Ray Tanner was emotional and appreciative as he stood at the podium last week to address the resignation of University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier. Tanner was confident and assertive as he addressed the pressure he may face replacing Spurrier, considering it will be his first major hire as USC athletic director.
“You’re saying Coach Holbrook wasn’t a major hire?” Tanner quipped with a grin.
Tanner resigned as the Gamecocks’ baseball coach in 2012 to become athletic director. Three days after he was introduced in his new role, Tanner promoted his former assistant, Chad Holbrook, to replace him.
Filling a vacancy in baseball, soccer or tennis may require the same care, patience and diligence. Yet the task ahead of Tanner will carry more scrutiny. Regardless of how well they govern their programs universally, athletic directors are often judged most by how they manage, compensate and hire football coaches.
“A football search is incredibly important, because it is the preeminent sport at so many of our Division I programs,” Clemson University AD Dan Radakovich said. “If you’re there long enough as an athletic director, you’re going to see turnover.”
Radakovich arrived at Clemson in 2012 and inherited current football coach Dabo Swinney. However, Radakovich served as Georgia Tech’s AD in 2007, when he dismissed Chan Gailey and replaced him with Paul Johnson.
Radakovich established the Athletic Director’s Initiative Fund at Georgia Tech, which raised more than $12 million in cash and pledges. He spearheaded the construction of an indoor practice facility and the renovation of the basketball arena. Georgia Tech’s women’s basketball, softball, women’s tennis and men’s golf teams reached the postseason in each year of Radakovich’s tenure.
However, Radakovich may be remembered most among Yellow Jackets fans for hiring Johnson, who has led Tech to an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, four divisional titles and seven consecutive bowl appearances, including a pair of Orange Bowls.
Credit and favor can outlast an AD’s tenure when a coach exceeds expectations. However, blame and reproach can grow longer and louder when a coach defaults on the promise of his introductory news conference.
University of Southern California AD Pat Haden has drawn ire for the recent downfall of coach Steve Sarkisian.
Haden took over in 2010 and inherited Lane Kiffin. Haden dismissed Kiffin midway through the 2013 season. Instead of retaining interim coach Ed Oregeron, who closed that year with a 6-2 record, Haden hired Sarkisian.
Sarkisian won 12 of his first 18 games and briefly returned Southern Cal to its familiar place in the Top 10 of the major polls. However, a series of incidents revealing Sarkisian’s apparent struggles with alcohol induced Haden to fire Sarkisian on Oct. 12.
The spectacle has prompted several critics to propose that Haden follow Sarkisian out of Southern Cal.
“I’ve got lots of people who disagree with me. That’s OK. Leaders have to make decisions. Sometimes they’re popular. Sometimes they’re not,” Haden said during a news conference one day after he dismissed Sarkisian. “The decision I made didn’t work out, and I own that.”
Radakovich contended that if ADs are judged with a shortsighted scorecard, a single error can obscure the quality of their overall leadership. One’s judgement should not be assessed impulsively. Even the most shrewd ADs fumble hires.
To illustrate that point, Radakovich cited the hiring history of University of Florida AD Jeremy Foley.
Foley was associate AD at Florida in 1990 when Spurrier was hired there. Foley was promoted to AD in 1992.
When Spurrier left for the NFL in 2001, Foley hired Ron Zook. After suffering 14 losses in three seasons, Foley dismissed Zook in 2004. He then hired Urban Meyer, who led Florida to two national championships.
Meyer resigned in 2010. Foley replaced him with Will Muschamp, who compiled the worst winning percentage (.571) of any Florida coach since Spurrier’s predecessor in 1989. Foley rebounded by hiring Jim McElwain, who won his first six games at Florida before falling by a touchdown at LSU on Saturday.
“You don’t want to look at it isolated,” Radakovich said. “There would be a lot of variables associated with any hire, and certainly a football coaching hire is magnified to a great degree. But if it just doesn’t work out, then it just doesn’t work out. You move forward from there.”
Tanner said, when he became AD, he recognized the likelihood that Spurrier’s tenure would end before his own. He said an AD’s responsibility includes constant evaluation and preparation to anticipate the inevitable.
“It doesn’t matter what sport it is,” Tanner said. “If you have prepared a plan to go forward and you have a staff in place and you have contacts around the country, that can help. So, while a lot of people think ‘Well, you just have a special situation dropped on your lap,’ that’s not the case. It’s an ongoing process.”
Tanner said an advisory committee and an external firm will assist the coaching search. He also will work closely with university president Harris Pastides and the board of trustees. That group will determine whether to bring in a new leader or retain interim coach Shawn Elliott, who led Carolina to a win against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
However, regardless of how much of the process Tanner delegates, the scrutiny of this major hire will be directed toward him. Radakovich asserted that diligent planning and trust in the process should encourage Tanner to remain as confident and assertive as he was at the podium last week.
“A lot of the pressure is self-inflicted,” Radakovich said. “There’s preparation. You know there is a process. You know you’re going to hit these milestones and come to a conclusion. And that gives you the opportunity to not feel as much of that pressure.”