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.