Three nights after Barack Obama became the first minority President-elect of the United States, I'm left wondering about one of the most tried-and-true topics in college football: the scarcity of black head coaches. If an African-American can be president, why not coach football?
Indeed, feeding off the election and the departures of Ron Prince and Ty Willingham, numerous media outlets have reported the number of African-American head coaches at FBS schools dropping to four. FIU's Mario Cristobal adds the lone Hispanic and Ken Niumatalolo at Navy, a Samoan-American, brings the grand minority count to six.*
That would be roughly 3.3% black coaches and 5.0% minority, an apparent disparity against the 55% of players who are minorities.
Why, in a world where an African-American can rise to the highest office on the planet, do minorities have such a hard time getting head coaching positions in a sport they dominate at the player level?
The answer to the apparent paradox is a conclusion that might startle some: it takes more qualifications to be a head football coach at the FBS level than it does to be President.
To move James Carville into the sporting realm (against the wishes of sports fans everywhere): it's the candidate pool, stupid.
The only absolute requirements to be President are an age over thirty-five, natural-born citizenship, and residence in the States for fourteen years. There's also a variety of practical requirements: no jail time, respectable education, service record, and, most importantly, the ability to raise ungodly heaps of cash.
To be a head football coach, one first has to have a bachelor's degree to even be in the candidate pool. On the practical front, most fan bases, boosters, and administrators require a lengthy resume of football exploits. I would estimate ten years of coaching experience to get a head job at a lower-tier school, while most upper-crust jobs require proven head coaching experience at a sizable school.
Consider Brian Kelly, current head coach at Cincinnati. Kelly won two Division II national titles en route to compiling a 118-35-2 record at Grand Valley State. He then turned the Central Michigan program from 4-7 to 6-5 and then to 9-4, a bowl game, and continued success atop the conference. At the beginning of 2007, Kelly was entering his 20th year of football coaching.
Could he have been named the head coach at Alabama? Heck no. Miami? No. Boston College? Probably not. Michigan State? Perhaps, but not as a first choice.
Meanwhile, Obama, with a mere twelve years of elected public service (only four of those at the national level and zero in an executive capacity) was found to be more than qualified for the highest office in the land by a majority of voters.
I point these things out merely to show the resistance inherent to college football. The way we flippantly speak of head coaching vacancies, we act as if it should be easy to find an African-American to coach.
But do a quick hypothetical. Say Urban Meyer leaves Florida, or Pete Carroll leaves USC. Name one African-American who those schools would happily accept as head football coach.
Found one yet? Don't worry if you haven't; there isn't one, at least not if we're being honest with ourselves** (and frankly there's very few white men who would qualify either).
In truth, there are only two logical ways to improve the minority ranks at the head coaching level:
1. Lower expectations and qualifications for head coaches.
2. Increase minority presence in the actual candidate pool.
The first is an impossibility in the high-stakes world of college football.
The second takes far more effort than most administrators actually want to exert.
Consider two alternate ways of looking at the destruction of the Presidential race barrier. The first is as the success story of a single charismatic politician. The second is as the systematic result of forty-four years of genuine electoral freedom and integration from the bottom-up.
Before a minority could become President, there really needed to be enough minorities in the political system to where the odds of one attaining the highest post increased in probability to the point where it was likely to happen. While Obama is certainly a political savant, he comes from a pool that includes 42 other black congressmen and numerous other minorities constantly gaining strides at lower levels.
Why should college football be any different?
Instead of actively working to increase the minority candidate pool at all levels, college football critics point solely to head coaching positions, often demanding that African-Americans be interviewed for positions regardless of intent to hire or even, in some cases, legitimate merit, a spin-off of the NFL's "Rooney Rule."
Sadly, this approach, like many well-to-do affirmative action schemes, completely ignores the root problems that cause a shortage of black coaches at the top level.
It's the candidate pool, stupid.
A bachelor's degree is an often-forgotten first requirement towards being a college coach. And the sad reality is that black student-athletes more often leave college without degrees than white student-athletes.
In 2004, Black Issues in Higher Education*** found that while 56% of LSU's white players graduated, only 34"% of their black student-athletes did. They are by no means alone. The disparity was 30% for Ohio State (58% to 28%), 35% for Georgia (86% to 51%), 52% for Tennessee (78% to 26%), 27% for Minnesota (58% to 31%), 24% for Washington State (71% to 47%), 28% for Nebraska (69% to 41%), and on and on and on. All parts of the country, all sizes of school, same big, glaring problem.
Anyone who really wants to see more African-American coaches in college football must solve this issue first. The difference in who walks away with a degree is not only striking (and in my opinion appalling), but it also completely undercuts anyone who throws out the participation numbers.
So what if the players are 50% black if only a third of them even gain the simplest qualification to be a head coach? Until African-Americans graduate in numbers equal to their white peers, college football will continue to be run by white men.
Those who ignore this vital facet, instead focusing solely on the interviewing process at one segment of the food chain, sadly underrate the severity of the issue by removing it from its broader context. A lack of minorities isn't just an issue at the head coaching level, but also at the level of university presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and even those working support functions in athletic departments.
This isn't an isolated issue of an imbalance between a high number of black players and a low number leading them. Rather, it's a segment of a systemic issue. The NCAA is not the NFL and demanding an extra interview for each vacancy will not solve a darned thing.
Rather, to genuinely fix the disparity, more black athletes need to be finishing their degrees. This will naturally increase African-American presence in the candidate pool.
But we also must remember there are crucial spots on the chain between graduation and head coach. The most important of these are the two coordinator positions.
In the vaunted Big XII, currently the best conference in college football, three of the twenty-six coordinator and co-coordinator positions are held by African-Americans by my count (Ruffin McNeal, Texas Tech Defensive Coordinator; Brian Norwood, Baylor Defensive Coordinator; and Trooper Taylor, Oklahoma State Co-Offensive Coordinator). While that's more than 10%, it's still relatively small considering the number of black players.
How can we reasonably expect more black head coaches when the number of coordinators is not as high as one would expect?
You want more black head coaches? Get more black coordinators.
Want more black coordinators? Get more black position coaches.
Want more black position coaches? Get more black graduate assistants.
Want more black graduate assistants? Get more blacks to graduate.
It's a simple chain fed by roughly the same candidate pool, and not enough African-Americans are getting in the pool in the first place.
Again, the whole system falls on something bigger than football: racial disparity in the education system. While I have no immediate answers to solve that crisis, I think it's important to realize it, and not some other concocted reason, is why we don't see more black head coaches.
Guaranteeing interviews to qualified African-Americans might be a respectable start, but in the end it returns to meaningless lip service if the overall imbalance in the educational system remains intact.
Though no topic has been hashed and rehashed in American academia more than race relations, few, if any, athletic departments would ever want to take steps to do its part to close the racial gap in education.
However, one thing the NCAA can, and should, do is penalize schools with excessive disparities between black athletes and other football players, schools who, for lack of a better term, "use" black athletes as mere devices for athletic gain. Programs would have to think twice before admitting a student-athlete who they didn't think could graduate, even if he did have a world-beater 40-yard dash.
Such a scheme would do more to promote genuine academic investment in African-Americans and consequently allow more to graduate and potentially coach. But in the end, it all comes down to starting at the bottom, with the student-athlete getting his diploma and possibly becoming a graduate assistant.
Until that starts happening on an equal scale to whites, the sports polemicists will still write their yearly half-baked articles bemoaning the dearth of African-American coaches that blame the NCAA or "racist" athletic departments for what is, at root, a societal problem, in which they are most certainly a part.
* - source: "Study: Black Coach Numbers Lowest in 15 Years." http://www.sportsline.com/collegefootball/story/11087476/2
** - I'm eliminating Charlie Strong due to the fact that much of the criticism directed at Ron Zook was that he had never had success as a head football coach prior to Florida and that the U of F deserved someone who was a proven winner, which he isn't. I'll admit I'm not a Gator fan, but I can't imagine Turner Gill going over well there as a head coach choice, either, at least not now.
*** - source: "Graduation Rates of America's Top-Ranked College Football Teams." http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0DXK/is_/ai_112409398