Rule No. 1: When at all possible, don't hire a guy who is a dead ringer for the troll face.
The Seattle Times put up a comprehensive article about coaching searches over the weekend. It largely focuses on the Pac-12 changes at Washington State, Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA, but it does cover Texas A&M a little and features Greg Byrne, who was AD at Mississippi State before his current gig at Arizona.
Out of it, I gleaned a few lessons that could serve as best practices for college coaching searches.
Have a plan before you fire your current coach.
The AD that comes off as best prepared in the article is WSU's Bill Moos. He met surreptitiously with Mike Leach in Key West before he even decided to fire Paul Wulff. He says he told Leach that he was hoping Wulff would finish strong and not have to be fired, but he wanted to get a jump on everyone else if he needed to be finding a new coach.
This is an extreme example, as it was quite risky. The trip would have blown up in Moos's face had Wulff won his last two games and been retained, or even if word broke before those games were played. In that case, being prepared suddenly becomes cutting your not-fired coach off at the knees. Even if you think Moos was unfair to Wulff by doing this, and he probably was, it still shows the virtues of planning ahead.
Moos was able to announce Leach as the new coach a day after he fired Wulff. Waiting to talk to Leach after he fired Wulff might have delayed that announcement a day or two, but he still would have gotten his man.
Secrecy above all else.
All of the people quoted agreed that secrecy is paramount. Arizona's Byrne even has rule about it, that as soon as a name becomes public, that person is eliminated. He figures it's a sign that he's being "played". I would contend that it shouldn't be a hard and fast rule, as sometimes media will publish the idle chatter of top boosters as "news", but it's a sound rule overall.
Arizona State had a famously rough process, reportedly offering the job to Kevin Sumlin (they deny this) and getting close with June Jones before going with Todd Graham. Even if the job wasn't offered to Sumlin, they got close there. News of it breaking in combination with the school not hiring him meant that it would look like the school was settling no matter what. The Jones hire even seemed to be scuttled by negative public reaction when the word broke that it was close. UCLA also was plagued by leaks, making Jim L. Mora hire look like practically the only guy who would take the job.
Coaches are ultimately not judged on how they look at their hiring but how they perform, but it can be tough if they don't get support from the start. It's hard for a coach to overcome the perception among fans that he wasn't the first or even second choice.
What must be done eventually must be done immediately.
Byrne fired his head coach on October 10. By doing so, and targeting a guy who was out of coaching in Rich Rodriguez, he was able to get his new guy in place before Thanksgiving. It also gave him the luxury of time, because no one expects a new coach to be hired before the end of the season.
The header for this section is a paraphrase of Jeremy Foley's rationale for firing Ron Zook in October of 2004. When you know it's not working out, don't wait. Foley was able to get a jump start on the process, and it paid off when he hired Urban Meyer. Notre Dame also wanted Meyer, but it didn't fire Ty Willingham until December. By then it was too late to get in the game on Meyer.
If you wait until after the season to fire your head coach and/or you want a hot commodity who is currently employed, that means you'll face competition. Competition prolongs your search as the guy everyone's targeting weighs his options. The longer the process goes on the harder it is to maintain secrecy and stifle misinformation. Former ASU AD Lisa Love, who hired Graham, estimated the online chatter about her search to be 80% misinformation. That still leaves 20% good information, which shows she didn't get the secrecy part down.
Both Arizona State and UCLA were reportedly going after Sumlin, but their chances for him basically evaporated when Texas A&M fired Mike Sherman. Sumlin had been an A&M assistant in the past, and that job was an opportunity for him to move up without making a huge change for his family. ASU and UCLA had a window of four days to close the deal with Sumlin before the A&M job opened.
Perhaps Sumlin was always going to wait and see about the Aggies job, but that just goes to show how the pressure mounts with competition. It's also possible that those Pac-12 schools actually could have closed the deal if they had fired their clearly fired head coaches earlier and put out feelers towards Sumlin in November. We'll never know.
Know what you want.
Moos has a couple of great quotes at the end both criticizing Kansas's hire of Charlie Weis and the practice of hiring NFL retreads for college jobs. He also criticized Ole Miss's committee approach, because ultimately only the AD will be held responsible for the coach's performance. Whether you agree with him or not on that front, it's clear that Moos knew exactly what he wanted for his next coach and how he was going to get him. Bill Byrne, Texas A&M's outgoing AD, seemed to know it too as Sumlin is the only coach he appears to have targeted. It's hard to tell if Greg Byrne had similar clarity, but he gave himself time to get it.
Love at Arizona State and Dan Guerrero at UCLA didn't seem to have that clarity. Sumlin, Jones and Graham are very different guys with only an affinity for passing in the general sense between them. Guerrero went all over the map with college coaches before hiring a guy who hadn't been in coaching since the 2009 NFL season.
There are a few other rules that exist today, such as "don't waste time going after Chris Petersen because he's not leaving Boise", but these are pretty solid. Few of these will help Jeff Long much as he wraps up his search at Arkansas, because "try not to have to fire your coach over scandal in the off season" is one of those other rules. Better luck next time, Jeff.