It's the most wonderful time of the year. Coaching jobs are popping up, and like clockwork, that means schools are employing expensive third-party search firms to help them find the right coaches.
These search firms are often criticized for being a waste of money. This is because they are, in fact, a waste of money. Take it from me. I used to be a headhunter myself.
Search firms specialize in different industries, but generally provide relatively similar services. Here is what Parker Executive Search, a prominent athletic search firm, offers its clients, from a 2013 ESPN article:
- Handling all calls inquiring about the coaching vacancy
- Reviewing its database with search committee members and providing all members with a private log-in to access the database remotely
- Contacting coaches or agents to request interviews
- Arranging for travel and accommodations for candidates who will be interviewed
- Conducting public records searches -- credit, criminal and motor vehicle reports -- of all candidates
- Confirming academic degrees
- Receiving a signed statement from candidates confirming information and affirming that nothing else need be disclosed
- Negotiating a contract on behalf of the university
- Receiving signed terms of an agreement from the coaching candidate and all parties before the introductory news conference
There is nothing there that can't be handled by an athletic department itself, for a lot less money.
Search firms aren't cheap, after all. Colorado State paid $250,000 before hiring Jim McElwain. Texas paid $267,000 before bringing in Charlie Strong. They're also not foolproof or necessarily thorough, as Rutgers learned.
Market research is an important service that search firms can provide, but the labor pool for a high-profile college football coach is limited by design. That database may have thousands of names in it, but everybody knows there aren't thousands of people qualified to coach at a place like Michigan, Florida, or Nebraska.
Take Michigan, which is using a firm to help find Brady Hoke's replacement, for example. We created a list of possible candidates here at SB Nation, and virtually every other outlet did the same. The basics of most coach contracts are already available, and some well-placed FOIA requests and trips to a LexisNexis database should provide a committee what it needs to know before an interview stage.
There is a convenience factor to having somebody else handle this research, but it isn't a cost-effective one. You're not replacing a big-time college coach out of the blue, so that should've already given the athletic department plenty of time to conduct that research on its own.
One of the reasons you'll hear a school defend using a search firm is confidentiality. Discretion can be important in reaching out to candidates who are already employed, and using a third party can provide plausible deniability. Plus, it can help schools avoid those pesky FOIA requests from nosy reporters. This is a reason why competitive industries like finance and tech often use search firms.
But colleges already have built-in networks of third parties. They have boosters. In the event that a coaching search required in-person contact before a more formal interview, an enterprising AD should not lack for competent third parties willing to represent the school. Apple doesn't have a booster club it can use to grab a new executive, but Alabama does.
It's also worth noting that keeping this entire process in-house can help an AD keep greater control and limit leaks. You never know if somebody from that third party is leaking something to a friendly reporter over a few drinks. You can at least control your own people.
Ultimately, hiring a coach is one of the most important jobs an athletic director has. If a school can't trust the AD's judgement in organizing a search, what is it paying the AD for?
It's not like bringing in outside help is a requirement in bringing in a big name coach. Ohio State didn't need one to hire Urban Meyer. Bill Moos didn't need one at Washington State to bring in Mike Leach, WSU's biggest hire in years. And when Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez was asked if he was going to use any third party help in finding a replacement for Bret Bielema, he quipped, "I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me." His hire, former Utah State head coach Gary Andersen, has led the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship Game berth.
Sounds like the words of a confident executive who has proactively built the relationships and done the research he needs to handle the job. Others would do well to follow that example. There are lots of industries where hiring a search firm makes a lot of sense. This isn't one of them.