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UNLV among many schools using search firms for coaching hires

Updated March 30, 2019 - 5:57 pm

When UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois began her search for a men’s basketball coach, she was prepared to wait until the Final Four if necessary.

She wanted to make sure the proper background research was put into the search, even if it meant taxing an impatient fan base.

That’s because Reed-Francois and her colleagues around the country want to minimize the chance of something in a coach’s background that will bring embarrassment to the university and perhaps even force an abrupt change. It’s a concern driven home almost two years ago when the FBI revealed it had been investigating alleged corruption in men’s college basketball.

“There is a heightened awareness and a level of scrutiny that requires significant due diligence,” Reed-Francois said.

Reed-Francois, as it turned out, didn’t wait long to announce her new coach. T.J. Otzelberger was hired from South Dakota State on Wednesday, making it a 12-day search process from the time Marvin Menzies was fired March 15.

Use of search firms common

UNLV was the only Mountain West school to make a change this year in men’s basketball. Colorado State, Fresno State and Utah State made hires last year and, like UNLV, all used search firms.

Firms charge anywhere from $20,000 to well past $100,000. UNLV’s deal with South Carolina-based Fogler Consulting was $20,000 per month up to two months.

“When you look at the cost of doing business and being able to identify the very best candidates, being able to do a thorough background check on the candidates … that’s an investment,” said Utah State athletic director John Hartwell, who said the agreement with his search firm did not allow him to disclose the amount paid. “That’s an investment that’s hopefully over a five-, six-, seven-, 10-year period for making the right hire. And if you make the wrong hire, it’s a lot more expensive than that.”

Such firms serve a variety of purposes, and athletic departments increasingly use them less for outright searches than for background checks and to keep details of the hiring process out of public view. Because a search firm is a private company, it can request information from a school and not be subject to a records request by the media.

Most search firms did not return messages for comment for this story, and one spoke on the condition of background only. A consultant to one firm, Snodgrass Partners in Kansas, did speak about what firms can mean to a search process.

“When it comes right down to it, it’s still the university’s decision on who to hire, but I think helping them to vet out some of the candidates is a really good thing,” said Tom O’Connor, the consultant and former athletic director at four schools. “There has to be good synergy between the athletic director at the university and the search firm.”

Colorado State used the same firm as UNLV when the Rams hired Niko Medved last year. Fresno State went with North Carolina-based Collegiate Sports Associates when it hired Justin Huston. Utah State used DHR International, which has 50 offices throughout the world, when it hired Craig Smith.

Colorado State made its hire March 22 of last year, Utah State on March 27 and Fresno State on April 5. Fresno State is required to advertise job openings for 13 days before actively conducting a search.

“It did allow us to do a little more background work without a doubt, but we would’ve done that same work anyway,” said Steve Robertello, who was Fresno State’s interim athletic director at the time and now works in university administration. “You don’t want to rush it.”

Getting their men

Even with waiting, Robertello said he was quite pleased to land Hutson, known for his strong defenses over 10 seasons as a San Diego State assistant.

“I think it was a good, thorough process,” Robertello said. “We got all the information we needed and made the hire, and he’s obviously done a great job (third in the Mountain West) his first year, and we expect many great years ahead of him.”

Hartwell’s search ended with selecting Smith, who became the Mountain West Coach of the Year after leading the Aggies to a share of the conference regular-season title with UNR. They also won the conference tournament championship and joined the Wolf Pack as the Mountain West representatives in the NCAA Tournament.

“We had interviews with quite a few qualified candidates, but every personality is not going to plug and play per se in Logan, Utah,” Hartwell said. “And the same personality may not have the same success in Logan, Utah, as they do in Las Vegas and vice versa. I think it’s important you know the culture of your program, the culture of where you want your program to be, the surrounding environment, and analyze those candidates.”

UNLV hopes for similar success next season under Otzelberger, who led South Dakota State to two appearances in the NCAA Tournament and one in the National Invitation Tournament.

Reed-Francois delved into the history of every candidate she considered. Along with employing the search firm, she went through the NCAA for background information, did criminal checks and scanned social-media posts. UNLV also spoke with other coaches as well as athletic directors and compliance officers at candidates’ previous schools.

“Nothing is foolproof, but we have a responsibility to do our due diligence in these search processes,” Reed-Francois said. “Search firms are one tool to help you with that due diligence.”

More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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