Ken Grosse | Former associate athletic director at UC San Diego
Whether it’s a casual conversation with representatives of an institution you have interest in, a full-fledged on-campus interview or anything in between, always be aware of the situation and be prepared to present yourself in the most favorable light. The smallest thing can influence the thinking of a critical individual or cause someone to get the wrong impression based on a throwaway comment.
Good jobs are hard to come by in all professions, and those in the upper levels of coaching are tougher than most. The demand due to the attractiveness of athletics coupled with the relatively small supply of opportunities is enough on its own to create that reality. But when one factors in the personalities involved, the competition when premium options arise can be truly fierce.
Having been on both sides of the process throughout my career, I would like to share some observations:
- A high percentage of hiring situations arise quickly and often-times unexpectedly: a current coach retires or leaves for another job, the decision is made to relieve the incumbent of her/his position based on performance or a non-competitive crisis arises requiring change.
- Given the year-round nature of nearly all sports now, time is almost always a critical factor. You need to be ready to react almost immediately, having your basic materials in a virtually current state at all times.
- On the other hand, due to the timing and other factors, the hiring athletic department is often not as organized as one would think. This gives an organized candidate a chance to get a leg up on the competition, particularly in the early going. There is usually a core group of individuals doing most of the decision-making, and they need to come to a fairly quick consensus when choosing a group of first-round interview candidates. Preparation is key because there will undoubtedly be a good-sized collection of relatively evenly matched candidates and certain committee member idiosyncrasies could spell doom for an otherwise solid contender.
- I’ve worked with people who would literally eliminate a candidate for a spelling error on a resume and others who operate with certain geographical boundaries from which a potential hire needs to come. Bottom line, anything you can do to learn these types of things and do something early on to combat potentially negative aspects of your candidacy could keep you from being knocked out before it really starts. If you’re good, it’s easy to sell yourself in the interview scenario. Often, it’s more difficult just getting there.
- The better the job, the more applicants and the more tedious the upfront work for the search committee members. (Sometimes the university’s human resources staff will review and winnow down the applicants to make the athletic staff’s chore more manageable, although this may be even more treacherous to navigate because they often don’t read the resumes but use programs that search for key words or phrases.)
- Outside of the largest, most powerful institutions (read Power Five schools) that often out-source the search for more high-profile jobs, the people involved with the process are likely adding this task to an already demanding list of daily assignments. These are people like you, subject to being overworked and potentially tired or somewhat unprepared when new / extraordinary tasks surface. Bottom line, the amount of time they have to spend on this is not optimal and they make mistakes too. It’s tricky because they are so busy, but anything you, as the candidate, can do to make this mission easier is in your favor.
- Search committees often have a fairly standard routine and method of narrowing down the initial list of candidates. Each institution predictably has very specific hot button characteristics they are looking for in their ideal candidates. These could be as simple as winning percentage or post-season history, but they frequently include items such as history at “like” institutions (for instance, schools that are in the same system), familiarity with the recruiting niche and geography of the program, student-athlete graduation rate and whether or not the position in question makes sense in the context of a candidate’s experience and career path. Your success rate has to be there, but knowing and making sure these key items are also easily visible is helpful.
- References who can be pro-active and call on your behalf never hurt, but I would suggest being strategic about this. I have often had solid candidates bombard me (and others on the committee) with calls from “big name” supporters. Quite honestly, this can easily become a turn off, particularly early in the process. The administrator receiving the calls can get tired of spending excessive amounts of time on the phone at a point when he/she is not ready for the type of information being provided.
- In my view, the best approach is to identify the “right reference,” have that person calling the “right administrator” and leave it at that. The right reference would be someone who has knowledge of the institution in question, an existing relationship with the person being called and knows you well in a professional light. The most important of those items in my estimation is the existing relationship. I would typically get a high volume of calls during any given process from people I don’t know. The only calls that will impact me are those coming from someone that I respect, know well enough to put the comments in context and can speak with frankly. If Mike Krzyzewski called me about a basketball coach, I would clearly listen, but I don’t know him well enough to know what to take from his comments. (No context. Does he say the same thing for everybody?) And it’s quite possible he doesn’t know enough about the environment of my institution to know whether or not the candidate will be a great fit.
- Particularly when applying for a college position, be well-versed in the “headline” topics of the day. Those could include coaching ethics, diversity and inclusion, fund-raising, social media, sexual assault and a number of others. While your answers to these may not win you the position, they can surely lose it for you. The key for a candidate here is to know the subject matter, have a brief, cogent response that shows you understand the issue and how it might apply to you and your team. Most interviewers don’t want you to solve the problems of the world but want to be sure you are informed enough to not do something that can bring negative publicity to the institution.
In part 3 of this series, which will be posted next Friday, Ken Grosse offers pointers on the keys to successful interviews – via phone, video or in-person.
Ken Grosse was a senior associate athletic director at UC San Diego for more than 20 years and USA Volleyball’s Director of Marketing and Events from 1985-93.