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The Head-Coach-In-Waiting Model: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (And Passed?)


In the immediate aftermath of the Mountaineers bowl game loss to NC State, I was advocating the position that WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck eschew the 2011 Farewell-to-Smilin'-Bill Tour and go straight to premiering the new gridiron show directed by Dana Holgorsen. The months since that egregious loss may have softened my position, but I still wonder about the Head-Coach-In-Waiting model, which, for my money, has to define the word "awkward."

It's not a new concept for a program to have a successor to an outgoing coach already on staff. It's just that that was previously called "promoting from within." It goes all the way back to Joe Paterno taking over for Rip Engle at Penn State, Gomer Jones for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, and Tom Osborne for Bob Devaney at Nebraska. In those instances, it would be fair to argue that the hand-picked successor was one that would carry on the values around which the program had been built. But the HCIW model is different. It has less to do with carrying on program tradition than it does protecting a hot coaching commodity that may be getting impatient waiting for his turn to head a program.

The first to use the term, I think, was Florida State, when it named Jimbo Fisher as HCIW under Bobby Bowden. Rumor had it that this was done because Florida rivals were using Bowden's age and uncertain status against the Seminoles in recruiting. What better way to forestall that than to name a young coach with good pedigree as the man that would one day be The Man? Other programs with established head coaches followed suit: Oregon, Texas, and Maryland. Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti worked out pretty well for the Ducks, but things didn't work out for the Longhorns and Terps, both of whom lost those HCIW's to other universities.

In fact, a year removed from naming Muschamp the HCIW, Texas went 5-7 and saw Muschamp leave to take over at Florida. Florida State struggled to a 7-6 mark in Bowden's last year, and even though Maryland had a respectable year in Ralph Friedgen's last go-round, its 9-4 record was decidedly unsexy enough for a fickle Terrapin base to force the Fridge out, losing Franklin in the process. One has to wonder if having an HCIW sharing the sidelines with the lame duck head coach leads to divided loyalties among players and staff.

If anything, the Head-Coach-In-Waiting model may be going out of vogue. Dana Holgorsen is currently the only officially-named one out there. Everyone in the Mountaineer Athletic Department has said all the right things regarding the working relationship between Stewart and Holgorsen, but it worries me that only Oregon has employed this strategy with any success in the year before the transition. Bellotti went 10-3 and then handed off to Kelly, who went 10-3. I am hopeful that Holgorsen can inherit a team with double digit wins, but a part of me still thinks we might have been better off shifting Stew to a fundraising position the morning after the Champs Sports Bowl, and embracing a future that wasn't "in-waiting."