Why doesn’t the SEC have any Black head football coaches?

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The SEC will have none for the second straight year, nearly 20 years after Sylvester Croom was hired by Mississippi State to become the league’s first Black head football coach.

A breakthrough, long overdue, and something college football urgently needed, HIS HIRING WAS VIEWED.

Sylvester Croom doesn’t believe that much, if anything, has changed for Black head coaches in college football, especially those in the Deep South, since that time nearly two decades ago. When Croom was hired by Mississippi State on December 1, 2003, he became the first Black head football coach in the SEC. “It’s not like anybody is asking for any favors,” Croom added. “What we’re asking is for guys to be raised to the kinds of places where they’re going to receive those chances,” said the group.

Despite his retirement from coaching at the age of 67, Croom continues to do his part to support Black coaches seeking head coaching positions. Later this year, as a member of the 2022 class, he will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player. He is familiar with both the sport and the struggles faced by Black men seeking to rise to the top of their fields.

Croom is also aware of his past. And he doesn’t need to be told that even though there have been 10 openings for Black head football coaches over the last three years, the SEC, a league with more than 60% Black players and 48% Black on-field coaches, won’t have any in 2022 for the second consecutive year. Only one Power 5 league, the SEC, has no minority head coaches. The ACC has two Black head coaches, while the Pac-12 and Big Ten each have three. Mexican American Dave Aranda plays for Baylor in the Big 12.

“It makes me really angry. If you look around now, nobody really mentions that I was the first in the SEC, “said Croom. “Take note of how disproportionately high the number of Black players and assistant coaches is. Yet here we are in the center of college football, and the SEC no longer has any Black head coaches.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he hears and feels Croom’s frustration and that it is “troubling” the league is without a Black head football coach for a second straight season. Sankey’s predecessor, the late Mike Slive, said repeatedly that Croom’s hiring as the SEC’s first Black head football coach — not the conference’s seven consecutive national titles — was the most significant event that happened under his leadership as the league’s commissioner.

Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, said that the league’s lack of a Black head football coach for a second straight season is “troubling” and that he understands and shares Croom’s dissatisfaction. The hiring of Croom as the SEC’s first Black head football coach—rather than the conference’s seven straight national championships—was frequently cited by Sankey’s predecessor, the late Mike Slive, as the most significant development to occur during his tenure as the league’s commissioner.

With regard to other sports, some of our athletic director roles, and at the president an d chancellor levels, Sankey stated, “We’ve had success adding diversity, but not recently in the head football coach position.” “We’ve developed standards to guarantee that the pools are diverse, but neither we nor I decide the hiring decisions. They are produced on the campus.

But this is not the situation we should be in.

In college football, Mike Locksley is exceptional because he is a Black head coach who had a second chance.

Croom took over a Mississippi State team that had only won eight games in the previous three years and was in danger of severe NCAA sanctions. He had an 8-5 record in his fourth season and was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2007. He lost his job when his team finished 4-8 the next season. What happens next?

After leaving Starkville, Croom ended his lengthy coaching career as an NFL assistant. “I received zero interviews, maybe one at a junior college,” Croom said. “Another issue that Black coaches deal with is this. They frequently don’t get another chance. It’s a one-and-done situation, so I advise men to choose a location where they will have the necessary resources and administrative assistance because that may be their last chance.”

That appeared to be Locksley’s situation for a while. After a disappointing stint as the leader of New Mexico (2-26 record), he spent four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Maryland. After the 2015 season, when head coach Randy Edsall was let go, Locksley received a call regarding an analyst position from then-Alabama OC Lane Kiffin.

I was lucky financially to be able to decline Lane’s call because I still had one year left on my previous contract, according to Locksley. “With Nick [Saban] at Alabama, it allowed me to take a break, refuel, collect my thoughts, and go behind the scenes after 15 years as a head coach or coordinator. I was able to access Nick and his program thanks to that, and that’s what helped me land the Maryland [head-coaching] position.”

The trajectory of Locksley’s career serves as a reminder of the significance of having Black coaches make key offensive decisions.

No primary offensive playcallers in the SEC will be Black for the third consecutive season starting in 2022. When athletic directors are searching for a head coach, they are often looking for someone with an offensive background and someone who has called plays because offense is what sells.

If we want to change things, more offensive players must be given opportunities by the playcaller, according to Croom.

Croom is prepared to respond to anyone who tries to use the small number of Black head coaches as an excuse by claiming that there aren’t enough talented Black assistants available.

I have a large list of them, so call me, Croom said. “I hold the coaches accountable for not promoting Black players, especially on the offensive side of the game. You notice it more on defense, and I’m not sure what it is on offense—perhaps it has to do with the stereotype that Black coaches aren’t intelligent enough. I sincerely hope not, but occasionally I feel like part of that is still present.”

This summer, Terrell Buckley, a Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots during his 14 years in the NFL, was chosen to lead the new Orlando XFL team. But over the past ten years, Buckley has coached cornerbacks in the college ranks, spending the last six seasons in the SEC at Ole Miss (2020–21) and Mississippi State (2016–19). He said that as a Black assistant coach, he felt “stuck and trapped” and was stereotyped as someone who “could recruit and only coach my position.”

When D.J. Durkin left for Texas A&M this winter, Buckley claimed he was not given an interview for the position of Ole Miss defensive coordinator. At that point, he realized he needed to take a different path if he wanted to develop his coaching career.

The 2019 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Buckley remarked, “There are a lot of Black coaches in that scenario, where we’re just not going to have the opportunity.” “The issue is that [Black] guys who are still coaching in college can’t express themselves freely because they have families and don’t want to alienate anyone. I can see that. It’s worse than most people realize, though.

On January 21, Buckley said that he and Ole Miss had “part ways,” and he expressed his frustration at not being given the chance to take over as coordinator after the Rebels improved their scoring defense from 107th in the country in 2020 to 51st in 2021.

It pains me to say this, but I believe that Black coaches aren’t treated equally, according to Buckley.

Coaches should also develop their assistant coaches, according to Croom, much like they do with players.

And the quarterback doesn’t always have to be the one with the sharp offensive mind, he continued.

As an illustration, Croom mentioned that Dabo Swinney, the head coach at Clemson, was formerly the receivers coach.

Croom criticized the incoming head coach of Virginia, saying, “Then look at what Dabo did with Tony Elliott when he was coaching running backs.” “Dabo advanced the man to the rank of coordinator after determining that he had a chance to hold that post based on his work. More of that is required, particularly at the SEC.”

That view was shared by Saban, who is beginning his 16th season as Alabama’s head coach. He stated that he wants to see more Black coaches given early-career opportunities.

As head coaches, “we have to incorporate more people early on,” Saban added. “I have a lot of graduate assistants, analysts, and interns.” “We need to make sure there is a sizeable minority presence, and the purpose for that is to develop those men so they can progress up the ranks to be in positions to be coordinators and have a shot eventually to be head coaches,” said the executive.

The “goal of exposing the best people available” has to be a priority for everyone in the industry, according to Saban, above and beyond the developing aspect.

Whatever the case, Saban added, “you’re at least raising awareness of who the best minority coaches are as they advance in their careers, whether it’s the best coordinators or the best people to be coordinators.”

The second-longest-tenured head coach in the SEC, Mark Stoops of Kentucky, said it is every head coach’s duty to “empower minority coaches inside your school.” Vince Marrow, a Black man who has worked with Stoops his entire career at Kentucky, is the associate head coach.

Vince has played a major role in helping us develop this program, according to Stoops. “He is the one who addresses the team when I’m not present. As head coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure that more minority coaches, like Vince, are given leadership chances.”

It is the duty of every head coach to “empower minority coaches inside your school,” according to Mark Stoops of Kentucky, who has the second-longest tenure in the SEC after Nick Saban. Vince Marrow, a Black man who has accompanied Stoops throughout his stint at Kentucky, is the associate head coach.

Vince has been instrumental in helping us create this program, according to Stoops. “He’s the one that speaks to the team when I’m not around. As head coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure that minority coaches like Vince are given additional opportunity and leadership positions.”

CROOM USUALLY REFLECTS on his time as a player and coach at Alabama under Bear Bryant. Croom was an All-SEC center for the 1973 Crimson Tide, who won the national title. Despite initially having little interest in coaching, Croom went on to work for Bryant at Alabama.

“In essence, Coach Bryant chose John Mitchell and me to coach. That is the situation’s reality “explained Croom. “Neither one of us had any intentions of doing it. We continued to enjoy the game, but he approached us and urged us to try something new.”

Mitchell was Alabama’s first Black football player and is now an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he was an assistant coach at LSU in 1990, he was also the SEC’s first Black defensive coordinator and the first Black assistant coach at Alabama.

And while there is no way to know for sure, Croom still holds the opinion that if Bryant had been alive when he applied for the Crimson Tide position, Alabama would have been the first SEC school to appoint a Black head coach, not Mississippi State.

In 2003, Croom was a finalist for the head coaching job at Alabama, which ultimately went to Mike Shula. When his alma institution contacted him prior to the 2003 season, Croom was the Green Bay Packers’ running backs coach. Croom had previously served under Bobby Ross as the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 1997 to 2000.

Croom declared, “If Coach Bryant had lived long enough, I would have been Alabama’s head coach.” “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that at all, and if Alabama had been the school to hire a Black coach, it would have revolutionized everything and made it possible for other more prestigious institutions in the SEC to do the same.”

That brings up Croom’s other important argument. It goes beyond simply landing a job. The goal is to place Black coaches in positions where they can succeed. Two of the five Black head coaches in the SEC’s history were at Vanderbilt (James Franklin and Derek Mason), one was at Kentucky (Joker Phillips), and one was at Mississippi State (Croom). These three institutions don’t have a history of football success.

When it comes to what Croom refers to as resource schools, where students have access to the tools necessary to excel, not many Black men are hired, he added. “That’s why, despite the fact that it wasn’t the SEC, I was ecstatic to see Marcus Freeman and Mel Tucker land jobs at Notre Dame and Michigan State, respectively. They were both really large.”

In his second season as coach, Tucker guided the Spartans to 11 victories the previous year. He became one of the highest-paid college football coaches last November after agreeing to a 10-year, $95 million contract.

“Numerous minority coaches have simply said “Thank you” to me, and I’ve received innumerable calls and stops thanking me. Thank you for persevering and paving the way “Tucker remarked.

When he was one of three contenders for the Tennessee position that finally went to Jeremy Pruitt, Tucker came dangerously close to being a head coach in the SEC.

Then-Defense Coordinator for Georgia, Tucker recalled, “They never informed me it was my position, but I assumed I had it. However, as my friend always says, “Thank God for answered prayers.”

University presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, and well-known boosters, according to Croom, make up the vast majority of those strongly involved in the hiring of head football coaches.

No doubt that enters into it, Croom remarked. “And then sometimes when a Black coach gets a top job, like Charlie Strong at Texas, there’s somebody putting him on notice.”

Red McCombs, a billionaire Texas benefactor and former owner of the Minnesota Vikings, claimed on a San Antonio radio show shortly after Strong was hired by Texas in 2014 that the decision was a “kick in the face” and that Strong would “be a fantastic position coach, maybe a coordinator.” Later, McCombs said he apologized to Strong by phone. After posting a 16–21 record in three seasons at Texas, Strong was let go. Before accepting the Texas job, he had a 23-3 record in his final two seasons at Louisville.

“I mean, you’ve got no chance when something like that happens. I don’t care what you do,” Croom said. “It’s hard to turn down Texas, but when you walk in there to that, you’re a dead man walking.”

Vanderbilt’s Candice Storey Lee is the first Black woman to lead an SEC athletic department. When she conducted her own search for a head football coach prior to the 2021 season, she considered a diverse array of candidates before landing on Vanderbilt alum and then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who is white.

“Clark Lea is our football coach, so I’m very clear about the fact that I hired the right person,” Lee said. “I’m also clear about the fact that I was committed to having a diverse pool. I did, and I selected who was best.

“The answer here is not that all coaches should look a certain way. That’s not a metric of success. A metric of success is that deserving people have an opportunity to truly compete for jobs, and the deserving people are much more diverse than what you would assume by looking at who actually gets the job.”

ACROSS THE BOARD, when questioned about the lack of diversity in college football coaching, people respond in the proper way.
To Croom, though, more is required.
That we’re still discussing this at all is disappointing, Croom said. “So, no, there hasn’t been nearly enough development. Let’s put an end to the discussion and do action instead.”

Locksley is taking action in response.

In June 2020, he established the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches. The organization’s goal is to develop, support, and produce minority football coaches at all levels. A subset of coaches that are a part of the NCMFC are chosen for the “Coalition Academy,” a mentoring program that matches powerful athletic directors with minority coaches. Freeman and Elliott, two members of the first class from the previous year, have been hired as head coaches at Notre Dame and Virginia, respectively, this year.

Some of the biggest and most recognizable personalities in football are on the NCMFC board, including Saban, Mike Tomlin, Ozzie Newsome, Bill Polian, and Doug Williams.

It only takes all of us, as you can see by looking at our board, Locksley stated. “We as minorities cannot be the sole ones fighting over a minority issue.”

Sankey points out that each institution choose who to hire. However, the SEC passed Bylaw 23 last summer, which mandates that institutions make a commitment to taking into account candidates from underrepresented groups when hiring for senior roles in their athletic departments.

“It is optional for finalists. Hirings are not required by it. We cannot accomplish it as a conference, “added Sankey.

In order to ensure that emphasis is made on having diverse applicants, the bylaw also requires a conversation with Sankey or a member of his staff prior to the start of the search process to fill the positions of AD, head coach, or senior women’s administrator.

Sankey added, “We’ve also tried to provide tools that our schools can access and are still working to do so, so that they can have the most up-to-date information about candidates for those roles.”

The league is attempting to put its own development framework into place so that candidates can be placed with search firms to help them get ready as their careers progress. Minority presence in all spheres is crucial, according to Lee, who was appointed Vanderbilt’s AD in May 2020.

“There are a lot of Black and brown male student-athletes who play football. If kids can’t picture themselves in positions of power, I believe that sends them a message that they start to internalize “said Lee, a three-degree Vanderbilt graduate who captained the Commodores’ women’s basketball team in 2002.

“It’s an issue if young people can’t picture themselves in important roles.”
Greg Byrne of Alabama stated one of the best things he and his peers can do when looking for head coaches is to think and explore outside of their own comfort zones and stop selecting from the same coaching trees all the time.

According to Byrne, “I think people are sometimes guilty of being narrowly focused on where a candidate pool could come from. “You might need to look in areas of the country other than your typical region if you want a diversified pool. Therefore, it starts to think differently from how you usually do.”

Nearly 20 years have passed since Larry Templeton, an SEC AD, hired Croom at Mississippi State by breaking the mold. He is aware of his position in league history. All he wants is more companionship. His appointment sparked a period from 2004 through 2020 during which the SEC had at least one Black head coach in all but one season (2009).

Croom added, “I assumed there would have been more.” “That surprises me, to be honest.

We’ve come full circle and are back where we started.

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