Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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What’s next for Black representation in college football coaching? Key figures weigh in amid slight increase

Newly hired UCLA head football coach DeShaun Foster had made social media waves and January headlines by luring multi-Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy away from the NFL. This move caught the attention of many big-time offensive recruits and was hailed as an innovative move. 

But what really stood out to me was that nine of Foster’s 10 on-field position coaches were minorities.

In conjunction with CBS Sports’ ranking of Power Four coaches this week, I reached out to a handful of Black coaches — some were ranked by CBS Sports, others coach at the Group of Five level, others who are doing important work away from the spotlight — for somewhat of a State of the Union on how they think representation at big-time college football is trending. The last two coaches in CBS Sports’ rankings were Foster and Syracuse’s Fran Brown; quibble if you want, but it’s standard protocol to slot new hires last — and the most important thing is they were hired for the job. 

The 2024 coaching carousel saw progress. There were 14 Black head coaches at 133 FBS schools in 2023. Headed into the 2024 season, there will be 16 Black head coaches at 134 FBS schools (Kennesaw State is the newest addition). UCLA (Foster), Syracuse (Brown), MTSU (Derek Mason), Georgia State (Dell McGee) and Michigan (Sherrone Moore) were the schools who hired Black head coaches; the three outgoing Black head coaches were at Syracuse (Dino Babers), Michigan State (Mel Tucker) and Buffalo, where Maurice Linguist left to join the Alabama staff as a co-defensive coordinator. 

A rise in numbers is commendable, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think 12% representation is a number worth crowing about, considering how the demographics break down among FBS players

FBS College Football Players, 2023 White Black Other
Total 5,652 8,151 2,868
Percentage 33.9 48.9 17.2

At Michigan, Moore debuted at No. 52 in CBS Sports’ coach rankings, which is the best mark a first-year coach has achieved (Moore earned that after going 4-0 as an interim coach for the Wolverines last season). 

Of coaches who CBS Sports ranked Nos. 60 through 68, five are Black (again, two of those are new hires in Foster and Brown). I don’t mind saying I disagree with the ranking of Deion Sanders at No. 61, given his body of work at Jackson State, his quick turnaround at Colorado from 1-11 to 4-8 and how he’s done getting high-quality players to Boulder, which is more than half the job of a coach. Sanders’ ranking was likely influenced by the recent happenings this offseason. Sanders is quoted later in this article. 

Anyway, back to Foster and how he went about building his staff. 

“All of these coaches are the best in their field; I picked the right guys for the jobs they have,” he told me this week.

Foster also gave this advice to young, upcoming minority coaches:

“Do not allow yourself to be pigeonholed as a recruiter,” he said. “You must show and prove you can really coach ball.”

With opportunities for Black head coaches already limited, you normally do not see a staff makeup like this. Many Black coaches, when they get their shot to take over the top spot, don’t always feel comfortable extending their hand back to keep the door open. The pressure of winning and the feeling that this will be their only chance often push them to make hires they feel will be accepted rather than the hires they want.

In a hotel ballroom in Las Vegas, the room was packed with people looking for answers during a session at the National Coalition for Minority Coaches Convention. A panel with search firm titans, led by Herb Courtney of Renaissance Search and Consulting and Chad Chatlos of Turnkey, answered questions from the group of minority coaches on how to position themselves for opportunities. 

Purdue’s head coach Ryan Walters was a coach that Chatlos named specifically for being prepared when his name was called.

Ryan Walters had just come off a great season as the defensive coordinator for Bret Bielema’s Fighting Illini program, after also serving a stint as the defensive coordinator at the Missouri for Eli Drinkwitz and now-UNLV head coach Barry Odom.

“I definitely feel like doors are opening more so than they have in the past but I would still like to see more Black offensive coaches get opportunities,” Walters said when I spoke to him this week. “Typically, you have to be great as a coordinator in order to get noticed by search firms and administrators. I did that. The problem on the offensive side of the ball is there aren’t a lot of Black offensive coordinators because typically your OC is your QBs coach. There just aren’t many Black QB coaches out there. My hope is that with the trend of more Black quarterbacks in both college and the NFL, those guys will get into coaching and not pigeonhole themselves as good recruiters. 

“In terms of why I was so prepared, I was prepared because I knew this is what I wanted to do 15 years ago. I’ve been prepping for 15 seasons. I took notes at every program I was a part of, kept a staff list as I went along, and got great help from my agency, which recognized my potential and cultivated my growth.”

Arizona running backs coach Alonzo Carter chairs the executive committee for the National Coalition of Minority Coaches. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his West Coast zoom clinics brought virtually the entire minority coaching and executive population together nationally.

“The purpose of the coalition is to prepare, promote, and produce for coaches at every level, especially coaches looking to make the jump to another level in coaching,” Carter said. “Although we’re not a search firm, the coalition provides leadership, mentorship, and most importantly, year-round professional development. The professional development that you receive as a member can help prepare you for every level of football, from youth football all the way up to the NFL.”

Many people look at Sanders as an outlier, a person who was given the keys to a Jackson State program because of his on-field accomplishments and off-field persona. But, in my conversations with him, he has always pushed back on that and has tried to educate on how the process needed to be handled. Sanders said his relationships with search firms was vital in his hiring at Jackson State and Colorado. 

“Most of us don’t know about search firms and how to build the relationships we need to have, and even more importantly, who to build those relationships with,” he said. “I am trying to bridge the gap that’s been in existence for decades. I want to attain qualified Black coaches, administrators, trainers, GAs, equipment men and women, as well as minorities in social media and security.”

Sanders wanted to emphasize, as well, that Colorado athletics director Rick George went out on a limb for him, but the search firms sticking point keeps coming up in conversations with Black head coaches who have begun to climb the ladder.

“You need people talking about you in the rooms you aren’t in,” said Kent State head coach Kenni Burns. “You have to position yourself to be a part of the conversations that the ADs, search firms, and administrators are having. Go to events like the NCAA Future Head Coaches Academy and the NCAA Champions Forum. You need your head coach trying to help you also and telling your story for you.” 

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Marshall coach Charles Huff says: “You may have to take less money to go work for the right guy”  Getty Images

Who you get the opportunity to work for will also matter. Marshall head coach Charles Huff, who has had wins against both Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, credits working not only with Nick Saban but also Mike Locksley. But he believes there are things that need to be done to better position yourself.

“I am the minority box checker; I am able to be on the list because of my resume,” Huff said. “After they meet with me, they can say they talked to a minority. We have to get to a level where we win enough to where I am wanted just because they want me to be the coach, not to check a box.”

Huff’s full quote is worth highlighting and drilling into. 

“You have to get with the right people. You may have to take less money to go work for the right guy or move out of your comfort zone regionally. You must get connected to the right guy who can win so your name can get in the mix for openings. Because the schools ultimately want to hire winners. It is not always about going to a big school, but the right school where you can win.

We also need some help, guys like Nick Saban and Mike Locksley that can and are willing to pick up the phone and help by saying you’re ready.

Young guys need to be focused on getting in a building. Not how much money you are going to make, not what position you are going to coach, just get in the building and work.”

We’ve had plenty of conversations on the plight of Black and minority coaches. The numbers are low, the opportunities few, and the solutions at times seem distant.

In my opinion, the biggest threat to the future of Black coaches is the inability of players to accept when they are not going to play in the NFL. The thousands of guys who go undrafted should be working with coaches and organizations like the Coalition on obtaining roles as graduate assistants, analysts, recruiting analysts, etc. 

When I was a high school coach in St. Louis, one of my favorite players I got to coach was Aqeel Glass, who’d go on to become two-time SWAC offensive player of the year at Alabama A&M. Glass did not get drafted, but his football acumen and offensive intelligence are impressive. He’s trying to break through FBS’ college football ranks as a GA, somewhere. People like Glass can be rising stars if given the opportunity to thrive. And these are the opportunities we need to present to our young people to keep busting down the doors.

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