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College Football Doesn’t Give Black Coaches Many Chances

Where Willie Taggart goes, so goes history. The 43-year-old — whose parents worked in migrant fields — landed head-coaching gigs at Oregon and Florida State, two of the most coveted jobs in college football, at a relatively young age. At each of his four stops as a head coach,1 Taggart was the first African American to hold the position on a noninterim basis.

Taggart was fired Nov. 3 after a mostly disastrous 21-game stint as the Seminoles’ coach — which resulted in the second-largest buyout ever paid out. Though Florida State was applauded in 2017 when it hired Taggart — becoming the first university since Stanford in 2012 to employ an African American athletic director, head basketball coach and head football coach — the odds were never high that Taggart would be replaced by another black man, given historical precedence.2

“Black coaches in college football do not get any measure of patience,” ESPN’s Bomani Jones said after Taggart’s firing. “When it’s time to fire the black coach, when it starts looking shaky, people typically don’t waste much time before they do it.”

From 2008 to 2018, there were 250 head-coaching transitions at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.3 Only 2 percent of those transitions saw one black head coach hand the keys over to another black head coach. Fifteen percent of the transitions involved a coach who did not identify as African American being replaced by someone who did, and 12 percent involved a coach who identified as African American being replaced by someone who didn’t. More than 70 percent of transitions involved two coaches who aren’t African American. Put a different way, an FBS program that switched head coaches from 2008 to 2018 was 68 percentage points more likely to have a coaching change that involved two men who didn’t identify as African American than to have one involving two African American men. And if a black coach either was fired or left to take another opportunity, there was less than a 1 in 5 chance that his successor was also black.

“Sports is a reflection of our society,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said. “When you see men of color that become coaches, assistant coaches, quarterbacks, it becomes normal. Are we still a little bit behind the times, as far as the practices of hiring and opportunity? Yeah.”

Just seven times in NCAA history has a Division I program replaced one African American head coach with another noninterim African American head coach. Nearly all of those instances involved the predecessor willingly leaving for another gig,4 and only one came after the former coach was fired.5

Since Willie Jeffries became the first African American head football coach at the Division I level in 1979, 68 Division I programs have hired an African American head coach. At the Power Five level, only Colorado has fired a black head coach and later hired another. In a century and a half, Tyrone Willingham is the only African American college football head coach to be fired and land at a program of similar caliber in the same role.

Since 1975, I could find only seven instances of an African American head coach being fired and receiving a second opportunity as a head coach.6

“I was never given a reason why I was fired,” former Colorado head coach Jon Embree said in 2012. “My answer is and will always be, we don’t get second chances.”

Embree understood the reality. From 2008 to 2018, just three of the 18 (16.6 percent) black head coaches who left their position at a Power Five school found another head-coaching opportunity at the same level.7 Conversely, 20 of the 92 (22 percent) head coaches who didn’t identify as African American and left their position landed in the Power Five.8 Some were even embroiled in scandals when they were hired elsewhere.9 This doesn’t even account for the numerous white head coaches who retired after lengthy careers over that stretch,10 nor does it account for the white head coaches who were subsequently elevated to head-coaching jobs in the NFL.11

For as long as there have been college athletics, there has been a lack of minority representation in positions of power. Until this year, there hadn’t been a nonwhite Power Five commissioner,12 and the 2018 Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s (TIDES) College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card found that 85.4 percent of FBS university presidents are white. More than 90 percent of all football head-coaching positions during the 2017-18 season were held by white men. “College sport continues to have some of the lowest grades for racial hiring practices and gender hiring practices among all of the college and professional sports covered by the respective Racial and Gender Report Cards,” wrote Richard Lapchick, Director of TIDES.

From 2008 to 2018, there were 152 Power Five head coaches. Only 21 identified as African American.

The 2019 FBS season began with 14 African American head coaches. Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock is one of the newest. He told me this offseason that a number of assistant coaches across the country reached out to him after he was named the first black head coach in program history. “Obviously it’s a great responsibility,” he said. “I want to make sure guys behind me have the same opportunity, so I need to maximize my opportunity and win a bunch of games.”

Ascending to the title of head coach in sports is often equated with climbing a ladder. For black men in Division I college football, it seems that a more appropriate analogy would be hiking up a mountain wearing scuba gear. Not only is the current landscape awash in systemic barriers that often render equal hiring practices impossible, there’s a considerable disparity in job security once those positions are obtained. And for African American men, should that first opportunity fall through, there’s a very low likelihood of receiving a second.

Stanford head coach David Shaw told me this offseason, “Being a head coach in major college football right now, there’s so much that isn’t X’s and O’s, that isn’t recruiting.” This much, we know.

Footnotes

  1. Which also included Western Kentucky and South Florida.

  2. Mike Norvell was named his replacement this weekend.

  3. For this exercise, I limited the definition of a noninterim head coach to be someone who was at the helm for at least six games in a given season.

  4. South Florida’s hiring Charlie Strong after Taggart left, Bowling Green State hiring Mike Jinks after Dino Babers left, Vanderbilt hiring Derek Mason after James Franklin left, Kent State hiring Paul Haynes after Darrell Hazell left, Miami (Ohio) hiring Don Treadwell after Mike Haywood left.

  5. East Carolina hiring Scottie Montgomery after it fired Ruffin McNeill.

  6. Two of those coaches — Ron Cooper and Turner Gill — effectively returned in an interim role, albeit one that filled my aforementioned requirements.

  7. Those three — James Franklin, Kevin Sumlin and Taggart — weren’t fired; they willingly departed.

  8. Many had been fired, including Bobby Petrino, Mike Leach, Mark Richt, Rich Rodriguez, Steve Sarkisian, Tommy Tuberville and Will Muschamp.

  9. Bobby Petrino, Houston Nutt, Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Steve Sarkisian.

  10. Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, among others.

  11. Bill O’Brien, Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly, Kliff Kingsbury, Jim Harbaugh.

  12. Kevin Warren will officially become Big Ten commissioner on Jan. 1.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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