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.
Sam Sachs doesn’t mince words. “I was pissed,” he says. It was February 2007, and Portland State University had just hired Jerry Glanville as the head coach of its football team.
Sachs, a former sheriff’s deputy who was a student at the school, had nothing against Glanville as person or a coach. His problem was with Portland State’s hiring process.
Glanville was White. Sachs, a Black Studies major, had asked the school’s athletic department to interview at least one qualified candidate of color for the job—a request, Sachs says, that fell on deaf ears.
“It would not have taken anything for them to just interview one qualified person of color for the job, even if they were going to give it to Jerry Glanville,” Sachs says. “Just do it!’
Sachs made a promise to himself: The next time Portland State hires a coach, they will have to interview a minority candidate. He then made good, serving as the catalyst behind the 2009 passage of a law that made Oregon the first state to require its public colleges and universities to interview at least one qualified minority candidate for all head coach and athletic director openings.
More than a decade later, Oregon remains the only state with such a law—something Sachs believes needs to change in order to increase career opportunities for football coaches and other college sports leaders of color.
“This is such an easy fix,” says Sachs, a Portland-based anti-racism activist and founder of the No Hate Zone. “It’s something states could do, and something the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] could do.
“I believe that if you can get people to change the way they are used to doing things, even if it’s just including one person of color in the interview process, ultimately your results will change as well.”
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.
The study’s findings dovetail with other examinations of race and senior leadership hiring patterns in college football, professional football, college sports in general, and even corporate America. Moreover, the specific barriers that make it more difficult for college football coaches of color to advance than their white counterparts—including historical segregation to ongoing bias—are similar to those facing coaches of color in the National Football League.
As such, Sachs says, college sports should follow the NFL’s example and adopt a nationwide version of the league’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching and executive positions.
Arizona State University athletic director Ray Anderson agrees. Before coming to Tempe in 2014, Anderson was a NFL executive and part of a working group that was instrumental in the league’s 2003 adoption of the rule—which in 2015 was held up as an example by President Obama when he called in for tech companies to do more to increase diversity within their ranks.
“[The Rooney Rule] didn’t blow the doors down, but it has had some impact,” Anderson says. “And you would much rather have it than not to have it. It certainly has gotten people conscious about what it means to have a diverse slate and to give legitimate interview opportunities. That has been helpful.”
The Rooney Rule has not made hiring in professional football completely fair and equitable. A recent report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida said that 2019 was NFL’s worst year for diversity in more than a decade, while a separate GSI study of head coaching movement in the league from 2009-10 to 2018-19 found statistical evidence that coaches of color remain stymied—a conclusion shared by the NFL’s own annual diversity and inclusion report.
In Oregon, however, the law championed by Sachs has produced results. Portland State and Western Oregon Universities both have Black athletic directors. The last two head football coaches at the University of Oregon, Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal, are African-American and Cuban American, respectively.
Taggart coached at Oregon for a single season before becoming the head coach at Florida State University. He was succeeded by Cristobal, Oregon’s offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, who in 2019 led the school to a Rose Bowl appearance and was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
Sachs says that he encountered less resistance during meetings with state legislators than he expected while lobbying for the law’s passage. “People told me it would be hard to get support, that it’s discriminatory, that it’s reverse racism,” he says. “But it’s not. You can still interview as many white people as you want. You just have to interview one qualified minority candidate. You don’t have to hire them.”
“And what we’ve found out is that it’s a model that works. Not perfectly. But the schools are having more diverse candidates. They’re hiring more assistants who are diverse. Over time, it’s slowly changing the way they go about interviewing and hiring.”
In August, the West Coast Conference announced the adoption of a “Russell Rule”—named after Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell—that will require all of its schools to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach job opening.
Yet so far, no other conference has followed suit. Nor has the NCAA, which in the past has claimed that its status as a nonprofit, voluntary membership organization prevents it from requiring schools to adopt particular hiring practices.
Sachs, who repeatedly has lobbied the NCAA to reconsider, says that the association could prohibit schools that don’t adopt Rooney Rules from hosting championship competitions—as it already does for schools with racially or ethnically “hostile or abusive” mascots, nicknames, or imagery. “Why don’t they do it?” Sachs says. “Whether you call it racism or not, I think it has to do with the power structure of college sports. Presidents, athletic directors, head coaches. They’re white men. They realize that if they support this, it will change outcomes for people of color, and part of that means redistributing power to people of color.”
When the WCC unveiled its Russell Rule, conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez—the first Latinx to hold that position in Division I—said that the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests nationwide for social justice and equity accelerated the league’s new diversity initiatives, which also include recognizing Juneteenth and helping athletes register to vote. Brandon Martin, the athletic director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the co-chair of the Black AD Alliance, believes that the time may be right for broader change.
“The frustration that comes from racism, discrimination, and inequities is right in our face now,” Martin says. “So I think it’s a watershed moment in our nation. Everyone in the country is being forced to say, ‘well, what can I do?’ And we are being forced to really try to fix some of the ever-present issues that we’ve had in this nation as it pertains to race and equity. I think we’re going to see advancements in the college athletics space.”
Spearheaded by University of Maryland head football coach Mike Locksley and born from his frustration that “pathway to becoming a head coach is still as difficult as when I got into the business in 1992,” the recently-created National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches has announced plans to identify and promote qualified coaches of color for career advancement. But Anderson speculates that pressure on the NCAA and conferences to increase opportunities—through Rooney/Russell Rules or other measures—may come from an unexpected source: college athletes themselves.
Already this year, football players at the University of Iowa and Florida State university have publicly called out their coaches for racial insensitivity and inequitable treatment; Pac-12 football players have demanded that the conference spend roughly $10 million to support low-income Black students and community initiatives; and athletes at the University of Texas at Austin successfully lobbied their school to rename a building named for a racist professor, erect a statue of the school’s first Black football player, and commission a monument to its first Black undergraduates.
When Anderson was a football player at Stanford University in the 1970s, he says, he and his African-American teammates came together to tell their white head coach, Jack Christiansen, that having only one Black assistant on the team’s staff “didn’t seem right” and that they “needed to have some people of color working with us.” “Very frankly,” Anderson says, “that is how Willie Shaw became an assistant [coach] while I was there.”
Shaw, an African-American, later became a defensive coordinator for Stanford and a coordinator and assistant head coach in the NFL. His son David is currently the school’s head coach.
“Is there a chance for today’s athletes to get together and exert more potential pressure in other areas?” Anderson says. “Yes. I see that happening.”
Sachs, who has twice asked attendees at the Black Caucus of State Legislators to sponsor legislation similar to Oregon’s law, says that he would welcome college athlete advocacy. So would Fitz Hill, formerly the first Black head football coach at San Jose State University and co-author of the 2012 book Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches.
Hill, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the barriers restricting employment opportunities for African-American coaches in college football, says that the sport has yet to fully acknowledge or eliminate those barriers—and that a Rooney or Russell-type rule could help open the eyes of school decision makers.
How so? When Hill resigned from San Jose State in 2004 after four straight losing seasons, he says, he told the school’s then-president, Don Kassing, that he hoped his lack of success wouldn’t prevent Kassing from considering hiring another head coach of color.
Hill recalls Kassing asking him if there was someone out there the school should consider.
“I told him, ‘you missed my whole point,’” Hill says. “‘Because you don’t think there is somebody out there to consider, you won’t look for them.”
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?