Having a coach-in-waiting isn't the way to go

by Jenni Carlson Modified: December 16, 2010 at 9:36 am •  Published: December 15, 2010
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Joe Castiglione and Mike Holder, we need to have a little heart-to-heart chat.

Bob Stoops and Mike Gundy, you might want to listen up, too.

Heck, if we're getting all the decision makers in our state's college athletics scene involved, we'd probably better bring David Boren, Burns Hargis, even Boone Pickens on board for this discussion.

We need to talk about this head-coach-in-waiting phenomenon.

You know how this works — a program hires or promotes someone to work as an assistant now and to take over the top spot in the future.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.

Over the weekend, Will Muschamp went from head coach in waiting at Texas to head coach at Florida. Now, Dana Holgorsen is leaving Oklahoma State to be the head coach in waiting at West Virginia, but it sounds like the current head coach there isn't too keen on the idea. That should make for a healthy work environment.

Wonder what the first staff meeting is going to be like.

“As a concept, the head-coach-in-waiting scenario may sound like a simple or reasonable strategy …,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “However, this approach creates many more leadership issues or challenges than most realize.”

It boils down to this: Who's the boss?

“It's a disaster waiting to happen,” former Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones said. “It opens so many cans of worms.”

Who handles discipline? What's the on-field philosophy? Who makes the rules? What players are recruited? What is the long-term plan?

“We can think of a hundred different scenarios that happen every day,” Jones said.

Why in the world does anyone do this whole coach-in-waiting thing?

Handing off the head-coaching reins is nothing new, of course, but for decades, it happened behind the scenes, head coaches grooming their protégés and readying their programs for the transition.

Now, successors are officially designated and publicly announced. There are press conferences. There are legal contracts.

Sometimes, things go as planned.

Wisconsin football made a smooth transition from Barry Alvarez to Bret Bielema a few years back. Ditto for Texas Tech basketball going from Bob Knight to son Pat. The best head-coach-in-waiting move in recent years was Oregon football going from Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly, who now has the Ducks playing for a national championship.

But often, the head-coach-in-waiting setup turns into a mess.

Pay attention, all you decision makers. This is important.

In late 2007, Arizona announced that Kevin O'Neill would succeed legendary basketball coach Lute Olsen, but things got weird shortly thereafter. Olsen took a leave of absence. O'Neill served as the interim coach. Then when Olsen returned, the two had a very public, very bizarre falling out.

O'Neill, who never signed a contract for the next season or for the coach-in-waiting deal, left.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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