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College football is out of excuses for not hiring Black coaches

We must demand college presidents and reluctant athletic directors to make these hires

For the last three decades, African American athletes have been the economic engine of big-time college football.

Black talent will again be on display Monday night when Ohio State plays Alabama in the national championship game. The majority of starting players on each team are Black and that includes each of the team’s star players.

Alabama’s dynamic receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is expected to be a high NFL draft pick.

But when it comes to power and authority in college football, African Americans are largely locked out. The story of exclusion is not new, but the persistence of the story reinforces the notion that resistance to equality is just as enduring as movements to effect change.

The power dynamic in college football is not unlike the antebellum plantation, where Black labor was used to create and sustain white wealth. This year, there are 10 Black head coaches in Power 5 conferences. Two of the Power 5 conferences – including the SEC, of which Alabama is a member, and the Big 12 – do not have a Black head coach. The Big 12 has not hired a Black head coach since 2016.

There are notable exceptions to the exclusion. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is the only Black Power 5 commissioner. Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, is one of seven Black athletic directors at Power 5 institutions.

A Cleveland native and Notre Dame alum, Smith was named the Ohio State athletic director on March 5, 2005. He served as director of athletics at Arizona State, Iowa State and Eastern Michigan.

We met in the late 1980s when Smith was the athletic director at Eastern Michigan. Even then Smith was interested in discussing how African Americans who played college football, especially at major programs, could move into leadership positions. Early in Smith’s career, he spent a lot of time trying to get African Americans into the coaching pipeline.

For a younger generation used to seeing Black players as a dominant force in college football, it’s beyond belief that for many years predominantly white institutions refused to recruit Black athletes.

“When I was at Arizona State we had sessions every summer,” Smith recalled during a recent phone conversation. “It would be about 20 athletic directors and 10 to 12 Black assistant coaches, top ones in the country. We’d come together for three days. There would be sessions and seminars. Those ADs had a chance to meet those coaches.”

The NCAA has a moderately successful minority leadership institute, “but we don’t have a real good program where all the ADs come together anymore and talk about and meet Black assistant coaches,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get back to that.”

Twenty years ago the community of assistant Black coaches was much smaller than it is today. Now there is a larger pool of Black assistants, but Smith said he is not as familiar with them as he’d like to be. As his influence has increased over the years, Smith has become more focused on getting African Americans into administrative positions such as athletic directors.

“We haven’t done that with the coaches; on the football side, we’ve lost focus,” Smith said. “I have some guilt about that. Back in the day if you asked me who the top 10 Black assistants were, I could rattle off Leslie Frazier and Ryan Cooper. We’ve got to get back to that.”

For a younger generation used to seeing Black players as a dominant force in college football, it’s beyond belief that for many years predominantly white institutions refused to recruit Black athletes.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren speaks during the Big Ten championship trophy ceremony after the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 22-10 on Dec. 19, 2020, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant opened the door for integration when he recruited Wilbur Jackson. Jackson became the first Black player to be offered a football scholarship at the University of Alabama.

“Bear Bryant opened the door,” Smith said. “It took brave people at the beginning to make that happen. He set a standard.”

Bryant and Alabama famously got religion in 1970 when the Crimson Tide were soundly beaten in Birmingham by a heavily integrated University of Southern California team. In the next 10 years, other SEC programs began to desegregate their football programs.

More than 50 years later, Black players have been embraced and recruited with a breathtaking enthusiasm, according to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database. In the SEC, 61% of players are Black.

“It’s been earned,” Smith said, referring to the preponderance of Black players. “If you want to win, you know you’ve got to do it.”

But while the college football establishment has embraced the wholesale recruitment of young Black football players, the establishment has been resistant to using that same pool to identify and groom Black talent as administrators and ultimately head coaches.

The question is not why, we know why: systematic and institutional racism.

The question is how do African Americans in the college sports industry move this mountain.

“There are a lot of reasons there haven’t been hires,” Smith said. He conceded that there are some athletic directors who simply will not hire a Black head coach. “Some people just aren’t going to do it,” he said. “In their environment, they’re just not going to do it. I do believe that we could do a better job of putting in front of the hiring authorities more people of color so the list is bigger.”

He added: “We just need to do a better job of positioning qualified Black candidates to be head coaches. We need a stronger effort there. I think we have to get more strategic and more tactical.”

There is a critical mass of influential Black athletic directors who can reach out to various presidents in the Power 5 universe when vacancies arise. There are African American athletic directors at places such as Michigan, Stanford, Auburn and Virginia.

Big-time programs such as Ohio State and Alabama have long understood the value of African American athletes. Just look at Monday night’s title game.

“Now if there’s a job open somewhere, I know which Black ADs are interested in that job and I can call that president,” Smith said. “Warde Manuel [Michigan] can call that president. Bernard Muir [Stanford] can call that president. Stan Wilcox [NCAA] can call that president,” Smith said. “Back in the day, it was just me. That was the good ol’ boys system. Now we can do it. Now I got powerful Black brothers in AD positions who can say, ‘Hey, Martin Jarmond would be great at UCLA. Who knows that president?’ ”

In May, Jarmond became UCLA’s first Black athletic director.

“I think presidents and ADs will make that hire,” Smith said. “I just don’t think we’ve done as good a job in helping those ADs know who the talent is. We have got to find a way to elevate more Black leadership in our head-coaching ranks.”

Big-time programs such as Ohio State and Alabama have long understood the value of African American athletes. Just look at Monday night’s title game.

The trick is to convince college presidents and reluctant athletic directors that hiring Black head coaches and administrators is just as good for business.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.