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Is there finally a glimmer of hope for minority coaches?

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

The national media descended on Ypsilanti, Michigan, on the night of Sept. 9, 1993. Eastern Michigan was holding its home opener against Temple, but the teams weren't the draw.

For just the second time in major college football and the first time since 1988, two black head coaches, Eastern Michigan's Ron Cooper and Temple's Ron Dickerson, shared the field. The previous season, the FBS (then Division I-A) had zero black head coaches.

"I'm glad to be a part of it, but there's still a sad feeling," Dickerson said before the game. "It's 1993 and it's still not happening."

Twenty-two years later, it's still not happening. College football has evolved in many ways since 1993, but minority groups remain dramatically underrepresented among the sport's head coaches.

The latest numbers, while hardly new, must be considered. There are only 15 minority head coaches in the 128-team FBS, which started this season with 16. To put that into perspective, more than half of FBS players are black, but barely 10 percent of head coaches are.

This year's coach hiring cycle has seen four minority coaches fired, three hired and one moving between FBS jobs. There are only six members of minority groups leading Power 5 programs, one less than when the season began.

"I haven't seen significant movement," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who hired Cooper at Eastern Michigan back in 1993. "It's something we've struggled with for years."

But there could be new hope for a change in this old story. Two trends stand out in the current hiring cycle:

1. Seventeen of the 24 new coaches were elevated from coordinator or position coach roles.

2. Seventeen coaches are 44 or younger and 11 are in their thirties. Nine of those are first-time head coaches.

Schools aren't shying away from first-time head coaches or younger coaches, which could start opening more doors for minorities. There's no shortage of capable minority candidates, according to head coaches, assistants, athletic directors and agents interviewed for this story.

But they also point to a gulf between the candidates and those ultimately doing the hiring, most of whom are white.

"There's a disconnect there," Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said. "It's not like we don't have qualified folks who can sit in the chair. There's a plethora. It's just connecting them to the relationships to fill the chair.

"I don't have the answer for it."

Several factors could prove key to a solution.

Coordinator jobs, alternate paths key for minority coaches

The 2015 hiring cycle proved that coordinating is the gateway to head-coaching jobs. Coordinators appeal to athletic directors and search firms because they lead larger pools of players and have more direct involvement with game planning. In some cases, they are the head coach for their unit.

"I would say 90 percent of the head jobs are given to somebody who was a coordinator," former South Carolina running backs coach Everette Sands said. "A lot of ADs [athletic directors] are looking for someone with coordinator experience."

But of the 17 coordinators elevated this year, only two belong to minority groups. Ten of the 14 current minority head coaches were coordinators at previous FBS programs. Over the last five coaching cycles, 50 coordinators were hired as head coaches, but just six of them were minorities.

It's important to land those coordinator roles because coordinators are leaders, managers and strategists, not just recruiters, a label often assigned to minority coaches because of the roster demographics.

"I want all the people to see a C on my chest instead of an R on my chest," James Madison coach Everett Withers said. "I try to tell minority coaches: 'Don't just be a recruiter. Be a very, very good position coach, coordinator also. You have to put it all together.'

"Quite frankly, I feel like we have to be a little bit better than everybody else."

It's especially beneficial for minorities to be offensive coordinators, especially those who coach quarterbacks. Of the 29 current minority coordinators or co-coordinators, only 10 coach offense. Mississippi State's Brian Johnson and Stanford's Tavita Pritchard are two of the few minority quarterbacks coaches in the Power 5.

"That avenue has a more direct line to being a head coach, and there haven't historically been a lot of [minorities]," Stanford coach David Shaw said.

Shaw, once one of two black quarterbacks coaches in the NFL, said the importance of coaching quarterbacks arises from the position's importance to every team. Quarterback coaches understand the passing game and protections. They're close to the play-calling process.

"You have to be a teacher, a manager, a leader," said Louisville offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee, who held the same position at Arkansas and Northwestern. "You have to be able to organize and manage everybody. It's definitely a management role. That's what a head coach is, a manager-CEO.

"The closest thing to that is the offensive coordinator, QB coach."

Improving minority coordinator numbers could boost minority head coaching numbers, but some candidates have also advanced their careers by taking alternate routes in the FCS, Division II, Division III or even high schools.

New Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks spent 17 years in Texas high schools before becoming Texas Tech's running backs coach in 2013. Tony Sanchez logged 14 years as a high school coach before landing the UNLV job last December.

Before UNLV, Sanchez was head coach and offensive coordinator at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, where he won six consecutive state championships.

"More so than any other time, the names of high school coaches are out there," Sanchez said. "A lot of it's through social media, playing games on national TV and working these highly recognized all-star games."

While many thought moving to UNLV would be "this huge, crazy jump," Sanchez's management and fundraising experience at Bishop Gorman prepared him.

Such preparation is critical, regardless of a coach's career path. Wins matter, but athletic directors want to know a candidate's plans for building programs and understanding budgets. They want to know how he'll handle crises and generate ticket sales.

"The only thing that's worse than not having enough African-American head coaches is anyone who gets hired who's not ready for it," Shaw said. "I would hate for someone to say we need to balance this thing out just to have some equity. That doesn't work."

All about 'who knows you'

Success sells in college football, but sometimes success alone is not enough to secure head-coaching positions. Networking matters. So does the way a coach brands himself.

"ADs have to hire splashes," Withers said. "They have to win press conferences. Their alums have to say, 'Wow, we got that guy!'

"Sometimes, that's not the minority candidate."

Donald Yee, an agent who represents minority coaches in both college football and the NFL, said the days of coaches simply being able to work hard and hope to be noticed are over. There's a new secret sauce for landing top jobs.

"It used to be what you know," Frazier said. "Then, it was who you know. Now, it's who knows you."

The "who" isn't limited to athletic directors. It includes search firms, university presidents, trustees and prominent boosters. Those groups are predominantly white.

According to a report this fall from Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, 86.7 percent of athletic directors were white, a 3.5 percentage point increase. The number of black athletic directors fell from 14 to 12 in 2015. Three were Latino, one was Asian and one was Native American.

Nearly 90 percent (89.8) of university presidents were white.

The challenge for minority coaches, Smith said, is this: "You need people who don't look like you to feel comfortable hiring you."

Or re-hiring you. After being fired by Florida, Will Muschamp spent only one season as a coordinator before landing another SEC head-coaching job (South Carolina). Charlie Weis' Notre Dame tenure ended miserably, but after two years as a coordinator, he secured another Power 5 job (Kansas).

Second chances for minorities, meanwhile, are scarce. Tyrone Willingham, fired at Notre Dame in 2004 and immediately hired by Washington, is the only minority coach in recent memory to receive one.

"Reputation has a lot to do with it," said Jacksonville Jaguars coach DeWayne Walker, who coached New Mexico State from 2009 to 2012. "I know Gene Chizik and now Muschamp, their reputations are different than maybe a minority coach who has had a losing record, to be able to get another opportunity."

It could be a question of awareness. Asked how aware athletic directors are of promising minority candidates, Yee, the agent, said, "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being most aware, I believe it's a 1. I don't know the reasons, but I'm basing that on discussions with ADs or associate ADs in charge of football. There is very little awareness."

There are resources to connect coaches with decision-makers. NFL teams have an internship programs for minority college coaches. The NCAA holds the Champion Forum at the athletic directors' annual convention. Athletic directors meet and interact with 1-2 promising minority coaches from each conference. Smith, a regular at the forum, recalls an AD colleague once saying that he wished he had met the participants before making a recent hire.

"If you look at the ADs today, I think about those at the FBS level, they have no issue with hiring a person of color, " Smith said. "It is an issue of them knowing who those guys are."

In February, Advocates for Athletic Equity, formerly the Black Coaches Association, will host a seminar for football coordinators in conjunction with the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Coordinators will interact with prominent head coaches, athletic directors and Power 5 commissioners.

Search firms are another key factor in coach hiring. Smith advises minority candidates to seek out the search firms.

"Don't tell me you don't have time," he said.

Smith advocates similar pavement-pounding tactics with ADs. He and his colleagues welcome visitors and regular correspondence from assistant coaches seeking advice. He encourages opposing assistant coaches to introduce themselves before games.

But Shaw noted that, "It's tough to just walk up to someone and shake their hand in and in 30 seconds give them the impression that you're ready to be a head coach."

Social media can be tricky, too. Tyrone Lockhart, CEO of Advocates for Athletic Equity said social media presence is "so important" to a coach's marketing strategy and overall brand. Minority coaches like Penn State's James Franklin have effectively used Twitter and other platforms.

Yet there's a fine line.

"It's always better if someone else is marketing you," Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. "If I have a guy on my staff and I'm around the powers-that-be, maybe it's me who says, 'I've got a really sharp guy. Put him on your watch list.' That's a better scenario than for the kid to go out tooting his own horn."

A glimmer of hope

Smith remembers the reaction when he hired Cooper at Eastern Michigan.

"It was like, 'Oh my God," Smith said. "It was groundbreaking."

An AD since 1986 at four different schools and in three Power 5 conferences, Smith doesn't expect dramatic change in the next few years.

"We might add four or five more [coaches]," Smith said. "Is that really moving the needle?" But ignoring or dismissing the problem won't move college football any closer to fixing it. Yee stresses education, noting that if all involved in coach hiring were more aware of the issues, "That constituency would be supportive of more opportunities for black coaches."

In 2007, Lapchick proposed the "Eddie Robinson Rule," similar to the NFL's Rooney Rule, which would force all universities making head-coaching hires to interview at least one minority candidate. While most coaches interviewed for this story agreed that such a policy would be beneficial, the NCAA cannot adopt the proposal because it is a nonprofit, voluntary member association unable to influence individual institutions' hiring practices. In 2008, FBS athletics directors, recognizing the lack of diversity in hiring, adopted guidelines similar to the Rooney Rule.

Seven years later, small strides are being made, as evidenced by Jinks' rapid rise, USC's naming of Tee Martin, an African-American, as offensive coordinator on Friday, and BYU's hiring of Kalani Sitake, who is Polynesian, as its head coach on Saturday. Career development programming has helped minority assistants land top jobs and interviews. Middle Tennessee defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who has had three opportunities to be a head coach, said, "I'm better prepared now than I ever have been."

Minority coaches are rooting for one another. Those leading programs, like Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, feel an "obligation to pay it forward," so others get opportunities.

Sands said the advancement isn't as dramatic as coaches would like, but it is happening.

"Sometimes it feels like a cruise ship going across the horizon, where it's just going so slow," said Shaw, whose father, Willie, was a defensive assistant at both the NFL and college levels from 1974 to 2002. "But when you get up on it and look really close, it's actually going pretty fast. To say that it's not complete equity, yeah, I can say that.

"But at the same time, for what my dad went through and his generation of coaches in college and in the NFL, it is so much better than it's ever been."