TAMPA — As signing days go, it was mundane, executed away from cameras and off social media's viral grids. No caps, cakes or cocksure smiles. Didn't even warrant four stars.
Just six figures.
At some point last week, USF president Judy Genshaft signed a 11/2-page document agreeing to pay a Texas-based search firm $100,000 to facilitate the university's pursuit of a new athletic director.
And few who knew the drill flinched. Some might even suggest Genshaft got a bargain.
For roughly half the cost of a typical home mortgage, the 47-year-old firm of Eastman & Beaudine likely will do the bulk of the legwork in USF's search, from helping identify potential candidates to performing background checks to arranging travel and lodging for interviews.
All very furtively, leaving little of the process subject to public record.
"That is one of the primary reasons" for using search firms, former USF athletic director Paul Griffin said. "I think in many coaching searches, that's the exclusive reason."
So goes this burgeoning matrimony of "headhunters" and heads of universities. As Division I athletic budgets swell, so do the number of colleges that outsource their most critical searches to the professionals.
These days, it's almost reflexive. Schools employing search firms in the wake of prominent dismissals or departures is akin to a baseball manager going to his bullpen in the ninth or a quarterback audibling when he sees a blitz.
It's standard practice.
"I think it's become an industry unto itself now with search firms, in particular (searching for) athletic directors, commissioners, men's basketball and football coaches," said former Lynn University AD John McCarthy, now a national college athletics consultant.
"It's almost routine now that Division I schools are going to hire a search firm or a professional organization."
Key word: almost. To be sure, many ADs still possess a handy backup list of candidates for those times when the coaching carousel is whirring full-throttle.
"I doubt very seriously (Louisville AD) Tom Jurich hired a search firm to hire Bobby Petrino," former USF sports information director John Gerdes said.
But for presidents and search committee members already being pulled in every direction by their normal demands, a search firm is a matter of practicality.
Considering the hours and logistics of a typical vetting process, some insist that the efficiency of search firms (aka headhunters, executive selection firms, corporate search consultants) validates the expense.
Equipped with sprawling prospect databases, staffs of varying size and discretion afforded private entities, they essentially handle the heavy lifting of a hiring process without doing the hiring itself.
"I think that they serve a purpose, yeah," Griffin said.
Today, most Rolodexes from College Park to Corvallis include their names. The industry heavyweights include Neinas (run by former Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas), Parker Executive Search (based in Atlanta) and Eastman & Beaudine.
Founded in 1967 and named by the Wall Street Journal as the top recruiting firm in college sports, Eastman & Beaudine boasts of "placing" a smorgasbord of prominent coaches and administrators at their current schools.
Among them: football coaches Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Art Briles (Baylor) and basketball coaches Steve Alford (UCLA), Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) and Mike Anderson (Arkansas).
It also helped place former USF executive associate AD Bill McGillis at Southern Miss, where he's athletic director.
"It's another set of very credible eyeballs on the candidates. And to be honest now, at that level, you've got to be careful," McCarthy said.
"You don't want to make mistakes at that level. There's a lot of money involved now, so if they spend a little bit more money on a search firm … they don't want to make mistakes."
Eastman & Beaudine's contract with USF indicated the firm's "normal fee" for an executive search is 33.3 percent of the hired person's first-year compensation (base plus bonus). For universities and other non-profits, the contract said, it reduces the fee to 25 percent.
"For this particular job," firm president Bob Beaudine wrote Genshaft, "we will further reduce that to a flat fee of $100,000 (plus expenses)."
But what qualifies as expenses in the process has fallen under scrutiny.
Upon placing Freeze at Ole Miss, Beaudine submitted an expense invoice to the school that included $1,693.90 for a flight to Memphis and $153.68 for limousine rides, according to documents obtained by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
To maintain the level of anonymity such firms covet, Beaudine rarely grants interviews, though he has published a book and speaks on the lecture circuit (including a recent stop in Tampa).
Some say any extravagance is a small price to keep the search process concealed.
If a university employs a search firm to serve as a de facto middleman between school and candidate, a coach rumored to be the target of a university truly can say, "I have not spoken to anyone at (insert school)."
"I'll give you the predominant reason why universities (use search firms): You guys," Griffin told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
"One way to shield the early search process and vetting is to outsource that effort to an independent contractor whose efforts, contacts and communications aren't necessarily subject to … the Freedom of Information Act."
Ultimately, the information is liberated. Coach or AD is hired and introduced, president or AD takes the heat and/or acclaim for the ensuing results, and the search firm gravitates to its next six-figure assignment.
"At the end of the day, I think it would be very rare that the search firm would actually make the hire," McCarthy said.
"It's almost always, 'Here are four or five (candidates) we recommend. We've done the background checks on these four or five.' … It's another set of eyeballs, but at the end of the day, the school ends up making the decision on the final person."