Too Few Black College Coaches, Too Few Opportunities
A new study shows Power Five football continues to lack diversity at its top tier coaching positions. Here's why—and what can be done about it.
Welcome to Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. Sign up and tell your friends!
Editor’s note: The following article was originally published as a three-part series by Arizona State University’s Global Sports Matters in September 2020. If you’d prefer to read it there in its full glory while supporting a publication that supports yours truly, please give them a click!
For Fitz Hill, the memory remains vivid. It was January 1989, and Hill, then a 24-year-old graduate assistant football coach at Northwestern State University, had come to the American Football Coaches Association’s annual convention in Nashville to look for a better job.
Standing in the sprawling lobby of the Opryland Hotel—where hungry young assistants mingled with established head coaches and coordinators in what amounted to an unofficial career fair—Hill spotted David Lee, who had just been hired as the head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso. Maybe, Hill thought, I’ll share my resume.
Another assistant told Hill not to bother.
“How long have you been in the profession?” the other assistant asked.
Hill told him it was his first year.
“No wonder you don’t understand,” the other assistant said. “He’s already hired his one Black coach.”
Hill is African-American. So was the other assistant. Lee, like almost every other head coach in major college football, was white.
“Aren’t there nine positions?” Hill asked, referring to the coaching spots on Lee’s staff.
“Not for us,” the other assistant said.
“That just kind of hit me,” Hill says now. “It was normal back then for some [football] programs to not have but one Black coach on their staff.”
Hill went on to become the first Black head football coach at San Jose State University and later served as the president of Arkansas Baptist College. He also wrote his doctoral dissertation on the barriers restricting employment opportunities for African-American coaches in college football, and co-authored the 2012 book Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches.
Since his time as a young assistant, says Hill, 56, “there has been progress” for African-American coaches. But race, he says, “still defines space. It defines the employment space for black coaches, even today.”
A new study conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University supports that view. Examining head football coach hiring patterns in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “Power Five” conferences over a 10-year period beginning in the 2009-10 season, the study found that:
There were relatively few coaches of color hired as head coaches at the highest level of college football—just 24 out of 111 hires (21.6 percent) in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, and Pac-12 conferences.
White head coaches were hired with proportionally lower levels of playing and coaching experience than their African-American and Latino peers.
When coaches of color were hired, their tenure was shorter on average than that of white coaches—and the range of ages at which they were hired was comparatively truncated.
In contrast to white head coaches, when coaches of color left head coaching positions, they had fewer avenues for future coaching opportunities at similar levels than their previous positions and did not move directly to National Football League head coaching positions.
Moreover, coaches of color were less likely than their white counterparts to move directly to NFL offensive coordinator positions, a main pipeline for future NFL head coaches.
Taken together, these findings paint a picture of stunted opportunity—and one that isn’t unique. Other studies of college football, professional football, college sports in general, and even corporate America consistently have found that African-Americans disproportionately are stymied from advancing to senior leadership positions.
Rooted in historical racism and segregation and perpetuated by an array of sociological factors, this phenomenon continues to transform the career ladder for Black college football coaches into an uphill obstacle course—one rife with what Hill calls “crackbacks,” an on-field term for punishing, blindside blocks that players never see coming.
“I never thought when I was writing my book that 10 years later we would be in the same situation,” Hill says. “Never. But for black coaches, there still are not a lot of opportunities out there.”
For decades, there were no football coaching opportunities for African-Americans. At least not at primarily white colleges and universities. By law and custom, the nation was segregated—and so was college football, with Black coaches and athletes largely confined to historically Black schools such as Grambling State University.
As de jure American racial segregation crumbled in the 1960s and 70s, so did the sport’s color barrier. Black athletes trickled, then flooded onto the rosters of minor and major programs alike, even in the Deep South. In 1967, the University of Kentucky’s Nate Northington became the first African-American football player in the SEC; by 1972, every school in the conference had integrated its team.
Today, 55 percent of the football players in the Power Five are Black—and when Louisiana State University and Clemson University met in the 2020 national championship game, 35 of the game’s 44 starting players were African-American.
But coaching boxes and offices have been a different story. In 1979, Willie Jeffries became the first Black head football coach at a NCAA Division I school when he was hired by Wichita State University. Thirteen years later, only five other African-American head coaches had ever been hired by D-I programs—leaving Alan Wood, then a Black assistant coach at the University of Miami, to state that “for a Black to become a head coach is like playing the lottery.”
“It's crazy,” Wood said in 1992. “You spend your whole life as an assistant coach. It's like renting a house all your life. You build up someone else's equity, then they kick you out. The opportunity is there, all right. The opportunity is for a young Black coach to enter the business as a young assistant and leave as an old Black assistant coach.”
Aspiring Black assistant coaches now face fewer of the entry level and early career obstacles that Hill observed in the 1980s: according to a recent study conducted by Duke University assistant football coach Eli Keimach, 37.6 percent of the assistant coaches in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2018 were African-American. Yet when it comes to reaching the top of the profession, Wood’s lottery analogy remains appropriate.
While writing his 2012 book, Hill examined historical data for FBS schools and calculated that a fan of a FBS team was roughly five and a half times more likely to have seen an undefeated, un-tied team in their lifetime than to have seen a African-American head coach introduced at a press conference. And though the GSI study suggests that the odds for coaches of color have slightly improved over the last decade—a period in which 14 left Power Five head coaching jobs and 24 were hired—stark disparities remain.
In February, journalist Paul Newberry of the Associated Press reported that just 13 of 130 FBS schools had African-American head coaches, down from 15 in 2018. In the Power Five, the Pac-12 and Big Ten currently have a combined eight coaches of Color, while the SEC and ACC each have one and the Big 12 has none.
Moreover, not all head coaching opportunities are equally attractive or conducive to long-term success. Newberry observed that when Black coaches manage to ascend to head jobs, they “usually face huge obstacles” to success, landing at moribund or scandal-struck programs instead of the sport’s blue bloods. For instance, Derek Mason coaches at Vanderbilt University—a longtime SEC doormat that has enjoyed seven winning seasons over the last 40 years—while Syracuse University’s Dino Babers and the University of Illinois’ Lovie Smith both took over teams that had been mediocre or worse for more than a decade.
Hill can relate. When he arrived at San Jose State in 2001, he inherited a program that had gone 39-69-1 over the previous 10 years. “It probably wasn’t a great job to take,” he says. “But how many Black coaches get these opportunities?”
According to Keimach’s study, it takes African-American coaches roughly 3.5 years longer than their white peers to advance from their first season as an assistant to their first FBS head job. Meanwhile, a FiveThirtyEight analysis determined that between 1979 and 2019, only one Power Five school, the University of Colorado, had fired a Black head football coach and later hired another.
The GSI study found that 39 percent of Power Five schools have never hired a head football coach of Color—a number that rises to 64 percent for schools in the SEC, college football’s marquee conference, which did not have its first African-American head coach until 2004.
Richard Lapchick, a longtime human rights activist and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, has been studying and advocating for diversity within sports for decades. Every year, he helps create comprehensive reports that assess hiring for women and people of Color in professional and college sports.
The most recent TIDES report, published in June, calls the ongoing “lack of opportunities” for head coaches of color in college football “unacceptable.”
“It has been an issue ever since I have gotten involved with this work,” Lapchick says. “And it has not gotten any better.”
In 2002, Doug Williams had a chance to make history—again. The first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Williams was a candidate to become the head football coach at the University of Kentucky, which would have been a racial first for both the school and the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
A former college star and longtime professional player, Williams had a strong coaching resume and had just led Grambling State University to its third consecutive conference title. However, Kentucky ultimately hired former University of Oregon coach Rich Brooks, who is white.
According to Williams, Kentucky’s athletic director told him that the school’s hiring decision was influenced by a “comfort” factor.
“When I talked to Doug about that, he asked me, ‘what does comfort mean?’” Hill says. “Does that mean you don’t want to drink tea with me?”
Williams will never know exactly why Kentucky passed him over, or if his race played a part. But he was left to wonder. And while the barriers that make it more difficult for coaches of color to advance than their white counterparts are rooted in historical racism and segregation, people who have studied the college football workplace have identified three key ways in which those barriers continue to be perpetuated.
1. Thwarted Pathways
Almost all former college head coaches are former players. And the overwhelming majority worked as coordinators before being hired to their first head coaching job.
Between those steps, however, coaches of color are more likely to be steered away from the playing and assistant coaching positions that most commonly lead to coordinator jobs. For example, a 2013 study found that former quarterbacks are far more likely to eventually become head coaches than other positions, almost certainly because they are more likely to become quarterback coaches, which in turn are more likely to become offensive coordinators.
Meanwhile, African-American quarterbacks at all levels of football historically have been moved to other positions out of racial prejudice—and as recently as 2013, a study of over 1,000 high school players who went to Power Five schools found that Black quarterbacks were 38.5 percent more likely to change positions in college than white quarterbacks.
A similar dynamic occurs as coaches of color climb the career ladder. They are more likely to end up in particular assistant roles, like running backs or defensive line coach, that are considered less essential to game-planning—and therefore less of a training ground for coordinator and head coach jobs.
In addition, college coaches of color have long been pigeonholed as “recruiters,” charged with enticing predominantly Black high school prospects to attend their schools and managing them once they arrive on campus. In his book, Hill tells the story of an unnamed African-American coach at a prominent Power Five school in the 1980s. The coach, Hill writes, “was rarely involved in preparing game plans” and instead acted as “a father figure to Black players, which he did very well.”
On game days, however, the African-American coach wore a disconnected headset on the sideline—leaving the rest of the school’s coaching staff to nickname him “deadset.”
“Historically, if you go back to the 1960s and the integration of college sports and the beginning of hiring Black coaches, these coaches had a specific responsibility—to manage the Black players on the roster, and make sure they stay satisfied despite the issues of being Black at a primarily white institution,” says Derrick White, a University of Kentucky history professor and author of Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football. “So they end up as running backs coaches, defensive backs coaches, wide receivers coaches. There’s no path for them to move up or become coordinators. And that continues for a long while.”
In the here and now, says Arizona State co-defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, recruiting acumen can be a double-edged sword for coaches of color. On one hand, it can lead to rapid career advancement from smaller to bigger programs, with paychecks and prestige to match. But on the other, Lewis says, “when coaches ascend in college football by recruiting, a lot of times they don’t stay long enough in a job to become the coordinator or the play-caller. So they end up making lateral moves.”
Even when African-American coaches are able to avoid the above pitfalls, they remain disadvantaged. Examining the career histories of more than 300 FBS coaches during the 2009 season, University of North Carolina at Wilmington sociology professor Jacob Day found that when Black and white coaches occupied the same position—say, linebackers coach—white coaches were more likely to be promoted the next season.
Moreover, Black coaches in the positions that most commonly lead to coordinator jobs were only slightly more likely to be promoted than white coaches in positions that least commonly lead to coordinator jobs—a finding, Day says, that is consistent with research from deceased Harvard University sociologist Devah Pager, who studied racial discrimination in labor markets.
“She would send out similar people to apply for the same entry-level job, two young Black men and two young white men, and randomly assign one of each to have a criminal record—a minor drug offense,” Day says. “Then she would measure the callbacks. People with criminal records were less likely to get called back. But a black person without a criminal record was roughly as likely to get a callback as a white person with one.”
2. Social Segregation
Head coaches don’t employ themselves. As is the case in any workplace, someone has to make a hiring decision—and in college football, that someone is almost always white.
According to a TIDES study, only 24 of the 130 Division I athletic directors in 2018-19 were people of color. Keimach found that in every year between 2008 and 2018, the percentage of Division I athletic directors who were white ranged between 84 and 90 percent.
The ways in which a particular athletic director’s race influences a particular hire is largely unknowable. But in the aggregate, a lack of diversity matters. Social scientists have found that in higher education and most other fields, people tend to hire candidates they knowor candidates referred by people they know—a behavior that holds true for people of color as well as whites.
“You expect people to help out their friends, who they have more information about and trust more,” Day says. “But to the extent that our social networks are segregated by race—which they are in the United States—simply following that when you hire can perpetuate inequality.”
Hill, who was the first Black head football coach at San Jose State University and later served as the president of Arkansas Baptist College, says that he twice benefitted from personal relationships during his coaching career: once when a former University of Arkansas colleague recommended him as potential head coach to San Jose State’s athletic director, which led to an interview and job offer, and again when he was a finalist for the head coaching job at Oregon State University.
“That was because I knew the [school’s] athletic director, Kevin Anderson,” Hill says. “Our relationship made him think of me as a legitimate candidate. But how many people at the top of the college football food chain have genuine relationships with people of color?”
Lewis coached in the NFL for 26 years. There, he says, aspiring head head coaches must impress “a hiring committee of two—the team owner, and the general manager or team president.” College football is different. Athletic directors choose football coaches with input from a wide range of stakeholders: school presidents, boards of regents and trustees, state politicians, coaching search firms, donors and boosters, rabid fan bases, and even sports media, all of whom tend to be predominantly white.
“These folks have a big voice,” says Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson. “In some places, athletic directors can’t really control all of the folks in their ear about the next coach. And in a lot of cases, that won’t help coaches of color.”
White, the college football historian, says that this dynamic most commonly plays out with the boosters that athletic departments depend upon for financial support. “You have these wealthy whites who mostly likely rarely meet with any African-Americans on an equal plane,” he says. “And they operate in a corporate world where all of the leaders are white.
“So for them, there’s an implicit belief that power is white and leadership is white. It’s hard for them to imagine something they are so passionate about being led by an African-American.”
3. Ongoing Bias
Hill concurs. While coaching at San Jose State, he found himself talking to a white booster, who congratulated Hill for hiring a new defensive coordinator, Keith Burns, who had worked with Hill at Arkansas and happened to be white.
The booster then told Hill that he and some of his friends believed that Hill would have been more successful the previous season if he had fewer Black assistants on his staff.
Hill was taken aback—but not surprised. He told the booster that he had won more games during his first three seasons than the school’s previous two white coaches, then asked if the booster had told those coaches that “they didn’t do better because they had too many white assistants.”
“This is one of the fundamental reasons there are so few head coaches of color,” Hill says. “There’s an unconscious idea about leadership that is ingrained in society.”
To illustrate, Hill points to the University of Notre Dame’s 2001 hiring of George O’Leary—who was forced to resign five days later for lying about his past athletic and academic accomplishments. Kevin White, then the school’s athletic director, later explained that O’Leary, who is white, "appeared to all of us as something out of central casting. A second-generation Irish Catholic, a good football coach and a good institutional fit."
“It goes back to central casting,” Hill says. “When you start thinking about a head coach, who comes to mind?”
Day, the sociologist, says that labor market researchers have a term of this type of typecasting: the “particularistic mobility thesis,” which in plain English means that when performance in particular jobs is difficult to objectively measure, then hiring and promotion decisions are based, in part, on the subjective perceptions of the people making those decisions.
College football coaches need to win more games than they lose. But they also need to recruit skilled players, manage ambitious and competitive staffs, excite alumni, be able to hobnob with donors, serve as the public faces of schools, and avoid personal and professional scandal. “With any individual coach, evaluating their performance beyond wins and losses is kind of fuzzy,” Day says. “It’s not always clear and objective. So people have to rely on shorthand—on perceived personal, intangible traits like leadership ability or work ethic. And bias can oftentimes play a role in that.”
To wit: a 2010 study of press releases announcing new college football coach hires found that white coaches were more likely to be described as helping their new teams through knowledge and experience—traits associated with leadership—while Black coaches were more likely to be lauded for their ability to recruit and relate to athletes.
“We don’t have segregation anymore, per se, but we still have bias that exists at scale in this country—in some cases subtle, and in some cases not so subtle,” Anderson says. “There’s just no denying it. And that impacts why there are so disproportionately few African-American coaches in football.”
Sam Sachs doesn’t mince words. “I was pissed,” he says. It was February 2007, and Portland State University had just hired Jerry Glanville as the head coach of its football team.
Sachs, a former sheriff’s deputy who was a student at the school, had nothing against Glanville as person or a coach. His problem was with Portland State’s hiring process.
Glanville was White. Sachs, a Black Studies major, had asked the school’s athletic department to interview at least one qualified candidate of color for the job—a request, Sachs says, that fell on deaf ears.
“It would not have taken anything for them to just interview one qualified person of color for the job, even if they were going to give it to Jerry Glanville,” Sachs says. “Just do it!’
Sachs made a promise to himself: The next time Portland State hires a coach, they will have to interview a minority candidate. He then made good, serving as the catalyst behind the 2009 passage of a law that made Oregon the first state to require its public colleges and universities to interview at least one qualified minority candidate for all head coach and athletic director openings.
More than a decade later, Oregon remains the only state with such a law—something Sachs believes needs to change in order to increase career opportunities for football coaches and other college sports leaders of color.
“This is such an easy fix,” says Sachs, a Portland-based anti-racism activist and founder of the No Hate Zone. “It’s something states could do, and something the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] could do.
“I believe that if you can get people to change the way they are used to doing things, even if it’s just including one person of color in the interview process, ultimately your results will change as well.”
Sachs would like to see college sports follow the NFL’s example and adopt a nationwide version of the league’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching and executive positions. So would Arizona State University athletic director Ray Anderson.
Before coming to Tempe in 2014, Anderson was a NFL executive and part of a working group that was instrumental in the league’s 2003 adoption of the rule—which in 2015 was held up as an example by President Obama when he called in for tech companies to do more to increase diversity within their ranks.
“[The Rooney Rule] didn’t blow the doors down, but it has had some impact,” Anderson says. “And you would much rather have it than not to have it. It certainly has gotten people conscious about what it means to have a diverse slate and to give legitimate interview opportunities. That has been helpful.”
The Rooney Rule has not made hiring in professional football completely fair and equitable. A recent TIDES report said that 2019 was NFL’s worst year for diversity in more than a decade, while a separate GSI study of head coaching movement in the league from 2009-10 to 2018-19 found statistical evidence that coaches of color remain stymied—a conclusion shared by the NFL’s own annual diversity and inclusion report.
In Oregon, however, the law championed by Sachs has produced results. Portland State and Western Oregon Universities both have Black athletic directors. The last two head football coaches at the University of Oregon, Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal, are African-American and Cuban American, respectively.
Taggart coached at Oregon for a single season before becoming the head coach at Florida State University. He was succeeded by Cristobal, Oregon’s offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, who in 2019 led the school to a Rose Bowl appearance and was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
Sachs says that he encountered less resistance during meetings with state legislators than he expected while lobbying for the law’s passage. “People told me it would be hard to get support, that it’s discriminatory, that it’s reverse racism,” he says. “But it’s not. You can still interview as many white people as you want. You just have to interview one qualified minority candidate. You don’t have to hire them.”
“And what we’ve found out is that it’s a model that works. Not perfectly. But the schools are having more diverse candidates. They’re hiring more assistants who are diverse. Over time, it’s slowly changing the way they go about interviewing and hiring.”
In August, the West Coast Conference announced the adoption of a “Russell Rule”—named after Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell—that will require all of its schools to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach job opening.
Yet so far, no other conference has followed suit. Nor has the NCAA, which in the past has claimed that its status as a nonprofit, voluntary membership organization prevents it from requiring schools to adopt particular hiring practices.
Sachs, who repeatedly has lobbied the NCAA to reconsider, says that the association could prohibit schools that don’t adopt Rooney Rules from hosting championship competitions—as it already does for schools with racially or ethnically “hostile or abusive” mascots, nicknames, or imagery. “Why don’t they do it?” Sachs says. “Whether you call it racism or not, I think it has to do with the power structure of college sports. Presidents, athletic directors, head coaches. They’re white men. They realize that if they support this, it will change outcomes for people of color, and part of that means redistributing power to people of color.”
When the WCC unveiled its Russell Rule, conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez—the first Latinx to hold that position in Division I—said that the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests nationwide for social justice and equity accelerated the league’s new diversity initiatives, which also include recognizing Juneteenth and helping athletes register to vote. Brandon Martin, the athletic director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the co-chair of the Black AD Alliance, believes that the time may be right for broader change.
“The frustration that comes from racism, discrimination, and inequities is right in our face now,” Martin says. “So I think it’s a watershed moment in our nation. Everyone in the country is being forced to say, ‘well, what can I do?’ And we are being forced to really try to fix some of the ever-present issues that we’ve had in this nation as it pertains to race and equity. I think we’re going to see advancements in the college athletics space.”
Spearheaded by University of Maryland head football coach Mike Locksley and born from his frustration that “pathway to becoming a head coach is still as difficult as when I got into the business in 1992,” the recently-created National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches has announced plans to identify and promote qualified coaches of color for career advancement. But Anderson speculates that pressure on the NCAA and conferences to increase opportunities—through Rooney/Russell Rules or other measures—may come from an unexpected source: college athletes themselves.
Already this year, football players at the University of Iowa and Florida State university have publicly called out their coaches for racial insensitivity and inequitable treatment; Pac-12 football players have demanded that the conference spend roughly $10 million to support low-income Black students and community initiatives;and athletes at the University of Texas at Austin successfully lobbied their school to rename a building named for a racist professor, erect a statue of the school’s first Black football player, and commission a monument to its first Black undergraduates.
When Anderson was a football player at Stanford University in the 1970s, he says, he and his African-American teammates came together to tell their white head coach, Jack Christiansen, that having only one Black assistant on the team’s staff “didn’t seem right” and that they “needed to have some people of color working with us.” “Very frankly,” Anderson says, “that is how Willie Shaw became an assistant [coach] while I was there.”
Shaw, an African-American, later became a defensive coordinator for Stanford and a coordinator and assistant head coach in the NFL. His son David is currently the school’s head coach.
“Is there a chance for today’s athletes to get together and exert more potential pressure in other areas?” Anderson says. “Yes. I see that happening.”
Sachs, who has twice asked attendees at the Black Caucus of State Legislators to sponsor legislation similar to Oregon’s law, says that he would welcome college athlete advocacy. So would Hill, who says that the sport has yet to fully acknowledge or eliminate the barriers barriers facing coaches of color—and that a Rooney or Russell-type rule could help open the eyes of school decision makers.
How so? When Hill resigned from San Jose State in 2004 after four straight losing seasons, he says, he told the school’s then-president, Don Kassing, that he hoped his lack of success wouldn’t prevent Kassing from considering hiring another head coach of color.
Hill recalls Kassing asking him if there was someone out there the school should consider.
“I told him, ‘you missed my whole point,’” Hill says. “‘Because you don’t think there is somebody out there to consider, you won’t look for them.”
This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.