Coaching: Colleges’ (Un)Level Playing Field
The high-profile hiring of Tyrone Willingham as the head football coach at Notre Dame University earlier this year ended an extensive — and controversial — search at the prestigious institution. Although the hiring of an African American by the nation’s most storied football program was significant, the total number of Black coaches in NCAA Division I-A actually decreased this past winter. In spring 2002, only 4 of 115 of head coaching positions are occupied by African Americans.
Since the conclusion of the 2000 season, there have been 34 head-coaching vacancies. Only two African Americans have been hired: Dr. O. Fitzgerald Hill at San Jose State University in 2000 and Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame in 2002.
In Division I-A football schools, there is anecdotal evidence that African American coaches perceive a glass ceiling. In general, they are relegated to non-central assistant coaching positions and then, typically only if a Black coach previously held the position. In a sport where more than half (53 percent) of the athletes are Black, African American coaches are grossly underrepresented. Fewer than 5 percent of all head coaches and just over 20 percent of all assistant coaches are African American.
In order to investigate this issue further, we conducted a study focusing on the following question: What are the perceptions of White and Black coaches regarding opportunities for African Americans in the ranks of Division I-A NCAA football coaching?
Our study employed data from a survey of 50 items related to advancement opportunities and barriers for African American coaches in NCAA football. Surveys were distributed to all assistant and head coaches — 251 African American and 889 coaches of other ethnicities (mostly White). Surveys have been returned by 110 Black coaches and 189 White (or other) coaches. Two strong themes have emerged in the survey results: African American coaches continue to perceive inequities in the allocation of coaching opportunities in NCAA Division I-A college football, and Black coaches and White coaches clearly disagree on this issue.
Black coaches tend to argue that opportunities are not equal; they are not accepted by White coaches as equals; coaching decisions are not based on professional knowledge; Blacks interviewed and hired are “tokens”; and changes such as diversity programs are needed. On the other hand, White coaches appear to believe hiring decisions are based on merit and all candidates for head coaching positions are treated as equals. For example, 64 percent of the White respondents agreed with the statement, “Black football coaches have the same professional opportunities as White coaches.” Among the Black coaches, only 13 percent agreed. Similarly, while 87 percent of the White respondents agreed that, “Black coaches have been accepted as equals by their White colleagues,” only 21 percent of Black coaches agreed.
Why is this study important? The pressure to win at the NCAA Division I-A level is intense and has greatly increased the opportunities for Black student-athletes. When athletic ability and skill are the most important factors in determining the success of football programs, African Americans have found many doors of opportunity open to them. In contrast, however, the number of Black football coaches has not increased in similar fashion.
The next step is to investigate in a careful way whether the concerns of the African American coaches are well founded. The underrepresentation of Blacks in leadership and coaching roles may be due to the institutional biases or individual biases. Alternatively, the situation might also be due to a lack of African Americans applying for open jobs. To examine this problem more deeply, we need good information about who applies for coaching jobs and how the hiring decisions are made. This is perhaps the most important implication of this study.
— Dr. O Fitzgerald Hill is head football coach at San Jose State University. Dr. Gary W. Ritter is an assistant professor, Dr. John W. Murray an associate professor and Candice Hufford a research
assistant, all at the University of Arkansas.
A working version of this paper was presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the North American Society for Sport Management in Virginia Beach, Va.
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