Matching execs and coaches to teams a business of its own

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(AP) — For a guy who has dealt with so many high-profile people — Jerry Jones, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll to name a few — Jed Hughes manages to stay out of the limelight.

That’s just fine with Hughes. Brokering deals is what he’s all about.

Hughes has been doing so for more than a decade, going back to helping Jones find a coach (Chan Gailey) in 1998. As vice chairman of Korn/Ferry International, he marries teams and organizations with candidates who fit a certain profile for the open position. Those groups have ranged from NFL clubs — six current head coaches (Dan Quinn, Carroll, Andy Reid, Hue Jackson, Doug Marrone, and Bill O’Brien) got their jobs with the aid of Hughes’ placement company — to the NBA, college sports, Major League Baseball and the USOC.

The philosophy is simple.

“It has to be the right culture fit,” says Hughes, a former football coach for the Vikings, Steelers and Browns, plus Michigan, Stanford and UCLA. “You have to make the chemistry work. Communication at all levels is a critical element.”

That communication is a constant whether Hughes is working with a publicly owned franchise, the Green Bay Packers — he helped find a CEO, Mark Murphy, in 2007 — or the U.S. Olympic Committee (he aided in the hiring of CEO Scott Blackmun in 2010, during a time of major turmoil in that organization). It’s the same if he is working with a front-and-center owner such as Jones in Dallas, a behind-the-scenes type like Paul Allen in Seattle, or a relative newcomer to NFL ownership, Shad Khan in Jacksonville.

Hughes was instrumental in Doug Marrone’s promotion from interim to head coach of the Jaguars. During the search process, Khan also decided Tom Coughlin would be an invaluable addition to the front office. Hughes isn’t taking any credit for the team’s return to the playoffs this season, but he does smile when relaying the dynamics of those deals.

“Shad had been an owner for five years, and his team had averaged less than four wins a season,” Hughes says. “What he wanted was strong leadership on the football side, and Tom had a strong connection with Jacksonville and was interested in coming back. He had stayed active in football, and it was Tom who suggested the role.

“He and Doug have showed they are the right fit.”

How does Korn/Ferry determine which candidates might possess that fit?

The company puts together alignment sheets and an assortment of questionnaires and specs — some look as lengthy as a game plan — that reference the qualities the team or organization want, and the qualities the candidates bring. It doesn’t hurt, Hughes says, that he has long-standing friendships and bonds with so many people in the sports business.

Cleveland’s recent hiring of John Dorsey as general manager is a case in points, Hughes explains. The Browns began searching for someone much earlier in the season, and Hughes not only had a relationship with Dorsey, but recognized the skills Dorsey showed as GM in Kansas City — solid draft picks, salary cap management — were what Cleveland’s owners sought most.

“He could manage a roster and a team’s assets the most effectively,” Hughes says.

Because Cleveland announced Dorsey’s hiring shortly after firing Sashi Brown, questions arose about the team adhering to the Rooney Rule. But Hughes says the Browns spoke with many candidates throughout the season, including minorities. They somehow managed to do so very quietly.

Korn/Ferry also has three white papers authored by Hughes that concentrate on strategies for succeeding as a new team owner; how to become a successful general manager; and the challenges that new coaches and GMs face. Those papers were put together after Hughes spoke with many of his former clients and other industry leaders.

Hughes will not take on more than one client at a time in a specific sport because of the competitiveness of the hiring process. But the list of clients throughout the sports world indicates how busy he has been. He was involved in Shaka Smart going from VCU to coach basketball at Texas; John Wildhack leaving ESPN to become the athletic director at Syracuse; Patrick Ewing’s hiring as coach at Georgetown; Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden landing with the Timberwolves as coach and GM, respectively; and three men landing commissionerships, Larry Scott with the Pac-12; Greg Sankey with the SEC, and Bob Bowlsby at the Big 12.

“We seek a quantitative way to define leadership traits and competency levels,” Hughes says. “That can be different at all levels of sports. But one thing about sports: nothing is guaranteed.”