We’ve all heard it a million times: “You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend; you want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.”
It makes intuitive sense, and it certainly would seem true. Urban Meyer is the guy who followed the guy who followed the legend at Florida, and things have worked out quite well for him so far. Then again, Bill Callahan was the same at Nebraska, and the fans were ready to run him out of town two years before he finally got the axe.
To see how true this adage is, I’ve looked at some coaching legends and the guys who followed them. They are as follows, in chronological order from when the legend was hired:
Legend: Bud Wilkinson, 1947-63, 145-29-4 (.826); 3 national and 14 conference titles
Follower: Gomer Jones, 1964-65, 9-11-1 (.452); 0 national or conference titles
Next: Jim Mackenzie, 1966, 6-4 (.600); 0 national or conference titles
This is somewhat of a bad example to start off with, since Mackenzie sadly passed away due to a heart attack after his first season.
Jones definitely had a difficult time following Wilkinson though, having not been able to break even in his two years. Wilkinson is the coach who led Oklahoma to its famed 47-game winning streak, and he failed to win the Big 8 title in only three of his 17 years.
Legend: Shug Jordan, 1951-75, 175-83-7 (.674), 1 national and 1 conference title
Follower: Doug Barfield, 1976-80, 29-25-1 (.536), 0 national or conference titles
Next: Pat Dye, 1981-92, 99-39-4 (.711), 0 national and 4 conference titles
Jordan held the job for 25 years and the stadium is named after him, but his .674 winning percentage is lower than any of the other legends on this list. Barfield followed him up with 5 forgettable seasons, with 8-3 being the best record he posted.
Dye had the most success in his tenure of the three, though he was forced out of his coaching and AD position when it was revealed that assistant coaches and boosters had paid a player. He still is fondly remembered, though, as the field at Jordan-Hare stadium was named after him in 2005.
Legend: Woody Hayes, 1951-78, 205-61-10 (.761), 5 national and 13 conference titles
Follower: Earle Bruce, 1979-87, 81-26-1 (.755), 0 national and 4 conference titles
Next: John Cooper, 1988-2000, 111-43-4 (.715), 0 national and 4 conference titles
Earle Bruce did an admirable job in following Woody Hayes after Hayes’ unexpected meltdown and firing. He did not see the same success however, though he nearly won the national title in his first year.
John Cooper is a goat in OSU annals, having posted a 2-10-1 record against Michigan and having presided over numerous academic and discipline problems.
Legend: Darrell Royal, 1957-76, 167-47-5 (.774), 3 national and 11 conference titles
Follower: Fred Akers, 1977-86, 86-31-2 (.731), 0 national and 2 conference titles
Next: David McWilliams, 1987-91, 31-26 (.544), 0 national and 1 conference title
Akers did a much better job than McWilliams did. Akers caught flak though for losing bowl games and in his final few years having bad records against Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
McWilliams’s 1990 SWC championship year looks like a fluke in light of the rest of his seasons, with the 7-5 record in his first year being the second-best record he had.
Legend: Paul Bryant, 1958-82, 232-46-9 (.824), 6 national and 13 conference titles
Follower: Ray Perkins, 1983-86, 32-15-1 (.677), 0 national or conference titles
Next: Bill Curry, 1987-89, 26-10 (.722), 0 national and 1 conference title
Perkins left the New York Giants to coach at his alma mater, and he left four years later to take a rich contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An incident where a former player that he had recruited claimed he was paid led to the school being placed on probation in 1995.
Curry was doing well in his three years, though he was 0-3 against Auburn. He didn’t like the contract offered to him in 1990, so he left to coach Kentucky.
Legend: Vince Dooley, 1964-88, 201-77-10 (.715), 1 national and 6 conference titles
Follower: Ray Goff, 1989-95, 46-34-1 (.574), 0 national or conference titles
Next: Jim Donnan, 1996-2000, 40-19 (.678), 0 national or conference titles
Neither Goff nor Donnan panned out for the Bulldogs. They both failed to win even an SEC East title, and both were used as Florida’s whipping boy. Goff is perhaps most famous for being called “Ray Goof” by Steve Spurrier.
Legend: Bo Schembechler, 1969-89, 194-48-5 (.796), 0 national and 13 conference titles
Follower: Gary Moeller, 1990-94, 44-13-3 (.758), 0 national and 3 conference titles
Next: Lloyd Carr, 1995-07, 122-40 (.753), 1 national and 5 conference titles
Moeller is a controversial figure for Wolverines due to his messy departure following a drunken altercation at a restaurant. Some argue his best years were already behind him; some argue that he was trying to modernize the program and that Carr won his national title with Moeller’s players.
Carr is one of the few followed-the-guy-who-followed-the-legend guys who actually won a national title. His legacy will remain mixed due to his futility against Jim Tressel and the loss to Appalachian State.
Legend: LaVell Edwards, 1972-2000, 257-101-3 (.716), 1 national and 19 conference titles
Follower: Gary Crowton, 2001-04, 26-23 (.531), 0 national and 1 conference title
Next: Bronco Mendenhall, 2005-present, 28-10 (.737), 0 national and 2 conference titles
Crowton won the MWC his first year with Edwards’ players, but failed to reach .500 in his remaining three years. Mendenhall has put together consecutive 11-win seasons, winning the MWC title each year. His 2008 team is expected to contend for a BCS bowl.
Legend: Tom Osborne, 1973-97, 255-49-3 (.836), 3 national and 13 conference titles
Follower: Frank Solich, 1998-03, 58-19 (.753), 0 national and 1 conference title
Next: Bill Callahan, 2004-07, 27-22 (.551), 0 national or conference titles
Solich is probably the source of the modern “You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend” movement, having been fired after a 9-win season. Callahan ended up being a disaster, and will probably be despised by Husker fans forever.
Legend: Steve Spurrier, 1990-2001, 122-27-1 (.817), 1 national and 6 conference titles
Follower: Ron Zook, 2002-04, 23-14 (.622), 0 national and conference titles
Next: Urban Meyer, 2005-present, 31-8 (.795), 1 national and 1 conference title
Zook was doomed from the beginning, having been a fallback choice for the coaching position and having never been a head coach before. He won games he shouldn’t have, but lost games he shouldn’t have too. He also presided over an explosion of off-field issues, including Zook himself being involved in a fight at a frat house. Some Florida fans still defend him, but the overall sentiment is that his hiring was a mistake.
After doubts about his offense abounded in his first year, Meyer solidified his position in his second by winning a national title. Some fans are uncomfortable with his highly aggressive recruiting tactics, which have drawn scrutiny from other coaches and the NCAA, but otherwise Gators are more than happy with his job so far.
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Following a legend, regardless of place in line, is not easy. Only Pat Dye clearly surpassed his legendary predecessor’s accomplishments, but his departure was not the stuff of legends.
None of the followers distinguished himself after leaving, though Earle Bruce had a nice run with Iowa State before coaching the Buckeyes. Ron Zook still has time to carve out his legacy at Illinois.
The book is still open for Mendenhall and Meyer, but both appear to be in good shape. Despite their records, most of the coaches in that coveted “guy who followed the guy who followed the legend” role didn’t fare much better than the guy who did follow the legend.
There is some truth to the adage, but in the end good coaches will succeed in good situations regardless of who came before.