Each of them has used 10 criteria to score each candidate on a scale of 1 to 10. The scores have been tabulated and used as a basis for discussion and selection of the No. 1 candidate, after which financial and personal negotiations will begin and, hopefully, reach a fruitful conclusion. That process could be concluded by this weekend.
Interim head coach Steve Morrow, SMU head coach Schellas Hyndman, D.C. United assistant coach Tom Soehn, and New York Red Bulls technical director Jeff Agoos are the four candidates. The search is being led by Hitchcock, who has used this process in the past while hiring staff members during his employment with Colorado and Los Angeles.
"I've found that if you have people who know each other and respect each other's opinions, you get observations and insights you might not get with just one person gathering all the information and making the decision," says Hitchcock. "They all have knowledge in specific areas. It's important to get as much information as possible when you're making a decision that's so important to the future of the team."
Hitchcock took over as president and general manager 14 months ago, after the team elected not to retain GM Greg Elliott, who had been hired in September 2003 and selected Clarke as head coach three months later.
Since announcing Clarke's departure, Hitchcock has interviewed a dozen candidates and narrowed that list down to the final four. Those four were interviewed again by all four executives, who then rated each candidate in the 10 categories.
The criteria, or categories, drafted by Hitchcock are: Effective Communicator; Man Management; Leadership; Talent Identification/Development; Strategic Thinker/Systematic Planner/Organization (whew!); MLS Knowledge; FCD Knowledge; Knows How to Win in MLS; Marketing/Business Opportunities; and Gut Feeling (How Well Will Candidate Do As Head Coach).
Setting aside the semantics of word usage, the nuts and bolts of coaching in general, and specifically in MLS, are in place, as well as intangibles pertaining to instinct and insight.
Yet every candidate is a gamble, since none of them has head coaching experience in MLS.
Clark Hunt played for Hyndman at SMU, and so did FC Dallas midfielder Ramon Nunez, so theoretically that gives the Mustangs' mentor an edge with at least one of the evaluators. According to sources, Hitchcock favors Morrow.
Yet Hitchcock believes that using the categories and the scores diminishes the effect of any personal bias, if such bias should be present. Still, as president and GM, the final decision will be his.
"They are a baseline that you work from to evaluate the candidate and compare him to all the others in all the categories," says Hitchcock. "When you evaluate someone's characteristics or skill sets this makes it more objective, so that's not been an issue."
Hitchcock adamantly believes that hiring Morrow, who had been Clarke's assistant for three years and is also a native of Northern Ireland, wouldn't be a case of staying the course. Morrow left the club in May 2004 to take a job with Arsenal, his employer for a decade during his playing career, only to return in January 2005.
"They worked well together in tandem, but they are very different," says Hitchcock. "Steve is more strategic and more systematic in his planning than Colin was. During this process we've discussed the philosophies and directions and methodologies we think will work, and it will be our coach's job to implement them."
Whoever gets the job, Hitchcock will retain influence in player personnel matters. He and Morrow have been busy since Clarke was let go.
Tempestuous midfielder Ronnie O'Brien was traded to Toronto FC for Canadian midfielder Adrian Serioux, and options have been declined on Finnish midfielder Simo Valakari, who was the team's fourth-highest paid player last year at $186,250, and goalkeeper Jeff Cassar ($57,750). By acquiring Serioux, the club is well-stocked at central midfield, with Marcelo Saragosa and Richard Mulrooney on board.
Squandering an opportunity to play in MLS Cup as host the past two seasons grates on Hitchcock. He describes his feelings regarding the festive crowd and dramatic moments of MLS Cup 2006 as "bittersweet." Houston, backed by several thousand noisy fans clad in orange, rallied in overtime and then downed New England on penalty kicks.
"I was proud for us to have a sellout and put on such a great event with such a great atmosphere," he says, "but still it was very painful. Of course we wanted our team to be there.
"This team is committed to winning championships and it will be the job of our next coach to do that."