In 1995, when the University of Pittsburgh last went shopping for new leadership, a search committee considered 158 candidates nationally only to decide the best choice already was on campus, working as interim chancellor inside Pitt's Cathedral of Learning.
The ensuing prosperity Pitt enjoyed under Mark Nordenberg, who plans to step down in August 2014, no doubt will be cited by those who say Pitt's next chancellor also should come from within, someone who would not need a crash course in the institution's complexities or the Pittsburgh region.
Others, though, likely will argue that Pitt's rise in stature among national research universities presents an opportunity to bring in big-name talent from afar.
No matter which way it goes, one thing seems clear as the university of nearly 33,000 students readies for its first chancellor search in nearly two decades: It will have plenty of company. In fact, the ranks of colleges and universities currently looking for new leaders includes elite public flagship schools not that far away, among them Penn State University, Ohio State University and the University of Michigan.
Experts say Pitt, even with other top schools in the market, should have little problem attracting strong candidates, partly because of its improved standing and partly because the job of heading a big university is still a very good way to make a living.
How many other jobs enable one to debate the most interesting issues of the day surrounded by vibrance, youth and visitors to campus ranging from U.S. presidents to CEOs to perhaps even the Dalai Lama?
"If someone wants to make a contribution to community, to learning, there's not much that compares to it. It's a great job," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a professor and president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Being a university president requires rock-solid skills but also allows one to be a bit of a visionary and dreamer.
Handicapping exactly how Pitt's search will end up is next to impossible, though experience at other comparable universities at least gives some clues.
"In the end, the statistics say it's likely that they are going to pick either a sitting president or a provost at a research university," said Mr. Trachtenberg, who does consulting for Korn/Ferry International, a firm involved in college executive searches.
That said, "lightning could strike," he added. The pick could be from an unexpected segment of campus or even somewhere far removed from academia.
The University of Georgia, for instance, named as its new president Jere Morehead, provost there since 2010. Other public and private universities have recently elevated provosts to the presidency, including Yale University's Peter Salovey.
Temple University president Neil Theobald came from Indiana University, where he was that school's senior vice president and chief financial officer.
But Purdue University took a different tack.
It chose as its 12th president the then-sitting governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, who took the job at the conclusion of his second term. He held other positions in industry and government, including a stint as director of the federal Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.
The University of Colorado system named as president in 2008 Bruce Benson, founder of his own oil and gas exploration company that diversified into banking, real estate and restaurants.
Among doctoral-granting universities such as Pitt, 60 percent of presidents who were in office as of 2011 served previously as a provost or senior academic affairs executive, according to the most recent demographic portrait of American college presidents published last year by the Washington D.C.-based American Council on Education.
The next largest share, 21 percent, previously served as president or campus chief executive, according to institutions that responded to the survey.
Women accounted for 22 percent of the presidencies at those institutions in 2011, up from 14 percent in 2006, when the last survey was conducted. The share of presidents who are either racial or ethnic minorities rose more slowly -- to 13 percent in 2011 from 11 percent in 2006.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said in discussing Pitt's search that it's not usual for a handful of leading research universities to be looking for a new president at the same time. But the proximity of Pitt, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan make those near simultaneous searches a departure from the norm.
What will the Pitt search committee likely be looking for in a new leader?
For one thing, it will want stellar academic credentials. Being an institution rich in research and in doctoral programs will make that all the more important, said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 leading public and private research universities in North America to which Pitt belongs.
"Someone who the faculty respects for his or her intellect," he said.
Along with administrative savvy to run a multibillion-dollar enterprise with thousands of employees, the candidate must be deft at navigating relationships on and off campus in areas from City Hall politics and state appropriations to big-time athletics.
And, of course, there is the never-ending need to raise funds.
"It's a slightly evangelical job," Mr. Trachtenberg said. "You want somebody who can stand up and inspire."
"Universities are incredibly complicated, multifaceted organizations and they will want someone who can connect with all facets -- students, parents, donors, alumni," Mr. Hartle said. "In Pittsburgh, they would be looking for the educational equivalent of Chuck Noll."
Mr. Hartle said that while corporations make a point of having a succession plan, universities usually do not. But search firms keep track of the inventory of qualified candidates, some of whom could be in the running at multiple institutions.
Mr. Nordenberg, in announcing his retirement a year in advance, is giving Pitt time to conduct a thorough search, which often takes at a minimum six to nine months.
"He's allowing for a careful thought-out search and a smooth transition," Mr. Hartle said. "It's not like he's an embattled leader who is being pushed out the door."
At Penn State and Ohio State, the presidential transitions have been rockier.
At Penn State, fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal led to president Graham Spanier's departure from office in November 2011, and a search there is already underway to succeed Rodney Erickson, who was elevated to Penn State's presidency after Mr. Spanier left but plans to step down in 2014. Penn State has said it hopes to announce a new president in November.
At Ohio State, Gordon Gee abruptly announced his retirement last month, amid controversy over recent remarks that included comments about Catholics.
Michigan's Mary Sue Coleman announced in April her retirement from the presidency she has held since 2002.
On June 28, the day Mr. Nordenberg announced his plans, Pitt said it had asked Eva Tansky Blum, trustees vice chair and a PNC Bank executive vice president, to coordinate the chancellor search. She declined to comment Friday, saying it was too early in the process.
Pitt will no doubt find much has changed since the last time it picked a chancellor. The Internet's rise, for one, will help information gathering, but also will make it harder to keep the candidates' names secret.
Even back in 1995, fear that the high-profile decision would leak led Pitt and its 25-member search committee to extremes.
Jim Roddey, who chaired the search that elevated Mr. Nordenberg, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a 1996 interview that he had flown to Atlanta for a motel meeting with one candidate, a sitting college president who was so fearful of being identified as job hunting that he flew in from an undisclosed city to avoid being outed.
Files related to the search were kept locked away and under tight control in Posvar Hall and approaches to potential candidates were kept well below the radar. Some individuals not wanting to be labeled as candidates would say immediately when approached that they were not interested, then offer to sit down to "discuss" the process, Mr. Roddey said.
During the search, the university wasn't afraid to aim high as it considered potential chancellors, including Colin Powell, a retired Army General and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who received a discreet inquiry from Pitt the same month he turned down a run for the White House.
"Although flattered by the nomination, I am not available to be considered as a candidate for the chancellorship," he wrote back in November 1995.
It seems inevitable that some household names will again be bandied about as Pitt looks for the perfect choice. But the search for perfection can have its own risks, said Mr. Trachtenberg, who has studied failed presidencies and recently wrote with two others a book titled "Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It."
Sometimes a number of good choices can be overlooked, he said, in a quest "for the illusory best person."