MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It's coaching change season in the NBA, and that means teams are conducting searches for new leadership in all sorts of different ways.
Some teams employ a search firm to streamline the process. One of the more prominent names in the business is Korn Ferry, led by Jed Hughes, the vice chairman and global sector leader of its sports division. He's helped put Masai Ujiri with the Toronto Raptors, Hue Jackson with the Cleveland Browns and Jim Harbaugh with the Michigan Wolverines, among many others.
Prior to joining the search firm ranks, Hughes was a football coach who worked under such notable names as Michigan's Bo Schembechler, the Minnesota Vikings' Bud Grant and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chuck Noll.
Search firms often operate in the shadows, quietly working back channels to get the process moving. Hughes chatted with The Associated Press not long after helping the Minnesota Timberwolves hire Tom Thibodeau as president of basketball operations and coach to shed some light on the process.
The following is a partial transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
AP: How does this process unfold for you as you work to get on common ground with your client to find the right fit?
Hughes: What we try to do, whether it be football, basketball, baseball, intercollegiate or professional, it all begins with alignment. It all begins by getting an understanding with the owner, the head coach, the general manager, define the mission, how that's going to be accomplished, how the decision will be made. That's the start of it all.
In basketball you've got different models. You have the GM model in Miami with Pat Riley or in Boston with Danny Ainge or in Toronto with Masai. Or with San Antonio you have a head coach model with (Gregg Popovich) or one with Van Gundy in Detroit or with Doc Rivers (in Los Angeles).
Or it could be very balanced, like the Warriors are with the owner, the GM and the head coach. The head coach can leave and Walton can come in and not miss a beat.
Football, same thing. You've got Pete Carroll or the (Bill) Belichicks of the world and then you have the Ted Thompsons and the Ozzie Newsomes as (GM-centered operations). Then you've got the Steelers sitting in the middle.
The ownership group needs to define what they want and how they want to be aligned. That becomes the most important piece. And then figuring what responsibilities are going to who and which model you choose to use.
AP: How involved are you in deciding which model is used? Do you encourage one way over another?
Hughes: No. You have to understand what the wishes of the ownership group are. You do the best job you can of explaining the pluses and minuses of different ones. We worked with the Browns this year and the Haslams or with (Houston Texans owner) Bob McNair or Tom Gores of the Pistons, everybody's got their own preference. It's a collaboration with myself and with ownership to determine the strategy we want to embark on. But that all begins by creating the right alignment.
AP: How do you go about combing the candidates from the backwaters to the highest profile candidates to narrow down a list?
Hughes: I think part of where we've had success is the fact that for 20 years I worked with seven Hall of Fame coaches. So by doing that, I've established a credibility with the people on the operational side of the businesses, whether it be basketball, football, baseball. You have relationships with various general managers in different sports and you're continually talking to them during the season and in the offseason and building your list of people that you've discussed and that you think could potentially be a fit. It's something you're continually updating. You're on the phone and you're in combines and at the different ownership meetings discussing and having conversations with various people to continue to meet them and familiarize yourself with who they are. So that when you're able to get involved in (a search) you're able to execute it in an efficient manner.
AP: Do you sit in on the interviews?
Hughes: It all depends on ownership, and in most cases the answer is yes.
AP: At the end of each interview, do you go over it with the owner to synthesize the information and process it?
Hughes: I think searches, whether they be in sports or outside of sports, there's a process. Normally when you're done with an interview, you want to get feedback based on the steps. You create a job spec with six to eight characteristics that you're looking for, and when you're interviewing the person, you're interviewing them against the spec and you're referencing them against the criteria you've established. Then you're able to do something off of measurable data that reflects the structure you put in place.
AP: How do you first establish yourself with a client? How do they find you?
Hughes: A lot of it has to do with relationships and word of mouth. Owners will call owners and recommend us.
AP: How closely do you watch the match after it's made?
Hughes: In the NFL now and you go back to Pete Carroll and John Schneider and Andy Reid and John Dorsey and Dan Quinn and Hue Jackson. You take basketball and look at Masai up in Toronto. That was a hockey town. Who would have ever thought three years ago that the No. 1 hockey city in the world would fall so in love with basketball? That's part of what leadership does. That's part of what a powerful leader can do in that organization in that city.
Then look at Detroit and what (Stan) Van Gundy's done. Turning them around and bringing in Arn Tellem and having Jeff Bower as the GM working with Stan. Really good alignment. The team really performed. That was a huge turnaround. I absolutely feel good about that.