A Lesson For Manchester United From American Sports: How Not To Replace A Legend

The news that Sir Alex Ferguson is retiring as manager of Manchester United at the end of the 2012-13 season brings a medley of emotions.  Of course, as a United fan, I am sad to see him go.  SAF has been about as successful as any coach/manager of any professional sport – ever.

Naturally, everyone’s attention has already shifted to the big question: “Who will replace the legend as manager of Manchester United?”  At this time, I thought it might be appropriate to share the story of the last time in my sporting life that a legendary coach retired.

In addition to being a Manchester United supporter, I’m also a fan of the University of North Carolina.  From 1961-1997, UNC was coached by a gentleman named Dean Smith.  I include the link to his Wikipedia page merely so I don’t have to recount his entire career as coach. After his 36 year career, he retired as the winningest coach in college basketball history with 2 national titles, 17 conference titles, 11 Final Fours and a who’s-who of notable alumni (including that Michael Jordan fella).  He was coach for so long that many of his players and former assistants had gone on to have notable coaching careers of their own before he retired.  I was a junior at UNC when Dean Smith won his last national title and my memories of celebrating with tens of thousands of other fans on a cold and rainy night in Chapel Hill was one of the highlights of my time in college.  I still don’t understand how people managed to light celebratory bonfires in that sort of rain.

However, all good things must come to an end and Dean Smith retired just before the 1997 basketball season was to begin.  And, from this point forward, UNC made a series of errors that damaged the basketball program.  There are so few examples of a coach/manager stepping away after decades of massive success that I would hope that the Glazers would stop for a moment to consider some of UNC’s missteps when they appoint Sir Alex Ferguson’s replacement.

Consider the errors:

  • Overly deferential to the departing coach’s wishes: When Dean Smith retired, he did so in a very calculated way.  By retiring merely a month before the 1997 season, he forced UNC to appoint his longtime assistant coach Bill Guthridge as the new head coach.  There was simply no time to locate another coach before the season.  Smith felt that Guthridge deserved a turn as head coach and timed his resignation to force UNC to hire his friend.  Guthridge’s first season went very well as UNC reached the Final Four with a 34-4 record.  That first season, the entire UNC community was sustained by this notion that Guthridge provided a sense of continuity.  However, in Season #2, cracks began to show.  Guthridge was not as good of a recruiter as Dean Smith and probably not as good of a coach either.  He was also 60 years old and clearly not a long-term replacement.  By the end his third season, Coach Guthridge retired.  While UNC had little choice but to appoint Guthridge to replace Smith for the 1997 season, they should not have made him more than an interim head coach.  UNC erred by doing what the legendary Coach Smith wanted when it was clear that Coach Smith was more interested in helping his longtime friend (Guthridge) than doing what was best for UNC’s basketball team.
  • Searching solely within the “UNC System” – After Coach Guthridge retired, UNC clearly had an opportunity to hire the best coach in the land.  The UNC coaching job is to college basketball what the Manchester United managerial job is to club soccer.  UNC’s search turned immediately to the University of Kansas and Roy Williams.  Williams was a UNC alumnus, had been an assistant to Coach Smith from 1978-1988 before becoming the head coach at Kansas.  At Kansas, Williams had lit the world on fire, accumulating numerous accolades as “the fastest coach to 100/200/300 victories in a career”.  Williams was clearly an outstanding choice for the job.  But Williams turned UNC down….probably because he didn’t want to be the guy following the Dean Smith Act or maybe he felt he had unfinished business at Kansas.  Who knows?  After Williams turned down UNC, UNC’s search began to flip through the other candidates from the “Dean Smith Coaching Family Tree”: Larry Brown, Eddie Fogler, Billy Cummingham, George Karl, etc.  It was a maniacal search that totally excluded other qualified candidates.  By limiting their search to coaches who would continue the “UNC tradition,” they limited themselves and didn’t pick the best candidate.
  • Trying to hire a coach who could stay for another 36 years – When UNC finally replaced Coach Guthridge, it was with Matt Doherty.  Doherty had played for Coach Smith in the 1980s and had was seen as an up-and-coming assistant coach, but came to UNC with only ONE season of head coaching experience.  But, the hope was that because Doherty was only 38 years old, that he might remain as coach for the next 30 years.  There was a very real sense in the UNC community that coaching turnover is something that happens at yucky colleges.  It’s very similar to the way United and Arsenal fans sneer at managerial turnover at Chelsea/Liverpool/Spurs.  Well, despite some initial success, Doherty was a disaster.  His second season, UNC slumped to a losing record (first time since 1962) and missed the NCAA tournament (first time in 27 years).  Beyond this, there were all sorts of unseemly allegations that the players hated him and that he kicked over chairs in the locker room.  It simply wasn’t the way things were done at UNC and Doherty was fired after his third season.  By placing too much focus on finding a long-term solution, UNC overlooked many excellent and proven coaches in their search and hired a man with numerous red-flags.

After Doherty was fired, UNC finally was able to convince Roy Williams to leave Kansas.  Williams was the right choice not because he comes from the UNC system or the “Dean Smith Coaching Tree”, but because he is a great basketball coach.  Over the last 10 years with Williams, UNC has won 2 national titles, advanced to 4 Final Fours and won 6 ACC titles.  But, even with all of that success, we still had a stinky 2009-10 season where we finished with a 20-17 record and missed the NCAA tournament.  He’s still no Dean Smith, but they kinda broke the mold when they made that guy.

I think Manchester United could learn a lot by looking at the missteps of UNC’s coaching searches in the aftermath of Dean Smith’s legendary career.  Having Sir Alex Ferguson as your manager is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time is a poor strategy.  Just hire the best manager for the club.  Don’t turn your nose up at Jose Mourinho just because he “moves around every 3-4 years and THAT is not the United way”.  Don’t rush to embrace someone like Gary Neville or Ryan Giggs or Ole Gunnar Solskjær just because they are young and will “continue the United way for the next 25 years”.  Don’t hire David Moyes just because SAF likes him.  Don’t exclude Jurgen Klopp just because he has no ties to United and the Premier League.  Don’t ignore Rafa Benitez just because SAF won’t shake his hand sometimes.

Don’t try to hire the next Sir Alex Ferguson because that is impossible.  Just hire the best person for the job.  You’re Manchester United.  You can probably have your pick of a LOT of pretty good managers.

25 thoughts on “A Lesson For Manchester United From American Sports: How Not To Replace A Legend”

    1. Well…years ago, we could have also talked about James Worthy and Sam Perkins and Brad Doherty and Phil Ford. But, I don’t the current crop of UNC alums resonates quite as much (often because they only stayed at UNC for a year or two).

  1. Good points. As a fellow Tar Heel, the story is painful to re-hash, but definitely full of lessons for what not to do.

    1. Yes….I could have also added, “Don’t have a moron like Dick Baddour running the process, but I figured that was would be too much trivial detail for our non-UNC readers.”

      Remember how embarrassing it was when the Doherty era was running amok? Ugh….

  2. With David Gill’s retirement, hopefully that won’t happen at Manchester United. My father is a UNC grad, so I’ve watched that program for the better part of 40 years. When UNC won the title in 1982, my mother and I were painting my bedroom Carolina Blue at the time. The timing of this announcement allows MUFC to hire the best person for the job. They probably already have that person under contract and are waiting for the appropriate moment to announce it.

  3. I heard that Dean Smith’s biggest accomplishment was being able to hold Jordan to less than 20 points a game.

  4. The analogy makes sense.

    However if the next manager is David Moyes, he’s not some assistant coach being brought up. He’s an experienced manager in England who is more than capable. His European pedigree is just as good as Roberto Mancini’s.

    David Moyes will rightfully get his chance to manage a big club.

    1. And by big club I mean competing in the Champions League every year with the expectation to win every trophy.

      This is no slight against Everton, who are an excellent club but cannot provide the financial investment needed to keep Moyes.

    2. Oh, I’m not necessarily saying that Moyes is a loser who shouldn’t be hired, but that United should be careful in asking SAF who should be his successor. Moyes should be hired based on whether he is the best guy for the job….not because SAF may somewhat appreciate him.

      I agree that Moyes has earned a shot at a top club. While there is nothing to indicate that he can handle a job like United, there’s also no evidence that he can’t. The only thing about him that gives me pause is that I can’t imagine any of the clubs that United measures themselves again hiring Moyes: Barca, Madrid, Chelsea, City, Bayern, PSG, Juve, etc. We’d all think it was an April Fool’s joke if someone told us that Bayern was hiring Moyes.

      1. None of those clubs you mentioned would’ve hired Alex Ferguson in 1986.

        Personally, I would have no problem with David Moyes managing Chelsea. He’s going to prove a lot of people wrong I feel.

  5. Except for the part about the FSW I Couldn’t agree more with you.

    Judging purely on footballing terms Mourhino is the man for the job.

    1. No argument with your last sentence, but the idea of Mourinho as United’s manager is immediately followed by Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s A Heartache”.

    2. I wouldn’t mind seeing Mourhino get the job. I feel like a lot of United fans are opposed to that because they know they’re only getting him for a few years and the divorce might be messy…..and that’s kinda the point of my article.

      United probably has to get used to hiring/firing a manager every 3-5 years just like most other clubs in the world (and dealing with the hiccups on the field of play).

      1. Exactly right all this talk about Moyes staying long term is rubbish. Football has changed and 5 years at a club theses days is considered a lot.

        For me given his footballing record it should be Mourhino with it being made clear to him that his antics will not be tolerated and he will not be allowed to tarnish the clubs image. I’d love to see a Miurhino with solskjaer or Gary Neville as the number two.

          1. He has a history of having #2s from the country he’s managing in.

            A new number two couldn’t be any worse than mike Phealen.

  6. Nice head-up. I wish who ever is coming a very big success and good luck cause he will need it… United will never be thesame ever again…

    1. Yeah…it’s really not realistic to expect ANYONE can come in and do what SAF has done at United. And even if someone can do that, expecting that such a person is on the job and continues these winning ways without a hiccup is also unreasonable.

      There’s bound to be a slight dip. I doubt it’ll be too severe because United still has a lot of money, a great brand and great players. I don’t think they’re headed for mid-table finishes, but the current level of success isn’t sustainable.

  7. It’s funny that you bring up this topic. I’ve been saying all morning that the last time I was this “gutted” by a retirement was when Dean Smith stepped down.

    I’m not going to get into who I think United should hire. But I will say that there aren’t many individuals who can be referred to as a “legend”. Ferguson and Smith were legends.

    I’ve been a college coach for 15 years. I’m not so much a fan of teams, I’m more a fan of coaches.

    Although I coach college basketball, I don’t watch it (outside of my team and the teams I play against). I just don’t find it appealing. I think the best coaches/managers are in football. Fergie being hands down the best one.

    I find it amusing that American reporters are trying to find someone to compare SAF to (in order to explain it to an American audience). But they can’t find a single coach. They’ve been comparing him to multiple coaches OR saying he’s like one particular coach, if you multiplied that success 10x.

    1. It is absolutely true. Even the coaches who have been around for decades and always been outstanding just can’t match the sheer number of titles that SAF has.

      Here’s one I didn’t think of: Anson Dorrance, coach of the UNC women’s soccer team. He’s been the head coach since 1979 and has won 21 national titles. Of course, it’s women’s college sports and not as competitive as the EPL.

      Maybe Red Auerbach from the Celtics? He won 16 NBA titles over 29 years as coach/general manager/president.

      1. Red is a good call. And the two in-family follow-up coaches who won 4 championships in 10 years were……..? :-)

    1. That’s exactly what I came to say. It seems these people don’t have much long term knowledge of Manchester United LOL

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