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The Process: How Ray Anderson has made nine home-run hires

From Michael Crow to Ray Anderson to his coaches, mediocrity is no longer acceptable

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson walks the sidelines of Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium prior to the Sun Devils' game against Washington on Nov. 14, 2015.
ASU athletic director Ray Anderson walks the sidelines of Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium prior to the Sun Devils' game against Washington on Nov. 14, 2015.

Ray Anderson sits in his office, the northeastern most point on the sixth floor of the Ed and Nadine Carson Student-Athlete Center, looking out over Sun Devil Stadium. To be more precise, he’s hunkered over the polished, wooden negotiating table, between his desk and bookshelf, where titles preaching leadership from the likes of Brian Billick, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green are displayed.

The athletic director has been on the job fewer than three months, and across the table sits the head of the United States Olympic wrestling team, Zeke Jones. On Jones’ side is senior associate athletic director Don Bocchi. In front of Anderson is a yellow legal pad.

Jones is the only man Anderson and Bocchi have even considered for the position to lead a once dominant program that had fallen on hard times. 

“We decided ahead of time where the top was,” Bocchi reflects from his office down the hall, about a year and a half later. “And it was good that the top was an ASU graduate.”

Bocchi is a “bottom-line” guy. He wants to get the job done. It was especially important for Bocchi, who is now in his 31st year at Arizona State, that this meeting went well. Anderson was making his first hire since being brought to Tempe, and he shot for the moon — setting a standard for what was to come.

Yet, Anderson approached the situation with a supreme, even-keeled confidence. As the trio went back and forth for about an hour, Anderson scribbled down notes on his notepad. Suddenly, he looks up and says to Jones, “Look, I’m going make you an offer. I think it’s a very fair offer. But I want you to understand: It is the offer.”

Bocchi double takes. There had been no discussion of money, or even making an offer today. This was Anderson’s first time negotiating on behalf of ASU. But it was just a blip on the timeline of Ray Anderson, master negotiator.

“The way he went at Zeke,” Bocchi says, “I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like this.'”

Of his 61 years of life, Anderson said he believes he’s spent a large majority of them acting as a salesman and negotiator. Whether it’s in the traditional sense, acting as an agent for the aforementioned coaches, Billick, Dungy, Green and more, or selling his services as a legal representative when he was a lawyer, Anderson's place on the other side of the table comes after decades of experience.

But experience means nothing — well, less — when the salesman is indifferent about the product. That’s the furthest thing from Anderson’s feelings toward ASU. To have a conversation with him without hearing him boast about his employer, employees or what the institution, as a whole, stands for is an impossible task.

Anderson manages to be humbly braggadocious. Maybe it’s because his favorite preface for these statements is actually “humbly.” But maybe it’s because his passion is genuine, and there’s just no hiding it.

Each of the nine head coaches he’s hired in the last two years has had a homework assignment: Research President Michael Crow and the New American University.

“I want to know, what have you done to prepare yourself to respond to the culture that Dr. Crow has really insisted upon here?” Anderson says. “Because they should know that’s the culture and the vision that I’ve adopted personally.”

Baseball coach Tracy Smith, Anderson’s third hire, didn’t even know Crow’s name before doing his research. Swimming coach Bob Bowman, Anderson’s sixth, came prepared and found he was similarly passionate about Crow’s message.

For both Smith and Bowman, the New American University became a bigger selling point of ASU than Anderson’s story of leaving the NFL, any track record of success or failure or, to an extent, money.

Anderson doesn’t consider any hire he’s made to be difficult. No hiring process yet has taken longer than a few weeks. But that doesn’t mean it’s a stress-free paradise in the athletics office.

It’s June 9, 2014, and the news has just broken that Tim Esmay has resigned his post as head baseball coach. The search is on again. After Bocchi helped Anderson reel in a trophy catch for his first hire just two months prior, he’s on the search team again.

From first contact to signing of the contract, it took two weeks to officially bring Tracy Smith on board. During that time, the list of potential candidates climaxed at about 30 names before being whittled down to the four who made visits to Tempe for in-person interviews. (“I don’t need three or four interviews with you to sense if there’s going to be a fit,” Anderson says. “If I can talk to you on the phone, then get a chance to eyeball ya and spend some time together, that’s really all it takes.”)

Tracy Smith’s flight has just touched down in Tempe, and Bocchi is waiting at Phoenix Sky Harbor waiting to take him to lunch. Bocchi’s favorite spot to take candidates is Pete’s 19th Hole because “nobody knows you’re there.” Anderson is never the first point of contact. He’ll have the two associate athletic directors assigned to a sport to make the first calls and set the first meetings. Where Anderson’s touch comes is the official interview.

“He just wants to see how that person’s philosophy fits with his,” Bocchi says.

Smith is wearing a T-shirt and shorts, a fresh suit draped over his shoulder, as he strolls through the terminal to meet Bocchi. After an hourlong lunch, the next stop is a dilapidated Phoenix Municipal Stadium. In June 2014, the future home of Sun Devil baseball was still in tatters and not yet renovated.

It was here that Bocchi saw the potential in Tracy Smith.

“He saw the beauty in it and what it could be,” Bocchi recalls.

Bocchi had his answer to the inevitable question coming from his superior: who’s the best one and why?

Anderson is nothing if not consistent. He has a method and it works, or at least he’s confident that it does. One of the final steps is asking the other one or two associate ADs in the process their preference. Never, though, does Anderson reveal his choice first.

He and Bocchi have been in agreement each time. But in Smith’s case, Anderson didn’t make an offer at the interview.

A week later, Bocchi is in his office, on his phone and beginning to get nervous. Smith is on the other end, hundreds of miles northeast, and there’s a hold-up.

“Tracy,” Anderson tells the coach, “You’ve got till noon. If it’s not by noon, the offer’s off the table.”

“The thing you get with Ray Anderson,” Smith says with a laugh, looking back, “He’s a master negotiator. Having a 24-hour period to weigh out your life is not a lot of time. And I probably took 23 hours and 45 minutes to do it.”

Smith was leaving a 10-year guaranteed contract at Indiana, where he had just spent the last nine years resuscitating a program that opened each season by plowing snow off its field.

In the end, there were two determining factors for Smith. First was the same voice inside his head that pushed him to take the Indiana job after seeing heaps of success at Miami (Ohio), his alma mater.

“OK, Mr. Big Shot,” it told him, “If you’re that good, now you do it at one of the most premier programs in the history of college baseball.”

Second was another voice he kept hearing. It was Ray Anderson’s, and it was preaching words of leadership.

“The thing that stuck out to me through the whole process was he kept using the term leadership, strong leadership, the pursuit of strong leadership,” Smith says. “That’s a scenario I want to be in.”

Anderson knows coaches. If there’s a job he’s more fit for than the one he has now, if it existed, it would be something akin to a coaching psychologist. As an agent, he grew intimate relationships with some of the smartest, most successful coaches in recent history. The names on his bookshelf — Billick, Dungy, Green — are a smattering of a group that also includes Marvin Lewis, Herm Edwards, Tyrone Willingham and Leslie Frazier.

Anderson knows what coaches want to hear. And Anderson knows what he wants to hear from coaches. “I’ve got a sense of what motivates them and what gets their motor running and gets their juices flowing,” he says.

Of all the qualities, experiences and strategies Anderson has, his time representing coaches is what he pulls from the most when making hires.

But even an outpouring of everything Tracy Smith wanted to hear wasn’t enough to get the coach to make a snap decision. Smith says he took all but 15 minutes of the 24 hours Anderson gave him. Bocchi says it was more like five.

Smith held out until the final minutes, trying to squeeze a little more money out of his new deal. “In the big scheme of things,” Bocchi says, “I thought we could yield on this sticking point.”

It’s like Bocchi forgot what had occurred two months prior. And the ultimatum Anderson prompted Smith with the day before.

“I’m just trying to get the job done,” Bocchi continues. “If it’s gonna cost me a little bit more — I went to Ray, and he said, ‘He’s got till noon.’ That’s how it went.”

Every head coach Ray Anderson has hired — all nine: Zeke Jones, René Lyst, Tracy Smith, Greg Powers, Bobby Hurley, Bob Bowman, Missy Farr-Kaye, Cliff English and Courtney Martinez Connor — exudes a certain characteristic. Nobody can quite put a finger on exactly what it is. The word, if there is one, lies somewhere near the intersection of ultracompetitive and hyperdriven.

Bob Bowman is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he’s freezing his ass off. “It’s cold and terrible,” he says of the February day. He had just finished up with a typical day’s altitude training regimen with his Team USA swimmers and fancied a dinner out. National team director Frank Busch joined him.

When they arrived at the restaurant, nothing pressing seemed to be on the docket for conversation. But Busch began to make what Bowman figured to be small talk.

“I hear ASU might be looking for a new swimming coach.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Bowman responds, oblivious.

“I got this call from the ASU athletic director.”

More attentive, Bowman begins to listen to the elevator pitch Busch facilitated from Anderson. Look at what Michael Crow’s doing with the New American University. They’re committed to being elite. There’s a real plan for funding in place with the athletic facilities district they’re building.

“Who knows? Maybe Bob Bowman will be the next coach at ASU.”

Bowman delivers a fatal blow to the pitch. “Yeah, right.”

But it was that February dinner conversation that Bowman brushed off with the ease of a feather that prompted his meeting Anderson two months later, which then prompted his phone call negotiating 10 demands the next week, which was followed not long after by Bowman’s introductory news conference on April 24, 2015.

The coach of the most prolific medalist in history had been swayed to lead a program that had been cut (and later reinstated) less than a decade earlier.

It was so unlikely, when Anderson first received the news that Bowman wanted to chat with him, he didn’t believe it. Then, he was convinced Bowman was using him for leverage. It wasn’t until Bowman was sitting in Anderson’s office that it was real. And once Bowman was in that chair at Anderson’s desk, he was signed, sealed and delivered.

Bob Bowman could have any swimming job in the country. He could have waited and taken over an established swimming powerhouse. But he had always wondered why ASU wasn’t one, with a beautiful outdoor pool and the weather to support it.

Ultimately, he was drawn to the chance to build the program from the ground up. But he needed reassurance he’d have the resources to do so. Once he got it, Bowman was on board.

“There are very few places you can do that and really do it,” Bowman says. “And he’s given me everything I need to do it.”

It’s that type of motivation Bowman shows, that Tracy Smith shows, that Zeke Jones, and every other hired coach shows that dominates Anderson’s thinking. A coach could have the most successful track record in the books, but if he or she is interested in the status quo, count Anderson out.

“I’m not motivated by coaches who are maybe looking for a soft landing or looking for a situation where they really don’t have to roll up their sleeves,” Anderson says.

One of the biggest attractions of ASU to Bowman was the lack of “lifelong college administrator types” (which “drive me crazy,” he added). A common theme among those interviewed was the spirit of innovation present in the athletics office.

It’s part of a trickle down effect from even higher in the administration. While University President Michael Crow strives to be elite, just like Anderson, even more so he strives to create an academic environment of inclusion. Ultimately, the combination of the two results in innovation to the degree that ASU is named the most innovative institution in the country.

Just weeks ago, Anderson set up a meeting with Bowman and Crow.

“I’m not sure that’s happened at any school,” Bowman says of the meeting between a swimming coach and president of the university. “Last week, I asked for 10 minutes (with Anderson). ADs don’t always have that. And he says, ‘Come in anytime. The door is always open.’”

When he was hired, Anderson promised to attend as many Sun Devil sporting events as possible. It was difficult to believe at face value an athletic director consistently making appearances at tennis matches, swim meets and wrestling tournaments.

But Anderson’s first day on campus, he attended the women’s basketball game that night. 

“Not many people go to women’s basketball games,” Bocchi observed.

Anderson’s attendance at not only the most important ASU events, but the day-to-day drull of the small sports which many of the most passionate Sun Devil fans have never been to, is his way of showing his commitment to building an all-around powerhouse, athletically and academically.

It builds trust within the administration. But more so, it shows through the walls of Anderson’s office to the coaches observing ASU from afar.

“You have to articulate the vision," Bocchi said. "Then you have to walk the walk to build that vision. And I think they see him doing that. I think that’s where there’s the difference.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @EvanWebeck on Twitter.

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