When Damon Evans was applying to become the University of Georgia’s athletic director in 2004, he was met with a lot of discouragement.
“You shouldn’t be applying for this job at this time,” he remembers people saying. Their tone was underlined with a sentiment that the SEC wasn’t ready for its first African American athletic director. Then after earning the job, he received lots of hate mail with racial slurs.
Evans, now at the University of Maryland as one of 14 African American athletic directors across the FBS, expected to see more progress in minority hiring across collegiate athletics all these years later.
Though the world of major college football has overwhelmingly white leadership, Maryland took a progressive step Wednesday with the installment of President Darryll Pines, Ph.D., becoming the first and only FBS school with an African American president, athletic director and head football coach (Mike Locksley).
“We all know the responsibility that we carry as Black men in these leadership positions,” Evans told Yahoo Sports. “Not only the responsibility to the institution as a whole in carrying out our jobs and the responsibility to our communities, but we also have a responsibility to help to grow the pool of minority candidates and to help others rise through the ranks to be able to achieve what we've been able to.”
College football’s glaring diversity problem
Despite the fact that 48.5% of FBS players were African American in 2019, only 10.8% of head coaches (14) were of the same race, while 86.2% (112) were white, according to the 2019 Racial and Gender Report Card released in early June by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES).
In terms of Division I football as a whole (excluding historically Black colleges and universities), only 7.3% of head coaches were African American, a slight improvement from 5.6% in 1995, per the same report.
The percentage has fluctuated over the years, but it has passed 10% only twice, most recently in 2012. The average percentage of African American head coaches each season since 2014 rounds out to 7.3%, further showing the lack of improvement.
“When people say that there's not systemic racism — it is there,” said Stan Johnson, executive director of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association. “The numbers just bear out that we're not growing. People hire people that look like them.”
With that systemic racism, intentional or unintentional, comes a myriad of excuses as to why minorities aren’t hired for leadership positions. The common narrative is that there aren’t enough qualified African American candidates, however much of the issue lies in the lack of opportunities for them to get needed experience, as well as the hiring process.
Of those 14 African American head coaches, eight had prior experience as an offensive coordinator in college or the NFL, while four held the same position on defense. Nine of the 14 also spent time as a head coach at another program, either in college or the NFL.
Getting those credentials is a feat in itself, with a wide disparity in hiring numbers at the coordinator level as well. Across the FBS in 2019, African Americans made up just 15.3% of offensive coordinators and co-coordinators. The numbers are slightly higher for defensive coordinators and co-coordinators at 18.4%.
“When the racial disparities exist there too, obviously that's going to hinder the moving up of significant numbers of African Americans to the head coaching position,” TIDES director Dr. Richard Lapchick told Yahoo Sports. “We have to look, especially at other schools that don't have leadership in the African American community in these positions, at the pipeline.”
Mike Locksley’s rare second chance
African American coaches are also usually given less time to turn around a program and then struggle to find other jobs after being fired. Tyrone Willingham is the only coach to be fired and subsequently hired at a program of the same caliber, taking over Notre Dame after a stint at Stanford.
“The lack of success that for the most part many of us have had as Black head coaches [relates to] the timeframe in which we get to try to turn a program around,” Locksley said. “We haven't been afforded those opportunities of five years at one position to really build it and grow it the way that you need to when the jobs that some of us take or have to take open up. So there's no doubt there's some things that hinder our ability to have the success we need to have to keep that door open for others.”
After six years at Maryland as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, as well as three seasons as Illinois’ offensive coordinator, Locksley earned his first head coaching gig with New Mexico in 2008. He was fired four games into his third season after posting a 2-26 record.
Looking back now, he says he “failed miserably” with the Lobos, but the experience allowed him to recognize his weaknesses. He knew he had to rebrand himself and add more to his resume to earn another chance as a head coach, especially with the cards already stacked against him.
From there, he spent four years as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Maryland. He was hoping to become the program’s head coach, but took a major pay cut to join Alabama’s staff as an offensive analyst in 2016.
He spent another two seasons under Nick Saban as the wide receivers coach and then the offensive coordinator in 2018. Locksley won the Broyles Award for the best assistant in college football on the same day he was hired to take over a struggling Terrapin program.
“It goes to show his steadfastness, his willingness to learn,” said Madieu Williams, who has known Locksley since his playing days at Maryland from 2001-03, well before Williams was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2010. “He has a growth mindset, and that's something folks that have been around Locksley can always say.”
Another Terrapin player from that era, running back Bruce Perry, was sitting in Locksley’s office with Evans at the beginning of this year when a conversation struck about how unique of a position the pair was in as two African American leaders at a Division I program.
Maryland had recently finished 3-9 in Locksley’s first season as the team continued to deal with the fallout from offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death in 2018. Evans assured his head coach that he’d be given enough time to turn the program around — something most Black coaches aren’t afforded. Evans knew how big of an impact they could make on younger generations if they achieved success together.
“I respected that Damon had enough integrity to understand the gravity of the situation and understand exactly where his place is in history,” Perry said. “... We acknowledge the fact that it's monumental. We acknowledge the fact that it's big for the culture and it's big for African Americans and the racial disparities in these positions. But the only thing left to do is go out there and prove that this is the right decision to make.”
Evans can relate to Locksley’s position, as the pipeline for athletic directors follows a similar pattern.
The TIDES report found that of all non-HBCU Division I athletic programs in 2019, only 8.8% were led by African Americans. The two most common prerequisite positions, associate athletic director and assistant athletic director, weren’t much higher at 9.5% and 9.3%, respectively.
The proportion of Black athletic directors has seen a little over 6 percentage points of improvement since sitting at 2.4% at the turn of the century. Both of the other roles barely improved by 4 percentage points in two decades, with the associate position at 5.9% and the assistant at 5.1% in 1999.
Darryll Pines’ path toward university president
The path to becoming a university president is much less clear, though the lack of diversity is quite apparent. As of the end of 2019, 115 of 130 presidents in the FBS were white. Pines is just the sixth African American president in the division.
Pines worked at the university for 25 years prior, moving up the ranks from an assistant professor to associate professor, to department chair and eventually dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering.
The previous president, Wallace Loh, announced he would step down from the position in October 2018 as the university dealt with the fallout of the death of McNair, who collapsed during a team practice. Loh later said in January 2019 that he’d stay on for the 2020 academic year to oversee ongoing projects.
The search committee that both encouraged Pines to apply and appointed him president included two men of color and eight women of various races among its 20 members of campus and community stakeholders.
“One of the things that's always important in the search process is the committee members,” Pines said. “If the committee is diverse, it allows that committee to open itself up to diverse networks, where other people on the committee might know and be aware of candidates that maybe other committee members would not be aware of.”
He ensured that all committees under his leadership will continue “casting a wide net for diverse candidate pools across every position.”
Coincidentally, in his previous role as dean of the engineering school, Pines was the chair of the search committee that hired Evans — though he was not the one to make the final decision. And Evans then hired Locksley.
“The chain you're pointing out here is so impactful,” Lapchick said. “If [president and athletic director] positions are held by overwhelmingly white people, then the chances are they're going to turn to people they know, who might also be white and have less contact with people in the Black community.”
How to fix the NCAA’s racial disparity
While Pines and Evans were hired by in-house committees, outside search firms can also play a big role in the hiring process. Lapchick noted that these companies often lack diversity and don’t have a great record in identifying candidates of color.
In an attempt to fix the disparity, Lapchick urged the NCAA for over a decade to adopt what he calls the Eddie Robinson Rule, which would require universities to have more than one minority candidate for every hire, ranging from coaches to directors and administrative staff. Robinson was the first NCAA head coach to win 400 games and broke barriers in the sport in establishing HBCU Grambling State as a prominent program.
On the other side of the equation, MOAA, which was founded in 2000, assists in the professional development of rising and current minority administrators in athletics.
And though the Black Coaches Association disbanded in 2015 due to financial issues, Locksley is in talks to organize a new group aimed at developing, mentoring and preparing minority football coaches in order to produce more viable candidates. In doing so, he says, a list of qualified minorities will be ready whenever a new position opens up.
Dr. Scott Brooks of the Global Sport Institute believes that more diverse leadership will likely funnel into more minority hires, but he doesn’t see there being permanent impact until the root of the problem is addressed.
“The real lack [of progress] is just because the system is the same,” Brooks told Yahoo Sports. “You can legislate behavior, but not feelings.”
Though Brooks is more doubtful, both he and Lapchick hope the recent attention on systemic racism following the death of George Floyd will spark change.
Many student-athletes led the way for their universities in this regard, using their social media platforms to speak out against racial injustice, and in some cases issues of discrimination within their own programs.
Numerous current and former Iowa football players tweeted about racist comments from strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, as well as the general culture within the program.
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and many of his teammates threatened to sit out after head coach Mike Gundy wore a shirt with the logo of One America News Network, which called Black Lives Matter a “criminal organization.”
“These decisions are made for them, and then they come in after and complain about them and may be willing to withhold their labor to force the hand, but I think from the very beginning they need some sort of power and influence,” said ESPN analyst Domonique Foxworth, who played defensive back at Maryland and in the NFL. “It feels unfair that they have no say in the system that they're forced to operate under.”
Two FBS conferences, the Big Ten and the American Athletic Conference, look to give their student-athletes more of a voice and allow leadership to understand their experiences on issues of racial inequality and injustice.
Both the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition and the American Athletic Conference’s Racial Equality Action Group will include administrators, head coaches and student-athletes from each of its institutions with a focus on translating conversation into action across its member schools.
With the first FBS trio of an African American president, athletic director and head football coach happening only now in 2020, it’s clear a lot of change is needed.
“I don't think it's one answer,” Brooks said. “It's going to take a sustained movement that we've got to keep working and fighting. We've got to hold these organizations to the fire.”
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