The end of the college and pro football seasons bring with them the inevitable firings and hirings, owners going in a “different direction” and wishing their departed coaches and general managers “the best of luck in the future.”
Those charged with finding the next great fit, a Tom Coughlin or Brian Cashman – and, conversely, avoiding a Ray Handley or Omar Minaya, have increasingly looked outside their own organization for help in making the hire that can make (hello, Mark Murphy in Green Bay) or break (goodbye, Matt Millen in Detroit) a franchise or program for the next decade.
Enter executive search, and in the world of big-time pro sports and BCS-level universities, often that means enter Newark native Jed Hughes. A former assistant coach under no fewer than five Hall of Fame head coaches, Hughes has parlayed the knowledge he gained from the ground up with an acumen for making the right connections into a leading role in what is quite a growth industry.
“I went through a time in my life when I thought that only bad people got fired,” said Hughes of the coaching carousel that often accompanies change at the top. “So I decided to go back and get my Masters and Ph.D., and to start over in business, other than coaching. I landed with a small behavioral assessment company, we increased billing from $500,000 to $10 million, and that's when I looked to get into executive search.”
12 years with one of the leading firms, Spencer Stuart, led Hughes to his latest move, when last week he was hired to head up Korn/Ferry International's sports practice. With hires like Murphy, Michigan's Brady Hoke and Tony Petitti, CEO of the Secaucus-based MLB Network among his dozens of top matches, Hughes leans on some of the experiences he gained working under legendary names like Bo Schembechler (University of Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford University) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).
“In reality, it's no different than calling the right defense,” explained Hughes. “Is man-to-man or zone the best fit for this team and this situation? It's the same with finding the right person for the role. It's all about fit – you have to know the talent pool, what type of person and personality can be successful in that situation.”
That sometimes means going against convention. Whenever a high-profile job is open, it seems everyone is an expert on who should be hired. The long-distance telephone lines and email inboxes burn with recommendations for “their guy.” What the decision-makers need is unbiased counsel, and Hughes knows that means looking outside of the normal hiring patterns.