UCLA’s search for an athletic director begins in earnest this month and is expected to last into the spring.
Based on the framing, you wouldn’t know if the Bruins are looking for an AD or the next Dean of Humanities.
That’s very UCLA and could result in a very bad outcome for UCLA if chancellor Gene Block allows the process to veer too far from the traditional model.
The Bruins, for example, cannot afford (in every sense of the word) to hire a former football player who dabbled in politics and once worked the ‘Monday Night Football’ booth.
They need … they so desperately need … an experienced college athletics administrator, preferably one who:
— Knows UCLA specifically as a former student athlete or athletic department employee.
— Has worked for a university that shares UCLA’s mission to find the right balance between academics and athletics.
Whether the Bruins get the right fit depends on Block.
Whether Block makes the smart pick depends on his candidate pool.
And whether the candidate pool enhances Block’s chances for success depends, to a large extent, on the search firm and the search committee.
The makeup of the committee was made public in the fall, after Dan Guerrero’s retirement announcement, in a letter from Block to constituents.
It has eight members. Only one works in athletics.
* Monroe Gorden (committee chair): vice chancellor for student affairs
* Gregg Goldman: vice chancellor for finance
* Anna Lau: professor, clinical psychology
* John Mapes: chair of the UCLA Foundation’s Board of Directors
* Muriel McClendon: associate professor (history); associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion
* Louise Nelson: vice chancellor for legal affairs
* Christina Rivera: senior associate athletic director/Senior Woman’s Administrator (i.e, key Guerrero lieutenant)
* Mike Teitell: professor of pathology; Faculty Athletic Representative (i.e., liaison between academics and athletics)
The Bruins haven’t revealed the executive placement firm that will assist with the search, but multiple sources have told the Hotline that the Bruins are expected to retain WittKieffer, a Chicago-based firm.
(We’re awaiting a response from campus communications on the matter and will update this column if relevant information comes our way.)
WittKieffer is best know for filling vacancies in the corporate and academic worlds.
USC used WittKieffer … to find a Dean of Education.
Washington used WittKieffer … to find a Dean for the School of Public Policy
Oregon used WittKieffer … to find a University Librarian.
Cal used WittKieffer to find an athletic director in the spring of 2018, and the Jim Knowlton era has gone well thus far.
It stands to reason that Cal’s search experience influenced UCLA’s decision (although we haven’t confirmed a connection).
If the Bruins settle on WittKieffer, the search lead likely will be Jeff Compher, who was hired recently by the firm “to head recruitment for directors of athletics, coaches and other college sports leaders.”
Compher wasn’t involved in the Cal search. He’s a former athletic director (Northern Illinois and East Carolina) who has Pac-12 experience (Washington) but no background in the University of California system.
Cal’s process is relevant to UCLA’s search in two other ways: search dynamics and internal alignment.
Chancellor Carol Christ had no background in athletics when she assumed the post two years ago but has taken an interest in, and supported, the department.
(Her defining decision: Removing a portion of the Memorial Stadium debt service from the athletic department’s annual budget.)
Christ was heavily involved in Knowlton’s hiring and managed to keep the process free of outside influences (donors and athletic department constituents).
Although Knowlton, who had been at Air Force, was a slightly unconventional hire, he 1) had run a major college athletic department with a football program and 2) possessed an academic lean from his service academy experience.
Block has no background in athletics and, according to UCLA sources, has never indicated he cares to be involved in athletics.
From the Bruins’ perspective, he is an absentee chancellor.
Combine an absentee chancellor with a search firm that doesn’t typically deal with Power Five AD vacancies and a search committee stacked with vice chancellors who wouldn’t know Chip Kelly from R. Kelly, and you have the potential for an epic fail … if Block allows the process to veer too far from the traditional model.
Which brings us to the key questions moving forward:
*** What does the job pay?
Guerrero earns approximately $1 million per year, which is the top end in the Pac-12 but not in the Power Five.
Multiple sources expressed concern that the Bruins won’t go much beyond that figure and could even aim lower, thereby limiting their candidate pool.
*** What will Block tell candidates about his own future?
He has been on the job for 12 years and just completed the type of large-scale, successful fundraising effort (UCLA’s Centennial Campaign) that could provide him with an easy exit.
If UCLA’s preferred candidate asks Block about his future — will he stay on the job for 6-12 months, for 12-24 months, or indefinitely — what’s the response?
And will it matter?
If the Bruins have the right candidate, if they hit this thing dead solid perfect, then Block’s retirement plans won’t be a deal-breaker.
The ideal candidate would want the job because he/she is sold on UCLA’s potential, believes in the academic/athletic balance and isn’t scared off by the daunting UC bureaucracy.
Or the daunting traffic.
Or the daunting cost of living.
*** What role will diversity play in the process?
We’re talking diversity in all forms: gender, ethnic and experience.
With WittKieffer and that search committee, the candidate pool, it seems, is wide open.
And yes, there are examples — current examples, in the Pac-12 — of success with unconventional AD hires.
Colorado’s Rick George (Texas Rangers) and Arizona State’s Ray Anderson (NFL front office) have worked out just fine, but both had sports management experience before accepting their current gigs.
Across town, the former athlete/zero experience model hasn’t worked out so well.
— Who has Block’s ear?
Perhaps the most important question of all:
Will he rely on the search firm and the search committee to frame the process and set the candidate pool?
Or will Block use the committee as political cover, allowing him to maneuver behind the scenes as he wishes and deal directly with the UCLA athletic and donor communities?
Does the search committee limit the influence of Casey Wasserman, for example, or does it enhance Wasserman’s influence by creating the needed cover?
Will Chip Kelly and Mick Cronin have a voice in the process, however private it might be?
And if not … if Block truly allows the search firm and search committee to lead the way … how far off script will they go?
Cal’s search had a wide net, thanks to WittKieffer, and was generally free of unwanted athletic and donor influence, thanks to Christ.
But the Bears still ended up with a sitting Group of Five AD whose background meshed with the school’s mission.
The last thing the Bruins need, which is also the last thing the Pac-12 needs, is for Block to hand the keys over to an unqualified candidate — someone with little, if any, experience in collegiate athletics.
Someone who could be mistaken for the Dean of Humanities.
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