University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas turned to a familiar name for advice when it was time to find a new men's basketball coach.
The university called on Parker Executive Search to help hire John Groce in March — the same firm that helped recruit Thomas for the athletic director's job last summer. Parker was paid a total of $182,183 for the two searches — a $90,000 fee for each, plus expenses.
Thomas saw no problem with hiring Parker and said no one at the university questioned the decision or raised issues of conflicting loyalties.
"Anyone can think what they want to think. I didn't view it that way, and no one else on campus did," he said in a recent interview with The News-Gazette.
"They are one of the industry leaders in searches in intercollegiate athletics," he said.
Higher education officials at the UI and nationally agreed.
"Parker is renowned in higher education for handling athletic searches," said Maureen Parks, the UI's associate vice president for human resources. "They have the most experience. They have a reputation for being very, very good, and responsive to work with. So if you want the best, you hire the best."
Thomas said he didn't feel the need to use a search firm when he hired football coach Tim Beckman last December to replace Ron Zook. But he said the pressures of trying to manage two high-level searches at once — for the men's and women's basketball coaches — prompted him to seek outside help this spring.
"More often than not I have not used a search firm," he said, adding that he had not hired Parker before.
Thomas said Parker knew how to access coaches and conduct background checks, provided helpful information, and put forward a "very qualified, diverse pool."
Laurie Wilder, executive vice president and managing director at Parker, said the firm's policy is not to talk to the media.
Fee just a fraction
The basketball search lasted just three weeks — compared with almost three months for the athletic director's search — but the university did not ask for a discount in the firm's $90,000 fee. High-profile coaching searches move rapidly, so the work is just packed into a tighter time frame, Parks said.
"Hiring a basketball coach for us as a Big Ten institution is a big deal, and it's a big job for them to work to vet the candidates," she said. "The length of time of the search in a basketball or a football search or an AD search has no bearing on the amount of work the search firm does."
The $90,320 paid to Parker for the basketball search is a fraction of Groce's five-year, $7 million contract, and UI spokesman Tom Hardy noted that the annual budget for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics is approaching $80 million.
UI Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy said the school got its money's worth, calling Parker's work "unbelievable."
He said hiring the search firm was Thomas' idea, but the board was "very supportive."
Trustees had raised questions about the football hiring process last winter, with board members Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery voting against Beckman's contract in January. They said they weren't convinced a sufficient effort had been made to hire a black head coach and said the board should have had an opportunity for a "meaningful review" of Beckman's five-year, $9 million contract when he was hired in December, not a month later.
One issue was the $100,000 annual raises built in to the agreement, which would take Beckman's pay from $1.6 million this year to $2 million annually by the end of the agreement, plus a $500,000 bonus if he stays for five years. Kennedy said UI President Michael Hogan felt the raises should be tied to performance, not simply "time served."
Thomas said the built-in annual raises are a "fairly standard provision" of coaching contracts. The idea was to keep costs lower up front and "find a number that works for today" but still provide a total package that compares well to other Big Ten competitors over the life of the contract, he said.
Oliver's comments in January sparked a furor about race-based hiring, and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that other trustees urged Kennedy to clarify the issue with Thomas and perhaps publicly.
Kennedy sent a lengthy email to Thomas on March 14, as the basketball search was getting under way. In the letter, he said any trustee who voted for or against a potential employee based simply on race or ethnicity would violate several laws and "their duty of loyalty to the university."
"I do not believe that the Trustees who voted against the coach did so simply because of the coach's race or ethnicity," Kennedy wrote.
But he said the board had discussed the new coach's contract in closed session, and it was clear from the comments that all the trustees were reluctant to proceed "given the process that was used to arrive at that contract." And all of them, including Oliver and Montgomery, expressed support for Beckman as an individual, Kennedy noted.
Among other issues, the board was concerned that some aspects of the contract still weren't finalized at the time of the vote; that the contract terms the board had "notionally approved" earlier in the fall weren't comprehensive; and that they were being asked to approve a contract after the new coach was already in place, along with an entire team of assistant coaches.
"Our decision-making authority was therefore compromised by the point at which we were brought into the process," Kennedy wrote.
The chairman also expressed concern about the "asymmetrical" contract negotiations, with coaches and other athletic staff represented by professional agents and attorneys who specialize in that area and the university using its own general lawyers.
"You really need a search firm to act in part as our agent in the process," Kennedy said last week. "When they're doing it 30 times a year, and we're doing it once every three years, we have our butts kicked. The truth is we need the help."
He pointed to the $7 million in contract buyouts due to the recently fired UI football and basketball coaches over the next few years "because of some asymmetrical negotiations years ago." He said they should have included a provision stating that "we'll pay out your contract unless you get another job, just like every corporation in America does."
Parker helped establish parameters for the basketball contract beforehand, telling the board what to expect, what to include and what to try to avoid, he said. Those principles will now govern future searches, Kennedy said.
"We were much more on our game," he said.
In his letter to Thomas, Kennedy also said it wasn't clear that a "fully functioning" search committee had been empaneled, though he said trustees learned later that the chancellor, president and Thomas had acted as the committee.
"Lingering concerns about the breadth of the panel, however, will lead to a larger group in the future," Kennedy wrote.
Thomas met with the board in a March 15 closed session at the Illini Union to discuss the upcoming basketball search.
The athletic director also responded to Kennedy's letter via email. He explained that athletic searches are "unique among university searches" and said the UI's process "represents my profession's best practices." He assured trustees that the search followed all affirmative action and equal-employment guidelines.
The standard process includes a "diverse" search committee, he said, but the athletic director (in consultation with the chancellor and president) plays the primary role in vetting and identifying candidates, making a job offer subject to board approval, and negotiating the key terms of the contract. Decisions to hire search consultants or outside attorneys rest with the athletic director, in consultation with the chancellor and UI legal office, Thomas said. The board has final authority to approve the appointment terms of all university staff, including coaches.
"At the end of the day, we're all about the same thing: getting the best person possible for the University of Illinois," Thomas said.