Search firms aid in hiring process for universities

Dec 14, 2014 | The Blade

By Rachel Lenzi

While finding and hiring a new coach can be perceived as a very public affair, college athletic departments have a certain way to do it with discretion — and with a third party.

When Jim Hackett, Michigan’s interim athletic director, announced Brady Hoke’s dismissal earlier this month, Hackett said a head-hunting firm will assist him in the process of hiring a new football coach, a process that he believes is particular as it pertains to the program.

“The type of search firm I’m picking is someone who knows us because you’re paying for that consulting time,” Hackett said. “You want to make sure that money’s directed toward finding the coach, not me teaching them about Michigan.”

Executive search firms place hires in areas such as higher education, medicine, entertainment, sustainability, finance, and information technology. Executive search firms have also been responsible for some of college football’s marquee hires, including Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Randy Edsall at Maryland. Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers coach and former UM quarterback, is the sentimental favorite to become Michigan’s next football coach.

Glenn Sugiyama, the executive vice president and worldwide sports practice group leader at DHR International in Chicago, has seen countless organizations, professional teams, and college athletic programs turn to an executive search firm in his 10 years at the helm.

“Right now, people are starting to hear more and more about it publicly,” Sugiyama said. “And sports is big business. It’s everyday protocol for a Fortune 500 company to use a search firm because of confidentiality and professionalism. As the stakes go up in college athletics and in professional sports, it’s following the same pattern. They’ll professionalize things and do it in a first-class manner.”

UM announced Friday that it has an agreement with Korn/Ferry Global Sports Practice, and a spokesperson estimated the cost of the search to be between $80,000 and $250,000.

UM utilized Spencer Stuart, a Chicago-based search firm, to hire former athletic director Dave Brandon in 2010, and enlisted the help of former Spencer Stuart executive Jed Hughes to hire Brady Hoke from San Diego State in 2011. Hughes is a former UM football assistant coach and the current vice chair and leader of Korn/Ferry Global Sports Practice.

University of Toledo utilized Carr Sports Consulting in 2001 to assist in a nationwide search for an athletic director before hiring Mike O’Brien, who is in his 13th year at UT.

O’Brien used Dallas-based Eastman & Beaudine when he hired Tod Kowalczyk as UT’s basketball coach in 2010, and explained that his athletic department works in tandem with a search firm.

“When it comes to coaches, our business is never void of any rumors,” O’Brien said. “It’s easier at institutions when a search firm may call a candidate and it isn’t broadcast, whether it’s through the media, newspapers or on message boards.”

As Michigan pursues its next coach, Hackett may have also sought out one more thing that utilizing an executive search firm allows: confidentiality.

“There are no qualified coaches who would want their name out in the media, and to talk to a contracted employee at another university, you need to ask a college’s athletic director for their permission,” Sugiyama said. “We have the ability to reach out to them as a professional third party, to have inquiries and discussion.”

At least one Big Ten AD has publicly dismissed the prospect of using a search firm to hire a football coach.

“I won’t use a search committee,” Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez said in December of 2012, after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. “Most search committees use me.”

Following the news Wednesday of Gary Andersen’s departure to Oregon State, Alvarez said he had already formulated a short list of candidates.

O’Brien pointed out two drawbacks of using a search firm — the quality of certain search firms as compared to others, as well as the cost of a search firm. USA Today reported in April that the University of Texas paid Korn/Ferry nearly $267,000 to find candidates for its head coaching vacancy, before ultimately hiring Charlie Strong.

Colorado State paid Spencer Stuart $250,000 to assist in hiring Jim McElwain as its football coach in 2011. McElwain was named Florida’s coach earlier this month.

Still, the benefits can be far-reaching. Searches are typically done in a matter of weeks or even in days, time that an athletic director may not have in an administrative schedule to pool, contact, and interview candidates and negotiate contract terms — while overseeing an athletic department.

Some executive search firms have a team in place with its background specifically in college athletics, whether as a former athlete, a former coach or former executive that assesses and matches prospective hires with the criteria that a school or organization has set — not just winning and losing but a match in values, priorities, interaction with alumni and boosters, and even presentation.

“It’s always best to turn to a professional organization, especially when you’re talking about he face of your program,” Sugiyama said. “We’re talking about people who could be the single-most visible person at whatever organization they’re in. Everybody knows who the football coach or the basketball coach is. Those hires are very important because they’re very visible.”

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