Trend of succession plans finally hits the NFL coaching ranks

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Polian spent three decades building NFL winners the old-fashioned way: Relying on good drafts and retaining key players.

Now the Colts president believes coaching stability is becoming a larger part of the equation and, apparently, his colleagues in the copycat NFL agree.

Since season's end, Indianapolis and Seattle have each announced they will invoke rarely used coaching succession plans in hopes of keeping their perennial playoff teams Super Bowl contenders.

"We've said all along that Jim (Caldwell) was a potential head coach and he's the right fit with this franchise," Polian said of Tony Dungy's eventual successor. "It just made sense to formalize it and proceed so there would be no questions about continuity and no questions about the leadership of this franchise."

The Colts announced their transition on Jan. 21, saying Caldwell had already signed a contract that prevents him from interviewing with other teams even though Dungy has given no indication when he'll leave.

Seattle assistant head coach Jim Mora joined the club Wednesday, signing a five-year contract to become Mike Holmgren's successor after next season. It could happen in Dallas, too, where many believe offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will one day take over for Wade Phillips after recently withdrawing from coaching searches in Atlanta and Baltimore.

While it's a relatively new concept in the NFL, succession plans have become increasingly popular elsewhere. Profitable companies have had hand-chosen replacements in place for years, and it's becoming more common in college sports, too.

Earlier this week, when Bob Knight resigned at Texas Tech, his son, Pat, took over, following the prearranged script. And Florida State announced in December that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will eventually replace Bobby Bowden as the school's football coach.

Florida State interim athletic director Bill Proctor thinks it all makes sense.

"For some reason whenever college presidents and football coaches resign, we act like a goose in a new world, like how did this descend upon us," Proctor said, using an expression more fitting of Bowden. "We say, 'Oh gosh, now we must have a national search.'

"I think it's logical to have these plans in place because a lot of times when a legend retires, you go through three or four coaches before you stabilize the program."

Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, who announced last month he would implement a succession plan for football coach Joe Tiller, has already seen the benefits.

In 2004, Burke hired Southern Illinois head coach Matt Painter to replace longtime basketball coach Gene Keady, asking Painter to serve one year as Keady's assistant. Since taking over after the 2004-05 season, Painter has re-energized the Boilermakers' recruiting and this season has led Purdue to its most promising campaign in years.

Still, Burke acknowledges there are risks.

"I think if you look at traditional searches, you'll find as many failures as you will successes because bringing in personnel is not 100 percent foolproof," he said. "If you try to force a succession plan on someone who is not ready to retire, it won't work. It will fail."

Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, believes one proven formula works and it sounds like something straight out of a Bill Belichick meeting - identify talented people early, create a strong bench and follow the game plan.

So perhaps it's only fitting the sports world would take note.

"There are similarities between sports people and our people who run businesses," Elson said. "And just like a business, you have people who may retire or die or get injured, and if you're going to succeed, you need someone who will be in play."

But there are different considerations when it comes to pro sports.

While athletic directors typically use successions to help eliminate uncertainties in recruiting -- the lifeblood of college success -- and corporations use the policy to help pacify concerned stockholders, pro teams believe continuity is becoming a more essential ingredient.

"What (Holmgren's) done here, by announcing his retirement a year ahead of time, has afforded this organization to make a smooth transition, to be seamless, to be non-chaotic," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. "Which is kind of rare in the sports world - certainly in the NFL."

Most teams believe when coaching staffs remain stable, progression follows naturally.

In the Colts case, that's one reason Polian turned to Peyton Manning's quarterback coach, Caldwell. Plus, Caldwell's soft-spoken, laid-back demeanor looks like a natural fit with a staff virtually devoid of big egos.

"I thought it might be a little weird at first, but I think we've all been together so long and there's such a good atmosphere in the building, I think it's going to work," Colts receivers coach Clyde Christensen said.

The Rooney Rule, which requires each team to interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching vacancy, even has a loophole that could lead to more scripted transitions.

Teams can set up successions from their own coaching staff without having to interview other candidates, league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

But if the general perception is a team already has a front-runner and tries to interview others, it could become more difficult to abide by the Rooney Rule as Detroit found out in 2003 when it hired Steve Mariucci.

The league fined Lions president Matt Millen $200,000 back then because no minority candidates were interviewed. Black coaches, like Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, later said they understood why some colleagues weren't interested -- because it appeared inevitable Mariucci would get the job.

"That's always an issue," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators. "I think it's up to the individual person who gets the interview whether they want to take it."

The recent trend has, however, opened doors to some minorities. Depending on when Dungy leaves, Caldwell could become the first black coach in NFL history to succeed a black coach who never had the interim label, and the University of Kentucky announced Jan. 18 that offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, who also is black, would take over when Rich Brooks retires.

"Hey, I'm the first guy to jump up and down about Jim Caldwell, and I'm the first guy to jump up and down about Joker Phillips," Keith said. "If a search is followed, we don't have an issue with it. A transition, like those, probably is a good thing as long as the program is successful and it keeps winning."

But even the best-laid plans can go awry. Just ask the New York Jets about their presumed successor to Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, who bolted for New England after Parcells' retirement.

And, of course, there's always a chance the plan could fall apart when a suddenly trendy assistant becomes a household name and other teams try to sweeten the deal with multimillion-dollar offers and more control over football operations.

It's one reason Polian does not believe succession plans will become an NFL norm.

"I think you have to have the right person in place, first and foremost," Polian said.

Others, however, believe it's the wave of the future, and recent events certainly seem to indicate it could.

"I think it's really an asset for Tony to have a right-hand guy working with him and I think it's great he (Caldwell) will have at least a year to get his notes," Christensen said. "I really think more people should do it because I think when you have something good, you should go for it."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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