How to hire an NFL coach or GM: A view from the inside

The literature is typically sent out around the three-quarter mark of the season, when frustrated NFL owners realize their team is not making the playoffs and they've exhausted enough resources behind their current head coach, general manager or both.

The 18-page booklet, from executive search firm Korn Ferry, is called "The First Year Challenge: A Game Plan for General Managers and New Head Coaches," and it lays out solutions for teams in the market for new talent. It features quotes from Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Toronto Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro -- leaders of the big-thinking alternative movement that has become en vogue across major sports for the last decade. It talks about communication strategies and culture-building, talent assessment and why you need to make impactful decisions from Day 1.

It is unabashedly aimed at the top, written in a buzzword-heavy language meant to appeal to the Paul Allens or Jimmy Haslams of the world, which is why the firm has had its stamp on some of the most significant coaching and general managers of late, including Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Seahawks GM John Schneider. Of course, there were also some missteps, like former Jets GM John Idzik. Korn Ferry was most recently involved in installing the new Browns front-office troika of Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry.

"What we try to do is, we try to get alignment around the stakeholders," Jed Hughes, the head of Korn Ferry's sports division, told me last week. "The key is alignment. Making sure the owner, general manager and head coach agree on what the plan is and how it will be executed."

Hughes, a former coaching assistant for Bud Grant, Chuck Noll and Bo Schembechler, has dabbled across the sports and executive landscape for the last 30 years. Before Korn Ferry, he helped develop "psychological testing, competency development and structural behavioral interviewing" for the Packers and 49ers; he also played a role in the hirings of Packers CEO Mark Murphy and former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. And he's likely discussed the future of your favorite team's franchise with the man or woman in charge personally.

"Part of what has helped us is that I spent 13 years at [global executive search firm] Spencer Stuart doing board work. In terms of dealing with, like, the CEO of U.S. Steel or PNC Bank or H.J. Heinz or something like that, there's a certain level of sophistication you have to bring in terms of what they expect and how we deliver it."

According to Hughes, an owner might fill out a profile with 107 different kinds of adjectives and 50 different kinds of behavioral traits that he or she is looking for, which will then be measured up to the profiles assembled on available candidates by a team of industrial psychologists employed by Korn Ferry.

Welcome to the NFL's version of eHarmony -- a process that promises to match powerful, intelligent adults on a scientific and practical basis. Like the league as a whole, the coaching and GM hiring process that is about to dominate the news cycle is more complicated and dense than one could imagine. It also features an intriguing tug-of-war between successful firms like Hughes', NFL lifers who still believe in the value of sage, gut-check wisdom and former league power brokers who float in and out of the process, serially recommending or panning potential candidates on a whim.

"So many owners don't know what they're looking for," former Colts and Bucs head coach Tony Dungy, who has done extensive legwork in promoting the hiring of minority coaching candidates in recent years, told me recently at a luncheon promoting NBC Sports' takeover of "Thursday Night Football." "I've talked to people who have said, 'Recommend a coach to me.' And when I say, 'Well, what are you looking for?' they say, 'Well, I don't know. Recommend someone who is good.' "

So how does anyone thrive and survive? Let us count the ways, from top to bottom, with the aid of several decision makers, former general managers and NFL coaches.

Hiring a general manager

Because GMs are typically the liaisons between coaching, personnel and ownership, the hiring process involves a few more steps. Most notably, the interview process is about hammering down an avenue of communication that will work for all major players without undermining power or over-burdening the owner.

It also involves communication strategy. How involved does Falcons owner Arthur Blank want to be in day-to-day operations? Does he want to meet with the head coach independently? Does he want daily briefings?

For example, as I reported back in January of 2016 when the Browns aligned their new front office, Cleveland had to hammer out a plan that involved executive vice president Sashi Brown, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and head coach Hue Jackson all reporting individually to Haslam. Andrew Berry would report directly to Brown, with Brown taking on an arbitration role in deadlocked decisions regarding the 53-man roster.

Hughes said that the power aspect of the interview -- as in, how much will the GM have? -- has become drastically more important over the years.

"I think what has happened is the really powerful general managers have retired, and you have a younger group coming up. Add in head coaches with more experience, and the head coaches are wanting -- and getting -- more control," he said. "Whether that be a Pete Carroll or Andy Reid, who are basically running the whole thing with a good general manager. They're in sync, which is where the alignment comes in."

But how is a pool of candidates cultivated in the first place?

Aside from search firms -- which were given mixed reviews from several sources, including executives who have gone through the process and owners who have opted for a more traditional avenue of finding potential GMs -- owners can lean on their presidents and CEOs or bring in a consultant who has recently left the business.

NFL Network's Charley Casserly -- a former GM with the Redskins and Texans -- assisted Jets owner Woody Johnson in his last search for a general manager, which produced Mike Maccagnan in 2015. Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who built the foundation of that franchise's last two Super Bowl squads, was brought in to help the Panthers install Dave Gettleman in 2013 and, more recently, to help the Lions install general manager Bob Quinn and VP of football administration Matt Harriss earlier in 2016.

"You have to evaluate your evaluator," Casserly said. "You gotta know who you're talking to. There are some people, big-name guys, all they do is recommend people, and they'll never say anything negative about a guy. You have to understand that when he calls. You have to know if what they said makes sense."

Essentially, it comes down to pedigree, temperament and leadership skills. Consultants have, for years, been tapping the wells of talent coming from Green Bay, Seattle and New England. The Patriots' tree alone placed two GMs -- former director of college scouting Jon Robinson, who landed with the Titans, and Quinn, the team's former director of pro scouting -- in the last cycle. The Packers (current Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and Chiefs GM John Dorsey) also have been frequent receptors of interview requests.

In preliminary interviews, candidates have to survive the filtration process, which strains out the basic characteristics -- for example, eliminating candidates with more administrative and salary-cap experience than scouting, or vice versa -- that fit what the owner decides he or she is looking for.

From there, it's about a series of rapid-fire questions that already have been determined in the owner's mind. Would you fire the head coach? Who would you hire? What do you think about our roster? Who is our best player? Who would you trade?

An example: According to two different candidates who went through the process with the Jets when they were hiring a GM in 2013, the interview centered around navigating the pending Darrelle Revis situation (Idzik, who ended up getting the job, wound up trading Revis to the Buccaneers for a first-round pick) and ushering in a more salary cap-conscious approach after the hefty spending by previous GM Mike Tannenbaum. The candidates fell in order after that.

"If I'm asking the questions, there will be no presentation [from the interviewee]," Casserly said. "It's going to be a fast-paced presentation. We'll never get caught up in a guy who filibusters. I'll have a clock and cut him off. You get out of them what you want -- at your pace."

Hiring a coach

While hiring a coach is an inexact science, every expert interviewed for this story pointed to one person who has an infallible track record: Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"He's hired three coaches in 40 years," Dungy said. "He's never had to fire a coach, and they've all gone to Super Bowls, because he has a formula that works for him. He hires young defensive coordinators in the Pittsburgh mentality."

While Dungy painted the Steelers' hires as the actions of a football lifer with extreme conviction, one can also see evident the workings of an executive who takes the Rooney Rule (the NFL's rule, named after Dan, that mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate for GM and head-coaching positions) seriously. As Dungy notes, current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was an afterthought after his predecessor in Pittsburgh, Bill Cowher, stepped down in 2007. (Tomlin was the defensive coordinator in Minnesota at the time.) Dungy feels more owners should allow the Rooney Rule to take its intended course, slowing them down and opening their minds.

"Pittsburgh had two great candidates on staff; everyone said, 'Hire one of these guys and get on with it,' " Dungy said. "Rooney said, 'Let me do some exploring.' He didn't know Mike Tomlin at all."

Casserly, who also sits on the NFL's Career Development Advisory Panel, finds names by first looking at candidates who have interviewed the year before. He talks with representatives of all 32 teams and holds a sweet spot of his own: successful college head coaches who have also had NFL experience (Pete Carroll, Tom Coughlin, Bill Walsh, Bill O'Brien, etc.).

After the candidates start coming in, Casserly said, it is time to block out the white noise and determine one thing: Who are you going to hire on your staff if we hire you, and can you realistically hire those people?

Looking around the league, it appears Casserly is right to emphasize the quality of a potential hire's prospective staff. The best teams in the NFL right now have at least one or two coaches below the head coach who are either a previously successful NFL head coach or an up-and-coming future head coach. The Lions (with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter) and Patriots (with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) immediately come to mind.

This might be the hardest part of the interview to authenticate, though. Coaches can promise anything, but can they realistically lure a coordinator away from his current job? What happens if he gets cold feet? Are the coaches lying about the depth of their relationships?

"The consensus reason potential head coaches are not hired is the staff," Casserly said. "I always tell candidates -- your staff is going to get you fired! As a general manager doing the interview, you don't only have to know who your candidates are, you have to know every single assistant in the league.

"It's a tricky thing. My experience has been they're all going to come in with a staff, and I've seen staffs with coaches on it that I could trust commitments from. I've also seen coaches with commitments that didn't make any sense, so I questioned them on it."

* * * **

Hearing the perspectives of both the executive search firm operative and the ingrained general manager, it's easy to tell why each side prefers its methods. Ultimately, though, they are both searching for answers to the same impossible riddle we ask ourselves everyday: Who is worthy of my trust, my time, my money, my future?

Maybe it's as simple as a gut decision. Maybe we need to be matched on 90 of 107 adjectives describing an ideal candidate. Everyone's just trying to sleep well at night -- which is not an easy thing to do when hiring the future of your franchise.

"It comes down to character -- however you want to define character," Casserly said. "For me, it's simple: Can I count on you?"

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