Think of the first time you saw a role model who reminded you of yourself, one who made you realize someone like you could become someone like them. When the people with power also look like you, it’s easier to see yourself in their shoes one day.
That’s not the case in college football, where black men are nearly half of Division I’s football players, but only 14 are head coaches in the FBS — about 11%. Few black college football players look to their head coaches and see similar faces looking back.
That much is obvious, looking at the sidelines on any given Saturday. But when you dig into the sport’s hierarchy, you find that a white player’s pipeline to becoming a head coach is different than the one for players who aren’t white. There are systemic barriers to entry.
We can’t analyze diversity at the head coaching level unless we also analyze the steps throughout one of the most common paths toward a head coaching career, which begins when potential coaches are still players.
The fixes to the issue are complex, but what’s clear, according to research and people inside the coaching industry, is the way things build upon one another.
Level 1: Black players have historically been steered away from positions that are direct lines to high-profile assistant coaching jobs.
It’s called racial stacking, when minority groups are disproportionately relegated to lesser roles. The most visible example is black quarterbacks being moved to less-central positions. Research goes back to the 1960s, typically on pro sports. Two researchers, Daniel Yost and Joshua Pitts, sought data including college players.
Eitzen and Sanford (1975) investigated the high school, collegiate, and professional positions of 387 professional football players. Of their sample, African Americans comprised 33.8 percent of those players in the quarterback position (central position) at the high school level. In moving to the college ranks, that number dropped significantly to 8.7 percent. Additionally, African Americans comprised 49.2 percent of those players in the running back position (peripheral position) at the high school level. In moving to college, a marked increase was noted at 69.9 percent.
Their 2013 study used 2008 and 2009 Rivals.com data on 1,006 high school football players who did not play multiple positions and went on to power-conference college teams.
Of black players who played QB in high school, 62% changed positions in college, per the study. Some moves are in the best interest of players, but only 16% of white QBs changed positions. Researchers found 22% of all players switched positions.
The study found that, after controlling for certain factors, black quarterbacks were 38.5% more likely than white quarterbacks to change positions.
"It’s something unobservable that’s driving that result," Pitts, an assistant professor of sport management and economics at Kennesaw State University, said. "I bet we wouldn’t find that 38% [if the study repeated a decade later]. Maybe we would, but I guarantee we’d still find a significant result in that black quarterbacks have a tendency to be pushed out of that position."
Going back one more step, many young white QBs have private tutors and QB camps, which black families are less likely to be able to afford.
"The closer you are to the ball, the smarter you have to be," goes the old adage. So when black men don’t play center at the same rate as their white counterparts, what does that say to young black linemen?
[Sociologist Harry] Edwards argued that the centrality theme was less about simple spatial location than it was about the degree of control and leadership associated with a position. Consequently, pitchers and catchers or quarterbacks and centers are not only in the center of coordinating game activities, but they exert greater control over what happens in terms of action and outcome. Coupled with stereotypical beliefs about race related cognitive and physical capabilities, the idea that whites are more suitable for positions requiring greater thinking and decision making, and blacks are better adapted for positions requiring greater physical prowess is a short leap.
Even if a black player makes it to the NFL as a center, a position switch still isn’t out of the question. In a 2002 ESPN story, which argued the color barrier was disappearing, Hall of Fame tackle Roosevelt Brown described the 1950s and 1960s.
"If you were a [black] center who came to the NFL, more often than not, you ended up playing linebacker or something like that," Brown said. "The [prejudice] was just as bad as the one that existed at quarterback."
In the NFL, the other offensive line positions are essentially half black and half white. But while the league was 67% black in 2010, only 9% of its centers were. That was down from 17% in 1998.
Of the 70 players on the college center trophy’s 2017 preseason watch list, the overwhelming majority are white.
Self-segregation by athletes can perpetuate disparities. If a white kid sees mostly white quarterbacks, is he more likely to emulate QBs? Is a black kid more likely to do the same with running backs and defensive backs?
"I think more research needs to be done on self-segregation," Pitts said. "If players are self-segregating themselves, why are they still doing that? If they are — I’m not certain that they are — but if they are, why? Because there’s been a number of black quarterbacks now that have had great success."
Level 2: It’s not often that you find a QB or OL coach who didn’t play QB or OL.
Our review of all 65 Power 5 coaching staffs (as well as Notre Dame) showed that only three employed black men as quarterback coaches or passing game coordinators. Of the three, Illinois’ Garrick McGee and Michigan’s Pep Hamilton played the position in college.
We found there are only three black offensive line coaches in the Power 5. Two, Florida’s Brad Davis and Texas Tech’s Brandon Jones, played center in college. Duke’s Marcus Johnson spent most of his career at guard.
How can more black men become QB coaches if so many were moved from QB to WR or DB in college? The same goes for OL coaches and the center position.
Taking time to show a coach how to tutor QBs isn’t always practical. But it happened for ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery, a former wide receiver.
"It’s not as hard as you might think it is," Montgomery, who coached WRs during David Cutcliffe’s first two years at Duke, said. "But you have to be diligent first. I think there’s a certain level of intelligence that you have to have to coach that position, as well as any other position on the field. But you also have to leave your ego at home."
Montgomery returned to Duke after a stint with the Steelers, to coordinate the passing game. Cutcliffe, a noted QB tutor who also did not play the position in college, mentored Montgomery and promoted him to offensive coordinator/QB coach.
Across all positions, about 26% of assistants are black. That’s better than the situations at QB and OL coach, but still only about half the percentage of black players.
And not all jobs on a staff are judged equally. Some assistants are tagged as recruiters. They’re valued for their ability to develop rapport with teenage boys, typically ones who are black.
There are position groups where you can hide recruiting-centric coaches. Running back is often one. While recruiting is vital to program-building and a niche to build a career upon, the "recruiter" tag can keep a coach rooted below the coordinator level.
And almost any assistant who wants to become a head coach must first become a coordinator.
Level 3: If you can’t work with QBs, it’s harder to become an OC.
In Montgomery’s coordinator interviews, he noticed a trend. Head coaches, including Montgomery himself, want their QBs and play callers telepathically linked.
"There is a bias [toward QB coaches], because I think that you need to be looking through [the QB’s] eyes calling a game, and I think that you have to be looking in his eyes to coach him in the game," Montgomery said. "So I never want a coordinator to be coaching receivers and come over and tell my quarterback, ‘Hey my receiver was wide open.’ No, no, no, no, no, that’s not the way it works."
This might not bar black applicants from coordinator positions, but it sure doesn’t help those who didn’t play QB. The Power 5 has only 13 black offensive coordinators, making black OCs less than half as frequent as black players.
"The seeds have been sewn over a number of decades, going way back before football was even a sport," Pitts said. "Even if this white head coach today doesn’t have any explicit racial prejudice, perhaps the decisions he’s making today are influenced by ages and ages of explicit racial prejudice."
If black men get fewer chances to play QB and thus rarely get to coach QBs, they aren’t building the expertise to be OCs.
Level 4: Coordinator experience is almost required to become a head coach.
Of the 128 non-interim head coaches in FBS, only 14 had no previous coordinator experience.
Of the 43 FBS head coaches who played quarterback (the most common former position among head coaches), 39 previously worked as both OCs and QB coaches.
Therefore, the most common path to becoming a major college head coach is shut off to a large percentage of black men in football, partly because of the positions they played in college.
Among FBS head coaches, 26 played defensive back and 18 played wide receiver. Those groups heavily feature black players, but only seven of 14 black head coaches come from those two groups.
Black players can still become head coaches, even if they played non-central positions.
For one thing, there will always be head coaches who didn’t play quarterback or center. Six of FBS’ black head coaches played defense.
For another, many head coaches believe in greatly expanding the skills of their assistants. Montgomery says he can train a coach to run any position unit.
"We [in the coaching profession] push ‘em to graduate," Montgomery said. "We don’t [often enough] push ‘em to graduate with a 3.0, so they can actually get into grad school, so I can have them as a graduate assistant. That is gonna be a direct line to a position coaching job, which will push them to a coordinator job, which will push them to a head coaching job.
"I was a receiver that was coached to coach quarterbacks. Just let me get my hands on him in the graduate assistant role, and then he can choose what he wants to do, and then we can progress him by interviews, by training, by one-on-one work with the student-athletes, by things that you could never imagine that would progress him in the coaching world."
But at the institutional level, the fixes are more complex.
College football does not have a version of the NFL's Rooney Rule, which mandates a team must interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant head coaching or senior executive role. Teams run the risk of a monetary penalty if they don’t comply.
College football’s progress toward a version has amounted to buzzwords and a toothless petition.
In September 2016, the NCAA asked its members to sign a non-binding pledge "to specifically commit to establishing initiatives for achieving ethnic and racial diversity, gender equity and inclusion with a focus and emphasis on hiring practices in intercollegiate athletics to reflect the diversity of our membership and our nation."
While many athletic directors signed, some said they had not seen it, one blamed a glitch, and Notre Dame and Boston College said the pledge didn’t go far enough.
A college Rooney Rule would require affecting the hiring practices of state universities, in addition to wrangling private schools. Oregon is the only state with a Rooney Rule for its public athletic departments.
Even when black men ascend to the highest positions, prejudices remain.
Before Charlie Strong had coached a game at Texas, one of the school’s most influential boosters called the hiring a "kick in the face."
"I think the whole thing is a bit sideways," [billionaire car dealer Red] McCombs said of the selection process during an interview with ESPN 1250 San Antonio. "I don't have any doubt that Charlie is a fine coach. I think he would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator.
"But I don't believe [he belongs at] what should be one of the three most powerful university programs in the world right now at UT-Austin. I don't think it adds up."
Strong later made mistakes, like not kowtowing to Texas’ high school coaches and never getting both sides of the ball working at once. But arguments about Strong’s qualifications had followed him for years, despite him coordinating two national championship defenses and piloting Louisville to a BCS bowl victory.
Strong has acknowledged the popular notion that he was passed over for jobs because his wife is white. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported years ago that two SEC coaches said Turner Gill’s interracial marriage meant Gill was never a valid option for Auburn.
Although Montgomery and Strong followed black head coaches at their current roles, that’s the exception. A 2015 study by FootballScoop.com found that, dating back to 2000, 29 black FBS coaches have changed jobs, and only five had black successors. Strong became the sixth, when he replaced Willie Taggart at USF.
Strong has spoken of the pressure caused by the idea that an individual represents an entire race.
"When I decided to take this job, I can’t tell you the number of coaches that called and said, oh my God, are you kidding me? You got it!" Strong said. "Because they know — everyone across the country sees it now, too. It’s not one of those where they’re not watching. They’re all watching."
Montgomery, when asked if he’d ever had a black head coach during his playing career, said he hadn’t.
"That will change," he said about the future of coaching. "That will change. Not quick enough, but that will change."