It grabs headlines when we hear about a deal going down in a smoky back room with boosters conspiring, and we love to play amateur sleuth online to triangulate an athletic director’s location.
But usually, head men get hired similar to the way you or I would, in a relatively normal business transaction.
One difference is that agents are always involved, another actor who has to work with an AD and a coach.
As an agent, there are plenty of things to take into account, both your responsibility to your client and upholding your relationship with athletic department administrators you might have to work with in the future. It’s a balancing act vital to the whole machine of college athletics.
I spoke with an agent who represents multiple college coaches. He asked not to be named, in order to comment candidly. These are his words, edited only for clarity.
First, you have to make your guy their guy.
It’s about really personalizing that interview and personalizing that kind of documentation you put in front of the school. Different programs need different things at different times.
But he’s gotta be the right guy for that particular school. Teams often want a coach totally different from the guy they just fired.
So, once your school hires a head coach and that doesn’t work out, sometimes they’ll go for the opposite the next time.
For example, if they hired a black guy that was a defensive coach, this time they’re gonna hire a white offensive coach. Even if you’ve got the best defensive coordinator in the country, as an agent, you can’t really present that guy. You can, because you have an obligation to your client, but you know he’s not gonna get as much consideration had that experience at that school not happened before.
I’ve got a minority coach, and part of the criteria is wining and dining alumni. This guy’s already got this preconceived notion that my guy, because he’s black or whatever the case may be, does or doesn’t know how to deal with these kinda people.
Once you have the guy, it’s time to navigate the school’s power structure.
Some places, it’s worthless to talk to the AD. They don’t have any juice. They facilitate; they can be a rubber stamp. I know at some places, talking to the athletic director is just like a mere formality.
Some places, you know if the athletic director can’t do anything without consent of the president.
At other places, the athletic director has autonomy.
One of the most important things is to know the landscape of the decision makers.
Part of it is instincts. Part of it is, I really pay attention to what they say. It just kinda depends from place to place. But the athletic director will always play their hand, because they either put blame on them or they’ll say, “Hey man, this ain’t my decision. I can’t do this.”
At some point, when there’s complications, it’ll just kinda reveal itself. Sometimes you can tell immediately from their conversations whether it’s even their decision or not.
There are some things, even with like contract renewals, where I’m just like, I don’t even wanna talk to the AD. I’ll just call your president up, ‘cause that’s who calls the shots. Like hey man, we’re wasting our time here. A couple times I’ve said something similar just to kind of let the AD know: you’re trying to strong arm me, but you know and I know that you don’t got the juice.
Some ADs don’t like talking to agents, but that’s so stupid. You don’t want to have the best possible candidates because that guy works with someone who represents their interests? That’s fucking stupid.
Schools have turned to hiring search firms more often in recent years. That’s yet another variable.
I’m working with a search firm now. One of my clients is caught up in the middle of a season. So, whether that client goes and interviews and how quickly it all takes place, I’m able to communicate with the coach the things they need to do, based on what the search firm’s telling me about how quickly the search is going to go.
Well, my client’s preparing for whatever team, right? Can we try and work this thing out? And I’ll tell my coach, hey, this is what the search firm wants; these are the kind of people they’ve hired before. So, we act as a conduit.
In some roles with some search firms, I’m much more aggressive. Other ones, I’m just like hey, we just gotta chill out and let them kinda come to their own conclusions.
There’s some search firms that I know that aren’t gonna be good with minority candidates because they don’t fucking understand them, because as athletic directors [search firms are sometimes led by former administrators], they didn’t hire minority coaches themselves.
They’re such repeat players in this thing that as an agency, you want to have an element of credibility and legitimacy.
And that means you have to be careful about aggressively overselling your clients.
Every client thinks he’s [head coach material]. But sometimes, dude, you’re not ready yet.
That’s me saying that, because you’re a position coach at X. You’re not ready for that job yet. You don’t have those kinda chops yet. You still need to learn a lot. I’m not gonna present them a guy that isn’t ready, because if I do, that hurts me down the line. They’re not gonna take my people seriously.
When athletic directors are directly involved, for me, it’s very much more helpful because I think they become very honest. You don’t have to pull any punches.
This past year, I had a head coach, and it was an athletic director[-led] hire. I sent him an email at 4:30. By 4:37, I knew my guy was a candidate because the guy got back to me. And that’s in the morning.
I was like alright, shit, this guy’s not playing around.
There are sticking points to be careful of during negotiations.
Buyouts. Those are basically a restriction on trade. It’s a restriction on economic behaviors. You can’t really go out and get another job without having to pay these other people back. Which I get, but some of them tend to be a bit more onerous than the next.
Do it in a way that encourages both sides to continue on with the relationship. If you fire a coach, you want that guy to keep coaching.
I think another thing with breakdowns would be assistant coaches’ salaries. I think head coaches — especially better ones — will turn down jobs if they know that they can’t bring the staff they want.
Another thing is, if you don’t have [incentives such as performance bonuses] for the possibility of you winning a conference or a national championship, if those aren’t in place, I think that’s what causes things to break down. I don’t think universities are as forthcoming with those kinds of things.
Also, obviously the guaranteed money. I think a lot of schools try to hide what’s actually guaranteed and what isn’t. I can tell you, you can sign a contract for five years, but if you’re only guaranteed month-to-month checks, what good is that guarantee? You’re essentially at-will.
A completed negotiation might feel like a one-time thing for a coach, but for an agent, it’s just Round 1.
I guess the one thing that people forget in a lot of negotiations is that — especially if it’s a long-term relationship — that everybody has their opportunity to take an at-bat.
Achieving total victory often comes at a political cost. Just because you get everything you want in a contract, that doesn’t necessarily bode well. What happens if you lose? What happens if you win too?
The school that took their at-bat and gave you onerous contract terms? The coaches remember that. You didn’t take care of me. So, now that it’s my turn at bat, I want to kind of dominate this round of talks.
It happens pretty quickly, especially with younger coaches. Schools will try to say we gave you an opportunity discount. And what happens is younger coaches become older coaches, and those older coaches remember that. When it comes time for their turn, then the university kinda gets a little desperate.
Coaches and agents and ADs would all like to maintain control of the situation. That means plausible deniability is important.
I think you’re always worried because you don’t know who’s involved in the process on the other end. And you don’t know who wants to leak it to Richard Johnson. I don’t get mad at it; it’s part of the process.
I think it takes having good relationships with people in media, and I think it takes having good relationships with the athletic director.
One of my coaches got hired this year. My head coach told me not to put it out there, I said, “Fine with me.”
He wasn’t worried about the job. We just wanted to keep quiet so he could tell his wife. He gets on a plane. An hour later, that shit’s out there already. Someone leaked it. I’m sitting in a supermarket, my coach tells me he’s getting the job, and I’m screaming to the heavens I’m so happy. We’re not gonna say anything. We’re gonna let you tell your wife.
Wife knew about it by the time the plane landed.
But when reporters are following up with leads ...
If you ask me as a man, I gotta tell you, yeah. I’m not gonna try to throw you off the scent. I know other agents that will lie to people. I’m not gonna lie.
I would get out in front of stuff, because if you were to call me and you say, “Hey man, is coach [X] a candidate at [School Y]?”
I’ll be like: “Between us, yeah, you’ll be the first to know when it happens, but as of right now I can’t tell you this, because I’m sworn to secrecy.
“So don’t fuck this deal up for me.”