Navigating Collegiate Athletic Leadership Searches

In supporting executive leadership needs across higher education, WittKieffer recognized that many colleges and universities, regardless of size or competition division, needed informed support when seeking new leaders for their athletic departments. In an answer to that need, the firm brought in Jeff Compher to its Intercollegiate Athletics Practice, bringing with him more than 25 years of experience leading athletic departments. During that time he gathered tremendous insight into the world of collegiate athletics, as well as the hurdles and responsibilities that accompany the role of Athletic Director. WittKieffer, relying on Jeff’s knowledge and experience, is helping education clients identify the next generation of collegiate athletic department leaders. 

How do you use your experience as an AD to inform and support a search committee during the search and interview process?

Compher: I rely on my many years of experience in higher education and intercollegiate athletics to provide a realistic and practical look at the landscape of college athletics, and the variety of issues that universities and their athletic directors must deal with in the changing world of intercollegiate athletics. Having worked for six different NCAA Division I universities in seven different athletic conferences, including three members in the so-called “Power Five,” I hired over 20 head coaches and developed a wealth of contacts with sitting ADs, conference commissioners, the NCAA and other leadership organizations in collegiate athletics. I think this provided me the first-hand experience needed to inform the committee of search aspects important to the candidates.

What part of an AD’s job has changed the most over the past several years and how has it affected the way a search proceeds?

Compher: Salaries have increased dramatically for AD’s over the last several years, with many ADs at top Division I programs making more than $1 million per year. Therefore, the AD is held to an extremely high standard and expected to be an executive leader capable of hiring top head coaches, raising vast sums of money, filling venues with happy fans, balancing the budget and winning championships, while graduating their student-athletes.

These high expectations come with increased scrutiny from fans, students, faculty, alumni, board members, other constituencies and the media. Therefore, the search process has changed, become more inclusive and, in some cases, more time consuming in order to give the search committee and potential candidates adequate opportunity to perform due diligence.

What is the practical experience a search committee should look for in a potential AD?

Compher: This is a rather exhaustive list, but to be considered a serious candidate, one should possess – in no particular order – a sport supervision background, a record of hiring successful head coaches and staffs, budget development and management experience, fundraising and donor relations, revenue generation and partnership development, managing capital projects, strategic planning, fan engagement and attendance, NCAA Compliance, student-athlete wellbeing (mental health, nutrition, strength and conditioning, training table, sports medicine), Title IX evaluation, a track record of working with other university leadership, and making sure student-athletes maintain high GPAs and graduate at a rate that is comparable to or higher than the rest of the student body.

Following up on that…What leadership characteristics do the most successful/longest-serving ADs share? 

Compher: The ability to adapt and change. This may include the arrival of a new president or chancellor during one’s tenure as AD, joining a new conference, implementing new NCAA rules such as Name Image and Likeness (NIL) policies or cost of attendance. The other leadership characteristic that comes to mind is the skill to set a strategic direction that aligns with the university, and the ability to use that plan to attract and retain a good team of coaches and administrators who care about the student-athlete experience and understand their role within the university. Finally, all of this cannot be accomplished without the foundational traits of integrity and trust. People will not invest their time, money or other resources with an organization if the leader does not instill a sense of trust and integrity.

Adaptability is clearly important. What are some of the recent issues that require athletic department leadership to step up and provide strong guidance?

Compher: We are facing unprecedented times dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing world-wide crisis. There were immediate challenges and ramifications to intercollegiate athletics such as cancelling the NCAA basketball tournament, the primary source of revenue for the NCAA. Now the issues around COVID-19 have affected the fall sports season at most universities around the country. The postponement or cancellation of football and other fall sports will profoundly affect student-athletes, athletic department budgets and the fans and supporters of the athletic programs. Many universities are also dealing with the prospect of decreased enrollment, which will cause financial challenges influencing athletic programs that rely heavily on student fees as a source of revenue.

In addition to the challenges of the pandemic ADs must deal with a variety of emerging and important issues such as new and pending name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation, racial justice, student-athlete mental health, the potential for new transfer rules, conference alignment and media negotiations, fan engagement and pending NCAA court decisions. All of these issues must have the attention of athletic department and university leadership.

Lastly, what has the most potential to derail an AD search and how can it be avoided?

Compher: There are several things that can derail an AD search, but by far the most significant is a lack of confidentiality. Potential candidates must have the assurance that their candidacy will be held in complete confidentiality. For this reason we strongly suggest that members of the search committee be appointed by the president or chancellor, and that he or she clearly express the expectation concerning confidentiality, requiring members to sign a non-disclosure agreement. These actions provide initial assurance to potential candidates that the university is taking the search seriously and they understand the ramifications if names of candidates were to be disclosed. However, some states and/or universities may not allow or desire a completely confidential search. In these cases it is important to disclose this to potential candidates from the outset of the search process.

Failure to attract a robust group of candidates might be a close second. There are a number of issues that might contribute to this, including:

  • The belief that the search is superficial and the candidate of choice is already pre-selected.
  • The disclosure of an NCAA investigation that may take months or years to resolve and ensuing penalties could limit candidate interest.
  • The status of the chancellor or president is also very important. Some candidates are reluctant to enter a process that includes an interim or retiring leader due to the uncertainty of the successor and their vision/expectations for the athletics program.
  • Timing of the search is also significant. Starting a search in the winter or spring makes more sense and often allows more time for the process.
  • Another factor could be related to a candidate’s current employment agreement, and whether a buyout clause must be addressed.

Finally, conducting adequate due diligence is key to a successful search. We are fortunate to have robust resources and a process that ensures an institution is in compliance with ever-changing laws around issues such as pay equity, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other elements that impact high profile searches. The associated risks around these issues have increased substantially in recent years.

Ultimately, it is the search firm’s responsibility to be aware of these issues and understand how they might impact the search process. Getting ahead of potential hurdles from the outset and staying on top of them as the search proceeds ensures consultants provide the search committee and institution with the highest level of service.

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