Over the course of a coaching cycle, the mention of athletic departments bringing in search firms to fill their open head coaching jobs has almost become the norm. Firms like Parker Executive Search, Korn Ferry Search, Turnkey Search, and DHR International being some of the major ones that immediately come to mind.

Teams like Texas spent over $260k when they decided on Charlie Strong, according to a CBS article from a few years ago that dove into if search firms are worth the money. When those coaches first contracts are now easily making $15 million, it’s an investment many with the available resources are willing to make.

But I’ve often wondered how the performance of coaches hired by those firms compares to athletic directors that take on the search themselves. That question led to some digging late last night, where I came across an interesting paper that Andrew Read submitted for his Master’s thesis for Sports Administration at North Carolina back in 2017. Read’s paper, entitled An Analysis of Search Firm Success In College Football Head Coach Hiring takes a fascinating dive into the search firm world.

According to the Read’s research, the average cost of a search firm was about $54k and the time commitment ranged anywhere from 85 hours – 170 hours whether a search firm was hired or not.

So, what did the data find? Well that’s where things get both complicated, and interesting.

When it comes to strictly winning percentage, which is what I was really interested in, Read’s research on data collected of coaches hired between 2005 and 2014 (that were also currently employed during the time of the research leading up to his paper in 2017) showed that how the previous coach left had a lot to do with what the new hire was able to accomplish.

“Of the 24 coaches hired by search firms, 20 of them were hired because the previous coach was dismissed, either by a firing or forced resignation. Table 3 shows that in these scenarios, the replacements hired by a search firm win games around 47% of the time, while those hired by athletic department win around 43% of the time. However, when looking at coaches moving into a scenario where the previous coach advanced into a better position, the results are much different. The winning percentage of coaches hired by search firms into “Previous Coach Advanced” is 49%, while the athletic department hired coaches winning percentage is around 61%. There is little difference between the two groups when the team was already bad, but when the team is good and the coach moved on to better things, the athletic department is far better at replacing the coach than a search firm would be.”

So when coaches used the success at one place to land a “better” job, athletic departments who hired their own head coach without the aid of a search firm performed significantly better. When the coach was fired for poor results, very little separated search firm hires and athletic department hires.

For those that are more visual, here’s that information in a table form.


When coach leaves for “better” job 49% 61%
When coach is let go / resigned 47% 43%
*data via Andrew Read’s research

A quick search of the 28 FBS head coaching openings this off season shows that at least 14 publicly shared that they hired search firms to assist in finding their new head coach including Colorado, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Temple (twice), Akron, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Charlotte, Kansas State, Liberty, Northern Illinois, Texas State and Utah State.

While the verdict is out on the latest batch of hires, of the new coaches hired by athletic departments, the new hires at Appalachian State (Eli Drinkwitz), Ohio State (Ryan Day), and West Virginia (Neal Brown) are the biggest winners based on Read’s research of win percentage by coaches moving on after successful seasons and their replacement being hired by the athletic department instead of a search firm.

The paper also researched “success” in the areas of Academic Progress Rate, recruiting rankings, and NCAA infractions as well.

Head here to read the full paper in its entirety.