Last week, the practice of a school naming a head-coach-in-waiting was dealt a possibly fatal blow with the career implosion of West Virginia's Bill Stewart. The effort to keep the Mountaineers head coach on the sidelines one additional year while his successor waited in the wings crumbled spectacularly in Morgantown. The debacle lead to the questioning of the advisability of relying on the practice given it's recent popularity and woeful ensuing track record.
Interestingly, Alabama experimented with it's own version of the coach-in-waiting more than 80 years ago and, for all intents and purposes, it was a smashing success.
In April 1930, Alabama's fantastically successful head coach Wallace Wade announced to the school that he was resigning to take the job at Duke University. In the previous seven years, Wade had taken the Crimson Tide from middle-of-the-pack regional squad and transformed them into a national football power.
The victory in the 1926 Rose Bowl announced to the nation that Alabama was a force to be reckoned with and a return to the New Year's Day classic in 1927 demonstrated it wasn't a fluke.
Yet Wade and University of Alabama President George Denny sometimes clashed over the direction of the program. So when Duke University contacted the Wade and offered him one of the highest salaries offered to any coach in the country, he accepted. It took everyone by surprise.
Despite the sudden departure, Wade had no intention of leaving Alabama in the lurch. He recommended the school hire a relatively unknown assistant at the University of Georgia, Frank Thomas. A product of Notre Dame, Thomas was considered a brilliant strategist but his head coaching experience was minimal.
Wade unequivocally recommended Thomas to Denny who gave him the go-ahead to set up a meeting in Birmingham at a track meet. The two conferred under the bleachers of Legion Field where they had taken shelter from a downpour. Thomas, who had no idea what the meeting was to be about, was speechless when Wade told him he had the recommendation for the job.
On July 15, Thomas met with Denny and other Alabama officials and, after a short talk, the deal was struck. Thomas would become Alabama's head coach on Jan. 10 of the next year leaving Wade head coach of the Crimson Tide for the 1930 season. Thomas returned to Athens to finish out the year as an assistant on the staff in Georgia.
Wade, now a lame-duck coach, didn't have any intention of mailing in his final season in Tuscaloosa. On the first day of practice, he made his intentions clear to the players:
"Boys, I'm going to win the damn championship this year. Now those of you who want to be part of it, let's get going," he said. "If there is anybody here that is not 100% committed, leave now."
The 1930 squad proved to be one of the most formidable in Alabama history. Over the course of the season they outscored opponents 247 - 13. No less than eight times that season he started the game with the second unit, let them play a quarter, and then put in the starters. The practice tended to completely demoralize the opposition.
At the end of the regular season, Alabama was undefeated, untied and invited to the Rose Bowl to face a Washington State squad sporting a similarly pristine record.
Wade extended an invitation to Alabama's head coach in waiting, Thomas, to accompany the team on the trip. While Thomas was not part of the coaching staff, it was an opportunity to meet the players and learn the dynamics of the program.
Alabama crushed Washington State 24-0 and earned the National Championship. Wade then departed to Durham, North Carolina where he coached for 16 seasons and earned an 110-36-7 record along with six southern conference titles.
Thomas would go on to astonishing success at Alabama as well. In 14 seasons he lead the Tide to an 115-24-7 record, four Southeastern Conference titles and a pair of national championships. Among Alabama head coaches his .812 win percentage is matched by Wade's and both are eclipsed only by Paul W. Bryant.