In the Interim

A head coach resigns when you least expect it. Who will lead the team now? Athletic directors who have been there offer their advice.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1504/interim.htm

The dilemma can come from anywhere. Often, you can see it developing, like when your head coach leaves for a bigger school. Other times, unforeseen problems may unexpectedly leave you with an open coaching position and little time to fill it.

At Rhode Island College, the crisis arose when the head men’s basketball coach suddenly announced his retirement weeks before the start of the season. At New Mexico State University, it happened twice in one season: when the head women’s basketball coach was placed on administrative leave, and then when the interim coach resigned without notice, taking her assistants with her. At Kansas State, it was the head women’s volleyball coach resigning a week before the start of the season to take a position at another university.

“If you lose your head coach while the season is in progress, you have to move very quickly,” says University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Pat Richter, who used an interim head coach for his men’s basketball team in 2000-2001. “You have to find a new coach before the situation turns into a crisis.”

“At some point in their career, every athletic director is going to face a situation like this,” says Edgar Johnson, Athletic Director at the University of Delaware, where the head women’s volleyball coach and her assistant resigned with only 10 days left in the season. “But most of us don’t begin thinking about it until it actually happens.”

Athletic directors agree that using an interim coach is not an ideal situation, but often it is the best solution to the immediate demands. Making that decision work, though, requires choosing the right person, providing the support they need, and setting the proper expectations.

WHO TO HIRE
When a head coach needs to be replaced in a short period of time, the most natural people to look at are other members of your staff. By elevating an assistant coach currently working with the team, you can maintain some consistency for the players and avoid the difficulties of starting on page one with a new hire.

“You want a person who has been with the program and dealt with the team, somebody who already has the respect of the coaches and the players,” says Michigan State University Athletic Director Ron Mason, who elevated offensive coordinator Morris Watts to interim head football coach when Bobby Williams was fired last November.

Rhode Island College Athletic Director Don Tencher took a similar path when he asked assistant coach Dave Johnston to lead the men’s basketball team after its head coach resigned in September 2000. “First, we looked at the assistant coaches, because they should be able to provide the continuity we want for the program,” says Tencher. “We wanted someone who could take the ball and run with it right away. Someone who knew the program and knew our philosophies.”

But what if no assistant coaches are ready to take over the team?

Athletic directors suggest looking for someone familiar with the program in some other way. Examples include retired coaches or former student-athletes, even a professional in the sport who has worked with the department in some capacity. In certain cases, an athletic administrator will fit the bill—as long as someone is able to cover that person’s responsibilities while he or she is coaching.

At New Mexico State, with eight games left in the 2002-03 season, and no assistant coaches remaining, Athletic Director Brian Faison looked to the men’s basketball program. “We had less than 24 hours before we had to put our kids on the bus for the next game,” says Faison. “We needed somebody with experience, and we were fortunate to have an assistant coach on the men’s staff who was willing to take over that responsibility.”

In less than a day, Faison was able to discuss his options with Head Men’s Basketball Coach Lou Henson, appoint Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Elmer Chavez to the interim spot with the women’s team, and hire a pair of assistant coaches—a former assistant men’s basketball coach and a former All-American basketball player—from the local community.

“Obviously, we knew this was going to be a very difficult situation,” says Faison. “So I talked with our men’s basketball coach, who agreed to spread some of his assistants’ responsibilities among his other staff members. And I talked to Coach Chavez, who fortunately was ready and able to take the responsibility. I would have consulted with other people, but really that was all the time we had. And it worked out surprisingly well.”

QUALITIES NEEDED
Whether your interim coach comes from inside or outside the team, the qualities you look for are basically those that make a good head coach—with a slightly different emphasis. “Any good coach needs to have the ability to deal with a certain amount of chaos,” says Johnson. “But an interim coach needs to have the kind of personality that can accept chaos and thrive on it.

“This person must be someone who can take this difficult situation, and despite all the turmoil stay on an even keel,” he continues. “You need someone who radiates the fact that they’re in control of the situation and someone the players can feel confident about.”

“You need to find someone who you think can right the ship,” agrees Mason. “And because they’re starting at such a critical time, they need good communication skills, both one-on-one and with groups of people. If this is going to be a good experience for your student-athletes, there must be true communication.”

Johnson adds three more qualities to look for: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Who can I find who’s credible, energetic, and enthusiastic?’” he says. “‘And often it comes down to who do I know that can carry us through the season?’”

Because there’s no official search involved in choosing an interim coach, in most cases it’s not necessary to hold a formal interview. However, even though you’re trying to fill the gap quickly, it’s still important to clearly discuss the position with your potential interim coach and find out he or she shares your vision.

“You have to make sure that the interim coach fits into the philosophical framework of your department and what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Tencher. “Don’t think that just because it’s an interim position you can settle for less than you would in a permanent coach.”

“Even if it’s for the short-term, the interim coach needs to buy into the goals of your program,” agrees Johnson. “As an athletic director, you need to choose someone who has an understanding of who you are and what you hope to achieve.”

This is also the time to explain exactly what you’re asking this person to do as an interim coach. “Sometimes, an interim coach becomes a permanent coach,” says Johnson. “But until that point, their job is really to be a good caretaker, and it’s important to make that clear: ‘We need you to get us through the next 10 days.’ Or ‘We need you to get us to the end of the tournament.’ Your expectations have to be very clear.”

Part of the meeting should also be dedicated to clearly explaining the parameters of the position: How long will you keep the interim coach in place? How will the interim coach be compensated? How will you evaluate his or her performance? How do you plan to fill the permanent coaching vacancy?

Answering that last question is especially important. “You don’t want to set up any false hopes,” says Tencher, who is mandated by state law to publicly advertise openings for head coaches. “This interim coach needed to know that the job was going to be posted, not only because I wanted it posted, but because that’s the law. So I told him, ‘I hope you’re a viable candidate, but I don’t want to make any false promises.’”

MAKING IT WORK
Once the interim coach is in position, be ready to provide him or her with extra resources and support. In most cases, the interim coach will be familiar with the sport-related parts of the job but the off-the-court responsibilities might be new.

“We couldn’t expect the interim coach to understand all the administrative responsibilities of the head coach’s position,” says Johnson. “So we assigned an associate athletic director to work with her on making arrangements for travel, handling money, and carrying out the procedural requirements of the university.”

Faison followed the same tack. “Our senior woman administrator is particularly adept at travel issues, and when we appointed an interim coach for the women’s basketball team, she was able to travel with our team, which was a big help,” he says. “All of the interim coach’s new responsibilities can feel overwhelming. If they haven’t had to handle recruiting, travel, or budgets before, you need to give them that kind of support.”

Don’t forget the less tangible forms of support as well. “It’s important to give your interim coach the same feedback you would give anyone entering a very difficult situation,” says Johnson. “You should tell them when they’re doing a good job, and you should make yourself available to them whenever they have a question.”

“There are a lot of internal team dynamics that the new coach will need to be aware of,” says Richter. “As an administrator, those are the potential problems you’re least likely to solve yourself. That’s why you have to talk to your team, and you have to be honest with them and the coach.”

“I met with the coach a number of times over those three weeks to talk about what was going on with the team, and to make sure we were on the same page,” says Mason. “I made sure he was kept in the loop, and he made sure I was kept in the loop.”

ATHLETE QUESTIONS
As difficult as an interim coaching situation can be for coaches and administrators, it can be gut-wrenching for the players, especially when the change occurs during the season. “They’re going to have questions, and you’ll have to give them some answers,” says Richter. “They’ll want to know: ‘How come you haven’t made him the head coach? Why is he just an interim coach?’

“You need to show the student-athletes that you have confidence in the interim coach,” continues Richter. “They need to know that he’s running the show, and that you’re doing everything you can for the long-term interests of the program.”

“Open, sincere communication is the key,” adds Johnson. “You have to talk to your student-athletes and gain their confidence and support. You also have to be willing to listen to what they say. Sometimes, the best thing you can do as an athletic director is sit there with your mouth shut and your ears open.

“Through our whole coaching change, we made sure the players understood what was happening, when it was happening, and why it was happening,” he continues. “We visited with them at team meetings, answered their questions, and took as long as we possibly could to make sure they felt comfortable with the transition.”

At New Mexico State, Faison eased the changeover from one interim coach to another by enlisting the support of the players themselves. “You can utilize them in helping the new coach,” says Faison. “In essence, you’re asking each of your student-athletes to become a student-coach and provide feedback to the new coaching staff.

“The second time we went through this, the players were pretty angry with the assistant coaches for abandoning them, and it took about 15 minutes to sort all of this out with the team,” continues Faison. “But by the time we brought in the new coach, the players were excited, because they understood that they were going to play an important part in that transition. We had a great partnership here because everyone understood there was a shared need to make this transition work. Ultimately, it made the student-athletes feel more invested in the new coach’s transition.”

FROM INTERIM TO HEAD?
Once an interim coach is in place, you can begin to turn your focus to solving your long-term problems. In many cases, possible solutions will include making the interim coach a permanent hire. Unlike typical hiring situations, having an interim coach allows you to audition a candidate under real conditions.

“The positive side of having an interim coach is that it gives you a chance to look at their performance,” says Tencher. “There’s a trial period where you can see how they work, and that could work for them or against them.”

“Even in only eight games, there’s a lot you can tell,” Faison says. “How did he handle the transition? How did he handle the pressure? How did he deal with the players? How well was he able to affect any changes?”

“How well did the interim coach carry out the mission of the department?” adds Tencher. “How well did they represent the college? And the most important of all: How did they interact with the kids?”

In evaluating an interim coach for a possible full-time position, your student-athletes’ exit interviews can become particularly useful. “We always involve our student-athletes in evaluating our coaches,” says Faison. “In this case, the student-athletes’ feedback has been very helpful.”

But an interim coaching assignment is not the same as a permanent one and should not be evaluated exactly the same way. “When you’re trying to evaluate an interim coach, it’s important to look at the big picture,” says Faison. “You have to understand the stresses of the situation. In fairness to the coach, you have to remember they’re dealing with another coach’s players, and another coach’s issues.”

As you evaluate an interim coach you should also evaluate the support you provide him or her. “If you’re planning to use this opportunity to evaluate their performance,” says Richter, “you want to make sure they have access to every possible resource. Because if they don’t, you really haven’t given them an equal shot at the position.”

The whole process worked perfectly at Kansas State, where the head volleyball coach announced his retirement over the summer of 2001. Athletic Director Tim Weiser awarded Assistant Coach Susie Fritz the interim position and used the beginning of the season to assess her performance in the new role.

“With an interim coach, you’re given the rare ability to watch a potential candidate perform in an on-the-job scenario,” says Weiser. “You get to see how capable they are of handling a new set of duties and whether or not they’re ready for all the complexities of being a head coach.”

By October, he’d decided to officially promote Fritz, and by the end of the season, she’d posted the highest winning percentage by a first-year coach in school history, took the Wildcats to their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament, and was named Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year.

But that doesn’t mean the decision is ever an easy one. “You have to ask yourself, ‘If this position had opened up at the end of the season, what would I have done?’” says Richter. “‘Would I have elevated that coach? Or would I have chosen to search for a new coach on the open market?’ You have to make sure you’ve covered all the bases. Have you found the best person for your program, or just the best person for that particular period of time?”

“The most important thing to me in hiring a coach is peace of mind,” says Johnson. “Whether they’re interim or permanent, I need to be able to put my head on a pillow at night, close my eyes, and know that things are going to go well.”