Coaching Inequality : A Look into the Disparity Surrounding Black Coaches in CFB
By Jaylon Thompson
On December 14, 2013, a large winter storm terrorized most of the country. However, in the South temperatures were mildly cool deep in the crevasses of the United States. Accompanying these temperatures was an aura of anticipation that hung over the heartland of college football.
Texas, a state ripe with incredible Division-I talent, had fans nervously awaiting an answer to a simple question. That question was “Who would replace Mack Brown?” Many fans were tired of Brown. Sure, they appreciated his 2006 Rose Bowl, but he had lost favor in the Lone Star State. He had fallen behind on the recruiting trail as he failed to land Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
He had lost to inferior teams, failed to win the National Championship and lost control of the locker room. As a result, many fans knew Brown had to go. The fans got their wish. Later that day, Mack Brown had resigned.
Three weeks later, Texas had found a new voice for the team. Enter former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong. A native of Arkansas, Strong would become the first black coach in Texas history. He also would become the second black head coach in the state.
Strong, boasting a 37-16 record and 2 Big East Championships, unfortunately caught the ire of many of the university’s boosters. Quite frankly, this was not what the Longhorn faithful had wanted in a coach. Booster and devout Longhorn, Red McComb, was outraged.
In an interview with ESPN 1250, McComb said that the Strong hiring was a “kick in the face.”
The voracity of McComb’s words shines a light on racial relations in college football. Only 11 of 126 head coaches are African American. Notable coaches that make up this ratio include Strong, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, and Penn State head coach James Franklin among others. While the Strong hire seems like a win on the battle frontier of African American equality, there are many issues that directly affect the likelihood that black coaches can attain a head coaching position.
The first issue that largely affects the hiring of many African American coaches in D-I football is the influence of boosters. Boosters are the people that have stake in the university and donate money into the collegiate programs.
For example, McComb has donated over 100 million dollars to the University of Texas. Contributions like McComb’s happen across the collegiate landscape and result in numerous levels of recognition (i.e. names on school buildings). Thus, the universities are like politicians as they have to sell whoever they hire to their constituents. If the boosters disagree with certain potential candidates, the university loses financial support and sponsorships.
The sad reality with this issue is the fact that the university wants to make money to accrue interests in the program. If its boosters aren’t on board, then the institution loses its foundation to grow and evolve. Unfortunately, this conundrum has come at the expense of many black coaches getting head coaching opportunities.
Another issue that limits the hiring of black head coaches is perception. Many universities use the word “tradition” to define their football programs. From the monikers of “Roll Tide,” to “Gig Em” these traditions display pride and leave a legacy to the university. There is so much pressure to live up to greats like former Alabama coach Bear Bryant or Penn State’s Joe Paterno that many universities try to get coaches that fit to their legendary style.
This is something that fans want to see and it adds to the prestige of a program. However, this causes a problem for aspiring African American coaches because they don’t fit the mold of many universities’ legendary figures.
For example, former Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson never got the opportunity to coach at the highest level due to being black. He had the pedigree with 45 winning seasons and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.
However, he could never get a chance at a large institution. These flaws in perception have begun to weaken. Yet, the response has been slow. The flaws are still prevalent and playing a role in college football today.
Experience and Employment
Anyone remember Tyrone Willingham? He was the first black coach at a major institution, which was the University of Notre Dame. Willingham had a 21-15 record but he severely struggled against his rivals.
He was fired and became the only African-American coach to be hired again at another major institution (University of Washington). Willingham would struggle to lead Washington to Pac-12 dominance and was fired due to a tense relationship with the boosters and fan base.
To make matters worse, 28 black coaches in the history of D-I college football have been fired and been succeeded by white predecessors. This is according to Dr. Fitz Hill, former San Jose football coach. The statistics show that African- American coaches don’t get a second chance to succeed.
This adds extreme pressure to each head coach and it doesn’t give them an opportunity to gain valuable experience. It is true that a recently fired black head coach can get an assistant job; however, the climb back to the top of the program has shown to be non-existent. The second chances are few and far between and lead to the discrimination towards black coaches.
What does this all mean? The situation regarding black head coaches is surely improving. Coaches like Sumlin and Strong are making upwards to five million dollars per year. Coaches like Franklin and Stanford coach David Shaw are making amounts upward of four million dollars.
On the surface, the tide seems to turning into the favor more African-American head coaches. However, like an iceberg, many issues plague opportunities for these coaches. Boosters, perception, experience and employment all play a role in the success of black coaches. Like football, in college basketball the majority of the players are African-Americans. The difference is that there are many black head coaches.
For college football, the institutions have not made it to this point yet. The deep roots of tradition have kept it from occurring, but like Sam Cooke once said, “A change is going to come.” Until that day, black coaches will have to relish the opportunities they are given as second chances are hard to come by.