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BIG-NAME HUNTERS
George Dohrmann
April 08, 2013
THE COLLEGE ATHLETICS UNIVERSE HAS A NEW GROUP OF POWER BROKERS: THE SEARCH FIRMS THAT HELP SCHOOLS FILL THEIR COACHING VACANCIES, COMMANDING TOP DOLLAR FOR WORK THAT DOESN'T ALWAYS PAY OFF
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April 08, 2013

Big-name Hunters

THE COLLEGE ATHLETICS UNIVERSE HAS A NEW GROUP OF POWER BROKERS: THE SEARCH FIRMS THAT HELP SCHOOLS FILL THEIR COACHING VACANCIES, COMMANDING TOP DOLLAR FOR WORK THAT DOESN'T ALWAYS PAY OFF

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Almost every headhunter and athletic director who spoke to SI said that the final call on whom to hire is always made by the university. But does that mean the search consultant bears no responsibility when a placement doesn't pan out?

In discussions with agents and headhunters, the two failures most often mentioned were Billy Gillispie as Kentucky's basketball coach in 2007 and Mike Haywood as Pittsburgh's football coach in '10. Parker was the consultant for both schools. Wilder declined to address any specific searches, saying, "The reality of the situation is we recruit and advise but we don't vote. We have never hired a coach."

Several headhunters said the Gillispie debacle—he was fired after two seasons—was an example of a firm's not really knowing a candidate. Gillispie's drinking problem was common knowledge when he was hired, they say, as was his abrasive personality, which made him a poor match for the demanding Wildcats fans. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart declined to comment for this story, but he did not use a headhunter when he hired John Calipari to replace Gillispie in 2009, nor did he get assistance when he hired Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops as football coach last November.

Pittsburgh hired Haywood on Dec. 16, 2010, and on Dec. 31 he was arrested and charged with domestic violence. (The charges were ultimately dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program.) He was fired a day later, and university officials questioned Parker consultants to see if anything in Haywood's background had been missed. The school concluded that the firm was not at fault.

For every miss, Parker can point to many successes. Recent football hires such as Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and James Franklin (Vanderbilt) have worked out, as have basketball placements Jim Larranaga (Miami) and Mark Gottfried (N.C. State). Parker is also not the only headhunter with flops on its résumé. Turner consulted on the 2010 Colorado football search that led to the hiring of Jon Embree, who lasted only two seasons in Boulder.

Still, that didn't stop Colorado from using Turner to find Embree's replacement. Parker has also frequently worked with schools after an earlier hire failed. In 2007, Dan Parker, president of the company, was paid an $80,000 fee (plus expenses) to assist on the searches that ended with Minnesota's hiring Tubby Smith for basketball and Tim Brewster for football. Smith was well-established, but Brewster had never even been a college coordinator. He went 15--30 before being fired in the middle of his fourth season. "Tim was not a good hire, but the search firm wasn't the problem," says Joel Maturi, the Golden Gophers' former athletic director. "[Tim] wasn't one of Parker's guys. It was my choice."

To replace Brewster, Maturi once again turned to Parker, paying the firm a $90,000 fee. The search ended with Northern Illinois's Jerry Kill, who has gone 9--16 in two seasons while battling health problems, but Parker remains in good standing at Minnesota. In early 2012, after Maturi announced he was stepping down, the school once again turned to the firm. Norwood Teague of VCU got the AD job, and Parker earned fees plus expenses totaling $125,800—meaning that since 2007 the university has paid Parker more than $295,000.

Last week the Gophers fired Smith, which would suggest another payday for Parker. But when Teague was at VCU, he hired Shaka Smart, who is now one of the top young basketball coaches in the country, without outside assistance. Teague then had on his staff Mike Ellis, who is now Minnesota's senior associate AD for administration—and the man who may know more about how college coaches get hired than anyone in the industry.

In 2004, Ellis originated the Villa 7, an invitation-only two-day conference staged each May that connects the brightest assistant coaches in men's and women's basketball with athletic directors. Since the first Villa 7 was held in Las Vegas, about 90 assistants have gotten head-coaching jobs in part because of a connection they made at the retreat, including Smart, Ed Cooley (Providence) and Dave Rice (UNLV).

In the first seven years of the event, Ellis didn't welcome representatives from search firms. "I just didn't think they would be helpful," he says. But this May, when the Villa 7—which will welcome 100 assistant coaches and be sponsored by Nike—gets under way in Minneapolis, search consultants will be part of the program, huddling with coaches and ADs at mixers and participating in formal presentations. "I've become a convert," Ellis says. "The biggest reason is that [athletic directors] trust them, and so they have an enormous impact on who does and does not get a job."

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