Any team that hires an executive recruiter to aid the coaching search process can now expect to hear a lot of criticism, and that has certainly been the case this season despite the fact that only one of the eight teams in the market for a coach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has disclosed hiring a search firm.
Many football insiders believe that only the front office should handle the hiring of a new coach. But Korn Ferry, a global firm based in Los Angeles whose sports practice is led by former college and NFL assistant coach Jed Hughes, has carved a niche as the go-to executive recruiter for NFL head coaching hires. The firm helped the Falcons hire Dan Quinn in 2015 and the Jaguars hire Doug Marrone in 2017. Prior to that it had been involved with Pete Carroll going to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 and Andy Reid to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, though both were already well-known from previous coaching stints.
They have also been involved in some misses, including Hue Jackson to the Cleveland Browns, another coach let go this season, in 2016.
“There is no reason for a team to hire a search firm,” said Charley Casserly, the longtime Redskins and Texans GM who is now on the NFL career advisory committee, which makes recommendations to owners on head coach and general manager candidates. “Football is such a close community, and that’s where 90 percent of your coaches come from.”
His comment is soft compared to the bashing on Twitter that followed the Bucs’ disclosing they had hired Korn Ferry as they search for a replacement for the terminated Dirk Koetter. “Perhaps the biggest boondoggle in the business of sports,” tweeted former NFL executive Andrew Brandt.
And Rich Eisen, the omnipresent NFL Network host, tweeted, “Why does any NFL team need the help of a headhunting search firm to hire the right coach? It’s not like a team in need of a coach just got dropped into the league from another industry. Or another country.”
Hughes could not be reached for comment.
What is it about using a search firm that elicits such vitriol within the walls of the NFL? Part of the reason is that it represents an outsider coming into the cloistered world of pro football.
“My theory is people in business use them so that’s why they are using them in the NFL,” said Casserly, who consulted for the New York Jets on their head coach search four years ago that resulted in the hiring of Todd Bowles, who was let go last week.
It’s similar to how traditionalists responded to data analytics, the belief that those who deal with laptop strokes can’t understand the fundamentals of what goes into being a head coach.
Organizations often look to recruiters for help on the early parts of the process, including vetting candidates. Len Perna is the president and CEO of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, which has a division that handles college coaching searches but has never done an NFL search, understandably supported the role a recruiter can play. “When a client hires a recruiter the process starts on second base,” Perna wrote in an email. “Recruiters are also privy to many more sources of intel on candidates than clients who are not constantly filling these kinds of positions.”