SBJ/July 31-August 6, 2017/In Depth

In the college space, big competition and difficult jobs

Want to know why universities are willing to pay six figures for a search firm to help identify their next athletic director?

Len Perna, who runs Turnkey Sports & Entertainment’s search business, has one answer.

“The AD position truly is the most difficult job in sports,” Perna said, citing the pressure from a variety of stakeholders and the expertise required in everything from selling tickets to student-athlete welfare, contracts and NCAA compliance.

Perna’s firm has placed ADs in some of the highest-profile jobs in the country during the past year, including Alabama, Tennessee and Minnesota, and Michigan before that.

“There’s a much brighter light on the college searches,” said Perna, president and CEO at Turnkey, which has been in the search business across a variety of sectors for 21 years. “There’s a lot of interest from a lot of stakeholders. A lot of them want to be involved and have a voice. Because of that, you’re constantly having to meet that need without compromising the privacy and confidentiality of the candidates. It’s a big difference between college and pro sports and entertainment.”

The unique nature of these highly publicized college searches, which can involve board members, donors, the school president and faculty on large and cumbersome search committees, has bred a highly competitive space for search firms, especially when it comes to ADs, football coaches and men’s basketball coaches.

Some, like Eastman & Beaudine, are pioneers in the college space and they’re known as professional recruiters.

But the college space also has given rise to many other boutique search and consulting firms started by former athletic directors, such as Todd Turner (Collegiate Sports Associates), Jeff Schemmel (College Sports Solutions) and Bill Carr (CarrSports Consulting), who earned their experience having sat in the big chair as an AD.

And then there are the industry veterans, like Cedric Dempsey, the former NCAA executive director, and Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight Conference commissioner, who often receive phone calls asking their opinions.

A university AD or president embarking on a search might have upward of a dozen individuals or firms raising their hand to aid in the process. Searches can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the firm and the scope of the job.

“As compensation has gotten higher, more firms have gotten involved,” said Turner, a former AD at North Carolina State, Washington, Vanderbilt and Connecticut.

Most AD jobs, for example, will attract 75 to 100 applicants, and roughly 15 to 20 of them will merit a closer look. Most firms are charged with presenting a diverse pool of candidates as well. Turner was especially proud of his last three AD searches, which produced gender or ethnic minority hires at Hartford, UNLV and South Carolina-Upstate.

Daniel Parker at Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search said his most recent AD search for Illinois-Chicago started with 70 applicants, and 10 were flown into O’Hare for what were called “airport interviews” at the Hilton, five on one day, five on the next.

From those 10, three were selected for on-campus visits and interviews with the university chancellor before Garrett Klassy was hired from George Washington, where he had been a senior associate AD.

AD searches at the power five level typically involve fewer interviews because there are fewer qualified candidates.

Confidentiality is at a premium for those more visible jobs. Alabama’s AD search, led by Turnkey, famously lasted six months as the school looked for a top administrator while also figuring out Bill Battle’s retirement. The Crimson Tide hired Greg Byrne from Arizona just days after Byrne walked the campus without being recognized or reported.

“The value proposition for executive search has proven to be strong, so that’s what has attracted so many firms,” Perna said. “Ten or 15 years ago, there was this feeling that you could post a job and the world would beat a path to your door. That’s proved to be false. There are certain jobs you can post and ones you can’t because you have to — have to — get them right. Posting a job doesn’t get you the best of the best, it gets you the best of the people who are looking for a job.

“The idea with a search firm is not that they bring you one person, but that they bring you 10.”

UIC’s hire touches on one of several new trends evolving in the college space. Now that so many competitors have emerged, firms are developing new lines of business that extend beyond the power five and into lower levels of Division I, II and III for AD and coach searches.

The firms also are digging deeper into the front office and football coaching staffs, where they’re now conducting searches for deputy ADs and coordinators.

Eastman & Beaudine CEO Bob Beaudine said he has conducted searches recently that led to deputy AD hires at Baylor, Memphis and Tulane. He’s also led searches for baseball coaches at Baylor and Missouri, as well as a women’s basketball coaching search at Colorado.

Until the last year or two, it was unheard of for an AD to hire a firm for coaching searches outside of football and men’s basketball.

“An AD simply can’t be an expert in every sport,” Beaudine said. “We’re a time multiplier for an AD. We can get done in a day what it would take most ADs a week and that’s critical when you’re in a very tight time frame.”

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