Every year, the day after the final game of the NFL’s regular season, owners start sacking coaches and general managers of teams that did not make the playoffs. This year did not disappoint, with seven coaches and five general managers getting the ax. It’s a ritual known as Black Monday. And “ritual” is the mot juste. As Freakonomics co-author Stephen J. Dubner has pointed out, the fates of these teams change only marginally. Most often, new coaches and GMs are plucked from the ranks of assistants at other teams or from the recently fired. And they do the job about the same as their departed brethren, even if they are all doing it wrong. Witness Andy Reid, let go on Monday after 14 years as head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and already in talks with the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals, who also fired their coaches. Black Monday begets the “coaching carousel.” And with only 32 teams in the NFL, it’s a short list of men who get to ride.
That’s why it was slightly strange to see New York Jets owner Woody Johnson announce that Jed Hughes of headhunting firm Korn/Ferry International would lead the search to replace fired GM Mike Tannenbaum. “I thought it was odd,” says W. David Allen, a football fan and economics professor at the Universtity of Alabama-Huntsville who has studied NFL hiring and firing and can’t recall another instance of an NFL team using a headhunting firm to hire someone in charge of player personnel decisions. “Usually you think of the owner and football people that they’ve already employed getting their heads together and making a list,” says Allen.
So what is football veteran Hughes, who was brought in by Korn/Ferry last year to expand the firm’s sports practice, going to do? Can he possibly find a name Johnson doesn’t already know? Calls to Korn/Ferry with just such questions were met with “Let me guess why you’re calling” and a polite decline to comment. At the recruiter’s website, you can find this clip from News 12 New Jersey in December, where Hughes, who spent two decades as assistant football coach at both the college and professional level, talks about placing Neil Glat as Jets president last April and helping David Brandon go from the chairmanship of Domino’s Pizza to athletic director at the University of Michigan. “I can pick up the phone and call almost every head coach in any sport and get them to return my call and get better insight than an owner could because I’ve paid the price of being a coach,” he says. “My father was a psychoanalyst; my mom a guidance counselor,” he adds. “It’s been in my DNA, assessing people.”
Assessing, rather than unearthing, GM candidates is likely the main function Hughes will serve for the Jets. Mike Speck, a partner at search firm Heidrick & Struggles, says it’s becoming more common for sports teams to look for this kind of outside help. “They want to look a little more broadly,” Speck says, “and they want those executives to have a broader and deeper set of skills, in addition to the football knowledge.” The trend is the same, he says, for creative talent in the entertainment business: “I had a Hollywood executive say to me, ‘I know these three or four people out there. And I think I know them really well, but I know them socially.’” He wanted Speck to do the confidential background and reference checks that he couldn’t. After Hughes’s coaching days, according to this bio at Korn/Ferry, he worked at Walter V. Clark, “a behavioral assessment company where he led the development of psychological testing and assessments for organizations that included Super Bowl champions San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers.” Hughes probably won’t dig up some unknown gem to run the Jets, but, with his PhD in organizational behavior, he probably will give the eventual hire a full work-up. And with the circus that is the Jets, that’s probably a good first step.