Succession planning: Following an 'institution' can be tough

Digital EditionOphthalmology Times: April 15, 2021
Volume 46
Issue 7

A word from Chief Medical Editor Peter J. McDonnell, MD.

Gene Bartow was an American collegiate basketball coach. In 1975, he began coaching the varsity team at a university in Southern California.

In his first season, his team won its conference championship and reached the Final Four in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament to select the national champion.

In his second season, they were again conference champs and again qualified for the national “March Madness” tournament. After 2 years, his team had won 52 games and lost 9.

Bartow’s average winning percentage of .852 placed him among the elite of the coaching pantheon, comparing favorably to the legendary Adolph Rupp (University of Kentucky) at .822, Dean Smith (Michael Jordan’s coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) at .776, and Mike Krzyzewski (coach of perennial basketball powerhouse Duke University) at .764.

Few coaches even reach the Final Four during their entire careers. For Bartow to accomplish this in his first year was quite a feat.

What was Bartow’s reward for this tremendous performance? Despite a remarkable 2-year record, Bartow was shown the door. He was guilty of an unpardonable sin—he was not John Wooden.

Wooden was the legendary basketball coach who preceded Bartow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and who ended his career with a remarkable string of victories and national championships. As a result, fans came to expect national championships as their right.

Marques Johnson was a star player for UCLA under both Wooden and Bartow. Johnson said, “[Coach Bartow] was a sensitive person. He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything. After 2 years, he was gaunt and pale and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy, and a great coach.”

Whether Bartow was pushed out or left on his own to avoid a toxic situation may be debated. But no one disputes that he had incredible abuse heaped upon him.

Ironically, Bartow’s win-loss record at UCLA bested that of his revered predecessor. Wooden ended his (albeit much longer) career at UCLA with a winning percentage of .808. Few coaches who followed Bartow would match his winning percentage.

What possible relevance could this tale of 2 coaches hold for ophthalmologists and physicians in general? Just as with coaching jobs, from time to time a transition in leadership takes place in our medical practices, hospitals, departments, and divisions.

When considering whether to throw one’s hat in the ring for a vacated leadership position, I think the wise ophthalmologist should take stock of the departing leader and any associated “cult” following.

Like basketball coaches, no 2 medical executives are identical in their personalities, leadership styles, and priorities. As demonstrated in the case of Bartow, objectively demonstrable excellence might not be able to overcome the emotional attachment to a previous longstanding leader.

Read more editorials

1.Henderson M. Gene Bartow, man who followed John Wooden, dies. Patch. January 4, 2012. Accessed March 30, 2021.

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