Behind closed doors, good coaching candidates can fall flat in interview process
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry and Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead share a laugh after practice at Lasch Field in State College, Pa. Mar. 30, 2016 (Mark Pynes | firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Source: Mike Leach next head coach at Maryland,” the OrangeBloods headline blared.
Leach, the pirate-loving Air Raid disciple, was headed to Maryland a year after Texas Tech fired him for alleged poor treatment of Craig James’ son. The report from Chip Brown in Dec. 2010 didn’t come as a surprise given Leach was immediately associated with the job following Ralph Friedgen’s firing. Leach had a good relationship with Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, a former Maryland football player, and was athletic director Kevin Anderson’s preferred candidate. On the day of Friedgen’s dismissal, The Washington Post reported strong mutual interest between Maryland and Leach.
All Leach had to do was interview with Maryland’s search committee which included a mix of academics, university donors and athletic department personnel. It was considered to be a formality, at least by outsiders, a chance for university leaders to rubber stamp the next football coach.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of people for jobs in my career,” said a member of Maryland’s search committee, “and that was one of the more bizarre interviews. You’d ask him a question, and he would just start talking and keep talking…you are sitting there thinking when is he going to get to the answer? And then he says, ‘Oh wait, I’m rambling. What was the question again?”
Leach, one of college football’s most honest yet peculiar characters, was well prepared to discuss his Texas Tech firing but struggled to answer academic questions. He used salty, off-the-cuff language that didn’t exactly endear himself to some members of the search committee. He rarely was able to directly answer even simple questions.
It sunk the Mad Pirate’s chances of becoming Maryland’s head coach. He went from reportedly calling recruits about Maryland to back on the search for a job after the school hired Randy Edsall. (Edsall was fired in 2015 after a 22-34 record in five seasons). Leach had a similarly poor interview experience with Tennessee in 2008, according to sources, and yet the Volunteers still almost hired him nearly a decade later — the two sides reportedly agreed to terms — before athletic director John Currie was called back to Knoxville and suspended. Leach couldn’t get much traction after Phillip Fulmer took over the AD job and Tennessee ultimately hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Leach’s Maryland experience not only explains why he isn’t as popular with university leaders as he is with sportswriters but showcases the importance of the interview process. On paper Leach, now at Washington State, is a quote machine and the captain of a high-scoring fun offense — a dream combination when it comes to generating fan interest and filling stadiums. But it often isn’t that simple.
“You have to remember while the athletic director is key, the president plays a role and the president will look at someone as a representative of the university and not just as a football coach,” said Chuck Neinas, former Big 12 commissioner and a long-time search consultant.
“I personally know and like Mike Leach but Mike Leach has prospered at Texas Tech and Washington State which are kind of the periphery, and that’s not meant to be negative. He is highly popular in those settings, but I don’t think he’d work at Stanford.”
Talk to athletic directors, agents and search industry experts and they all have memorable interview stories. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden tells a famous story of wanting to replace Ray Perkins at Alabama and expecting an offer to be a formality only to walk into a room full of 17 people and realize he had to formally interview. The job, instead, went to Bill Curry and Bowden built a powerhouse in Tallahassee.
Gus Malzahn, then Auburn’s offensive coordinator, refused to get on a plane to interview at Maryland in 2010 unless he was promised a job offer, according to that same search committee member. That demand turned off the school, and both parties decided to go their separate ways with Malzahn ultimately taking the Arkansas State job the following year.
Ed Orgeron got then-Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat into a three-point stance during a wild interview for the Ole Miss job in 2004. Orgeron told The Advocate he “showed my enthusiasm” with the football drills, made a connection with the university leader and beat out Randy Shannon and Dennis Erickson for the job.
A personal favorite: A successful coach doomed his chances for a job after obliviously sucking on a mint while talking during his interview before taking it out of his mouth and plunking the spit-covered mint down on the table in front of everyone. It totally derailed the meeting even if he was qualified for the job.
Neinas, who has assisted on many searches over the years including ones at Alabama and Auburn, remembers two coaches missing out on jobs he was involved with because of perceived poor interviews despite the coaches possessing sterling qualifications. The issue? They were too laid back.
“Both are superior gentlemen in every respect of the word and good coaches,” he said. “But in both instances, the client said he doesn’t have enough fire in his belly. If I were to give you the names of the coaches, you’d be surprised because both have done very well.”
There are a lot of factors that go into a significant hiring decision particularly one that requires a multi-million dollar commitment like hiring a new football coach. There are obvious factors that anyone can recognize — coaches who win national championships are generally good and desirable — that make some hires easier than others. Texas A&M didn’t have to make Jimbo Fisher go through the gauntlet before offering him a massive 10-year, $75 million deal — his record at Florida State spoke for itself.
But when it’s less clear-cut, fit becomes paramount. When Dan Mullen decided to leave Starkville for Florida, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen already had four or five good candidates in mind for the vacant position. Cohen interviewed multiple candidates including Pruitt but decided on Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead in part because of a stellar in-person interview experience.
“We interviewed some coaches I think are going to be outstanding coaches at the (Power 5) level, but they probably weren’t the greatest fit for us at Mississippi State right now,” Cohen said. “Fit for us was really important, and that’s the importance of going eyeball-to-eyeball with someone and sitting in the same room. You have an idea from talking on the phone but at the same time sitting in the same room becomes an important factor.”
During the interview process, candidates are asked about staffing plans — who are they going to bring with them and how realistic are those plans? — recruiting and managing the challenges of a 24/7, 365-day a year job. For first-time head coaches, how will they handle the transition from coordinator into the CEO of a multi-million dollar operation? That first year can be particularly challenging for new coaches as they deal with constant requests they didn’t typically face as assistants whether from fans, big donors, university administration, player parents or the media. Athletic directors and university officials are trying to determine all of this at a rushed pace — interviews typically only last a few hours despite the enormous stakes of the decision. Who is involved in the interview process — and has the power to make the hire — is a massive variable. At some schools, the AD has full authority to make the hire while other schools demand some combination of the president, trustees and influential donors be involved.
At Mississippi State, Jared Benko, the athletic department’s CFO, and Bo Hemphill, deputy AD of development, both assisted Cohen with in-person interviews. The Mississippi State AD wanted their perspectives on how the potential hires could impact alumni donations and the overall financials of the athletic department. When the school started focusing on Moorhead, the big question was how a coach with little ties to the South — his last three coaching stints were at Penn State, Fordham and UConn — could succeed at MSU. Cohen talked to Moorhead on the phone and then met with him twice in two days to gather as much information as possible on how a potential marriage would work. They asked the Penn State offensive coordinator point-blank how he’d connect with recruits from rural areas of the Deep South.
Moorhead won over the room with his answer, saying “If a kid is passionate about football, if he’s passionate about being a good student-athlete, then we can connect instantly just like we connected in this room.”
“That was a pretty powerful statement,” Cohen said, “and I believe that. I believe he can connect with anybody.”
When Orgeron got a chance to interview for another SEC head coach job, he didn’t make LSU athletic director Joe Alleva get in a football stance. He had learned from the mistakes of his disastrous Ole Miss tenure and knew he had to sell the search committee on that enlightenment if he was going to get the full-time job. He created two binders on how to build a championship program at LSU full of things he learned along the way including at USC under Pete Carroll. It “blew away” the search committee and he got the job after Tom Herman opted for Austin over Baton Rouge.
Recalling his own interview experiences, Cohen, a former baseball coach, said the candidate “who has a plan and is passionate can overcome almost any other deficiency.”
For others, all it can take is one bad two-hour interview to negatively overshadow a career’s worth of accomplishments.
John Talty is the college sports editor for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @JTalty.