Column: Zenger has help in search for coach

Friday, November 21, 2014

Any time a coaching-search adviser is employed by a university, suspicion percolates that the adviser will push buddies of his upon the athletic director.

That undoubtedly takes place to varying extents, but it’s not a serious concern at the moment for the Kansas University search for a new football coach.

Chuck Neinas, being paid $50,000, for a role that typically draws $75,000 to $100,000, will be used mainly as a middle man. Agents, not coaches, will contact Neinas, not KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger. At least at this stage of the search, this enables Zenger to deny he ever has talked to Candidate A and it allows Candidate A to deny he has talked to Kansas.

That’s important for coaches because they don’t need the distraction and neither do their teams and employers.

Neinas might bring up a name that Zenger had not thought of and if it piques Zenger’s interest, he’ll ask more questions. If he keeps liking what he hears, he will pass it onto his committee members and tell them to start digging. For what? Information about the coach specific to their areas of expertise.

Kansas has not made public the names of those on the search committee, but it’s not tough to guess what types of people are on it. Maybe a long-standing loyal donor who has a reputation for, when in the loop on sensitive matters, keeping his mouth shut, opening only to blow cigar smoke, which carries with it no secrets. Plus, former football players who care deeply about the state of the program.

The information diggers, aka committee members, also will come from areas of the university with which a coach deals on a peripheral basis. For example, somebody from the Williams Fund, the Alumni Association, maybe the academic-support staff, perhaps a faculty adviser.

If Zenger’s interest in a candidate is serious enough to begin vetting him, those on the committee know what to do when told to hit the phones.

Each one calls the person with a similar title at the university where the candidate works and asks questions pertinent to his or her department. All the conversations are off-the-record, not to be repeated to anyone and, for safety’s sake, the officials on both ends of the phone should wear Groucho Marx masks.

For example, a question that might be asked from one academic-support staffer to another: “Does he respect boundaries? Does he ever try to get you to make promises that can’t be kept from professors? When professors or class-checkers put one of his player’s names on a list for blowing off a class or assignment, does he effectively address it? Can you give me a recent example?”

A conversation from one fundraiser to another might include questions, asked from underneath a desk after looking both ways, that go something like, “How much time does he give the big donors? Does he make it seem to them as if he values their opinions or is it obvious he’s just meeting with them because he has been told it’s part of his job? If it ever comes to that, would he able to ask for the order, spell out how large the donation must be to truly help toward stadium renovations?”

As Zenger works his college football contacts to ask questions about how organized the coach is in writing up practice plans, how effective a communicator he is in instructing players, how much energy he brings, how fast a tempo he demands at practice, others work their contacts. Ex-football players weigh in with knowledgeable insights. Zenger’s list of candidates constantly expands and contracts, expands and contracts until he arrives on group of finalists. By mid-December at the latest, probably sooner, Zenger sells his choice to the public in a news conference.

In the end, the decision is Zenger’s. Every serious candidate will be vetted more thoroughly than Charlie Weis was nearly three years ago.

Zenger is determined not to get fooled again. Plus, this time, he has the luxury of turning to a coach, Clint Bowen, who in seven weeks already has directed the ship away from the iceburg and will be given a chance to express at length what plans he has to return the program to respectability and beyond. Former and current KU players have made it clear Bowen is their choice. They are big men who carry a lot of weight.