Why Texas Will And Should Use A Search Firm For AD Hire

Sep 29, 2015 | Forbes

By Blake Williams

Less than two years removed from hiring Steve Patterson, Texas is once again in the market for a new athletic director.

When the Longhorns needed to replace the retiring DeLoss Dodds in October of 2013 the administration used a search firm – namely Korn Ferry – to help them pinpoint a replacement. Given that Dodds had been the Texas athletic director for 33 years, it made sense to bring in a group with more experience in finding administrators than anyone at the university.

The institution settled on Patterson and in less than two years he alienated nearly everyone within the university and Texas cut ties, leaving the university footing the bill for almost four full years of a guaranteed contract that will pay the fired Patterson $1.4 million annually.

While the Patterson era was an abject failure, that doesn’t mean the process that resulted in his hire was.

Texas paid Korn Ferry a fee to assist them in their search for an athletic director and then reportedly passed on their first recommendation, then-West Virginia AD Oliver Luck. (A Freedom of Information Act Request for the amount of the fee was sent to Texas Sept. 21 with no reply.)

Texas will likely use the services of a search firm once again and rates for those services have surely gone up in the past two years. Still, hiring a consulting group to find Patterson’s replacement is the right move.

Using search firms to make major hires in college athletics is nothing new, but it’s a process that the average college sports fan knows little about. To shed some light on the ins and outs of using a search firm to make a major hire I spoke with Glenn Sugiyama, managing partner and Sports Practice leader for the search firm DHR International, and with Steven Frieder, the assistant to the president of Marquette University who helped oversee the institution’s work with Korn Ferry that led to the hire of athletic director Bill Scholl.

Individuals at Korn Ferry did not return calls requesting comment while Sugiyama declined to comment on financial contracts with client, per DHR policy. It should be noted that both firms also search for executives in a number of areas outside of sports.

They Know What They’re Doing

The biggest reason to hire a search firm is clearly their existing expertise, something that allowed the top five search firms to bring in $3.38 Billion in consulting fees in 2014. But one of Frieder’s main takeaways from Marquette’s work with Korn Ferry was the level of detailed research the company did on the Golden Eagles specific situation.

“One of the main things I give them a lot of credit for is they came and tried to understand Marquette and then they went out and with the help of the search community helped identify a number of qualified candidates,” Frieder said.

The misconception among many fanbases is that the university should be fully equipped to handle a search for a new athletic director on their own, but that is simply not realistic.

Take the situation Marquette was dealing with that led to the hire of Bill Scholl in September of 2014. The university was dealing with a new president and no one in the institution had the necessary expertise or resources to find the best candidates.

“Where a school might do a search of this magnitude once or twice a decade, we’re doing them all the time so we know many of the things that are encountered along the way,” Sugiyama said. “There’s two things that we offer our clients. One is our knowledge of the industry and our knowledge of the candidates and two, management of a professional and organized search process to make sure the optimize their search process.”

“I don’t think that we are different from any other professional services organization that a university would hire whether it would be a law firm or an accounting firm.”

Brings In Diverse Candidates

Another misconception that both Sugiyama and Frieder pointed to with search firms was that they just have a preexisting list of candidates for the job. According to both, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“One part of it that people aren’t aware of is that when an institution uses a search firm like ourselves we usually will be able to bring candidates that may not normally apply for a position like this,” Sugiyama said. “Sitting athletic directors will not be as willing to reach out and apply for a job if they are a contracted employee of another institution in the NCAA.”

The line of thinking here is that if a candidate is comfortable making their intentions for a job public, they may not be the best candidate. The use of a search firm allows for anonymous contact with sitting athletic directors who may be happy in their current jobs but interested in exploring other opportunities.

If a university is conducting a search on their own any contact with athletic directors at other schools would be more likely to enter the press, especially if the universities involved were public. That type of exposure could jeopardize the current job of an interested candidate.

“What you are looking for is people who are happy in the jobs that they have, people who aren’t looking to make a change. Oftentimes a search firm can help along in convincing some of these people who are really happy in their current roles to take a look at the position,” Frieder said. “That’s one of the things we look for in hiring a search firm. What we don’t want is people who are just looking to leave a job or are dissatisfied.

“If I’m an AD or a senior person, if I’m No. 2 in an athletic department and I get contacted by someone on the search committee you can have more of an exploratory conversation with the search firm and then at the appropriate time bring in other people. It’s a safer environment for a lot of people that if it becomes known that you are putting your hat in the ring it can jeopardize your current job.”

That was the case with Scholl, Frieder said, as he was the sitting athletic director at Ball BLL +0.00% State when the Marquette position opened.

School Has Final Say

While the search firm does a lot of the legwork in networking with potential candidates, they certainly are not responsible for the hire. The university is in control while the firm is a conduit of information.

“They’re a partner but ultimately our search committee vetted and interviewed candidates in a semifinalist stage and then made recommendations for finalists for our president to meet,” Frieder said.

While that may seem obvious, both Sugiyama and Frieder acknowledged that the hiring portion of the relationship is not clear to large swaths of the public.

Take the case of Patterson, however, as reports indicate he was not the first choice of the search firm but was the top choice of the university. That didn’t work out for Texas, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go down the search-firm route again.

“The benefits far out way the challenges,” Frieder said.

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