For the 20 years that Tom Burman has served as a college athletic director, at Portland State and now Wyoming, he’s presided over dozens of coaching searches. But he’s never seen one quite like the last.
For starters, his search last week for a men’s basketball coach didn’t include handshakes. He also didn’t involve a search firm like he usually would, and he didn’t meet candidates at one discreet location, instead traveling to them. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, another man was conducting his own coaching search. Loyola Marymount athletic director Craig Pintens was on a plane en route to scout a candidate coaching in a conference tournament when he learned that said tournament was canceled.
But no one’s search was impacted quite like the one led by Jared Benko. Benko hadn’t officially started his job as athletic director at Georgia Southern, and here he was trying to find a new basketball coach while finishing his tenure as a deputy AD at Mississippi State, all during a pandemic. “I’m trying to find a positive: Accessibility is a lot easier,” Benko says. “I was talking to a coach and I told him thanks for your time. He said, ‘I’ve got a couple weeks. I’m stuck in the house.’”
The impacts of a global pandemic are far reaching, extending to every corner of college sports, not the least of which are athletic directors searching for their next head coach. The outbreak of the coronavirus smacked the country at the tail end of the college basketball season, just as many athletic directors were making coaching changes. Football and men’s basketball searches are normally marked by media-evading maneuvers, deep speculation and, of course, intense travel—many times to secret rendezvous for long meetings with a litany of candidates. This cycle, the basketball silly season got sillier, in a dreadfully serious way.
In interviews with Sports Illustrated, three athletic directors give a glimpse into what a coaching search is like in such unprecedented times. “It was crazy,” Pintens says. “I wouldn’t recommend doing this during a pandemic.”
Many didn’t. In fact, no head men’s basketball job opened at any of the seven major conferences. In smaller leagues, a handful of firings unfolded amid the virus outbreak, around the time that conference tournaments were canceled and the NCAA announced the cancellation of March Madness. Many of those firing decisions were made days, if not weeks, before. That includes the one at Wyoming, where Burman had decided about two weeks before the end of the regular season to part with Allen Edwards. That said, Burman admits that the prospect of keeping Edwards “entered my mind” given the pandemic.
At Loyola Marymount, the decision to hire Stan Johnson was more impacted by the virus than the move to fire Mike Dunlap, says Pintens. Johnson, an assistant for Marquette, planned to put off interviews until after the Golden Eagles’ season had ended. Though they were 18-12, with a run in the conference tournament, the Eagles could have automatically qualified for the Big Dance or, at worst, the NIT. With All-American guard Markus Howard leading the charge, Maquette could have gone deep into March, too late for Pintens’s tastes. “If Markus Howard goes on a run, we might not have sat down with (Johnson),” he says. “That’s the silver lining.”
Burman and Pintens made their firings on the same night, March 8, putting their searches on parallel timelines for eventual hires, both on March 20. They were identifying candidates and conducting phone interviews as the sports world—and eventually the entire nation—came to a crawl.
Things were already at a standstill when Benko began his search on March 20. While technically still deputy athletic director at Mississippi State, Benko started his new job at GSU earlier than expected when coach Mark Byington left to take the job at James Madison. His search last week stretched across one of the most frightening times, as the virus hampered the country, infections and deaths rising steeply by the day and mass metro areas like New York and Seattle overcome. Just weeks before, the Georgia native had achieved a career dream of landing an AD job. “It went from euphoria of being named AD to all the sudden being on calls about coronavirus,” he says. And then launching into a search for a head coach.
On Friday, he settled on Texas Tech assistant Brian Burg as his new coach, but he’d yet to meet him face-to-face. With Benko in Starkville, Miss., and Burg in Lubbock, Texas, they planned to meet in the middle, somewhere in north Louisiana. There was a problem. “Louisiana is under a shelter at home,” says Benko. “I was like, ‘It’s not worth it.’ I’m not going to danger him or myself.” The two will meet for the first time on Wednesday in Statesboro, Ga.
“Yeah, this is probably the only time in my career I won’t meet someone before I hire him,” Benko says during an interview Sunday. “We just took extra time on the phone to get to know each other on a personal basis. Circled back with the search committee and we had follow-up questions. It ended up being enough for me to feel comfortable to make the decision.”
The virus’s impact on college sports is deep, none bigger financially than the loss of the NCAA tournament, a mega-million-dollar event that makes up more than 80% of the NCAA’s annual budget. The NCAA announced last week a $225 million revenue distribution to schools, and while that sounds immense, it is one-third of the $600 million expected. Schools are out roughly $800K to $1 million in NCAA distribution alone, a drop in the bucket for power conference members but as much as 3-5% of a smaller conference school’s athletic budget.
There are other financial hits coming to athletic department budgets, too. A potential economic recession could leave athletic donations at an all-time low, and the prospect of not having a football season, or it being played without fans, could be a significant monetary blow to departments relying on football revenue to operate many other sports.
Burman kept all that in mind in contract negotiations with his new coach, Jeff Linder. “If he would have wanted significantly more dollars, I would have had to walk,” Burman says. “I couldn’t take a risk.” Contract negotiations were impacted in Los Angeles, too. While Pintens finalized Johnson’s new deal, key university leaders were unavailable to him, many of them thrust into virus-related emergency meetings. In fact, amid final negotiations with Johnson’s agent, the city of Los Angeles issued a stay-at-home order. “My phone is blowing up, and people in my house are talking about it. I take a break from the contract stuff and I see the TV and I’m like, ‘Oh O.K.,’” says Pintens, a married father of four. “Some of it doesn’t seem real. You can’t write a script for it. You have to be adaptable.”
Some candidates never even made it in for an interview. Pintens conducted a video interview with one candidate because the man had fallen ill. Later, the coach learned he did not have the virus, but the chance was too great for him to travel. Pintens brought in several candidates into the L.A. area for interviews, while Burman traveled to them. One American custom was absent from all interviews with the latter. “We did not shake hands,” Burman says.
In a positive side effect, phone interviews were easier than normal. With things shutdown, coaches were more available. Athletic directors mostly spoke to them at their homes with their families. It made for some interesting moments. During one, Burman could hear a candidate’s dog barking in the background. “I talked to a coach one day,” Benko says, “and he was out in his car doing the interview because of his family inside.” In one of Pintens’s phone interviews, he was the one somewhat distracted. Loyola Marymount announced its campus closures while he talked with a candidate. His phone buzzed with so many messages that he turned to his iPad to answer texts while on the phone interviewing a coach.
All of their searches now over, the three athletic directors chuckle about the eventful nature of them. But during the searches? Well, there was no chuckling. “It was tricky,” Pintens says. “Like Mike Tyson says, ‘Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth.’ ”