They are the shadow behind every search committee, the wind that blows during every coaching change. You can't see them, you can't reach out and grab them, but they're always there. They are the major talent search firms that have become a fixture of coaching and athletic director searches during recent years.
There are a handful of big names in the executive search firm industry that every ambitious person needs to know; one of those is Parker Executive Search. In the wake of Julie Hermann's hiring as Rutgers' athletic director and the trail of bad publicity that followed her from Louisville to New Jersey, Parker invited ESPN's Dana O'Neil to its Atlanta offices to see behind the scenes of a behind the scenes business.
Every search firm acts as a middle man between a university and a target list. They handle inquiries about the vacancy, contact agents, arrange and/or host interviews, conduct background checks and, when a candidate has been chosen, negotiate contracts on behalf of the university. Perhaps the most attractive thing search firms offer is plausible deniability on both sides of the aisle - schools can state they haven't spoken to a coach with a clear conscience, and vice versa. Parker's location in Atlanta is also a bonus, as the city operates somewhat as the unofficial hub of college sports in the southeastern United States.
But what brings schools to Parker specifically is its database. The firm has compiled profiles of more than 1,000 basketball coaches and 2,000 football coaches that go down to the very last detail - APR scores, who they've coached with, who they've coached for, a breakdown of his current contract, a history of any NCAA issues and clips of him on the sidelines or at press conferences. The database is accessible to every member of the university's search committee.
Just because Parker provides the most information doesn't mean schools will use it properly. In addition to the aforementioned Hermann hiring, Parker was also behind disastrous basketball hirings of Billy Gillispie at Kentucky and Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, as well as the short-lived Mike Haywood era at Pittsburgh.
This leads to the greatest point of controversy surrounding the search firm industry - exactly how big of a role they play for their clients. Parker insists they help schools identify whittle down who they want and who they can get, and handles the details from there. If pressed for an opinion, they won't give one. Others don't buy it.
"They get their guys; they ride their guys," a college basketball agent told O'Neil.
Regardless of where you fall on the issue, you're better off being on a search firm's radar than not.
"When I was at Murray State, I did an interview for a job I didn't want because a high-powered search firm wanted me to," said Mick Cronin, now the head basketball coach at Cincinnati. "The school wanted to interview me and I wasn't interested in the job, but I wanted to endear myself to the search firm. I thought it was better than pissing them off."
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