MANHATTAN — As John Currie exited a late-night flight on the first day of his search for a new basketball coach last March, he turned on his cell phone and heard a voicemail he will never forget.
His 9-year-old daughter was none-too-pleased the Kansas State athletic director left Manhattan without saying goodbye.
“Not being able to tell her goodbye was probably the hardest part of that whole week,” Currie said.
Out of the hundreds of calls Currie made between the time Frank Martin told him he was leaving for South Carolina and Bruce Weber told him he was coming to K-State, that moment sticks out.
But it was unavoidable. These were hectic times, after all. Currie had just watched Martin take another job, and he didn’t want to waste time finding a replacement.
That’s life for a modern-day athletic director. High-profile coaching searches are not only part of the job, they are arguably the most important part. Coaches are leaving for new teams on a regular basis — 26 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and 47 Division I basketball teams changed coaches in this offseason — and finding the perfect replacement has never been more crucial.
Life and death it’s not, but it’s pressure-packed. Currie faced a week of travel, phone calls and negotiations, all in the face of round-the-clock speculation. He felt like he was preparing for battle.
“Anytime you go into a process like that, you have to have a plan of attack,” Currie said. “Any General will tell you that having a battle plan is essential, because once the battle starts the environment changes and the battle plan changes with it. … I had one and I was ready.”
Currie began examining his list of potential candidates, arranging flights and making calls. Before he knew it, he was on his way to the Manhattan airport.
With so much at stake, athletic directors have their own approaches. And everyone is keeping score.
“I couldn’t tell you all the places I visited during the search process,” said Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who hired Charlie Weis as football coach in December. “There were several times I was in three states in a day. I was gone almost two weeks. I ran out of clothes and lost some weight and got kind of lonely.
“It wasn’t easy, but I like the guy we hired. I grow more and more pleased with him every day.”
Making a splash
Those are the words every athletic director wants to say after they bring in a new coach. Hearing them echoed by fans and media is even better.
It’s not always possible to convince everyone to love a new coach, though.
Thanks to social media, everyone can voice their opinion. And those opinions are often extreme, with fans either endorsing a new coach as ideal or criticizing a new coach as terrible – all before he has the chance to coach his first game. Few comments fall in between.
Both were on display when Currie hired Weber.
On a national scale, media approved. They saw a quality coach ready to redeem himself after a mediocre season at Illinois. But closer to home, a large pocket of fans were upset. During the hiring process, K-State fans took to the Internet and threw their support behind dozens of different candidates, some realistic and some far-fetched. So when Currie introduced Weber, a name few had previously mentioned, he had to ask fans to give him a chance.
Currie wasn’t bothered by the reception, though. Aside from watching 30 minutes of television each night, Currie said he didn’t pay attention to the outside world during his coaching search. No Twitter. No media interviews. No nothing. Public opinion wasn’t a priority.
“No matter who you hire,” Currie said, “there is going to be someone who doesn’t understand.”
He knew what he wanted in a coach.
“One sure way to fail is to try to anticipate some kind of random factor that is secondary to what is most important,” Currie said. “Who is the best person to lead, coach and mentor the young people in our locker room, who at the same time can represent our school with class and integrity? That’s what is most important.
“You can’t control speculation. You really just have to divorce yourself from paying attention to any of that and focus on hiring the best possible person for your university.”
Do that, Currie thought, and it won’t matter how a coach is initially received. If he is the ideal fit, he will win fans over. Some began warming to Weber when no players chose to transfer. He received standing ovations at events this summer.
Of course, winning cures all. That’s what Martin did. After being panned by analysts as unqualified to follow Bob Huggins, he became a fan favorite by leading the Wildcats to four NCAA Tournaments in five seasons.
No one called him a splash hire, but he became a coveted coach.
The opposite can also occur. Without wins, anyone’s popularity will disintegrate.
“You have to be very careful getting into the splash-hire mentality,” Zenger said. “That can get you into trouble. Having been a coach, I think what are the needs in our football program? That is what my motivation is. If the person you find brings extra interest to your program, that’s just a bonus.”
Weis came with that bonus. Some questioned the hire, but he took Notre Dame to two BCS bowl games as a head coach before falling on hard times, and coached some of the top talent in the game as an NFL coordinator. Kansas football interest is up.
Washington State is another program that received a spike in interest after a coaching change. When former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach agreed to join the Cougars, one of the game’s best offensive minds and personalities returned to college football.
Washington State athletic director Bill Moos says donations are up, season-ticket sales have increased and expensive suites and club-level seats at the football stadium are sold out.
Not bad for a team that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2003.
“I had high expectations, but what ended up happening exceeded those,” Moos said. “It’s been very gratifying and fun to see our people get a little skip back in their step and to see our players excited about themselves. Everything associated with Cougar football has had a facelift.”
When to act
On the day Moos decided to begin pitching Washington State to Leach, he walked past thousands of onlookers and made small talk with strangers in four states.
If only they knew what he was up to.
It was Nov. 16, and the day started at the airport. Moos was beginning a long journey to Key West, Fla., where he would meet Leach at a hotel and talk for hours about a job that wasn’t open. It took a full day and plenty of layovers to get there, but it was worth the hassle because no one thought he was on his way to interview the school’s next football coach. Heck, Washington State was still in contention for a bowl game.
“It was too early for anyone to be digging into where I was going,” Moos said.
Crazy thing is, he had been planning the trip for a month. He had sent out feelers to Leach through a friend in October. When Leach responded favorably and Washington State lost a few games, he decided to explore his backup plan.
“I told him, ‘I want you to know, I’m supporting my current guy,” Moos said, “but if we continue to stub our toe there is a chance I am going to make a change and I think this has the potential to work.’ ”
Washington State finished 4-8, and Moos hired Leach later that month.
“I got my first-round draft choice,” Moos said.
That might not have been possible without a head start. Leach’s name was rumored to be at the center of several coaching searches last fall, including Kansas, but by the time those schools started looking Leach had a handshake agreement in place.
Moos was able to act fast because he knew who he wanted. He regularly updates a list of potential new coaches, in case of emergency, and went after the name on top. Currie did the same at K-State, and had a list of basketball coaches before coming to Manhattan.
At Kansas, Zenger said he considered roughly 15 candidates before hiring Weis. But he explored zero while Turner Gill was on the sideline.
“You always have in your mind thoughts of what you would be looking for in a new coach and what the criteria would be,” Zenger said. “But I believe you shouldn’t start looking for your next coach until the old coach is gone. That’s just how I do business.”
Some athletic directors get around that dilemma by firing coaches midseason. Zenger stuck with Gill until the final game.
Could all that waiting have cost him a shot at Leach? We may never know. But when you act can be as pivotal as how you act in a search.
Keeping it quiet
As difficult as it is for athletic directors to choose a new coach, it might be even harder to keep their decision quiet.
This is the era of Twitter, message boards and flight tracking. Every rumor gets investigated. Keeping information confidential is nearly impossible.
But some athletic directors manage to do it. Word never leaked that Moos was eyeing Leach. K-State fans didn’t realize Weber was a candidate until the day he was hired. Weis seemed to come out of nowhere at Kansas.
So how did they do it?
Moos said he only spoke to a handful of confidants about his plan, and booked his flights with personal credit cards. Currie refused to speak with media.
Zenger demanded confidentiality because Why? Because many of the coaches he targeted in the past held jobs at the time. So he keeps his inner circle small and is wary of any candidate whose name becomes public.
“I have had coaches say they will get involved with me because I know how to handle things discreetly,” Zenger said. “If names leak out, more often than not those coaches will drop out of your pool. I do not want to risk losing candidates.”
Some athletic directors pay big money for search firms. The thought is whenever a third party contacts a coach on a school’s behalf, the coach has deniability.
K-State paid Todd Turner and his firm, Collegiate Sports Associates, $40,000 to assist in the hiring of Weber. Oklahoma hired the same firm to bring in basketball coach Lon Kruger. And Colorado State reportedly shelled out $250,000 to a search firm when it hired Jim McElwain.
Currie said he bounced ideas off Turner, and benefited from the professional advice. Zenger said he enlisted the help of a consultant to make calls and perform background searches on a “limited basis.”
Moos went solo.
“In all my years in the business, I have never used a search firm,” he said. “I’m confident in my judgment. I also feel that I’m pretty well connected and have a pretty good network out there.”
Another school that doesn’t need head-hunters is Eastern Illinois, where everything is public.
The athletic department announces five finalists for major coaching positions and gives everyone the chance to meet them before making a hire.
The process is used in accordance with school policy, but athletic director Barbara Burke endorses it.
“All the guess work is taken out of it,” Burke said. “Here are the candidates. Here is who we are considering. We announce the names and people do their homework. The media don’t hound us. They respect the process.”
Most coaches do, too, but not all.
Burke said some coaches consider the process too public and too slow. A football coach once told her he was interested in the job, but couldn’t handle the transparency. So he never applied.
“Some coaches don’t want their names out there and they all want it done yesterday,” Burke said. “For them, I’m sure it can be painful. The process takes longer. But it forces me to do a lot of due diligence, because I have a lot of time to make calls and bring in the right person.”
A month after hiring Weber, Currie was asked if he was happy to see K-State faithful warming up to the new coach.
He nodded, but wasn’t satisfied.
“Now we have to go win some games,” Currie said.
Yes, that is all anyone truly wants from a coach. All the other things — how he looks behind a podium, the excitement he creates and the prestige he brings — don’t compare to conference championships and postseason appearances.
“All that other stuff is great,” Zenger said, “but the real job is done on Saturdays.”
Every offseason, national media grade the latest round of coaching hires, but those grades will mean nothing in a few years. That’s when wins and losses will reveal which athletic directors truly made the best decisions.
But before any of that can happen, the coaches have to be hired. Athletic directors have to be ready to search high and low — even if it means not getting to say goodbye.
It is the first step toward a new era for any program.
“That’s what makes it such an interesting deal,” Zenger said. “It’s important, it’s competitive and every athletic director and chancellor does it differently. I would never cast stones at the way they do it the same way I would never suggest mine is the consummate, end-all, be-all way to do it. It just works for me.”