The constant firing and hiring of college coaches is quite common these days. But how are these decisions actually made? In this week’s SI, senior writer George Dohrmann finds that search firms who command top dollar for work that doesn’t always pay off have changed the power landscape in college athletics and have become the norm when schools look to make new hires. Dohrmann dives into the benefits and handicaps that these search firms bring to the process.
“Having a partner to provide outside counsel can eliminate bias, maximize the efficiency and confidentiality of the process, and ultimately help guide us to the most informed decision possible,” says Jim Phillips, the Northwestern athletic director who recently used a headhunting firm to hire Chris Collins as his new head men’s basketball coach (PAGE 45).
On average the service of these search firms cost $30,000-$90,000 per hire, but there have been reported cases of firms charging far more, such as Colorado State paying Spencer Stuart $250,000 to help them choose Jim McElwain as their head football coach. While the amount of money may seem excessive in a time when higher education is losing funding at alarming rates, there are reasons why schools prefer to use search firms.
Dohrman finds that many athletic directors feel that outside consultants can initiate coaching searches much earlier than schools. They can begin the search and maintain a sense of privacy for both those interested in the position and the school itself. Firms are also capable of finding out information that is sometimes not known to universities, such as personal issues that colleges may not find in background checks. But perhaps most importantly, hiring an outside source to conduct searches for universities can show proof of the diligence and effort that went into a hire if it should not pan out well, which creates a cover for athletic directors.
With glaring benefits come equally important drawbacks. Dohrmann finds that some consulting firms will operate as “gatekeepers”. “They want to be decision makers and influence who is going to be interviewed and who is going to be selected,” explains Bill Carr, founder of Carr Sports Associates. These firms tend to push favored candidates rather than tailor a search to a programs needs.
An example of such instance is Jack Swarbrick, currently Notre Dame’s athletic director. Before his hiring in South Bend, he was a candidate for NCAA president, the AD of Indiana, Arizona State and Ohio State. Parker Executive Searches assisted in all of these hiring’s and eventually landed Swarbrick his current position. The constant push of a single client makes one question how tailored these searches really were. After Swarbrick was eventually hired, he then used the same firm who placed him to hire current Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, which continued the cycle of loyalty to a single source.
Another general fear is that the repeat use of the firms will cause loyalty that is not in each universities best interest. A general understanding of if we help you, you help us, could lead to bad placements such as the ones felt in Minnesota with the hiring’s of Tubby Smith for basketball and Tim Brewster for football, both of whom have since been fired.
But while the recycled use of clients and firms cast a suspicious light on the coach search consulting industry, the process is still defended by its users.
“Repeat clients are standard in the search business,” defends Laurie Wilder, the executive vice president of Parker, a firm responsible for the hiring of at least 40 athletic directors. “If you build a relationship and if you do quality work, people ask you to do quality work again. Just speaking about Parker, there has never been an environment where we say we will put you in as a candidate if you do this.”
MLB teams aren’t the biggest fans of Mark Appel right now writes senior writer George Dohrmann in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. That’s because Stanford pitcher scorned the Pittsburgh Pirates’ $3.8 million offer last summer following the draft, raising the eyebrows of MLB front offices as he decided to return to Palo Alto. Appel feels he was in the right about his choice, despite the criticism.
“When I made the decision, people looked at the money. I also factored in that I would get to be here at Stanford, which is like home, for another year and I would get another chance to help my team get to [the College World Series], and I would get my degree.” (PAGE 28)
Many still believe Appel is being used by super agent Scott Boras as a protest against new draft rules. In the new draft, each draft slot has a limit on signing bonuses and it slowly declines the further it goes down, lessening the power of big market teams at the end of the draft. Small market teams at the top of the draft were scared to deal with Boras. Some believe that when the agent didn’t get the price he wanted from the Pirates, his client pulled out. Now, Appel is hoping to erase a disappointing junior season that included a four-inning, seven-run debacle against Florida State in the CWS, but others think he may just fall further in the upcoming draft without the leverage of returning to college.
“People dwell on the decision because it’s an odd decision in their minds. But I have moved on. In my eyes it has already been a wonderful year, full of memories I’ve created and memories I hope to still create with my teammates. I’m not going to determine if it was good decision based on money.” (PAGE 31
Also, the Way Too Early Top 2013 Draft Prospects by Albert Chen:
- Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford
- Ryne Stanek, RHP, Arkansas
- Austin Meadows, CF, Grayson (Ga.) HS
- Sean Manaea, LHP, Indiana State
- Kohl Stewart, RHP, St. Pius X (Houston) HS
- Clint Frazier, OF, Loganville (Ga.) HS
- Kris Bryant, 3B, San Diego
- Jonathon Crawford, RHP, Florida
- Austin Wilson, OF, Stanford
- Trey Ball, OF/LHP, New Castle (Ind.) HS
(NEW YORK – Jan.29, 2013) Athletes continue to search desperately for a competitive edge—even if that search leads them to products of questionable legitimacy, like ground deer-antler velvet—according to an investigative report by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writers David Epstein and George Dohrmann. You can read the full story at SI.com here.
Epstein and Dohrmann found that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, pro golfer Vijay Singh, members of the 2011 Alabama and LSU college football teams, Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour, NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman, former MLB outfielder Johnny Damon, and former NFL running back Jamal Lewis have all used products whose effectiveness hasn’t been proved by modern science, from an Alabama company called Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (S.W.A.T.S.). Two of the company’s products are advertised to contain deer-antler extract, in spray or pill form. The extract contains IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, which is banned by every major pro league and the NCAA.
Mitch Ross, founder of S.W.A.T.S., and Chris Key, a salesman for S.W.A.T.S., recorded phone calls and meetings with their clients and shared them with Epstein and Dohrmann, including a phone conversation with Ray Lewis. In the call, Lewis said, “… send me everything you got” to speed his recovery from a torn triceps injury he suffered on Oct. 14, 2012. Ross said that they issued Lewis a mix of holographic stickers, negatively charged water, and deer-antler pills and extract. “Spray on my elbow every two hours?” Lewis asked. “No,” Ross said, “under your tongue.”
When pressed for comment, Lewis says: “Nobody helped me out with the rehab. I’ve been doing S.W.A.T.S. for a couple years through Hue Jackson (former Ravens QB coach and current Bengals assistant coach), that’s it. That’s my only connection to them.”
The report says S.W.A.T.S.’s influence reached college football as well. Key said he gave S.W.A.T.S.’s hologram stickers—which are “programmed” with both a light beam and radio waves to improve performance—to LSU football players before their 9–6 victory over Alabama, in November 2011. And members of the 2011 BCS champion Alabama Crimson Tide were given S.W.A.T.S. products at a meeting with Key (a gathering that Key taped with a pen camera and showed to SI) on the eve of Bama’s 21–0 victory over LSU in January 2012. Six months later Bama linebacker Alex Watkins was featured in a YouTube video citing the boost he got from their products.
Vijay Singh continues to support S.W.A.T.S. He paid for the full S.W.A.T.S. regimen, which included the IGF-1 substance banned by the PGA. Singh says he uses the spray “every couple of hours … every day. I’m looking forward to some change in my body.”
In June 2009 David Vobora failed an off-season test for methyltestosterone and was suspended for four games. Vobora had his S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray tested and according to court documents it contained methyltestosterone. Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S., alleging a lack of quality control that allowed the spray bottle to be contaminated, and on June 20, 2011, was awarded $5.4 million dollars.
After the verdict the NFL, the PGA, and MLB notified athletes that the S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray had been implicated in a positive drug test. Clients immediately demanded that their names not be associated with S.W.A.T.S. This is when Ross closed his business and reopened under a slightly different name. Epstein and Dohrmann write:
“Overnight, the tiny company that marketed itself as a legal alternative to steroids and that depended on player testimonials became as untouchable for pro athletes as an electric fence.”
The report found that other athletes took S.W.A.T.S. products after the lawsuit and warnings from the leagues. According to a phone conversation that Ross recorded and posted online, Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman used the deer-antler spray and deer-antler pills in 2011 while rehabbing from a torn right Achilles tendon. Another phone call taped by Ross six months after the Vobora verdict has him offering his latest products to Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour.
Before the lawsuit, S.W.A.T.S had largely relied on testimonials of professional athletes and coaches to help spread the word. Ross told Epstein and Dohrmann that:
- In 2007 Jamal Lewis, former Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns running back, went through about 40 bottles of the deer-antler spay. Lewis told a Ravens spokesman: “I didn’t use any spray or anything like that.”
- In 2008 Johnny Damon, then with the Yankees, took chips for neck pain and provided a testimonial supporting the company. Through Damon’s agent, Damon say’s he is no longer affiliated with S.W.A.T.S. and has asked to be removed from its website.
- In 2008 then Raven’s QB coach Hue Jackson invited Ross to the Ravens’ facility to hand out products to Ravens players (PAGE 64). In 2010, after Jackson was hired as head coach of the Raiders, he met Ross to tape a video testimonial to put on YouTube. “Our players swear by them,” Jackson says in the video.
S.W.A.T.S. continues to market its products and has even touched upon brain trauma. Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Fame Bills offensive lineman and plaintiff in a brain injury lawsuit against the NFL, told Epstein and Dohrmann that S.W.A.T.S.’s pills and deer-antler spray help him sleep better.
Legal or not, Epstein and Dohrmann also found that science doesn’t support the claims that S.W.A.T.S. products provide any sort of competitive edge:
“No such thing as negatively charged water exists, according to Stephen Lower, an emeritus chemistry professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.”
In a test in his lab at the NYU Polytechnic Institute, radio frequency expert and electrical engineering professor Michael Knox showed SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that S.W.A.T.S.’s chips “appear to just be stickers.”
About the writers:
Senior Writer David Epstein writes about sports science and medicine, Olympic sports, and is an investigative reporter for SI. His science writing has won a number of awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists 2010 Deadline Club Award for an article on the genetics of sports performance. Since 2008, Epstein has co-written several of SI and SI.com’s most important investigative pieces, including the revelation that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, and an investigation that revealed a pattern of NCAA violations under former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel.
Senior Writer George Dohrmann has been with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED since 2000 and his primary beat is investigative reporting. He won journalism’s top honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2000 while at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Pulitzer cited his “determined reporting, despite negative reader reaction, that revealed academic fraud in the men’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota.” Among other honors: Dohrmann has earned the Associated Press Sports Editors investigative honors award (1995, 1996 and 2000) as well as an APSE award in feature writing (2000). He has also covered college football, college basketball and high school sports for SI and SI.com. Dohrmann is the author of the book, Play Their Hearts Out, an exposé about youth basketball to be published by Random House in October 2010.
The UCLA men’s basketball program made three consecutive final four appearances from 2006-‘08. Since then the Bruins haven’t made it out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament and are in danger of missing the tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Over the last two months, Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann (@GeorgeDohrmann) took a deeper look at the past four Bruins teams and discovered a program in chaos: Players fighting in practice, partying excessively and doing drugs, sometimes before practice. One player even intentionally tried to injure some of his teammates in practice. Coach Ben Howland, known for his hard-line discipline and tactical skills, clearly lost control and respect of his players. Star forward Reeves Nelson divided the team frequently with his bullying and showed disrespect to Howland and his coaching staff on numerous occasions.
George Dohrmann, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, sat down to talk with us about the exclusive story.
ISI: What piqued your interest in regard to UCLA Men’s basketball, and how did the idea for this story originate?
GD: I live on the West Coast (in San Francisco) and so I follow the Pac-12 more than any other conference. It has been historically bad the last few years, and yet during that time UCLA has underachieved. They should be dominating but have struggled. In December, when it was apparent UCLA was again going to have a poor season, I started asking people I know in the LA basketball community a simple question: Why isn’t UCLA winning? Their answers varied (and were mostly speculation), but there was enough smoke that it felt like a worthwhile story to go after.
ISI: How many interviews did you conduct in preparation for the story?
GD: I talked to former UCLA players and staff members, some parents and AAU coaches, and several current college coaches just to get their read on UCLA. Then in the end I went to different people for comment about what we were writing. In total, probably close to 30 different people, with multiple interviews with many of them.
ISI: Over the course of your research and interviews, what surprised you the most in regard to the information you discovered?
GD: Just that Ben Howland wasn’t the disciplinarian that he had been made out to be. Athletes drinking or smoking weed or getting into fights is something you expect to some degree, but when player after player told me how distant Howland was, how detached he was from his players, that shocked me. It was a case where the image of Howland that had been created didn’t match the reality.
ISI: UCLA men’s basketball is a storied program, how do you believe the proud alum will react to the facts uncovered in your story?
GD: Unlike Ohio State fans, UCLA alums have been pretty civilized with me so far and I think they will take a rationale look at what is going on. It also helps that most are unhappy with Howland, with the losing, and don’t think of him as some deity the way Ohio State fans did with Jim Tressel. They have some perspective that other college football fans often lack. So, while they might be embarrassed and will put Howland on notice, they won’t protest too much and he will get a year to start winning again and to clean up the program. If he can win, they will calm down. If he doesn’t, he is gone.