May 13, 2015 – June 6, 2013 — In December 2007, University of Washington President Mark Emmert had a problem on his hands. His athletics director, Todd Turner, had just quit.
To help find his replacement, Emmert hired a search firm run by Dan Parker, an Atlanta consultant who had assisted him in hiring Turner in 2004. The search took nine months, finally ending when Emmert decided to hire the man who was on the job as interim athletics director: longtime friend Scott Woodward. “I concluded the best person suited for this job is the one who had it right now,” Emmert said then.
Despite hiring the guy in the office down the hall, the university paid Parker Executive Search $75,000 for conducting a national search. From there, Emmert’s relationship with Parker blossomed. Two years later, the NCAA paid Parker to find a new president. The association hired Emmert, who then turned to Parker again to help conduct searches for several vacancies on his new staff. In all, Parker has assisted in filling 12 executive positions with the NCAA in recent years, according to its website.
For Parker, the moves were a sign of success. Repeat business means happy customers. And with friends in high places, including Emmert, Parker has built a booming business in college sports, including assisting Rutgers University in its search last month for a new athletics director.
Parker is not alone, as many executive search firms have tapped into college sports in recent years. Universities regularly contract with such companies at a rate of about $75,000 per search to help identify and investigate candidates for positions such as athletics directors and football and men’s basketball coaches. When it succeeds, matches are made, and long-term working relationships develop. When it doesn’t, a USA TODAY Sports investigation found, questionable hires, wasteful spending and accusations of search firms serving as the equivalent of smoke-filled private clubs, where insiders try to curry favor with kingmakers, occur.
The NCAA’s relationship with Parker “looks a little incestuous, doesn’t it?” said Jerry Baker, a search consultant and former partner of Parker’s who says he remains on good terms with Parker. “We all appreciate loyalty. I have had a number of universities come to me regularly, once or twice a year, to do search work for them. I don’t think I have an example where it’s been quite as tall as that.” Emmert, the NCAA and Parker declined to discuss their relationship.
In recent weeks, Parker’s thoroughness has been questioned in its work with Rutgers. With the school reeling from a player-abuse scandal involving the men’s basketball coach, Parker failed to uncover a similar incident in the background search of Julie Hermann, the newly hired athletics director. Baker, who parted ways with Parker to start his own search firm, called it a black eye for the search profession.
“A problem that surfaces in the context of Rutgers and Emmert is, ‘How competent are these firms?'” Arthur Miller, chairman of the NYU Sports & Society Program, told USA TODAY Sports. “One might wonder whether there is a buddy system operating in how schools pick the search firms and whether scarce dollars are being needlessly expended to pick the obvious candidate. As yet, though, no proof of skullduggery — just bad judgment.”
Hermann, a former volleyball coach at Tennessee and administrator at Louisville, seemed like a good hire at Rutgers. But shortly after her appointment The Star-Ledgerin Newark found that Hermann’s former players at Tennessee had accused her of verbal abuse.
Parker had extensive conversations with Hermann’s boss at Tennessee, former women’s athletics director Joan Cronan, but issues between Hermann and the volleyball team did not come up, according to an e-mail obtained by USA TODAY Sports from Richard Edwards, the co-chair of Rutgers’ search committee, to the 28-person group.
As many search firms do, Parker contracted with an outside investigative firm, Kroll Inc., to vet the finalists. Hermann and others signed a form authorizing background checks and vowing that the information provided was “true and correct and that my application or employment may be terminated based on any false, omitted or fraudulent information.”
Parker notified Rutgers’ administration of two lawsuits that included Hermann: one for pregnancy discrimination, filed by an assistant coach that resulted in a $150,000 jury verdict in 1997, and a 2008 wrongful termination case while Hermann was at Louisville, which is being appealed to Kentucky’s Supreme Court.
“I was unaware of the women’s volleyball team and their unhappiness,” said Candace Straight, a member of the Rutgers search committee. “When I read that in the Star-Ledger, I called up Julie personally and asked her tough questions and asked her to explain it to me. I felt very comfortable with what Julie told me, and I continue to support Julie 100%.”
Straight said she was impressed with the thoroughness of Parker’s preparation — setting up a secure website that the executive committee could access to review candidates, supplying a list of 60 candidates, helping narrow it to 14 and setting up interviews for 10.
Chris Hunt, president of Hunt Scanlon Media, which publishes the industry’s trade publication, said a large search committee and little time to vet the finalists made Rutgers’ search problematic. Hermann had an opportunity to disclose any potentially embarrassing information and did not tell Parker about player issues at Tennessee.
“She knew why she was coming in, so that should have been the first thing she should have brought up, clearly, and it was not,” Hunt said. “I know the firm and I know the type of due diligence they do, so I really feel they did all they could have done and should have done in this case. It’s an unfortunate situation. It’s an embarrassment. It’s really a shame that this happened. I don’t think the search firm is to blame in this particular case.”
Rutgers spokesperson E.J. Miranda said of Parker, “We retain all consultants on a case-by-case basis based on a review of qualifications and price and the specific needs of the university at that time.” Citing a confidentiality agreement, Laurie Wilder, executive vice president and managing director at Parker, would only say of the Rutgers search, “We stand by the quality of our work.” Dan Parker declined to be interviewed for this article.
While schools are responsible for making hiring decisions, other Parker searches have raised similar questions about how deeply the firm vets candidates. In May 2006, two months after basketball coach Kelvin Sampson was hired at Indiana with Parker’s help, the NCAA penalized Sampson for recruiting violations at his previous job at Oklahoma.
In April 2007, Billy Gillispie was hired as the men’s basketball coach at Kentucky after a Parker-led search. He was fired less than two years later after struggling to win in Lexington; athletics director Mitch Barnhart cited Gillispie’s incompatibility with the school. Gillispie was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 1999, 2003 and ’09 and checked into rehab.
And in December 2010, Pittsburgh football coach Mike Haywood was arrested on a domestic violence charge less than three weeks after Parker helped hire him. Pitt fired Haywood a day after his arrest, and though Haywood had no history of similar offenses, Dan Parker took blame for the hire.
A SATURATION POINT?
Each year at the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, Parker hosts a party for clients and friends, including several candidates the firm has helped find jobs.
Mark Lewis had plenty to celebrate at the last Final Four party at the Atlanta Aquarium, where he was a guest speaker. The previous year, Emmert and the NCAA hired Parker to find a new executive vice president. They hired Lewis, a business executive and former University of Georgia football player who knows Dan Parker, a Georgia alum. Lewis was a candidate in other Parker-led searches, including at Georgia.
Parker has faced other allegations that it pushes certain candidates regardless of their fit for a position. At least six athletics directors — Iowa’s Gary Barta, Tennessee’s Dave Hart, Oregon’s Rob Mullens, Houston’s Mack Rhoades, Central Florida’s Todd Stansbury and Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick — were hired as the result of Parker searches at their current schools after being finalists in Parker-led searches at other schools.
A person with knowledge of the inner workings of the NCAA told USA TODAY Sports that Parker looks to move its favored candidates from one job to another, and if an interested candidate does not have a relationship with Parker it can struggle in vying for a job opening. The person did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from Parker and NCAA leadership.
Wilder says with only one person hired to a position, strong candidates remain available after a search. “If you’re a good candidate, you’ll probably be able to be recruited to multiple assignments,” she said.
Baker, Parker’s former partner, said search firms reach a catch-22 when they’re successful. They get repeat customers, which is good for business. On the other hand, too many repeat customers and candidates can become a conflict of interest, he said. Search firms are supposed to work for the client or school, but with so many repeat candidates, sometimes they seem more like coach or athletics director agents than search consultants. Baker said some college athletic officials have jokingly told him that they were registered with Parker.
“Dan and others who have very focused specialties may be at a saturation point,” said Baker, whose Georgia firm conducts university executive searches but not sports searches. “One has to at least ask the question: Has he reached a saturation point?”
Parker is responsible for more than 130 athletics director and coaching placements, the bulk of which have come since 2002, according to Wilder. Many were successful, boosting the reputation of a firm that also does executive searches for corporations, higher education, academic health services and health care.
Parker credits satisfied customers, while others in the industry question whether a tacit quid pro quo is involved. Since 2005, at least 14 athletics directors who were hired after a Parker-led search turned to the firm to help with a coaching hire.
Barta twice used Parker to lead searches for men’s basketball coaches, in 2007 and ’10. Former Minnesota AD Joel Maturi contracted Parker to help in the hiring of football coach Tim Brewster (2007), men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith (2007) and football coach Jerry Kill (2010). Brewster and Smith have since been fired, but Minnesota turned to Parker last year to lead the search for Maturi’s replacement.
And Tennessee has a long history of employing Parker. Chancellor Jimmy Cheek (2009), former football coach Derek Dooley (2010), men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin (2011), as well as Hart and the past two baseball coaches have been hired as the result of Parker searches.
“It’s the old boys club,” sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said of the NCAA’s relationship with Parker. “College sports is very insular, which leads to waste, inefficiency and incompetence.” Wilder disputes that notion, saying, “The nature of our business in its totality is that good business breeds more business.”
North Carolina State athletics director Debbie Yow, who was hired after a Parker search for that position, has turned to the firm to lead searches for coaches in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball in the past two years.
“Once you’ve been in a business relationship with an entity that provides a service and it’s gone well, why would you not return to a service provider if there was a need?” Yow said. “If you’re gonna spend $10 million over five years, spending $90,000 to vet and make sure the candidate pool is the best seems like a prudent choice. The AD will still be held accountable. That’s never changing.”
GROWTH OF FIRMS
Indeed, those in the industry argue search firms are indispensable to schools with such publicly visible positions open. Simply put, the stakes are too high to do the hiring on their own.
“There’s a reason why you hire an accountant to do your taxes. There’s a reason why you hire a lawyer when you go to court,” says Glenn Sugiyama, executive vice president and global head of the sports practice at DHR International. “All it takes is one poor decision to change an entire college’s culture and reputation. When executive recruiting is done right, we make sure that doesn’t happen.”
DHR International and Korn Ferry International, two of the largest executive search firms in the world, include sports in their business. DHR hired Sugiyama to head up its standalone sports practice group in 2004, and longtime consultant Jed Hughes was hired last year to build a division at Korn/Ferry. Smaller firms take a good portion of the market, with former college athletic directors joining the ranks.
Former Florida and Houston AD Bill Carr runs CarrSports Consulting while Turner, Emmert’s former AD at Washington, now runs his own search firm, Collegiate Sports Associates. “Once the BCS money started flowing in and the coaching salaries became astronomical, then the search firms followed,” said Carr. He estimates 60% to 70% of major Division I schools use search firms when hiring an athletic director or coach in a revenue sport.
Mary Jo Kane and Matt Mitten, who served on AD search committees at Minnesota and Marquette, respectively, praised Parker for helping guide the process. As educators, they don’t have the expertise or time to lead a search. With a firm providing information, the committees can make recommendations to the university’s leadership, they said.
“I didn’t spend hours and hours and hours and hours setting up a secure website,” said Kane, a professor of sports sociology and director of Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “They do a tremendous amount of work. They’re comprehensive. They’re thorough.” Yet critics say most of these services could be handled internally by the university’s human resources department.
Before Parker, the search king in college football was Chuck Neinas, who conducted many of his searches for around $30,000. And before him, many schools hired coaches and athletic directors the old-fashioned way: by doing their own interviews and background checks.
Hiring search firms “has become the norm, so if you don’t do it, you might be vulnerable to various types of charges of negligence or bias,” said Miller of NYU. “In that sense it is a way for a school to cover its ass.”
Because of its repeat business with Parker, Rutgers paid $70,000 for the search that resulted in Hermann’s hiring as opposed to the normal $90,000 price tag. It paid $58,000 for the search in 2009 that ended in the hiring of athletic director Tim Pernetti, whose resignation paved the way for Hermann’s hiring.
For those sums, schools have a list of expectations. Discretion is high on the list. Search firms can contact candidates without their current bosses finding out and without it being reported in the media.
“Because they do this full-time, they’re so well connected,” Yow said. “They know which coaches are discontented and looking to move.”
Because the searches are handled externally — often with the firm booking travel and making arrangements for interviews — schools are able to avoid candidates’ identities and information about the process going public through public-records requests.
Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman recounted people sleeping outside his house and waiting at airports when he and then-athletic director Tom Osborne searched for a new football coach in 2007.
“That’s not an environment that makes hiring easy or successful,” Perlman said.
When it came time to hire Osborne’s replacement last year, Perlman turned to Korn/Ferry after Hughes came highly recommended by Perlman’s contacts in athletics.
The school hoped to have a number of sitting athletic directors interested in the position, and having Hughes allowed them to discreetly gauge their interest. The school hired Shawn Eichorst from Miami.
“I am almost confident that if we would have run a public search and did the normal things — advertise, send out letters — that I would not have talked to the candidates that I talked to,” Perlman said.
Some firms offer a guarantee if a candidate they’ve placed leaves the school. If for any reason an AD or a coach were to leave before two years, DHR International would conduct a new search for free, Sugiyama said. In most instances, Parker would offer a guarantee for 12 months.
To many, retaining a search firm is seen as an excuse for administrators in case something goes wrong. Those in the industry disagreed. “The reason the search firm’s brought in is to help validate the process and make it objective,” said Hughes. “They’re doing it because they know we’re going to add value and we’re going to help them get a better solution than they can on their own. You’re only as good as your last placement.”
USA TODAY, by Brent Schrotenboer and Rachel Axon