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An actual headhunter's thoughts on college coaching seaches

You'd think getting a new coach would be easy. Just dangle lots of money at another established coach, or even better, slightly less money at a mid-major coach or promising assistant. What could go wrong? A professional headhunter weighs in on how job searches can be more complicated than you think.

New UCLA coach, Steve Alford.
New UCLA coach, Steve Alford.
Josh Holmberg-USA TODAY Sports

I've had to scramble for a new career ever since UMKC unceremoniously canned me a few weeks ago, so I've taken up headhunting.

In all seriousness, I've been in corporate recruiting for the last 3 years. When I'm not writing here, I help corporations fill all kinds of positions, from heavy manufacturing, to sales, to IT, to various corporate management positions. Every day, I'm either talking to those corporate leaders, trying to learn more about their organizations, internet stalking people on LinkedIn and various job boards, or working the phones, trying to convince somebody to leave one job and move to another, often in a completely different state.

Many business leaders believe that the best way to grab that top talent is either to rely on their big name, or throw money at people. What .NET developer in Green Bay WOULDN'T leap at the chance to work at one of the larger firms in Milwaukee? For $6,000 a year more, wouldn't ANYBODY leap at the chance to be a sales account manager is scenic Skokie, Illinois?

Sometimes, this works. I've actually had Todd Graham call me twice, telling me that being a mechanical engineer was actually his dream job, and that he has family in St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. There are some individuals who are more than happy to drop whatever they're doing for the chance to make a few extra bucks, or to have a slightly fancier title on their LinkedIn profile.

For many others, most others even, that thought process is a lot more complicated, and it isn't just corporations that make that mistake. We see it every year during the college coaching search process.

When a coaching vacancy is announced, the fan (and maybe the administrator) thought process works something like this. If you're a larger name school, you figure that you can grab whatever "hot" mid-majorish coach by some combination of appeal to ego and money. If you're a small program, you move down to the assistants of all the other big successful teams, because who wouldn't leap at the chance to run their own team, even if it's at some godforsaken outpost like Buffalo or Directional Kansas?

It's true, eventually somebody takes those jobs. For some individuals, they're so desperate to take a head coaching job (or a grab at a title) that they'll put up with horrible facilities, lack of local talent, apathetic fans, or brutal schedules. Some coaches really do have the Todd Graham mercenary-like attitude, and will jump ship to whoever throws the most dollar bills at them. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. This IS America, after all.

But a lot of the time, fans tend to have an overly optimistic view of their own situation, and what their program has to offer. It bares repeating that college coaching is an exceptionally risky profession that doesn't provide much in the way of stability. You can game plan perfectly, recruit masterfully (and ethically), promote your program exceptionally...and you're only a few ill-timed injuries or one 19 year old showing bad judgement from getting your own butt kicked to the curb. If a coach is lucky enough to have shown sustained success and established some modicum of stability in their current position, they'll need to weigh that very heavily against jumping to a new gig where they have a higher risk of failure.

While the coaching industry probably has a higher percentage of blind-ambition striver types than some other industries, there are still always other factors to consider. Does the coach have a history in that geography, or would he be leaving a place where he is already well established? Take the case of Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg. According to at least one report, Hoiberg's performance with the Cyclones has earned him consideration for "higher level" gigs, including possibly the NBA. However, Hoiberg grew up in Ames, played college ball at Iowa State, and has set up a charity in the community. He's so beloved that they call him "The Mayor". Is it worth giving all of that up for a marginal promotion? Maybe, but that certainly isn't a clear cut choice.

Any HR consultant worth their money will tell you that "culture" is the most important factor in determining if a new employee will work out. If a coach is bookish, shy, Xs and Os type that shuns the spotlight, perhaps a coaching job under the bright lights of UCLA or Kentucky isn't a great fit. If a coach is a known control freak, partnering him with a known overly domineering Athletic Director could be a recipe for disaster. Finding a guy that will like his coworkers, connect with that geographical market, mesh with the mission of the university...all that stuff is hard, and a lot of it happens outside of public view.

Plus, people have families, and that can mean changing priorities. One of my first jobs after I graduated from Ohio State was to work as a political consultant for a US congressional campaign. I slept at stranger's houses for 4 months, driving around rural Indiana, and working 90 hour weeks. It was great fun as a 23 year old, and something that I would be completely unable to do now that I'm married. I hear variations on this every single day from talking to candidates as well. For lots of coaches, even if interest is mutual, the timing may not be right for everybody involved. Taking a new gig, of course, is a big decision.

Hiring coaches is one of the most important things that ADs do, and failing to absolutely nail it can cripple a program quicker than anything outside of "debilitating sanctions". It isn't so easy as just calling every hot name on the board (put your hands down Minnesota fans. You are not getting Shaka Smart to coach your basketball team. Stop it), and should trickle some very honest discussions and introspection about what it actually is about your program that makes you attractive, and what YOU could change to make it more enticing. Maybe that's upgrading your facilities (I'm looking at you Northwestern, and your high school gym), or giving a new coach more leeway and flexibility.

Everybody, from USC and Minnesota to machine shops and advertising firms, could do with a little patience and real talk when they try to find the right talent for them. If everybody did at once though, I'd probably be out of a gig myself....and something tells me I ought to give UMKC a little time before I reapply for my old job.