Two stories came out this week involving college athletics and “headhunter” search firms. The first was an article by CBS’s Jon Solomon on the rise in money spent by college athletic departments on hiring college football coaches. According to their analysis, the eleven schools examined spent on average $70,000 on fees to firms to find the next head football coach. In the private sector, hiring a company to do the dirty work of compiling a shortlist of interview candidates makes sense – volunteer boards have little time to comb resumes, call a number of diverse candidates, then arrange a series of sit downs. The small cost of hiring a firm to do this – especially for a high-level position – makes sense.
When you think about who a football coach is at a major college football program, it also makes sense. Nick Saban has many of the same responsibilities of a CEO of a mid-sized association, and makes a lot more. While we think of these colleges have unlimited budgets to pay for the extravagance that is a college football program, the reality is much more complicated. Paying a search firm 20% of your future coach’s salary to win nine games a year is a risk definitely worth taking. In addition, a firm provides a go-between for the university and the potential hire; a coach can maintain plausible deniability about whether he has been contacted by a school if the firm is the one arranging interviews. As athletic director Jamie Pollard said in the article, “You’re offering 15-, 20-, 30-million-dollar contracts on one or two hours of meeting with somebody. It’s wrong. It’s crazy. Nobody conducts business that way except college athletics.”
But as with any search, it’s important to have the right firm in place to not make you look foolish. And that is where today’s story of the hiring of USC’s new athletic director comes in. Time will tell whether Lynn Swann will succeed in the job, but he has lost the first day, as has the search firm that did the search. The trend in reporting the hiring is to focus on the lack of athletic department experience by Swann as well as the lack of college search experience by the firm. While it’s admirable that USC would trust a firm that is not the usual suspect in the search, the questionable process shows that, just like in business, a search firm and client need to be a good fit for a good result.