Hiring the next: Jamie Pollard’s ‘most important job’

Head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly salutes the crowd following the Cyclones’ 75-69 win over No. 22 Kansas State. 

Rachel Given

When fans attend an Iowa State athletic event, there’s no doubt they’ll see a coach’s kid or significant other in the stands cheering on the Cyclones.

Whether it is coach Steve Prohm’s son, Cass, on his famous step inside Hilton Coliseum or Bill Fennelly’s son coaching right alongside him, Iowa State athletics is laced with family.

That’s what part of being a family at Iowa State University takes, and Jamie Pollard knows it.

Pollard has been Iowa State’s athletic director for the past 12 years. Dubbed “the most important part of his job,” Pollard has hired some of the biggest coaches in the past two years. He has brought in new football, men’s basketball, softball and wrestling head coaches. And that’s just in the last two years. 

Pollard has hired all but four of the current head coaches at Iowa State in his tenure. The four? Women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly — who has been in Ames since 1995 — volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, women’s golf coach Christie Martens and women’s swim coach Duane Sorenson. 

Fennelly, who was hired under Gene Smith, has seen a few athletic directors come and go in the position, but said he feels pretty special under Pollard’s supervision.

Fennelly remembered he wasn’t looking for a new job while he was the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Toledo in the early 1990s, but when he received a call from Iowa State saying it was interested in bringing him to Ames, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Fennelly and his wife Deb are both Iowa natives.

Johnson-Lynch, one of the last hires of then-Iowa State Athletic Director Bruce Van De Velde, remembered she also wasn’t actively looking for a job at the time she received a phone call. Johnson-Lynch was an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin and happy where she was, but the opportunity to become a head coach was an offer she couldn’t pass up.

Fennelly and Johnson-Lynch’s paths to Iowa State are a little different than the paths of the newer head coaches. Fennelly even called it the old school way of hiring because there wasn’t a search firm involved, like there are in so many searches these days.

Fennelly recalls a member of Smith’s staff called him and asked if he would be interested in the head coaching position. Fennelly then sent in a formal application and was interviewed along with a few other candidates in front of a committee from various constituencies on campus. On his flight home, he received another call.

“Gene offered me the job and said, ‘You got about an hour to decide,’” Fennelly said. “They were trying to get it done, but it didn’t take an hour. I said I need to go home and talk to my wife. We said yes and came. It was pretty simple.”

Fennelly and Johnson-Lynch were both at Iowa State when Pollard was hired, which can be stressful when a new guy is hired in athletics administration.

Johnson-Lynch remembered she was a little worried about the new guy in the office because things can change quickly in athletics and coaching, but Pollard’s name was familiar. He had worked in athletics administration at Wisconsin, Maryland and St. Louis. 

“For me personally, there was a reassurance because I knew him at Wisconsin a little bit and had somewhat of a relationship with him there,” Johnson-Lynch said. “That’s unusual, to have someone come in that you know a little bit.”

But that was the “old school way,” as Fennelly described it. 

Search firms and search committees have become the norm in hiring collegiate coaches in recent years.

A search firm is an independent company used when hiring big names. Pollard said he chooses to use search firms for a multitude of reasons.

“No. 1 is I want to be 100 percent focused on evaluating the candidate,” Pollard said. “I don’t want to spend any time on the logistics of the candidate. No. 2 is in those situations, especially in football and basketball, you’re dealing with such big numbers and high stakes that there’s people playing people.”

Pollard said some agents like to put their coach’s names out there when the coach really isn’t interested so the coach can use job offers as leverage at their current school. 

Pollard also said search firms maneuver behind the scenes. They have a pretty good pulse at who is moveable and who isn’t.

“Because there [are] things that happen that just from a personnel standpoint I can’t call and ask somebody, because legally they can’t tell me,” Pollard said. “But search firms find a way to figure all that stuff out. So they can give you some intelligence that you just can’t get at.”

Pollard believes the cost behind using a search firm is invaluable.

“Right now the large search firms, the good ones, for football and basketball, you’re probably doing $75,000 to $100,000 a search,” Pollard said.

Both men’s basketball coach Steve Prohm and football coach Matt Campbell were hired using search firms.

“How we [hire] football and basketball is really wrong in the sense that you’re going to pay someone $20 million and you’re going to interview them for two hours and they’re never going to come to campus and you’re going to turn the keys over to them,” Pollard said. “If you really think about it, that’s not sensible.”

A search committee, on the other hand, is made of people locally, usually administration or other university officials. These people help evaluate candidates and sit in on the interviews.

Softball coach Jamie Trachsel was hired using a search committee. Trachsel spent many years moving up in North Dakota State University’s softball program and was a co-head coach for the last six years. She received a call from Calli Sanders in the sports administration department inviting Trachsel to visit campus.

She admitted that she wasn’t looking for a job when she received the call but was receiving offers from multiple other schools, which she turned down.

“For me to leave a place that I love and was very happy and successful at was to try to go build a top-20 program,” Trachsel said. “I thought I could do that here.”

Kevin Dresser, Iowa State’s newest head coaching hire, was on Pollard’s radar since previous Iowa State wrestling coach, Kevin Jackson, decided to step down at the end of the 2017 season. Pollard said Iowa State didn’t use a search firm to find Dresser.

Dresser knew of the open position once news spread that Jackson was stepping down. While Dresser was in the middle of coaching his team at Virginia Tech, the thought of the position stayed in the back of his head.

Iowa State reached out to Dresser to see if he was interested, and when the school found out he was, Pollard conducted a phone interview and then booked a trip to Blacksburg, Virginia.

Pollard brought along Campbell, who was hired in 2016 while bringing Toledo to national heights, with him to offer Dresser the position.

It was an unusual way to sway a coach to a position, but it worked. Campbell helped confirm all of the selling points Pollard said about Iowa State and Ames.

He also helped Dresser work through the kinks that come with leaving a program while it is at a high point, as Campbell did with Toledo. 

“I think Jamie Pollard is an innovator,” Dresser said. “I like to think I’m a guy that thinks out of the box and so to me, that was an out of the box move. I was impressed.”

After their trip to Blacksburg, it took Dresser about a week to accept the position. While Pollard wanted to finalize the decision as quickly as possible, Dresser thought he was sensitive to his situation. Dresser discussed the change with his family and knew it would be a major change for his three children in high school.

“I think that’s part of the reason why [Pollard] brought coach Campbell along [because] coach Campbell made a big move and relocated his whole family and had a good experience in his first year or two in Ames,” Dresser said. “[Pollard] was probably more talking to my wife and my kids than he was talking to me.”

Dresser said his family was impressed with the way Pollard made them feel. Pollard helped the entire family see how important wrestling was to Pollard and Iowa State.

“The one thing that I’ve noticed with [Pollard’s] process is … if he finds a coach he wants, he goes after the family,” Fennelly said. “He didn’t go just after Matt Campbell or coach Dresser or coach Prohm, he went after Matt and Erica [Campbell] and the kids, he went after coach Dresser, his wife and the kids. So I think that’s a brilliant move on his part.”

Dresser was also impressed with how welcoming other Iowa State coaches were to his acceptance of the position.

“I think I got text messages from four or five of the head coaches,” Dresser said. “Either right before the [announcement] press conference or during the press conference coach Prohm came over and brought my son a huge swag bag of ISU basketball gear. Coach Campbell came to the press conference; I could tell they were all invested in each other.”

Johnson-Lynch also said she feels very comfortable talking to every coach. She said they’ll text each other congratulations or supportive messages after a tough loss.

“I don’t think that happens at many places, especially at a major school,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I think that’s very unique. We’re encouraged to connect with each other and support each other.”

Just like a family.

Women’s athletics are often less recognized than men’s sports, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at Iowa State. 

Fennelly and Prohm’s coaching contracts were both recently extended through 2022. Prohm earned a pay raise to a $2 million annual salary.

But it was how the university announced it that struck Fennelly. Iowa State broke the contract extensions news in the same press release. Fennelly felt that was unique. 

“Who does that?” Fennelly said. “Nobody. … Nobody ever gives the women’s coach that kind of attention with the men’s coach. I think that’s a little bit of forward thinking … I think that’s how Jamie thinks.”

Fennelly added he had friends calling him surprised at the announcement. When Prohm didn’t have a problem with the joint announcement, Fennelly knew Prohm had the “Iowa State Way” of thinking.

“It means Jamie is doing it right and he’s hiring the right guy,” Fennelly said. “Because that’s what Iowa State does. I think it was really cool.”

Johnson-Lynch believes the fan base for women’s sports is unique as well.

In the 2015-16 season, Iowa State women’s basketball drew an average of 9,833 fans, third most in the NCAA. The Cyclones only trailed UConn and Tennessee. In 2016 volleyball drew an average of 2,426 fans, 11th most in the nation.

Invested and lucky are two words Fennelly constantly uses to describe Pollard and his commitment to his job and Iowa State athletics.

Pollard’s office overlooks the third largest football stadium in the Big 12 Conference and is adorned with many Iowa State knickknacks. His tie was striped yellow and red. There is no doubt he loves Iowa State, and many of his employees would say the same.

“Iowa State is lucky [Pollard] is still here,” Fennelly said. “He’s got the pedigree, he’s got it. A lot of people don’t have it, he’s got it … he’s a good fit. He’s big time.”

Fennelly, who has seen three athletic directors since starting at Iowa State, has seen improved growth in athletics and described working for Iowa State as lucky.

Fennelly also has seen six different men’s basketball coaches, and noted that all six of them have been gracious to him and the team. He said in his 22 years of coaching in Ames, he’s had maybe five disagreements with the men’s basketball coaches about something. He thinks that’s incredible.

“I think it speaks to what Iowa State is about,” Fennelly said. “Iowa State has done a really good job in my little part of the world of bringing people in who understand. I call it the Iowa State Way.”

The Iowa State Way seems to be accepted into every athletic program at the university, even Johnson-Lynch recognized the term.

“I think it’s one of the great things about our athletic program,” Johnson-Lynch said. “From the top down, there’s just a really clear vision of what we’re about, what our ethics and what we believe in, and also facilities and where we are headed.”

The “Iowa State Way” and “Iowa State Culture” seem to be used a lot in every coaching system at Iowa State. Pollard described the Iowa State culture as something that doesn’t fit everyone. Fennelly agreed, saying the culture at Iowa State is unique. Pollard used the men’s basketball coach search as an example.

“We were coming off of coach [Fred] Hoiberg, who was somebody that was seen as cerebral,” Pollard said. “[He] didn’t curse, just was kind of an all-American kind of image. There are a lot of good coaches out there that are great, successful coaches but they aren’t that. They’re very loud, very demonstrative.”

Pollard felt that if they were to hire a coach like that, it could have short–circuited the culture the men’s basketball program and Iowa State had built. 

Pollard also said he looks for people who can handle the local fame of being a coach in Ames. Pollard explained that because Ames isn’t a metropolis, people will recognize coaches at grocery stores and restaurants. He wants to make sure every hire he makes will feel comfortable and is able to excel in a place like Ames.

“I think to the credit of the people who are doing the hiring, they found people that understand that and add to it,” Fennelly said. “I think you’re seeing that at every level.”

Johnson-Lynch agreed, saying Iowa State has to sell other things to recruits and potential coaches when up against some bigger, better-funded programs.

“You have to be willing to sell yourself, your coaching staff, the relationships [with] the people here, which I do think are special,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Small college towns are the best places to go to school, so you’ve got to be ready to sell that … and OK with not having the No. 1 budget in the conference.”

Everywhere you look, a family atmosphere is being sold.

“The people here come to Iowa State with an understanding of this is a team — a family,” Fennelly said.