Top officials from the NFL, the Texas Rangers, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball were among the final candidates to become the Big East's commissioner, and eventual choice Mike Aresco wasn't even considered a serious candidate until days before he was hired, documents obtained by ESPN revealed.
Also, Russell Reynolds Associates, which conducted the search, threatened legal action against at least one Big East university and the conference itself implied it might take legal action against one of its member schools to keep it from fulfilling ESPN's public records request.
Aresco was named Big East commissioner on Aug. 13. However, less than a week before, he was not mentioned as a candidate in nearly 70 pages of documents sent to the league's search committee between June 15 and Aug. 6. The documents were obtained from two Big East universities by ESPN.
On Aug. 6, Rick George, chief operating officer of the Texas Rangers since 2010, and Mark Abbott, president of Major League Soccer since 2006, were listed as the only "finalist candidates." Both individuals interviewed that afternoon at Russell Reynolds Associates' offices in New York.
Besides George and Abbott, others who also interviewed, according to the documents, were Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations since 2006; Tim Brosnan, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of business since 2000; Dennis Robinson, Formula One Grand Prix COO since January; and Arlen Kantarian, former CEO of the U.S. Tennis Association.
Last month, league officials said the Big East planned to name a new commissioner at the end of August. However, industry sources told ESPN that the Big East -- once notified of ESPN's public records request on Aug. 6 -- quickly decided to name a commissioner before the records request could be fulfilled.
"The Big East felt the search would be compromised if the names got out beforehand," a league source said. "That's exactly why they moved up the timetable to name the commissioner."
It's unknown if any candidates withdrew from consideration for fear their names would be exposed in the emails Russell Reynolds Associates sent to several Big East public and private universities.
In three separate emails to the Big East's search committee between July 15 and July 31, Russell Reynolds' managing director Alan Reene and executive search consultant Liz Boardman warned the committee "if any of the (candidate) names were made public, we would certainly lose candidates" and if it wasn't confidential it "would likely result in the withdrawal of the relevant candidate(s)."
Industry sources said the Big East believed once it named a commissioner, ESPN would withdraw its request for the public documents.
League sources with knowledge of the search confirmed to ESPN that Aresco didn't emerge as a candidate until just days before his hiring.
"Well, I am not going to be able to get into specifics in order to protect the confidence of the search firm and the Big East," Aresco told ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson. "The search firm does the preliminary work, and obviously you ultimately meet with presidents and have to convince them you're the person."
A former vice president at CBS Sports, Aresco would not specify when he became a candidate.
"When I look back at some of the interesting hires over the last several years, when Myles Brand was hired as the NCAA president, that came out of the blue," Aresco said.
On Aug. 6, ESPN submitted public record requests to the universities of Cincinnati and South Florida -- their respective presidents, Greg Williams and Judy Genshaft, were on the search committee -- seeking information regarding the Big East's search. Russell Reynolds Associates legal representation threatened to file a lawsuit against USF to keep the university from providing the documents to ESPN. The firm's lawyers also contacted Cincinnati questioning which documents the school would release to ESPN.
"We are willing to take the necessary steps to obtain judicial intervention and declaration," attorney William E. Grob wrote on behalf of Russell Reynolds Associates to USF on Aug. 10.
Russell Reynolds Associates' legal team also argued the candidates' names should not be available through ESPN's public records request because "all communication ... included the express notification that the information was highly confidential" and the "subject line of each electronic communication ... is marked confidential."
Covington & Burling, a law firm that represents the Big East, also implied the league would pursue legal action against -- oddly enough -- one of its league members if it fulfilled the records request.
Attorney Benjamin C. Block wrote to USF's legal counsel on Aug. 9 that "(the Big East) may need to seek immediate relief from the courts if this issue cannot be solved amicably."
In early June, when Russell Reynolds Associates was hired by the Big East for an undisclosed amount to conduct the search, it indicated in an email, obtained by ESPN through sources, that the characteristics of the next commissioner should be: "strong interpersonal skills, a servant leadership style, exposure to the media, superb managerial skills and a fabulous communicator. Experience negotiating with television networks is not essential, but can be learned."
Russell Reynolds Associates, which prides itself on "protecting the integrity and confidentiality of the search and candidate process," also indicated the commissioner's salary would exceed $1 million annually with long-term incentives.
Joe Bailey, who was the Big East's interim commissioner the past three months, was a former partner at Russell Reynolds Associates. That was a key factor in RRA being named as the Big East's search firm, sources said.
Brett McMurphy covers college sports for ESPN.