ATLANTA -- The room many college athletics insiders consider to be the most powerful secret lair in the business essentially boils down to two tables, a handful of chairs and a sofa that faces what looks like a fancy entertainment unit complete with a flat-screen television.
Looks, as we all well know, can be deceiving. This nondescript conference room, housed in a traditional-looking office on the 29th floor of a high-rise building in Atlanta, is where college search committees gather to find athletic directors and athletic directors meet to find their next coaches.
And that ordinary television is actually a display window for a database that essentially serves as college athletics' biggest dating service.
This is Parker Executive Search, a company that insists it is little more than a headhunter, but whose perceived influence has reached nearly mythical proportions.
"If I was a young guy looking for a job, I'd make sure that the people at Parker knew who I was," said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin.
In the past decade, colleges have increasingly turned to search firms to help them choose administrators, athletic directors and coaches.
The rise in coaching searches isn't random. It coincides directly with an increase in salaries, a change in the profile of the typical athletic director -- fewer are ex-coaches; more are coming from the business sector -- and the evolution of a 24/7 news cycle that makes privacy and plausible deniability both more desirable and more difficult to achieve.
But as with anything new, the increased use of search firms has been met head-on by an increased wave of paranoia, rumor and innuendo.
Plenty of people simply don't trust them, convinced they are little more than a fraternity or secret society: If you're in the popular crowd, you get the interview; if you're not, you don't.
"They get their guys; they ride their guys," said an agent who represents several college basketball coaches.
Others contend that search firms merely crunch numbers and have no sense of what a good fit is, as evidenced by some of the searches that have resulted in bad hires.
Still others, hot off the Julie Hermann mess at Rutgers, wonder if they even do the proper due diligence to justify their compensation.
What no one will argue is that search firms, like Parker Executive Search, DHR International, Witt/Kieffer, Collegiate Sports Associates, Carr Sports Associates Inc., Fogler Consulting and Korn/Ferry International, are going anywhere.
If I was a young guy looking for a job, I'd make sure that the people at Parker knew who I was.
--Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin
"Gone are the days when you could just rely on your head coach's recommendation to get you in," said Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel. "This is a business, and this is how the business is run."
Exactly how, though, is that business run? In an effort to pull the curtain off of Oz and deflect some of the negative attention leveled its way after the Hermann fiasco, Parker Executive Search agreed to allow ESPN.com to view its practices and procedures in identifying coaching candidates.
This window into the firm, juxtaposed with college coaches' perceptions of Parker -- which were gathered during the EYBL Peach Jam recruiting event in North Augusta, S.C. -- offered a fascinating glimpse into this trend in college sports.
"You're going to Parker?" one coach said, echoing the reaction of many. "I'm anxious to see how that turns out."
Michael Plunkett, Parker's manager of technology, sits off to the side at a circular table, laptop at his disposal.
With the click of a mouse, he can access any coach you might want to hire, whether it be a head coach or an assistant.
And, with a few more clicks, he lays bare that coach's information -- his educational background and coaching background; his win/loss record annually and broken down by season; his salary, including bonuses, buyout clauses, shoe contracts and perks, such as country club memberships and car deals; whom he's coached with and whom he's coached for; his academic track record, including APR numbers; videos of him at news conferences or on the court during games; and news stories referencing any black marks he might have encountered during the course of his career, from NCAA issues to personal transgressions.
When a university signs a deal with Parker Executive Search, access to this database is the big draw. It's truly like a dating service, complete with a prospective coach's mug shot in the top left corner of the screen.
Also included in the firm's fee, which typically runs between $60,000 and $90,000, plus expenses, is what it believes is soup-to-nuts service, including:
• Handling all calls inquiring about the coaching vacancy
• Reviewing its database with search committee members and providing all members with a private log-in to access the database remotely
• Contacting coaches or agents to request interviews
• Arranging for travel and accommodations for candidates who will be interviewed
• Conducting public records searches -- credit, criminal and motor vehicle reports -- of all candidates
• Confirming academic degrees
• Receiving a signed statement from candidates confirming information and affirming that nothing else need be disclosed
• Negotiating a contract on behalf of the university
• Receiving signed terms of an agreement from the coaching candidate and all parties before the introductory news conference
The real meat, though, is the database, a veritable treasure trove of information. The profiles of more than 1,000 basketball coaches and 2,000 football coaches are a click away.
Plunkett and two interns constantly feed the beast, uploading media links and videos, as well as updating schedules and contract information.
"One year we had an athletic director walk in with two suitcases full of information," said vice president Daniel Parker. "He never opened it. We had it covered for him. They don't have time to sift through so much information. These searches go very quickly."
Typically, an athletic director or a search committee, after employing Parker Executive Search, flies to its Atlanta office. Executive vice president and managing director Laurie Wilder and Parker, whose father, Dan, started the search firm, first try to understand what the university is looking for: what worked well with the previous coach and what didn't; if a predecessor was fired, why.
Usually a school's search committee has a wish list of candidates, and it reviews those names first.
"Very often, they'll stop right here," said Wilder, as Plunkett accesses the financial information page of one coach. "They'll realize a candidate is already making too much money or the buyout clause is bigger than they're interested in. People love to say it's not about the money. It's very often about the money."
Wilder and Parker may offer suggestions, names they think fit the school's profile and criteria, but perhaps aren't on the search committee's radar.
Eventually, the school whittles down what Wilder refers to as A and AA lists. The A candidates are the ones a school really wants but isn't sure it can get; the AA candidates are ones it is interested in.
And this is about the point where coaches raise their first suspicions. How do they get on those lists? How do they convince Parker to recommend them?
"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do," said Arkansas assistant Matt Zimmerman, a self-described "grinder" and lifelong assistant coach. "Do I get an agent to go to bat for me? I never thought I needed the services of an agent, but maybe I do. I think you bust your tail, work hard and hope that makes you more attractive, but I guess that's old-school."
Wilder and Parker insist there is no secret and that the notion they have a stable of coaches that they promote is categorically untrue. The A and AA lists, they stress, are developed by the school's athletic director or search committee, not by Parker Executive Search.
The phrase Wilder likes to use is that the firm's role is to "aggressively recruit, advise and facilitate. We do not vote."
Moreover, she insists that if pressed for a personal opinion, the firm will decline.
"You don't have to know us to be in our searches. That's complete baloney," Parker said. "We do original research based on the expectation of what the athletic director is looking for. We have searches all the time where we didn't know much about a coach until we started the process and got to know him."
Still, accurate or not, the perception exists among the coaching fraternity that if you don't know Parker and other top search firms, or vice versa, you won't get a job because of the wide breadth of their influence.
Some go to great lengths to stay in their good graces.
"When I was at Murray State, I did an interview for a job I didn't want because a high-powered search firm wanted me to," Cronin said. "The school wanted to interview me and I wasn't interested in the job, but I wanted to endear myself to the search firm. I thought it was better than pissing them off."
Others take far less complicated routes, but with the same goal: to stay in good favor.
Wilder said that, prior to Peach Jam, more than a few coaches stopped by the firm's Atlanta office to say hello en route to North Augusta, and its Final Four party has become a must-attend event for coaches trying to get noticed.
"It's one of the funniest things in the world. Everybody is practically in line to meet them and kiss the rings," the agent said. "You've got the ADs they've hired or the associate ADs that want their help. There are maybe a handful of head coaches and a bunch of assistants trying to get face time. Then you've got six of me who are making sure their guys get seen but also protecting them to make sure other agents aren't trying to talk to them. It's unreal."
Once Parker Executive Search reaches out to a university's A and AA lists of candidates, it sets up interviews.
After its database information, the firm's ability to provide confidentiality and plausible deniability may be its biggest attraction.
Coaching searches, not unlike those involving heads of major corporations, are hugely high profile, and are monitored by concerned fans and boosters as well as a curious media.
News outlets have been known to track airplane tail numbers to figure out whom a school might be interviewing.
In one unforgettable instance, a Memphis television station directed a live camera feed at the back door of the university's athletic department offices, trying to determine if John Calipari was leaving to interview with Kentucky.
Parker Executive Search typically flies candidates to Atlanta, a hotbed for recruiting and a common flight layover city, thus giving candidates an easy alibi.
Or it conducts interviews at private clubs across the country where it holds memberships, away from prying eyes.
It all helps keep the secret of who is being interviewed, lest a candidate decline an offer and make a university look bad. It also allows for a cover -- since Parker contacts the coach and sets up the interview, both coach and university can say, truthfully, that they have not spoken to one another.
"Confidentiality is critical," Wilder said. "Names leak, even in this situation. People will put out names, some are names that they just throw on the wall, but sometimes they stick. We try to help with that."
After a coach agrees to an interview, the firm then runs an extensive public records check on behalf of the university. It looks for any and all red flags and even asks candidates to sign a statement that essentially says there are no smoking guns or other skeletons that ought to be disclosed.
Which leads, of course, to Julie Hermann's hire as Rutgers athletic director in May. The Scarlet Knights used Parker Executive Search to find their next athletic director, and many lauded the decision to hire Hermann. But within days, the Newark Star Ledger reported that Hermann was named in a discrimination lawsuit by a former assistant coach.
Worse, several women she once coached at the University of Tennessee claimed she had been verbally abusive toward them. These claims were disturbingly similar to those about Mike Rice, the basketball coach Rutgers recently dismissed, a scandal which cost former athletic director Tim Pernetti his job.
Wilder and Parker declined to speak to specific searches.
"We are not a private investigator," Wilder said. "We are only able to look at what's publicly available. The rest we try to get a feel for a person, by talking to ADs, presidents, people we know and come in contact with."
Hermann has survived the media storm and whether she is the right person to lead Rutgers through the morass is to be determined.
However, other hires led by Parker Executive Search and other firms, such as Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, Billy Gillispie at Kentucky and Mike Haywood at Pittsburgh, have flamed out royally, bringing up the question of whether an outside search firm can understand fit.
Athletic directors have changed. They're lawyers or CPAs or MBAs. The way they run their department is very different. The concept of having that list in your pocket and being able to go one, two, three, four down that list just doesn't exist anymore.
--Laurie Wilder, Parker Executive Search
Wilder said she spends a great deal of time talking to people and uses her visits to campuses to get an idea of the pulse of the place. Ultimately, though, she said it's not her job to decide if a person is right for a university. It's up to the individual doing the hiring.
But that, most everyone agrees, is part of the problem, and a real reason why search firms have grown so popular -- the person doing the hiring isn't who it used to be.
"Of course that's part of the problem, a big part," said George Mason head coach Paul Hewitt. "A very big part."
For years, for better and for worse, the athletic director's big corner office doubled as a retirement home. This is where old coaches went to finish out the string, taking their knowledge, connections and insights from the playing field to the conference room.
If they weren't ex-coaches, ADs came up by their bootstraps, promoted through the channels of an athletic department, learning the intricacies of the business along the way.
They liked to talk about the list they kept. Some stored it in the corners of their brains, others in their top desk drawers. Either way, it contained an ever-changing list of coaches, men or women they thought would meet their school's needs should a vacancy ever arrive.
But money changes everything, and on college campuses, the big money -- or at the very least, the potential for it -- sits in the athletic department.
Not coincidentally, the corner office is these days more and more a corporate office, occupied by a businessman or businesswoman who may know how to run the department from an organizational standpoint, but lacks the Rolodex of connections.
Into the abyss saunters the search firm.
"Athletic directors have changed," Wilder said. "They're lawyers or CPAs or MBAs. The way they run their department is very different. The concept of having that list in your pocket and being able to go one, two, three, four down that list just doesn't exist anymore."
That lack of faith in athletic directors dovetails directly into another common notion: that fit really doesn't matter anymore, because search firms are almost like shoe companies.
Instead of asking whether you are a Nike, Reebok or adidas school, the question is whether you are in with Parker, DHR or Fogler.
"A lot of times, when a coach is hired, the first question is, 'OK, who had the search?'" Cronin said. "I'm not sure that's fair, but I know that's how people think."
Specifically, people think that there is some sort of reciprocity going on -- that if a university president is hired by one search firm, the president returns to the search firm to hire an athletic director, and the athletic director then taps the firm to find a coach.
There's no denying that there is repeat business. A quick glance at Parker Executive Search's website shows several schools who have returned to the Parker well. Sixteen schools listed have used the firm for multiple searches within the athletic department.
"The reality is good business breeds good business," Wilder said. "We do a great service. They engage in the process, and they come and ask us to do it again. It's done all over the country, in every industry. I know what's out there. We've read the articles as well. It's just not reality."
In 2006, Jeff Capel had just finished up his fourth season at VCU. Driving home from watching one of his players work out at the NBA pre-draft camp in Portsmouth, Va., his phone rang.
"It was a 770 area code, and we were looking for a new AD at the time. One of the finalists was from Georgia Tech, so I figured it was about that. I didn't even take the call," Capel said. "Finally I took the call. It was Parker."
The search firm was reaching out to Capel on behalf of the University of Oklahoma.
Would he be interested in interviewing for the vacant head-coaching position?
Capel was stunned.
"I thought I had no chance," he said. "We had just finished a good season but nothing great. I didn't think it was my year. I figured I'd take the interview and go through the process. I thought it would be good for me, plus good to get to know the people at Parker."
Capel got the job, of course, but was fired five years later, after two losing seasons and amid an NCAA probe concerning one of his players, Tiny Gallon.
Capel worried what kind of hit his reputation had taken. To find out, he called Parker.
"They told me people kept thinking that there had to be something more," he said. "I was really taken aback. Really taken aback. I didn't want to hear it, but I guess I had to."
Today Capel is an assistant at Duke, working alongside a man whose word and recommendation would, theoretically, carry an awful lot of weight should Capel come up for another head-coaching position. Still, he's not kidding himself that even Mike Krzyzewski's endorsement is a guarantee.
"Coach is different," Capel said. "And I think there are still a lot of coaches whose word means a lot. But I also know this is the way the business is going. It's not going back to the way it was."