When Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton decided to hire a new men's basketball coach this spring, one of his first calls was to Dana Pump, a red-haired hoops junkie from the San Fernando Valley whose career peaked as a 5-foot-10 high school forward.
Along with his twin brother and partner, David -- together they are known simply as the Pumps -- Dana Pump has become an unlikely power broker in college athletics.
Two weeks after hiring the Pumps' new firm, Champ Search, for $25,000, Tennessee made its choice: Bruce Pearl, the coveted coach of the moment after leading unheralded Wisconsin Milwaukee into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
A Wisconsin Milwaukee official soon placed a call to Champ Search -- not to complain, but to hire the firm to help find a replacement. Loyola Marymount and New Mexico State also consulted the brothers for smaller fees before hiring coaches this year.
The Pumps' emergence as well-paid middlemen reflects some of the new ways business is done in college basketball, where revenue has exploded over the last two decades -- and the Pumps, once the ultimate outsiders, have repeatedly found ways to turn their carefully cultivated ties to coaches into profits.
With Champ Search, they are seeking a niche in an established field led by such executive-search firms as Texas-based Eastman & Beaudine, which typically charge $25,000 to $50,000 to hunt for a coach.
"I saw other people doing this and making it their livelihood, and I said, 'Why can't we do that?' " Dana Pump said. "My BlackBerry has hundreds of coaches' phone numbers. While schools are looking for a coach, they can't contact them during the NCAA tournament, but Dana and David Pump can."
The brothers -- identical 38-year-olds -- got their start at 16 by running day camps in Northridge Park. In the years since, they have prospered with a series of lucrative and often controversial ventures that have drawn the watchful gaze of the NCAA, wary of the brothers' activity in the Final Four ticket market, their involvement with recruits and ties to Adidas.
The Pumps also had been in the business of providing colleges with opponents for exhibitions at a typical fee of $10,000 a game -- grossing millions with teams of former college players and fringe professionals before the NCAA ruled last year that major-college teams could no longer face non-collegiate squads.
Their new venture is one of their boldest: They are being paid to act as go-betweens and provide such services as background checks, even enlisting former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey as a consultant on the Tennessee search.
"The Pumps had the knowledge of the basketball world with their contacts, and with Ced being involved, it lent national credibility," Tennessee's Hamilton said.
Champ Search, co-founded with former California athletic director John Kasser, also includes former USC, Los Angeles Ram and Nevada Las Vegas football coach John Robinson in anticipation of expanding into the market for football coaches and athletic directors.
Colleges have employed search firms for years.
"There's nothing contained in our bylaws that governs which companies an institution may or may not hire to assist with its coaching searches," NCAA spokesman Kent Barrett said.
Several NCAA officials, some of whom had been unaware of Dempsey's involvement, declined to comment. But some coaches and others question whether colleges need such services, and the Pumps' involvement has raised eyebrows.
"The word 'interesting' comes to mind," Connecticut men's basketball Coach Jim Calhoun said. "It's nothing against Dana and David -- I get along with them very welI -- but it seems to me if I were in an athletic director's position, I think I would have a much better feel for who would fit in my coaching world, my academic world, my social world, the whole culture you have at the institution."
Thomas K. Hearn Jr., president of Wake Forest and chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the brothers' interrelated businesses raise issues.
"Whether or not a school should hire such a group would be a function of exactly what it is they think they're buying," Hearn said.
"If in fact they think they're hiring a search firm to help with the search, it doesn't raise questions. If in fact they are also getting additional payments or other things, like shoe contracts, that raises questions. It's the kind of thing that ought to be looked at closely and carefully."
Shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas sign sponsorship deals with colleges sometimes worth millions of dollars a year in cash and equipment -- and pay big-name basketball and football coaches at those schools hundreds of thousands a year to represent them.
Tennessee, Champ Search's most prominent client so far, recently signed a five-year, $19.3-million extension of its sponsorship deal with Adidas -- the same company that pays the Pumps six figures annually as consultants and sponsors their youth teams.