The Process Of Hiring A Head Coach
Posted April 25, 2012
Last Wednesday night, the Sun Belt Conference held its banquet at Apogee Stadium prior to the tennis championships hosted by North Texas. It was an event that required Rick Villarreal's attendance, making a brief speech and meeting and greeting the gathered student-athletes and coaches. But in between those duties, the North Texas athletic director could be seen pacing in the shadows behind the serving line, phone in hand and knee-deep in the preparation to hire a new men's basketball coach.
"Every AD worth his salt who hires a coach has talked to enough people and done due diligence to the point that you truly believe that the person you're hiring is going to be successful," Villarreal said.
Tony Benford was introduced today as Villarreal's latest hire. While he has a solid resume, remarkable references, and prized Texas connections, Benford does not possess everything on Villarreal's wish list, namely he has never been a head coach. But Villarreal's research has convinced him that Benford is not only qualified to be the Mean Green's next head coach, but is prepared for the job.
"Everything we looked at in Tony's life, he's worked hard to achieve," Villarreal said. "He's put in the time, he's done his homework, he's prepared himself. A lot of people have the talent to be head coaches, but some don't prepare themselves to be head coaches."
Villarreal's record of determining a coach's readiness has been good. Johnny Jones, Benford's predecessor, was a great hire, as were Sujay Lama (tennis), Brad Stracke (men's golf) Jeff Mitchell (women's golf) and Karen Aston (women's basketball). Others, however, have fizzled.
So how do you improve the odds of success? How you know if a coach is ready for the job?
"We take the time to have our sports-information director call the candidate's sports-information director, have our strength coach call the candidate's strength coach. What kind of person is the candidate, how are they to work with, how are they with the players, what do other coaches think about them?" Villarreal said.
"Do the kids that played for him like him, and, more than that, do they respect him? I call other coaches that coached against or with the candidate. I talked to the coaches the candidate played for, because a lot of time the type of player a person is will translate to the kind of coach he will become."
And, just as importantly, does that preparation come through in the interview? Villarreal wants to see a coach who is highly organized and has a plan for the position. In Benford's case, it did.
Like any other AD, Villarreal would prefer coaches with sterling head-coaching records, but at North Texas such is not always possible. While the pool of applicants has improved with the dramatically upgrading of the Mean Green athletic facilities, it is still not the same as that of Texas or Alabama simply because of the differences in program reputation and salary level.
"Is the process different?" Villarreal said. "No. I'm going to try to hire the best coach possible. If I'd gone through this process and found a sitting head coach with a great record who wants this job, that's probably the person we would hire.
"But every head coach had to be given that first chance," Villarreal added. "They were a good assistant coach somewhere, and they got the chance to be a head coach because someone believed that person was ready."
Of course, there's no way to know for certain if a coach is ready for the position, even at the major conferences. Just look at the Texas hire of Aston to replace a coach in Gail Gostenkors who could not have come with a better record after building an ACC powerhouse at Duke but fell short of the towering expectations in Austin.
"I don't think gamble is the right word, but there are no guarantees," Villarreal said. "At the end of the day, you never really know. Every athletic director who hires a coach looks across that court or field when they start play to see what that coach is going to do."
David Pyke is a 1982 graduate of North Texas, the creator of the website meangreenworld.com, a former journalist and a member of the media-relations staff of the UNT Athletic Department. He offers an inside view of happenings in and around Mean Green athletics.
Previous Editions of Green Land
March 13, 2012: Mean Green Seniors Make Their Case For NFL
February 15, 2012: Sun Belt Tourney, Apps And Apogee Visitors
January 31, 2012: Signing Day 2012 Coverage
December 8, 2011: Weighting For Football
November 23, 2011: Changing the NCAA Landscape