Replacing a legend routinely deflates

For the most part, it's not a problem agreeing on who is a collegiate coaching legend and who isn't since it's usually obvious.

The real problem is replacing one of these legends. And being the replacement for a legend routinely is a troublesome move at best and career-threatening at worst.

The woods are littered with saplings that envisioned growing into tall timber, but didn't. We're reminded of all this by the North Carolina basketball situation. When Dean Smith retired just before the 1997 season after 36 almost all-starry seasons (NCAA record 879 wins, 11 Final Fours, two national championships), his loyal and able assistant, Bill Guthridge, was quickly given the keys to the palace. No one doubted that Guthridge would water the plants and dutifully tend to routine maintenance.

But no one thought that Guthridge would be the long-term coach. He would be, went insider thinking, a perfectly serviceable journeyman. Then, after a proper period of time, he'd be replaced by Smith's real successor.

Guthridge continued the march, amassing an adequate albeit not spectacular record - by Carolina standards - of 80-28. He did fine. The roof didn't leak and weeds didn't take over the front yard. Thus, the time became perfect to hire Dean Smith's real successor. That's why Guthridge announced his retirement the other day amid speculation the next hoops coach would be Roy Williams, another Smith protg and the successful Kansas coach.

As things go in the legend-replacing business, this one is transpiring relatively smoothly. Of course, smooth is not very good for a place that measures itself by conference and national championships.

The real problem in Chapel Hill - and everywhere else where a legend has to be replaced - is that the new face isn't the old face. It's often not that the next guy doesn't have the skills and talents but more who he isn't. Bill Guthridge's problem was his name wasn't Dean Smith.

In a world that changes too much and too fast, it's good to find stability anywhere. Dean Smith was Mr. Stability with a 1950s gentility about him.

Graduating his players truly was important to Smith; an amazing 97.3 percent received diplomas. Change we don't want - Smith stepping down being a prime example - often makes us mad and invariably uneasy.

Ultra-legendary John Wooden, head coach at UCLA for 27 years through 1975 - during which he produced an astounding 10 national titles - was replaced by, well, seven coaches so far. In broad brush, the Bruin constituency hasn't really cared for any of them. First was Gene Bartow, who coached UCLA to the Final Four in 1976, his first year. Of course, everyone said if Wooden had coached, they would have won the Final Four.

Then there has been Gary Cunningham (50-8, not good enough), Larry Brown, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard, Jim Harrick (never mind he even won one national crown), and Steve Lavin. Wooden was who the fans wanted. They still do.

Woody Hayes coached 28 years at Ohio State and had nine teams with no more than one loss. His teams won five national championships. Then he punched a Clemson linebacker in a bowl game, which it turned out, even legends can't do.

Along came Earle Bruce as his successor. Bruce is a quirky personality, but a much under-appreciated coach. He did brilliantly, at least as well as Hayes, but was broadly disdained. After nine years he was sent packing, because he was not Hayes. Current coach John Cooper continues to battle the Hayes legacy.

Gary Moeller tried to replace Michigan legend Bo Schembechler and tumbled. Oklahoma is now on its fourth coach trying to replace Barry Switzer, a swashbuckler who had the state in his hands until he left in 1988. At Alabama, the late Bear Bryant last coached in 1982 - producing six national titles - and they still can't find a replacement for him, either.

In many ways, Arkansas still is trying to replace legendary football coach Frank Broyles and Texas is trying to replace Darrell Royal; both last coached in 1976.

Mike Krzyzewski has been the Duke basketball coach since 1981. Joe Paterno has been head football coach at Penn State since 1966. How do you figure their replacements will do?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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