Around the time Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips fired men's basketball coach Bill Carmody last month, he called six other ADs for their advice on the best way to conduct the first major coaching search in his five years at the school—one that, in all likelihood, would define his tenure. "They were really close colleagues that had gone through [a coaching search] in the last 18 months," says Phillips. All six told him to hire a headhunter. Says Phillips, "They reaffirmed my feeling that having a partner to provide outside counsel can eliminate bias, maximize the efficiency and confidentiality of the process, and ultimately help guide us to the most informed decision possible."
On March 27, 11 days after Carmody's dismissal, Northwestern hired Duke assistant Chris Collins, the culmination of a remarkably swift search. Collins was, in many ways, an obvious choice. A top assistant at a perennial power, he was raised in nearby Northbrook, Ill., and Duke and Northwestern have similar academic standards. He may have been Phillips's No. 1 option all along. Still, like the six peers he consulted, Phillips felt he got his money's worth. The firm he used was the industry's most well-known, Parker Executive Search, which made the initial contact with Collins and set up an interview at their Atlanta offices.
"These are multimillion-dollar decisions for a university, and that can have a monumental impact," Phillips says. "As a leader, oftentimes you need to admit that you can benefit from assistance."
Even at a time when budget cuts in higher education are common, more and more athletic department dollars are following the route of private industries and hiring headhunters. Search consultants now operate as the conduits to some of the best coaching and athletic director jobs in the country. Fees generally range from $30,000 to $90,000 for a Division I athletic director, men's basketball coach or football search, though higher tabs have been reported. Since 2005, Tennessee has paid more than $360,000 to search agencies to fill six positions. North Carolina State has spent $255,000 for approximately 67 days of work over the past three years, including $90,000 for a football search that lasted a week. In late 2011, Colorado State reportedly paid the firm Spencer Stuart $250,000 to find a football coach (former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain), a transaction that one rival headhunter called "thievery."
In a sign of how lucrative the business has become, last year Korn/Ferry International, a leading headhunter in private industries, opened a sports arm, hiring former Michigan and UCLA football assistant Jed Hughes away from rival Spencer Stuart. DHR International, another executive search giant, houses a sports division that includes former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter.
In the past year, consultants spearheaded the football searches at Cal, Boston College, Colorado and N.C. State, while helping to place new basketball coaches at Colorado State, Illinois and Mississippi State. USC, like Northwestern, has hired a search firm to help fill its hoops vacancy. Headhunters are also finding regular work at the Division II and Division III levels, and there is even a Texas firm that consults on high school athletic searches.
As search firms have gained influence over the last decade, they have also drawn more criticism—for hires that flame out quickly, for pushing their preferred candidates as opposed to conducting more open searches and for the appearance of a conflict of interest among athletic directors who later retain the firm that helped place them in the job. But none of that has slowed business. The major agencies, of which there are more than a dozen, employ or have employed a who's who of former administrators and coaches, including onetime athletic directors Bill Carr (Houston), Rick Greenspan (Rice), Lew Perkins (Kansas) and Todd Turner (four schools, most recently Washington), and ex--football coaches, including Lloyd Carr (Michigan).
This weekend at the Final Four, one of the hottest parties will be hosted by Parker Executive Search; the firm's bash last year had 250 guests. And prospective coaches will also vie for face time with headhunters such as former coaches Eddie Fogler (South Carolina) and Dave Odom (Wake Forest), onetime colleagues turned kingmakers. "It seems like everyone who leaves coaching or being an athletic director is doing searches now," says Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight commissioner and a headhunter since 1997. "I'll let someone else say if that is good or bad."
Why would administrators cede so much authority—and money—to outside consultants? First, headhunters can initiate a search earlier, even before a position is officially open, and they can find out on the hush-hush if a coach or athletic director who already has a job is interested in moving. The ability to operate more clandestinely limits leaks and lessens the chance that a search gets messy, with candidates publicly turning down a job and schools appearing as if they failed to land their top candidate.
As well as running background and résumé checks on candidates, firms also claim they can provide inside information—such as whether a coach is under NCAA scrutiny or having marital troubles—that would be unavailable to most athletic directors. "There can be so much out there now, rumors on the Internet, and it can be hard to know what is true or false," says Turner, the founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates. "You almost need a degree in espionage to weed through it all."