A Q&A with MSU President Mark Keenum

Mississippi State president Mark Keenum talked one-on-one with Gene's Page about the search for an athletic director to replace Greg Byrne, who will be taking the same position at the University of Arizona on May 1st.

What was the first thing you did in regard to starting the AD search?
"We put out a solicitation for search firms to submit proposals to us. And we received between 8 and 10 proposals from different search firms from around the country. We have looked at the different firms and learned as much about them as we can through contacts in the athletic world. We wanted to see if they have any searches of this type. If so, where have they conducted these searches and how successful have they been? We are in the process now of finding a firm to begin the process of looking for the next athletic director."

(Editor's Note: This interview was conducted Thursday, March 25th. The search firm Parker Executive Search of Atlanta was hired Friday.- Gene)

What will the search firm's actual role in this process be?
"Their role is to identify a pool of qualified candidates for us to consider. They will also provide background information on each candidate - their accomplishments, their successes, their strengths. Basically, they will do an assessment of what each individual will bring so we can then review it."

So, you really won't start looking at candidates until the search firm has been hired?
"Right. We obviously are receiving phone calls and emails recommending different people. But what we want to do is channel all of those recommendations to the search firm once we get them onboard. And we'll also look at the other names (the search firm) brings to the table. We'll then sit down with them and make a decision on who we want to talk to. Then, we'll start the interviews."

Do you already have in your mind what criteria you would like to see in a candidate?
"I have really grown to appreciate the amount of energy that a job like this requires. Even in my position it takes a lot of energy to do it. You have to have a lot of energy and someone who is very highly motivated, who can be a good leader of staff, can motivate and inspire their staff and coaches, and someone who is good with people. And you, hopefully, want to get someone who has experience in the fund raising world because a big part of what an athletic director does is raise money for facilities and other needs on the campus. Those are some of the things that I will be looking for in the candidates."

Most athletic directors have a list, possibly just a mental list, of possible candidates for a coaching position in case a coach leaves. As the president, do you have something like that in your mind for possible athletic director candidates?
"I don't have a list of potential candidates. That's why I need someone who can canvas the environment. Is there someone that is currently an AD who has a track record of proven success, has a great repoire with the fanbase, the alumni? Is he a proven fund raiser? Does he have some capital improvements on his campus that were implemented under his or her leadership? Or, is there an associate AD who has been doing very well, has a great track record of success, that is ready to take that next step? Or, is there someone in the NCAA or SEC office who has a great record of management? It could even be someone working in the NFL or the NBA who has a great record. There is an entire world of people out there."

How difficult will it be to pass judgement on someone if they don't have that AD experience?
"That's where a firm that has experience in this field can be a help in counseling me on who I may want to interview."

You and your wife, Rhonda, have strong ties to Mississippi State. John Cohen and several other coaches on the MSU staff have strong ties to Mississippi State. How important would it be if you could hire someone who has MSU ties as well as SEC ties in their background?
"Obviously, if you ever have the situation where a person has ties or connections to Mississippi State, either a degree or family or some other ties to the university, that would be a big plus and I'm a big proponent of that, but that is not the most critical thing. I think the most critical thing is finding the right person who can come in here and provide that strong base of leadership for this extremely important part of our university. If there is someone without that who can bring the skill set that can keep us moving in the direction we want to be moving and will be readily embraced by our fanbase and alumni, then that won't be a deterrent to me."

Due to where Mississippi State stands budget-wise in the SEC wouldn't the athletic director job at Mississippi State be considered more of a challenge than it would be at other schools in the SEC?
"It may be a bigger challenge to compete in this very competitive league where other schools have so many more resources than we have. So, yes, it's a bigger challenge for anyone. It was a big challenge for Greg while he was here. That is why I have been so impressed with what he has been able to do while he was here. We have not gotten to the level that I want to see us get to. But from a competitive standpoint, I feel good about the direction we are going in. And I want to keep us moving and moving as quickly as we can. We do a lot with a lot less resources. And we are competitive with those less resources. That's a very good testament to the leadership that we have here. It's also a testament to our fanbase and alumni who help us in so many other ways in addition to our budget for our athletic program.

"I recognize that we have one of the smallest budgets in the league and I'm very sensitive to that. But the more we can promote Mississippi State and Mississippi State athletics, the more resources we are going to bring to the table to help us be more competitive. That's why it's so important to have someone who has those really strong external skills to complement their management leadership skills. Greg had that. He understood the importance of our television and media contracts. He was very savvy in that regard. He has good business judgement to get the most money for the university in all the media contracts.

"We want someone like that who can continue to promote our programs and keep that excitement going and help generate even more resources to build onto our budget. We need more Bulldog Club members to help bring in more resources. We have a strong fanbase and we love them buying tickets and ringing their cowbells but we also need their financial support to help us get to that next level. I want to win and I want to win championships. The success that we can bring to our university and to our state will just build more success."

When you are looking for a person like you just mentioned, what part will the interviews play in selecting that person. The search firm will have detailed background information on the person. So, what will you try to use the interviews for?
"I really think giving a person a chance to come in and tell me what their vision for this school is is a very important part of the interview. They are going to have to do some homework because they are going to have to know the status of our athletic program. And they should be able to offer recommendations on things that we have going on."

How will you handle the names of the people who interview? Are their names going to be put out there for public consumption or will everything be handled confidentially?
"I want to keep this very confidential because I would hope some of these individual will be coming from programs where they are an athletic director somewhere."

Will all candidates identities be kept confidential or just the sitting athletic directors?
"My plan is to keep all of them confidential."

How will you handle the actual interviews? Will they be done where the person lives, will you bring them into Mississippi State, or will you do them somewhere else?
"I really don't know. I'm going to wait and see what our consultant suggests. We might pick a neutral site somewhere and meet. And if the search firm is located in another state I might set aside two days and go to their home office and have the candidates meet me there. But really I don't know at this time."

What will the time frame be for hiring someone - the quickest, the longest and the best case scenario time frames?
"The best case scenario would also be the quickest (laugh). But my hope would be that we can find someone and have them named before Greg leaves (May 1st). They may not be able to report here by the end of April or the first of May but they will be hired. That's a window that I have given myself. And most of the firms we touched base with feel like a 30 to 45 day window for identifying someone for a position like this is not unrealistic. In fact, it's probably more realistic. So, that is what we are looking at, hopefully, having someone identified within the next six weeks. But I've also said publicly I'm not going to be nailed down to a specific date. We are going to take whatever amount of time we need to find the right person."

Sometimes people go after a job they feel can be a stepping stone for what they see as bigger and better jobs. And there are other people who go after a job, get comfortable in it and then coast the rest of their career. How will you be able to identify those type people?
"Over my professional career I have hired a lot of people. You can sense those type people pretty quickly. You look at their resume and their background. Then, you sit down with them and and talk to them about their family, their values, what is important to them. You'll then start to sense how straight forward they are. But nothing is guaranteed in anything. I'm sure that when Greg was hired less than two years ago, this was probably a place where he envisioned he would be for a decade or more. You never know what will present itself down the road in your life. You just have to use your best judgement."

Not just Greg but his immediate family also had strong family connections in Arizona, Oregon and California. That played a big part in him leaving to go to Arizona. Will you look at the family background of the people you interview, not just the individual but the spouse's family as well?
"When I interview someone I will ask them about their family because I want to know about them. I will also talk to them about Starkville and about how wonderful this place is. But some people might be living in a more urban area and Starkville is not an urban area. This is more of a rural, small town community. So, things are different here. And you want people to be happy when they move to your community and be part of your institution. I just want someone that we seriously consider to understand what life is like here. I don't want them to come here and not enjoy being here."

Let's say you don't have a candidate by the time Greg Byrne has to leave for his job at Arizona. That would leave the AD job vacate until someone is hired. Have you thought about having an interim AD during that period?
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there. But I'm considering that if we don't have someone who is readily available to start work by the time Greg departs. We will have to have someone who is clearly in control of the athletic department and can make decisions and sign the forms that need to be signed until we get someone onboard. So, yes, if we get to that point we will definitely have an interim for whatever period that we need."

Am I correct in saying that if you do select an interim that person won't be a candidate for the AD job itself?
"That's correct. My inclination now is if you want to be a candidate then you wouldn't be the interim. I think if you have an interim who is an active candidate that kind of changes the process a bit and can even deter some really good, qualified candidates from being applicants. They might think the interim has the inside track."

Just talking to you I can tell you are taking this job search very seriously.
"You are right, I am taking this very seriously. We just hired a Provost/Executive Vice President, which is the number two position on the entire campus. It was actually an internal candidate but we went through a national search firm. We had some wonderful candidates who came in here from very prestigious universities from around the country. At the end of the day, after using a very reputable search firm, a guy right here on this campus was the best person for the job. And we hired him. What that did was embolden the guy who was hired because he was the best of all these very impressive individuals who visited our campus. He was head and shoulders above them. And that very well could happen in this case.

"I am going to know that the person I hire will be the best person for this university, period. That is my only agenda, finding the best person for this university, not a friend of a friend or my friend. I want the best person for Mississippi State, period."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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