Finally, using consultants provides cover for the AD if a hire doesn't work out. The university president can be shown proof that the decision wasn't made in a vacuum by providing the due diligence done by a search firm—sometimes the very same firm that had assisted in hiring the president.
Bill Carr consulted on his first search in 1989, as an employee at Raycom Management Group. He left Raycom in 1993 to become athletic director at Houston, but he returned to consulting four years later and founded Carr Sports Associates (now CarrSports Consulting). Few people have been in the business as long as Carr, who is troubled by trends in the industry. "Some search firms operate as they should, as facilitators, helping clients make a decision," Carr says. "There are others that operate as gatekeepers. They want to be decision-makers and influence who is going to be interviewed and who is going to be selected. Their actions are destructive to the industry."
Carr and others say that too many consultants push favored candidates rather than cast a wide net. Turner calls it one of the "pitfalls" of the industry "because not every person is a good fit for every job."
Before Jack Swarbrick became Notre Dame's athletic director in 2008, he was a candidate to be NCAA president ('02) and the athletic director at Indiana ('04), Arizona State ('05) and Ohio State ('05). He was also considered for the role of Big 12 commissioner ('07). Parker Executive Search assisted in each of those placements, and also in the Notre Dame search that ended with Swarbrick's being hired by his alma mater.
Swarbrick was a successful lawyer in Indianapolis; no one questioned his eligibility for those positions. But would he have been considered for all of them if not for Parker's seemingly inexorable faith in his abilities? "We don't have a stable of candidates, but sometimes we see a very good candidate who doesn't get a job, and it doesn't mean they weren't a good candidate," says Laurie Wilder, the executive vice president and managing director at Parker. "If another opportunity comes up, and there is similar overlap in what they are looking for, we may look at a candidate again. Every search starts with finding quality candidates, but we don't represent people."
Another criticism Carr and others make is that search consultants are inclined to place athletic directors who they think are likely to later hire them for coaching searches. Parker has participated in at least 40 athletic-director searches. There is no denying that the company has gotten repeat business from ADs it placed. For instance, in June 2011, Illinois paid Parker $30,000 to assist in the search for an athletic director, a job that went to Mike Thomas, who was previously at Cincinnati. About nine months later, Thomas retained Parker to help him find a men's basketball coach—Ohio's John Groce—for which the firm was paid $90,000. A similar sequence of events took place among Parker-placed athletic directors at Arizona State, Iowa, Iowa State, Mississippi State, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Washington and elsewhere. But beyond the timing of the transactions, there is no proof of collusion.
"Repeat clients are standard in the search business," Wilder says. "If you build a relationship and if you do quality work, people ask you to do quality work again. Just speaking about Parker, there has never been an environment where we say we will put you in as a candidate if you do this."
Carr didn't mention Parker in his critique of the industry, but he insists that handshake deals are common. "The process of hiring coaches and athletic directors should be more of a meritocracy than it is today," Carr says.
There is also a lack of minorities and women in the search-consulting industry, which does little to help the image of college athletics as an old-boy network. "People hire people like them," says Linda Bruno, the former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference, who now operates a search firm. "I could see where the firms' role would be frustrating for [women and minorities]."
The flip side of the much-valued discretion that headhunters provide is that they also are subject to less scrutiny. Says one agent with more than two dozen basketball coaches as clients, "I just wish there was more transparency with how they come up with candidates."