The intercollegiate hiring process: How to get the right people

Mark DeMichael Indiana Wesleyan University
Indiana Wesleyan University Athletic Director Mark DeMichael

Interested in owning a Chick-fil-A? Then you better clear your calendar and be willing to endure a year-long vetting process. Chick-fil-A is recognized as America’s most successful fast food restaurant, this despite all of its locations being closed once a week. And yet, to become a franchise operator, a person only needs $5,000, this compared to the $1.9 million it takes to open a McDonald’s. Truett Cathy, the company’s founder, believed in looking for operators’ commitment to the company’s mission statement more than then depth of their bank account.

According to the Chick-fil-A’s website their mission statement is: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

Needless to say there is not a shortage of interested applicants as Chick-fil-A gets more than 15,000 applications a year to fill the few 60 to 70 open operator positions. Then, to the individuals who are worthy of consideration, their reward is Chick-fil-A’s demanding vetting process. This process includes more than a dozen interviews spread out over 12 months. These interviews even include the applicant’s family, as Cathy once told Forbes, “if a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business.”

Chick-fil-A’s hiring process has a very clear culture and makes cultural fit a top priority. The results are hard to argue with, as the company is one of the most successful restaurant chains in America. Outside of making you hungry for Chick-fil-A’s classic sandwich, what does a fast-food restaurant have to do with the hiring process of intercollegiate coaches? Everything.

You see, a major undertaking in examining the culture of successful athletic departments was to uncover the vetting process administrators implemented to secure ‘the right people.’ Jim Collins, management author, stresses that “successful executives who ignite transformations do not figure out where to drive the bus and then hire their people. On the other hand, they first got the right people on the bus then figured out where to drive it.”

The in-depth hiring process at Chick-fil-A was also manifested in the practices of the institutions I visited. There, athletic administrators followed Cathy’s lead as their interviews were tough, especially in vetting out the spirituality of applicants. I discovered that within the hiring process coaches were required to give an account of an active Christian faith and demonstrate how they would integrate that faith into coaching. One particular coach communicated his initial concern was whether or not the institution valued athletic excellence as a majority of his interview revolved around his testimony, proof of an active spiritual life, and faith integration as a coach. Ironically, this coach would be a part of winning seven conference championships, gaining five NAIA Elite 8 appearances and winning the 2014 NAIA National Championship.

Two campuses I visited to examine hiring processes were Bethel College & Indiana Wesleyan University. I discovered both institutions were looking for coaches who maintained Christian commitment, athletic excellence and the desire to transform lives. I believe that in creating spiritual expectations during the hiring process it assisted in eliminating candidates who were either intimidated by the spiritual requirements or lacked the spiritual maturity to self-identify as a spiritual leader. Bethel College and Indiana Wesleyan shared how they approached the hiring process in their attempt of “getting the right people on the bus.”


Bethel College

The hiring process at Bethel College was described as long and thorough as administrators look first and foremost for mission fit employees who are willing to serve in pastoral capacities. Vice President Shawn Holtgren clarified, “in the hiring process we are looking for excellence in athletic competition but we are also looking for pastors.” It was revealed that applicants for any position in the athletic department were asked to share their spiritual background and how they came into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The importance of hiring spiritual leaders in athletics was further explained by Athletic Director Jody Martinez: “Our number one priority at Bethel is hiring coaches who are comfortable serving in a pastoral role.”

Coach Kevin Ulmer, who was hired as the volleyball coach in 2012, reiterated the pastoral expectations when he said, “the whole emphasis when I was hired is that we are pastoring our team. So in addition to coaching, training, recruiting, and fund raising, we are also pastoring.” Vice President Shawn Holtgren echoed this expectation. “When we hire a coach, that’s a grid we look at, are you a pastor? Are you going to be investing in your flock while they (students) are here at Bethel for these three or four years?”

While spiritual leadership was not compromised in the hiring process, neither was athletic excellence. Bethel Athletics prided itself on producing winning programs and sought to hire coaches that would be competing for national championships. To find worthy candidates the college listed a minimum requirement of three years of head coaching experience and a master’s degree but Athletic Director Jody Martinez communicated a willingness to consider an under-qualified applicant who would have “served under a great head coach.”

At Bethel the hiring process was routine by intercollegiate athletic standards. A job opening would be posted on a few national websites, then the top applicants were screened through phone interviews, with the top candidates being brought on-campus for face-to-face interviews. Once applicants were on campus they would be interviewed by multiple groups including administrators, coaches, and even student-athletes.


Indiana Wesleyan

In describing the hiring process at Indiana Wesleyan Vice President Keith Newman communicated that, “Chick-fil-A is an organization that interviews someone six times for a job to work at the cash register, so I’ve tried to never apologize for what we put people through.” The vetting process for athletic employees has included interactions with the athletic director, coaches, vice presidents, faculty members, and even the campus pastor.

Coach Greg Tonagel, who was hired in 2005, attested to the thorough vetting process as he recalled his interview. “I must have given my testimony 15 times,” he said. “I had five phone interviews and each person asked me to share my testimony but they also went deeper, asking me, ‘How are you growing right now? Give me evidence of fruit in your life?’ They really put me on the spot, I mean, I even got drilled about Wesleyan theology, which I had no idea. You know, I’m on fire for the Lord but I didn’t know anything about Wesleyan theology. My one concern was that these people didn’t care about basketball because there were not that many basketball questions. You could tell they were being thorough about who they would potentially hire in terms of mission fit for Indiana Wesleyan.”

During my time at Indiana Wesleyan it was noted that Athletic Director Mark DeMichael has earned tremendous respect across the university during his tenure leading the athletic department. Vice President Keith Newman previously cited the thorough hiring culture of Chick-fil-A but he also shared another perspective of Chick-fil-A’s culture. “The other thing that I love about Chick-fil-A is that they believe once they have hired somebody, if they don’t succeed, the fault is with the team, not with the individual.” According to Newman, DeMichael has done an excellent job in hiring quality coaches as well as creating an environment for new employees to succeed.


Recommendations for athletic administrators engaging in the hiring process


  1. Always do a national search

It is my belief you should always utilize a national search to solicit applicants. While this dramatically increases the number of candidates and hours committed to the search committee, the value far outweighs any challenges.

First, you never know who is interested in working at your university. Don’t sell yourself short by simply using your personal network. Second, if you have a worthy internal candidate or individual in your personal network then do them a favor and put them through the same rigorous process of fulfilling any other position on your staff. In the end, I believe they’ll be appreciative that they were not handed a position due to a previous relationship but earned it because of experience and their ability to distance themselves from other candidates. Third, a national search provides incredible public relations to further your brand as applicants from across the country will be searching your university’s website and learning more about your athletic department.


  1. Remember, the best time to fire someone is before you hire them

This is the best advice I’ve ever received related to embracing the hiring process. Administrators would be mindful to remember that their organizational culture is birthed, at least in the applicants’ perspective, through the hiring process. “Firing someone before you hire them” should inspire administrators to unapologetically establish their culture and expectations throughout the hiring process. In my opinion it would be far greater to have a worthy applicant withdraw themselves due to high expectations or inability to embrace the mission, than hiring a candidate that wins the press conferences, or even eventual championships, but fails in honoring the mission.


  1. If you want to hire missional coaches then include missional language in your job posting

As previously stated, the hiring process is an opportunity to scare away any individuals that would be unworthy, unqualified, or unwilling to embrace your athletic department mission. I believe that it is imperative for institutions that value their mission to use supportive language whenever listing a job. In our culture today there are over 800 faith-based colleges and universities in the United States, however each of them are walking out their mission uniquely among this spectrum. The term ‘faith-based’ and even ‘Christian’ have lost specific meaning as each institution has developed their own definition.

Due to this belief it is important to use language that has the ability to attract and discourage individuals to your institution. As a former athletic administrator we included the following language on job postings: “We are a Christ-centered four year private liberal arts college that competes in the NAIA’s Sun Conference… We invite interested applicants to submit their resume and a cover letter detailing their desire to work in a Christ-centered athletic department and how they would utilize this platform for sport ministry.”      


  1. Be a storyteller

In his book Leadership Excellence former GM of the Orlando Magic Pat Williams connects the dots that great leaders are great storytellers. As previously mentioned, the hiring process provides an audience to tell your story. This is a huge outlet as the vast majority of athletic departments in higher education operate without ESPN ever stepping foot on their campus.

While only one individual will have the opportunity to join your team, I believe the hiring process offers leaders the opportunity to share their story and potentially add followers of their institution’s mission. I would add that this works both ways. Personally, I have nearly two dozen friendships with individuals where we did not offer a position but met through the search process. At the conclusion of the process both sides left with mutual respect of one another, even following each other’s careers.


  1. Be a story collector

I mentioned earlier that the hiring process provides leaders an audience to be a storyteller. I also believe it offers the opportunity to be a story collector. If you’re an individual who values being a life-long learner, what better opportunity than the hiring process to investigate the leadership, creative strategies, and organizational culture of successful athletic departments. Consider that you will have 8-10 applicants engaging in phone interviews and then 2-3 individuals on-campus for each search. What an incredible opportunity to be a story collector.


  1. Embrace the process

I get it, you’re busy. The last thing you have time for is dedicating months of work combing through applicants, conducting phone interviews, hosting campus interviews, and calling references. However, there is nothing more important to the future of your athletic department than embracing the hiring process. Furthermore, the student-athletes you are serving deserve your best as their experience, for better or worse, will be defined by the ability of athletic administrators’ to get the right people on the bus.


Next post in the series: Spiritual leadership: The ministry of coaches

Previous post: Athletic success & spirituality: Uncovering the #1 myth in Christian athletics

About Duane Aagaard // Chair and Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Pfeiffer University

A resident of Concord, NC, Duane has spent the past 15 years in higher education, 9 years as Director of Athletics at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and the past 4 as a Professor of Sport Management at Pfeiffer University (Charlotte, NC). He is passionate about inspiring the next generation of athletic leaders to use sport for a greater purpose in changing our world. He can be reached on Twitter at @DuaneAagaard or via email at

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