May 13, 2015 – November 4, 2014 — When Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith left for Tulsa in April, he told his boss, Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, that he was leaving via text message. That text message, sent after Haith had made multiple efforts to call Alden the night before, would have sent shockwaves throughout the college athletics community — had this actually been an unusual approach.
Alden brought up Haith’s departure via text message in a news conference the day Haith was introduced at Tulsa. Yet Haith is hardly the only coach to change jobs in the past few years by informing his current boss on the day of departure, or after the Ts were crossed and the Is dotted on the new job. It’s not always a referendum on the relationship between athletic director and coach, but rather a referendum on the state of college athletics.
Those involved in hirings and firings — from coaching and athletic director standpoints — have seen the etiquette involved in these processes change drastically in the past 15 years or so, and they can list many of the reasons why. The need for confidentiality in a social media-frenzied world. The exorbitant amounts of money at stake. The importance of perception. An increased reliance on search firms. But that doesn’t mean they like it.??
“People who’ve been in it for a while would say the same thing: It’s going in a bad direction,” Virginia Commonwealth athletic director Ed McLaughlin said. “I had one other AD describe it to me as shameful. I think that’s pretty accurate.”
You don’t have to go back very far to find a process that coaches and athletic directors agree was a whole lot simpler — and much more direct, with a great deal more accountability.
“At one time, the proper, professional approach was to call the athletic director and ask permission to speak to the coach,” Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said. “At one time, that’s the way we did our business. But that’s dramatically changed.”
Said McLaughlin: “Asking for permission to contact, and stuff like that — that stuff doesn’t happen anymore. The professionalism in giving someone a heads up or letting them know — that’s gone. That never happens.”
Key word: Anymore. Take Mike Brey, for example. When he left Delaware for Notre Dame in 2000, he said then-Irish athletic director Kevin White called his athletic director at Delaware first. “Then, (it was White) talking to me directly,” Brey said. “We met in Washington, D.C., and the rest is history. Nowadays, it’s a search firm that is contacting a coach’s agent or representative. It adds to another layer of mystery for the whole thing. It’s gotten really complicated, maybe sometimes not as transparent to what’s really going on. “Obviously, the search firms are very powerful and become king-makers.”
Multiple athletic officials pointed to one high-profile coaching hire — and subsequent resignation five days later — as the turning point in the vetting process for coaches, which has led in part to the use of search firms, and has at the very least underscored the importance of a through background check. In 2001, Notre Dame hired George O’Leary to coach its football team. Turns out, O’Leary had falsified information about his playing career and that he had earned a master’s degree from New York University.
“Some people have not been totally upfront on their résumés, and some people have made mistakes,” Hyman said. “You’ve got to do your due diligence. You’re under unbelievable scrutiny and a huge time crunch.”
Both of those factors have led schools to search firms, both for hiring athletic directors themselves but also, increasingly, for head coaches of prominent football and basketball programs. “There’s more at stake today, clearly, with the large colleges; sports is a big business,” said Chris Hunt, president of Hunt Scanlon Media, Inc., which publishes the talent management industry’s trade publication. “As a result of that, there’s more on the line. When there’s more on the line, it’s more imperative that the right coaches are selected.”
Hunt said search firms are used more frequently for athletic director recruitment, but they certainly are used to find coaches, too. “Some athletic directors will tell you they don’t use a search firm because (hiring coaches is) what they’ve been hired to do,” said Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sports sector leader at Korn/Ferry International, one of the largest executive search firms in the world. “I think it depends,” Hughes said. “If a university feels somebody adds value in terms of the process, that would give them an advantage, get to the market, help evaluate talent in a more effective way, get the right people engaged. A lot of these people have agents, and some athletic directors don’t want to deal with the agents. You end up dealing with agents. A lot of coaches don’t want to be directly contacted, either, so you’re talking to their representative. That’s where the third party comes in on both sides.
“Confidentiality is critical. … If you’re dealing with a Texas or USC for a football search, that’s obviously high-profile, as visible as it’s going to be. You’ve got to do the search in a way that it doesn’t appear people are turning you down, that you’re able to get the people you’re attracted to.”
That latter sentiment is why administrators don’t want details of a search leaked to the media. “At the end, everyone wants to feel like, ‘We got our guy,’ ” said men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga, who left George Mason for Miami in 2011. “What they don’t want is three or four choices out there, and being perceived you didn’t get your first, you didn’t get your second, so you’re not doing a very good job. That puts a lot of pressure on athletic directors to keep the process as confidential as possible. “It’s created a whole new process of hiring.”
The appeal of using third parties is even greater for coaches. If third parties assess preliminary interest, the coach can publicly deny having direct contact with another school. Chris Collins, who left an assistant coaching position at Duke to take the head coaching job at Northwestern in 2013, said he’d been contacted by various schools to gauge interest during the final four seasons he spent at Duke. Each time, he was contacted by a search firm. Collins said his first direct contact with Northwestern was an in-person meeting in Atlanta, about a week after initially being contacted by a search firm. “I never had direct contact with the AD or anyone at Northwestern until that interview,” Collins said.
Cuonzo Martin, who left Tennessee for California this offseason, said the Bears used a search firm to contact him first as well. Search firms do everything from chartering planes to see candidates, sitting in on and participating in interviews and thoroughly digging through candidates’ backgrounds. All of it is done very quickly and discreetly. As Hughes put it, “There’s a lot of cloak and dagger involved in the process.”
“Coaches have to protect themselves,” Larranaga said. “If it’s perceived that (a coach is) trying to get out of his present position, that doesn’t make him look good with his administration, his alumni. That puts a lot of pressure on him if he doesn’t get that job and ends up staying.”
Said Hyman: “People draw conclusions that if you were talking to another school, then you’re disloyal and you can just put a nail in your coffin at that particular school.”
Social media has exacerbated this aspect of the hiring process. Reporters now report on the amount of candidates for a job, the names of those candidates and, then, the frontrunners. Fans track planes rumored to be flying candidates, hoping their strategy to put puzzle pieces together will help them figure out who their next head coach may be.
“There’s speculation, things that can be printed in seconds,” Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller said. “You have to be careful.”
Said Collins: “In today’s day and age, the media is getting more, they’re putting more out there. (But) the coach always has a right to say, ‘You can cut it out,’ or not comment.”
“I understand that, in today’s world,” said Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, who fired men’s basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik and hired Danny Manning to replace him this offseason. “It’s a little different than what it has been. I don’t know that it’s any more challenging, and I don’t see it as a negative that the process has changed. It’s changed as a result of media outlets and social media more than anything.”
Not everyone finds social media a legitimate reason for the changing etiquette; McLaughlin sees it as a convenient excuse. “You can shroud it in this thing of, well, it’s got to be confidential and we’ve got to keep this out of the press, but then the ADs go and leak who they’re interviewing anyway,” the VCU athletic director said. “So, to me, it’s disingenuous, like you’re trying to put something over on somebody else.”
Despite all of the hurdles those making hiring decisions must overcome to ensure candidates’ confidentiality, one issue — highlighted by Haith’s text message — is altogether avoidable: The element of surprise, at least for current bosses. Haith says he tried to avoid that. But after Haith placed two calls to Alden the night before, he received a text message in the morning asking for an update on his status. “How would you take that? He wouldn’t talk to you when you tried to call him, then he texts you, so how do you respond at 6:22 a.m.?
“That’s the truth. Those are the facts. It’s unfortunate. Professionally, I have too much respect for Mike Alden. He gave me an opportunity. I have nothing but the utmost regard for the university there, the people there and Mike and the administration. I did not have any animosity toward Mike.”
Though for the most part athletic directors aren’t calling each other to ask for permission to contact others’ coaches, that doesn’t prevent current coaches from keeping their bosses informed. However, even that gesture — which would probably fall under the category of common courtesy — has become less frequent in recent years, leaving some athletic directors blindsided by a coach bolting for what he sees as greener pastures.
“I’ve been with athletic directors who have been sort of sabotaged while we were together — it was on the football side,” said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. “At the end of the day, I want to be an athletic director who can have a relationship with any potential (coach) that we have out there. If you play shenanigans with any kind of hiring process, it jeopardizes those relationships. That’s not a good place to be.” Hollis said he’s appreciated that his esteemed basketball coach, Tom Izzo, has kept him informed about outside interest. It’s helped, too, that most of that interest has come from the professional ranks. “Everyone that’s had an interest in Tom has called prior to anything really transpiring,” Hollis said. “I’ve had full knowledge.”
The same thing happens with college football coaches garnering NFL interest, and that’s by design. The NFL has a rule, with possible disciplinary action if not followed, that states, “Before an NFL club has discussions regarding the possible hiring of a college coach or other employee, that club should first determine whether the employee is under contract. If the employee is under contract, the club must seek permission from the Athletics Director or other appropriate college official to have discussions with the employee. If permission is granted, the NFL club may proceed to discuss employment opportunities and to hire the college employee.”?
“That doesn’t exist on the intercollegiate front, in terms of notice,” said Hughes, the headhunter. “When (Wisconsin athletic director) Barry Alvarez lost his football coach to Arkansas, he was shocked. That happens.” In fact, in the aftermath of Bret Bielema leaving for Razorbacks in 2012, Alvarez said he would require, by contract, that his coaches to tell him they were contacted by another program before they can even talk to that other school.
For most in college athletics, however, there are no rules written into coaches’ contracts — and certainly no rules like that of the NFL that expressly prevent those making hires from going behind each other’s backs to contact their employees. “Part of the obligation is on the coach to let his or her AD know: ‘Hey, this person called me,’ ” McLaughlin said. “I’m lucky; Shaka (Smart) tells me everything. I know. But we have that level of trust. Apparently some coaches don’t have that level of trust with their ADs anymore.”
Over the last two years, six schools have expressed interest in Smart, McLaughlin said, and just one of those six athletic directors has called McLaughlin to give him a heads up.
“It kind of comes down to the ethics of the person who is doing the search,” Hollis said. “In my opinion, there should always be — once you’re to the point where you want to have an institution-to-coach conversation, there should be, even if it’s not a request for permission, it’s an informatory phone call to their supervisor.”
Despite what Hollis and others would like to see in an ideal world, the use of third parties and a lack of communication seem to be a permanent element of collegiate coaching changes. McLaughlin thinks it will remain that way as long as athletic directors avoid reaching out to peers for fear of tipping them off and giving them the opportunity to make a preemptive counteroffer. “My hope is that it can be reversed, if it’s brought to light where (the status quo) is not viewed as a good thing,” McLaughlin said. “You can either choose to use common courtesy or not. It’s really whether you do the right thing or not.”?
USA Today, by Nicole Auerbach