In 2002, I interviewed for a job covering high school sports in The Tampa Tribune's farthest flung bureau. The gig paid $35,000 a year.
I arrived at the Trib's office at 8:30 a.m. For the next nine hours, I was passed from editor to editor so I could explain my vision for the coverage of the five high schools on the west side of Pasco County. Three days later, the paper brought in another candidate and subjected him to an even lengthier interview.
Had we been competing for a $2 million-a-year job coaching college football, we probably could have gotten in and out before lunch.
At most Football Bowl Subdivision schools, the head football coach is the most visible employee at the university. If he coaches at a public school, he probably ranks among the five highest paid state employees. He might even make more than the governor. Yet in spite of the responsibility and compensation attached to these jobs, athletic directors usually have only a few hours to assess job candidates face-to-face. For example, former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian landed the Washington job (salary: $1.85 million in 2009) after a pair of two-hour sitdowns with Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward. In other words, a sports editor looking for the someone to fill the bottom rung of his staff had more than twice as much face time with his candidates as an athletic director looking to fill the most expensive, most scrutinized position on his staff.
"Maybe that's why newspapers are going bankrupt," Woodward joked when confronted with the disparity.
Woodward and his colleagues can do little more than laugh at the situation, because they have little choice. Thanks to agents, intense news coverage and pressure to have a coach in place before Christmas for recruiting purposes, athletic directors -- who could lose their jobs if they choose unwisely -- usually have only a few hours of face time to find their coach. Merrill Lynch can host three rounds of interviews to pick the perfect junior analyst, but Mississippi State can't do that when seeking a football coach. So ADs must create an interview that allows them to quickly assess whether a candidate will fit. For some, it's about the questions. Others try to find a venue that makes the candidate comfortable; that way, they get a true representation of his personality. In the process, they must duck nosy reporters, control leaks and quash rumors that could damage the search.
Last week, Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne spent eight hours with Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen before he decided Mullen was the right choice to replace Sylvester Croom. The men met at an Embassy Suites in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Coaching headhunter Chuck Neinas had briefed Byrne on Mullen's interest and background, and Byrne and a group of senior staffers had done their own research, but the impression Mullen would make on Byrne would weigh just as heavily as Mullen's very public resume.
"The thing I always look at is, how is this guy going to run his program from A to Z?" Byrne said. "Academics to zone defense."
Never again will a school be able to court a coach the way Florida State courted Bobby Bowden in 1976. While fans and boosters dreamed of landing a hot name like Arkansas coach Frank Broyles or Maryland's Jerry Claiborne, FSU athletic director John Bridgers targeted West Virginia's Bowden, a former Seminoles assistant. According to a 2000 story in The (Lakeland, Fla.) Ledger, Bridgers and FSU president Stanley Marshall flew to Tampa on Jan. 5, 1976 to meet Bowden, who was coaching in an all-star game. At the meeting, Bridgers suggested Bowden visit Tallahassee before passing on the job. Five days later, Bowden visited Florida's capital and toured FSU's campus. He left with a job offer that included a base salary of $37,500.
Today, Bowden's meeting with Bridgers in Tampa would have been sniffed out by reporters and on the Internet within hours, and the backlash from fans and boosters hoping for a bigger name would have been immediate. A negative enough reaction might have persuaded Bowden to stay in Morgantown or might have forced Bridgers to rescind the invitation for a visit.
Never mind what Bowden's agent would have said about the salary. Mississippi State's Byrne, who was involved in the searches that brought Dennis Erickson to Oregon State in 1999 and Rich Brooks to Kentucky in late 2002, said agents have made it more difficult to determine which coaches are truly interested in a job and which are fishing for a raise from their current employer. He also said intense media coverage has forced athletic directors to operate even further under the radar.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley learned that the hard way in 2002 when he sought a replacement for Steve Spurrier, who resigned in the first week of January. As Foley courted Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, reporters followed his every move by tracking the Florida athletic department's plane. Neither man took the job, and Foley wound up hiring Ron Zook. When he needed to replace Zook in 2004, Foley determined he would handle the search differently.
Foley prefers to spend a day or two with a candidate for his highest profile jobs. He also prefers to go to the candidate's house, where the coach can have home-field advantage. Foley said he picked up that technique when he hired basketball coach Billy Donovan away from Marshall in 1996, and he has tried to use it since.
But the world had changed in the eight years since Foley had hired Donovan. Newspapers posted their stories immediately to the Internet, and if a reporter saw the Gators' Cessna Citation bound for Salt Lake City, the reporter would know immediately that Foley was after Utah coach Urban Meyer, and the wolves would descend.
So after Foley spent Thanksgiving at the home he owns in Vermont, he boarded a commercial flight on Black Friday bound for Salt Lake City. He spent a day with Meyer and left fairly confident he'd found his man. Early the next week, Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham, meaning Foley would have serious competition for Meyer. Foley arranged to visit Meyer again that Thursday. Still determined to avoid using the Gators' plane, Foley chartered a plane from a Jacksonville, Fla., company for the trip.
In his evaluation of Meyer, Foley would have preferred to use the old CEO trick of taking the candidate to a restaurant, because how a person treats his waiter is fairly indicative of how he'll treat his employees. But Foley knew he couldn't do that. "If Jeremy Foley's sitting in a restaurant with Urban Meyer, that's going to be on ESPN," Foley said. He left the television coverage for Notre Dame officials, who flew to Salt Lake City that Thursday in a plane bearing the school's logo. Camera crews caught the landing and followed the party from the airport.
Washington's Woodward used the home of school president Mark Emmert for several interviews as he sought a replacement for Willingham, but when Sarkisian came to Seattle for his second interview on Thanksgiving, Emmert's home was unavailable. So the men met at a hotel. While Woodward and Foley prefer the comforts of someone's home, Mississippi State's Byrne prefers interview sites that provide a turndown service. Byrne said he typically meets candidates at hotels in cities with busy airports. That way, even the most enterprising reporter can't track him.
Secrecy is crucial for the ADs and coaches. Coaches sometimes don't want their current employer to know they're seeking other employment, and even the ones who did tell their current boss about the interview don't want the world to know they failed to land the job. ADs, meanwhile, want fans, boosters and rivals to believe they landed their first choice, even if they landed their fifth choice.
That lack of secrecy may have doomed Auburn's recent coaching search. President Jay Gogue ordered athletic director Jay Jacobs to obtain permission to speak to every coach contacted. Because of that, the names of nearly every coach Auburn considered leaked. As hard as it is to convince the fan base that former Iowa State coach Gene Chizik and his 5-19 career record are ideal for the Loveliest Village on the Plains, it's even harder when fans know the Tigers could have had Buffalo coach Turner Gill, who worked a minor miracle by turning the worst program in the bowl subdivision into a conference champ in just three years.
Once the AD goes through the machinations of setting up the interview, he has only a few hours to determine if the coach will mesh with the community and the boosters. Sometimes, the connection is almost immediate. Byrne said he needed "20 or 30 minutes" to determine Mullen would fit in Starkville. Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross got a similar vibe from New Orleans Saints assistant Doug Marrone, a Syracuse grad who hasn't coached in college since 2001.
"This guy came in the first meeting with three or four notebooks with detailed stuff all about Syracuse," Gross said at the press conference announcing Marrone as the Orange's new coach. "This guy has been preparing for this his entire career. It was so detailed."
A good AD will walk in as prepared as Marrone was for his interview. Schools spend thousands to vet candidates, using search firms not only to identify coaches but also to research backgrounds and find any potential skeletons. The last thing a school wants is a surprise like the one Notre Dame got in 2001 when it was discovered that new coach George O'Leary had lied on his resume. O'Leary quickly resigned, and Notre Dame had to begin its search anew.
Armed with a wealth of information, ADs can ask informed questions. Most would prefer not to do all the asking, though. Washington's Woodward likes an organic, two-way dialogue that allows the coach to outline his vision without feeling like he's facing a firing squad. Florida's Foley said the way he answers a coach's questions are just as important as how the coach answers Foley's questions. "The interviewee has one shot to impress me," Foley said. "But I only have one shot to impress that person."
And if all goes well, in less time than it takes to interview an account manager, an elementary school teacher or a low-level sportswriter, the coach is a millionaire and the AD is a genius.