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Saunders: Why Does Pitt Need a Search Firm?

Saunders: Why Does Pitt Need a Search Firm?

Pitt will use the search firm Fogler Consulting to assist athletic director Heather Lyke in choosing a new head basketball coach, sources confirmed to Pittsburgh Sports Now, and as was first reported by Panther-Lair.com.

It’s a head-scratching decision considering the notorious results of the last time Pitt contracted with such an entity and has generated a fair amount of angst amongst the fanbase.

On the surface, it’s not much to get worked up about. After all, the vast majority of college searches these days use a search firm, even when schools end up hiring their own assistants. But for a few reasons, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly necessary step for the Panthers.

First of all, there’s the very recent memory of then-athletic director Scott Barnes consulting — some might say colluding — with Collegiate Sports Associates in the decision-making process that landed Kevin Stallings in Pittsburgh. CSA founder and president Todd Turner was both Barnes’ former boss at Washington and was the athletic director that hired Stallings at Vanderbilt.

Kevin Stallings talks to the players during Pitt’s first practice. — DAVID HAGUE

Stallings was if not outright pushed, certainly persuaded to look elsewhere at Vanderbilt and Barnes was having a hard time getting candidates to bite after setting his sights high on Sean or Archie Miller. One old boys’ network connection later, and presto, Pitt had a power-conference head coach.

Of course, it became a disaster. Barnes left in December of 2016 and Stallings was fired by Lyke last week after less than two full years on the job.

So why would Lyke and Pitt want to go down that road again?

There are some good reasons a lot of schools use a search firm. One of the big ones is protection from journalists in Freedom of Information Act requests. If a public school creates official contracts, paperwork and the like on an interview process, that can all become part of the public record by a simple FOIA request.

Coaches that either aren’t offered the job or decide not to take the job would rather their name not get put out publicly as candidates, especially if they have a job they’d like to return to. So search firms provide a level of opacity from prying eyes on the process.

But at Pitt, that isn’t an issue. As a state-related university, Pitt is shielded from FOIA requests, which is why, for example, there have been no hard and fast answers when it comes to the letter of Stallings’ buyout.

Search firms also have a deeper knowledge of the potential candidates than most athletic directors, and can provide a pool of coaches that are known to be available at a moment’s notice. But Lyke decided to fire Stallings all the way back in January, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so it’s not as if Pitt’s coaching search is in some kind of time pinch created by an unexpected circumstance.

Heather Lyke and Kevin Stallings

Heather Lyke and Kevin Stallings — ALAN SAUNDERS

They also provide some ancillary services like additional background checks and further vetting of candidates, but when it comes to the big services being provided, it doesn’t seem like Pitt should really need them.

Pitt also has a pretty excellent example of what can happen when a search firm isn’t used. After football coach Paul Chryst stepped down to take the job at Wisconsin and athletic director Steve Pederson was fired the same day, interim athletic director Dr. Randy Juhl and chancellor Patrick Gallagher formed a search committee that eventually hired Pat Narduzzi.

Narduzzi won eight games in back-to-back seasons and while he hasn’t reached the ultimate goals of that program, he has gone a long way toward making that seem like a prescient, well-conceived hire.

So why bother with the search firm at all when Pitt has such a shining example of how old-fashioned hiring practices can still work and such a terrible example of how cronyism and industry connections can go awry?

It’ll be a good question to ask Lyke, whenever she comments publicly on the ongoing basketball search. Until then, it’ll be fair for Pitt fans to wonder and worry about who is really pulling the strings in the process.

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