WSJ: Jets' Headhunter Is Key to Their Recovery
By MIKE SIELSKI
Jed Hughes is at once spearheading the Jets' search for a new general manager and remaining in the shadows.
It is the nature of the job that Woody Johnson, the team's owner, hired him to do. On Dec. 31, Johnson announced that he had fired Mike Tannenbaum and that Hughes, who heads the sports practice of the global search firm Korn/Ferry International, KFY -0.89% would lead the hunt for Tannenbaum's replacement. Though close to a dozen candidates have reportedly either interviewed or been considered for the position, neither the Jets nor Hughes have commented on the situation, making it a challenge to gauge how close Johnson and the Jets' other power people are to making a decision.
Still, Hughes's history as a sports headhunter does provide a bit of insight into how he might be conducting the search. A former Division I football coach at Michigan, Stanford and UCLA, and a former NFL assistant with the Vikings, Steelers and Browns, he is well known and well regarded among professional sports executives and college administrators. When Korn/Ferry announced his hiring in January 2012, the company called him "the world of sports' pioneer of senior-level search and organizational assessment." And his background gives him an advantage in placing the right person in the right position, said Larry Scott, commissioner of the PAC-12 Conference.
"He has an understanding of the football landscape and an understanding of the dynamics of that culture," said Scott, who had been the chairman and chief executive officer of the Women's Tennis Association when Hughes tabbed him in 2009 to lead the PAC-12. "He's got a great feel for a particular situation and people, and he's good at synthesizing their needs, getting them on the same page."
Through a spokesman, Hughes declined a request to be interviewed, but those who have been involved with some of his previous inquiries described his work as thorough, efficient and often surprising. Mark Murphy, president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers, used Hughes to help him hire Tim Connolly, the franchise's vice president of sales and marketing, and Ed Policy, its vice president and general counsel. Murphy had a good reason for reaching out to Hughes. When the Packers had asked Hughes in late 2007 to find them a new president and CEO, he recommended they hire Murphy.
It was a rather unusual suggestion. At the time, Murphy—a former All-Pro safety with the Washington Redskins—had been the athletic director at Northwestern University for five years. He met Hughes, who was working for the search firm Spencer Stuart then, at an NCAA conference when they appeared together in a panel discussion about diversity in football coaching. The two of them stayed in touch, and when the Packers reached out to Hughes, he contacted Murphy to gauge his interest in the position—even though Murphy had never been an NFL executive before.
The Packers hired him, and during his tenure, they have collected 10 wins or more in each of the last four seasons, including a victory in Super Bowl XLV and a league-best 15-1 record in 2011.
"I was an out-of-the-box candidate," Murphy said. "I'd played in the NFL, but that was a long time ago. That's what Jed is really good at. He really views his job now as similar to when he was a coach, in that he's trying to put people in positions where they can have success."
Three years earlier, in 2004, Hughes helped Syracuse University hire Daryl Gross, the successor to the school's longtime athletic director, Jake Crouthamel. When he met with the university's search committee, Hughes gave each of the 10 members a list of 100 possible qualities in an effective athletic director, asking each person to pick his or her top three criteria in a candidate. He then asked each member again to select his or her three most valued traits in an AD, this time from the shorter list. "He was forcing a conversation about, 'What are you really looking for?'" said Syracuse economics professor Michael Wasylenko, who chaired the search committee.
The candidate whom the committee wanted, Wasylenko said, was "someone who was outgoing, externally oriented, someone who would hire people inside to do the day-to-day management. And we found him." As a senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California, Gross had played a key role in the rise of USC's football program—he directed the search that led to coach Pete Carroll's hiring—and had overseen nine sports there.
"Jed got right to the point," Wasylenko said. "We said, 'The chancellor wants to move quickly.' He said, 'Look, I've worked with a lot of institutions. The holdup will not be on my end.' He was true to his word."
Crouthamel had announced his retirement in mid-November. The university hired Gross in mid-December. The entire process took four weeks. The Jets are at 12 days and counting.
Write to Mike Sielski at firstname.lastname@example.org