The art of the coaching interview
Athletic directors have a lot of pressure but little time to choose the right coach
With the media on their heels, ADs have to be careful where to conduct interviews
Though millions are at stake, hires are made after one or two meetings
In 2002, I interviewed for a job covering high school sports in The Tampa Tribune's farthest flung bureau. The gig paid $35,000 a year.
I arrived at the Trib's office at 8:30 a.m. For the next nine hours, I was passed from editor to editor so I could explain my vision for the coverage of the five high schools on the west side of Pasco County. Three days later, the paper brought in another candidate and subjected him to an even lengthier interview.
Had we been competing for a $2 million-a-year job coaching college football, we probably could have gotten in and out before lunch.
At most Football Bowl Subdivision schools, the head football coach is the most visible employee at the university. If he coaches at a public school, he probably ranks among the five highest paid state employees. He might even make more than the governor. Yet in spite of the responsibility and compensation attached to these jobs, athletic directors usually have only a few hours to assess job candidates face-to-face. For example, former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian landed the Washington job (salary: $1.85 million in 2009) after a pair of two-hour sitdowns with Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward. In other words, a sports editor looking for the someone to fill the bottom rung of his staff had more than twice as much face time with his candidates as an athletic director looking to fill the most expensive, most scrutinized position on his staff.
"Maybe that's why newspapers are going bankrupt," Woodward joked when confronted with the disparity.
Woodward and his colleagues can do little more than laugh at the situation, because they have little choice. Thanks to agents, intense news coverage and pressure to have a coach in place before Christmas for recruiting purposes, athletic directors -- who could lose their jobs if they choose unwisely -- usually have only a few hours of face time to find their coach. Merrill Lynch can host three rounds of interviews to pick the perfect junior analyst, but Mississippi State can't do that when seeking a football coach. So ADs must create an interview that allows them to quickly assess whether a candidate will fit. For some, it's about the questions. Others try to find a venue that makes the candidate comfortable; that way, they get a true representation of his personality. In the process, they must duck nosy reporters, control leaks and quash rumors that could damage the search.
Last week, Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne spent eight hours with Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen before he decided Mullen was the right choice to replace Sylvester Croom. The men met at an Embassy Suites in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Coaching headhunter Chuck Neinas had briefed Byrne on Mullen's interest and background, and Byrne and a group of senior staffers had done their own research, but the impression Mullen would make on Byrne would weigh just as heavily as Mullen's very public resume.
"The thing I always look at is, how is this guy going to run his program from A to Z?" Byrne said. "Academics to zone defense."
Never again will a school be able to court a coach the way Florida State courted Bobby Bowden in 1976. While fans and boosters dreamed of landing a hot name like Arkansas coach Frank Broyles or Maryland's Jerry Claiborne, FSU athletic director John Bridgers targeted West Virginia's Bowden, a former Seminoles assistant. According to a 2000 story in The (Lakeland, Fla.) Ledger, Bridgers and FSU president Stanley Marshall flew to Tampa on Jan. 5, 1976 to meet Bowden, who was coaching in an all-star game. At the meeting, Bridgers suggested Bowden visit Tallahassee before passing on the job. Five days later, Bowden visited Florida's capital and toured FSU's campus. He left with a job offer that included a base salary of $37,500.