The abrupt and embarrassing end to Miles’ tenure this week shouldn’t be dismissed because KU lives at the bottom of the Power 5 and always seems to have shovels ready to dig deeper into the pits. That’s all true. But the Kansas situation provides reminders that go beyond Miles, athletic director Jeff Long, institutional dysfunction and a hire doomed from the start.
Athletic directors and university presidents around the country must pay attention to what happened at Kansas. The situation represents an opportunity to evaluate how coaching candidates are identified, vetted and selected, and what should really matter in the hiring process.
Perhaps Kansas’ dismissal of Miles will be a tipping point for how schools search for coaches in the future, especially after the winter brought fewer home run hires, some legacy hires and a drop in diversity numbers among Power 5 schools overall.
Here are five lessons from the Kansas/Miles mess that schools should apply when searching for coaches in 2021.
1. Stop worrying about winning the news conference
I work in the media and enjoy an entertaining news conference as much as anyone. But as someone who closely covers the coaching carousel, I can’t understand why a public introduction or creating initial (and likely short-lived) buzz carries so much weight.
“They want to be able to win the press conference,” a Power 5 coach told me Tuesday. “They want to be able to say to their constituents, to their stakeholders, when they announce this new head coach, they want there to be excitement, they want there to be buzz. To me, it’s like I’m looking at a player and only evaluating who has been labeled by a recruiting service as a five-star player.”
Donors matter. Schools need them engaged and energized to keep sending checks. But athletic directors ultimately should prioritize winning games over winning news conferences. Hire the best coach from a diverse pool of candidates, regardless of how many laughs he can generate or memorable lines he can deliver on day one. As an AD, it’s ultimately your job to win over the donors.
“Every AD, either the AD or someone in the administration, mentions: ‘Can we win the press conference?'” a Power 5 athletic director told me Tuesday. “That sounds great. I want to win on the field. You’ll win the press conference by winning on the field. When I go about looking at someone, and I truly mean this: I’m looking for the best candidate for our program and what that candidate’s ability is to do the job.”
Kansas has hired two “name” coaches in the past decade: Miles and Charlie Weis. Both were fired from top-10 jobs (LSU and Notre Dame, respectively). Neither had led a program facing the inherent challenges with winning, facilities, support and other areas that the KU job poses. Their combined record at KU: 9-40 in four-plus seasons.
I rated the Miles hire among the worst of the 2018 cycle, not because of the then-unknown issues at LSU that eventually led to his ouster at Kansas, but due to his outdated approach toward offense. Many other media members praised the hire, noting the excitement Miles would bring to Kansas. I’m not taking a victory lap. I’ve whiffed on plenty of coaching grades. Snap judgments about coaches at the start of their tenures really shouldn’t shape hiring decisions.
2. Stop hiring your friends
The Kansas coaching search in 2018 really wasn’t much of one. Long didn’t use an external firm to assist in the search, zeroed in on Miles and made the hire in mid-November, two to three weeks before the coaching cycle usually gets rolling. Miles had been out of coaching since LSU fired him in September 2016 after a 2-2 start. Long and Miles went back to their time together at Michigan, when Miles coached under Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller, and Long served as an assistant athletic director. The two men were friends. Long desperately wanted to get rid of David Beaty and hire his own guy. So he did.
The familiarity factor will always be present in coach hires, just like with job searches in other fields. Long knew Miles for decades. He felt comfortable in hiring his buddy. But the process must not be so simple. Administrators can’t rely on their own biases, even if they go back decades with certain candidates.
Diversity remains a challenge in the college football coaching ranks. The number of Black coaches in the Power 5 dropped from 11 to eight in the most recent cycle, and so far no Power 5 schools have hired Black coaches. Marshall’s Charles Huff is the only Black coach hired in the most recent cycle. In December 2009, Turner Gill became Kansas’ first Black football coach, but was fired after only two seasons and a 5-19 record.
So don’t be afraid to get creative. The hires are too important. Bring in fresh eyes from search firms, university administrators from outside athletics, or even from other areas. Conduct extra layers of checks. You can’t afford to screw this up.
3. The real value of search firms
The only winners from the Kansas situation are the search firms that assist college programs with coaching hires. Search firms are a third-rail topic among many fans and media. They’re expensive and emblematic of a sport where money is thrown around without care or consequence, even during a financially crippling pandemic. Many question the rationale for using search firms after athletic directors and schools make familiar or seemingly obvious hires. But there are misconceptions about the firms. They don’t make hires. They assess interest among coaches, conduct background checks and provide an extra layer of protection for the schools.
Would a search firm have flagged Miles’ issues at LSU that surfaced last week in the Husch Blackwell report? It’s hard to know for sure. But Long’s decision not to use a firm exposes him and Kansas to more criticism about what they could have or should have known about Miles. Long’s decision ultimately could cost him his own job.
Search firms aren’t without flaws. There’s some back-scratching involved when athletic directors, hired by certain search firm executives, then use those same firms/executives for their coaching searches. Search firms have assisted in hires that turn out very badly. But they’re a necessary part of a critically important process, and Kansas made the right call in using one to help find Miles’ replacement.
4. The fit factor is more important than ever
Many college programs chase a certain type of coaching candidate: Younger, offensive-minded, some playcalling/coordinator experience, usually white. Or a recognizable name trying to reboot his career after being let go at a Power 5 program. Am I broad-brushing? Look at the FBS head-coaching ranks and tell me I’m wrong.
Kansas has paid the price for chasing big names rather than finding the right coaches for its specific situation. The Jayhawks need a builder who has overseen programs with similar obstacles. A coach with zero character issues. Despite the late date for the search, Kansas actually has some good options. Kansas likely will focus its search on older, established coaches who are widely respected in the profession, even if they aren’t glitzy names — coaches such as Tulane’s Willie Fritz, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Nevada’s Jay Norvell and Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz. If Kansas is willing to try a different approach, any of the service academy coaches — Army’s Jeff Monken, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo — would be worth exploring.
After the Miles news broke Monday, I debated with a coaching agent about whether Kansas should conduct a search now or wait a year. The agent argued that KU would have a better candidate pool after the 2021 season, and could conduct its search with a new athletic director. The AD part is especially intriguing, but if Kansas can land a coach like Fritz, Leipold or Norvell, a path to respectability — all Kansas should desire at this point after going 21-98 since 2010 — could begin immediately.
5. Beware: The cult of personality
This last one is a lesson for everyone involved in college football. We love the personalities and characters who have shaped the sport throughout its history. This especially applies to coaches. Miles is a character. He ate grass and took chances on the sideline, and made bizarre comments throughout his tenure at LSU. There’s no shortage of Miles GIFs. Miles also won a lot of games, but his personality undoubtedly added to his appeal.
Personality quirks can be distracting, though. Even blinding at times. Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, who covered Miles extensively as an LSU beat reporter, recently wrote, “We’ve had fun with Les Miles for long enough,” and later added: “He will no longer be viewed in our eyes as the quirky character we gravitate toward. His reputation is forever tarnished.”
Not every coaching personality has a controversial past, and not every mundane coach is squeaky clean. But there’s more to coaches than what they show in public settings or social media. A fun personality should be a bonus or an add-on, not primary criteria for getting the job. These are high-pressure, highly exposed and extremely important jobs. Ultimately, winning matters most.
But in 2021, the evaluation process must be sophisticated and thorough. Kansas cannot repeat its mistakes in the search for Miles’ replacement, and other schools should view the KU situation with extreme caution.
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