Why this matters
Dr. Fitz Hill recently served as a panelist for GSM Live: The Reset of College Sport. He shares his experiences as a collegiate head football coach and an advocate for fair hiring practices.
In 1992, Dr. Fitz Hill began his collegiate football coaching career as an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas. In 2001, he became the first Black head football coach at San Jose State University. As he progressed throughout his career, Hill was aware that his story was an uncommon one.
In his book Crackback!, Hill incorporates his own research and personal experiences to provide insight to the racist hiring practices that plague collegiate athletics. To this day, collegiate coaching staff across the country are disproportionately white. In a recent study conducted by the Global Sport Institute, the data indicates that coaches of color are systematically prevented from being promoted to head coach positions despite their experience and qualifications.
Hill recalls thinking that a tipping point had been reached when the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule and made efforts to diversify coaching staff. He hoped that this would be mirrored in collegiate athletics, but it seems that the transformation has yet to take place.
“We haven’t had a Black head football coach win a national championship,” says Hill. “When that happens, I think we’ll create a tsunami.”
Hill does point to the progress that has been made. He mentions how Nolan Richardson and the late John Thompson Jr. set were highly influential in their respective promotions from recruiters to successful basketball coaches. He points to the legacy of Willie Shaw and his son David who is currently the head coach at Stanford. The University of Colorado at Boulder just filled their head coach position which was formerly occupied by Mel Tucker with Karl Dorrell. There has been progress, but that does not mean that racism and prejudiced hiring practices have been eradicated.
“Do you realize we keep saying ‘the first’?” Hill asks. “That has really overwhelmed me. When someone says ‘the first’? In 2020? Do you know how many programs haven’t hired a Black coach?”
According to the GSI study, 38% of the 65 NCAA Power Five football teams studied had never hired a Black head coach. In the 2018-2019 season, 73% of head coaches were white, 18% were Black, and 9% were Latino. As one of Hill’s dissertation chairs told him, “Numbers don’t lie.”
Hill stresses the importance of changing this narrative for other coaches and also for the sake of the athletes. “I realized our Black players needed more role models than just me,” he says. There is power in opportunity and Hill has dedicated his career to creating more chances for other coaches of color to move up the ranks. After adding more Black coaches to the roster at Arkansas, he recalls being harassed by a White booster who told him that maybe if there were more White coaches, then they would lose less games. Hill replied, “My skin color would be unqualified. And you base Whiteness on being qualified. I don’t think that’s fair to both of us.”
Hill is optimistic about the re-ignition of athlete activism among college athletes and the use of social media to advocate for change. He says, “The power to ignite the struggle is the Black athlete. It always has been and that’s how things will change.”
Too many “firsts” have been long overdue. As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more businesses and institutions are being held accountable for their unfair and racist practices. The collegiate coaching system in the United States is not exempt and it's time to face the facts.
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?