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Experts’ Roundtable: Coaching Searches

By Tom Bowen, Bill Carr, Jeff Goodman, Jim Engles
14 min read
Why does it seem like so much information gets leaked about searches, even though so many steps are taken to prevent information from getting out? Do you have certain procedural steps to prevent information from getting out?

 

Based on my experience running searches during my tenure at San Jose State and Memphis, it all comes down to the inner circle you create to help in the process. There’s obviously a lot of buzz and interest in who you may or may not be speaking to, and it’s easier than ever for information to spread with social media. That’s why you have to establish early on what your procedures are, and then you have to be extremely careful about the people that you are bringing in to help you make them. It takes a lot of concentrated, systematic and disciplined behavior in the beginning of the process to make sure things run smoothly. I make it clear from the onset that there will be severe consequences if information does get out, because it will be very evident who let it out.

 

We also make it very clear to agents and coaches that if their name is leaked or gets out, they are immediately removed from consideration. Of course, someone may remain quiet during the process but still intend to use a potential interview as leverage, and so you have to be adept at vetting a candidate’s true interest and intentions early on to avoid wasting time.

 

Do you believe in using search firms? Are they always necessary (are there downsides to using them)?

 

The use of search firms is an important part of our business now, and they are involved in a number of different ways. They have relationships outside of your own scope, they have their eyes and ears open on the types of candidates that you might be interested in, or might never even have known about. They are there to help with the process. Gather information, reach out to candidates that might be represented or are sitting head coaches. They provide a very good level of engagement and facilitate that systemic and methodical approach that is crucial to ensuring a successful outcome.

 

Search firms also work behind the scenes in a way that athletic directors, especially ones at public universities simply cannot. If I pick up the phone and call someone, that phone call can be traced back by a member of the media through an FOIA request, whereas a search firm can speak to dozens of candidates and no one will ever know those conversations happened. If you’re trying to maintain anonymity, search firms are absolutely critical.

 

How involved (or not) should a President or Chancellor be in a HC search?

 

Your president might be the most important part of your search process. They are likely going to be the final decision maker, especially when it comes to a basketball or football hire, and so having them involved from outset is all but a necessity. But even if your President leaves the decision to who to hire in your hands, they are still going to be the best gauge of how well a candidate fits within the institution as a whole. Presidents hire deans, professors and dozens of other people that shape the direction and culture of the university, and can be very helpful in assessing whether a candidate is likely to be accepted by people within that community.

 

Bill Carr – CarrSports Consulting (President)

 

How frequently do you heavily weigh-in on who an institution should hire as opposed to simply presenting all the options & letting leadership go in whatever direction they choose?

 

I’m probably one of the most extreme voices in the business in believing that institutions that defer to search firms excessively are making a grave mistake. When an athletic director tells a search firm to “bring me five coaches and I’ll pick from there,” that is tantamount to lack of institutional control. Would an athletic director say the same thing to a booster or someone else that can hold influence over them? What they are essentially doing is allowing the search firm to sell the position to a coach or agent as though it’s a commodity. The institution (through its athletic director) is the only party in the transaction that should be determining who the candidates are and who gets the job in the end.

 

In facilitating searches, we as a firm do a SWOT analysis on the department and the program to make a determination and assessment of the best possible candidate. What are the characteristics and experiences necessary for an individual to be successful in this particular program? We present this analysis to our client, and only once they confirm that these are in fact the traits and achievements they are looking for do we begin to identify potential candidates that fit the description.

 

What’s the easiest way for a search to go off course?

 

The dynamic of the search committee and the paradigm of the decision making by the university. Who is going to make the decision about the hire? The President, Athletic Director, ten people on a committee? For every decision maker you add, the process becomes exponentially harder. Finding well qualified, cerebral and non-biased people to serve on the committee is almost as hard as finding the actual candidates. A lot of times the appointments are political and agenda driven. The truth is that while you can involve as many people as you want in the process (for inclusion purposes), only a select few should actually be able to have a vote in selecting the candidate you hire.

 

Does the current Power Five compensation landscape restrict the disbursement of talent & make it harder for mid- and low-majors ADs to make good hires?

 

Nothing affects a market like the infusion of massive amounts of capital. Mid-Major athletic directors have to persuade qualified candidates to lead their programs for reasons that go beyond money.  For instance, they can offer longer contracts and sell stability, something a higher paying job may not be willing to offer. But in the end it’s hard to convince someone to take a 50% pay cut to take a job, and so smaller programs are often forced to get weaker, older, and often recycled candidates or very young, underprepared candidates.

 

How has search work in college athletics positively & negatively evolved over the years/decades?

 

The trend is self-serving, as opposed to serving the industry’s best interest. The fees have become just like the salaries… outrageous. There isn’t a whole lot of justification to pay the salaries that we are today for coaches, and the same can be said for search fees. No one should be paying $75,000 or even more for a search. But the reality is that it’s a C.Y.A. dynamic – the athletic director doesn’t want to be criticized for the search process so they pay an exorbitant amount of money and then say, “we’ve enlisted the best search firm in the business to help us find a candidate,” and then can wipe their hands if the hire turns out to be a disaster.

 

Jeff Goodman – ESPN (College Basketball Writer & Sideline Reporter)

 

What mistakes do you believe ADs commonly make during the search process in dealing/not dealing with the media? As an add-on, if you were an AD hiring a HC, what would be your procedural steps to ensure a successful choice?

 

Not reaching out to the media, whose job it is to evaluate coaches. Many of us are really plugged in and know these coaches for their entire careers (which is more than can be said for most search firms). I’ve watched these guys coach dozens of times – why wouldn’t you ask me my thoughts? Not to mention that if we have a conversation and you specifically tell me that it’s off the record, now I can’t report on it. So many athletic directors run around trying to keep the search process secretive, when they accomplish the same by actually speaking directly to us… and actually get some good advice out of the conversation, too.

 

You may speak to more coaches on an ongoing basis than just about anyone out there. How do you assess whether a coach will be a good fit for a particular institution?

 

The truth is there’s no sure fire way to know if someone’s going to be successful in a situation, which is part of the reason why I stopped grading coaching hires. But let’s take NC State for instance – they clearly want a guy with a big personality, who’s going to go after UNC and Duke. Many perceived Gottfried as not being a great game coach (which I tend to agree with). And so in making a new hire, they have to look for three characteristics that are essential to being successful in pretty much any situation – the coach has to: be good with people, be a good coach on the court, and be able to recruit.

 

Yet sometimes when schools make hires, they don’t realize that no matter how successful a coach has been, there’s always going to be a learning curve… especially when they come from a different region. Take Mark Fox at Georgia, who is a weird fit because he’s a west coast guy moving into a job in the south. A coach making a move like that will take a while to build relationships and get players, and so he may need an extra recruiting class or two before he even gets the type of players he wants in his system. That’s also why you should never judge a hiring immediately, rather you should  judge them based on the staff they hire.

 

The funny part is that in all my years of covering college basketball, never once have I seen an  athletic director at an AAU event like the Peach Jam. Why not go out there and see how coaches recruit, see who’s locked in? I would have my list, and would be looking at who really cares and who doesn’t. It’s also an incredible opportunity to meet many of them in one shot and at one event.

 

What’s your position on using/not using search firms? Do you think they’re a part of a trend that’s indicative of what may be happening more and more in the HC hiring process?

 

I hate it. Who cares if you don’t use one? So you get turned down. Kentucky got turned down by four coaches before they hired John Calipari. The press conference is irrelevant… what matters is the coach that you hire actually ends up winning games. If you need to pay a search firm $75,000 to tell you who to hire, then you shouldn’t have your job.

 

The sad part is that there are clearly more and more search firms being hired. Maybe they just give an athletic director an excuse to hire the direct opposite person of their last coach. If they hired a former NBA guy last time, the next time it’s going to be a guy with a ton of college experience instead. If it was an older white guy last time, the next coach is likely to be a young black guy. But the worst is when they go out and hire the “hot guy.” Just because a guy wins a game or two in the tournament doesn’t mean he’s a great coach, and especially doesn’t mean he’s a good fit for your school.

 

“Don’t believe everything you read” is a common refrain from ADs during searches. Do you think there’s a morsel of truth in just about everything that floats around the market this time of year?

 

Absolutely not, there’s way too many people that throw out nothing but unsubstantiated rumors in the hopes of generating attention. A few years ago there were standards in journalism, but these days there are plenty of “media outlets” that have little to no accountability who chase (or even make up) stories. Even for me there’s an internal struggle about how much information to put out about a search… before a one off comment by an athletic director wasn’t worth reporting, but now even that is seen as newsworthy.

 

I’m competitive, I want to break every story if I can. That being said, I also know that I can’t ever be wrong or my credibility goes out the window. That’s why I’ve always had a policy that unless I’m 100 percent sure that something is going to happen – whether someone is getting fired or hired – I won’t report on it. I also have to receive the information from a direct source involved – coach, agent, administrator – before I’m willing to pull the trigger.

 

I’ve only been wrong two times in my career – reporting that Billy Gillispie had accepted the Arkansas job, and that Trey Burke was leaving for the NBA early. With Trey, he had told me personally he was leaving and then he ended up having a change of heart. With Billy, he verbally accepted the Arkansas job — but then reneged and took the Kentucky job. So, I was wrong in a sense.

 

Jim Engles – Columbia (Head Men’s Basketball Coach)

 

What do you think is the biggest frustration that coaches have with the coaching search and hiring process?

 

When I was coaching at NJIT, I honestly never focused on what the next job might be… if there would even be a next job. I inherited arguably the most difficult situation in the country – a program that was transitioning into Division I that hadn’t won a single game the season before I arrived. But as we began to turn the program around, it was clear that many athletic directors couldn’t look past my record, which would likely never move above .500 because we went 1-30 during my first season. Even when we beat a ranked Michigan team in Ann Arbor and made it to the Final 4 of the CIT, very few people in the college athletics community were willing to recognize what we had accomplished.

 

When it comes to hiring head coaches, I think that many administrators can’t look past the quantitative and develop an appreciation for the qualitative. They are often too focused on the numbers, the record, the hot name, than learning about the situation a coach was in and the approach they used to build a sustainable program. When an athletic director is vetting a coaching candidate, they shouldn’t ask “how are you going to win here?” but rather “how are you going to lay a foundation and develop a winning culture that will last long after you’re gone?”

 

Why did you decide to work for a particular athletic director and/or program?

 

Early on in my career, my original goal was to be head coach at a respected Division III school. That vision obviously evolved over time, but I always knew that I wanted to work at an institution that that was willing to show the same commitment to athletics as it did to academics, and cared for its coaches as much as it did its professors.

 

It’s incredibly hard to get your first head coaching job, because rarely do you have the opportunity to meet those making the hiring decisions – athletic directors. When you finally do get a chance to sit down with an athletic director, it’s so often such a short and one-sided conversation that you rarely get to truly know the person who you might end up working for.  Everyone can agree that you probably shouldn’t marry someone after one date, so why would you be willing to hire someone to run your program for what could be decades after you meet them just once?

 

I got very luck when I was hired at NJIT; Lenny Kaplan isn’t just a great athletic director, he’s an even better person. It was for that very reason, that when it came to my next opportunity, I wasn’t willing to just take a risk on who I was going to work for next. While Columbia had turned into a destination job for me, when Peter Pilling called about the position I wasn’t immediately set on taking it… at least not until I found out more about him. I talked to any number of people about Peter, about his leadership style, the type of person he was. It wasn’t until I was absolutely sure that I could spend the rest of my career working for someone like him that I felt comfortable accepting the position.

 

While some searches move faster than others, I urge fellow coaches to do the same type of research. More importantly, I ask athletic directors to respect their candidates by giving them the time to do the same due diligence that they are performing on those very coaches.

 

What can athletic directors do better to help their young head coaches?

 

When I took over at NJIT, we needed all the support we could get. That’s why I will be eternally grateful for all that Lenny did for me and the program, particularly during those difficult early years. It doesn’t matter if you’re coaching at Duke or NJIT… no one puts more pressure on a coach than they put on themselves. Especially when you’ve taken over your own program for the first time and you face an uphill battle in becoming successful, your athletic director has to be willing to act like more of a confidant and friend then they do your boss. Instead of criticism, you need compassion.

 

Imaging working incredibly hard, only to fail again and again and again when it’s finally time to present your product to the world. That’s what it’s like to take a program out of the gutter and turn it into a contender. If you want to insure that your coach is successful, then as an athletic director you have to do everything in your power to make them feel as though they have all the support in the world. Otherwise your hesitation will only add to their own self-doubt.

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