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When Genes Don't Fit

Following an iconic coach who happens to be your father can be a no-win situation -- just ask Pat Knight

March 09, 2011|David Wharton

When the news broke earlier this week that Texas Tech had fired its basketball coach, Joey Meyer felt a special kind of sympathy.

It wasn't just that Meyer is a coach, too, and knows what it feels like to get the ax.

In this case, he and the man who got dismissed, Pat Knight, have something else in common -- both followed in the footsteps of legendary fathers.

Meyer replaced his dad, Ray, at DePaul in the mid-1980s. Knight took over the Red Raiders program from the famous and occasionally infamous Bob Knight.

"You always feel an allegiance to that situation," Meyer said. "You know how hard it is."

Or, as Knight recently quipped to reporters: "I'd have been smart if I just played baseball and never got into coaching."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 11, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
College football: An article in the March 9 Sports section on fathers and sons who have been head coaches in various sports said that Tommy Bowden, son of Bobby Bowden, had been fired as a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. He was fired at Clemson, which is in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Not too many fathers and sons have managed to reach the highest levels of this tenuous profession, but the list spans across decades and all the major sports.

Go back to Connie Mack, whose career as a major league manager ranged from the late 1800s until 1950 and bookended that of his son, Earle. The renowned football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg had two boys, Amos Alonzo Jr. and Paul, who later forged careers on the sideline.

In most cases, the offspring have faced a daunting predicament, trying to emerge from a familial shadow.

Pat Knight replaced an icon who retired in 2008 with 902 victories and three national championships. He seemed to recognize the challenge that lay ahead.

"I know why I'm here -- because of my dad," he said that year. "But then again, I can't be him because I'm not him."

It was almost as bad for Joey Meyer.

Consider that he forged the kind of career most coaches dream of, lasting 13 seasons at DePaul, amassing 231 victories while guiding the Blue Demons to the NCAA tournament seven times.

But those numbers paled in comparison to Ray's 724 wins and 13 NCAA appearances over four decades on the Chicago campus.

"I knew I could never do what he did," said the younger Meyer, who now coaches in the NBA Development League. "I wasn't thinking I could last 42 years and be in the Hall of Fame."

If Meyer felt the burden, imagine how it was for Don Shula's boys. Though neither replaced their father when he retired as coach of the Miami Dolphins, his NFL-record 328 wins cast a shadow long enough to enshroud them wherever they went.

David compiled a 19-52 record with the Cincinnati Bengals before getting fired in 1996. Mike lasted only four seasons at Alabama after going 26-23.

Similarly, neither Terry nor Tommy Bowden could match the longevity of their dad, Bobby, at Florida State, both getting dumped from high-profile jobs in the Southeastern Conference. Terry recently resurfaced at Division II North Alabama.

At Oklahoma State, Sean Sutton succeeded his father, Eddie, and lost the job as basketball coach in 2008 after two disappointing seasons.

But wins and losses aren't the only means by which sons are measured against their fathers.

The relatively plainspoken Wade Phillips could never match the folksy charm of his father, Bum, who was always a favorite with the media, dishing out one memorable quote after another.

"Two kinds of players aren't worth a darn," Bum once said. "One that never does what he's told and one who does nothin' except what he's told."

Another time, he explained: "There's two kinds of coaches. Them that's fired and them that's gonna be fired."

When asked if he expected some kind of financial reward for the lifelong tutelage he gave to Wade, the father replied: "Really, I never tutled that boy."

At least Wade has a .573 winning percentage in coaching stints with five NFL teams including the Denver Broncos and, most recently, the Dallas Cowboys. That is almost six percentage points higher than Bum managed in 11 seasons with the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Oilers.

Other sons have earned similar success.

At Georgetown, John Thompson III has made a name for himself following his well-known father, leading the Hoyas basketball program back into prominence.

Football coach Skip Holtz has shown promise in the wake of his father, Lou, moving from Connecticut to East Carolina and now to South Florida.

Tony Bennett took over the Washington State basketball program when his dad, Dick, retired in 2006 and tied a school record with consecutive 26-win seasons. He is now the head coach at Virginia.

It seems that sticking with the family business has its advantages.

"You can sit and learn from your dad for how many years," Meyer said. "You get the opportunity to see everything he does."

The Ryan twins got that sort of education from their bombastic father, Buddy, who devised the "46 defense" that powered the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory and later coached the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.

Rob now serves as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys and Rex is head coach of the New York Jets.

Not that their father was a rousing success in the NFL, retiring with a 55-55-1 record over seven seasons. Still, Rex felt the pressure of following him.

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