Jed Hughes, Steelers Linebacker Coach, 1984-1988
Tell me about your new position heading the Global Sports Practice at Korn/Ferry. What does this entail?
I have just joined Korn/Ferry International, a premier provider of talent management solutions, as vice chair of the global sports practice, which also includes board and CEO work across industries. I was aggressively recruited by several firms but came to Korn/Ferry based on my relationship with the president and the commitment of the firm to providing the resources and investment necessary to build a global sports practice.
Korn/Ferry’s sports practice offers an array of services, including high level executive searches that identify CEOs, board level positions, and commissioners to run organizations. For instance, I placed Mark Murphy in the job as CEO of the Green Bay Packers and Larry Scott as Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference.
We also offer a suite of leadership services, including a CEO Academy to assess and train chief executives, a Coaching Practice that coaches executives in leadership, and Developmental Program to help the next generation of executives to increase their leadership skills.
How did you get involved in this line of work?
I was president of Walter V. Clarke Associates, a Pittsburgh-based LLC. After seven years, I wanted to buy the company, but the asking price was too high. Since I had signed a non-compete agreement, I had to look into other opportunities.
I took the advice of clients I was coaching and joined Lamalie Associates, a Cleveland-based executive search firm that allowed me to open an office in Pittsburgh. Several years later, I was recruited by Spencer Stuart, where I worked for 12 and a half years. During my time at Spencer Stuart, I began to establish myself with C-level work, some directly in Pittsburgh working for PNC Bank, MSA, US Steel and UPMC. I also used HR relationships I had developed while at Walter Clarke in order to obtain search assignments.
Eventually, I was able to put more emphasis on sports.
How has your NFL coaching experience helped you in this role?
NFL coaching experience can be a plus and a minus. Being in the NFL was a great talking point, but without my advance degrees — an MA from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Michigan — I might have been viewed as another coach, another ex-jock trying to do a job I was not trained to do.
I had the foresight when I was younger to take advantage of furthering my education while I was working. Vince Donnelly, who owned Walter Clarke Associates, took a chance on bringing me in as the general manager. Quickly our work exceeded his expectations as we revalidated the instrument and reconstituted a professional board comprised of past presidents of the American Psychological Association, Steelers coach Chuck Noll, and Ted Stern, former vice chairman of Westinghouse.
We developed psychological testing and behavioral assessment services for organizations including the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers during the 1990s. I also coached some of the top business executives at General Electric, R.R. Donnelly, H.J. Heinz, and PNC Bank in leadership.
How does the process of sports talent placement work — what processes do you use to recruit potential talent for coaching and front office positions? What are the biggest issues you face when doing so?
In many ways, sports talent placement is just like any other business. You need to determine the characteristics of the job and of the person you are looking for. Then you match those requirements against the skill sets of people you are assessing.
The biggest challenge today is trying to relocate families. It is much more difficult than before. The state of the economy makes people much less likely to take risks unless they have guarantees.
How do you find candidates?
It starts with relationships I have developed over 42 years, and the ability to talk with executives in specific disciplines. With the most senior job searches, you are usually recruiting the candidate — they are not seeking you.
Being in Pittsburgh, the college coaching placement process has taken a tough hit as coaches have come and gone after just having been hired. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Pitt has gone through a difficult transition. It struggled to replace Dave Wannstedt, who was a Pittsburgh native, a Panther player, and a graduate assistant coach under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill. His first replacement, Michael Haywood, was dismissed quickly, and Todd Graham lasted less than a year.
It appears Paul Chryst brings the Midwestern, hard-nosed type of football back to Western Pennsylvania.
You worked for five Hall of Fame coaches in your career including Chuck Noll. How was Coach Noll similar – and different – from those coaches?
First of all, Chuck is a friend. We established a level of trust and admiration that lasts today. When my dad died, he was very empathetic.
Chuck has a level of intellect and knowledge of the game that is unequaled. He can coach any position better than the position coach.
There are several aspects about Chuck that make him unique. He is an active learner who would dedicate every off season to learning a new hobby, some of which included wine, cooking, scuba, and flying an airplane. He’s intellectually curious and much like Coach John Wooden, his wife is his best friend.
Chuck was never interested in being in the media. Being around his family and an intimate group of people was important to him.
How did you find yourself working for Coach Noll? What about your experience caused him to bring you on his staff in ’84 to coach the linebackers?
Chuck had lost Woody Widenhofer. Bud Carson, who helped mold the Steel Curtain of the 1970s – arguably the greatest defense in the history of the game — called Chuck about me.
Chuck asked me to join the staff and be a major part of the defensive structure working with Tony Dungy, who has gone on to become a potential Hall of Fame coach.
What was your working relationship with Coach Noll?
First and foremost, I respected him, and we are friends. The first couple of weeks of minicamp and training camp, Chuck was involved in every drill. Eventually, I earned his respect and then rarely was he ever in a drill again.
How difficult and different is it coaching linebackers for a 3-4 versus 4-3 defense — especially when working with rookies who were defensive lineman in college?
Moving from the defensive line to linebacker is not easy. Many have failed trying to make the transition. It’s easier to go from standup role to a pass rusher than it is to move from a down lineman to a stand up linebacker.
Who were some of the Steelers linebackers you worked with that impressed you most?
Jack Lambert was a Hall of Famer. It’s hard not to be impressed with his intensity, instincts and leadership. Bryan Hinkle followed in the mold of Jack Ham and Andy Russell as an undersized, technique-oriented, instinctual captain.
Mike Merriweather was a tremendous athlete who had the ability to either make an interception or sack the quarterback In fact, he held the team record for sacks in a season for a very long time. Robin Cole was a longtime inspirational leader and a key contributor during the team’s Super Bowl days. He always brought his “A” game.
During my final seasons, we drafted Greg Lloyd and Hardy Nickerson, who both were incredibly talented players.
What are some of your greatest memories of coaching the Steelers teams in the ’80s?
The one memory that stands out was our game against the 49ers in 1987. With the victory, Chuck Noll passed his mentor (and Bill Walsh’s mentor) Paul Brown on the NFL’s all time win list. My dad had died suddenly on Thursday before the game. Chuck awarded the game ball to the defense. Mike Merriweather handed me the ball and said the defense had dedicated the game to my father. We won the game 30-17. It was very personal.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Pittsburgh is a tremendous community with passionate fans. I have lived in the area since 1984 and have spent the last 18 years in Ligonier, PA. The Steelers ownership respects its fan base, and the Rooney’s are the most respected ownership group in sports. At times they have to make tough decisions, but they always make them in the best interests of the organization.