How a College Football Program Conducts a Coaching Search

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How a College Football Program Conducts a Coaching Search
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The Silly Season does not understand reasoning.

It’s why Nick Saban staying at his current school is an enormous development. It’s why Chris Petersen—a Boise State lifer, or so it seemed—turned down looks at prestigious programs for years to settle at a nice secluded program on the West Coast. It’s why the hiring of Steve Sarkisian at USC was dissected like a class project. And it’s why Texas has embraced the silliness in full.

Hiring a head coach is no longer about acquiring a master sideline navigator or someone who can provide you with a hopeful bump in recruiting. It’s a process that is detailed and evolving, confusing and mysterious, exhausting and frustrating. It is also critical to a football program and the overall financial health of a school.

This is not just about appointing a new face for the program. This is about (hopefully) hiring a ceiling-less revenue stream.

“It is truly the CEO of an organization,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “This is part of the business, and you have to figure out how to manage it.”

Words like “CEO” and “business” ring true at a time where the sport is thriving. This is about embracing a school's brand and ensuring that it continues to thrive. Or, it is about jump-starting it altogether.

The only thing that isn’t robust in the booming world of college coaches is the time a staff is allowed to be average or below. This intense yearly cycle of hiring, firing and changing addresses is now an assumed chaos, one that turns over on time. It always arrives.

As soon as the regular season ends, the Silly Season begins. Sometimes a different course of action is taken—like Pat Haden’s midseason, middle-of-the-night firing of Lane Kiffin. But the anxious silence before the bowl season typically serves a unique purpose. While there might be brief football silence, there is plenty of action behind the curtain. Especially this year.

 

The Booming Business of College Football Coaching

Pete Roussel now makes a living off the bizarre and unpredictable coaching carousel.

He is both an asset and a resource, spending the better part of November and December choosing when to pick up his phone that rings 60 or so times a day at this time each year.

“Unless they’re giving me information, I can’t answer,” Roussel said. “I’ve got to go to work.”

The CEO of Coaching Search Consulting Inc. and the owner of the website CoachingSearch.com, Roussel worked with Stanford, Ole Miss, Memphis and other programs before embarking on a new career.

(via Coaching Search)
CoachingSearch.com founder Pete Roussel

He is a resource to coaches and athletic departments looking to garner buzz or land interviews. He is also a microphone to the public that is always looking for the latest bit of interview information or rumor with backing. The Coaching Search Ticker—the most prominent feature on his site and one of the great resources out there—is a product of just how silly the season has become.

This is all made possible for Roussel because business is booming. Coaches need jobs, departments need names and the public needs information. The interest has exploded, and the money involved is everywhere, a theme felt throughout the sport.

This begins, of course, with the salaries for head coaches—and their assistants—which are now outpacing most successful corporate rock stars. USA Today documented this phenomenon late last year:

Coaches' pay has even outpaced the pay of corporate executives, who have drawn the ire of Congress and the public because of their staggering compensation packages. Between 2007 and 2011, CEO pay — including salary, stock, options, bonuses and other pay — rose 23%, according to Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. In that same period, coaches' pay increased 44%.

In 2006, nine head coaches made more than $2 million annually. In 2013, 50 coaches were at or above this salary, a robust movement that is a product of a handful of trends.

Information via USA Today

And it’s not just the top dogs either. Fifty-four assistant coaches made $500,000 or more in 2013, and 23 made $600,000 or more. These numbers have more than doubled since 2010. And yes, three assistants now make more than $1 million annually. 

The money is there for the taking; it’s just a matter of who’s taking it. More importantly, it’s a matter of why.

The turnover for head coaches reached new heights in 2012, a trend that is a product of the booming market and the pressure to win immediately.

Sports Reference/College Football

Coaches are leaving for better opportunities; others are being told to leave early with the pressure to win being more pressing than ever. Both situations are a product of the current landscape.

In the BCS era, the annual turnover rate for coaches is at 17 percent. That's a lot of new faces, pink slips, team-centric ties and, of course, raises.

 

You’re Not Just Hiring a Football Coach

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Speaking to an entire nation on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Alabama chancellor Dr. Robert Witt summed up head football coach Nick Saban’s value to the university in one simple statement.

"Nick Saban is the best financial investment this university has ever made,” Witt said. “We have made an investment that's been returned many fold."

Since 2009, Alabama’s revenue has gone up 43 percent. Since 2006, it is up 112 percent, according to Jon Solomon of AL.com.

This increase is a product of a dominant football program in the midst of one of the most successful runs in the history of the sport. It has brought notoriety to the program, allowed it to build new state-of-the-art locker rooms and weight rooms and has made several people associated with the school a lot of money. This includes Saban, who just signed yet another contract that will pay him more than $7 million a season.

Given what he provides, it’s still a bargain. Other schools have searched endlessly for this lightning-in-a-bottle scenario, while few have actually been able to realize it while operating under different financial means. It's not easy, and it's also why the carousel is operating at such a feverish pace each year.

A team that understands the value football can provide is Oregon, and the Ducks have done a brilliant job of snowballing success into creative marketing into further success. They are examples for everyone else.

Image via Oregonlive.com
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens

Overseeing it all is athletic director Rob Mullens, a man with a strong athletic background at his various stops before Eugene. Before taking over the neon machine, Mullens was the Deputy Director of Athletics at Kentucky, overseeing the athletic department's 22 sports. Prior to that, he had stops at Maryland and Miami, where his focus was the business aspect of operations.

Now the head of one of the brightest athletic departments in the country—and this works in many ways—Mullens had the difficult task of replacing one of the most successful college coaches in recent memory.

With the departure of Chip Kelly to the NFL, Mullens assessed potential candidates with a broader sense of desired qualities.

“The position requires so much more than X's and O's and recruiting,” Mullens said. “For us, football revenue pulls this entire train.”

Overseeing a neon football factory, Oregon football generates 70 percent of the university’s resources and funds 19 programs. While these numbers are specific to the Pac-12’s poster team, the scenario is similar elsewhere.

Football drives revenue, and the head coaches of these programs are expected to do more than make bowl games. They are the key figures in a lucrative business that can be both kind and cruel.

 

So You’re Hiring a Head Coach…Now What?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Chip Kelly after last season's Fiesta Bowl victory and his last game as Oregon coach

For Mullens, the scenario was both chaotic and deliberate. Chip Kelly’s departure to the NFL in January of 2013 came a year after he showed serious interest in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coaching vacancy.

Once the school learned that Kelly had a desire to coaching in the NFL, it reacted.

“We wanted to make sure that we were thorough, because it was a critical hire for us,” Mullens said. “Chip was outstanding. He elevated our program to another level.”

While Kelly was an outstanding college coach, he was also honest about the possibility of his departure. While his final leap to the pros was not without its turbulence, the school was prepared.

“Chip was very honest and upfront with us that he was intrigued with the NFL,” Mullens said. “Fortunately, he remained at Oregon for another year, and that gave us an opportunity to prepare for what was likely to happen at some point in the near future.”

In that time, Oregon did its homework. It had nearly a full year to do its research on potential candidates that would fit its brand, a luxury most teams simply don’t have. Typically, this might come down to weeks or months, although the process to hire begins well before this is ever public.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich

“It was not a race for us,” Mullens said. “We were fortunate in that we had multiple internal candidates that have invested a lot of their life’s work in this program. We were able to do our due diligence with the internal and external candidates, and we had some conversations with people that we could lean on for valuable insight.”

In the end, the Ducks decided to promote from within and went with Mark Helfrich.

For most schools, the time to hire comes down to timing and ensuring that all of your bases are covered. From background checks to interviews to deciding on whether or not a search committee is needed or not, the process of finding the right head coach is usually in the details.

Pete Roussel has been on both sides of this process, having to navigate a lot of moving parts and track down just where those parts might be headed. It’s a process—a big part of which occurs in the utmost secrecy—and it also comes down to getting everyone in agreement.

“It’s about setting a timeline," Roussel said. “You probably have a pretty decent list of coaches together for at least a couple of weeks before making a change. You map out needs with your AD, and agents make a lot of calls during this time. You also need to decide if you’re going to use a search firm, search committee or do the hire yourself.”

 

The Role of Search Committees 

For Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, his decision on whether to use a search committee in 2011 was simple.

"You're looking at the search committee,” he said at his press conference with the utmost seriousness, courtesy of CougCenter.com. After mentioning his “short list” and dancing around all Mike Leach-related questions, he wasted little time hiring...Mike Leach.

Of course, using a search firm or committee isn’t assumed protocol yet, although it’s not far off. USC's athletic director Pat Haden announced during the season that the school would be using one, obtaining the services of Korn/Ferry International, according to Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports.

“Almost everyone uses one,” according to Roussel. “They can range from $25,000 in cost to $200,000 on the high end, and most of these executive search firms typically have a flat fee.”

The cost will be largely dependent on what services are used. Some of these firms will simply provide background checks and do the necessary research before a candidate is seriously considered.

Call it the George O’Leary stage, when essential information is gathered and simple hurdles are cleared.

Now the coach of Central Florida, O'Leary landed the Notre Dame job in 2001. The problem? He had to resign only five days after being introduced because it was determined that he exaggerated achievements on his resume.

This was a game-changer of sorts, and firms are tasked to ensure that this kind of embarrassment is avoided.

Others will be more involved, perhaps sitting in on interviews and offering feedback to questions—some of which they might have generated to gauge a response. Many of these firms only conduct three or four searches a year, so the process can be engulfing if the school allows it to be. It depends greatly on the desired involvement, a responsibility the athletic director will determine very early on.

But it isn’t always perfect, and much like the process as a whole, there are no guarantees. Homework doesn’t guarantee victories, and fresh eyes don’t mean a hire will mesh with a program. The value of the committee or firm can also come into question depending on how the hire matriculates.

“One head coach told me that a school hired a firm to hire him,” Roussel said. “The school then hired him eight minutes after he picked up the phone for the first time. It was done like that.”

As for Oregon, a program that was looking for a head coach earlier this year, it did not use a firm when promoting Mark Helfrich.

‘We did not use a committee, because confidentiality was so important,” Mullens said. “We didn’t feel like we needed one. Our homework was done throughout the year. We’ve used committees on other coaching searches, and they have been extremely valuable. It just depends on the circumstances.”

 

The Hiring Checklist 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Finding a head coach that suits your program remains an inexact science. The exciting names—the Sabans, the Sumlins, the Malzahns—will be tossed around early on, but it’s about more than just making a big splash.

It’s all about finding the coach that best fits the landscape.

“You have to have that leader who believes in your culture,” Mullens said. “For us, that culture has been able to separate us. It didn’t have to be someone internally, but fortunately, we had someone who came through the process.”

Finding the right coach for the school is dependent upon a variety of factors: location, familiarity with the recruiting pipelines, track record and, like basically everything else in this process, money.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The money is what makes the college football coaching carousel go round. Whether it’s re-upping at a school with ample leverage (see: Saban, Nick) or capitalizing on your value when the time is right (see: Petersen, Chris), the hiring of coaches is an inexact science that usually ends in bigger paychecks.

Yet it should be considered as more than just an enormous amount of money being paid out to one person. Others look at it the other way, like buying a house.

“When you talk about hiring a coach, people automatically think about the expense side,” Mullens said. “That’s a key element, as is the market place, but another key element is the opportunity of revenue.”

Another key piece of hiring a head coach is filling out the rest of the staff.

1. Will a head coach bring assistants with him?

2. Will he be able to offer up more money?

3. How much money is left? 

4. Will the head coach have complete control of the hirings and firings of his staff?

While "money" is a word the sport knows best, "recruiting" isn't far behind. That's where a staff looms large. Consistently winning football games doesn't just come down to the talent of the players, but it makes the likelihood of this goal that much easier.

Assembling a staff that has the high school coaches on speed dial certainly doesn't hurt. If you're going to coach in Texas, you need to know Texas.

It's not just about the one person, despite the enormous press conference picture and sound bites that are broadcast on major websites when a hire is made. This is about surrounding this one person on the poster with a group of people who can thrive together. In 2013, this group has gotten significantly larger and more focused.

“The football organization has become far more complex,” Mullens said. “It’s not just the head coach’s salary; the assistant pool is critical. The support staff is critical. It’s not just a strength coach; now, it’s five strength coaches. It’s not just a trainer; it’s multiple trainers.”

Finding the right coach is no longer good enough, but it’s certainly a start. Putting together a staff that will consistently attract marquee talent is an equally important piece of the overall picture.

 

Perception and Social Media 

The art of flight tracking is real. Yes, you can search all the major cities—with a focus on college campuses—to see if a plane is headed from one college town to another at a time when rumors might be kicking into gear.

Does it mean a head coach is on the plane? Of course not, but that hasn’t stopped the Internet from taking certain flight trackers and running with it on message boards and social media.

And every so often, the resourceful computer users might be onto something. After all, this trip from Boise, Idaho, to Seattle was dug up and highlighted:

A few days later, Petersen was introduced as the new head coach of the Huskies.

It’s a new day of coverage, as social media has drastically altered the way coaching searches are covered, for better and worse. The flow of information is constant and exciting, but it is also regularly incorrect.

For further verification of this, type “Nick Saban” and “Texas” into the Twitter search and watch the fascination pour in.

While social media can often cause a circus, it presents an interesting obstacle for those on the other side of the hiring process. Working in secrecy is more difficult that it has ever been, and social media is a big reason why. While it isn’t always right, the rate at which news travels is incredible.

Keeping interviews and details out of the public eye remains important, although doing so is not the easiest task.

“It’s extremely hard, both internally and externally, Mullens said. “Information is currency.”

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

These reports can be profitable for many. Pete Roussel—and the website through which you are reading this article—can benefit greatly by obtaining information before anyone else can. For those involved in the search at the college level, however, keeping this under wraps is integral for all parties involved.

“You want to protect the integrity of the search because you want the broadest, deepest, most qualified pool you can get,” Mullens said. “The more confidentially you can ensure, the better you’re going to get.”

Beyond the way news is processed and recycled, social media has also drastically impacted the way news is judged.

In the case of coaching hires, names are often given a collective thumbs up or thumbs down well before they ever take the podium in their team-centric tie for the first time.

There’s a balance to be had in reacting and overreacting, but approval is important. At the very least, it’s more than simply a large gathering of online strangers spewing meaningless nothings.

“You’re starting behind the eight ball if the masses don’t like your coach,” Roussel said. “The perfect example is Charlie Weis.”

Of course, social media doesn’t have all the answers. While Steve Sarkisian’s hire at USC wasn’t exactly greeted with a cavalcade of applause, the results will tell the story. The hiring process will eventually take its course, and the success (or failure) will be calculated in time.

It’s not about winning the Internet over; it’s about putting in the work, finding the ideal fit and making the difficult decisions that could prove to be incredibly lucrative for the school. The right decision isn’t always the popular one.

“At the end of the day, it’s about long-term success,” Mullens said. “That’s not to say we aren’t attuned with our constituents—our fans, our donors and others—but we’re making the hire for the long-term success of our program, not to win that one press conference.”

 

*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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