The Right Stuff

BY foxsports • March 1, 2010

I’d like to give a big thanks to Bob Beaudine for his collaboration on this article. Bob is the CEO of Eastman and Beaudine, where he manages the nation’s leading executive search firm in sports and entertainment. Bob has helped shape the leadership teams of some of the world’s most innovative and dynamic businesses. He has worked with major college athletic programs and has placed 37 Athletic Directors at major universities across the country as well as 29 Head Coaches in Football and Basketball. He is also the author of “The Power of Who”. Quotations in this article are his contribution.

Over the last decade, the college coaching profession has undergone a dramatic and fundamental change as it relates to how coaches are hired and fired. In past years, when an athletic director decided to let a coach go, finding a proper replacement did not require a process outside of the traditional notions of how a regular individual was hired by an employer to fill a position. The formula was simple: find a group of candidates that have shown a requisite level of competitive success, interview the candidates, determine which have the relationships and know how to build a successful program, and hire the last candidate standing. Yet the status quo in college athletics has been altered dramatically in recent years. As the games themselves have evolved, the risks involved have changed accordingly. In a day and age where millions of dollars in athletics revenue and booster money is at stake, mediocrity on the playing field is no longer acceptable. Athletic directors are forced to manage multi-million dollar athletic budgets and staffs of hundreds of people while simultaneously dealing with the tremendous pressures of administration, alumni and the media.

“The stakes today in getting just the right coach-have escalated! With paparazzi, sports talk shows, and bloggers watching each program’s every move, hiring the right search firm can be a game changer! A successful search today is about confidentiality, fit, and closing the deal with that one coach everyone thought you couldn’t get.”

Additionally, with the recent explosion of social media and blogging, news and rumors travel almost instantaneously. Every move an athletic director or coach makes is reported on, criticized and spewed out back out to the world before they even know what hit them.

In a move to help take some of that pressure off their shoulders, more and more athletic directors have sought help in filling high profile coaching positions, particularly in basketball and football. The executive search firm has become a saving grace of sorts for athletic directors who simply do not have the time and resources to find the best possible candidate to fit their coaching vacancies. For any one job, there could be dozens, if not hundreds of applicants. Search firms act as a filter to insure that the proper candidates are sought out, screened (including comprehensive background checks) and those that are the best fit make it to the interview stage.

“The search process includes reference checks, resume/education verification and identifying the best candidates as it relates to fit & recruiting. It has to be confidential to be successful. The process of confidentiality we’ve developed over the last 15 years has gained the trust and respect of high profile coaches that top Athletic Directors desire. Trust and respect is vital to getting a strong slate for a search. But the key to attracting the best coach involves ‘knowing’ the five reasons why a great coach will consider making a move today. It’s not always for position power and money. The five are:

1. People –A coach desires to have a great relationship with the President/Athletic Director.
2. Tools –A coach needs the right budget, being able to bring his own staff, the right conference, schedule, facilities, and getting support when needed.
3. Opportunity- This revolves around the coaches family, schools, city, aging parents and friends.
4. Legacy- Great coaches want to create significance by turning around programs, winning conference championships and going to bowl games, NIT and Final Four.
5. Money-Coaches want to be paid commensurate with the opportunity and their peers. Many mistakenly think money is the key, its important, but not the overriding piece of the puzzle. All five are crucial.”

Yet beyond the more palpable benefits search firms offer, they excel at a service that in many situations is far more valuable to athletic directors - letting them tap into their own personal networks. Search firms are in the business of relationships; they know who the qualified candidates are and more importantly how to reach them while being successfully conspicuous. Athletic directors have little time to monitor potential coaching candidates when they are not in need of one, and most of their knowledge may come from biased and undependable sources such as the media.

Moreover, with such a large network, often the biggest benefit search firms offer an athletic director is the concept of plausible deniability or rather the ability to reach out to candidates as an impartial third party. As with coaching, the athletic administration business is incredibly small and incestuous. Most athletic directors know the majority of their peers at other institutions, and even if they do not, they can rest assured that word of their actions will travel very quickly to those they don’t know. If an athletic director calls a coach at a rival institution, such actions can be perceived as poaching and even unethical. To prevent any animosity, a search firm can call candidates on behalf of an institution and the trail will never lead back to an athletic director, because he never formally requested that specific coach be contacted.

“Athletic directors always have 2-3 coaching candidates they’ve been tracking for years. Someone they think would be the perfect fit. They have a list they usually carry in their left hand coat pocket that covers every sport for that rainy day. AD’s today are savvy CEO’s who also understand the benefits of having a search firm they can trust to facilitate their process. Someone who has had great success and experience in the industry--knows the top coaches, their agents and how to facilitate a successful process!”

Additionally, search firms have another powerful ally on their side - agents. Almost all basketball and football coaches on the BCS level are now represented by agents or some other advocate. Not just for contract negotiations, but for job procurement, marketing and almost all of their off the field activities. By establishing strong relationships with key agents, search firms can make a single call and have the ears of literally dozens of the top coaching candidates. Although agents have become common place on the coaching side, many athletic directors prefer to not have to directly deal with such representatives. The search firm acts as an intermediary, helping facilitate the hiring process and deal with a coach’s advocate. Only once the process is completed and the candidate is hired does the representative start to work directly with the athletic administration or school’s legal counsel.

Many have questioned the necessities of the search firm, citing that the high fees some firms charge are better allocated to financially strapped athletic departments or the universities themselves. However, it is difficult to deny the importance of having a winning basketball or football program at a school. The dividends that successful sports teams pay to universities are many; most notably the massive exposure many small schools receive when their team performs well on a national stage. Consequentially, the head coach of a university’s football or basketball team is arguably just as important to the success of that institution’s president. When viewed in such a light, one cannot argue spending a little money to do the right due diligence and hire the best possible candidate.

“Hiring a great search firm today is just plain smart-a great insurance policy. The search fees are insignificant in comparison to the impact one great coach could bring to an institution. Like: Scott Drew taking over at Baylor after a murder (Now has them ranked top 25), Mike Anderson at Missouri taking over after NCAA violations. (Took them to Elite 8) or June Jones at SMU (taking them in just two years to their first bowl game in 25 years.) The right search firm understands the importance of making a search transformational versus transactional.”

Whether or not the critics choose to accept it, search firms’ involvement in the hiring process of high profile coaching candidates is a trend that is here to stay. Coaches’ themselves should embrace such firms too, as increasing the efficiency of the hiring process and making sure the best candidates are employed will most probably lead to improved job longevity. Like it or not, search firms may finally be the answer to athletic programs struggling to find the right leader to take them to promise land of sports success.

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