Covid and the College Sports Consultant

Amid a global pandemic that has imperiled the upcoming college sports season, will athletic departments keep finding new reasons to hire outside help?

By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers

East Carolina University made national news on May 21 when it became one of the first Division I athletic departments to cut sports in response to the coronavirus pandemic, ridding itself of four programs, 68 roster spots and nine coaches in an effort to save $4.9 million over “the long term.” There just wasn’t enough money to cover its commitments.

But from March 2018 through December 2019, the suddenly cash-strapped public university spent $31,250 a month not on athletes, nor facilities, nor even an expensive coach or two. ECU spent that money — almost $700,000 total — on one consultant, Dave Hart, who 20 years earlier had been ECU’s athletic director, and who, from 2012-17, endured a checkered run as the AD at Tennessee.

Hart, under the aegis of his new company, Athletics Legacy Partners, was summoned back to ECU’s campus in Greenville, North Carolina, to undo the legacy of the school’s most recent athletic director, Jeff Compher, who reportedly spent the athletic department into a multi-million-dollar hole and then was paid $1.26 million to go away. Sure enough, Compher, too, eventually went on to suckle at the consulting teet: Last fall, the Chicago-based executive search firm WittKiefer hired him to head its college athletics hiring practice.

In business, they say, you spend money to make money. In college sports, at least prior to the coronavirus outbreak, you could often spend money to lose money. And then, you would spend more on consultants.

A burgeoning sector of the college sports industry over the past 30 years, consulting has risen in tandem with the outsourcing that crept into any number of U.S. businesses and institutions over the same period. 

In the best case, the hiring of consultants looks like a temporary way to enlist expertise for evolving situations, such as compliance with Title IX amid growing awareness of campus sexual assault. In certain circumstances, no doubt, the work needs to be done by someone on the outside, who is presumably better equipped and less compromised.

Often, however, consultants have become just another extravagant bauble in a college sports spending spree that has turned athletic trainers into multi-millionaires. 

To look closely at how the consultant industry has attached itself to the hulls of university athletic departments is to discover how subsidized failure has become the lifeblood of college sports. How many programs, in a given year, find themselves in a state of noncompliance — whether it be in adhering to the many NCAA regulations or the core components of the Education Amendments Act of 1972? How many programs are conducting investigations of misbehaving coaches or administrators? How many will fire a coach — with or without cause — and then need to find a replacement? And for those coaches not yet fired: How many need added motivation, because the familiar voices in the locker room no longer inspire much passion?

In the wake of the pandemic, these consultant expenditures are drawing heavier scrutiny from university bean counters, given the grim budget projections now haunting intercollegiate athletics, where individual scholarships and entire sports programs, like ECU’s, are on the chopping block.

I think you are going to see a tightening of the belt with third parties this coming year,” says Louisville Athletic Director Vince Tyra, whose program has spent millions on outside help amid a wild decade of growth and scandal. “There will be more reliance on conferences to help in certain situations, and schools are going to be way more collaborative….We are all facing the same dilemma, and if football doesn’t carry on as planned, or even on to basketball, it is hard to believe you are going to engage with a lot of consultants.”

On the other hand, these unprecedented times may end up creating more business for college sports consultants — at least those with particular specialties — as universities grapple with the increasing likelihood of a sports-free fall and winter.

“I think it is a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Jeff Schemmel, founder and president of College Sports Solutions, which offers itself as a “full-service provider” for athletic departments. “Certainly, institutions are watching every penny now, so they are not going to be inclined to hire consultants for anything that is not absolutely necessary. On the other hand, it has created probably enough issues for institutions that many of them have looked for help on how to solve those problems.”

Horizon League Commissioner Jonathan LeCrone thinks the teams in his mid-major conference might be compelled to rely more heavily on consultants as their budgets keep getting squeezed by the pandemic.

“Let’s say your athletic department went from 50 people to 30 people,” LeCrone says. “A  way to cover the work that still needs to be done might be through some outside consulting, which might not show up on your payroll line.”

Many months before the novel coronoavirus’s financial fallout hit the NCAA and its member institutions, we sought to better understand how consulting fits into the college sports industrial complex. We requested records of consulting contracts that scores of D-I schools signed from 2018 and 2019. Universities often interpreted “consultant” differently, so we winnowed our expansive catalogue down to the kinds of consultants that A) perform a function that arguably could/should be done by someone on staff in an athletic department or B) were ostensibly hired in response to something gone awry at an athletic department. You can browse through our collection of contracts from 68 different D-I schools here.

Sure enough, we repeatedly discovered that consultant spending often supplemented if not duplicated functions that could be performed in-house. Consultants were paid for telling coaches how to coach, administrators how to administrate, players how to play — and, in at least one instance, mascots how to mascot. Indeed, many of the consulting agreements immediately raise the question of why these core competencies don’t already exist in athletic departments spending tens of millions of dollars each year on staff.

At Maryland, for instance, the athletic department last May contracted with Trevor Moawad, a self-described “renowned mental conditioning expert,” to improve head football coach Mike Locksley’s “recognition, understanding and overall utilization of deliberate leadership tactics.”

In exchange for $40,000, Moawad was supposed to help Locksley “with messaging in order for (Maryland) players to maintain a positive culture, as well as perspective and motivation.”

A Maryland athletic spokesman told The Intercollegiate that Maowad had been brought aboard at the behest of Locksley, who had worked with Moawad in his previous job as offensive coordinator at Alabama. Moawad did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Given Locksley’s combustive history as a college head coach, maybe it was wise to fortify him with some sort of interpersonal guru. The athletic department was, after all, still reeling from Locksley’s predecessor D.J. Durkin’s reign of horror, having hired (for $109,000) a South Carolina-based sports medicine consultant, Dr. Rod Walters, to investigate the practice-field death of football player Jordan McNair.

On the other hand: Shouldn’t leadership skills be prerequisite for someone such as Locksley, who is set to earn $12.5 million over five years from an institution of higher learning? How much more would an athletic department have to pay for a head coach who can “maintain a positive culture” on his own — along with the 28 other UMD football staffers under his direction?

Locksley did not respond to a request for comment left through the athletic department.

Then there’s Florida, which agreed to pay self-help author and professional “thought partner” Brett Ledbetter $100,000 to do eight months of development work with its head coaches, with a specific emphasis on men’s basketball coach Mike White. Ledbetter’s proposed program was designed to address “character development,” “behavior management,” and “priority alignment,” among other self-empowerment jargon. 

Asked last week about the fate of such expenditures, Steve McClain, a Florida Gators spokesman, told The Intercollegiate that the school had not renewed any of their athletic consulting agreements for the upcoming school year.

Florida is not the only school whose contracts show the lengths major athletic programs have gone to in the quest for a notional on-field advantage.

Consider Tennessee, which went into the backyard of an SEC rival to hire Gary T. Green, a professor of natural resources at Georgia, to “examine, evaluate and improve student-athlete practices of the football program.”

Turns out that Green, who is also UGA’s assistant dean for academic affairs, maintains an out-of-the-way college sports consulting business under the name Recreation Consulting. In a cryptic interview earlier this year, Green, who is British, told The Intercollegiate that prior to his career in academics he “worked for a job I can’t tell you about” in England where he “was trained to watch people.”

Green has also served, according to his CV, as the research director of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment for the USDA Forest Service. So, what do covert surveillance and federal forestry have to do with college football? Well, nothing, on its face. 

Even though Green has a master’s in sports management, he claims to have gotten into this moonlighting gig “by accident,” after he discovered an importance-performance analysis system that enables him to figure out whether college athletes are optimal fits for programs.

According to their March 2018 agreement, Tennessee paid Green $24,000 to survey Vols football players about their recruiting experiences, analyze the data, and use it to create pre-visit questions for future recruits.

Green says he has “always mentored athletes” throughout his career, including several Olympians, though he declined to divulge any of his other athletic department clients, citing non-disclosure agreements.

He says he turns down “way more” college sports consulting opportunities than he accepts and that money is not the motivation. 

“What I do with consulting has nothing to do with my academic life,” Green says. “I like to keep the worlds completely separate. You notice I don’t advertise anywhere. I only want to work with coaches who do this for the right reasons.”

Alas, it’s not just college coaches who — for whatever reasons — have indulged in university-funded outside help: Sometimes even their spouses get in on the fun.

As part of its $3,995.22 agreement with Ohio State last winter, Paul Werth Associates, a Columbus-based strategic PR firm, was brought in to do media training with the wives of football coach Ryan Day and men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann, and then coordinate for the women to be featured in two local TV soft news stories.

“Both wives were new and/or relatively new to the attention and opportunities that can arise simply by being the spouse of a prominent Ohio State coach,” says OSU spokesman Jerry Emig. “The department wanted to assist the two in navigating these requests, but it also didn’t want to be in an influencing position as to the organizations each wife chose to support.”

Consulting has become so ingrained in college sports that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the in-house workers from the third parties. In some cases, they’re the same people.

For instance, LeCrone’s Horizon League deputy commissioner, Julie Roe Lach, earns $200,000 a year as a conference official while, at the same time, running a firm called CCHA Collegiate Sports Consulting. In the latter role, she sent a proposal last April to Indiana, offering to provide “an assessment of leadership support opportunities to athletic staffers,” for up to $250 an hour.

In an interview with The Intercollegiate, LeCrone explained that he so badly wanted to hire Roe Lach, a former NCAA enforcement official fired in 2013 over the botched Nevin Shapiro investigation at Miami, that he conjured the dual-role recruiting pitch himself.

“In order to attract her to our position, one of the ideas I had was to see if she could continue some of her consulting work, as long as it didn’t interfere with her (conference) work,” says LeCrone. 

As part of the arrangement, LeCrone says, Roe Lach must disclose her consulting income to the Horizon League Board, and CCHA Collegiate Sports Consulting can’t do business with any league members.

SHAKING THE PIRATES’ BOOTY

Dave Hart’s freelance work for the East Carolina Pirates is a prime example of why consultants may have the best job in college sports: market-rate administrative pay, with far less accountability. On top of Hart’s $687,500 in consulting fees, ECU spent $14,153.49 on travel reimbursements over the course of the agreement, according to invoice records obtained by The Intercollegiate.

The contract also put Hart in a position that should have raised conflict-of-interest concerns. One of Hart’s top priorities when first hired was to oversee the school’s search for a new athletic director. Under Hart’s direction, ECU in December of 2018 tapped Jon Gilbert, who had previously served as Hart’s deputy at Tennessee. Eight days after Gilbert was officially named to the position, Hart’s contract was extended for an additional year, and his role was amended to “special advisor” to both Gilbert and then-ECU President Cecil Stanton, on athletics-related matters.

Asked whether Gilbert had any influence in Hart’s extension, Jeannine Manning Hutson, an ECU spokesperson, said that both men’s deals “were executed following university and UNC System policy with no conflict of interest.”

Before they joined forces at ECU, Hart and Gilbert oversaw athletics at Tennessee. It was a rocky time for ol’ Rocky Top: UT paid a multi-million-dollar settlement in a federal Title IX lawsuit brought by female plaintiffs who had accused Volunteers athletes of sexual assault; paid a separate $320,000 settlement with a former athletic communications staffer who claimed Hart and the athletic department had discriminated against her; made some questionable high-profile coaching hires; and terminated the wildly popular Lady Vols brand — a decision promptly reversed by Hart’s successor.

Although Hart’s 2017 exit, with one year remaining on his contract, was publicly couched as a retirement, the USA TODAY Network discovered Tennessee had, in fact, agreed to pay $654,454 to buy him out of the deal. 

Between the Tennessee buyout and the ECU consulting contract, Hart made roughly $1.3 million in the two years that followed the end of his W-2 employment in college athletics. Perhaps coincidentally, while his contract work with East Carolina was winding down last summer, Hart and his wife purchased a new, 6,000-square-foot riverfront home outside of Charleston, South Carolina, the pool just a short walk from the boat dock. The purchase price, according to county property records, was $1.3 million.

Dave Hart (Staff photo/The Daily Reflector)

Hart, who evidently turns to Napoleon for leadership advice, initially agreed to a telephone interview early last month, but canceled hours before, citing urgent matters. After numerous follow-up emails and voicemails, he eventually responded with an email statement, in which he insisted ECU’s current budget woes have nothing to do with the money that went to him:

There is no correlation, as you suggest, between today’s extremely difficult financial challenges and decisions being made, due to the Coronavirus, and my advising contract with ECU.  My contract ended more than six (6) months ago.

In an email last week, Manning Hutson credited Hart for providing “institutional and regional knowledge” and “collegiate athletic administration expertise” in his advisory role.

In a statement provided by the school, ECU’s current Board of Trustees President Vern Davenport praised Hart for steadying the Pirates’ ship:

“Dave Hart provided stability when our university’s Athletic Department needed it,” Davenport said. “Not only is Dave a nationally recognized administrator with outstanding experience, but he was a trusted leader who came back to help ECU. He helped bring Jon Gilbert and Coach Mike Houston to ECU and Coach Joe Dooley back to the Pirates. He worked to build fundraising and external relationships and provided strategic guidance to the department.”

While the consultant business was good to Dave Hart, the future of the enterprise, like so much else in the age of COVID-19, is up in the air. For instance, Eddie Fogler, a former basketball coach who has run a search firm for more than a decade, believes the pandemic has made schools reluctant to fire coaches and buy out remaining years of their contracts. “I think the turnover is the smallest in many years,” says Fogler.

Indeed, only one Power-6 basketball school, Wake Forest, gave its coach the boot this offseason. “It seems to me,” Fogler says, “the financial consideration of firing a coach now created a thought that, ‘This isn’t the right time to fire a coach and pay out money when we’ve got significant financial considerations to look at.”

As a former coach, “I don’t sit around hoping coaches get fired,” Fogler says. Still, less turnover necessarily means less demand for this type of consulting work—at least this year.

SEARCH HISTORY CLEARED

Search firms are the granddaddies of the sports consultant business. A few smaller search outfits, such as Fogler’s, run their operations much as they were managed at the dawn of the business in the 1980s. After a successful career with stops at Wichita State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, Fogler doesn’t even have a secretary. But he does have what amounts to “a Ph.D in men’s college basketball,” he says. He uses that knowledge to vet coaching candidates for style of play, recruiting acumen and general “fit” with what the college wants, as well as to reach out confidentially to prospective hires, gauging their interest without raising the ire of their current employers. “I do not make selections,” he says. “I try to provide sound advice about candidates that fit the profile given to me by the director of athletics.”

In addition, “If there’s a red flag, I am obligated to point that out.”

While Fogler has kept his firm small and confined to men’s hoops, other firms have grown tremendously in the last 20 years. Now, big search firms are seen as emblematic, or perhaps symptomatic, of the bloating of college athletics, as escalating TV revenues—and zero labor costs for athletes—have led to increasingly creative ways for elite programs to spend their money.

Parker Executive Search, an Atlanta-based company that regularly cashes checks from Division I athletic departments, has become a prominent example of college sports’ Rolls Royce hiring practices. Parker came under intense media scrutiny in 2013, when Rutgers hired the firm to help fill its vacant athletic director position following a player-abuse scandal involving former head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice.

With Parker’s assistance, the university tapped Julie Hermann as its new AD, replacing Tim Pernetti, who lost his job in the Rice fallout. It turned out that Hermann, a former college volleyball coach, had been accused of verbal abuse by multiple players when she was at Tennessee, a salient piece of information that Parker missed — but the Newark Star-Ledger uncovered — after she was installed.

Hermann had also been accused in a 1997 lawsuit of discouraging one of her assistant coaches from getting pregnant. She lasted only two-and-a-half years in the Rutgers job, presiding over numerous controversies and off-field embarrassments related to drug-testing and academic compliance. Meanwhile, Hermann made her own news when she publicly wished bankruptcy upon the Star-Ledger as the paper was undergoing major layoffs.

In a story examining the power that search firms wield in college sports, USA Today noted the abiding relationship between Parker and NCAA boss Mark Emmert, dating back to the Emmert’s previous job as president of the University of Washington: 

In December 2007, University of Washington President Mark Emmert had a problem on his hands.

His athletics director, Todd Turner, had just quit. To help find his replacement, Emmert hired a search firm run by Dan Parker, an Atlanta consultant who had assisted him in hiring Turner in 2004.

The search took nine months, finally ending when Emmert decided to hire the man who was on the job as interim athletics director: longtime friend Scott Woodward. …

Despite hiring the guy in the office down the hall, the university paid Parker Executive Search $75,000 for conducting a national search. From there, Emmert’s relationship with Parker blossomed. Two years later, the NCAA paid Parker to find a new president. The association hired Emmert, who then turned to Parker again to help conduct searches for several vacancies on his new staff. In all, Parker has assisted in filling 12 executive positions with the NCAA in recent years, according to its website.

In 2015, Eric Kaler, then president of the University of Minnesota, publicly blamed Parker for the school’s hiring of former AD Norwood Teague, who resigned after multiple female athletic department staffers reported he had sexually harassed them. Kaler complained that Parker should have discovered Teague had been the subject of a gender discrimination lawsuit resulting from his tenure as AD at Virginia Commonwealth. Kaler raised the prospect that Minnesota might sue Parker, which it paid $90,000 in 2012. 

After a lawyer for Parker explained that the gender discrimination claim had been filed after Teague’s hiring by Minnesota, Kaler withdrew his legal threat. Kaler had indicated he would hire Teague’s replacement without the assistance of a search firm but eventually reversed course on that, too. (Kaler resigned from president’s job last summer, setting off a whole new round of search-firm drama for UM.)

Despite its involvement in high-profile hiring busts, Parker has maintained its prominence in the athletics-search landscape. Just within our band of records requests from 2018 to 2019, we encountered contracts for Parker to find the head men’s basketball coach at Northern Kentucky (for $40,000), the head men’s basketball and football coaches and for Appalachian State ($50,000 apiece), the athletic director at Idaho ($54,000), and the athletic director at North Carolina State ($120,000; an NC State spokesman said its Parker search was paid for with private funds.)

Last May, the firm struck an eight-year, campus-wide deal with Tennessee, which was apparently based on a similar arrangement Parker made with Virginia. Per the terms of its UT agreement, Parker earns as much as 30 percent of a new hire’s first-year compensation at the school, with a guaranteed minimum of $65,000 per search. A purchase order valued the entire deal at $500,000.

“The University of Tennessee System has contracts with a variety of search firms,” says Melissa Tindell, UT’s director of communications. “Our search firm contracts are not exclusive and we have the flexibility to utilize different firms based upon the type of search and the specific needs associated with the process.”

In a statement, Parker Executive Search President Laurie Wilder told The Intercollegiate:

“Multi-year contracts are quite common in this market for executive search services at various levels. Colleges and Universities throughout the country conduct extensive, multi-year RFP processes to pre-select search firm providers to ensure an expedient and quality search process. Based upon our firm’s extensive experience across all facets of higher education, Parker Executive Search has been awarded many such contracts.”

Has Parker been chastened at all by the past media scrutiny of its work? We uncovered one document that suggests at least a measure of contrition.

In 2016, Oregon agreed to pay Parker $95,000 (in two installments of $47,500) to assist in its search for a new head football coach, after Mark Helfrich was booted following a 4-8 season. With Parker’s guidance, the Ducks tapped Willie Taggart, who quit midway into his first season at Eugene to take the head job at Florida State.

Nearly two years later, after an apparent back-and-forth between the university and the firm, Parker made a financial compromise.

In a letter dated May 24, 2018, which we obtained through a public records request, Dan Parker, the firm’s eponymous founder, wrote to Oregon AD Rob Mullens stipulating that “per conversations,” Parker had agreed to accept the lesser final fee of $47,500 for the hiring flub.

Wilder declined to specifically address the Oregon agreement, but said: “As a general standard, our contracts are negotiated with each client based upon the client’s individual needs and market information at that time. These negotiations are conducted in the utmost professional and transparent manner.”

The concession apparently sufficed to keep Parker in the good graces of one of the richest athletic departments in the country. “We appreciate their work and yes, we would use them again,” says Jimmy Stanton, an Oregon athletics  spokesman.

Taggart lasted two seasons at FSU before being fired. In December, he was hired by Florida Atlantic, which retained — guess who? — Parker as its search firm. 

As they’ve grown, large search firms have diversified, finding other ways to tap into athletic department revenue streams. CarrSports, one of the pioneers of the business, was founded by Bill Carr after he resigned as Florida’s AD in 1986 following some unpleasantness in the Gator football program. Carr, Julie Roe Lach and Dave Hart are hardly alone when it comes to administrators-turned-consultants with blemished resumés.

Collegiate Sports Solutions’ Schemmel resigned from his last college athletic department job, as AD of San Diego State, following a scandal where he was accused of seeking travel reimbursements for a trip to Atlanta to visit a woman who claimed, in her divorce proceedings, that they were having an affair. When initially confronted by the school about the reimbursement request, Schemmel reportedly said that he had taken the trip to meet with — guess who? — Parker Executive Search, which SDSU hired the year before to find its new head football coach.

The CSS “team,” according to its website, includes affiliate consultants like McKinley Boston — who was forced to resign as senior athletic administrator at Minnesota following a massive academic fraud scandal involving the men’s basketball program — and Rick Bay, who, like Schemmel, left the San Diego State AD position in a cloud of controversy.

Does any of this history matter to prospective clients?

“I hope that I had gained a solid and strong enough reputation as a college administrator,” Schemmel says about his ousting in 2009, “and the short story, as far as I know, is that it has not had a single effect.”

CarrSports’ second-in-command, COO Mike Thomas, is another former athletic director with a splotch on his administrative record: In 2015, Illinois fired him from the top athletics job on the heels of coaching abuse allegations in the school’s football and women’s basketball programs.

In 2015, CarrSports came under fire over an economic analysis it produced for the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a document that served as the pretext for the school president to get rid of football. Journalists and economists quickly picked the report apart. Under pressure — and following a no-confidence vote against President Ray L. Watts — UAB hired a second outside firm to take another whack at the financial considerations of competing on the D-I gridiron.

Who got that job? None other than College Sports Solutions, which produced a new report that gave Watts the necessary cover to reinstate football. Through a school spokesman, Watts declined to comment for this story.

For all that Sturm und Drang, the only lasting benefit of the heartburn in Birmingham was exclusive to a pair of consulting firms that got paid tens of thousands of dollars.

THE GAME OF RISK

Just like CSS, CarrSports maintains a network of other consultants, whom it lists on its website as “associates,” “specialists” and “advisory council” members. (Both CSS and CarrSports claim Judy Rose, a former AD at UNC Charlotte, as a member of their respective “teams.”)

One of CarrSports’ advisory council members is Dan Beebe, the former commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, who made a second career investigating and counseling schools and other sports organizations on “human relations risks” — essentially, all the kinds of workplace and institutional troubles the NCAA doesn’t concern itself with. When Mike Thomas grappled with just such risks at Illinois, he called Beebe for help.

Dan Beebe (Courtesy of Dan Beebe)

The investigative work Beebe does is typically under the banner of The Dan Beebe Group, though Beebe’s long career as a conference and NCAA administrator limits the number of schools he can work with. “I know too many people,” he says.

The “preventative” work is done by another Beebe firm, PFA Consulting. Following the Baylor rape scandal, LSU hired Beebe to educate its athletes about sexaul assault prevention, a move that resulted in some positive local press. Two years later, CarrSports brought Beebe along for the ride to Baton Rouge when he was “examining the larger picture” of the Tigers’ athletic department, Beebe says, “and an aspect of what he wanted to have examined was risk management.” In this case, Beebe signed a $32,000 agreement with LSU under yet a third company called BMT Management.

Beebe said he had already thinking about a post-commish job in consulting — he assumed it would involve NCAA compliance work of some kind — before his unceremonious ouster from the Big 12 in 2011. Shortly afterwards, he was hired on contract by the Big East Conference to help with its relaunch.

His big move came when he launched The Dan Beebe Group along with his friend Mark Thompson, who was a graduate assistant coach on Beebe’s junior college football team. 

Beebe sells his services with the age-old case for due diligence. “What we try to argue is how much time, energy and cost will it be if you run into a problem,” he says.

Though his firm made out fine, Beebe says that cornering the athletic department HR niche has not been as prosperous as he anticipated.

 “The institutions are insular and don’t really appreciate the independence outsiders can bring, and the message of transparency and trust,” he says. 

Beebe is interested to see if that attitude persists with college sports facing so many important societal issues. “We’ll see,” he says, “but this may be another time, with MeToo and racism and allegations of coaching abuse.”

Helen Grant, another consultant in the CarrSports orbit—she’s listed on the website as a “specialist”—is having no trouble finding work at the moment. A former compliance director at Southern Mississippi and Sun Belt Conference official, Grant, more often than not, is the person college athletic directors call to get them (or keep them) out of Title IX trouble.

That may not be as hard as it sounds, at least when it comes to the Department of Education and its exceedingly toothless Office for Civil Rights. Grant says she’s unaware of any case where the OCR took away federal funding for failing to provide equal opportunities to male and female athletes. 

“If you get a letter from OCR that they are going to do an investigation,” Grant says, “you won’t even think about having to have a solution within 12 months. It is sad in a way, but it is just a slow process, which is good.”

Even with little regulatory pressure, schools still want to display a commitment to gender equity. If nothing else — and often, there is nothing else — hIring Grant is a university’s way of telling the public, “We care about female athletes, too.”

After stints in an athletics department and conference office, Grant says it was her “third goal in life” to become a college sport consultant, although, she says, “Quite honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be in Title IX.”

In 2008, Grant took a job working for Lamar Daniel, a former OCR staffer who became a pioneering Title IX college sports consultant. Grant eventually bought the business from Daniel in 2009, and has grown its clientele from around 40 schools to 115.

A number of Grant’s clients pay her to visit their campuses on an ongoing basis. In other cases, she is summoned by a newly-hired athletic director, such as when New Mexico AD Eddie Nuñez phoned her his first week on the job. 

Last summer, new NCAA legislation was put into effect requiring each D-I institution to complete “an equity, diversity and inclusion review” every five years. Grant is now angling to make this work, which is more extensive than her current gender equity reviews, a crux of her consulting practice going forward. Last week, she says, she got her first such project, from Baylor, and she’s in the process of presenting proposals to conduct reviews for athletic conferences.

Grant’s sales pitch to college-sports organizations? She’ll happily play ball.

“They feel confident that I will have their back,” she says. “I am going to bring a campus perspective. I am going to make sure you’re complying, but I know the campus and what we are going through.”

Arguably, Title IX has become even easier to comply with in the Trump era, where the Office of Civil Rights hasn’t exactly released the regulatory hounds on higher ed.

In instances where there might be a major issue, Grant says, there are various ways to elicit an exemption from the OCR. “You look at what is offered in the high schools in-state,” she says. “You look at recruiting areas, and what sports are offered. You look at where they play most of their competition, that is very conference driven, what other sports are offered at other conference schools.”

Failing all else, you conduct a survey with the student body to ask female students whether they would be interested in playing in any number of sports, if such were offered by the school.

As Grant says, “It becomes a little game you have to play after a while.”

IN THE CARDS

Perhaps no single D-I athletic department has been a bigger boon to consultants in recent years than Louisville. To be fair, the Cards have endured a cascade of legal and public-relations fiascos — including sex workers in dorms and sneaker pimps on FBI wiretaps. But the program has also made the calculation, as the bluebloods are wont to do, to fight, fight, fight for every inch of absolution. That made a target-rich environment for hired guns. 

Louisville has been so liberal with its “belt-and-suspenders” spending approach that it has dabbled in ultracrepidarianism. “Louisville is probably the only client —  and this is public — that we were brought in to work with in reaction to NCAA issues,” says Beebe, whose agreement with UL paid him $75,000. “For everybody else it is about other issues — sexual misconduct or discrimination.”

Louisville is also probably the only client that has hired The Compliance Group’s Chuck Smrt — a well-known consultant who actually specializes in NCAA issues — to work side-by-side with law firms that usually act as his competitors. Typically, a school under investigation would hire Smrt, who is not a lawyer, instead of a law firm.

Smrt had originally been contracted by the Cards in the fall of 2015 to help the school handle investigations into its men’s basketball program. UL then proceeded to extend Smrt’s contract four more times, all the way through last summer. Through it all, the university paid Smrt $905,000, according to financial data provided by the school.

In addition to Beebe and Smrt, Louisville paid:

  • Law firm Hogan Lovells $650,000, for related legal work, from June 2017 to June 2019.
  • Law firm Dinsmore & Shohl $905,000 to provide ”legal counsel and advice to ULAA and University of Louisville regarding [former AD] Tom Jurich and Richard Pitino” and other matters, from January 2018 to January 2020. 
  • Julie Roe Lach’s CCHA Collegiate Sports Consulting (then known as Spectrum Collegiate) $72,000 for “professional compliance consulting on head coach responsibilities and NCAA compliance,” from October 2017 to June 2018..
  • Law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King $135,000, since March 2018, to “provide counsel and advice…regarding contracts for Athletic personnel.” The university re-upped with the firm in May, for an additional $365,000, after it was hit with an NCAA notice of allegations related to the FBI college basketball recruiting probe.

It all seems rather expensive.

Some of it is necessary in that we don’t have the in-house talent to defend ourselves against the NCAA allegations,” says Tyra, the AD hired to replace the fired Jurich, after a $186,000 search by the firm Korn Ferry. “While we have a compliance department, we don’t have legal representation to take that on, particularly due to the severity of the allegations we have.”

Tyra points out the Cardinals weren’t accused of minor wrongdoing. “We have been dealing with Level I (NCAA violations),” he says. “You have to be thinking about cost-benefit in something like this. Our basketball program is incredibly important to us profit-wise, revenue-wise, and helps support many other sports.”

So they put up a fight. The program’s supporters demand it, according to Tyra. “Come what may” is not an option.

“The first thing it would cost is probably my job if we took that approach,” Tyra says. “Our fan and donor sentiment would be at an all-time low if we threw our hands up on the case. We have some concerns about the allegations being presented. …If you lose your supporters, and you can do that in many ways, you are going to see it in ticket (sales) and donations, and that value is greater than the penalty you would ever have imposed by the NCAA. The legal bills don’t come close to what you risk in terms of donations and ticket revenue.”

To that point, even if a consultant can’t actually dislodge the monkey off an athletic department’s back, they can sometimes serve as a sacrificial lamb to a clamoring fan base.

PLAYING IT SMRT

Chuck Smrt worked as an NCAA enforcement official for 18 years until 1999, when the organization moved from Kansas City to Indianapolis. Instead of relocating, Smrt — who worked on high-level NCAA investigations including the one that led to SMU’s “Ponygate” scandal of the 1980s — decided to stay put and launch The Compliance Group. For most of its early going, Smrt’s firm largely operated under the radar.

Chuck Smrt (Matt Stone/The Courier Journal)

“In this type of business,” Smrt says, “you do a lot of cases where it never comes out that you’re involved.”

But The Compliance Group became much more visible in 2011, when Ohio State picked Smrt to represent the Buckeyes before the NCAA during the so-called “Tattoo-gate” affair. A few years later, Smrt did internal investigative work for Oklahoma State after a Sports Illustrated series alleged major NCAA infractions. Smrt’s report, done in tandem with the NCAA, concluded the allegations were “fundamentally unfounded,” and Smrt was lauded by Cowboys’ supporters for defusing the controversy. 

Smrt argues that it would be nearly impossible for a school to maintain staffers with the specific expertise and necessary bandwidth to handle an NCAA investigation — although, he says, a number of schools try.

“Most institutions are busy, so you add this workload on this, then you run the potential risk that person’s other duties are hampered or not done as well, and it could present another issue,” Smrt says. ”We know the drill, and we know how the NCAA operates.”

Plenty of ardent Louisville fans disagree, including Bill Stone, an outspoken athletic department board member. Smrt incurred the Card faithful’s wrath when, despite his large fees, the school still wound up on NCAA probation, lost scholarships and vacated victories—including the 2013 NCAA basketball title. They saw other schools, such as Penn State, get in dire NCAA trouble, then wriggle out of much of it. What, Cards fans wondered, was all that consultant money for?

Tyra thinks that criticism is unfair. “I think there was a fan perception that it was Chuck’s guidance and decision as much as it was administration’s,” says the Louisville AD. “And there was speculation as to who really made that decision … and somehow Chuck got thrown into the mix, and he got to carry the whole rap.”

While declining to specifically address his Louisville critics, Smrt admits there’s only so much consultants can do with NCAA violations. “If you have a very serious case, you are going to have a very serious penalty,” he says. “None of us can change the facts. We can try to make them look better, but you still are faced with the facts.”

CONTRACTING AROUND COVID

As Florida and other schools shed outside party deals to save money, it’s clear that COVID-19’s financial effects will create pain throughout large swaths of the business.

At the same time, there are new opportunities for outsiders to dip into the college-sports money pool. In April, the University of Colorado contracted with Populous, Inc., an architectural design firm, $24,500 to create a social distancing readiness plan for upcoming football games at CU’s Folsom Field. (In response to a public records request, Colorado initially redacted the financial terms of the agreement, claiming the information as a private trade secret, but relented after The Intercollegiate threatened legal action.)

The national protest movement in response to the George Floyd police killing has granted a sudden forum to athlete activists, and, in turn, created a demand for paid advocates.

In early June, current and former Wisconsin athletes penned an online petition to AD Barry Alvarez, which called on the school to, among other things, “Hir(e) a consultant such as Jen Fry to lead and facilitate antiracism workshops for student-athletes and staff.”

Fry, a former D-II volleyball player and NCAA assistant coach, began blogging about diversity issues in college sports, which morphed into a career as a speaker in 2016. Last fall, she was traveling every week and her speaking schedule was filled through the end of the summer. But when the pandemic hit, Fry says, “Everyone had to cancel: ‘We just don’t have the money, we just can’t afford this.’”

Jen Fry (Courtesy of Jen Fry)

Then the Floyd protests erupted. “It was like, ‘Holy crap,’” she says, recalling the reactions of clients. “‘We can’t say we don’t have money — especially in the course of football and basketball coaches getting bonuses and raises. We need to make sure we are funding this type of education.’”

During the past several weeks, Fry, who is finishing her doctorate at Michigan State, has conducted Zoom sessions with programs at Yale, Dartmouth, Smith College and Mississippi State, as well as the Collegiate Rowing Association.

She calls the Wisconsin situation a  “unique experience.” Typically, it’s coaches who reach out to her to give speeches, not athletes.

But the world is changing, as Russell Wright has discovered.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Initially, Wright reckoned that the search game would be his consulting ticket. But industry norms, and then coronavirus, changed his business model. A former college sports television executive, Wright is the managing partner of Collegiate Consulting, which, like Parker, is also based in Atlanta. 

“I really thought the search business would take off for us; we know so many people,” says Wright. Not only did he have TV-forged connections all around the country, but he was certain he could do the work for a fraction of what his competitors charge.

“You don’t need to do an $80,000 search,” Wright says. “I would have had to charge $800 an hour to get to that $80,000 (total). Based on my world with my staff and what our overhead is and what our margins need to be, I was always coming out somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.”

But Wright says that many schools weren’t actually wanting to save money; rather, they wanted the cachet of the pricey shops.

“People would say there is a fear that your price is too low,” Wright says. “I did not want to be the Walmart of search firms, but we weren’t the Neiman Marcus.”

Collegiate Consulting instead found a niche doing feasibility studies and operational reviews for athletic departments looking to make a move: D-II or D-III programs that want to jump up a division; or D-I programs seeking membership in a different conference. Often, the firm is hired when a new athletic director or university president comes into a job and wants “somebody neutral and independent to give them an assessment,” Wright says.

The firm had done about a dozen such projects in the 18 months before the pandemic struck. 

“When this thing first broke, I thought we would be off-the-hook busy because of sports-reduction studies,” Wright says, explaining that administrators typically wait for these to be completed before announcing sports cuts, “so it doesn’t look like a knee-jerk reaction.”

Wright got another surprise. As of mid-June, Collegiate Consulting had only been contracted to do two studies on cuts. Instead, Wright has recently found himself busy doing feasibility studies: He has three D-II programs programs that were looking to jump up to D-I; three FCS programs that were looking to join the ranks of the FBS; and eight D-I realignment projects.

Rather than retrenching during times of financial uncertainty, Wright says that there are a number of programs hoping to position themselves “in the right place” for a post-COVID “new normal.”

That new normal may soon include athletes’ rights to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Even before California passed its landmark NIL legislation last September, athletic departments were contracting with firms to advise star athletes on their financial futures. In 2017, Louisville signed a two-year, $205,000 agreement with Cornerstone Sports Consulting to “provide on-going assistance to football student-athletes and their families with issues pertaining to the NFL.” Over the last couple months, a growing list of D-I programs have enlisted the free help (as far as we can tell through FOIA requests) of athlete brand consultant Jeremy Darlow, a former Adidas marketing executive. It seems certain this kind of service will become a common line item on Power 5 athletic department budgets.

For Helen Grant, the “new normal” is a constant juggle of Zoom sessions with frantic ADs dealing with coronavirus-related budget crises and their Title IX implications. “It is just about every day I am getting a call, and not to just do a review, but to look at sports offerings and what they are thinking about doing,” Grant says. “Every school I work with right now has had their administration cut anywhere from a million to three million (dollars). In the last few months that has amped up even more.”

In two weeks, she’s scheduled to do the final phase of a Title IX review with one of her newest clients, East Carolina, whose athletic director, Jon Gilbert, she knows through their past connections to Southern Miss. ECU, the school that paid Dave Hart almost $700,000, now has to iron out the gender-equity implications of its sports cuts. Looking ahead to a college sports season on the brink, Grant thinks at least one thing is for sure: her work.

“It is a very dynamic situation because athletics has to worry about the financial (aspect) and Title IX and universities have to worry about financial and student enrollment,” she says. “So, it will be interesting to see how it goes. But it will do nothing but increase my business.”


Featured photo by Juliette Cook/The Daily Reflector


Daniel Libit is co-editor of The Intercollegiate. He can be reached via email at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com or followed on Twitter @DanielLibit

Luke Cyphers is co-editor to The Intercollegiate. He can be reached via email at lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com or followed on Twitter @LurkCyphers

Special thanks to Eric Adelson’s Spring 2020 sports writing class at the University of Florida, which, as part of a course project, provided research assistance to The Intercollegiate for this article.