College coaches, athletics directors, and even conference commissioners come and go, but the industry that has been built around this hiring carousel remains constant. While the average fan or alumnus only sees the firing (retiring) of one individual and the hiring of another, there are myriad moving parts involved in the process. Executive search firms, lawyers, agents, athletic directors, boosters, and school presidents all play a role in your school hiring the next Nick Saban . . . or Charlie Weis.
For schools like Wisconsin, where former coach Gary Andersen just left to become Oregon State’s newest head beaver, the process is more reactive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, schools that have fired their coaches – Michigan and Florida, for example – have had more time to put a plan in place. In Florida’s case, their plan led to the hiring of former Colorado State coach, Jim McElwain, thus putting Colorado State on the same new coach path as Wisconsin.
For those following this annual ritual, it’s important to know the players involved and what do they do.
Executive Search Firms
With over 1000 coaches in Division I FBS football alone (128 schools with each program allowed one head coach and nine assistant coaches), it’d be awfully difficult for an athletic director to research and find the best fit for his program, outside the usual hot names that are always out there (John Gruden, anyone?). This is where search firms come in. Firms such as Korn Ferry, which is assisting the SEC with their replacement for retiring commissioner Mike Slive, are tasked with identifying prospective coaches and finding the best person for the school’s culture and program. To this point, Interim Michigan Athletic Director Jim Hackett stated, “The type of firm I’m picking is someone who knows us because you’re paying for that consulting time, and you want to make sure that money’s directed toward finding the coach, not me teaching them about Michigan.”
Lawyers and Agents
Where there are contracts, there are lawyers and agents. With millions of dollars on the line in both buyouts and new contracts, attorneys and agents representing the coaches and respective schools are highly involved with the process. Each agent is looking for the best possible deal for their client, and may often use leaks or other tactics to drive up the price of engagement. The agents are often the initial point of contact for athletic directors or search firms interested in securing a coach. Once a legitimate discussion about contracts and terms begins, each parties lawyers are ready to do their part.
As the person in charge of making the decision on the next head coach, athletic directors may have the most difficult job of them all. They have to balance each stakeholder’s needs, while also ultimately hiring a coach that will have a direct impact on their job and department revenue going forward. Athletic Directors must also balance the need to hire a coach that will be successful on the field with one that will be successful when working with corporate sponsors, alumni, and boosters.
The NCAA has a very broad definition of the word booster. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on the ones that matter the most, those that cut the biggest checks. Often an alumnus or other high profile and high net worth individual with connections to the university, this type of booster has the ear of the athletic director and in some instances the university president. Without their support for the new hire, raising funds for capital upgrades to facilities and/or endowments for coaching positions may become exponentially more difficult.
At their core, university presidents would probably prefer to remain focused on the academic prestige of their university instead of its athletic prowess. However, as the Fields of Green has discussed before, athletic programs have an immense impact on a university’s brand, both positively and negatively. With the “Flutie Effect” indicating that college applications greatly increase as a result of athletic success, school presidents must be more than just aware that athletics takes place on the campus. They have to be actively engaged, to a certain extent. As evidence of the unique relationship school presidents have with athletics, former Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee once jokingly said, “I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me,” when questioned about firing then head football coach, Jim Tressel.
Season after season, coaches get hired and fired (or retired) based on their on the field performance. Once that trigger event happens, and many times even before it does, these stakeholders kick into gear to find the next greatest thing for the university. Those fans waiting anxiously for their new savior would be wise to keep an eye on these groups as they hold the key to their favorite program’s future.