Tuesday Takedown: College Search Firm Business Booming

The University of South Florida thought it had its new men's basketball in Steve Masiello, but an inconsistency uncovered during a background check determined the Manhattan College coach had lied on his resume about graduating from the University of Kentucky. He had already signed a five-year deal with USF when the contract was voided after the discrepancy was discovered. (In an interesting twist, Manhattan opted to keep Masiello but only if he completed his undergraduate degree.)

The Masiello fiasco at South Florida briefly threw the spotlight on the practice of resume manipulation or embellishment, something most commonly associated with University of Central Florida head football coach George O'Leary. In 2001, he resigned as the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame after five days after admitting to falsifying parts of his athletic and academic background on his resume. But in South Florida's case, the focus quickly shifted from resume impropriety to the common practice of using third-party search firms to help fill administrative and coaching vacancies — and the alarming amounts of money being given to these search firms.

Third-party hiring firms have been growing in popularity in recent years with experts estimating that as many as half of the athletic administration vacancies in Division I are filled with the help of third-party consultants. Of note, back in 2007, then University of Washington president Mark Emmert hired a consultant to replace his athletic director that had quit. The search cost the university $75,000, but the consultant, Dan Parker, ultimately found the right person for the job: Washington's interim AD, and a longtime friend of Parker's. Parker and Emmert would go on to work together in the NCAA as Parker helped fill at least a dozen executive level positions once Hemmert took over as the president of the NCAA. In an interesting twist, Parker also played a role in the Rutgers scandal, handling the hiring of new athletic director Julie Hermann. Already reeling from a player-abuse scandal involving the men's basketball coach, Parker failed to uncover incidents of player verbal abuse while Hermann was at the University of Tennessee.

But the business of third-party search firms is getting even bigger in terms of the expenses involved with this process, especially when it comes to filling high-profile coaching voids. South Florida gave $60,000 to executive search firm Eastman & Beaudine to find its new basketball coach, and on paper, Masiello certainly looked like a great hire. The 36-year-old coach had nearly lead Manhattan to a first-round upset of Louisville in the NCAA tournament less than one month earlier. But that money is mere pennies compared to what the Texas Longhorns paid to find their new football coach. To fill the football coaching void left by the retirement of Mack Brown, the University of Texas paid executive search firm Korn/Berry International $266,990 to handle the research and screening process. Oddly enough, Colorado State of all colleges outspent the Longhorns. In 2011, Colorado State paid search firm Spencer Stuart $320,000 to hire its new football coach, Jim McElwain, in 2011. But most universities, including South Florida and Colorado State, don't have the financial muscle that the Texas athletics department does with athletic operating expenses approaching $147 million.

Discretion during the vetting process is a key reason college athletic directors utilize the services of a search firm, and the extensive background and security checks conducted by these firms dig up information others potentially could not. Ultimately, it was that in-depth background check that doomed Masiello at South Florida. Opponents of this practice, though, wonder why these ADs don't utilize internal resources to do the same job for significantly less? After all, the candidates they are identifying aren't exactly under-the-radar options. In the case of Texas, Charlie Strong was one of the hottest coaching names out there. Masiello was another popular name in men's basketball, as well. Opponents also argue that hiring the coaching staff is one of the AD's core job responsibilities, and it's a big reason why many ADs are compensated so well.

But the reality is that, looking from the outside in, no one understands the full responsibility of the collegiate athletic director better than the athletic director and university president. There are significant challenges and responsibilities that come with this high-profile position. Investing in third-party search firms and empowering these organizations to act as middle man, while costly, saves a significant amount of time and headaches while flying under the media radar, which in turn protects both the AD and the university against any potential backlash should there be any misstep throughout the process.



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