When the college football coach hiring cycle began late last year, Black coaches and administrators leaned in with curiosity.
College football left its typical place on the sideline during the demonstrations and discussions about social justice, diversity and equity following the police murder of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. Players spoke, marched and maximized their platforms. Coaches and administrators engaged in difficult but meaningful dialogue.
Would a brighter spotlight on equity alter the demographics of college football coaches? The 2020 season began with 14 Black head coaches out of 130 FBS programs. The 2020-21 coaching carousel projected to be less active than normal, due to the coronavirus pandemic and its financial impact on programs.
There would be changes, though, and opportunities for more Black coaches to lead programs in a sport where 48.5% of FBS players identified as Black in 2020.
“Once I saw jobs start to open up, I wanted to see if there was going to be anything different, whether there would be more minorities, coaches of color, hired as head coaches,” said Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who is Black. “I didn’t see a noticeable difference. I didn’t see anything that showed me that there was any type of change in behavior in the hiring process.”
The number of Black head coaches in college football actually declined in 2020. Three of the 11 Black coaches at Power 5 programs – Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin and Illinois’ Lovie Smith – lost their jobs. For the first time since 2015, no Black coaches were hired in the Power 5. Of the 17 new FBS head coaches, only two, Marshall’s Charles Huff and Buffalo’s Maurice Linguist, are Black. Boise State’s Andy Avalos is the only other hire from an ethnic minority group.
Several Black coaches were candidates for vacancies, but other than Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, few found themselves atop wish lists.
“We lost ground at the collegiate level,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said. “That, particularly in the backdrop of a horrific year where the social injustice was highlighted, in a year where you would think folks were a little more sensitive, is very disappointing.”
spoke to more than 20 administrators, coaches and others about the past hiring cycle and the factors that contributed to a decline in diversity.
Industry insiders attribute the continued shortage of Black coaches to both systemic and circumstantial reasons. Some point to a conservative approach toward the high-stakes hiring process, the lack of diversity among those making hires or assisting with hires, and a reluctance to fully embrace the positives of hiring leaders from different races and backgrounds.
Others note a shortage of top-end Black candidates, especially Power 5 coordinators or those with head-coaching experience, as well as limited awareness of candidates in other roles.
But college football is adding initiatives to promote diversity hiring. As a search firm executive noted, “It’s being talked about in every webinar, every virtual conference, every conversation I’m having with ADs and aspiring head coaches.”
If anything, the events of 2020 seemed likely to boost the numbers.
“There was this feeling that change was on the way,” a Black administrator at a Power 5 program told . “Finally, we would see some opportunities for coaches who would get looks, not only because they’re great and rightfully positioned, but also that diversity is a plus now, not a negative. That was the hope. The coaching cycle was our first look.”
They didn’t like what they saw.
“We had these protests, we had these riots, we had all these things happen, and then nothing happened,” the same administrator continued. “We’re back to square one.”
Athletic directors worry about their jobs
Robert Morris University’s Chris Howard has heard the line from fellow presidents and chancellors. Several things can cost them their jobs, including making unpopular football or basketball coaching hires.
“The continued focus and desire to win are things that wear on presidents,” said Howard, who in 2016 became Robert Morris’ first Black president, and also played football at Air Force and served on the College Football Playoff selection committee. “It causes them to be conservative and follow patterns that have come before. There are tough decisions we make all the time. Some of them could end up bad for us.
“Your personnel decisions are reflective of your leadership, and you have to own up to them, so there is a tendency to repeat patterns.”
Presidents don’t discuss their hesitancy around diverse hires in athletics, but it is “unspoken, understood,” Howard said.
Many around the industry cite two Cs – conservativeness and comfort – as driving factors for most football coach hires. High-pressure decisions for high-pressure jobs are often finalized in days or weeks, rather than the deliberate process to hire other university leaders, even athletic directors.
The tendency is to seek familiarity, namely those with head-coaching experience, who tend to be older, white coaches. Nine coaches hired in the past cycle had led college programs. Five had been fired by FBS programs in the past.
“The problem is at the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, very rarely do people get outside of their comfort zone,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “You see so many NFL teams or college teams that go with the safe hire all the time, because they can justify it to the boosters or justify it to the fans or the media, or whatever it may be.”
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond recalled a conversation with NCAA president Mark Emmert about hiring athletic directors and coaches. Emmert, the former president at Washington and chancellor at LSU, told Jarmond that many university leaders come through the academic route, holding jobs like provosts.
The only thing they might know about top athletics hires is the pressure that they carry.
“[Emmert] said … they usually don’t have a lot of familiarity with athletics, so they hire people who they’re comfortable seeing,” said Jarmond, who became the first Black athletic director at both Boston College (2017-2020) and UCLA. “It’s not a matter of trying not to be inclusive. It’s just, ‘When I’m not familiar with athletics and I know athletics can get me fired, I’m going to go with something comfortable.’
“I never thought of it that way.”
Duke athletic director Kevin White, who has also led athletic departments at Notre Dame, Arizona State and Tulane since 1991, noted that those making hiring decisions “need to be a more diverse cohort.” There are only nine Black people (seven men, two women) leading Power 5 athletic programs, and just 13 total at FBS schools.
“Diverse groups tend to make diverse decisions,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “You’d love to see more people of color and women in positions of power in athletics. That at least makes you feel like, ‘This person’s going to be open to everything.’ Hopefully we can inspire people in positions of power to consider, ‘Gosh, maybe I will take another look. That guy sounds a lot like Mike Tomlin or looks like that. Maybe I’ll give this guy a chance.’ ”
Both athletic directors and coaches interact with diverse athlete groups, and other constituencies, especially donors, who tend to trend white. There are also regional demographics and history to consider.
“I’m at so-and-so university and it’s not reflective of ethnic-racial diversity, and now the perception is how is that person going to win in that environment when a lot of people just don’t look like that individual,” said Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, who is Black. “That is the hard part. And sometimes it’s so hard and daunting that people would rather take maybe the easier way, someone they’re more familiar with, somebody that’s more accepted.”
A Black FBS head coach added: “The people that are pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-diversity, that’s all fine until the guy writing the check at the university says, ‘I want so-and-so.’ ”
Nepotism is another factor, especially in the NFL and at colleges. Two college coaches hired in the last cycle, South Carolina’s Shane Beamer and Louisiana-Monroe’s Terry Bowden, are the sons of Hall of Fame coaches (Frank Beamer and Bobby Bowden).
“My dad played college football at Toledo, but I didn’t have a brother or a dad in the business,” Tucker said. “I didn’t have a relative. I didn’t have anyone. If you take a look in the NFL, see how many people that are on staff who are related to people. There was some type of connection, like it’s a family profession-type deal. What effect does that have on the hiring process?”
Derrick Gragg, the NCAA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer and a former FBS athletic director, said that while he doesn’t disparage any hires, “Nepotism is real in college athletics, across the board.
“A lot of times, those African American coaches are not connected,” Gragg said. “Their work has to speak for themselves.”
Black athletic directors at FBS schools will continue to advocate for diversity hiring, but, as Jarmond notes, “It can’t just be on the Black AD.” White athletic directors such as Rice’s Joe Karlgaard and Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione say the intent and effort needed to identify candidates must begin well before searches do.
“Otherwise, they’re going to go with what’s comfortable, knowing that they’ve got to make this hire in a week or 10 days or two weeks,” Karlgaard said.
“In the end, we’re going to be measured by the outcome,” said Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director since 1998. “We get that. But the head-scratcher in some of these processes is the lack of intentionality to create a diverse candidate pool, regardless of who actually gets chosen. That’s where the word intentionality has merit.
“We can make progress if we continue to focus on the hiring practices themselves.”
Offensive and defensive coordinators get first looks
The final numbers don’t lie about the 2020 college football coaching carousel, but other sets of numbers shaped the outcome.
“One of the challenges is that you’re not necessarily working off fixed gains,” Karlgaard said. “Three Black coaches are let go, you’re already behind three, and so then the question is can you replace them and then add?”
Of the three Black Power 5 coaches fired in 2020, only Mason immediately landed a new job, as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Most fired coaches in college become assistants before returning to lead roles, although the past cycle saw UCF hire Gus Malzahn weeks after Auburn fired him. In 2019, Willie Taggart, who is Black, landed the Florida Atlantic job weeks after Florida State fired him.
The problem last year, according to some around the sport, is a lack of obvious Black candidates, especially for Power 5 openings that almost always are filled with former head coaches and/or elite-level coordinators.
“Who are the top 10 African American candidates?” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who has led FBS athletic departments since 1986. “Back in the day, I could have rattled off names left and right. I could give you four or five now, but I can’t give you the depth that should be there, who we should all know.”
Added Duke’s White: “We need to ‘build the bench.’ ”
For years, major college football has lacked Black offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches, the most popular steppingstone jobs for head coaches. Clemson’s Elliott, the playcaller for two national championship teams and six CFP teams, is the most prominent name. Tennessee, South Carolina and others pursued him in the past cycle.
Brian Johnson, who spent last season as Florida’s offensive coordinator, interviewed for vacancies at both South Carolina and Boise State. His departure to the NFL leaves only a few Black offensive coordinators in the FBS.
“In this last cycle, whenever you hear a Black candidate, it’s Tony Elliott,” Jarmond said. “It can’t just be Tony Elliott. Tony can afford to be picky. Why isn’t it five guys mentioned and not just Tony?”
Chad Chatlos, a partner at Turnkey Search who assisted South Carolina, Texas, Arizona, UCF and Kansas with coaching searches in recent months, cites a modest pool of Black candidates positioned for Power 5 vacancies and even some top Group of 5 jobs.
“This issue is all of ours to correct,” Chatlos said. “We have to do better: commissioners, ADs, head coaches and search firms. We know the coaches preferred for Power 5 head-coaching vacancies are typically Group of 5 head coaches or Power 5 coordinators. Until there are more minority coaches in those roles, it will be difficult to have diverse candidates in the 65 Power 5 jobs. I have seen improvements every year, but a handful of coaches is frankly not enough. There needs to be intentional efforts to create pipelines of opportunities.”
There are more Black defensive coordinators in the Power 5, and the number recently increased with hires such as Illinois’ Ryan Walters, LSU’s Daronte Jones, Tennessee’s Tim Banks, Colorado’s Chris Wilson and Missouri’s Steve Wilks, the former Arizona Cardinals head coach. Before becoming Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman interviewed for the head-coaching job at Illinois.
The Group of 5 numbers are less encouraging. Marshall’s Huff became just the fifth Black coach in the Group of 5, joining Taggart, Linguist, Nevada’s Jay Norvell and Northern Illinois’ Thomas Hammock.
In February 2020, Colorado became the fourth Power 5 school (Northwestern, Stanford, Vanderbilt) to hire consecutive Black head football coaches, as Karl Dorrell replaced Tucker, who left for Michigan State. Dorrell had been the Miami Dolphins’ assistant head coach but also led UCLA’s program from 2003 to 2007 and was Colorado’s offensive coordinator from 1995 to 1998.
“What we as an industry need to get better on is having African American coordinators on offense and defense,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said. “When I was looking for a head coach, I looked at Power 5 coordinators, sitting Group of 5 coaches and other head coaches in the Power 5. In most cases, you’re not going to hire a position coach unless they’re a coordinator. To me, that’s a logical step: We’ve got to have more coordinators of color to grow that pool.”
Castiglione cited the 2018 addition of a 10th full-time assistant in college football as a step toward increasing opportunities, but further action is needed.
“If staffs are not getting more diverse, there’s something wrong,” he said. “There should be a joint effort by the administration of a program and the coach to work together to make certain the process to hire new staff members is diverse. If it is, it’s going to lead to better outcomes. We can make diversity part of our intentional, everyday efforts.”
Tucker thinks the key is to “widen the lens” on candidate requirements, and look beyond titles and playcalling to identify assistants who “the players listen to.” He and other head coaches know they have a responsibility to build the pipeline.
Last summer, Maryland coach Mike Locksley launched the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches to help college and pro assistants land head-coaching roles. Locksley thinks there are enough qualified minority coaches to lead teams, but they must be promoted and developed to meet criteria he describes as “pretty vague.”
“At one point, they said you needed to be a playcaller, and now you’re seeing guys that weren’t playcallers getting opportunities,” said Locksley, who came up as an offensive coordinator and playcaller. “That goalpost keeps moving. We’ve got to make sure that we totally do our part to prepare these minority coaches for the target that’s moving.”
‘We need to create an environment that truly is a meritocracy’
Maryland athletic director Damon Evans can’t predict the weather or the Terrapins’ season record, but when a football coach search begins, he usually knows how it will end.
“I can almost tell you what an institution is going to go after and I’m not even at that institution,” he said.
Evans and others question the validity of some coaching searches, especially how minority candidates are considered.
“Even as the list is being assembled, people doing the hiring already have their minds made up,” said Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, the first Black person to lead a Power 5 conference. “They’re not searches. Many times, searches are a way to, just from a check-the-box standpoint, show that diverse coaches were looked at. The thing that’s really important for me is when you start the interview process, make sure your candidate pool is a symbol, that you already don’t have your mind made up.
“We need to create an environment that truly is a meritocracy.”
Search firms are significant, as they’re used by most schools seeking football coaches. Frazier sees value in them, noting that firms simply assist by providing options. But he also hears skepticism from Black coaches and administrators about how the firms consider candidates.
“A lot of people of color call it the Da Vinci Code, to be able to get recognized, to have access to the search firms,” Frazier said. “They feel like they’re not in the know, that they don’t get a shot because the search firm screens them out. That’s the perception. I don’t believe that. I do believe it’s the responsibility of the search firm to clarify what they do, how they do it, how they connect and how they represent.”
Search firm executives say diversity, equity and inclusion are major priorities, especially after 2020. Todd Turner, the president of Collegiate Sports Associates, said he seeks diversity in every candidate pool his firm presents. But he also targets experience.
As Vanderbilt’s athletic director in 2001, Turner interviewed several minority candidates for a football vacancy. He ultimately hired Bobby Johnson, who is white, because he had head-coaching experience at FCS Furman.
“You’d see a stronger group of head-coaching hires if there were more minorities getting experience in head-coaching positions at other levels,” said Turner, who also served as AD at Connecticut, NC State and Washington. “I always had head-coaching experience at the top of my list when I was a sitting athletic director.”
Several search firm executives and administrators said widening resource differentials between Power 5 programs and other levels of the sport create a hesitancy among assistants to move down, even for leadership positions that can accelerate their paths toward becoming head coaches.
“You’ve got a number of assistant coaches who are making just as much as the head coach at Toledo is making,” a Black athletic director said. “You then have to find people who really, really want to be head coaches who are going to be on themselves to drop down in terms of level to get that experience, so they can work their way back up.”
Opportunities could expand, though, if the qualifications do, too. Huff was Alabama’s running backs coach before Marshall, but oversaw special teams under Franklin at Penn State.
“You look at special teams [coaches], who work with literally everyone on the team, dealing with more student-athletes than an offensive coordinator would,” said Kyle Bowlsby, founder and principal of Bowlsby Sports Advisors, a search and consulting firm. “I’m open to position coaches. It’s much more about being a CEO. Is hiring a position coach more risky than hiring a coordinator? Has that been proven with data? If they’re only looking at hot Power 5 coordinators, you’re going to get an imbalanced pool of candidates, because most national coordinators are white.
“There’s no reason that more Charles Huffs of the world should not be getting opportunities.”
While the lack of diversity among athletic directors garners more attention, there are similar issues among search firms and agents, who also influence coach hires. None of the lead search firm executives is Black (all but one is white). Almost all the major college coaching agents are white.
“That’s unfortunate but that’s fact,” said Anderson, who spent decades as an agent for NFL coaches and players. “More diversity in the search firms is very important because they’ll bring a different perspective and approach in terms of candidates. In the agent world, where I obviously spent a lot of time, there’s diversity but not nearly as much as there could be.”
Castiglione thinks agents should help their diverse clients by not only advocating for them as head-coaching candidates, but preparing them for the hiring process. “Agents need to be part of the solution,” he said.
The key for aspiring Black coaches, Evans said, is a willingness to “play the game.” They must engage and build relationships with the mostly white groups – athletic directors, presidents, donors, search executives – who shape the hiring process.
They also need help from advocates in the industry. Locksley likens coach hirings to elections, which require constant campaigning to increase candidate visibility.
“If you have a Black candidate, people need to do their best to help that person get the job,” Gene Smith said. “I don’t know about playing the game as much as you need to know the players who can help you.”
Franklin said aspiring coaches must balance their time between schematics and networking. Huff doesn’t think he gets the Marshall job without a connection to two of the school’s most prominent former players, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
“Just because you’re a minority coach and you’ve been in the business for a long amount of time doesn’t automatically mean you should get an opportunity,” Evans said. “That happens a lot: ‘Well, such-and-such got the job. I’ve been doing it longer than him.’ Well, were you doing all the other stuff and playing the game to get there?”
There’s a renewed focus now
The irony of the last coaching cycle is that while fewer Black men landed top jobs, programming around diversity hiring grew substantially.
The Collegiate Coaching Diversity Pledge launched in September, asking athletic directors to commit to including at least one minority finalist in major coach searches, including football, and having their searches audited. In January, the NCAA’s board of governors endorsed the Bill Russell Rule, already implemented in the West Coast Conference, which requires at least one qualified minority candidate to be interviewed for head coach, assistant coach and senior administrative positions. Frazier, Karlgaard and other administrators from LEAD1 Association released several recommendations to create more diversity in FBS leadership, among them tethering “diversity hiring to financial incentives to push leaders to be more accountable for their hiring actions.”
Hired in August, Gragg soon will visit campuses, discuss candidates and hiring, and review the NCAA’s presidential pledge, which reinforces a commitment to diverse hiring practices. Anderson was an Atlanta Falcons executive when the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule and supports similar policies in college football. But he and others note that with “no enforcement mechanism,” many proposals can’t deliver.
“I’m not a proponent for initiatives,” said Warren, a longtime NFL executive before joining the Big Ten. “The moment you have to start dictating who they need to interview, who they need to hire, that causes more issues, because then people spend time and energy figuring out how to work around the rules. If it’s not in your heart to provide a fair opportunity, you won’t do it. Sometimes a rule does more damage, because you’re putting forth candidates who are not qualified. And it creates an environment where it looks to be a sham.”
More effective measures might come directly from the coaches. The pandemic prevented off-campus recruiting for most of 2020, so coaches spent more time on professional development. Gragg recalls San Jose State assistant Alonzo Carter organizing weekly Zoom calls with 600 coaches, most of whom are Black.
Locksley’s coalition takes a holistic approach to hiring: studying trends, incorporating analytics and engaging with ADs, search firms, presidents and other decision-makers. Board members include Alabama’s Nick Saban, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Tomlin, and current and former NFL executives such as Ozzie Newsome and Bill Polian.
“The next step is the campaign piece,” Locksley said. “The optics of it are what are leading to the hires, not as much putting resumes on a piece of paper. We’ve got to do everything we can to really use mainstream media, social media, keep these names out there for a 12-month cycle and not just the two-month cycle when you start hiring coaches.”
Direct networking opportunities also are important. Earlier this month, the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches announced a mentorship program pairing 12 Black coaches from college and the NFL with 12 athletic directors.
When Wilks worked at Washington in 2005, he joined head coach Tyrone Willingham and other Pac-10 assistants and head coaches for a two-day summit with the league’s athletic directors in Arizona. The Fiesta Bowl is holding a similar event next month.
“It’s an opportunity to sell yourself, to be able to articulate your philosophy, your thoughts, your vision,” Wilks said. “Those things are really missing. When guys aren’t in those leadership roles, you have to have different mechanisms for them to be able to grow. Being in that setting, they have the opportunity to see you in a different light. They can look up your stats, they can see how guys perform, but they really don’t know you as a person.”
Another set of allies for Black coaches could be athletes, who found their voices in 2020 and advocated for changes around race and equity.
“One of their calls to action is to have more representation of coaches of color on campus,” Gragg said. “These days, student-athletes can get an audience with athletic directors and presidents. When I played 30 years ago, we didn’t have the voice these student-athletes do now.”
After Tucker left, George met with Colorado’s seniors about what they wanted in the next coach. While players didn’t specifically advocate for another Black coach, George went into the search keeping diversity as a priority.
“In Mel Tucker’s case and in Karl’s case, two different candidates, both were what we needed at the time,” George said. “To have an African American head coach with a team that has the majority of student-athletes that are African American, it’s important.”
Increased advocacy will help, but the consensus among industry insiders is that the numbers won’t improve until attitudes do. Decision-makers can’t be dragged toward diversity. They need to embrace how it can enhance their programs, at multiple levels and in multiple ways.
In November, Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton, who is white, hired Dr. Ty-Ron Douglas as the department’s first-ever associate athletic director for diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. Douglas, previously an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at Missouri, has led conversations about diversifying organizations.
“It’s important that we continue to talk about it, so that it’s visible and it’s part of everybody’s search,” Knowlton said. “You’ve got to think it through. You’ve got to think about diverse candidates and finalists. And then, ADs have to make hard decisions.”
As Jarmond noted, expecting athletic directors to hire Black coaches if there aren’t minorities throughout the department is unrealistic.
“It starts with how we think about diversity in our country,” Franklin said. “Right away, it goes to race, and don’t get me wrong, that is a major factor and needs to be a major discussion point, but there’s so much more than that. When you look at it holistically, people are less defensive and can see the value in it.”
The goal, according to Frazier, is for diversity hiring to become like breathing, where leaders don’t think about it but simply deliver. Diversity “cannot be an add-on or a reaction,” Frazier said.
“If you look at a lot of the big companies and organizations, diversity is a strength,” Shaw said. “Different people, different ideas, different genders, different backgrounds, all make organizations, teams, better. You’d love to be able to give example after example after that, but it’s up to people to accept that as a possibility. The hardest thing to change is a person’s mind who doesn’t want to change.”
Added Anderson: “These aren’t unique and first-time arguments being made to them. They have to want to at the end of the day, and have the courage to do it.”
While 2020 wasn’t the catalyst many had hoped, some encouraging trends are emerging. The basketball coaching cycle featured more diversity, as prominent programs such as North Carolina (Hubert Davis) and Indiana (Mike Woodson) hired Black coaches.
More than half of the men’s basketball coaching hires this cycle are Black, including seven of 13 hires in the top six conferences.
“I don’t know why the [football] numbers turned out the way they did last year, but I think what you see in men’s basketball is indicative of how this is going to change over time,” Knowlton said, “by putting systems in place that help diversify the head-coaching ranks of football.”
Howard points to the increasing number of women in university leadership roles, as well as the demographics already present on college football teams.
“In some places, we want more diversity,” Howard said. “There’s plenty of diversity in college football. There’s just not equity. We’re not getting people to the leadership roles in an equitable way and an inclusive way, which is a different problem we’re having in other parts of society. So that’s one of the reasons I think that the efforts ultimately will prevail. The numbers game is working to our advantage.”
But the current numbers in college football aren’t promising. As Duke’s White said, “In athletics, we keep score.”
The 2021 coaching cycle projects to feature more openings than its predecessor. Administrators say the key is not to forget all that happened in 2020, even though the diversity numbers went in reverse. As one Black administrator noted, “The further we get away from any traumatic experience, the harder the work becomes.”
“The stickiness of the environment around social justice, diversity and equity is different than any time I’ve witnessed in my life,” Karlgaard said. “That’s one of the reasons that I’m committed and several other FBS ADs are committed to not letting this conversation die out. It can’t just be a moment in time where the country is feeling sort of a racial and equity reckoning, and then we acknowledge it in the time and then we go back to normal.
“It has to change permanently.”