This story appears in the September 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Dan Parker visits the tiny coffee room in his 24th-floor Atlanta office for a little ego gratification. Sometimes the flat screen that's permanently tuned to ESPN will frame a college basketball coach who is hip-deep in a lovefest: love for his school, players, fans, alumni and, most of all, his job. The words do more than bemuse Parker, a tall, slender 62-year-old with gray hair neatly parted to the right. They empower him. Chances are he knows the coach.
Maybe the guy has contacted Parker during the hours coaches always seem to call (midnight, 2 a.m., 6 a.m.) to whisper that he wants out. Or maybe Parker knows what the coach doesn't, that he's about to be canned, his school already trolling for a replacement. More than anyone else who follows college sports, Parker and the few like him -- executive search consultants hired by athletic directors to help them find new coaches -- know who's coming and going. It's information that, for obvious reasons, must stay secret, and that puts a particular unassuming group of men in an unusual position of power. Parker won't say anything as he watches the coach on TV. He'll just smile, to himself or to an employee, a subtle cue that he knows something, something he isn't about to spill.
In 2000, Missouri AD Mike Alden was sure he could keep the search to fill his football coaching vacancy under the radar. He'd secured a donor's plane that would take him and some trusted advisers, none of whom was about to squeal, to see six candidates. But each stop he made -- Atlanta, Chicago, Kalamazoo, Toledo -- was duly noted in the newspaper. Not in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or the Chicago Tribune, mind you, but in his school's Columbia Missourian. The sandbagged AD called the student reporter (Wright Thompson, who now works for The Magazine).
"Someone in my office is obviously leaking my itinerary," he said, "so let's talk."
"No one is leaking anything," Thompson replied. "I just tracked your tail."
The student had followed Alden's trail by monitoring the plane's license plate online. At the time, it was a novel tactic. These days, though, every reporter and blogger has it in his arsenal. Unless an AD has commandeered a Stealth bomber, he isn't likely to soar unnoticed. Planes are followed. Bigmouthed boosters gab, as do disloyal staffers and ADs of schools who don't want to lose a valued coach. Which is why, more and more, ADs do what Alden did the next time he had a high-profile opening to fill: hire a search firm.
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