Any responsible major-college athletic director has in mind a working list of potential job candidates, particularly for the most high-profile and pivotal job in the department: the head football coach.
If you’re like University of Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades, heck, you don’t even keep it secretively crinkled up in a wallet.
“Probably mine is (in) the third (desk) drawer, behind ‘Prospective Head Coaches,’ ” Rhoades said.
His undisclosed “A list” surely includes the man he hired just before leaving the University of Houston, Tom Herman.
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But Rhoades isn’t going to make following this quite that simple.
“Searches are a journey,” he said. “... I never go into a search locked in on any one particular candidate. You just don’t. Because it can close your mind to that other candidate that’s a better fit.”
This much is clear, though: Rhoades had ample reason to have his file updated and to be ready to pounce on the process of replacing Gary Pinkel, who announced Friday that he has non-Hodgkin lymphoma and will retire at the end of the season.
Abrupt as it all seemed, Pinkel had shared with Rhoades in May — weeks after Rhoades took the job — that he had been diagnosed and would soon begin treatments.
And although Rhoades says now that he didn’t “believe it would come to where he resigned as he did,” certainly the revelation reinforced the urgency of being prepared for when Pinkel told him in late October that this season would be his last.
This makes for a fascinating and daunting crossroads for MU for a lot of reasons, particularly just three years into a Southeastern Conference adventure based almost entirely on the rise and stability of football — and hinging on its continued success.
For context, consider, too, that Pinkel is the first MU coach since Dan Devine left in 1970 to depart the program in good standing. The next five men up were fired before Pinkel took over after the 2000 season.
Rhoades’ ability to execute the elusive right hire at the right time, of course, can’t yet be known.
Because these things are complicated under any circumstances … and all the more so given the current climate of racial unrest in Columbia.
As he sorts through everything else about finding the right fit at a time so many other appealing jobs are available, as he tries to aggressively expedite the search without compromising the process, Rhoades knows he must have good answers for the dizzying and uncomfortable state of affairs on campus.
Protests that included football players boycotting, publicly backed by Pinkel, led to the resignation of system President Tim Wolfe, and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin was ousted the same day on a separate wave of controversy.
“It’s something we will sit down with each candidate (about) and certainly … provide as much specifics as we can,” Rhoadeshe said. “But also, I really believe this: This is an opportunity for us to get better.
“We will spend a lot of time on how I think this makes us better as an institution, how I think this makes us better as an athletic department.”
While saying he doesn’t believe that turmoil “will hamper us in any way,” Rhoades did not reveal details of the case he’ll make to candidates, which perhaps still is being formed.
But he did unveil a stance on the appeal of the job with an opening statement that included a reference to the quality of life in Columbia and interim system President Mike Middleton and interim Chancellor Hank Foley being “100 percent behind this search and (wanting) to do what is right for the university and what is right for this football program.”
Then he pointed to the recruiting bases of St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as MU’s “well-documented” ability to draw talent from Texas in the past and more broadly in SEC territory the last few years.
People, he later added, “want to be the head coach here.”
There are a lot of different ways to view this, of course, and maybe in the end we won’t know how true that is until we see who takes the job.
As for whom he might seek, Rhoades was circumspect even as he surprisingly indulged a question about presumptive candidates Herman and Justin Fuente of Memphis.
But after saying he was “certainly partial to Tom Herman since I hired him” and calling Fuente “another terrific coach,” he said, “But I want to caution everybody. I’m not locked into any certain candidate whatsoever, because it’s about fit.
“With all due respect to Tom Herman, does he have that same success at another school? He was a great fit at the University of Houston. Justin Fuente? Great fit at Memphis.
“For us here, it’s about fit. I’m not into the hottest names out there, and those are certainly two of them, (but) that doesn’t mean they will automatically come here, be a great fit and win games here.”
Maybe we’ll look back later and see that this was some way of Rhoades’ floating Herman’s name or hiding him in plain view.
But for now, without having seen him operate before, we can only take at face value the tidbits for a fit that Rhoades gave us.
The composite picture of his ideal candidate, which he’ll seek to find with the help of two or three unidentified staff members and perhaps a search firm, will look something like this: Resounding “CEO-type” leadership qualities … Somebody who “has a great ability to put together and assemble a staff and (understands) the alignment of a staff.” … “A relentless recruiter. Somebody that loves to recruit. An insatiable appetite for recruiting.” … “And then, somebody that if I had a son, I would want him to play for them.”
Asked generally about interviewing minority candidates, Rhoades said there were “great minority candidates out there … (and) I see value in hiring or interviewing the best candidates out there.”
Despite stressing the importance of experience assembling a staff, Rhoades clarified that he’s not averse to an assistant coach.
He also didn’t rule out continuity from Pinkel’s staff, on which the most likely potential candidate seems to be defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
“All I’m locked in on,” Rhoades said, “is about the right person.”
The right person could command more money than Pinkel, who at just over $4 million a year was the 10th-highest-paid coach in the SEC.
“It’s market-driven,” Rhoades said. “And if it’s the right guy, we’ll need to pay what we need to pay.”
Rhoades declined to put a timeline on the process, which maybe he defined best when asked what he’d learned from the workings of his previous football hire … Herman.
“At the end of the day, you can sit here and call every potential reference, talk to folks that are well-vetted in this industry,” he said. “You can look at analytics, all the past records.
“But at the end of the day … it’s really a gut feel.”
From both sides of the equation.