The great man theory of leadership postulates that great leaders are born with the traits that make them successful and shape the world around them as they go through their lives. Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, a believer in the theory, once said, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This has led those that buy into this theory to believe that past success is a product of an individual more than their circumstances. This theory has been heavily criticized since, but it seems that some still believe it. This can be troublesome when it comes to hiring wrestling coaches.
The traditional progression of a high-level college wrestling coach, if there is such a thing, has been to be an assistant first, then take a head coaching opportunity at a lesser program and then move into a better program after showing your ability to succeed. Of course, many have skipped steps along the way due to circumstance, but, in general, this is a path through which aspiring coaches can hope to earn a chance at a top level coaching job. While being an assistant first makes sense in order to learn the ropes and better understand the intricacies of running a college program, the succeeding at a lower level program in order to move up to a better job smells of the great man theory.
While wrestling seems to understand this better than football and basketball, just look at the list of assistants at big programs that seem to be attached to every big job that comes available, we can still do better. While there are certainly people out there whose skills, personality traits and experience lend themselves to being a more successful head coach than others, every program is different. This suggests fit, understanding of the environment and relationships may be more important than any traits or skills a prospective hire may have exhibited elsewhere.
Assuming that a great man, or coach, will succeed anywhere is the failing of the great man theory. Without support from the school, the right team of assistants, a strong support staff and an environment that agrees with a coaches own view of the world, a coach who was wildly successful elsewhere may struggle. This is not an indictment of the coach or of the school, but simply an acknowledgment that circumstances play a large role in the success and there are more variables in play than any outside observer could ever hope to quantify.
This can be problematic for a school looking to hire a new coach. How can you make a good decision, that most often involves plucking a candidate out of a situation where he is thriving and plopping him down somewhere new, if the environment is so important? For starters, it may help to focus on those who have had success at programs similar to your own. While it is tempting to hire the young prospect having success at a partially funded school with high admission requirements, I would suggest that he may not be the right man for the job at a large state school looking to win national titles. The circumstances surrounding the two programs are too different. Of course, he may succeed anyway, but bringing in a candidate with recent experience at a similar program to your own should result in a better success rate.
At the end of the day, coaches succeed and fail for too many reasons to count. Add in the ever-shifting landscape of athletic departments, assistant coaches and potential candidates and it’s basically a lottery draw with every hire. Just as can’t miss recruits fail every year, top coaching prospects are no sure thing. Still, that doesn’t mean picking a candidate based on throwing darts at a list of names is a good idea. There are ways to increase a program’s odds of success and I submit that pursuing candidates who have proven able to thrive in a similar environment is one of them.