Around the time Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips fired men's basketball coach Bill Carmody last month, he called six other ADs for their advice on the best way to conduct the first major coaching search in his five years at the school—one that, in all likelihood, would define his tenure. "They were really close colleagues that had gone through [a coaching search] in the last 18 months," says Phillips. All six told him to hire a headhunter. Says Phillips, "They reaffirmed my feeling that having a partner to provide outside counsel can eliminate bias, maximize the efficiency and confidentiality of the process, and ultimately help guide us to the most informed decision possible."
This is an article from the April 8, 2013 issue
On March 27, 11 days after Carmody's dismissal, Northwestern hired Duke assistant Chris Collins, the culmination of a remarkably swift search. Collins was, in many ways, an obvious choice. A top assistant at a perennial power, he was raised in nearby Northbrook, Ill., and Duke and Northwestern have similar academic standards. He may have been Phillips's No. 1 option all along. Still, like the six peers he consulted, Phillips felt he got his money's worth. The firm he used was the industry's most well-known, Parker Executive Search, which made the initial contact with Collins and set up an interview at their Atlanta offices.
"These are multimillion-dollar decisions for a university, and that can have a monumental impact," Phillips says. "As a leader, oftentimes you need to admit that you can benefit from assistance."
Even at a time when budget cuts in higher education are common, more and more athletic department dollars are following the route of private industries and hiring headhunters. Search consultants now operate as the conduits to some of the best coaching and athletic director jobs in the country. Fees generally range from $30,000 to $90,000 for a Division I athletic director, men's basketball coach or football search, though higher tabs have been reported. Since 2005, Tennessee has paid more than $360,000 to search agencies to fill six positions. North Carolina State has spent $255,000 for approximately 67 days of work over the past three years, including $90,000 for a football search that lasted a week. In late 2011, Colorado State reportedly paid the firm Spencer Stuart $250,000 to find a football coach (former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain), a transaction that one rival headhunter called "thievery."
In a sign of how lucrative the business has become, last year Korn/Ferry International, a leading headhunter in private industries, opened a sports arm, hiring former Michigan and UCLA football assistant Jed Hughes away from rival Spencer Stuart. DHR International, another executive search giant, houses a sports division that includes former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter.
In the past year, consultants spearheaded the football searches at Cal, Boston College, Colorado and N.C. State, while helping to place new basketball coaches at Colorado State, Illinois and Mississippi State. USC, like Northwestern, has hired a search firm to help fill its hoops vacancy. Headhunters are also finding regular work at the Division II and Division III levels, and there is even a Texas firm that consults on high school athletic searches.
As search firms have gained influence over the last decade, they have also drawn more criticism—for hires that flame out quickly, for pushing their preferred candidates as opposed to conducting more open searches and for the appearance of a conflict of interest among athletic directors who later retain the firm that helped place them in the job. But none of that has slowed business. The major agencies, of which there are more than a dozen, employ or have employed a who's who of former administrators and coaches, including onetime athletic directors Bill Carr (Houston), Rick Greenspan (Rice), Lew Perkins (Kansas) and Todd Turner (four schools, most recently Washington), and ex--football coaches, including Lloyd Carr (Michigan).
This weekend at the Final Four, one of the hottest parties will be hosted by Parker Executive Search; the firm's bash last year had 250 guests. And prospective coaches will also vie for face time with headhunters such as former coaches Eddie Fogler (South Carolina) and Dave Odom (Wake Forest), onetime colleagues turned kingmakers. "It seems like everyone who leaves coaching or being an athletic director is doing searches now," says Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight commissioner and a headhunter since 1997. "I'll let someone else say if that is good or bad."
Why would administrators cede so much authority—and money—to outside consultants? First, headhunters can initiate a search earlier, even before a position is officially open, and they can find out on the hush-hush if a coach or athletic director who already has a job is interested in moving. The ability to operate more clandestinely limits leaks and lessens the chance that a search gets messy, with candidates publicly turning down a job and schools appearing as if they failed to land their top candidate.
As well as running background and résumé checks on candidates, firms also claim they can provide inside information—such as whether a coach is under NCAA scrutiny or having marital troubles—that would be unavailable to most athletic directors. "There can be so much out there now, rumors on the Internet, and it can be hard to know what is true or false," says Turner, the founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates. "You almost need a degree in espionage to weed through it all."
Finally, using consultants provides cover for the AD if a hire doesn't work out. The university president can be shown proof that the decision wasn't made in a vacuum by providing the due diligence done by a search firm—sometimes the very same firm that had assisted in hiring the president.
Bill Carr consulted on his first search in 1989, as an employee at Raycom Management Group. He left Raycom in 1993 to become athletic director at Houston, but he returned to consulting four years later and founded Carr Sports Associates (now CarrSports Consulting). Few people have been in the business as long as Carr, who is troubled by trends in the industry. "Some search firms operate as they should, as facilitators, helping clients make a decision," Carr says. "There are others that operate as gatekeepers. They want to be decision-makers and influence who is going to be interviewed and who is going to be selected. Their actions are destructive to the industry."
Carr and others say that too many consultants push favored candidates rather than cast a wide net. Turner calls it one of the "pitfalls" of the industry "because not every person is a good fit for every job."
Before Jack Swarbrick became Notre Dame's athletic director in 2008, he was a candidate to be NCAA president ('02) and the athletic director at Indiana ('04), Arizona State ('05) and Ohio State ('05). He was also considered for the role of Big 12 commissioner ('07). Parker Executive Search assisted in each of those placements, and also in the Notre Dame search that ended with Swarbrick's being hired by his alma mater.
Swarbrick was a successful lawyer in Indianapolis; no one questioned his eligibility for those positions. But would he have been considered for all of them if not for Parker's seemingly inexorable faith in his abilities? "We don't have a stable of candidates, but sometimes we see a very good candidate who doesn't get a job, and it doesn't mean they weren't a good candidate," says Laurie Wilder, the executive vice president and managing director at Parker. "If another opportunity comes up, and there is similar overlap in what they are looking for, we may look at a candidate again. Every search starts with finding quality candidates, but we don't represent people."
Another criticism Carr and others make is that search consultants are inclined to place athletic directors who they think are likely to later hire them for coaching searches. Parker has participated in at least 40 athletic-director searches. There is no denying that the company has gotten repeat business from ADs it placed. For instance, in June 2011, Illinois paid Parker $30,000 to assist in the search for an athletic director, a job that went to Mike Thomas, who was previously at Cincinnati. About nine months later, Thomas retained Parker to help him find a men's basketball coach—Ohio's John Groce—for which the firm was paid $90,000. A similar sequence of events took place among Parker-placed athletic directors at Arizona State, Iowa, Iowa State, Mississippi State, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Washington and elsewhere. But beyond the timing of the transactions, there is no proof of collusion.
"Repeat clients are standard in the search business," Wilder says. "If you build a relationship and if you do quality work, people ask you to do quality work again. Just speaking about Parker, there has never been an environment where we say we will put you in as a candidate if you do this."
Carr didn't mention Parker in his critique of the industry, but he insists that handshake deals are common. "The process of hiring coaches and athletic directors should be more of a meritocracy than it is today," Carr says.
There is also a lack of minorities and women in the search-consulting industry, which does little to help the image of college athletics as an old-boy network. "People hire people like them," says Linda Bruno, the former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference, who now operates a search firm. "I could see where the firms' role would be frustrating for [women and minorities]."
The flip side of the much-valued discretion that headhunters provide is that they also are subject to less scrutiny. Says one agent with more than two dozen basketball coaches as clients, "I just wish there was more transparency with how they come up with candidates."
Almost every headhunter and athletic director who spoke to SI said that the final call on whom to hire is always made by the university. But does that mean the search consultant bears no responsibility when a placement doesn't pan out?
In discussions with agents and headhunters, the two failures most often mentioned were Billy Gillispie as Kentucky's basketball coach in 2007 and Mike Haywood as Pittsburgh's football coach in '10. Parker was the consultant for both schools. Wilder declined to address any specific searches, saying, "The reality of the situation is we recruit and advise but we don't vote. We have never hired a coach."
Several headhunters said the Gillispie debacle—he was fired after two seasons—was an example of a firm's not really knowing a candidate. Gillispie's drinking problem was common knowledge when he was hired, they say, as was his abrasive personality, which made him a poor match for the demanding Wildcats fans. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart declined to comment for this story, but he did not use a headhunter when he hired John Calipari to replace Gillispie in 2009, nor did he get assistance when he hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops as football coach last November.
Pittsburgh hired Haywood on Dec. 16, 2010, and on Dec. 31 he was arrested and charged with domestic violence. (The charges were ultimately dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program.) He was fired a day later, and university officials questioned Parker consultants to see if anything in Haywood's background had been missed. The school concluded that the firm was not at fault.
For every miss, Parker can point to many successes. Recent football hires such as Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and James Franklin (Vanderbilt) have worked out, as have basketball placements Jim Larranaga (Miami) and Mark Gottfried (N.C. State). Parker is also not the only headhunter with flops on its résumé. Turner consulted on the 2010 Colorado football search that led to the hiring of Jon Embree, who lasted only two seasons in Boulder.
Still, that didn't stop Colorado from using Turner to find Embree's replacement. Parker has also frequently worked with schools after an earlier hire failed. In 2007, Dan Parker, president of the company, was paid an $80,000 fee (plus expenses) to assist on the searches that ended with Minnesota's hiring Tubby Smith for basketball and Tim Brewster for football. Smith was well-established, but Brewster had never even been a college coordinator. He went 15--30 before being fired in the middle of his fourth season. "Tim was not a good hire, but the search firm wasn't the problem," says Joel Maturi, the Golden Gophers' former athletic director. "[Tim] wasn't one of Parker's guys. It was my choice."
To replace Brewster, Maturi once again turned to Parker, paying the firm a $90,000 fee. The search ended with Northern Illinois's Jerry Kill, who has gone 9--16 in two seasons while battling health problems, but Parker remains in good standing at Minnesota. In early 2012, after Maturi announced he was stepping down, the school once again turned to the firm. Norwood Teague of VCU got the AD job, and Parker earned fees plus expenses totaling $125,800—meaning that since 2007 the university has paid Parker more than $295,000.
Last week the Gophers fired Smith, which would suggest another payday for Parker. But when Teague was at VCU, he hired Shaka Smart, who is now one of the top young basketball coaches in the country, without outside assistance. Teague then had on his staff Mike Ellis, who is now Minnesota's senior associate AD for administration—and the man who may know more about how college coaches get hired than anyone in the industry.
In 2004, Ellis originated the Villa 7, an invitation-only two-day conference staged each May that connects the brightest assistant coaches in men's and women's basketball with athletic directors. Since the first Villa 7 was held in Las Vegas, about 90 assistants have gotten head-coaching jobs in part because of a connection they made at the retreat, including Smart, Ed Cooley (Providence) and Dave Rice (UNLV).
In the first seven years of the event, Ellis didn't welcome representatives from search firms. "I just didn't think they would be helpful," he says. But this May, when the Villa 7—which will welcome 100 assistant coaches and be sponsored by Nike—gets under way in Minneapolis, search consultants will be part of the program, huddling with coaches and ADs at mixers and participating in formal presentations. "I've become a convert," Ellis says. "The biggest reason is that [athletic directors] trust them, and so they have an enormous impact on who does and does not get a job."
But just because he recognizes the significance headhunters have taken on doesn't mean that Ellis thinks they can do his job better than he can. In response to an e-mail asking if Minnesota would be using a search firm to help find Smith's replacement, Ellis wrote, "We will not."