I began covering college football in 1987. Nick Saban wouldn’t be a head coach for another three years. Mack Brown had 11 career victories.
The first story I wrote about the lack of racial diversity among major college football head coaches ran in 1992. The number of Black head coaches in major college football that year had shrunk from three to zero. I thought the story — actually a series of stories for The Dallas Morning News — broke new ground. I thought college football would break new ground. I thought the new generation of coaches — my generation — would be judged on merit alone.
Revisiting the lack of diversity in college football coaching has become an annual chestnut of what we journalists refer to as enterprise reporting. Many of my colleagues have written on the topic. I wrote about it again at New York Newsday in 1996 and have revisited the issue more than once since then. Here it is, now 2020, literally a generation later. Nick Saban is in his 25th season as a college head coach. Mack Brown has 257 career victories. Other than Saban and Brown, there isn’t much else that is familiar about college football then and now.
Offenses no longer huddle.
Defenses no longer tackle.
Coordinators make millions.
Don’t get me started about realignment.
But nothing is more evergreen than the lack of diversity among college football head coaches.
This year, there are 14 Black head coaches among 130 FBS programs. Oops, Vanderbilt just fired Derek Mason this past weekend; make it 13. While that’s 13 more than there were in 1992, it also means that only 10% of the programs have Black head coaches in a sport in which nearly half the players are Black, according to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database. In the SEC, 61% of players are Black, and now that Vanderbilt has fired Mason, two of the Power 5 conferences — the SEC and the Big 12 — do not have a Black head coach. In the year 2020. And with hiring season about to begin anew, there’s no expectation of much changing.
Over the past few months, I asked commissioners, athletic directors, university administrators and, of course, college football coaches why we lost a generation — why my generation, the administrators my age, failed to make any headway on the issue. Everybody has talked the talk for nearly 30 years. The walk? Not so much.
“I don’t think there is an answer,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw, who has won more games (87) and conference titles (three) than any other Black head coach in FBS history.
“It’s a great question,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who, as Stanford athletic director, hired Shaw in 2011. Bowlsby’s conference has not employed a Black head coach since Texas fired Charlie Strong in 2016. In fact, none of the conference’s 10 athletic directors has ever hired a Black head football coach at any school. Bowlsby added, “We need to be held accountable for that.”
“You have this mindset that’s been set in our country, in our minds, in our culture, why people aren’t equipped to do certain things,” said Ivin Jasper of Navy, one of only a few Black offensive coordinators in the FBS. “It spills right over into everyone’s thinking. It’s not right, but it has been the norm.”
Head coaches are hired by mostly white athletic directors, who run programs supported by mostly white donors. ADs are hired by mostly white university presidents, who report to mostly white boards of trustees. If we are waiting for those dynamics to change, we might be here a while. According to a survey conducted by the NCAA in 2019, the 65 Power 5 schools employed 10 Black athletic directors — and two Black presidents. As for Black voices among donors, all we know is that they haven’t been very loud, if they exist at all. No one seems to know how many there are. The SEC conducts a demographic survey of its 14 fan bases and, associate commissioner Herb Vincent said, doesn’t ask about race. I asked athletic directors in the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 whether they knew of any such data for their conferences. No one said yes.
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said he believes that the diversity of the fan base at Bryant-Denny Stadium is increasing, give or take a pandemic, but he said that pinning down that information is well down the list of priorities of the modern, sprawling athletic department.
“As an athletic department, we have 20-plus teams, and our staff isn’t any bigger than what an NBA organization would have for two teams [Many NBA organizations operate NBA and WNBA teams.],” Byrne said. “We deal with academics. Pro teams don’t deal with that. We deal with compliance. We deal with recruiting. They don’t deal with those things.
“Until you’ve been on the campus and realize, half the time, you’re just trying to keep your head above water. You got 650 18- to 22-year-olds and issues that come along with that. You got not one coaching staff or two coaching staffs. You have 16 coaching staffs to deal with. To be honest, I think part of it is just there are just things that have never really been a priority. I think collecting good, solid demographic background on your fan base has not been a big enough priority, but I think that is changing.”
Whatever the diversity of fan bases is, there isn’t sufficient pressure being applied on universities to compel them to hire Black football coaches.
“Whoever is pulling the trigger on hiring, it’s still going to be who they want it to be,” Shaw said. “… I commend people that have fair hiring processes, but when it comes down to it, they’re still going to pick the person they think is best for the job.”
To be fair, it shouldn’t be necessary for minorities to be in hiring positions to hire minorities. The athletic director and president need to be comfortable with the coach they are trusting to run the financial engine of their eight- or nine-figure athletic department, and that is where some believe the system has failed.
“The pool of minority candidates still has to be good,” Shaw said. “Sometimes it’s been good. Sometimes it’s been debatable whether it’s good enough, whether or not there’s one or multiple candidates to fill a position.”
Shaw is the son of a college and pro assistant coach. His father, Willie, had two stints at Stanford. David Shaw played at Stanford. Shaw knew how to be a coach, and he knew Stanford. That helped justify Bowlsby’s decision in 2011 to promote Shaw, who was the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator, instead of, among others, current Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.
“As an athletic director, you’ve got to be an idiot to hire a coordinator that’s never been a head coach if you can do anything other than that at all,” Bowlsby said. “The number of things you have to learn as a head coach, the list is as long as your arm.”
Here’s Shaw, who has long arms:
“A head-coaching job has something to do with football, but everything else takes much more of your time: managing people, dealing with alumni, dealing with athletic directors and presidents and provosts and other on-campus personnel, setting schedules, handling difficult situations, handling your team individually and collectively.
“You can be a great X’s and O’s coach and lose your team because you made a couple of bad decisions. It’s like showing you can climb a ladder and then trying to climb a mountain.”
The difference between being an assistant coach and being a head coach is greater now than it was a generation ago. Programs have more moving parts. There are on-field coaches, off-field analysts and recruiting operations that have made marketing as vital as talent evaluation. What hasn’t changed? The pipeline of Black head-coaching candidates.
In 1992, Division I-A had four Black coordinators, and the excuse was, “Hey, they haven’t been coaching at this level for long. Give it time.” Nearly three decades later, the 65 Power 5 teams have 12 Black coordinators: seven on defense and five on offense.
Hey, give it time.
You know what else hasn’t changed? Black coaches being hired for specific jobs. Among the 65 programs, 49 have Black running back coaches. That is a vestige of the early days of breaking the color line in coaching.
“They lean on the one or two Black assistants,” said Dr. Leonard N. Moore, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas, “who, in addition to coaching, have to do all this mentoring and supporting, all this emotional labor that they don’t get rewarded for, while the white coaches can just sit in the film room working on their craft.”
“I don’t want to be hired because I’m Black. I just don’t want to not be hired because I’m Black.”
Navy’s Ivin Jasper on gaining coaching opportunities in college football
What I heard on this topic in 1992 sounded an awful lot like what I heard in 2020.
“As a player back in the mid-to-late ’70s, many white coaches felt Black coaches could meet the needs of the Black players better than they.” — Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, 1992
“In football, ‘Well, we gotta find a Black guy to coach the running backs and a Black guy to coach the secondary.’ We’ve not permitted the growth that comes from a more merit-based promotion process. — Bowlsby, 2020
That attitude lays bare the lack of progress that college football has made. That’s not to say there has been no progress whatsoever.
First, Black head coaches have begun to be hired for higher-profile jobs. Five of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 have Black head coaches. Simple odds dictate that some of them will succeed. “If we are able to have success,” Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell said, “maybe other conferences will take notice.”
The fact that Dorrell made that statement in the year 2020 is, on its face, evidence that other conferences have yet to take sufficient notice.
Second, fired Black head coaches have started to receive second chances, opportunities unavailable until recently. Before 2015, well-respected coaches such as Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State (21-38), Randy Shannon at Miami (29-25) and Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina (43-34) didn’t get second head-coaching jobs. If that didn’t sound the alarm of racial discrimination, it echoed it.
However, in the past four years, Texas fired Strong, and he landed at USF. Kevin Sumlin bounced from Texas A&M to Arizona. Black coaches began receiving other opportunities once athletic directors figured out that if they hire a coach who held a marquee job, they can win the news conference. The trend indicates that second chances might have more to do with the prestige of the coach’s previous job than with his skin color.
What HBCU coaching legend Marino Casem told me in 1992 would be harder to believe if it happened today. Casem, a College Football Hall of Fame coach who won 159 career games at three HBCUs (including four national titles with Alcorn State), said he got an interview for the vacant job at Washington after winning his third championship in 1974.
“The Seattle boosters would not have given me strong support,” Casem said then. “They came out and said, ‘If you name this guy, we’re not going to give you $100,000.’ … They have accepted the fact that they’ve got more Blacks playing. They are not going to accept a Black dude over the whole program.”
Casem died last spring, months after Washington promoted co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake to become the second Black head coach in the program’s history.
That’s pretty much it for progress. The rest of the story hasn’t changed. At some level, there is an understanding that the lack of diversity at the top of college football coaching is a problem. How else to explain the proliferation of job titles? While the number of Black coordinators among the Power 5 conferences has barely budged, there are six co-offensive coordinators, eight co-defensive coordinators, 10 special-teams coordinators, 12 associate head coaches and nine assistant head coaches.
“Some of these white coaches throw the Black assistant a bone with this bogus associate head coach title,” Moore said. “And nobody has ever told me what that [title] meant.”
After last season, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lance Taylor from running backs coach to run-game coordinator. Taylor, 38, has a dreamy résumé. He coached under Nick Saban at Alabama and Shaw at Stanford. He worked for the New York Jets and the Carolina Panthers (twice). Taylor coached Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love with the Cardinal. This season, sophomore Kyren Williams has been a bright spot for the Irish, whose 229.7 rushing yards per game are 50 yards more than their average a year ago.
Taylor helps the Irish’s offensive coordinator, Tommy Rees, 28, a white former Notre Dame quarterback. The optics of an older, Black assistant falling behind a young, white coach might raise an eyebrow. That would be unfair to both coaches. Rees is a wunderkind, the son of a college coach and longtime NFL scout, who has been around football and honing his craft, as it were, since childhood.
“More people should be talking about how many minorities are there at the coordinator level,” Taylor said. “I don’t think enough people are talking about that. Until we fix the subcutaneous layers, we’re not going to see it at the surface level, where we all judge whether real change is being made.”
Mike Locksley is in his second season as head coach at Maryland, nine years after he was fired at New Mexico. In August, Locksley began the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, with the goal of “removing roadblocks” to coaching opportunities for minority candidates. Locksley believes the social justice movements of 2020 just might be the key to effecting permanent change for minority coaches. Handwringing, hope and trust have not gotten the job done.
“At some point,” Locksley said during an Oct. 20 panel discussion conducted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at Maryland, “the goodwill runs out, and the only way you usually affect owners of NFL franchises or even the athletic directors and the boosters involved with them is you affect their pocketbooks. You affect their ability to make money.”
That doesn’t necessarily have to be confrontational.
“If you’re relying on goodwill, then you’re in trouble,” American University law professor N. Jeremi Duru said during the panel discussion. “One of the key things at this juncture is to work not on goodwill as much as on interest convergence. Let these universities understand that they are helping themselves by thinking broadly about who they are going to hire, by casting a wide net, by being deliberate about diversity.”
Duru grabbed the carrot, and Locksley reached for the stick, but they’re saying the same thing. There is a hesitance to endorse an NCAA-wide Rooney Rule, the NFL mandate adopted in 2003 that states that every team must interview at least one minority candidate for a head-coaching vacancy. The rule hasn’t worked. The NFL has only three Black head coaches. As Shaw said, you can’t force a school to hire someone.
Jasper, the Navy offensive coordinator, finished as runner-up to fill the vacancy at Rice in 2018. The 50-year-old said that the perception that Black coaches don’t make the best head coaches will continue “until someone decides to change it.”
“I don’t want to be hired because I’m Black,” Jasper said. “I just don’t want to not be hired because I’m Black.”
College football has gone through quite an evolution since I began covering it in 1987. Some things have barely evolved at all.