It’s early in the search — so early, in fact, that there’s no actual searching underway. The first order of business for the Pac-12, expected to commence soon, is the framing.
TurnkeyZRG, the executive placement firm hired to assist the conference, likely will adhere to the same process it used while guiding the ACC in its recently-completed hunt for a commissioner.
In coming weeks, Turnkey executives are expected to conduct Zoom meetings with the Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors, with head coaches, Faculty Athletic Representatives and any other campus officials deemed important to the process.
From those discussions, a model will take shape; Turnkey will reach out to candidates; and the search will churn toward conclusion in April or May.
One question that will assuredly surface: Should the eventual candidate pool feature administrators currently working in the conference?
After all, internal elevation is fraught with political risk.
“You have to understand how fiercely competitive it is within the conference,” former commissioner Tom Hansen told the Hotline recently.
“When you’re in the conference office, you’re trying to grow cooperation and get everyone pointed in a common direction. If you hire an athletic director from within who isn’t popular with all his or her colleagues, you can put that person in a difficult position.
“It’s a delicate balancing act. Sooner or later, you have to say something that’s favorable or unfavorable to one school. And you’d be surprised by the reaction to a seemingly innocuous comment.”
As the Pac-12 presidents mull whether to consider internal candidates — either a sitting athletic director or a conference official — there is a close parallel to consider.
Two years ago, the Big Ten conducted a lengthy search to replace legendary commissioner Jim Delany.
Northwestern president Morton Schapiro led the process, which included a stellar internal candidate: Schapiro’s own lieutenant in Evanston, Jim Phillips, one of the most respected athletic directors in the country.
But the Big Ten went outside the family and hired Kevin Warren from the Minnesota Vikings, whose tenure has been less than impressive thus far.
Meanwhile, Phillips kept plugging along at Northwestern … for a year.
He was just appointed commissioner of the ACC.
Apply that lesson to the Pac-12, and we’re left to wonder if an athletic director deemed palatable by the collective also would have the full backing of his/her own president, who might be loathe to lose a talented cabinet member.
Let’s use Oregon’s Rob Mullens as the example. We have no idea if Mullens would be interested, but his situation best illustrates the sweep of issues involved in hiring a current member of the Pac-12 family.
Is Mullens qualified to be the next commissioner? Absolutely.
In our opinion, the two most important qualifications are an understanding of campus culture and a strategic sense for major college football — both its present condition and future state.
Mullens, who has decades of campus experience and chaired the College Football Playoff selection committee, possesses enough of both qualities to last two lifetimes.
But it gets tricky on three fronts:
— Oregon’s president, Michael Schill, assuredly doesn’t want to lose Mullens (and we can think of several presidents/chancellors who would feel the same way about their ADs).
— And was the case with Northwestern’s Schapiro in the Big Ten, Schill is leading the Pac-12 search as chair of the CEO Group and member of the executive committee.
Mullens is well-liked and highly respected by his peers, but the optics accompanying the appointment Schill’s lieutenant, at the very least, would require careful management.
(Washington’s Ana Mari Cauce and WSU’s Kirk Schulz are the other members of the executive committee, so the same calculation would, in theory, be applied to Jen Cohen and Pat Chun, respectively.)
— Oregon’s ties to Nike and status as one of the conference’s ‘haves’ could generate resistance from other schools, particularly the ‘have-nots’.
Those are examples of the difficult navigation required for a Mullens candidacy, and there would be pros and cons with any of the sitting athletic directors.
Then again, any sitting AD identified as a preferred candidate must, first and foremost, want the job.
And that’s not a given, especially for those who have close working relationships with their presidents/chancellors.
The choice wouldn’t be easy personally, because of the potential need to uproot his/her family, or professionally, because of the daunting challenges — in particular, the issue of media rights.
The conference is desperate for a new deal that would provide revenue relief but must wait three-and-a-half interminable years.
And because the Big Ten and SEC are feeding first — the former with Fox (presumably) and the latter with ESPN (officially) — there might not be enough left to fully satisfy the Pac-12.
All that said, if an internal candidate is qualified and interested, the political hurdles aren’t insurmountable.
“A sitting athletic director would be fine,” former Utah AD Chris Hill said. “They just need to find the best candidate.”