The flashbulbs burned about as bright as the California sun, even in late November, when USC athletic director Mike Bohn walked Lincoln Riley into the room. Less than a year ago, Bohn and the Trojans turned college football upside down when they announced Riley as the program’s new head coach. Their search for a new head coach lasted over two months. It only took a 12-hour trip to lure Oklahoma’s head coach to Los Angeles.
Riley won 85 percent of his games at Oklahoma, leading the Sooners to four Big 12 titles and three College Football Playoff appearances in five seasons. That’s what Collegiate Sports Associates wrote in its release when USC named Riley head coach. Bohn told the Los Angles Times about this time in last year’s season that he was confident USC would find the right head coach. USC administration hired CSA to aid the search. CSA made its recommendation after weeks of interviews and investigating. That laid the groundwork for Bohn’s announcement that shook college football to its core.
“This is for our current players, our former players, our alumni, our fans, and our entire university community,” Bohn said at Riley’s introductory press conference. “Our time is now.”
A year later, CSA is handling a head football coach search for another of college football’s marquee programs. Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts confirmed earlier this month the university hired CSA as its executive search firm to assist in the biggest hiring decision of his career so far. At the Sept. 11 press conference Alberts used to announce the coaching change, he said the university would make a hire that would win not only in the press release but on the field.
It’s not often a coaching hire stuns in the way Riley’s introduction at USC shocked. Typically, they’re milder gatherings like the one Cincinnati held when then-Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn announced Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell as the new head coach of the Bearcats. Fickell sat inside the Richard E. Linder Center on campus and didn’t promise championships. In a sharp counter to his predecessor, Tommy Tuberville, Fickell spoke intensely to the crowd.
“I’m not going to stand up here and promise you wins and championships,” Fickell said. “But what I am going to promise you is that we’ll put a product on the field that you will be extremely proud to call your own.”
Five years later, Fickell coached Cincinnati from 4-8 into the College Football Playoff––a land no other Group of 5 team set foot in. It wasn’t an Earth-shattering hire but Fickell’s success is undeniable. CSA and Bohn teamed for that hire as well. That one, unquestionably, a home run hire.
USC is 6-1 in Riley’s first year. The Trojans are ranked No. 10 and coming off a bye following their first loss of the year, an exciting 43-42 heartbreaker to Utah. Cincinnati is also 6-1 right now and ranked No. 20, winners of six straight after losing to Arkansas in the season opener. The Bearcats went 4-8 in his first year and won at least nine games ever since. Riley and Fickell are two of the most successful hires CSA boasts in a field of mixed results.
Recently, CSA also helped Washington State hire Jake Dickert in the wake of the Nick Rolovich departure. Through difficult circumstances Dickert holds a 7-6 record in Pullman. SMU hired former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee as its head coach after his two seasons as Miami offensive coordinator. He is 3-4 this season. Jay Norvell accepted the Colorado State head coaching job after going 33-26 in five seasons at Nevada. Colorado State is 2-5 after starting 0-4 in Norvell’s first season. Akron hired former Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead for its head football coach job. The Zips are currently 1-7 in Moorhead’s first year. CSA helped in all those searches.
On the flip side, CSA helped Boise State, UTSA, Miami (Ohio) and Austin Peay find new coaches. Andy Avalos left his defensive coordinator job at Oregon to lead Boise State. He is 12-7 there, including this year’s 5-2 season so far (undefeated in conference). Texas-San Antonio chose Jeff Traylor and his southern pedigree to help get the Roadrunner football program off the ground. He’s 25-9 there including a 6-2 record so far this season. They’ve made a bowl game every year since his arrival. Miami (Ohio) hired Chuck Martin away from Grand Valley State (went 74-7 there). Martin’s guided the RedHawks to three bowl games and are 3-5 right now. Scotty Walden became the youngest Division I head football coach when perennial struggler Austin Peay hired him at 30 years old. The former GPAC quarterback (Dordt) is 15-9 at Austin Peay, which posts a .355 winning percentage throughout program history.
Among CSA’s other hires are Ricky Rahne at Old Dominion (9-11 in two seasons), Jeff Monken at Army (61-47), Dawson Odums at Norfolk State (7-11), Stan Dakosty at Colgate (6-10), Kerwin Bell at Western Carolina (5-8) and Tony Reno at Yale (56-39). CSA also previously placed Sonny Dykes at SMU (who is now leading No. 7 TCU in his first season there) and Lance Leipold at Buffalo (you probably know about him at Kansas by now).
In addition to coaches, CSA helps administrations hire fellow administrative personnel. That’s how Trev Alberts moved down Interstate 80 to his current position. It’s also how the University of Mississippi hired Keith Carter as its athletic director. The former Rebel All-American basketball player was a slam dunk by the end of the process. The school’s search committee went through a national search before choosing someone closer to home. Archie Manning was a member of the school’s executive search committee in that process and found CSA’s work to be “professional, responsive and thorough.”
“They managed the process well and recruited a qualified, diverse candidate pool,” Manning said. “Working with CSA and their team of former Division 1 athletic administrators was a great experience. I would recommend them to any institution that is conducting an executive search.”
That’s what Nebraska did. The rest is still up in the air.