Karlton Creech, the athletic director at the University of Maine for 10 weeks, has just entered his profession’s equivalent of the vortex.
Finding someone to coach a Division I men’s basketball team is the wildest undertaking for an athletic director, according to two veteran administrators who recently underwent the process.
It brings a barrage of calls, intense interest among fans who let speculation run wild, and pressure to make the best possible hire in a short time.
“It’s the worst headache you can have as an athletic director,” said Teresa L. Phillips of Tennessee State, who named a new coach Monday after a six-week search. “It’s a coveted position. The salaries are going up and up. And coaches, they go after it. This is what they do for a living. They recruit, they create opportunities, they build their circle of influence and they use all that to get those positions. So it’s very interesting to watch how they go about it.”
Creech said Maine received more than 100 applicants after Ted Woodward was dismissed April 14 following a 6-23 record in his 10th season. Of those, Creech estimated 60 will receive further review by a committee he set up. He hopes to have a new coach by mid-May.
It will be the first coach that Creech, who previously served on the athletic staff at North Carolina, has hired. He said he has been exhilarated by the number of inquiries, saying it shows how much interest the Maine job holds. And he said he doesn’t feel pressure.
“I feel a responsibility to find a good candidate for our university,” Creech said. “I think we’re going to have several qualified candidates rise to the top.”
That’s always the outcome. Coach searches inevitably end with a smiling athletic director introducing the “best fit” after a painstaking search.
And such searches are becoming common. Last year 46 of the nation’s 349 Division I men’s basketball teams changed coaches. This spring there have been 40 openings. Coppin State, Florida A&M, Missouri and Southern Mississippi also are still looking.
Gary Clark has been athletic director at Furman for 14 years. Last spring, Jeff Jackson resigned as men’s basketball coach after a 7-24 season. Three weeks later, Clark hired Colorado State assistant Niko Medved. The process was sped up, he said, after he contracted with a consulting firm led by a former Vanderbilt and South Carolina coach, Eddie Fogler.
Using head-hunting companies has become popular in searches for coaches and athletic directors, although Maine is not taking that step. Clark said the advantage was Fogler quickly screened the applicants and winnowed the list to a set of finalists.
That didn’t prevent Clark from fielding hundreds of calls from agents, alumni and head coaches touting their assistants.
“Basketball is the craziest search of any that you do. People come out of the woodwork,” Clark said.
“Men’s basketball coaches are tied in and connected more than any other group of coaches, I think. Everybody’s trying to help someone else get a job. A guy doesn’t mind a good assistant leaving if it’s for a better job. I think there’s a sense of responsibility for helping younger coaches further their careers.”
Clark said his priorities were head-coaching experience, time working at a Division I school, and a demonstrated ability to recruit in a more selective academic setting. Furman is a private, liberal-arts school in Greenville, S.C.
But it’s important to be flexible, Clark noted. Of the half-dozen finalists for the Furman job, Medved was the only one without head-coaching experience. But he had been an assistant at Furman in the past, and Clark was excited about his ability to connect with the community.
Creech said he’s looking for a coach who has a track record of success at any collegiate level. He’s putting a priority on some Division I experience because the challenges of recruiting are so different than in Division II or III. He, too, wants someone who can inspire fans, using women’s basketball coach Richard Barron and men’s hockey Coach Red Gendron as examples.
“Part of our responsibility in athletics is to engage the community and to involve the community with the university,” Creech said. “The best way to get people at your games is to draw them in, to make them feel like they’re part of it.”
Other details of the Maine job search:
• The search committee consists of a faculty member, a current coach on another team at Maine, a former men’s basketball player, a community member, plus some of Creech’s staff and human resources personnel. Creech said he will release the names of the committee members once he gets approval from the human resources department.
• Initial interviews will take place via video-conferencing. An undetermined number of finalists will be brought to campus to meet with Creech, his committee and the administration. Current players will not be part of that process. Creech said he was not sure if he would announce the names of the finalists.
• The salary of the new coach will be “in the same range” as for Woodward, who was being paid $104,000 a year. That is near the bottom for Division I men’s basketball coaches.
• One of Woodward’s three assistant coaches – Deshon Gaither, Douglas Leichner and Jon Sheets – has applied. Creech would not identify which one. Sheets has been placed in charge of leading the players in individual workouts, but no interim head coach was named. That means no one is working on Maine’s behalf during the late live recruiting period that began Friday. The final signing day for men’s basketball players is May 21.
“When you make a change this time of year, you’re basically sacrificing that opportunity (to get a new coach hired in time to actively recruit new players). I’m looking at this with a long view in mind,” Creech said.
The new coach will have to replace three of the Black Bears’ top four scorers from a season ago. Dimitry Akanda-Coronel, Shaun Lawton and Xavier Pollard announced they were transferring this spring.
Phillips, in her 12th season as athletic director at Tennessee State, said getting a new coach hired ahead of the live recruiting period was a goal. She fired Travis Williams after he went 5-25 in his second season with the Tigers. Her search also included an on-campus committee to sift through the 77 qualified applicants she received. The process was slowed slightly by a new president who wanted to be involved but was also traveling at times.
“I just wanted to give (the new coach) at least three or four days to get some home visits, get in front of the players and their families. I thought it was worth that time if you could make the decision fast enough,” Phillips said. “Obviously it’s a four- or five-year decision, so that’s most important is getting the right person.”
Phillips hired Dana Ford, an assistant at Illinois State, at a salary twice what Maine can offer.
“I wanted to get someone who could show that they had a pretty good feel for the recruiting areas that our school could be successful in,” Phillips said. “Men’s basketball is really who you know and your relationship with these AAU programs. You have to convince me that you can do that within our budget, within the rules and regulations of the NCAA, that you can get out there and grind. Because that’s what it’s about.
“You have to figure out if they can coach, if they know the game of basketball. But there are a lot of people who can do that.”
Clark and Phillips both look back at their coaching searches with a sense of relief that they’re over and bemusement at how strange they became.
Clark said he got dozens of calls from some of the highest-profile head coaches in the nation, all eager to give him their cell phone numbers in hopes they could talk him into hiring one of their underlings.
“I thought about the next year calling some of those coaches to see if they wanted to buy some Girl Scout cookies,” Clark said, laughing.
“But I decided not to take that step.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: