It's the most wonderful and excruciating time of the year: college football's silly season. So now is as good a time as any to go over how your athletic director should handle any potential changes that might need to be made over the next few weeks. I've never hired or fired a coach, but I worked in college athletics long enough to be around for several hires and fires. And I have enough friends that work in intercollegiate athletics spread across the country that have been through these things that I feel comfortable putting this guide together. There are a few basic rules of thumb; perception is reality, keep everything quiet, and control the message.
There is no more important job that an athletic director has than the hiring of coaches in the revenue generating sports. Good decisions rebuild or create great programs, or maintain great ones. Bobby Bowden took over Florida State in 1976 and took them from a women's college to the most feared program in America. Right coach, right fit, commence dynasty. Bad ones can be fatal. Notre Dame used to be Notre Dame. Then they hired Bob Davie to replace Lou Holtz, and all their inherent flaws were exposed. Sometimes it really is that simple.
But this is less about who you hire, and more about how you actually do it and how that will help your new coach succeed as much as possible. After the jump are a few steadfast rules for having a good hiring process, so that football/basketball coach you get is met with as positive a reception as possible.
1. If you fire your current coach, know exactly who you're going to hire before you do it.
If you're an athletic director worth your salary, you should be talking to your peers and other coaches constantly. You should have some sense of viable candidates at all times. Is this cynical? Absolutely. But in today's environment, coaching is basically at-will employment. If your current guy is successful, someone else is going to want him. And that $1 million buyout clause you put in his extension isn't going to scare off an SEC powerhouse. If he hasn't been successful, you should be looking in case you need to make a move. So there is no reason you shouldn't always be networking and talking to people.
So how do you know the coach you want will take the job when you fire your current guy and offer it to him? Because you should have been talking to his agent directly, or through intermediaries indirectly, long before you fire your current coach and get some non-binding assurances. And that's why you talk to guys like Chuck Neinas or Bill Carr as intermediaries to feel out guys you might potentially want to hire. People sometimes give these coaching headhunters a lot of grief and marvel at how much money they get for seemingly easy work, but they provide two invaluable services; information and cover. They can talk to the people that you want to talk to but can't. And the reason you can't is that if a coach discloses that he talked to you directly, you either just threw your current coach under the bus (if you haven't fired your current guy yet), or you made it seem like whomever you hire isn't your first choice (which devalues the job and the eventual hire in the eyes of other potential coaches as well as your fans and donors).
But doesn't this eliminate the idea of doing a "search?" Yes it does, because you shouldn't be doing a search in the first place. The idea of the "search" is one necessitated by human resources departments at universities. Remember, most Division I jobs are just government work with really good salaries. That's why you'll see jobs like this posted on the NCAA web site. Bret Bielema already knows who he's going to hire. But he does have to go through the motions to satisfy the bureaucracy of his university, even though you're never hiring someone that applies via your H.R. Web site for that job.
Headhunters are also smart enough not to put things in writing. Their reports are given verbally, and therefore not subject to public records requests, as an athletic director’s phone records or email would be. Any information gathered from a headhunter or third party can’t be tracked down by media.
2. Always be prepared if your coach leaves for somewhere else
Every potential new coach is walking that fine line between taking your job, another job, or staying where they are currently. That coach might be getting offers from multiple institutions, as well as potential raises from his current one. If the whole world knows you're interested in his services, it hurts in three ways. First, it looks like you whiffed if you don't get him, and the job you have available might be less appealing to someone else. Secondly, the guy you end up hiring will know he's not your first choice (and the media and your fans will find that out as well). Lastly, you might be unintentionally driving up the price you'll have to pay, because other parties might offer more money to get or keep their man over you, or you'll be forced to get a "name" guy, which could cost you more than you originally wanted to spend.
Use intermediaries to find out who is legitimately interested in your position. Only talk directly to someone you are very confident you can get them, and that they'll be a good fit for your team.
Therefore taking drastic steps to avoid giving out information about who you might be talking to isn't paranoia, it's necessary. Buy your air travel on your personal credit card and get reimbursed later since your university credit card is subject to public records requests. Have someone drive you to the airport and leave your car in the parking lot outside your office, that way the media will think you're somewhere on campus or at least in town. And if you take the university private plane, realize that anyone can track an FAA tail number here. And they will. Or you can do this, which I didn't even know was possible until 10 minutes ago.
3. Silence is golden
There is absolutely no reason to talk to anyone that you don't trust completely. Searches should be done under complete cover. Look at the results when they don't:
For better or for worse, the Hurricanes fan base would be a lot more excited about having Jon Gruden on their sideline instead of Al Golden. But when it becomes public that you talked to Gruden, and ended up with Golden, it's hard to get your donors and season ticket holders as excited about the Golden Era as you want them to be.
And remember, perception is reality. Gruden denies that he even considered the job. But the perception is that he was seriously considered as a candidate. And he admits he talked to AD Kirby Hocutt. That's all it takes. And that's why absolutely nothing can ever leak out, since you can't ever confirm or deny anything. If you confirm one piece of information that helps you, you commit yourself to confirming information that might hurt you in the future, even if it's with your silence.
4. Speed kills
Urban Meyer retired on December 8. Athletic Director Jeremy Foley announced the hiring of Will Muschamp on December 11. And that's why Jeremy Foley might be the best athletic director in the country. He was quick, decisive, and got his man (even though he was pledged to eventually get another one of the top five jobs in college football). You could argue that Foley already had a heads up that Meyer was retiring, and thus had even more time to plot the Gators' future. But even if that is so, he controlled the message and the process from start to finish.
There was tons of speculation about who UF might hire. But that's all it was: speculation. No one knew a thing until Foley wanted them to know. And if you think Foley didn't have Muschamp in mind long before December 8, let me introduce you to my real estate agent in the Everglades. He's got some bargains for you.
Plus fan bases and teams are like the stock market -- they hate uncertainty more than anything. Making a swift decision is important, but still not as important as making the right decision.
5. Don't bring anyone on campus for an interview.
Because if they end up not taking the job, you’re left holding the bag and looking like you can't get your man. If a potential coach wants to see your facilities or what the schools are like in your area, tell him to get on the internet and look himself. But bringing someone in without getting him makes it look like you can't close.
It also might just be a ploy for your potential candidate to drive up his price elsewhere. Could the coach you're indirectly talking to be playing you against others for his services? Of course. But that's also where a consultant can really help you. His network is probably as plugged in as yours should be, and should give you an idea of other people pursuing your target.
And don't think you can sneak someone on and off campus under cover of darkness. Someone will see you. It might be a janitor or a security guard or a secretary. But they WILL see you. And those are the types of people your local media are often friendly with for this exact situation.
6. Background check!
So now that you're ready to hire a football or basketball coach, the question becomes... why do so many schools get this so wrong?