To hire or not to hire, that is the question: using a consulting firm for a national head coach search.

Category: Search Process

Dr. Paul S. Adams, Vice President, Student Affairs, Wilkes University

At the end of the 2017 football season, Wilkes University faced the challenge of hiring a new head football coach. Wilkes has played football since 1947 and has only had six head football coaches in those 71 seasons. At an institution that has enjoyed a storied football past, the hiring of a new head football coach is an “event” – attracting much attention and advice for the University from all who follow our program.

Four years ago, when we last recruited a new head football coach, we entered the market late, about four weeks after our season ended. While we considered using a search firm to assist with our recruiting, in the end, we decided to manage our own process. This time around, we entered the search process with a much greater sense of urgency. Being keenly aware of how important a head coach is to the success of our football recruiting strategy, we wanted to move much more quickly and name a coach who would have the opportunity to impact the incoming class. This time, we wanted to leave nothing to chance; it was critical that we recruit the very best candidate we could find.

Not only was timing an important consideration, we wanted to ensure that our new search would cast a wide net and excite our candidates. We wanted to send a message to our student-athletes and football alumni that we were committed to returning our football program to the success it once knew.  As we embarked on this national search, we were also mindful that in the past four years we had added six additional NCAA sport programs – increasing the day-to-day operational activities for our athletics administrators.

With all those considerations in mind, we decided to try something new. Among our first steps was the decision to hire a consultant to assist with our search. Having benefited from using a search firm to recruit several senior executives to our campus, we opted to follow suit and hire a firm to guide us in this endeavor – something we had never done before in athletics.

Before we advertised the position, being able to reflect with our consultants on our goals for the search and developing with them our search prospectus helped us clarify our thinking and describe Wilkes University and this opportunity to achieve our optimal outcome. The prospectus presented Wilkes University comprehensively, sending important messages to our candidates about our ambitions, our values and the colleagues and student-athletes with whom they could potentially work. The search prospectus helped us achieve a level of detail and information for our candidates that we wouldn’t have achieved had we conducted the search on our own. We wanted to be open and transparent with our applicants. The more information we could share, the better for all.

Being active in the DII and DIII recruiting market, the search firm had a good sense for the coaching landscape and helped calibrate our expectations from the outset. We were clearly helped by their national benchmarking on salaries/ benefits, position descriptions and expectations, position advertisements and search “best practices.”

Early in the search it was clear to us that our pool of candidates developed much more quickly because of our consultant’s network and database. We would have lost precious time if Wilkes had waited to recieve applications from the more tradtional advertisements the University customarily posts to publications and websites. Search consultants are able pursue candidates who aren’t actively searching and who would not enter our pool without the consultant’s contact and influence. Our consultants were aware of prospective candidates who weren’t looking for a change, but who could be a “good fit” for Wilkes.  If Wilkes had relied solely on advertisements we placed, the only candidates we would attract were those who were “actively” searching for a head coach position. Our consultants were able to reach out to talented coaches who, without some urging, may not have taken a look at this opportunity.

The conversations that search consultants can have with prospective applicants can be an invaluable screening device. A preliminary conversation about position history, salary range, and assessing the match of candidate expectations with those of the University is a key benefit. These are candid conversations an applicant can have much more comfortably with the search consultant than with an institutional hiring authority. To the advantage of all, much time was saved and disappointment averted because of these early conversations.

Among the most valuable tools that the search firm brought to our search was utilizing the concept of video interview software to help us screen those candidates with whom we wanted to schedule “live” semi-finalist interviews. With the video interview software, we were able to invite 16 candidates to share their thoughts to several questions in a video format that could be recorded and uploaded. The search consultants were able to then share the video interviews with us so that we could better identify the 8 to 10 semi-finalists we wanted to meet through “live” Skype interviews.

Wanting to have our director of athletics chair the search, we were sensitive as to how impactful it would be to add this responsibility to the strategic and operational responsibilities with which the director is already tasked. The logistical support provided by the search firm allowed us to address the search challenge while remaining focused on all of our other priorities. Being able to have a consultant place our advertisements and build the pool, maintain the database of 155 applicants, narrow the pool of candidates to the semi-final round, coordinate off-site interviews, arrange travel to campus for finalists, answer candidate questions, and complete reference and background checks made this a much more manageable search process for our director and the athletics department. The search firm executed all of these key aspects of the search with aplomb.

Of course, all of this arrives with an expense. We knew that the hiring choice we made would impact recruiting, retention, staffing, department chemistry, alumni relations, school spirit, and the quality of student life and learning for our team for years to come. For us, finding the right candidate to positively influence our football program long into the future was well worth the investment.

In the end, we were delighted with the outcome of our search and we hired the candidate who emerged as our first choice. We believe our decision to work with a consulting firm positively influenced our outcome. While it will be several months before our student-athletes play their first football game under our new head coach, we are buoyed by the team’s enthusiasm and dedication during spring practice. We look forward to the day in the not-so-distant future when a new generation of Wilkes Colonels will enrich our “storied” football history.

Spelman Johnson is proud to have assisted Wilkes University in hiring Jonathan Drach as their Head Football Coach. To read Wilkes University’s hiring announcement, click here.

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