by Chris Bahn on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 11:59 am
Jeff Long faces the difficult task of hiring a new football coach. Athletic directors agree it's one of the most challenging parts of their job. (Photo by Ryan Miller)
An athletic director’s daily to-do list is a lengthy one.
Running a clean program, making sure the NCAA keeps its distance, ranks high among the priorities. Providing the resources to ensure athletes make academic progress is a part of the job often overlooked by outsiders. Finding ways to engage fans and keep them buying tickets has an impact on the bottom line. Raising money and finding other sources of revenue to fund what amounts to a small corporation is critical.
All of the responsibilities are important to keeping an operation like the Razorbacks' $75.5 million athletic department running smoothly. Nothing, though, matters quite like hiring a football coach. And nothing on an athletic director's plate is quite as demanding as the process that accompanies the selection.
ArkansasSports360.com recently visited with four BCS conference athletic directors in charge of football coaching searches last season. Each had his own approach, but all of the administrators — Arizona’s Greg Byrne, Illinois’ Mike Thomas, North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham and Washington State’s Bill Moos — agreed that a football coaching search is as consuming as it gets.
Finding somebody to win games and run the football program often has an impact on all other areas the athletic director is charged with overseeing. Winning coaches bring in top recruits and top donors. Football generates millions of dollars, is a source of civic pride and can lead to upticks in campus enrollment.
There is no overstating the importance.
“Personnel decisions in any organization are the most critical. That’s going to determine your success,” the Tar Heels’ Cunningham said. “But since choosing a football coach is so visible and it’s so high-profile, it’s probably the most pressure packed decision you’re making in a short period of time.”
Choosing a coach must often be done in a matter of days. One-on-one, in person time with a candidate is usually limited to a couple of hours. That handful of days and precious few hours when the work happens can have years of impact on a football program, university and community.
Finding the right coach is a taxing process that requires extensive background checks, an understanding of a program’s fan base, knowledge of what works in college football and, in the end, nothing more than intuition. Like picking the right combination of numbers on a winning lottery ticket, hitting the jackpot when choosing a coach ultimately comes down to a feeling.
“Part of it, it’s just your gut instincts,” Thomas said.
Achieving this mix of research, detective work and feel for a candidate is the task that faces Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long today. He fired Bobby Petrino in April and hopes to have a coach in place by mid-December.
It is, Long notes, challenging work.
"No one enjoys doing a high profile search for a football coach or a basketball coach,” Long said. “They’re not enjoyable processes. They’re enjoyable when they’re done and you’ve hired the right person. But it’s a grueling process.”
Paralysis By Analysis
Because person-to-person contact is often limited, compiling background on candidates is a critical part of the hiring process.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Cunningham at North Carolina prefers using search firms, something he utilized when hiring Larry Fedora from Southern Miss. Moos jokes he served as chairman of Washington State’s committee of one, the same position he held when major personnel decisions were made while he was at Oregon.
Calls are made to other athletic directors, coaches and in some cases former players. Athletic directors want to get a feel for what a coach is all about.
No matter who is gathering and processing the information, it’s typically handled in a matter of days. It is rare for the background portion of the hire to stretch beyond a couple of weeks.
Firing Petrino in April gave Long what amounts to an eight-month head start on the search. While there are benefits to candidates knowing well in advance that the job is open, Long recently described the extra time as a “blessing and a curse.”
Information is compiled to help move coaches between the “maybe,” “yes” and “no” piles. Studying the resume, philosophies and personality of a coach aid the process.
Imagine the flaws you can find when evaluating over a period of months. Conversely, such an open timeline provides plenty of time to find reasons a candidate could work at your school.
Ever eaten at a restaurant with seemingly endless options on the menu? Something as simple as ordering dinner can become an ordeal as you talk yourself in and out of what you want to eat.
Byrne experienced a relatively enlogated search at Arizona. He fired Mike Stoops on Oct. 11, 2011. More than a month passed before Rich Rodriguez was announced as the Wildcats’ coach.
That was more than enough time to evaluate and research.
“You can potentially have a little bit of paralysis by analysis if you’re not careful,” Byrne said.
Long has idea of what he is looking for in the Razorbacks’ next head coach. He has said he isn’t ruling out assistant coaches, though the preference would seem to be a person with a record of success with his own program.
Leadership is the No. 1 quality Long lists. He won't get into whether he prefers a defensive or offensive-minded coach. These are among the qualities he's weighing in the making the decision.
There is plenty of time to figure out who fits Long's criteria. And more than enough time for him to change his mind between now and December.
Cincinnati’s last three coaches are a combined 71-34 (.676) with seven bowl appearances in nine seasons. Thomas, who was the athletic director for the Bearcats from 2005-2011, worked with all three for a time. He inherited Mark Dantonio and hired Brian Kelly and Butch Jones.
Finding the next Dantonio (now at Michigan State), Kelly (now at Notre Dame) or Jones (a popular name in national coaching search chatter) was one of the first responsibilities Thomas had when he took over at Illinois last year.
When hiring Tim Beckman from Toledo last winter, Thomas said he looked for certain characteristics he saw in those other coaches. He evaluated win-loss records, recruiting ability, academic philosophy and other criteria when deciding if a coach has the "it" factor.
“You look at patterns of success,” Thomas said. “Then you ask, ‘Do they fit?’ ”
Deciding if a coach fits takes on different meanings at different jobs. An athletic director can adjust his idea of fit based on the school.
A rebuilding program might need a coach capable of mixing it up with locals at fish fries to help energize the fan base and sell tickets. Petrino wasn’t the pep rally type, but his demand for attention and seething confidence turned out to be the perfect match for an Arkansas program often lost in the shuffle among its SEC brethren.
Petrino got outsiders to reserve a spot at the adult table for the Razorbacks, often viewed as a little brother and not to be taken seriously in the league. He embraced the state's natural beauty and had philanthropic interests.
In that regard he was perfect for Arkansas.
Personality matters. Geography and background are taken into consideration, but as Byrne’s hiring history illustrates, those factors don’t necessarily eliminate a candidate.
Byrne was responsible for getting Rodriguez, the former Michigan and West Virginia coach, to Tucson, Ariz., a town of nearly 600,000 in the Sonoran Desert valley. He lured Pennsylvania native Dan Mullen from a job at Florida to Mississippi State, located in Starkville, Miss., a town of 23,000 that critics mockingly refer to as “StarkVegas.”
Rodriguez and Mullen have so far proven to be solid matches for their current jobs. They have built a bond with the fans, town and university.
Establishing a comfort level with the athletic director is also critical. Those limited hours face to face before an offer comes are all the employer and employee have to judge how they will work together.
“You don’t necessarily need to be fishing buddies, but you better have a comfort level with each other,” Byrne said. “… Combine that with making sure they have a sound fundamental background that will transition into them being a good head coach at your university.”
'Too Many Chefs'
Among the candidates for the Arkansas job in 2007 were then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe. Both were publicly linked to the job. Both left Arkansas still searching as they signed bigger contracts at their schools.
Long said discerning who is interested in the job and who wants leverage at his current school can be a challenge. There is no way to know for sure until a coach accepts or passes.
“Who is truly interested in this job and all the Razorback program has to offer? And who truly just wants to make sure their current employer appreciates them even more? So that’s a challenge,” Long said.
Guarding against getting played can require a hardline stance. Some athletic directors (like Long) won’t deal directly with agents. Others make it clear up front that they will dismiss any candidate who leaks information to the press in hopes of creating a bidding war.
Byrne is up front with candidates when he tells them he doesn’t want to see their names mentioned in media reports. If word of an interview leaked to the press, that coach was getting marked off Byrne's list.
“I told every candidate I talked to or had information on that if it came out ‘according to sources’ that they were now the leading candidate or they’d interviewed, I’d assume that they weren’t interested in the job,” Byrne said.
Phone calls aren’t just coming from agents. School presidents, board of trustee members, boosters and casual fans are all vying for the athletic director’s ear or eyeballs. In September alone, Long received more than 150 pages of email pertaining to his search, correspondence ranging from criticism of his firing of Petrino to a fraternity consultant offering his services as coach.
It gets noisy.
Having staff or a support system of other athletic directors and coaches to help filter it all helps. But having too many folks involved can complicate the process.
There is also a host of unwritten rules — calling for permission to talk, not interviewing candidates until you fire the coach currently on your payroll — that can slow a search.
Long said recently he is trying to navigate the line between being respectful of other schools, while keeping his own school’s best interests in mind. It’s the approach Moos took when landing Leach.
“There were other schools extremely interested in Mike Leach taking days and weeks to assemble a search committee while I was down there hiring him,” Moos said. “You can get bogged down with too many chefs in the kitchen. You have to move when you have your guy.”
'Hold Your Breath’
Those months between the hire and first game can be vital to a program’s success, especially when it comes to season ticket sales. Hire the right candidate and confidence among the fan base will surge.
Leach is a perfect example of the energy a hire can create. Announcing Leach at Washington State sent a jolt through the Cougars fan base.
In less than two weeks WSU sold 21 suites in a stadium that wasn’t even built. An additional 44 loge boxes were sold. A month after Leach was hired, 4,000 additional season ticket packages were sold and donations to the Cougar Club (WSU’s booster club) reached a record level.
“We had a whole bunch of caged Cougars,” Moos said. “When we opened the doors, they came out prowling.“
Arkansas has seen the impact a successful coach can have. Petrino helped get the team into the national conversation with a 21-5 record over two seasons. His Razorbacks were ranked in the Top 10 to end 2010 and 2011.
Razorback Foundation memberships grew with the success. Donations and season ticket sales hit record levels.
It is imperative Long find somebody who can continue that momentum in the offseason. Long-term success for the football program and athletic department depend on it.
That is easier said than done, of course.
For all the work that goes into the hire, there are still no guarantees. Cunningham, who has been part of the hiring process at Tulsa and North Carolina, said that no matter how much work goes into finding a coach and how popular the selection might be, no hire is ever a sure thing.
“It is important that the person have credibility, can inspire some confidence and direction,” Cunningham said. “And then it’s going to take, generally from December until September, to hold your breath and hope this person can actually do what you’re expecting them to do.”
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