U.S. Markets closed

Why Do College ADs Spend Money on Search Firms to Hire Coaches?

Andy Staples
In this week's mailbag: The four reasons ADs don't just run coaching searches themselves, the worst position to be young at and what Larry Coker and the writers of Game of Thrones have in common.

There is money to be made in college sports, and you have questions…

From @smithn4: Legitimate question—does a search firm actually bring anything useful to a coaching search? The names most of them present are abundantly obvious.

This is the biggest misconception about search firms. When a Power 5 school is hiring a football or men’s basketball coach, it usually isn’t using a search firm to identify candidates. Most athletic directors already have a list of candidates in mind. The search firm may suggest one or two names that aren’t on the AD’s list, but that’s not why that AD is paying that search firm between $50,000 and $125,000.

The cynical reason is the search firm also placed the AD, and the AD is repaying that favor by giving business to the firm. And that definitely happens at times. But that’s also not the main reason a school would hire a search firm for a high-profile hire.

Having talked to ADs, agents and search executives over the years about this process, these are the main reasons a Power 5 school would hire a search firm when hiring a football or men’s basketball coach:

• Cover

• Plausible deniability

• Inside information

• Background checks

We’ll start with the last of these. No school wants a George O’Leary situation. Five days after O’Leary was hired by Notre Dame from Georgia Tech in 2001, O’Leary resigned because he’d been caught lying on his résumé. A thorough background check would have eliminated O’Leary—who had been making the claims before seeking the Notre Dame job—from the process. This would be an even bigger deal if a coach had managed to hide a criminal record. A good search firm will red-flag anything questionable so the AD has all the available information before getting too far down the road with any candidate. That’s why it seemed odd in 2015 when then USC AD Pat Haden blamed search firm Korn Ferry for a vetting process that USC claimed didn’t red flag recently fired coach Steve Sarkisian’s drinking—which was an open secret in West Coast college football circles when he was the coach at Washington.

Firms also may have information that can either help a deal get done or allow an AD to avoid the embarrassment of a courtship that goes badly. UCLA officials didn’t use a search firm when they hired a new men’s basketball coach earlier this year. Doing so might have saved the Bruins the humiliation of whiffing on TCU’s Jamie Dixon because of a misunderstanding of Dixon’s buyout situation. Dixon’s camp led UCLA officials to believe that he could get his TCU buyout (about $9 million) lowered. Earlier, Dixon had left Pittsburgh for TCU after Pittsburgh lowered the buyout so Dixon could go to his alma mater. A search firm, which should have connections at every Power 5 school, might have been able to inform UCLA’s administration that TCU had no intention of lowering the buyout no matter what anyone connected with Dixon intimated. At that point, UCLA might have just dropped its pursuit of Dixon before it went public and hired Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. That would have eliminated a ton of jokes at UCLA’s expense. (Provided said firm also saved the Bruins from their Rick Barnes courtship, which might not have been so easy.) UCLA might still have pursued Dixon. Ben Bolch’s excellent Los Angeles Times story about the search explained that Bruins officials eventually made peace with the buyout but stalled when the parties couldn’t figure out how to handle the $4 million tax bill Dixon would have faced in California had UCLA paid his buyout.

The other two reasons are obvious. Search firms allow ADs to gauge the interest of potential candidates without anyone from the school ever contacting those coaches. This is important for the AD—who doesn’t want to conduct the search in public—and to many of the candidates—who may not want anyone to know they’re contemplating leaving their current job. That’s the cover.

The plausible deniability comes in when someone like me asks the AD “Have you contacted Coach X or any of his representatives about your opening?” The AD can tell me no and not (officially) be lying. Because the search firm contacted Coach X’s agent and they’ve been hammering out preliminary details. If Coach X passes his background check and the AD decides Coach X is a top candidate, the search firm will ask the agent if the coach wants to interview after his season ends. Only then will the AD actually speak to Coach X.

That’s what a search firm actually does when contracted for this type of hire. Rounding up names can be done for free with Google. But discretion costs money.

From Matthew: What is the easiest/hardest position for true freshmen to come in and play immediately at?

The easiest position is probably cornerback because it relies more on pure athleticism than any other position. Yes, the corner needs to learn the defensive calls. He’ll need to know which area to play in zone coverage and whether he has some help when he’s in man coverage. But he’s calculating far less before every play than, say, the middle linebacker. Also, a younger player at that size isn’t as likely to be physically dominated by an older player. An 18-year-old, 190-pound corner might be at a physical disadvantage against a 22-year-old, 200-pound receiver, but the receiver wouldn’t usually be able to just manhandle the corner.

This is different on the line of scrimmage. While there are obvious exceptions like Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who was physically superior to most of his opponents as a true freshman last year, the age difference can make a big difference on the offensive and defensive lines. A 22-year-old 300-pounder might be considerably stronger than an 18-year-old 300-pounder. That matchup could get ugly. But if a defensive lineman is physically mature enough, he stands a better chance of playing right away than an offensive lineman.

Besides the potential physical issues, offensive linemen must learn the scheme well enough to be able to process variations in the defense in a matter of seconds. (The quarterback also must do this, but because he doesn’t have to move a 320-pound nose tackle, he doesn’t necessarily need to be as physically mature as the lineman.) Centers especially must be able to process a ton of information in a compressed time and then perform physically against the guy who usually is the other team’s heaviest, strongest player. So the toughest place to play right away is probably center.

From @CuzzinBailey: So Dan and Dave got perfect material for Game of Thrones and when it came to writing their own stuff they kinda blew it. Like a college football coach who inherited awesome recruits and then did nothing when he had to play with his own. I don’t have a question.

I think Cuzzin just called David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—the showrunners of Game of Thrones—the Larry Cokers of television. Sure, they won a title when they had five books worth of material, but when that material ran out, they started playing in the pay-TV version of Peach Bowls (and not the current New Year’s Six version of the Peach Bowl).

So in this analogy, Butch Davis is George R.R. Martin. The only difference is Butch is coaching college football now and GRRM does not appear to be making progress on finishing the series. I have volunteered my services, but be aware that if given the job, Strong Belwas—someone only us book-reading nerds know—will wind up running Westeros at the end of A Dream of Spring.