Last week two more of the biggest college programs decided on a new head coach. Gary Taylor, formerly of NC State, will lead Auburn. In Blacksburg, VA, Sergio Lopez will be moving on from Auburn to Virginia Tech.
In both cases, I can only compliment the hires. Lopez' resume has put him into the conversation for every major coaching position over the last few years. As for Taylor, well he's an incredible coach and an even better person that I consider to be a friend. If I was in Raleigh and he asked me to load boxes onto a moving truck I'd be there.
In both cases, though, the bar for success has been set very high. While many people liked to rumble (myself included) that Hawke was underachieving at Auburn, Taylor will have to at least show something in between the last few years and the Dave Marsh years. At VT, Lopez will replace a coach that, in my opinion, overachieved during his tenure. So he'll have to get another level of overachievement.
The Marsh Legacy
Lets rewind a bit to how Hawke became head coach of Auburn in the first place. David Marsh finished off a run of NCAA titles that basically made him the modern day Peter Daland. His departure from Auburn was so massive that the perhaps the shortest list of candidates were bandied about to replace him.
Auburn settled on Richard Quick, who had a modest seven NCAA titles and six Olympic coaching staffs on his CV. Although Auburn took a step back in Quick's first year, finishing 5th at the men's meet and 2nd at the women's meet, they immediately established themselves in the 2008-2009 season as an NCAA men's contender.
Sadly, Quick was diagnosed with a brain tumor, had to step aside and died in June 2009. However, Brett Hawke stepped into the fore as interim head coach and Auburn won the 2009 men's NCAA title.
That title definitely earned Hawke a lot of capital. Auburn remained close to the top for a few years, but slippage continued in the NCAA standings, particularly on the women's side.
That is all to say, Gary Taylor will (thankfully) not have to replicate the Marsh years to have job security. He will, however, have to show improvement, particularly at the conference level. Taylor's boss has undoubtedly set the goal of returning to winning the SEC, and Taylor likely has incentives in his contract should he do so (Hawke did).
While swimming fans rightly put emphasis on NCAA results, conference results make more sense to football and basketball focused Athletic directors. Still, one would surmise that a return to top ten or even top five footing for the men and measurable progression toward the same for the AU women are expected.
No pressure, Gary.
Perhaps it deserves its own post, but I think that Ned Skinner has a strong legacy at VT. He was so successful at the school that he eventually got taken for granted. He also did an outstanding job picking and developing assistant coaches for head coaching roles.
Again in this respect he was a victim of his own success, having tapped Braden Holloway as an assistant and then associate head coach before losing him to NC State. The rest, as we say, is history.
Schools that VT routinely beat had serious structural advantages over them. Those include my former home Georgia Tech, but also UVA, NC State (pre-Holloway), UNC and Florida State.
Skinner worked his ass off to make VT the kind of school that could attract Sergio Lopez to the job.
And so Lopez will have to do that even better. He will have to overcome the structural advantages of the above schools, plus Notre Dame and Louisville (!!). The road back to a conference title for VT is razor thin, especially as long as Holloway still keeps his beard nicely trimmed in Raleigh.
I feel silly adding this epitaph, but the swimming world is full of sensitive souls who will interpret me saying that Lopez and Taylor have big challenges in front of them as some kind of slight. So let me be clear- I admire both (Taylor a little more for his smooth baritone) and wish them all the best!