Colleges Seek Third-Party Help in AD Searches
HUSKER KNOW-HOW By the time Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman announced the search for Tom Osborne's successor, it was already well under way.(Photo Courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star)
It has been dubbed the "Wonder Blunder." A botched concert promotion, in which the budget-weary University of Hawaii paid a $200,000 deposit for an on-campus Stevie Wonder concert that never happened, led to the August dismissal of athletic director Jim Donovan, who was first contacted about the potential event back in March. But the "blunder" was only the beginning of the Rainbows' woes.
The 15-member committee assembled in August to find a replacement for Donovan, who was initially placed on paid leave before being given a new title at UH, included three coaches who signed a petition recommending that acting AD Rockne Freitas be named as Donovan's successor before the official search even began. Amid calls for their removal, the coaches remain on the committee (a mix of campus and local business leaders), but they have been stripped of their final selection votes.
During a six-hour state Senate hearing on the concert debacle Sept. 24, UH president M.R.C. Greenwood said that presidents of public universities with top-tier football programs must walk a "very difficult and treacherous pathway" when faced with personnel decisions, adding that she received "advice" and "pressure" from state elected officials to reinstate Donovan as athletic director. Said Greenwood, "I don't get that when we're trying to select a new Dean of Natural Sciences."
It wasn't until late October that UH announced it had contracted with Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search to assist in identifying the university's next AD. The four-phase process, for which PES was to be paid in four $15,000 increments, established the first week of December as a target for final selection.
Hawaii is not alone in seeking such help. Experts estimate that as many as half of all athletics administration vacancies in Division I these days are filled with the assistance of a third-party consultant. That percentage has more than doubled over the past five years, according to PES president Dan Parker, who adds that while the percentages are lower in Divisions II and III, they are on the rise, as well. "Athletic departments have seen tremendous growth over the years, and the required skill set has expanded and grown," says Parker, who conducted his first AD search in 2004, 20 years after the firm was founded. "Many directors of athletics now have advanced degrees and come from business or revenue-generating backgrounds."
The desired skill sets have changed from the days when retired coaches assumed administrative positions as a matter of course. But as searches have become more focused, even as they have become more complex, peripheral stakeholders still try to influence the outcome. "We have our database and contacts that we go to," says Greg Santore, a vice president at Witt/Kieffer in Oak Brook, Ill., and leader of the executive search firm's Sports Leadership Practice. "Concurrent with that, the board of directors, the alumni, the boosters, the fans — anybody else who thinks they should have a say in who gets hired — starts sending resumes to the university. It can get clouded, especially for the executives there who have to deal with those people every day asking, 'How come you're not hiring my guy?' So we manage the process from the beginning, regardless of where the candidate comes from."
It's a process that may involve initial contact to vet the interest of a dozen or more candidates, narrowing the field of finalists during weeks or months of often-covert meetings and interviews. Unlike their client universities, search firms possess the ability "to move quickly and quietly in a compressed, pressure-filled time frame to enable the client to make an informed decision regarding leadership," says Bill Carr, of Gainesville, Fla.-based Carr Sports Associates Inc. "Confidentiality is always essential to protect both parties. A well-managed search produces two winners — the client and the successful candidate. If there is a breach in confidentiality, the client usually looks bad and exposed candidates do, too."
On Aug. 17, Lenn Robbins of the New York Post wrote, "Fordham has narrowed its search for a new athletic director to a field of Elite Eight candidates. One problem: On first glance, it's not very elite." It was an article that made Santore cringe. "Collegiate athletics is a small community," he says. "Everybody knows each other and — for a lot of people — to move up, they have to move out. So as people start bringing names up or going in for interviews, chances are somebody at another university is going to know them. It scares off a lot of the candidates who may not want it plastered all over the newspaper that they're thinking of making a change."
"Many times, the best candidates are not actively pursuing a new position, and PES will recruit them into the process," says Parker. "These candidates will not enter a search process without the process being confidential."
On Sept. 26, the Lincoln Journal Star reported that University of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman had begun his search for a new athletic director to replace legendary former Huskers football coach (and U.S. Congressman) Tom Osborne before the public even knew the task was at hand. "He's using a search consultant, Jed Hughes of Korn/Ferry International," wrote Brian Rosenthal, "but that's as much information as Perlman said he'll divulge about the search until an announcement on Osborne's successor is made." Says Santore, "That's the best way to do it, if you can — acknowledge that there's a search, acknowledge that you're getting help, and then you make the announcement."
Hawaii's four-phase process, compressed into little more than a month's time, assessed needs, recruited candidates, vetted finalists and, if still on schedule as of this writing, will soon introduce the school's next athletic director. But Parker's influence only goes so far. "We do not have a vote in the selection," he says.
The university declined AB's interview request, but Diane Chang, director of communications in the UH chancellor's office, emphasized via an email Oct. 30, mere days after the services of PES had been retained, that the Athletic Director Search Advisory Committee "remains the lead entity in the search" and that "the final selection of the AD will be made by the chancellor."
Carr, a former collegiate athletic director, likewise considers his consultant role to be that of "a facilitator, not a decision-maker." "In my opinion, search firms act unethically if they consider themselves to be gatekeepers by determining who is considered, who advances and who is selected as the successful candidate. That philosophy preempts the prerogatives of the university, which ultimately must live with the final choice," he says. "Further, if a search firm attempts to push a certain candidate or a select group of candidates repeatedly, it lends itself to a quid pro quo exchange of favors — 'I'll push you here as an AD candidate, and you hire me later to do your coaching searches.' That happens far too often, in my opinion, and it is destructive to the industry."
And it's an industry more in demand than ever. "Everybody wants somebody hired yesterday," says Santore, pointing out that there was more search activity in the athletic director ranks this fall than is typical for that time of the academic year. "It puts a lot more pressure on those schools to want to get their AD in quicker. Our hope moving forward is that searches bring to the table a better slate of candidates, a fair and unbiased approach to the candidate pool and a way for the university to be able to stand behind the process."
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