The Un-winnable Game Black College Football Coaches Play

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Before getting into this post, I want to address the tragic situation surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs. I’m happy the team won this Sunday, but feel the game should have been delayed. Now three days after the shocking murder-suicide of Kasandra Perkins, there are still unanswered questions and unrest as everyone tries to unravel what happened. I don’t want to disrespect the story, or those involved, by shortchanging or trivializing the event by speaking on it without having all of the information.  Jovan Belcher was obviously a troubled man, and his actions will reverberate in the sports and Kansas City communities, as well as with the friends and families of those slain, for decades.

Aside from this horrible news, there were several newsworthy sports developments in the past week.

Gregg Popovich trolled the NBA by sending his best players (and Danny Green) home before a marquee match up with the Miami Heat on national television. The Spurs received a well-deserved fine, and hopefully this serves as a deterrent for all teams in the future. The NBA is an entertainment entity. Fans pay hundreds of dollars a game on tickets, parking, and concessions. Broadcast companies like TNT pay billions to show some of the world’s best athletes. Cheapening the product by excusing the best players for dubious reasons threatens the league’s revenue, which cannot be excused.

The BCS Championship in college football is set with Notre Dame and Alabama squaring off in Miami next month. The game features two very hate-able names in Notre Dame football (detailed here) and Nick Saban, the Napoleonic football-coaching robot who represents everything fans hate about the SEC’s recent dominance. It’ll be interesting to see which side America leans.

Finally, University of Colorado football coach Jon Embree was fired, opening a discussion about minority coaches in the sport.

In his emotional press conference, Embree commented on the state of minorities (specifically Blacks) in the coaching ranks. He brought up the regrettable fact that all minorities who take head coaching positions know they have almost insurmountable odds to overcome. Many are hired to low-level or struggling programs and given a short amount of time to turn things around. Embree was hired to a five-year contract, but let go after just two unsuccessful seasons. He inherited a rudderless team coming off of five consecutive losing seasons. Because of the typical player transfers that come with the hiring of a new head coach, he started this season with just eight (!) seniors on the roster in the Pac-12. A situation no coach would want to take over given that it would definitely take more than two years to fix. While his team struggled on the field, they graduated at the highest rate the university had ever seen. A fact apparently overlooked by school officials.

Embree also mentioned that all minority coaches take these bad jobs knowing they will never get another head coaching position once they are let go. Aside from Tyrone Willingham, who was fired by Notre Dame and went on to coach at the University of Washington, there aren’t any examples of minority coaches who have used one job as a springboard to another. This made me wonder: is Embree right, or is this a case of sour grapes?

Three recent examples show Embree is spot on:

  • Gene Chizik rode a 5-19 record at Iowa State to the head-coaching job at Auburn University. In his years there (Chizik was also fired last month), he won a national championship behind Cam Newton, then immediately lead the Tigers down a path similar to Iowa State.
  • Bobby Petrino is a notorious mercenary who bailed on the University of Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons, then left that job midseason to coach at Arkansas. He was fired amid scandal after crashing his motorcycle in a one-car accident. It turned out his “special assistant” was on the bike with him. A woman he was having an affair with that he hired at Arkansas and wrote a $20,000 check to. He is now being considered for the Auburn opening.
  • Jeff Tedford, recently fired head coach at Cal, is in the running for the Colorado coaching position. This is despite a 3-9 record at Cal last season. How does he have more credibility than the incumbent, given the recent track record for each coach?

In a field where 100% of conference commissioners and 84% of athletic directors are white men, it’s no wonder why this is an issue that has persisted. As it stands, 17 FBS head coaches are minorities out of 120 programs. So what can be done?

I propose two solutions: a “Rooney Rule” type adoption in major college football where schools have to interview a minority candidate for all coaching vacancies. Forcing schools to comply is brusque and would take time, but it is more important to get minorities in the pipeline of “hirable” coaches so the same retreads aren’t given decent opportunities.

Second, I’d love to see players speak up on their own behalves. Most players are minorities of various descents (watch any ESPN Top Ten). Wouldn’t they prefer to be coached by someone who more closely shares their experience – as long as they have played the game and been successful at a position coach or coordinator position?

These are my imperfect solutions to a problem that, unchecked, could persist forever. What do you think, SBM football fans? Do you care that so minorities are shut out of the coaching ranks? Is there a solution that will work better?

Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Peter Parker

    I have to co-sign Joe. I listen to the sports junkies here in DC every morning and this topic came up. All of the guys said that a Rooney-Rule must be enforced to get more minority coaches an opportunity. It definitely has work wonders in the NFL. It saddens me to see that minorities are not well represented in college sports, but minority athletes comprise nearly 80% or more in college football. Something has to be done and coach Embree definitely did not get his just due.

  • http://stanoffewwords.wordpress.com Tristan

    Don't forget Lane Kiffin, he's been Nothing but mediocrity but I'm sure he can still get a job at any school he wishes. I think part of it comes from name recognition, No name coaches are fired all the time, however the fact that Gene Chizik was, was big news, now when teams are looking for coach, the name that will stand out "Gene Chizik" #inception.

    I agree minority coaches aren't getting their just due, you consider the amount of black athletes, who later turn to coaching after their careers end, you'd think there would be a healthy balance by now. Most are given position coach position with No visibility while the coordinator gets the shine. I think a Rooney Rule is necessary, or the media can take it upon itself to highlight some of these great minority coaches who go unnoticed

    • Joe Sargent

      How could I forget Lane Kiffin?! That dude has failed more successfully than anyone in history!

      To your first point, I think that's why I like the Rooney Rule idea. That would, over time, get some minority coaches into that Inception Circle. The media can certainly help as well. It's amazing how much influence they have.

  • Larry

    Man, this is tough…and what I mean is it's tough to hear about and a tough problem to solve. For whatever reason there's a stigma that black head coaches aren't as good as whites. Why the leash is so short I really don't know. Most of the white coaches you named (Tedford, Kiffin, Petrino, etc..) and those that get multiple shots USUALLY have had success elsewhere and/or significant head coaching experience at high levels.

    Now the problem is the age old: How can one get experience if they are fired only after 2 years and never given the opportunity to coach again? Part of the issues is that in this day and age where money/revenue and making BCS bowl games (hell, bowl games in general) is paramount to a university's income stream most presidents want to win now and are possibly reluctant to give a new guy a chance….try to go with the "sure thing"….whatever that means. Back in the day the reason coaches like Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and those boys could keep a job for 40+ years is because the amounts of pressure were different then. You got time to build a program (not in all cases, but in more than a few).

    • Larry

      Hopefully, college football will come around….the NFL is finallly coming around (Frazier, Tomlin, Lovie Smith, etc..) and the NBA is too….look at the job Mike Woodson and Lionel Hollins are doing this year with their respective teams. Although Mike Brown was fired this year he has a coach of the year under his belt. The Hornets have a good upcoming young coach, etc, etc… **

      So yes if the NBA can do it then hopefully one day so can college football.

      ** No, I didn't forget Doc Rivers…..being a resident Laker fan I don't feel it's necessary to list any positive Boston Celtic anything.

      • Joe Sargent

        Just can't let the Celtics live, lol.

        Having been through the job search wringer a million times, the 'age old debate' resonates with me. How long can a coach live off of past success though? Seems like a few good years buys you another decade. I guess this is the same reason Adam Sandler gets to keep making movies.

      • http://stanoffewwords.wordpress.com Tristan

        why the Celtic shade…aint our fault yall have no PG, Pau is woefully unfit for D'Antoni's system and Kobe wants to put the paws on the whole team like Chris Childs aint show he aint bout that life
        My recent post Today’s Word is… PLATEAU

        • Larry

          Celtic shade is part of the job requirement of being a Laker fan, sir, lol. When I am indifferent of them or giving props then you should be worried.

      • Sith King Jordan

        wait, boston has a basketball team?

        i thought that was for the AARP Rec League???

        #GoKnicksGo

    • http://glippost.wordpress.com Darrk Gable

      Your point about the “win now” culture is key. It’s like this in sports, because it’s like this in society as a whole. Also, there’s a racial component to it, regardless. Questions still arise about a minority coach’s ability in sports, just like a minority’s abilities in the corporate world.

  • AJR

    Bear in mind that, in most cases, it's the position coaches that do the on-the-ground recruiting so, in many cases, players are recruited by someone with their shared experience. I don't know how a Rooney Rule can be implemented – there are some public, some private, some from affirmative action universities, some not. We know the NCAA can't apply rules consistently (see PSU, OSU, USC). Do we really want the NCAA involved in trying to apply rules for coaching hires? If not, do we really want our government setting rules for coaching hires? Infeasible.

    The fact is that head coaching decisions are based off of boosters' pockets and individual coaches' networks. As fewer racists have pull on boards of trustees, we should see more candidates bubble up.

    One structural problem currently is the rate at which institutions graduate their african-american players. Georgia is an embarrassment. So is Alabama. Colorado, Northwestern, Notre Dame do it well. It's not just the rate of players on rosters that matters in projecting who will be a future candidate; it's the rate of players who earn degrees, and the universities need to be held accountable for that. They haven't been for too long. (Saban will kick anybody to the curb if they don't look like a future performer.)

    Bottom line, it's up to the head coaches to advocate for current position coaches and coordinators of color. Talk them up. Get their names out there. Joker Phillips and Charlie Strong were successful – and lauded – position coaches who were known names before becoming head guys. (One has worked, one has not, but Kentucky is an impossible situation.)

    The best news here is that Charlie Strong is an outstanding coach. Charlie Strong will get a high-quality job somewhere, this offseason or next. Or he'll build Louisville into a national power. That success truly matters, especially if it comes at a place like Auburn. Kevin Sumlin could/should be coach of the year, a black coach in the SEC. I don't know how many better places to win there are than Texas A&M, so he might be there a long time. That's a great, great thing as well.

    So, is there a defnitive solution? No. I think time will help, and I think stories like Strong and Sumlin will help.

    • Joe Sargent

      That's a great breakdown.

      I think boosters are a huge kicker here. While current coaches and success stories like Strong/Sumlin will also help, boosters, to me, will be the gatekeepers. The issue is circular, so the more minority coaches that have success, the more accepted it will be, the more likely boosters are to support the next candidate and so on. It's happening, and I think you described the situation well. The graduation rate is another (depressing) can of worms.

      As far as the practical application of a 'Rooney Rule,' you're right that it isn't easy. I'd think the NCAA could make some form of this a mandate as a qualification for membership, but the Public/Private nature of the member institutions makes it tricky. Perhaps suggesting it and incentivizing schools rather than making it a rule punshing them? I hate the NCAA as much as anything in sport, so I don't trust them to do this perfectly. I think it's important enough for the NCAA to have a stance, though.

    • Joe Sargent

      Also, good point with the position coaches and recruiting. They have, in many cases, a stronger relationship with players than the head coach. Important to note.

      • Bree

        Joe – on the flipside, how many brotha's do you think would want to be head coaches once they retired from the league? Do you think if the opportunities were there, many brotha's would actually take it?

        • Joe Sargent

          I think so. There isn't a lack of minority coaching overall, just at the top. Which makes the situation worse. There are a lof of players that jump to coaching. They are currently employed as various levels of assistants (Defensive Line Coach, Wide Receivers Coach, Offensive Coordinator etc.). It's a pretty natual extension of their passion for sports once they can no longer play competitively.

          Given the nature of sports, I think many are pushing to be the best and want to be at the top of their profession.

        • Bree

          right right….I feel u on that.

  • Bree

    I hate to use the "race card" but I think it's an all too familiar case of only hiring black folks to clean up huge messes made by white folks that they don't want to deal with. Once they make a huge mess of things and it gets to be too much and they don't want to be bothered then they call on us like we're maids to clean up.
    I also think part of it is not giving black folks too much power. As far as I know there are no black owners of major franchises in the NFL or NBA. If it is a black owner it's somebody like Jay-Z, or Magic Johnson, but how many of those are there?
    I think we're definitely off to a great start with Mike Tomlin who is the first black head coach of the Pittsburg Steelers – My fav team btw – GO STEELERS!
    I agree that we definitely need more Mike Tomlins and hopefully we will have many more in the NFL.
    Although I wasn't a fan of Tampa Bay, I really liked Tony Dungy as a coach and had much respect for him. He was one of my fav coaches.

    • BlueSteele

      *waves terrible towel*

      • Bree

        yaaaaaay…STEELERS!

  • http://glippost.wordpress.com Darrk Gable

    There’s a book called Crackback, by Dr. Fitz Hill, that focuses on minority coaching in college athletics; specifically football.

  • Sith King Jordan

    "I’d love to see players speak up on their own behalves. Most players are minorities of various descents (watch any ESPN Top Ten). Wouldn’t they prefer to be coached by someone who more closely shares their experience – as long as they have played the game and been successful at a position coach or coordinator position?"

    I'd love to as well, but somehow i get the feeling that due to the fact that outside forces can influence what a player says publicly (like, i wouldn't be surprised if boosters/administration find ways to keep vocal players quiet)…

    but also, maybe situations like this (where the player gets vocal for a coach that he can relate to, but doesn't) is the genesis of having a generation of players, that are not vocal…civically? don't get me wrong, there are those college players that actually participate and are socially aware of their communities, but the extreme fall off that we have had, compared to say…the 50s,60s,70s, to now…

    well, just a rambling thought.

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  • Dr. J

    I think that when you ask the HC to be involved in fundraising for not only the athletic program but also the university as a whole then you have another metric that some Black coaches will struggle with. It's not just about on the field performance anymore in this game, it's also a lot of off the field activities that are challenging for Black HCs.

    I think a Black HC could win and be successful but he'd have to surround himself with strong assistant across all diverse cultures. That's what white HCs do too… They have their staff but they'll have recruiters who are Black (players and coaches) to help out. It's a full fledged approach.

  • The Ghost

    I agree mostly that Embree didn't deserve to be fired so soon, because that program is just disgusting. It came as a surprise to me because Colorado's athletic department is in shambles financially, and I do wonder if it would've been the same with a white coach. I would, however, like to address the examples you brought up:

    - Gene Chizik was hired to very little fanfare and over Turner Gill, a controversial decision that does somewhat validate the point you're trying to make. However, Chizik is the only coach to have been fired after two years after winning a national championship, and Gill was miserable at Kansas. Plus, I'm not going to make much out of SEC schools not hiring Black coaches, since ummm… it's the SEC.

    - Bobby Petrino is being considered for every job because, character issues aside, he wins everywhere he goes. And people really only care about winning.

    - Jeff Tedford resurrected the Cal program, and this year was only the second time in ten seasons that he finished with a losing record. That's how he has more credibility than Embree, someone with previously no head coaching experience.

    Worth noting are a few Black coaches who have (or likely will) been able to move up to more prestigious schools:

    - Kevin Sumlin did an awesome job replacing Art Briles at Houston to end up at one of the more prestigious jobs in the nation in Texas A&M, and has the Aggies farther ahead of schedule than anyone could've predicted.

    - I think it's important to bring up James Franklin at Vanderbilt and David Shaw at Stanford, because they're both having unexpected success at programs that not only aren't successful, but are elite academically. Shaw has Stanford going to the Rose Bowl (which Andrew Luck or Jim Harbaugh never did), and Franklin has nine wins at freaking Vanderbilt and is certain to draw interest from better jobs.

    - Willie Taggart took over Western Kentucky as they moved up to D1-A and led them to consecutive winning seasons. He's been thrown out as a candidate for some openings.

    - Darrell Hazell led Kent State to their best season EVER in just his second year and is certain to get a better job this year (though hopefully not Purdue)

    • Joe Sargent

      Chizik, Petrino, and Tedford all had varying levels of stink on them and are/were still considered viable candidates for high profile gigs. Chizik and Tedford have recent losing, Petrino just seems like a jerk. They all have the advantage of prior head coaching experience (versus Embree), so in that sense they were better candidates than Embree. I think that's the problem. The insular nature of head coaching puts imperfect candidates ahead of many minorities and keeps them there (seemingly) no matter how badly things go after they are hired.

      I'm excited there are a growing number of successful minority coaches. Glad you gave them their shine. I'd be really happy if they end up creating that pipeline. There's no precedent outside of Willingham, but these guys definitely have the resumes. It'll be interesting to track their progress.