Pitt basketball coaching analysis: So what exactly is a search firm?
March 23, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes faces some unique challenges with the hire to replace Jamie Dixon. Barnes has been on the job for less than a year and is still getting to know the area and the ACC after spending his first 18 years in college athletics in the West.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There was a time when athletic directors had a Rolodex full of coaches at their fingertips and they would use it when they had to make a new hire. They would make phone calls to up-and-coming coaches, check references and work out contract details. It was all part of the job.
College athletics today is a multimillion dollar business and universities are turning to search firms now more than ever to help facilitate the process of finding a new coach.
Pitt has hired a search firm to find a replacement for men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon, who was hired away Monday by TCU. Pitt used search firm DHR International one year ago when it hired athletic director Scott Barnes. It is not immediately known which firm Pitt hired this time.
When hiring coaches who will earn million dollar salaries, school presidents, chancellors and athletic directors rely on search firms to conduct background checks, coordinate interviews in a secretive manner and sometimes negotiate salaries.
Jed Hughes, vice chairman of Korn Ferry International’s global sports practice, said secrecy is of the utmost importance to universities and coaches. Hughes placed former VCU coach Shaka Smart at Texas last year and said no one found about the meeting between Smart and former Texas athletic director Steve Patterson until after a deal had been finalized.
“That was surgically done,” Hughes said. “No one had any idea what was happening. No one knew anything. Patterson and Smart met at the airport. The rest was history. The secrecy, the way you treat people, the confidential nature of it, doing it so the names don’t get discussed in the press. … Getting that executed is why they hire us.”
Barnes faces some unique challenges with this hire. He has been on the job for less than a year and is still getting to know the area and the ACC after spending his first 18 years in college athletics in the West.
In addition, this is his first hire as an athletic director at a school with a major conference affiliation. His only previous experience as an athletic director came at Utah State, a mid-major that operates in the Mountain West Conference. He is under a lot of pressure to make a good hire.
“The key piece is getting everyone on board,” said Hughes, who is not involved in Pitt’s search for a new basketball coach. “You have to be focused on what’s best for the university. As a search firm, we’re going to figure out what they want in a person and understand that skill set.
“Is that coach going to be able to coach at a Power Five School? Some of the guys who make the transition aren’t able to do that because they can’t upgrade their thinking, or utilize their resources or deal with AAU coaches. Those relationships [with AAU coaches] become really important. If you don’t have relationship with the power brokers you’re not going to win. Whoever Pitt hires they better know the I-95 corridor because that’s where they’re going to get their players.”
Korn Ferry has a fixed rate of $200,000 to conduct a coaching search, Hughes said. He said schools are willing to pay that fee because of Korn Ferry’s track record in placing coaches. Hughes also placed basketball coaches Andy Enfield at USC and Dana Altman at Oregon in recent years.
Other firms have charged schools more. Colorado State paid the search firm Spencer Stuart $320,000 in 2011 when it hired a new football coach, according to USA Today. Other firms don’t have a fixed rate and charge between $50,000 and $100,000 to conduct a search.
“Firms provide cover for an athletic director in the sense that they can reach out to coaches to gauge their interest without the athletic director saying he’s ever contacted the coach from the other school,” said Fran Fraschilla, a former college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico who now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN. “It’s like a wall of silence. It protects the athletic director. It kind of gives them something to hide behind.”
Fraschilla said the search firms can be useful when it comes to conducting background checks on coaches because athletic directors and school administrators are not well-versed in detective work.
However, the dark side of college athletics can surface in these dealings between school administrators and some search firms, he said. A buddy system can develop where firms place school administrators with the expectation that the administrator will use the firm for its next coaching search.
“There is a sense that some athletic directors will use them because there is a quid pro quo,” Fraschilla said. “That’s definitely part of the equation. You help me, I’ll pay your firm a fee to help me get a coach and then you keep an eye out for me for my next athletic director job.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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