In early may, the University of Alabama had an opportunity to make history by hiring the first African American head football coach ever in the Southeastern Conference — and fumbled the ball. After firing football head coach Mike Price over an incident involving a stripper, the university — upon the urging of the Rev. Jesse Jackson — began interviewing Sylvester Croom, an African American running backs coach for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. But in the end, Miami Dolphins assistant coach Mike Shula, a white man, got the job even though Croom was equally (and some say more) qualified.
This is but the latest incident in which qualified African Americans have been turned down for head-coaching jobs within Division 1-A football, collegiate sports’ elite.
In fact, attend one of the 50 or so Division 1-A college football games played on any given Saturday this autumn and you’ll see that nearly half the players battling it out on the field are African American. Also, a good portion of the officiating team is black. Many of the fans cheering and jeering are African American as well. But take a look at the sidelines to the fellows wearing the headsets and you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach who isn’t white.
The stats paint a grim picture: of the 117 Division 1-A football teams, only 3.4% of them have black head coaches. They can literally be counted on one hand: Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame, San Jose State’s Fitzgerald Hill, Tony Samuel at New Mexico State, and Karl Dorrell at UCLA, who was hired following last season.
By comparison, more than 20% of the coaches in Division 1-A college basketball, the second most popular — and profitable — sport on many campuses, are black. It’s difficult to find worse stats for black coaches even among the ranks of major professional sports. During the 2001–2002 season, the NBA boasted the highest percentage (48%) of African American head coaches, with 14 counted among its 29 franchises. Though the NFL’s statistics are abysmal, NCAA football still lags behind its pro counterpart, which had two African American head coaches (6%) among its 32 franchises during the 2002 season (Marvin Lewis has since been hired by the Cincinnati Bengals, bringing that rate up to 9%). Even Hispanic-dominated Major League Baseball had eight African Americans (26%) calling the shots.
So what’s keeping potential black coaches on the bench? While the process for hiring coaches varies from university to university, it generally falls upon the school’s president or athletic director (AD) — a meager 2.9% of which are African American — to identify candidates and make the call. Sometimes, the AD will form a search committee made up of faculty and student-athletes to make recommendations. However, those with a financial or political interest in promoting a particular candidate can influence the selection process. Oftentimes, as has been prevalent in the NFL, the familiar face gets the nod — an old-boys’ club to which black folks have no membership.
“There’s a pattern for how whites and blacks are hired,” says San Jose State’s Hill.