Inside the world of college football headhunters: How a ‘crazy’ Chicago exec helps schools reel in the big fish
Nov 14, 2019 | Chicago Tribune
The leaves have fallen; the golf clubs are in storage. As fall gives way to winter, the college football industry prepares for what it calls “jobs season.”
Rutgers pulled the plug on Chris Ash. Florida State launched Willie Taggart. Arkansas booted Chad Morris on Sunday. That’s three Power Five head coaching openings with more to come Dec. 1 as America devours Thanksgiving leftovers.
At the center of these transactions will be agents, athletic directors and, of course, the coaches themselves.
But there’s another key group — headhunters. They’re the Match.com of the process.
They don’t offer the deals or sign the contracts, but they do far more than run background checks so schools can avoid the embarrassment of a George O’Leary, whom Notre Dame quickly dumped in 2001 because of lies on his resume.
The modern headhunter is part researcher, part sounding board and part concierge, making all the arrangements on the down low for conference calls and interviews.
And in the case of one industry veteran in Chicago, Glenn Sugiyama, a whole lot more.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips jokingly describes him as “crazy,” and it fits, considering Sugiyama once sent a decoy plane to Boise, Idaho, to throw off technologically astute reporters and fans.
Central Michigan AD Michael Alford spent five straight days with Sugiyama as they crisscrossed the country on a search that yielded former SEC coach of the year Jim McElwain.
“It’s not a business for him,” Alford says. “It’s a passion.”
‘I did my job’
He hears it all the time: Why does a school need a headhunter?
Sugiyama takes a break from his lunch of Caesar salad with sliced hanger steak.
“People say, ‘Isn’t it the athletic director’s job to find a coach?’ ” he says. “No, the AD’s job is to hire the best person. The coach is often the highest-paid employee of the university and the state. Many people consider it malpractice not to use an executive search firm to make the best decision possible.”
He’s biased. He also has a point.
Florida State is out $18 million after ousting Taggart after 21 games. Arkansas owes about $10 million to Morris. Serves the Razorbacks right for hiring a guy who went 14-22 at SMU.
Sugiyama worked with Stanford on the 2006 hiring of Jim Harbaugh.
More recently he helped place Lane Kiffin at FAU, Blake Anderson at Arkansas State, Seth Littrell at North Texas and Jason Candle at Toledo. All have had their contracts extended at least once. In fact 93% of the coaches Sugiyama has placed over the last five years have been extended, his company says.
Of course, half of the teams lose every Saturday, and not every Sugiyama search yields gold. Take the 2011 hiring of Charlie Weis at Kansas.
He won’t say which candidates he brought to Sheahon Zenger, the since-ousted Kansas athletic director who fired Loyola basketball coach Porter Moser while at Illinois State. Reports linked Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren to the Kansas job. And an industry source said NFL veterans Dave Wannstedt and Herm Edwards were considered.
“I did my job,” Sugiyama says.
In the end, the school decides and lives with the consequences.
‘I’m not that guy’
Sugiyama ventured to South Bend, Ind., last month for the USC-Notre Dame game. It’s where a spectator with a field pass once approached and asked for a selfie, saying, “You were in my favorite movie!”
Sugiyama agreed to the picture and smiled, all the while saying, “I’m not that guy.”
No, he is not Mr. Chow (actor Ken Jeong) from “The Hangover.”
“But it does help to be recognizable,” he says.
Recognizable enough that during a visit to Ryan Field on Saturday, a Northwestern fan approached to ask, “How about Mick McCall for Florida State?”
Florida State hired Sugiyama to conduct its search, and many NU alumni want McCall, the Wildcats offensive coordinator, sent to another ZIP code.
Sugiyama visited with Purdue coach Jeff Brohm near the 50-yard line during warm-ups before Saturday’s Purdue-Northwestern game. He spoke to officials from both schools with a personalized field pass attached to his coat and reading glasses resting on his jet-black hair.
“He is Switzerland,” Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski says, “trying to keep everybody happy.”
Sugiyama declines to give his age, simply saying, “I’m a baby boomer, not a millennial.”
He was raised in Uptown, where his Japanese-American father, Takashi, settled after being released from a Japanese internment camp in California. Sugiyama said his father was given $26.50 and used it for an eastbound train. That amount took him no farther than Chicago. He walked to Uptown, where other Japanese-Americans had taken up residence.
Sugiyama attended the since-shuttered Luther North before graduating from Michigan State. He tried out for the basketball team, and coach Jud Heathcote was impressed with his savvy, not his athletic ability.
Recalled Sugiyama: “He said: ‘You know what to do, you just can’t do it.’ I said: Maybe I should be a coach.”
Heathcote recommended him for a job at Eastern Michigan. After a few years there, Sugiyama returned to Chicago to help manage a restaurant company. An investor named Sandy Takiff told his friend Jerry Reinsdorf, who was in the process of buying the Bulls, to consider Sugiyama for the team’s board of directors because of Sugiyama’s basketball background.
Sugiyama served a seven-year term on the board and wears a ring that commemorates the Bulls’ second championship, in 1992.
After a stint at Leo Burnett, Sugiyama moved up the ranks at DHR International, where is a managing partner.
Phillips considers Sugiyama a friend. After he became Northwestern’s AD in 2008, Phillips hired Sugiyama to search for a new women’s basketball coach. It produced the massively accomplished Joe McKeown, who had won 441 games and reached 15 NCAA Tournaments at George Washington.
“Joe was settled there,” Phillips says. “I didn’t know that he’d be interested.”
‘You can’t be too prideful’
There are seven main headhunters and executive search firms that do nearly all of the work for FBS jobs: Daniel Parker and Parker Executive Search; Jed Hughes and Korn Ferry; Todd Turner and Collegiate Sports Associates; Bob Beaudine and Eastman & Beaudine; Gene DeFilippo and Turnkey Sports; Kyle Bowlsby and Bowlsby Sports Advisors; and Sugiyama, a 15-year veteran at DHR, headquartered on South Wacker Drive.
Rutgers officials opted to hire Ventura Partners to conduct a search that most believe will result in the return of Greg Schiano. The school will pay Ventura $40,000 plus another $48,000 via a $4,000 monthly retainer.
Searches generally cost between $25,000 and $250,000. Texas reportedly spent $267,000 in 2013 to hire Korn Ferry to help bring in Charlie Strong.
Schools use search firms to recommend and inquire about the availability and interest of potential candidates, to vet them and to obtain buyout costs. A giant international search firm such as DHR can quickly access legal data.
“You can’t be too prideful to think you can do it alone,” Phillips says.
The best headhunters prevent any information from leaking out. That way candidates who fail to get the job don’t have to explain their wandering eye to recruits or alumni. And school officials won’t get embarrassed when the seduction of a candidate peters out.
“If things leak out,” said Chicago-based agent Bryan Harlan, who represents 10 FBS head coaches, “it can affect two recruiting classes.”
In January Harlan had a handful of his rising assistant coaches and coordinators meet with Sugiyama, who offered tips on marketing themselves to schools.
Said McElwain: “I’ve got the utmost respect for him. He does a great job finding the fit.”
McElwain won the SEC East in each of his first two seasons at Florida. But he got bounced in his third under odd circumstances: The school soured on him after he alluded to death threats against himself and Gators players.
In 2018, McElwain worked under Harbaugh at Michigan. When the Central Michigan job opened, Alford hired Sugiyama. They targeted McElwain.
“We got our deal done in five days,” Alford says. “Besides myself, (Sugiyama) was our biggest advocate for the culture of the school. He sold Mac on me and the facilities we are building. He told him: You can win here and win pretty quickly. I couldn’t have it done without him.”
‘Glenn helped win the day for us’
After getting hired, Sugiyama says, he typically meets with the school’s top stakeholders to ask some key questions: Do you want an experienced guy? A young guy? An alumnus? An offensive coach? A defensive coach?
Sugiyama is so hands-on that when he attends games throughout the season, he gets a field pass so he can observe assistants. He tries to determine who is calling the plays, how they handle issues with players, officials and even unruly fans near the tunnels.
“How they act when things are going their way — and not going their way,” he says. “These are the most visible ambassadors of an institution.”
Purdue football fell into a rut after Joe Tiller retired in 2008. It cratered under Darrell Hazell, who went 3-24 in Big Ten play.
Bobinski and Sugiyama targeted Jeff Brohm, who was killing it at Western Kentucky. Bobinski quickly learned that offering him a giant six-year contract starting at $3.3 million a year would not be enough. Money doesn’t motivate a man who drives a 2004 Honda Accord to work.
Sugiyama arranged for a conference call with key figures such as university President Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, and board chair Michael Berghoff.
“Glenn helped us strategize on how to close the deal, how to get the fish in the boat,” Bobinski says. “The all-in messaging was ultimately a winning strategy. Jeff was having success and he was inclined to hang tight (at Western Kentucky) because life was pretty good. Glenn helped win the day for us.”
Brohm made Purdue football relevant again, peaking with the 49-20 home thumping of second-ranked Ohio State last season.
“Glenn,” Bobinski says, “loves playing the role of deal-maker.”