Hot take from USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken who thinks Mississippi State fans should rain the boos down on Dan Mullen, who returns this Saturday, but as head coach of the Florida Gators. USA TODAY
Super Bowl XLI was a watershed moment in NFL history. For the first time, black head coaches had led their teams to the sport’s biggest stage: Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears became the first coaches of color to reach the Super Bowl, and Dungy, following a 29-17 win, was the first to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
For black coaches across all levels of competition, the moment represented a potential turning point for a profession that only within the previous two decades — the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 made Art Shell the first black head coach of the NFL’s modern era — had started to see minority candidates seriously considered for openings on the professional and college ranks.
“There was a sense among coaches, black coaches specifically, that now that you’ve seen a black coach win a Super Bowl, that would open up more opportunities for others,” said Penn State coach James Franklin.
There have been gains made in the past decade. There were just three black head coaches in the Bowl Subdivision in 2008, the fewest since 1993, following the resignation of former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom. There are now 15, with at least one minority head coach in every conference but the Big 12.
Yet of the 22 coaching changes in major college football following last season, just three involved a minority hire — and just one of those three, Arizona State and Herm Edwards, involved a black coach who was not already a head coach on the FBS level. And while the number of black head coaches has grown by one since last season, the total still represents just 11 percent of all head coaches at a time when black athletes comprise nearly 56 percent of rosters.
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“It’s always been that way,” said Florida State coach Willie Taggart. “It’s changing, probably not as fast as we want it to, but it is.”
Even amid slight gains, the relative dearth of black head coaches is a crucial issue in coaching, leading educators and university administrators to grapple with what steps, if any, can be taken to address the disproportionately low number of minority figures in college football’s leadership roles.
“Until we get sustained change over a long period of time, I’m not ready to say we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Meanwhile, even established and successful head coaches of color come under increased levels of scrutiny, as shown in an anonymous survey of FBS head coaches conducted in August by CBS Sports.
Three of the nine coaches labeled as “overrated” in the survey were black: Franklin, Taggart and Stanford’s David Shaw. One anonymous coach said that Franklin’s coaching peers “know he’s full of it,” and that “he’s a good marketer.” Another said of Shaw, caustically, “it’s like (he’s) God’s gift to football.”
The results of the survey contradict each’s on-field success.
Shaw has led Stanford to 77 wins in 99 games during his eight seasons at Stanford, including three trips to the Rose Bowl. Franklin had two nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt, before taking the job at Penn State. He has overseen the rebuilding of the Nittany Lions back among the national elite. And Taggart built up programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida before his one season at Oregon that led to being hired as Jimbo Fisher’s replacement in Tallahassee.
Shaw and Franklin will be in the spotlight in the two biggest games of the college football weekend when No. 7 Stanford travels to No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 9 Penn State hosts No. 4 Ohio State.
“That’s got to be concerning,” Franklin said of the survey. “You sit here and you say, ‘Well, of all the coaches in the country, these are the coaches that are mentioned?’ That seems odd. It seems odd.”
The results run deeper than mere coincidence, said Mehri, who co-founded the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the NFL.
“With every step of progress there’s an undercurrent against it. That’s how I read that.”
There is also unquestionably an equally disproportionate number of minority assistant coaches in positions most likely to lead to an opportunity as a head coach, as either an offensive or defensive coordinator. Just three of the 25 coordinators or co-coordinators in the Big 12 are black, for instance. Each of the eight first-time FBS head coaches hired prior to this season, all of whom are white, occupied a coordinator position in 2017.
As a result, there is a lack of diversity in the coaching “pipeline,” as Lapchick put it, of current assistant coaches identified as being part of the next wave of future head coaches.
“Unless someone owns this issue and develops what we call a ‘ready list’ of coaches, the numbers are going to be flat,” said Cyrus Mehri, the co-author of a 2003 paper that heavily influenced the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that organizations must interview at least one minority candidate for a head coach opening.
The underrepresentation of black coaches is mirrored on the administrative level. Fourteen of the 130 athletics directors were black as of last October, according to Lapchick’s College Sport Racial & Gender Report Card for 2017. Athletic directors are “going to generally turn to people they know,” said Lapchick.
“It’s access to the decision makers,” Shaw said. “For those athletics directors, presidents and provosts that are involved in the process, the committees and search firms, it’s providing access to those viable candidates.”
Some of the NFL’s success in promoting minority candidates for open positions is almost certainly a result of the Rooney Rule. The FBS implemented a similar policy in 2008, though it differed in one key respect: While mandating that universities interview a minority candidate for an opening at head coach, it did not include penalties for a failure to comply.
But while the Rooney Rule had teeth, NFL franchises could also see a number of minority head coaches reach the pinnacle of their profession — Dungy and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2006 and 2007, and Smith and former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell reached the Super Bowl in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
Barring a shift toward adopting a Rooney Rule-like policy — Lapchick offered up a plan named after former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson — future opportunities for minority candidates might be driven by the current crop of minority head coaches: In terms of coaching diversity, college football’s own watershed moment might not come until the first national championship won by a black head coach.
“I will tell you that I do think that guys like David Shaw and myself and (Taggart), I think we do feel like we carry an extra weight,” Franklin said. “And I think there’s that same feeling in college football, that a lot of us carry that weight that if we are successful, that’s going to create opportunities for others.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.