Why this matters
In college sports football may 'reign supreme’ in popularity, but it is behind the curve when it comes to diversity at its top tier coaching positions. The newest field study report to come out of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University shows the stark, yet unsurprising, reality of NCAA Power 5 conference Division 1 head coaches over the past decade - who is and isn’t given the opportunity to hold the position.
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?’” says Fitz Hill, a former college football coach and co-author of the 2012 book Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches. “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 among aspiring head college football coaches of color, he’s hardly alone.
A new study conducted by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University of head football coach hiring patterns in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “Power Five” conferences paints a picture of stunted opportunity—one in which African-American and Latino coaches disproportionately are stymied from advancing to head coaching jobs.
Examining 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, SEC, 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.
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.
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.”
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 the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, only 24 of the 130 Division I athletic directors in 2018-19 were people of color. A recent study conducted by Duke University assistant football coach Eli 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 know or 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 most 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.”
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.”
Sport at the college level in America is facing issues reflective of the world at large. From the calls for racial equality, labor disputes and discussions, to health and safety concerns with playing in a pandemic - what will this reset moment look like?