The University of Tennessee made headlines this winter when it paid Atlanta-based headhunting firm Parker Executive Search almost a quarter of a million dollars to assist in its search for a head football coach and athletic director. Each came with a $120,000 price tag, plus expenses—a sum that Tennessee was willing to pay amid a global pandemic.
The university first tapped Parker for its AD search, agreeing to a letter of understanding on Jan. 16. On Jan. 21, Tennessee announced the hiring of UCF’s Danny White for the position. That same day, the school signed a contract with Parker to help with its football coach search. Six days (and six figures) later, the Vols named the Knights’ Josh Heupel—who had worked under White in his previous role—as the program’s new head coach.
From start to finish, it took Parker two weeks—which, according to several headhunters who work with colleges, is about the average time a single coaching search takes—to make $240,000 on the pair of searches.
Tennessee’s payments to Parker were made only a few months after the athletics department had announced a tiered plan to reduce pay rates for about 180 staffers to save money in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the contracts with Parker were signed by the university, as opposed to the athletics department, the optics weren’t great.
Tennessee wasn’t the first, or the only, school to agree to big search firm fees for athletics hires in 2021 or years prior. Its SEC rival, Auburn, cut Parker its own $120,000 check (plus undisclosed expenses) this winter after firing football coach Gus Malzahn, according to a December contract signed by Tigers AD Allen Greene, obtained by Sportico through a public records request.
“Coaching searches are really difficult, but they’re short, in terms of how long they take, which is part of why some of these fees don’t make sense to me,” said Kyle Bowlsby, founder of Bowlsby Sports Advisors, which conducts collegiate executive searches.
Parker doesn’t even charge the highest fees: In 2014, the University of Texas wrote Korn Ferry a check for $267,000 upon hiring Charlie Strong, who only lasted two years with the Longhorns. In late 2011, Colorado State reportedly paid search firm Spencer Stuart $250,000 to find its new football coach. Those numbers are harder to come by today with more boutique search firms that operate at lower, more palatable price points for athletic departments without massive budgets. While these smaller firms are competing with the institutionalized giants, like Spencer Stuart or Korn Ferry, six-figure fees aren’t anywhere near obsolete, as Parker’s business shows.
Exorbitant spending around big-time college athletics has long been criticized, but the pandemic seemed to provide a reason to hit pause, as the crisis reduced revenues and forced schools to take stock of expenses. The Tennessee and Auburn examples show that hasn’t been the case across the board.
The fees reflect ballooning spending, especially in coaching salaries—many search firm contracts set their prices as a percentage (anywhere from around 15% to 30%) of the hire’s first-year compensation, or what amounts to a comparable flat fee. Even amid the fiercest belt-tightening college sports has undergone in years, the country’s biggest athletic departments have still found the cash to satisfy those costs.
“Firms are able to charge these fees because the schools will pay for it,” said Bowlsby, who spent four years at Korn Ferry, which he described as “the Tiffany’s” of executive search firms. “Some firms feel like if they’re working with a Power Five program, they can jack their fees up when, in actuality, the amount of work that goes into a search at Tennessee versus a search at Western Michigan is probably about the same.”
Case in point: Not all of Parker’s college searches come with the same six-figure cost. In 2019 the firm charged Northern Kentucky $40,000 to find its men’s basketball coach; the head men’s basketball and football coaching searches for Appalachian State that same year cost $50,000 apiece. Parker charged Idaho $54,000 to find its new athletic director two years ago, $66,000 less than what Tennessee paid this winter.
Parker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some in the industry describe the discrepancy as the price for dealing with the additional scrutiny that often surrounds a high-profile hire at a big program. It can also account for the number of people tasked on the search at a bigger firm, but those high costs have led to some firms seemingly pricing themselves out of the college sports business.
Korn Ferry, for example, didn’t typically do searches for less than $75,000, Bowlsby said of his time there. That limited the firm’s intercollegiate clientele to “maybe 25 schools that could afford us,” he said. Another Korn Ferry alum said the firm’s fee for a Power Five athletic director search usually costs upwards of $150,000, which is less than the firm charged when there were fewer firms competing for the same contracts. Korn Ferry has scaled back its college business in the last few years, particularly during the pandemic.
The pandemic put pressure on the budgets of athletic departments of all sizes, and a few, like Marshall and Illinois, conducted their recent head football coach searches in-house. But many schools were still willing to pay for the peace of mind that comes from enlisting an outside evaluator.
They just weren’t willing to pay as much as Tennessee. That’s where some of the boutique firms that have cropped up over the last several years have come into play.
According to contracts obtained by Sportico, Boise State paid Collegiate Sports Associates—a firm run by Todd Turner, who spent 21 years as an AD at four major Division I institutions—just under $37,000 to assist with its football head coach search this winter (a $35,000 flat fee plus expenses). South Carolina paid TurnkeyZRG around $35,000 for its own ($30,000 base fee plus expenses). And Indiana State University paid Bowlsby’s firm a total of $15,900 this winter ($15,000 base plus expenses) for two searches, one for a new men’s basketball coach and another for a new women’s head coach.