INDIANAPOLIS — The area code of Jed Hughes’ cell phone remains 412, but he probably couldn’t be blamed for switching it to 206 — the three-digit designator for Seattle.
Hughes has extended ties to Pittsburgh — as his phone number suggests — and he still has a house in Ligonier, where he lived for 20 years. But he’s popular these days in Seattle as the man who was largely responsible for the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks hiring coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
Packers CEO Mark Murphy? Another Hughes-guided hire. The same goes for Bill O’Brien, who was guided by Hughes from Penn State to the Houston Texans, Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Jets general manager John Idzik, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott and Southern Cal football coach Steve Sarkisian — and even for executives of the Liverpool and Arsenal football clubs in the English Premier League.
It took being fired as the Steelers linebackers coach after five seasons in 1988 and by the Browns as their secondary coach in 1989 for Hughes to change career paths — before that, he was the defensive coordinator at UCLA, among other football jobs. Now, Hughes, with all of his Pittsburgh roots, has become one of the biggest names in the fast-growing sports executive search business.
As the vice chairman and head of global sports at publicly traded Korn/Ferry, Hughes directed the search for six high-profile jobs — Southern Cal football coach, Texas athletic director and football coach, Texans head coach, Arizona State athletic director and president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame — in a six-week period between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day in which he was home for all of 36 hours.
Hughes, relying partly on skills he learned while working for five Hall of Fame coaches including Chuck Noll, is known for being fast but thorough and for skillfully screening candidates to best match personalities and resumes with jobs and cities. Carroll, for example, was fired as head coach by both the Patriots and Jets, but Hughes was convinced his persona, enthusiasm and player interaction skills were perfect for Seattle.
“What Pete did at USC was so outstanding, and the fact was he didn’t just do it (well), he made it better and better and better,” Hughes said. “He has this contagious enthusiasm about him. … From Day 1 when Pete showed up and John, it was like ‘Wow, the sun’s out in Seattle.’ You get all that rain in Seattle, but it’s like the rain stopped and the sun’s out.”
Hughes felt the sun was setting on his coaching career when he was fired twice by NFL teams in a year’s time; he was one of four Steelers coaches let go following the dismal 5-11 season in 1988 in which Noll nearly quit rather than make massive staff changes. Hughes had a master’s degree from Stanford and a doctorate from Michigan and decided to put them to work. With a push from former PPG chairman Vincent Sarni, he joined a small, Pittsburgh-based assessment company called Walter Clarke Associates.
“I really took stock of what was going on in my life,” Hughes said. “I had just divorced, my father died, and my personal life was a shambles. So went back to Pittsburgh and went on 176 interviews in three months, and ended up with several job offers.”
Walter Clarke quickly grew into a $10 million business. After being unable to buy it, Hughes started up a Pittsburgh office for Cleveland-based boutique search firm Lemalie Associates. He was subsequently hired by megafirm Spencer Stuart, where he worked for 13 years before taking his current job. He’s based in New York but still has his Pittsburgh-area home and one in Bradenton, Fla., where his 14-year-old baseball- and basketball-playing son attends the IMG Sports Academy.
While executive search firms gained a bad name in Pittsburgh following the search firm-guided Pitt football coaching hires of Mike Haywood and Todd Graham, don’t blame Hughes.
“I lived in Pittsburgh, but I could never get Pitt to hire us,” Hughes said. “They always used someone else and that was somewhat frustrating.”
While he doesn’t have any current ongoing NFL searches, he attended the NFL Combine to touch base with the numerous coaches he knows, including Ravens coach John Harbaugh and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who were his ball boys when he was a Michigan assistant on the same staff as the Harbaughs’ father, Jack.
A man who has trained executives at PPG and H.J. Heinz, among other companies, and developed analytical software also is closely watching the implementation of new player testing at the combine that replaced the oft-criticized Wonderlic test.
“It (the Wonderlic) was an intellect test; this assessment is built on things having to do with football,” Hughes said. “It was built to not penalize someone who struggles with reading. There are pictures and diagrams and different ways that information is presented, to give the player the best opportunity to succeed. But whether this data is going to be predictive (of a player’s success or failure), it’s too early to tell.”
Hughes’ own predictive skills for coaches and executives are well-established. His job requires being able to accurately assess talent, just as he did when he coached former Steelers linebackers such as Bryan Hinkle, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, David Little, Robin Cole and, for his final season, Jack Lambert.
“When bad things happen to a football coach, people tend to stay away because they believe we’re a bit contagious,” Hughes said of his mid-career turnaround. “It can be a struggle dealing with. The fact I had my education gave me an outlet and another place to look at.
“When we pitched it (the Packers’ executive search) and we won it, it was like some vindication. I was out of the league, and now one of most prestigious franchises has brought you in to hire their CEO. … And things have kind of taken off from there.”
Even if that 412 area code on his cell phone has stayed firmly Pittsburgh-based.