellotti the coach immediately. Continuity is a good thing when things are going well."

The Ducks certainly found continuity during the Bellotti era. He has led Oregon to 12 bowl appearances in 14 seasons and six Top 25 finishes in the last 10 seasons. Five of Brooks' assistant coaches at Oregon still work for Bellotti.

"I think a lot of schools have hurt themselves because they were fast to pull the trigger on coaches," Brooks said. "Some good programs have struggled and stayed down because they made bad hires and didn't have continuity."

Brooks is hoping Kentucky has the same success once he retires. Last year, Brooks persuaded athletics director Mitch Barnhart and university president Lee Todd to name offensive coordinator Joker Phillips as his eventual successor.

Phillips, who played wide receiver at Kentucky from 1981 to 1984, seemed like a logical replacement. He worked as Brooks' wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for two seasons and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2004.

"He's a tremendous worker," Brooks said. "He has a great love for the university, since he played here. He understands the league and understands the fan base. He's also had great experience and has a great offensive mind. He loves the young men he coaches and is interested in their development."

When Brooks retires, Phillips will become the second African American coach in SEC history. (Sylvester Croom was the first, at Mississippi State.) When Brooks was hired as Kentucky's coach, he told Barnhart he hoped to stay for 10 seasons. Brooks, 67, doesn't think he'll last that long.

"I don't think I'll be here for 10 years," Brooks said. "I still have energy, and I'm still healthy. But I'm getting to the point where I'm starting to lose some friends."

Four other schools have followed the growing trend of naming successors before their current coach retires.

Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will replace legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden whenever he decides to retire. Purdue assistant Danny Hope spent last season as Joe Tiller's coach-in-waiting and assumed the head-coaching job as soon as the 2008 season ended.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesDefensive coordinator Will Muschamp will take over for Mack Brown at Texas.
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is Mack Brown's designated replacement, even though Brown doesn't seem ready to retire anytime soon.

Oregon had so much success with its seamless transition to Bellotti that offensive coordinator Chip Kelly has already been named his successor.

"The biggest advantage of being the coach-in-waiting is you get to do an inventory of the program from an in-house perspective," Hope said. "You can see where every phase of the program is at. You can take a look at the players you already have and see if there's changes you can make to improve."

Hope had worked on Tiller's staffs at Wyoming and Purdue. He left the Boilermakers after the 2001 season and spent five seasons as head coach at FCS program Eastern Kentucky, where he had a 35-22 record. Hope returned to Purdue before the 2008 season as associate head coach and offensive line coach. He signed a six-year contract at the school, the last five as head coach.

Over the last year, Hope spent much of his time coaching Purdue's offensive linemen. He spent as much time preparing for the future, knowing Tiller would retire after the 2008 season.

"I never went to bed before 1 a.m. and woke up at 5 a.m. every day," Hope said. "I'd say in all the years I've been a football coach, it was probably the greatest professional challenge I've ever had. It was a tremendous, challenging workload. But it was a tremendous opportunity at the same time."

Because Hope was still an assistant coach last season, he was able to spend more time on the road recruiting. He was able to evaluate prospects and see where they'd fit in Purdue's future rosters.

"I was able to go on the road last year and eyeball these recruits and not have to rely on secondhand knowledge from assistants," Hope said. "I was able to see firsthand if these guys were big enough to grow into a position. You're able to establish your recruiting board."

Florida State, Oregon and Texas used the succession plan to keep high-profile assistants. When Muschamp emerged as a potential candidate for coaching vacancies at Clemson and Tennessee during the 2008 season, Brown didn't wait long to persuade the Texas administration to keep him.

Texas designated Muschamp as Brown's successor, even though Brown still has eight years left on his current contract. Texas boosted Muschamp's salary to $900,000 per year.

"There was some interest expressed by other schools, but when this happened, I told them this is where I wanted to be," Muschamp said. "I decided to use a little patience instead of jumping on something I wasn't sure about. The grass isn't always greener on the other side. The opportunity to be the head coach at Texas is unbelievable. There isn't a better job in the country."

Muschamp, who just completed his first season as the Longhorns' defensive coordinator, said he doesn't anticipate his job description will change much until Brown retires. He and Brown will meet after February's signing day to discuss the future.

"As far as the football end of it, absolutely zero will change," Muschamp said. "I'm the defensive coordinator. Nothing is changing in how my day-to-day responsibilities go. I really enjoy the job I'm doing now. I enjoy coordinating the defense and working with the kids. I'm excited about the future, but I'm very content doing my current job."

Because Bowden's departure seems more imminent, Fisher accepted a larger administrative role in 2008, his second season as FSU's coach-in-waiting. Fisher was named Bowden's successor in December 2006. Since then, West Virginia and Auburn have inquired about his availability.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
John David Mercer/US PresswireJimbo Fisher, Florida State's coach-in-waiting, was more involved in the decision-making process last year.
Under the terms of Fisher's contract, he must replace Bowden no later than the end of the 2010 season. If not, FSU's booster club would owe him $5 million. If Fisher leaves FSU before January 2011, he will owe the school the same amount.

"A good bit changed this year," Fisher said. "All in all, there was a lot more decision-making. You've really got to manage your time between those responsibilities and coaching. Now I know what they mean about the differences between being a position coach, a coordinator and a head coach. You're always fighting time."

Fisher said he has leaned quite a bit on Bowden, who will go into the 2009 season as the second-winningest coach in major college football history (382), one victory behind Penn State's Joe Paterno (383).

"It's Coach Bowden's team," Fisher said. "I have great respect for him and always have. You start to want to do something, but it's not within my boundaries. If there's ever a question, I go straight to Coach Bowden. We keep an open door, and he's been great."

Bowden, who just completed his 33rd season at FSU, said his succession plan has worked better than expected.

"Really, nothing has changed," Bowden said. "He's still the offensive coordinator, and I'm still the head coach. There's no change in it. I guess you could say he's learning the ropes, but he knows the ropes. He knows where he stands, and I know where I stand."

Bowden, 79, has a one-year contract that expires after the end of each season. He announced last month that he will return in 2009.

"The only difference is me knowing who takes over when I leave," Bowden said. "That's taken a lot of pressure off me. Every time a head coach leaves, nine other coaches lose their jobs, which has always bothered me."

Knowing who will take over a program and the status of the entire coaching staff is also important to recruits.

Kelly, who has never been a head coach, said being named Bellotti's successor gave him more credibility among recruits. Kelly was considered a potential candidate for other head-coaching vacancies until Oregon designated him as its next coach.

"When I came here, I thought Mike was going to coach five or six more years because that's what he told me during the interview," Kelly said. "Being a successful head coach and the dean of Pac-10 coaches, I told him he deserves to call his own shot on when he wants to leave."

Bellotti is expected to become Oregon's athletic director after he retires from the sideline. Neither Bellotti nor Kelly is sure when the change will happen.

"The one thing I can do as an assistant is actually assure kids that I'll be here five years from now because I'll have a five-year contract when I become head coach," Kelly said. "I think it makes it easier for me as a recruiter because kids know I'll be here. Mike can tell kids he's going to be here. Our situation is a little different because Mike isn't going to retire. He might change offices, but he's still going to be at Oregon."

Like when Brooks left, Oregon's transition figures to be smoother than most.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball