Your Next Great Coach

Hiring successful coaches entails a delicate balance of detective work, insight, and public relations. In this article, top athletic directors reveal their philosophies and strategies.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at lsmith@MomentumMedia.com.

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1702/nextgreatcoach.htm

They’re the stories that make headlines: A new coach takes the helm of a struggling program, and a season or two later, the tide has turned. Key athletes are pulled in, the wins pile up, there’s a postseason appearance, and maybe even a championship.

They’re the hires that leave other administrators wondering, how did they find that coach? And better yet, how did they know that was the right person for the job?

For many athletic directors, it’s the most rewarding part of their jobs: finding and hiring their next great coach. But, today, the process is a little more complicated. Getting buy-in for your hire requires giving constituents a role in the process. Making the process inclusive and seeking qualified minority candidates is also a growing priority. And often, you’re working with a limited amount of time.

In this article, we talk to athletic directors at every level of play who have recently hired coaches. From the NCAA Division I athletic director who has one of the youngest trios of football and basketball coaches in the nation, to an NCAA Division III athletic director who recently hired a WNBA player as her head women’s basketball coach, to a high school district director who hires coaches for 24 different schools, all have advice on how to find your next headline-grabbing coach.

PROFILE OF SUCCESS
If there is one overriding principle in successfully hiring coaches today, it is that it needs to be an ongoing process. No matter the status of their current coaches, today’s top athletic directors are always thinking about hiring.

For Michael Thomas, Athletic Director at the University of Akron, who hired the 2004 Mid-American Conference’s Football Coach of the Year, J. D. Brookhart, a year ago, laying the groundwork for a successful hire means refining his own mental picture of what makes a successful coach. "I can sum it up in four attributes—any coach we hire needs to be an effective teacher, an effective leader, an effective motivator, and an effective recruiter," he says. "But I also look for the nuances of what makes a coach great.

"When I notice a coach who is very effective, I ask myself what he or she is doing that works so well," continues Thomas. "I make it a priority to spend some time with him or her—I’ve probably learned the most about what makes a good coach during four-hour bus rides. And by observing coaches who are not as effective, I’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work. Over time, these are the things I have shaped into a profile that guides our coaching hires."

Susan Bassett, Athletic Director at William Smith College, who hired WNBA center/forward Olympia Scott Richardson as her women’s basketball coach last fall, also has a specific vision of a good coach. "A coach I would hire understands the balance between academics and athletics, can connect with student-athletes, and is committed to developing the entire student-athlete," she says. "I supervise 12 head coaches, and every one of them approaches the job differently. But they start with those core values, and that is why we hired them."

Just as critical is knowing what type of coach will prove successful at your specific school. "Does he or she embrace the values, ideas, and standards of the institution, or is he or she going to try to change things?" says Ron Wellman, Athletic Director at Wake Forest University, who hired Head Men’s Basketball Coach Skip Prosser four years ago as well as Baseball Coach Rick Rembielak and Women’s Basketball Coach Mike Peterson last summer. "The coaches who have been frustrated at Wake Forest are those who have wanted to depart from our mission and our standards, and those who have been successful have had standards and philosophies that match up with ours."

Cornell University Athletic Director Andy Noel has hired seven head coaches in the past two years, including a new football coach and a new volleyball coach. To fit his profile, a coach must understand the Ivy League climate and the mission of athletics at Cornell. "Academics here are rigorous, but that doesn’t mean we have very bright students who just happen to play a sport for fun," he says. "We expect our student-athletes to have a dual commitment to academics and athletics, and to be driven to reach their full potential in their sport. A successful coach here will understand that philosophy."

Knowing a school’s specific needs and philosophies is just as important at the high school level. For Ron Belinko, Coordinator of Athletics for the 24-high school Baltimore County (Md.) Public School System, that means understanding individual high schools’ communities, which range from urban to industrial to rural. "At some of our schools, an old-fashioned coach who demands a lot of discipline will work out well," he says. "At others, that coach’s style will be a disaster. You can set a coach up for failure if you do not match them to your particular school."

A DATABASE OF CANDIDATES
Once you have developed a picture of what a successful coach at your school looks like, the next step is having a running list of individuals who fit that profile. "The best time to be watching candidates and talking with people about them is when you do not have an opening," says Wellman. "You do your investigative work before you need a coach and develop a list of potential candidates."

That process worked for Dave Diles, Athletic Director at Eastern Michigan University, in hiring Head Football Coach Jeff Genyck last year. "It really helped that when we needed a coach, I didn’t have to start by saying, ‘Who’s out there?’" Diles explains. "I already knew who was out there. We had done so much work on an ongoing basis to identify candidates that we already had a list of 20 names."

Compiling that list requires keen observation. "Watch the coaches you compete against, and go out to other games in your area," Diles says. "Watch how coaches conduct themselves, on and off the field, in public and in media situations. Watch how the coach interacts with the players and officials. When a player makes a mistake, is it seen as a chance for learning?"

For Diles, it helps to divide the coaching landscape into categories and then to identify potential candidates in each. "In football, I watch the following categories: head coaches at lower divisions, coordinators from our region, coordinators in Division I-A, and NFL assistant coaches," he says. "A final category includes coaches who have a connection to our university. They may have played here, coached here in the past, or been a graduate assistant."

Wood Selig, Athletic Director at Western Kentucky University, puts a lot of emphasis on Diles’ last category. Diles hired two new head basketball coaches and a new football coach over the past three years, and all three choices were former players or assistant coaches at the school. And he didn’t let youthfulness deter him—the coaches’ ages at the time of their hires ranged from 29 to 33.

"Hiring someone who has a connection to your program eliminates a lot of unknowns," Selig says. "For example, with [current Head Men’s Basketball Coach Darrin Horn, who was a former player and assistant coach at WKU] we knew we had a candidate who was intimately familiar with our program, our university, and our mission.

"I look for candidates who also have a reason to want to be specifically at my institution," he continues. "Being the head coach at Western had been Darrin’s goal since he graduated."

Selig also pays close attention to his teams’ assistant coaches. "I watch for assistants who are proving to be great leaders and keep track of my observations," he says "Three years before the head football job came up, [current Head Coach David Elson] was an assistant coach. He asked me, ‘If the head coaching job opens, where would I be as far as my chance at the job?’ It was a bold question—he wasn’t even a coordinator at that point. But I liked his ambition and drive. I never forgot that conversation, and when the job opened, our first call was to him."

Many athletic directors are also making sure minority candidates are on their lists. Diles says he watches minority assistant coaches, head coaches at historically black colleges and universities, and those recommended to him by the Black Coaches Association (BCA). "You cannot just use your own personal network and expect to have a diverse pool," he says. "You have to actively go outside of it to make the process truly inclusive."

Last year, the BCA began grading Division I institutions that hired new football coaches on how inclusive their process was. Akron received an "A" (as did Cornell and Eastern Michigan). "We built a diverse candidate pool through frequent contact with the BCA," Thomas says. "They provided us with a great inventory of candidates to work with, including pro coaches who were interested in collegiate positions and a list of very strong assistants and associate head coaches across the country. We also looked for conferences where there is a lot of diversity and called the conference offices for recommendations."

Athletic directors also suggest networking with anyone and everyone who could potentially provide a lead—which is what led Bassett to find Scott Richardson. "I called Lisa Boyer, an assistant coach at Temple University, who I know from college," Bassett says. "She works with Temple Head Coach Dawn Staley, an all-star player for the Charlotte Sting. I asked Lisa to talk with Dawn and find out if she knew of another WNBA player who might be interested in a collegiate head coaching position, and Lisa came back with Olympia’s name.

"When I called Olympia, she impressed me right away as being articulate and thoughtful and understanding of the role of athletics at an academic institution," Bassett continues. "After she went through the interview process along with our other candidates, we hired her, and she has done nothing but reinforce my initial impressions ever since."

"There is no substitute for talking with colleagues in your network when you’re generating lists of candidates, especially in sports you are less familiar with," agrees Larry Keating, Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of Kansas, who was in charge of hiring head basketball coaches Bill Self and Bonnie Henrickson. "For example, I’m not very versed in swimming, but I consider it my job to know who we might hire if our swimming coach left us. So I’ve found out who is knowledgeable and learned the market."

Networking also worked for Cary Groth, Athletic Director at the University of Nevada, at her previous post as Athletic Director at Northern Illinois University, when the school decided to add a women’s track and field program. "Two years before, I began talking to administrators at schools with successful women’s track programs," she says. "I’d simply ask them who was out there, and where they saw young coaching talent developing."

During a flight back from a convention, an administrator from Northern Iowa mentioned the name of one of her school’s graduates and assistant coaches, all-American sprinter Shantel Twiggs. "She told me, ‘In a couple of years, she will be ready for a head coaching job,’" Groth says. "I watched her for the next two years, and as soon as we were ready to hire, we called her. She wasn’t really on anyone’s radar screen yet, but we ended up hiring her and she is an outstanding coach. I have since hired her to head the Nevada program."

BY COMMITTEE
When a coaching vacancy occurs, many schools form a search committee. Working with committees can be challenging, but if done well, it can have an important pay-off. "If you include the important constituents in the process from the beginning and they feel comfortable that they have a role, the majority will buy into the final decision," says Groth. "That makes it much easier for the new coach coming in. Especially if there are some lean times in the beginning, people will stand by the new coach because they were part of the decision."

At Nevada, search committees typically involve a faculty member, often the faculty athletic rep, and a community member, often one of the school’s boosters. Beyond those two selections, Groth believes it’s important to tailor the group to the specific hire. "If you’re hiring for a team that has a facilities project on the horizon, include someone from the facilities department," she says. "If you’re hiring a soccer coach who is going to be doing community outreach work, include the president of the local community soccer association."

Noel prioritizes forming a diverse search committee—part of what helped Cornell earn high marks from the BCA for its football hire last year. "We looked inside and outside of athletics and found terrific professionals with diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds," he says. "We looked for a diverse range of people who had done a lot of hiring themselves and could help us evaluate candidates not in terms of Xs and Os, but in terms of their fit within our diverse campus community.

"We ended up with administrators from student and academic services and individuals from the university office of workplace diversity," Noel continues. "We also included our university chaplain, a terrific person with some athletic background who added keen insight and a different perspective."

For high school coaching hires, parents of athletes can be great committee members, as long as they are chosen carefully. "We require that they be parents of student-athletes from a different sport than the one we’re hiring for," says Jim Baker, Athletic Director for Richfield (Minn.) Public Schools. "Parents of athletes on the team you’re hiring for are often unable to see the big picture, since they are focused on their own child."

Student-athletes can also be part of the process, and most athletic directors recommend choosing seniors who will not be returning to play for the new coach, or upper-class athletes from another sport program. "Ask coaches for the names of athletes with leadership skills and the ability to think critically," Baker advises.

Initial meetings should spell out the committee’s role and give it direction in the process. "I put the committee’s mission and guidelines in writing so that nothing is left to interpretation," says Diles. "First, I make it clear that they are advisory only, and they will not make the final decision. Second, I stress confidentiality."

Keating talks with committee members about exactly what the open coaching position entails. He wants them to understand the priorities and challenges for that program, and the key things the institution is looking for. "Otherwise, it’s easy to create a situation where nobody on the committee really understands what the job is about," Keating says. "They end up throwing around a lot of buzz words without ever asking the questions that address what is important in this particular job."

Should candidates be interviewed in front of the entire committee, or meet with committee members one-on-one? "We have them interview before the whole committee," says Diles. "We have a list of scripted questions and committee members are each assigned questions to ask. We know that the process is fair because each candidate hears the same questions, and we can compare their responses easily.

"I also believe that by putting a candidate in front of a committee, we get to see how they respond to pressure," he continues. "There’s going to be plenty of pressure on them if they get the job, so we like to see them in that setting."

Noel takes a different approach. "Our candidates meet with one or two people at a time," he says, "and committee members ask their own questions. I don’t want a committee member to hesitate to ask a question they feel is important because they are afraid of taking up too much time in a group interview."

Athletic directors also have different strategies for collecting the committee’s feedback. Groth prefers to meet with the committee as a group and openly discuss candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Diles meets with committee members one-on-one to get their thoughts.

Along with individual meetings, Thomas asks members to put their thoughts into writing. "If I ask them to take a day or two and reflect and write their impressions, I get much more thoughtful answers," he says. "They can go back and look at their notes and digest things."

When working with people less experienced in hiring, it can be important to help them structure their observations and feedback. Baker provides each committee member with a sheet listing important qualities, and committee members rate candidates numerically on each.

Lastly, ensuring the committee process runs smoothly and effectively requires attention to group dynamics. "I make sure I don’t sit next to the same people at each meeting, so that no one appears to be more important," Diles says. "I also make sure that each member has ample opportunity to talk and that no subset of the group is exerting more influence over others."

PAST & FUTURE
Regardless of exactly how a committee operates, athletic directors point out the importance of going beyond standard questions when interviewing and examining candidates. The key, they say, is asking candidates what they’ve done in the past and balancing that with questions about what they might do in the future.

When interviewing an experienced coach, athletic directors focus on asking what a candidate actually did in a situation, not what they say they will do. "For example, if you ask whether a coach values academics, every one will tell you that it’s a high priority," says Wellman. "Instead, we will ask the candidate to discuss their relationship with academic services at their current institution. What rules do they have for student-athletes regarding study table?"

Diles also checks the facts behind a coach’s answers. "In almost every head coaching interview, someone asks if the candidate is committed to having a diverse staff," he says. "It’s an important question, and every candidate will say yes. But much more important to me is the evidence that he or she actually values diversity. Who is on their current assistant coaching staff? If they tell me that they want to bring diversity to Eastern Michigan, but everyone looks just like them, that tells me something."

When evaluating an assistant coach applying for a head coaching position, you can look at what additional roles he or she has taken on outside of normal duties. "Look at the things they don’t necessarily have to do as an assistant, like manage the budget," says Keating, "and see if they have taken some initiative to learn to do them."

"Look for assistants who talk to the press, volunteer for committee work in the athletic department, and position themselves to get as much broad based experience as they can," adds Selig.

At the high school level, Belinko looks to see if assistant coaches have an organized approach to planning practices. "It’s also a great sign when young coaches prove they have initiated an open line of communication with others and asked for feedback," he says.

For Baker, the sign a young candidate is ready for a head coaching position is that he or she is able to handle interaction with parents. "Do they have a sense of perspective about parents?" he says. "Young coaches tend to take problems with parents very personally. If they are able to take those in stride, they may be ready."

At the same time, athletic directors do suggest asking questions about what candidates plan to do if they get the job. When Groth hired Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Fox last summer, she asked him: What plans have you made for handling the transition from being an assistant to being a head coach? "Mark didn’t say, ‘I’ll have to wait and see,’" says Groth. "He had a plan and he had thought it through. We were also convinced by watching the rapport he has with student-athletes, the way he handles himself, his confidence, and his professionalism."

Selig asked the same question of Horn, and he responded with a DVD presentation and a 60-page booklet outlining where he wanted to take the Hilltopper men and how he planned to get them there. "The presentation included his philosophy and principals, his take on academic success and recruiting, his plan for getting student fans to feel ownership of the program, and his views on preparing student-athletes for life after basketball," Selig says. "He was so prepared for the interview that we believed he would be equally prepared for every aspect of the job.

"And that has proven true," Selig continues. "He was in complete control in that interview and now passes that confidence on to his team. At game time, his players come out completely calm, utterly confident, and totally in control."

QUANTIFYING CHARACTER
Most athletic directors want to see strong personal qualities in a candidate, like optimism, professionalism, honesty, and integrity. But how do you assess these things?

For Noel, the best information comes from listening to what others say about the candidate. "Before a candidate even makes it to the interview stage, I talk to former athletes they have recruited, parents of players who have been on their teams, coaches they have worked under, and coaches they have competed against," he says.

Another key is watching carefully as the candidate interacts with others, during both the formal interview and downtimes. "When the candidate is not interacting with you, your job is to watch how he or she interacts with other people," says Thomas. "Especially when he or she is talking with student-athletes, you can gain a wealth of information. Listen to what the candidate says and watch for cues in body language. Then also watch the body language of the people he or she is talking to. What are the looks on their faces? What is the atmosphere in the room? Are people at ease? Is the candidate capable of generating enthusiasm and electricity? Are people naturally responding to him or her as a leader?"

Situational questions can also be revealing. "We ask questions like, What would you do if one of your players was caught shoplifting, charged with sexually harassing another student-athlete, or accused of plagiarizing a paper?" says Selig. "Their answers will tell us about their thought process, what chains of command they include, and how seriously they take ethical issues."

Keating looks for evidence that a candidate takes rules seriously—not just playing rules, but rules on recruiting, compliance, and academic eligibility. "We make sure to ask them questions that reveal how much they have studied those rules and how sincere they are about following them," he says.

Belinko focuses on asking questions that reveal the candidate’s underlying commitment to student-athletes as well as their philosophy on educational athletics. "A lot of coaches come in with their play books and they’re ready with answers about Xs and Os," he says. "I hit them with the question, ‘What is your philosophy about the role of athletics in a student’s overall education?’ I ask them to name some of the values they think students learn from being athletes, or how they view multi-sport athletes. If they stumble over these questions, they aren’t the kind of coach we are looking for."

Finally, you can take a clue from what happens after the interview is over. "It sounds old fashioned, but I pay attention to whether or not I get a follow-up thank-you note," Groth says. "It’s a little thing that tells me a lot about the kind of person they are. If they follow up with me, they will probably follow up with a student-athlete who needs their help, a recruit they meet with, or a donor who gives them $5,000 for their program. To me, that’s a sign of a potentially great coach."




Sidebar: CULTIVATING CANDIDATES
At the high school level, the first step to hiring a great coach is often finding qualified people willing to apply for the job. Ron Belinko, Coordinator of Athletics for the Baltimore County (Md.) Public School System, has developed some innovative ways of expanding the candidate pool.

First, Belinko makes sure to accompany his district’s human resources staff when they look for teachers. "There is a recruiting seminar in western Pennsylvania every spring that includes dozens of colleges," Belinko says. "I go along with our HR department. As they interview candidates for teaching positions, I compile a list of those with athletics backgrounds. It’s amazing how many of the interviewees were on college sports teams or have experience coaching, but don’t mention it unless someone asks. If I weren’t there, that information would be lost."

Belinko looks to build his database at local colleges and universities. "We work very closely with their education departments," he says. "If they have undergraduates with a coaching background, we try to hook them up with a school where they can do their student teaching and coach at the same time." To help his coaching staff mirror the diversity in his student-athlete population, Belinko focuses on contacting the two historically black colleges in his vicinity.

In addition, Belinko asks his district’s payroll department three times each year to include a list of coaching openings along with all employees’ paychecks. The notices include the athletic department phone number and encourage employees to call for more information.

From all of these sources, Belinko enters potential coaches’ names into a comprehensive database in his office. "Then, for example, let’s say one of our high schools has a coaching vacancy in girls’ basketball," he says. "We can print out a list of people we already know might be able to do the job."


Sidebar 2: REFERENCE CHECK
"Checking references is an obvious and important part of the hiring process," says Larry Keating, Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of Kansas. "But making it meaningful can be difficult. No one puts someone on their list of references who is going to say something negative about them."

Often, getting a more objective opinion means calling individuals who don’t appear on the candidate’s list of references. Be careful, however: State laws vary, but obtaining the candidate’s permission to contact people they have not listed is always essential. "To protect ourselves, we have each candidate sign a statement that says we are allowed to contact people beyond those on their reference list," says Andy Noel, Athletic Director at Cornell University.

Once you’ve obtained the candidate’s permission, whom should you call? "Start by looking at their history and seeing where they have been," advises Dave Diles, Athletic Director at Eastern Michigan University. "Often you get more honest information by talking with someone who is not currently working with the candidate. We talk to administrators they have worked for, assistants who have coached under them, and peers they have coached against. We talk at length with former players, and we call high school coaches in areas where they have recruited."

During one search for a head lacrosse coach, Noel found a novel way to use referrals. "Several people called me to say, ‘I heard you are hiring and I am calling to strongly recommend you hire Mr. Jones,’" Noel says. "After they had given me their recommendation, I asked them if I could have 15 minutes of their time. Then I asked them to tell me what they knew about each of our other top candidates.

"Since they had called to recommended a lacrosse coach, I knew I was talking to someone with knowledge of the lacrosse world," he continues. "Three candidates on my list consistently received high praise, even from people who had called to recommend someone else for the job, and that allowed me to move them to the top of my list."


Sidebar 3: WINNING RESPONSE
When candidates arrived at their interviews for the position of head football coach at Eastern Michigan University last year, there wasn’t much small talk. Athletic Director Dave Diles hit them with a pressure-cooker question right off the bat.

"I told them, ‘Pretend that you have just been introduced to the team as our new head football coach, and make the speech you would make to the players,’" he says. "I wanted to start with something very serious where they would have to produce an excellent response on the spot."

Jeff Genyck’s answer was a big part of what won him the job. "He projected confidence, leadership, and a vision for the program," Diles says. "He talked about how the athletes would be held accountable, but said that he would earn their trust and respect. He presented a plan for all areas of their lives—in the classroom, in the weightroom, on the field, and in their rehab if they were injured. He tore right into the comprehensive nature of the responsibility of being a head coach and made it clear that he knew it was about more than winning games.

"He showed me in the interview that all of that was in place," Diles continues, "and he has followed through on it. He has been great at team building and helping people believe. Our players know he wants to take them someplace they have not been before, and they believe they can get there with him. And all of that was in his response to that interview question."