Minority coaches shut out

By Bryan Mullen
Updated: September 7, 2009

NCAA TENNESSEE — In a year when the only minority football coach in the SEC resigned, the three open head coaching positions in the league went to white men.

That was another setback for college football and arguably its most powerful conference, which for decades have had significantly fewer minority head coaches than other top college and professional sports.

“Someone needs to take a chance,” University of Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton said. “When that happens, maybe the glass ceiling will be broken.”

UT was unwilling to take such a chance in the offseason when it hired a white coach — Lane Kiffin — as its new head football coach. UT is hardly alone. Two other SEC programs gave jobs to white head coaches — Auburn hired Gene Chizik, and Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen.

People of color will account for only 7.5 percent of the head coaches this season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is the highest level of college football. That means only nine of the 120 head football coaches positions are held by minorities.

By comparison, the NFL has six minority head coaches out of 32 positions (18.8 percent). Furthermore, 24 percent of head coaches in Division I men’s basketball are people of color, and the number jumps to 40 percent in the NBA.

The main culprit: a feeder system that fails to put minorities in positions to become head coaches.

“To me, that’s the biggest problem right now,” said Sylvester Croom, who resigned as Mississippi State’s head coach last season after going 21-38 in five years. Croom became the first minority head football coach in the Southeastern Conference when he was hired in 2003.

“Unless a guy has coordinator experience at the NFL or the collegiate level, it is extremely difficult for an athletic director to sell it, especially if he’s a minority candidate.”

Coaches follow track

The natural progression to become a head football coach at the highest level of college football is clear. First, a position coach becomes a defensive or offensive coordinator. The coordinators are in charge of the entire offensive or defensive game plan and are one step away from having the overall responsibilities of a head coach.

Once established as a coordinator, a coach is hired as a head coach at a medium-size school. From there, the opportunities greatly increase to become a head coach at a major program.

The numbers suggest the chances are stacked against people of color trying to climb this ladder. Currently, minorities account for only 15 percent of the offensive and defensive coordinator positions at the highest level of college football.

“It’s a challenge, but it is doable, said Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, an African-American who has been named UK’s head coach in waiting. “We can’t be afraid to take a job. There are so-called ‘struggling jobs’ at some universities, but if you can make a difference there, it gives you the chance to move up to bigger schools.”

Kippy Brown spent years looking for that opportunity.

Brown, 54, an African-American, is a former UT assistant coach but has spent the past several years in high-profile jobs in the NFL, including offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins.

Brown said he has been offered head coach jobs at the college level, but none at bowl-level schools. Therefore, even though he has been a coach at the highest level of professional football, he has been on the outside looking in when it comes to college.

“In college ball, you’re dealing with alumni, you’re dealing with boosters, you’re dealing with ADs (athletic directors) and this guy is going to be the face of your football program,” said Brown, who spent the past season on the Detroit Lions coaching staff. “When it comes to minority candidates, we just haven’t turned the corner. It shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.”

Ex-UT coach is ‘confident’

Trooper Taylor agrees that change has been slow to come. Taylor, 39, is an African-American assistant head coach at Auburn who was a popular and energetic assistant coach at Tennessee from 2004 to 2007.

He has been a college coach for 15 years, helped mold future NFL players and has held major responsibilities in major conferences. Yet, like many minority assistant coaches, he is finding it difficult to land a head coach position.

“You have to be qualified,” Taylor said. “I think it’s wrong if we say, ‘Just put him in there because he is a minority coach.’ But I do think there are more qualified guys out there. I’m confident — 100 percent confident — that one day I will be sitting at the front of that table.”

Even those who reach the head coach level at midsize college programs are finding it difficult to move up. Tennessee State head coach James Webster, who coaches a program in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA, said he has interviewed for jobs at bigger programs but described some of the interviews as “token” to appease watchdog groups. Webster declined to say which schools he has interviewed with.

“If I had been given the opportunity, there’s no doubt in my mind that I could have done the same exact thing at a Division I-A program, any program in the country,” Webster said.

Webster is not the only minority coach who used the term “token” to label the kinds of interviews people of color face.

“We know that happens,” said Tyrone Willingham, a former head coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington. “That unfortunately is part of the system and that’s why it is still a shame to be in that type of landscape today.”

Distinguishing which interviews are legit and which ones are not remains a source of aggravation to coaches and even some outspoken administrators. Georgia Athletic Director Damon Evans has not had to hire a head football coach because of Coach Mark Richt’s sustained success, but points to the NFL’s interviewing process as a positive model.

“On the professional level, owners have had interviews and have said, ‘Hmm, this guy is pretty good and let’s go hire him,’ ” Evans said. “The success of that has been great. You look at Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy was a great success. My question is this: Are the interviews that are being conducted in college for real consideration?”

Even if interviews are not, some minority coaches see them as a chance to make an impression.

“To me, if I get a token interview, that’s still a window for me to knock somebody’s socks off,” Taylor said. “I just need a crack. If I get in there as a token interview, before I leave there, I promise you I would be in the top three before it’s over with. That’s the attitude I take.”

Some are fighting system

Others are less willing to accept the current landscape, particularly when it comes to the feeder system. Athletic department administrators from Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt said they believe more people of color are working their way up the coaching pipeline, but the number of minority head coaches is still too low.

“I’m at a point where I don’t know what else to say,” said Vanderbilt’s David Williams, an African-American who holds athletic director duties for the school. “For a while it was, ‘They don’t have the experience and there are none in the pipeline.’ We’ve taken care of that. Then it was, ‘Well, they have to learn how to interview.’ We’ve done that.”

Williams said the issue could be as plain as black and white.

“Part of the problem could be a function of who does the hiring,” Williams said. “Most of the time the people doing the hiring are the AD and the chancellor or president. So the question is: What is the complexion of those people?”