SBJ/December 5-11, 2011/In Depth

Help with high-stakes hires

Colleges turn to search firms to find coaching, AD candidates

Dan Parker is one of the most powerful figures in college athletics, but he doesn’t want you to know who he is.

He doesn’t like to do media interviews in person, he doesn’t want his picture in the paper and he doesn’t attend news conferences. Parker prefers working in the shadows while he executes some of the most highly publicized and intense job searches in sports.

University presidents and athletic directors, however, know him well. Some of them have spent a week or more by his side as they made their most important decisions — who to hire and who to fire.

In the next month, more than a dozen schools in the power conferences will hire football coaches and many of those searches will be coordinated by outside agencies. Of the eight football searches that were under way in the major conferences last week, three of the schools had hired a search consultant and another had not yet decided.

The University of Michigan used the firm of Spencer Stuart to help find the school’s next football coach, resulting in the hiring of Brady Hoke.
Photo by: Getty Images
“We never tell a client that this guy will win a national championship,” said Parker, president of Parker Executive Search, an Atlanta firm that coordinates searches for college athletic directors and coaches. “We don’t predict wins and losses. We don’t project success and we don’t endorse specific candidates. Our job is to deal with all of the moving parts behind the scenes.”

Each year, Division I schools conduct anywhere from 35 to 45 searches with the help of an outside agency. Almost all of those searches are the next AD, or football or basketball coach.

Those searches, which can cost $30,000 to $100,000, are scrutinized by the hour on social media and talk radio shows that speculate about candidates, real or perceived.

The hires, especially the football coaches who will cost $2 million to $4 million a year in salary for the high-profile jobs, often define the perception of the person doing the hiring. And that puts the search executives in an extraordinarily powerful position.

“Everything has changed so much because of the money involved,” said Todd Turner, a former AD at Washington,
Vanderbilt, N.C. State and Connecticut who now consults with schools on searches. “There is such a sense of urgency to hire the perfect person. I’ve heard administrators say, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’ You really start to understand the pressures they’re under.”

Firm guidance

The fertile college space has attracted large firms that formerly worked only in the corporate world, as well as individuals who see an opportunity to put their expertise and contacts to work.

Big 12 interim Commissioner Chuck Neinas, a former AD and full-time commissioner, has long been considered among the top consultants in the college search business, along with Bill Carr, another former AD who took his administrative background into the search field.

Larger executive search firms, such as Eastman & Beaudine, Spencer Stuart, Parker and DHR International, also have found a growing stream of revenue from colleges, even though their core competency might not have been rooted in college athletics.

And then there are those administrators, such as former NCAA President Cedric Dempsey and Turner, who use their extensive Rolodex from years in the business to consult on hires.

“It’s hard to work through the maze of advisers and agents without relationships,” said Michigan AD Dave Brandon, who used Spencer Stuart’s Jed Hughes, a Michigan graduate and former football coach, to conduct last year’s search for the Wolverines’ football coach. That resulted in the hiring of Brady Hoke.

New Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez talks to AD Greg Byrne (right), who opted to keep the school’s search in house.
Photo by: Icon SMI
Brandon said he was “never a big fan of search firms” when he was CEO at Domino’s Pizza, his job from 1999 to 2010 before becoming Michigan’s AD last year, but he found a search firm to be especially valuable for such a highly specialized position.

“You’re dealing with a compressed period of time and you need to be as efficient as possible,” he said. “To be productive, you’ve got to know the agents, the coaches, you’ve got to set up meetings and move around the country, all the while maintaining confidentiality.

“Our football search was done in six days and if I had done it on my own, it would have taken two to three weeks, and there would have been a lot of frustrating moments in the process.”

Presidents have traditionally leaned on search firms to hire ADs, just as they use firms to identify a business dean or a provost. More recently, though, ADs have begun to reach out to search firms for football and basketball coaching hires. That’s where search consultants see the greatest potential for revenue growth.

Russ Campbell, a Birmingham, Ala.-based agent who represents football coaches Bobby Petrino at Arkansas and Gene Chizik at Auburn, estimates that most of the college football searches in the next month will be coordinated by a search executive. Just five years ago, it was uncommon for an AD to seek outside counsel on a coaching hire, search executives said.

Campbell said the agent and the search executive do most of the matchmaking up front. They even establish financial parameters for a contract.

“Some ADs won’t take a call from an agent because they think ‘agent’ is a bad word, but we can call a search firm and they’ll take our call,” Campbell said. “It helps facilitate the process. It gives us a contemporary on the other side. It’s also going to force the AD to divorce himself from all of the emotion that can come from boosters and the general fan base, so there’s more of an objective view.”

Building a network

It’s not uncommon these days for the search to begin well before there’s a vacancy. ADs sometimes give search professionals a heads-up when there’s the potential for change and they even consult with them when they’re thinking about firing a coach.

That puts tremendous influence in the hands of the search executives and leads to concerns about conflicts of interest. It’s
common for ADs who are hired with the help of a search firm to use that search firm again to hire a coach.

Parker, for example, led the searches in the past 18 months for Tennessee’s AD, football coach and basketball coach. At Oregon, he led the search for the AD, then was hired by the school again to search for the executive senior associate AD.
That’s the relationship part of the business at work, Parker said.

“When they retain us, they’re looking for our strategy much more than ‘Who do we hire?’ or ‘How do we terminate this coach?’ I’ve been doing this for 40-plus years. I’m not working off the back of an envelope here,” Parker said.

But any AD or president who leans too much on an outside agency for hiring advice “is making a big mistake,” Michigan’s Brandon said. “Nobody understands who I’m comfortable with better than me. Nobody knows my culture better than me.”

The search executives, meanwhile, meet with coaches at events like the Final Four or conventions to identify the upwardly mobile. Sometimes they work with coaches on interview techniques. Those meetings help search firms present a list of candidates when the search begins.

“You have to know that the financials are just part of it, but there’s also the inspiration to win a championship, the right boss, the age of a coach’s children. If the children are in the middle of high school, they probably aren’t as willing to move,” said Bob Beaudine of Plano, Texas-based Eastman & Beaudine.

Beaudine led his first AD search 17 years ago and has made the college space a staple of his firm’s business ever since. He’s currently guiding the search for a football coach at Mississippi.

“We have coaches come through our offices all the time just so we can get to know them,” he said. “It’s during those kinds of meetings that a coach will say something like, ‘Hey, if this job ever comes open, it’d be a great fit.’”

Those meetings, combined with a database of research, create a coach’s profile. The database is different from firm to firm, but it typically includes salary, NCAA compliance history, a résumé check, educational degrees, and the coach’s history of Academic Progress Report rates.

Parker has coaches sign a statement of accuracy on their résumé and authorize a background check that includes a review of criminal, motor vehicle and credit histories.

Parker also scans another source for information — YouTube.

Eastman & Beaudine helped SMU lure coach June Jones from the University of Hawaii.
Photo by: Getty Images
“Sometimes there might be accusations or rumors about something that happened in a huddle or on the sidelines and we’ll look for as much video as we can to see what actually happened,” said Parker, who has 15 executives in his Atlanta office, five of whom work on college accounts. “It also gives us an idea of how the coach will come across.”

By the time the search begins, the firm typically has compiled a list of candidates from the database that makes sense. The search executives then consult with the AD on the list and begin making contact, typically with an agent first.

Many of the interviews from Parker’s searches are conducted in his Atlanta office, while others are held at hotels or airports. A veil of secrecy is critical to the process and more difficult than ever to maintain, especially as reporters and fans track airplane tail numbers and any other evidence about where an AD might have been.

Some administrators have the search professional negotiate the contract, or at least the major terms. Others prefer to do that themselves.

“The biggest thing for me is the confidentiality piece of it,” said TCU Athletic Director Chris Del Conte. “That’s where the main value is. There’s such a media frenzy around coaching hires, and you have to protect the school and the individual.”

Added Robert Shelton, the former Arizona president who recently became executive director of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: “When you’re in such a fishbowl and you’ve got to get it right, all of that attention can make the job much harder. It’s a lot easier to hire a dean of business or medicine.”

Finding the right fit

While consultants insist that the AD makes the hire, there can be a recruiting twist. Presiding over a University of Hawaii team that ran the table before losing to Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, June Jones was winning big, living in paradise and enjoying immeasurable popularity. Six days after the bowl game, Jones did what no one expected — he took on a major reclamation project at SMU.

Beaudine had been hired by the Mustangs to assist in the search.

“It all started with, ‘Hey, what’s your dream? What do you want to do next?’” Beaudine said during a series of conversations with Jones. “I asked June if he thought he’d always stay there or do something else. It comes down to how you sell a vision of that university to someone, how you bridge the gap. In the end, he went from paradise to the death-penalty school. That’s recruiting.”

Turnkey Sports Poll

The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in November. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

What do you think of increasing grants to student athletes by about $2,000, which would be in addition to expenses already covered by athletic scholarships (e.g.: tuition, room, board, books, etc.)?
In support of it 58%
Neutral 18%
Opposed to it 20%
Not sure / No response 4%
 
Which of the following is the toughest job in college sports?
Athletic director 51%
Head football coach 39%
Head basketball coach 4%
Not sure / No response 6%
 
What is more important for an AD candidate to have?
Business experience 80%
Experience in sports 17%
Not sure / No response 3%
 
What will the next major business trend be in collegiate athletics directly modeled after pro sports?
Dynamic pricing of tickets 32%
In-house sponsorship departments 26%
In-house ticket sales departments 18%
Utilizing executive search firms to fill top-level positions 12%
Other 4%
Not sure / No response 8%

Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.

Jones has gone on to turn SMU football around, but hiring a search firm is by no means a guarantee of success.
Parker represented Pittsburgh in December when it infamously hired football coach Michael Haywood, who was arrested on domestic battery charges eight days after his hiring and subsequently was fired before ever coaching a practice. The school said a proper background check revealed no such red flags.

But that situation reinforces the idea that hiring is much more an art than a science.

“There is some science to it and that’s what you work your way through early in the process,” Turner said. “Do you want to live in that city? Do you want to live in that part of the country? What are you making? How old are your kids? That’s the science part. … You really try to spend more time on the fit, though. That’s the part that’s art. What it boils down to most of the time is the chemistry between people. Is there a connection?”

The devil’s advocate perspective is that well-connected ADs are hired because of their ability to hire and fire. They have a staff of 10 to 20 assistant ADs. Why do they need to spend up to $100,000 on a search firm?

Arizona’s Greg Byrne hired football coach Rich Rodriguez last month without the aid of a search consultant, although he did use Dempsey as a sounding board, which did not require a fee.

But that was an unusual case. Arizona dismissed former coach Mike Stoops in the middle of the season, which gave Byrne ample time to organize his search. And his prime target, Rodriguez, was not coaching another team when he was hired, which created fewer obstacles in the search.

Byrne concedes, though, that he would have turned to the help of a search firm if he hadn’t locked down Rodriguez by now.

“It’s such a different world now,” Campbell said. “There’s such a deep pool of talent to sift through and there’s also been the expansion of technology. An AD can’t go anywhere without being spotted. How do you get control of the process? The answer a lot of times is to hire an intermediary who is less noticeable. It’s the trend now.”
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