Coaches, ADs jump-start conversation around increasing minority hires
After two days of career advice from NFL and college coaches, administrators and agents, North Texas assistant football coach Brad Davis came back to a lesson he learned from his father.
It's better to be prepared for an opportunity and not get it than to get one and not be prepared.
Davis and eight other minority college coaches attended the Advocates for Athletic Equity's (formerly the Black Coaches Association) inaugural Achieving Coaching Excellence Football Coordinators Program in Indianapolis last week, at a hotel not far from the NFL scouting combine. The participants heard from coaches such as Texas A&M;'s Kevin Sumlin, Alabama's Nick Saban and the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis; athletic directors Barry Alvarez from Wisconsin and Jack Swarbrick from Notre Dame; and other power players like prominent coaching agent Trace Armstrong.
The participants can't predict whether or when their opportunities to lead major college programs will arrive, but they want to be ready should a door open. Minority coach hiring in college football remains scarce: According to the NCAA, just 10.7 percent of Division I (FBS and FCS) coaches are ethnic minorities (14 percent in FBS), excluding those at historically black institutions. There are only eight minority coaches leading Power 5 programs. About 57 percent of college football players, meanwhile, are black.
"There's a grooming, an education going on here," said Davis, the offensive line coach and run game coordinator at North Texas. "Listening to these guys talk about what's important -- the organization, the detail, the amount of planning -- it's powerful. This isn't the abolitionist movement. That's where it gets mistaken. What we're trying to do is promote equality in the hiring process. But you want to be in a position because you're the best fit and the most desirable candidate, not because of the color of your skin."
Here are five takeaways from the seminar.
Lesson No. 1: Don't be afraid to say no, especially after asking the right questions
It seems counterintuitive, but one way to boost the number of minority head coaches in college football is for candidates to become pickier about jobs. Several presenters urged participants not to chase titles and money.
"We are in a position as African-American coaches that we just want to get a head-coaching job, and it might not be at the best one," Kent State coach Paul Haynes told the group.
"Do you fit in there? They know that you want the job, so what do you do? You don't ask a lot of questions. You just sit there and say yes," Haynes said. "Five years from now, you're going to try to get the job you've got now because you took a job as a head coach where you couldn't succeed."
Haynes then outlined questions candidates should ask: How does the budget compare to the rest of the league? What are the expectations for football? What are the athletic director's goals and the president's goals for football? Does the budget equal the expectations?
Sumlin recalled several unorthodox career decisions he made. As an Oklahoma assistant, he turned down a Pac-12 head-coaching job before landing at Houston ("Bob [Stoops] said, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'I can win at Houston'"). He left his post as Minnesota's quarterbacks coach -- a position thought to have the most direct path to coordinator -- to coach wide receivers at Purdue.
"There was a lot of pressure," Sumlin said. "I got phone calls from people saying, 'You can't do that.'"
Lewis said too many black college assistants move for status and salary. He remembers the black assistants he admired as a young college coach, men who wore sharp suits and seemed to be going places.
"They continued to move from school to school," Lewis said, "but they never became the coordinator. It's a shame."
Lesson No. 2: Win over the wealthy and powerful
At Oklahoma, Sumlin always attended Sooners in the Desert, an annual golf weekend/fundraiser in Palm Desert, California. Other Sooners coaches stayed home, but Sumlin knew the event drew Oklahoma's top boosters.
"That's your opportunity, man," Sumlin said. "It's a chance for other people to see you in a different light than the guy with the visor on, coaching."
Sumlin encouraged participants to be visible and to meet as many administrators and other decision-makers as possible. He used to fill in for Texas A&M; coach R.C. Slocum at meetings, where he learned about budgets. He found booster organizations to speak to while out recruiting in May. Sumlin equates those speeches to fundraising, a must for any head-coaching candidate.
"It's important to have someone who can communicate their plan for success ... to the alumni and fans," Alvarez told the group.
Entering exclusive circles and establishing mutual comfort is difficult for any coach, especially minorities who don't come from privilege. But the simple truth is those who don't extend themselves to university gatekeepers usually end up locked out.
"You have to be willing to take that step," said Oklahoma secondary coach Kerry Cooks, a program participant. "Sometimes if you don't move your other foot, you fall, but you have to be willing to get outside your comfort level and grow and reach out to people who don't look like you."
Lesson No. 3: Search firms are really important
The outreach process for aspiring minority coaches can't end with administrators and boosters. Search firm executives like Bob Beaudine and Dan Parker are pivotal figures, Sumlin said, perhaps even more so than coaches' agents.
If candidates aren't in search firm databases, their chances of landing FBS head-coaching jobs shrink.
"If you're not on a, 'Hey Dan, hey Bob,' basis, and they don't know your phone number, you're so far behind," Sumlin said. "Everyone calls them, even if they don't use them. You become part of a group of people who get exposure."
Alvarez famously doesn't use search firms but advised participants to connect with them. Swarbrick also handles coaching searches internally but acknowledged third parties "play a role in the system today."
"You should be intentional," he said, "about getting yourself in front of the key people at these firms."
Lesson No. 4: Master your craft while acquiring leadership skills
While the program encouraged participants to think ahead in their careers, it also reminded them to dominate the present. Swarbrick looks for candidates with clear reputations: the best special teams coach, the best recruiter and so on.
"Too often there's a diffusion of interest," he said. "Because they want to be a head coach, they're trying to learn a lot of different pieces. Make sure you can articulate, 'I do this and I'm better than anyone else in the country,' because then I'm going to have confidence you'll do the same with a larger opportunity."
Lewis told the participants to be "an expert in what you do." Coaching clinics or informal idea-sharing sessions with peers accelerate development. Although some minority coaches shun the recruiter label, they shouldn't downplay their on-the-trail prowess.
"People talk about how you're black, and you want to be known as a technician," Sumlin said. "But the further you go up this thing -- do not stop recruiting."
Lesson No. 5: The path for minority coaches in college football is tougher than the NFL
Because the seminar coincided with the combine, NFL coaches and others from the pro world were able to address the group. Their message: The NFL provides a faster track for minority coaches than college football does.
Lewis made four stops as a college position coach without a promotion to coordinator. It happened at his second NFL destination. He noted how NFL teams are comfortable hiring special teams coaches as head coaches. A similar jump in college is extremely rare.
The NFL has minority fellowship programs and the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates, but the NCAA couldn't enforce a similar mandate.
Sumlin called the NFL a "better deal" for minority coaches. Swarbrick acknowledged that NFL assistants are "more effectively profiled," and that he's likelier to know pro assistants than assistants on teams Notre Dame faces.
"We have to take the responsibility of nurturing talent," he said. "That may be the difference with the NFL because they see themselves as invested in a year-round basis. There's so much movement in college that maybe we don't. When I've got a [graduate assistant] who's really good, I've got to stay in touch with him after he leaves and takes his first assistant job. I've got to make sure other people are aware of him.
"The pool at the front end, at the biggest part of the funnel, is getting much more robust. I'm not sure we're nurturing it enough and helping it develop."
Last week's seminar was a positive step. While AAE/BCA for years held similar programs for minority basketball coaches, football coaches didn't have national forums to learn and network.
Afterward, Davis repeated a hard truth: It's possible none of the participants will lead major college programs. But if opportunities come, they'll be ready.
"I've got all this information, and now I want to go be the best freaking O-line coach that North Texas has ever had," Davis said. "That's what I'm thinking about, not how I can work for the Jets next year. That's it.
"From there, something will happen if it's meant to be."