Nebraska football hasn’t filled the shoes of its pedigree recently.
The Huskers haven’t made a bowl game since 2016. No divisional title since 2012 (the Huskers went on to get demolished by Wisconsin and Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten Championship). Nebraska hasn’t won 10 games since 2012 and 11 since 2001. There’s been no conference championship, let alone a National Championship, this millennium.
So how valuable, in the national scope of billion-dollar television contracts, is the head coaching position at Nebraska? Immensely.
“The history and the legacy can’t be overlooked,” said Chad Biagini, President at Nolan Partners. “It’s exciting for many. To get to be the person who aims to restore success at such a legacy brand is a privilege.
“To get to do it with a fan base that’s passionate — there’s certainly the element of macro, nationally, what’s the brand in recent years, where success perhaps isn’t where they wanted it. But still micro, locally, this is the biggest team on the planet.”
Biagini holds over a decade of experience in executive search. He’s served clients in every American professional sport. Top-tier soccer clubs in France, Italy and England enlisted his services. In total, he’s recruited over 350 executives.
That’s where his expertise overlaps with Nebraska’s current situation. Athletic director Trev Alberts confirmed on Thursday that Nebraska has hired a search firm, Collegiate Sports Associates, to aide finding the right candidate.
Alberts noted the first step of the process at his Sept. 11 press conference. Decision makers within the university and athletic department needed to agree upon what characteristics they’re looking for in a head coach. That could include the school’s culture, vision for success, even the relationships with athletic director, donors, fans and alumni. Those were conveyed to the search firm.
“That needs to be articulated to a marketplace to compel people beyond just the business part of it,” Biagini said. “‘Who am I working with and what are we trying to build together?’ From there, it’s making sure that the right process is employed to attract them, but then also you’re assessing whether the people who are putting their names forward fit that vision all the way.”
Naturally, this situation creates active rumor mills. That’s compounded at a high-profile position like Nebraska football coach. An overly active rumor mill could embolden a candidate who enjoys the fan reception online. In other cases, potential candidates have withdrawn their names to avoid being subject to the attention while at another school.
That’s where Biagini said confidentiality and professionalism by the search firm is paramount. He also underlined the importance of fresh eyes and internal secrecy among the search committee itself to prevent confirmation and bandwagon bias. He prefers submitted private votes before deliberations are shared aloud. Biagini also likes introducing new eyes into sitting committees so a high-profile candidate doesn’t wow with previous accomplishments or win favor throughout the process.
Sure, a big-name hire would look good initially. It would make national news. And it sure look goods on a press release. But that’s not necessarily what wins games.
“The big task ahead is how is the process is managed successfully, maintaining confidentiality and knowing that, hey, the press release matters but what matters more is after the press release and when the person comes in and it’s the right culture fit,” he said.
The best programs in the country all have valleys. Miami, Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama all, historically, have fallen upon drought years in the midst of incredibly successful histories. Then they returned to prominence. This puts Nebraska’s recent slide into context while market support, fan support and administrative support keeps the head football coaching position among the top in the country.
Nebraska just announced a new multimedia rights deal. It’s part of the Big Ten and, as such, will receive over $100 million annually just in television rights revenue. There’s also a brand new athletics facility going up next to Memorial Stadium. Over 80,000 fans watched Scott Frost coach his final game at his alma mater and just as many returned to Memorial Stadium for a game against No. 6 Oklahoma. This is market-valued cultural support and financial support for a potential head coach. That’s not just financial support for the head coach’s salary. It also goes to recruiting budget, assistant coach salary pool and all aspects of institutional support.
CSA, the same search firm that chose Alberts and picked Lincoln Riley for the USC job, helms this search. Riley was plucked from a top-tier program in Oklahoma to go out West. He was hired in just a few hours difference from Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame while the Irish were still in playoff contention for LSU. And if the sitting coaches at Oklahoma and Notre Dame can be hired away, which candidates aren’t considered for the first post-media rights Big Ten deal?
“I find it so important that these organizations stick to a thoughtful, totally objective process and have an interview search committee that can help achieve that,” Biagini said. “Because these decisions need to be made with as much rationale as possible and not just emergency, gut reaction, who’s available now to fill a hole because these are long-term solutions and not just short-term band-aids.”