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Diversity a Winner in NFL Head Coach Hires; Minorities Gaining Modest Ground in College Ranks

When the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts take to the field this Sunday for Super Bowl XLIV, there will be what has become a familiar sight on the sidelines: a Black head coach. Jim Caldwell became head coach of the Colts after Tony Dungy, the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, retired in January 2009.

A year ago, when Mike Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl, it seemed to some like a non-issue. Diversity seemed to be an increasing reality in the pro game. On the other hand, college football continued to be under fire for its blatant absence of head coaches of color.

It’s telling that Caldwell, the fourth African-American to lead a team to the Super Bowl, is the only one of the four to have held a head coaching job in the college ranks given that the odds of a minority becoming a head NFL coach over the past several years have been greater than attaining a Division I-A head football coaching position. Caldwell, the first African-American head football coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, led the Wake Forest University team from 1993 to 2000. Each of the four – Caldwell, Dungy, Tomlin, and Lovie Smith – worked as assistant coaches for college teams early on in their careers.

“When you look at the difference between the NFL and the collegiate, I think it’s in the chemistry of the situations,” said Floyd A. Keith, executive director of Black Coaches and Administrators (BCA). “The NFL has just two decision makers—the owner and a general manager or president.”

“The money and sphere of influence are simply the owner,” Keith added. “On the college side, we have probably six or seven different hoops. You’ve got the president. You’ve got the athletic director. Then you have a search group, which is becoming very influential on the high-profile jobs. They’re key because of how they can bring candidates to the table.”

“Then you’ve got the board of trustees,” he explained, “who have to put the stamp of approval. Also sitting at the table are these significant others of political or financial influence.” Keith noted that there may or may not be diversity among that group as well as among others who have some amount of influence in the decision.

Of course, hiring practices in the NFL did get a big push forward by the establishment of the Rooney Rule in 2003, a rule that mandates that NFL teams interview minority candidates for head coaching positions or face stiff fines. However the process began, the fact is that today six of the NFL’s 32 head coaches are African-American, nearly 19 percent.

On the college front, two years ago the BCA was exploring possible litigation as a means of creating diversity in the college game, which seemed at times incapable of change. The percentage of coaches of color in the Football Bowl Subdivision hovered around 5 percent. Keith now gladly reports a significant step forward. Thirteen of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches are African-American, seven of whom were hired in past few months.

“As we speak, there are currently 15 (minority) head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is practically double what it was a year ago,” Keith noted. “There were seven new hires of coaches of color.”

It is clear players—both pro and college—want a good coach, one who can help the team win.

“I think the NFL has recognized who the good coaches can be and are,” Keith said. It’s a positive that no one really much notices that the coaches are men of color. “That’s where we want it to be. You’re there because you’re a good coach, and you get hired because you’re a good coach.”

The college game is not yet there but perhaps is on the way. There have been a number of influences pushing colleges and universities to make positive choices. One is BCA’s annual report cards. Keith also credits the work of Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida-based Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

“He’s educated people as to what the disparities have been,” said Keith. “While we have made searches more transparent, I think his numbers have provided objective data.”

Keith also credited the late Dr. Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, who funded professional development programs and placed a priority on diversity and inclusion in college sports.

The Oregon House of Representatives recently passed something akin to the Rooney Rule for its state colleges. House Bill 3118 instructs state universities to interview qualified minority candidates for open coaching and athletic director positions.

“I hope it stays on track,” Keith said. “If we stay on track and folks win, things will take care of themselves.”

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