TAMPA — It’s common in the private sector for a major company to turn to an executive search firm when it’s time to fill a high-profile vacancy.
In what is now the big-money world of academia and college athletics, school administrators are turning to outside firms to nab top talent, too.
With millions of dollars at stake – not necessarily in corporate profits, but ticket sales, TV contracts, research dollars and alumni support – local universities are borrowing the corporate model and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars recently filling corner offices.
University of South Florida St. Petersburg paid $97,700 to R. William Funk & Associates for the search that ended with the hiring of Sophia Wisniewska as regional chancellor last summer. Florida Polytechic is paying a $120,000 retainer to the same firm in the search for its founding president, and the fee will rise to one-third of the annual cash salary that person will earn. USF paid $160,000 for the search that brought in Charles Lockwood as dean of the medical school and senior vice president for USF Health; he starts in May.
The St. Petersburg and Poly searches were paid for from pots of taxpayer money. A USF spokesman said the medical dean search involved private foundation money.
The practice has caught on in sports, as well. On Tuesday, the Tribune revealed that a background check conducted by a search firm had doomed the hiring of Steve Masiello as basketball coach at USF.
The university paid $60,000 to Eastman & Beaudine for the coaching search. It had paid $100,000 to the same firm in January for the search that brought Mark Harlan in as athletic director.
Those bills were covered by a USF athletics foundation, a spokesman for the athletics department said.
With an athletics director on board, why does a university need outside help hiring a coach?
“Most athletics directors have a list of names in their pocket,” said Chuck Neinas, a former Big 12 commissioner who runs Neinas Sports Services, one of the nation’s top headhunters. “In my experience, I have been able to augment that list. I have a little bit larger contact list.”
An ESPN.com report on Parker Executive Search, another of the major players in sports, said that company could provide profiles of 1,000 basketball coaches and 2,000 football coaches with the click of a mouse.
Search firms can also perform extensive security and background checks on candidates. That’s what doomed the Masiello hire — the search firm found, and reported to USF, that the coaching candidate never received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, though he said so on his resume.
Contacts and backgrounds aside, one of the most valuable services a search firm provides is secrecy. The politics and face-saving involved with big-time athletics make open offers and negotiations impossible.
“It’s important to find out whether there would be interest in an individual without jeopardizing either the institution or the individual,” Neinas said.
That applies to academia, as well. In fact the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would create an exemption to public records and public meeting requirements in searches for certain state university officials.
Having a middle-man also helps universities and candidates negotiate unwritten rules of the hiring process. Neinas recalls working with what he would describe only as one of the nation’s best-known football programs, which eventually hired what it identified as its third-best candidate.
“Shoot, he went on to be very successful, and to this day I bet he doesn’t know he was the third pick,” Neinas said.