Black Coaches Trying to Make It in a White-Dominated Industry: College Football and the Racial Divide
Sport participation among Black student-athletes has steadily increased throughout the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) over the last two decades. The number of Black head coaches in Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) College Football, however, has remained stagnant and in many years declined (18). Research has stated that the presence of a defined glass ceiling, discrepancies among Blacks and Whites with regard to social capital (social mobility), and factors of intent and interest in becoming coaches have been integral in preventing many Black coaches from pursuing positions as head coaches in college football. Through the use of narrative, this research contributed to the scholarship in this area by providing anecdotal evidence that hurdles still exist for Black coaches, but changes are also occurring that statistics may not reflect. The story of Charlie Friemont, a graduate assistant aspiring to become a college head coach, demonstrates how the aforementioned factors impact his career choices. Many of his experiences align with the previous literature and have impacted him both negatively and positively in his career pursuits. In addition, Charlie’s story introduces a new factor that may impact the trends of this issue in college football.
Charlie Friemont entered the football offices at State University (SU) with strong, brisk strides wearing neatly pleated dress pants, a well pressed polo shirt tucked into his slacks, and a leather-bound notebook under his arm. He shook hands with a firm grip and sat cross-legged across a small table in the running backs’ office. As he sat back in his chair, he smiled and gestured that he was ready to begin the interview. Charlie was an enthusiastic and confident graduate assistant with the SU’s football team. In the spring of 2011, he was in the midst of his first season of spring practices at SU, working with the offense and special teams. During the busy in-season period, 16 to 18 hour workdays were routine. In addition to his football responsibilities, Charlie juggled the rigors of a demanding master’s program that was a requirement of his position. Charlie, a former student-athlete, was one of 6,178 Black student-athletes competing in football at an National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school in the fall of 2003 (29). That same season there were only four Black head football coaches in all of the FBS, accounting for 3.3% of the population (18). Charlie, admittedly, was pursuing a career in an industry that has been dominated by White males (28).
After finishing an undergraduate degree in Media Arts, Charlie accepted a position at a large sports television broadcasting company in the northeast. It was his exposure to certain media practices, specifically a diverted attention to players’ personas rather than their on-field accomplishments, which inspired him to consider an alternative vocational option. “It was getting away from what the guy was doing on the field to more personalizing the athlete,” Charlie explained. “It was always who’s getting in trouble? Who’s making mistakes off the field? Who’s making a fool of themselves on the field?” Inspired to help student-athletes, Charlie left media to begin a career in college football coaching.
Like other Black coaches before him, Charlie immediately faced stereotypes that would impede his progress toward his ultimate goal of becoming an offensive coordinator. According to Lapchick (19), of the 266 possible offensive or defensive coordinator positions in the FBS, only 30 were held by Black coaches. Ironically, one year prior to Charlie embarking on his high school playing career in the spring of 1993, Anderson (1) published a study that would, unbeknownst to Charlie, forecast his college playing career and eventually his coaching aspirations. The study found that Black athletes were often moved to subordinate, or non-central, positions like running back or wide receiver in favor of their White counterparts who were cast in leadership roles such as quarterback and offensive line (1). At his undergraduate institution, Charlie’s coach noticed “he runs around a lot, so he has great feet” and moved him from quarterback, the position he played throughout high school, to running back, a position he had never played before. Anderson (1) further noted that former quarterbacks and offensive linemen were more likely to obtain assistant coaching jobs at those same positions upon entering the profession, which was viewed as a “pipeline” to a coordinator position. Over a decade and a half afterwards, Finch, McDowell, and Sagas (10) asserted a similar position. As Charlie came onto campus as an aspiring coach years later, he was approached about what position he preferred to coach and was told, “You want to be a coach? What position did you play? ‘Well, I played running back because I didn’tget a chance to play quarterback.’ Now you’re the running backs coach.” Once again, Charlie was pigeonholed.
This examination proposed that a glass ceiling, perpetuated by hiring practices influenced by tradition and racial discrimination, has inhibited increased diversity among coaching staffs within the FBS. Specifically, this article demonstrated the impact stereotypes have had in shaping the perceptions and experiences of an aspiring Black coach who was pursuing a position in the coaching industry. The purpose of this study was to analyze those perceptions and apply the findings to a better understanding of obstacles similar aspirant Black collegiate football coaches face.
According to the NCAA Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report (29), Black participation percentages in all divisions of the NCAA increased from 1999-00 to 2008-09. It is within the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball where Black student-athlete representation is highest and has helped drive the increase in overall percentages. In 2008, 47% (6,644) of the participants in FBS football were Black, which was more than two percent more than their White counterparts (44.8%) (29). Although a higher percentage of Black participants existed, the total number of Black head coaches at FBS schools at the end of 2008 was seven (20). At the end of the 2010 football season, 16 Black (2 additional minority) head coaches held the head coach position at FBS schools, which was a historical high-water mark for the NCAA,but was still only 15% (19).
Much of the literature determined racial stereotyping and discriminatory hiring practices as the determinant to the distinct discrepancy in the percentage of Black participants to the percentage of Black head coaches in the NCAA (1, 5, 7, 10, 22, 24). Among the stereotypes presented by scholars, intellectual inferiority, athletic superiority, professional ineptitude, and temperament pervaded as Black coaches continued to struggle to obtain central coaching positions (26).
The concept of a glass ceiling, as it pertains to this topic, refers to artificial barriers that preclude persons without power (i.e., minorities, women) from advancing into managerial positions (5). Treatment discrimination is a functional effect of the glass ceiling and has contributed to job dissatisfaction among subgroups (24). Essentially, inferior parties, in this case Black coaches, become disenchanted with the profession because of sustained mistreatment and a defined cap on hierarchal success. In some scenarios participants would no longer view the activity as enjoyable and the resulting loss of interest would be termed “burnout” (3). Literature suggested that the perception of a glass ceiling and subsequent job discontent created greater turnover, which negatively impacted organizational loyalty and job involvement (5). A comparatively smaller frequency of achievement subsequently hindered the foundation of strong Black networks that was already present among White coaches.
As central decision-makers, head coaches in intercollegiate athletics, specifically football, normally made hiring decisions for assistant coaching vacancies on their staff (6). It was those same assistant coaches that eventually provided a viable pool of candidates for open head coaching positions at other institutions or at the current school (1, 10, 25). The inference can then be made that if Black coaches are not being hired in leadership positions, they do not have the opportunity to hire other minority assistant coaches, thus creating a glass ceiling due to institutional racism (24).
Some scholars believed that institutional racism was a derivative of homologous reproduction, which is stated as the propensity of members of a leadership group to hire and promote within similar social and physical characteristics of themselves (15). Kanter (15), Knoppers (16), and later Mullane and Whisenant (22) tested homologous reproduction as it related to race and gender in the workplace. Cunningham and Sagas (6) argued that this theory contributed to racial inequity in intercollegiate athletics. In all of the studies except for Mullane and Whisenant (22), homologous reproduction was found to have significant influence on hiring practices (6, 15, 16). Cunningham and Sagas (6) stated the hypotheses that White head coaches hired predominantly White assistant coaches and Black head coaches, accordingly, hired primarily Black assistant coaches was statistically relevant. It could then be inferred that those that hold leadership positions, and subsequently make hiring decisions, influence the demographical makeup of a coaching staff.
Fink, Pastore, and Riemer (11) described the majority leadership network in intercollegiate athletics as “white, Protestant, able-bodied, heterosexual males” (p. 13). Employees that did not possess similar characteristics were a much smaller subgroup and often experienced negative work experience (5, 11). This dynamic allowed the authoritative group, in this case White males, to assert control. In the case of Black coaches, the glass ceiling acted as an inhibitor in career ascension due to the lack of upward mobility in the coaching ranks and the cyclical affect perpetuating the phenomenon. Ultimately the glass ceiling has profoundly impacted the coaching landscape in college football.
Sartore and Cunningham (26) stated, “membership does indeed have its privileges, individuals not belonging to this network will not reap many associated benefits like information exchange, challenging work tasks, promotion, etc” (p. 72). The above stated referred to social mobility, which is described as an alteration in social standing that involves amendments to social environment and life conditions (27). Sport participation has facilitated this movement among select Black student-athletes, creating an upward mobility for a concentrated group of participants in revenue-generating sports (27). The reality is, however, that Blacks faced sport segregation through the 1950s, which inhibited high participation percentages in many sports (3). Coakley (3) further noted that Blacks participated in a small range of sports, but because those sports were notable in the United States, the under representation of minorities went unnoticed. In essence, the lack of an established administrative network has prevented Black coaches from obtaining leadership positions based on race. The challenge that was once related to participation has, in part, subsided, but has remained for Black coaches and administrators.
A contributing concept to social mobility is social capital theory, which Day and McDonald (9) defined as “resources embedded in networks” (p. 138). The authors argued that Black coaches received greater benefit than White coaches in utilizing social capital, provided they extended their network to include other White coaches and administrators (9). However, some scholars determined that Black coaches did not share the same benefit of social capital as White coaches (25). One causative factor to this has been the prevalence of “stacking”, which is stated as the migration of Black participants into non-central positions, while White participants occupy the majority of leadership positions (12). Elements of stacking, such as discriminatory hiring practices and racial stereotyping, were found to be some of the determining factors that impeded career ascension for minorities (25, 26). Stacking, as a practice, has contributed to this issue due to the collection of networking opportunities allowed to student-athletes participating in central positions. Social capital is accumulated through, not only participation, but participation in integral positions (8). Though social capital was a principle cause to career immobility among Black coaches (25), discrimination and furthered adherence to stereotypes created a prominent limitation for mobility among Black coaches (5, 13-14). In effect, Black coaches have struggled to infiltrate the White dominated field of coaching, which has prevented them from founding a social network that ultimately assists in job placement and ascension.
Intent and Interest
Cunningham, Sagas, and Ashley (7) examined the effects of affective commitment, dealing with the function of wanting to do a task as it related to occupational commitment. Coaches that have high affective commitment in coaching subsequently have less intention of leaving the profession (7). Cunningham (5) noted that only 1/3 (N = 93) of the Black student-athletes he examined in 2003 had interest in becoming a college coach. However, intent and interest are certainly related but they are not the same (5). Brown and Lent’s (2) examination of social cognitive framework delineated interest as an affinity toward an area. Conversely, Cunningham (5) noted that intent was a purposeful pursuit of, in this case, an occupation in coaching. The difference was seen in the number of Black student-athletes that pursued careers in coaching. Those student-athletes that entered the industry had high intent and interest in coaching. However, those who stated they were interested in becoming a coach but chose a different profession may have had high interest, but ultimately had low intent (5).
The examination of intent and interest is vital for two primary reasons. First, it brings to light the possibility that Black student-athletes are discouraged from entering the profession due to the prior knowledge of discriminatory hiring practices. Secondly, demonstrating intent validates interest as student-athletes consider possible career choices post-participation, which is especially important when measuring perception. According to Cunningham (5), Black student-athletes were aware of the differences in racial percentages among coaches and those disparities negatively impacted the intent and interest of these student-athletes in pursuing coaching positions.
Finch, McDowell, and Sagas (10) expanded on Anderson’s (1) delineation of the dynamics of coaches progressing through the hierarchy of the industry. They noted that assistant coaches provided the most viable pool of head coaching candidates and, more specifically, particular coaching positions present expedited ascension to higher coaching jobs. For example, a quarterback or linebacker coach would receive preference for a vacant offensive or defensive coordinator position over another position coach like running backs or defensive backs coach. Offensive and defensive coordinators are then generally viewed as the prerequisite positions to becoming a head coach. Black coaches have been traditionally underrepresented in these secondary roles, which has limited their ability to ascend through the ranks. This concept is referred to as institutionalized racial discrimination (1, 10).
Expounding upon these assertions, this study incorporated Sagas and Cunningham’s (25) conceptual framework, which expanded on Anderson’s (1) initial findings to outline career success, human and social capital, and discrimination based explanations for the lack of minority representation among football coaches. The concept of career success is best viewed for the purposes of this study as hierarchal, extrinsic, and intrinsic success within the coaching profession. Black coaches were essentially failing to achieve success reaching a desired level of coaching or were not benefiting from their participation intrinsically or extrinsically, so they left the profession. Human capital theory refers to the educational, experiential, and opportunity based resources available to coaches. The social capital theory details the accessible network built on personal relationships. Both theories are derivatives of opportunity, or lack thereof, that coaches utilize to attain better jobs. Lastly, discriminatory explanations simply provide examples of practices that have contributed to racial inequity. The application of these ideologies influenced the understanding of the elements involved in discriminatory hiring, but also gave weight to the perceptions of an aspiring coach that was in the midst of the process.
The narrative of Charlie Friemont is a glimpse into the social reality of college football coaching, which through story inform us of a greater meaning (18). This method was chosen to allow the reader to put Charlie’s experiences with coaching into historical context. Narrative gave the researcher the opportunity to explore the axiomatic discourse of this culture and shed light on an individual’s perception of this ongoing issue (23). Previous inquiry on this topic has been predominantly quantitative (1, 10, 25-26) and scholars that have extensively examined race in coaching suggested more qualitative exploration in this area (25). Narrative was chosen as the most appropriate method to capture the individual experiences of a person heavily invested in this topic (4), in this case Charlie Friemont. This study should be viewed as an individual’s confrontation with inequality and a starting point for furthered understanding about how it has shaped the coaching industry. As Merriam (21) suggested, “Stories are how we make sense of our experiences, how we communicate with others, and through which we understand the world around us” (p. 32).
State University (SU) is a perennial top 25 program in the country and has produced numerous professional athletes, both White and Black. The football team is a member of a highly competitive conference in the Southeastern United States. Charlie is in his first season as a graduate assistant with SU’s football team. He is a Black male that previously played the sport at another FBS school. He acknowledged that coaching is his career goal and has been involved in the profession at the graduate assistant level at multiple institutions. At the time of this inquiry, Charlie was the only Black graduate assistant working with the football staff. His experience participating in college football, as well as pursuing a full-time coaching position rendered his opinions of the current landscape of Black coaches in the FBS relevant.
Data was collected during four individual interviews conducted by the researcher over a two week period in the spring. Additionally, one field observation was made at State University spring football practice and another at a team scrimmage. The first two interviews were one-hour in length. Two additional 45-minute interviews were conducted during the football team’s spring practice. Each of the interviews was conducted in Charlie’s office. Observations of Charlie’s interactions with coaches and student-athletes were conducted over the course of a half hour each. Field notes were taken and recorded onto a Microsoft Word file. The interviews were recorded with an audio recording device and were also transcribed onto a Microsoft Word file.
The transcribed interviews and field notes were coded and analyzed by method of meaning condensation. Meaning condensation requires “an abridgement of the meanings expressed by the interviewee into shorter formulations” (17, p. 205). The transcripts of the interviews were preliminarily reviewed by the researcher allowing for initial assignment of themes. Passages were then drawn from the data and given more abbreviated categorical designations related to the aforementioned themes. Finally, the researcher reviewed the entirety of the data and aligned meanings to the concepts.
Several steps were taken to ensure reliability in the data. An extensive review of the literature pertaining to the topic was performed prior to data collection. Multiple interviews were conducted with Charlie, which established both a working rapport and a detailed view of his professional setting. Detailed field notes and observations were also assembled by the researcher to further triangulate the data. Extensive efforts were made to thoroughly document and appropriately handle the data collection process. A precise audit trail was used to maintain the integrity of the research. Names and implicating information were omitted to make certain participant confidentiality was maintained. Member checking was also performed as Charlie reviewed the manuscript before it was submitted for publication.
During this investigation with Charlie, State University (SU) hired a Black head coach for its basketball program. Basketball, the only other revenue-generating sport in the NCAA, has similarly lacked diversity among its head coaches. Charlie, sharing his reaction to the news of the new coach, gave a guarded response. “I think it speaks volumes to saying that we’re giving [Basketball Coach] an opportunity, but he doesn’t even know what the opportunity is, much less do we.” Charlie sits back in his chair, folding his arms and a wry smile comes across his face as he adds, “I think it would be probably unheard of to have a 33 year old African-American head [football] coach at [State University].” There is undoubtedly an understanding of the challenges he faces in pursuing his goals ofbecoming an offensive coordinator. The obstacles, he acknowledges, are no different than those of other aspiring coaches, except the consideration of the stereotypes associated with race. “The stereotypes just tend to keep showing up and there’s not a lot of progressive thinking going on.” Charlie’s insight into the factors deterring Black coaches from entering and sustaining positions within the coaching profession rendered three themes perceptions of racial discrimination, persistence of an elitist fraternity, and burnout. Additionally, a fourth theme emerged that may indicate a shift in the trends associated with the aforementioned factors. The theme is titled positivity and new success.
Perceptions of Racial Discrimination
During his college playing career, Charlie was persuaded to switch from quarterback, the position he played in high school, to wide receiver and eventually running back. “He should be an athlete that we can move to receiver or running back or safety,” he recalls of the general sentiment coaches had of him and other athletic, Black quarterbacks. He reveals that his perception of the stereotype of Black student-athletes was that Black players were often too versatile athletically. Their athleticism allowed coaches to decentralize these student-athletes and insert their White counterparts into those desired positions like quarterback. He went on to draw parallels within coaching as well. “A lot of the stereotypes go back to the same stereotypes that coaches get.” Charlie elaborates, “Exceptionally talented [Black] quarterbacks in high school that have to run the system that their high school coach teaches him. They don’t get the opportunity to learn, so he’s labeled as he can’t learn this.” Sitting back in his chair, Charlie continues to talk about the way Black coaches are labeled as unable to learn. Basically, they have never been exposed to certain systems or styles of play. If they are not privy to the knowledge, it is exceptionally challenging to try to learn from decentralized positions.
The position of quarterback is often deemed the face of the football program. His belief is that most institutions would prefer the traditional model of a statuesque White quarterback that aligned with societal ideals. Although Charlie concedes that size was the principal factor preventing him from playing quarterback, he notes that other Black student-athletes encountered additional barriers. “Young men culturally express themselves different by the way they look, their hair, the artwork on their bodies; the tattoos. Do you want that to be the face of your program?” In his opinion, cultural expressions often caused Black student-athletes to be exiled to positions outside of the public eye in concurrence with the institution’s preferred message.
Charlie’s move from quarterback to wide receiver and running back is evidence that the concept of stacking impacted his career. Admittedly though, he was skeptical about its impact on his particular situation. “It’s all a fraternity and it’s all about who you know and the opinions of who you know are going to come from people you trust. I think it’s about the product that you put on the field.” Some of Charlie’s objection to this theory involves the evolution of coaching and how Black coaches relate to Black student-athletes. As more coaches are able to move into leadership positions, the more difficult it is to state stacking is prevalent in college football. “Coaches have been conscious of not trying to stack because of the appearance of when you’re going torecruit,” Charlie says. “If you’re going to walk into a Black family’s house and they say ‘Hey, who’s on your staff? Where’s the Black coach down here to relate to my son?’ It would look a little odd.” Black student-athletes are aware of the makeup of the coaching staff and it is Charlie’s belief that if there was an unbalance it would be evident.
Throughout Charlie’s playing career he endured countless injuries that often kept him off of the field. The circumstances that led to him being unable to compete also allowed him to dedicate time to studying the game and assist with various aspects of coaching. It was during these occasions that Charlie discovered the dynamic of the student-athlete/coach relationship, which was regularly impacted by race. He found that student-athletes related to coaches differently. Certain student-athletes felt more comfortable with specific coaches and that connection, or in some cases disconnect, was generally motivated by race. “Different styles of coaches influence players in different ways,” explained Charlie. “There has been, for a long time, a cookie cutter image of a coach. Players look at it like, ‘ahcoach, man, he’s kind of weird, he’s not cool, he doesn’t relate to us.’” Black student-athletes could relate to Black coaches, but there was usually a detachment from the White coaches on staff, who predominantly held the head coaching or coordinator positions.
As Charlie sat and discussed the imbalance of Black head coaches that held positions in college football, he rhetorically assessed the current landscape of Black offensive coordinators or even quarterbacks coaches, at any level. The room deafening with silence, Charlie was sitting in his chair pondering the answer to his own question. He paused, shook his head and finally gave a response, “I can’t. I can’t even think of any.” Even Charlie, a current coach, could not name one Black offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach in either the National Football League (NFL) or college football. “The stereotypes just tend to keep showing up and there’s not a lot of progressive thinking going on.” As a Black man that is aspiring to become an offensive coordinator, these are the challenges Charlie is faced with.
Charlie’s dad was his football coach in Little League, but nobody in Charlie’s family had ever coached in major college football prior to his attempts to break into the industry. In some respects, coaching is viewed as a family business and those fortunate to have relatives that have been successful in coaching, open doors for younger generations looking to get into the business. Charlie does not have that luxury, but has taken note of the landscape of the industry.
Head coaches become head coaches because they’re in an elite group. There’s an elite status with being a head coach. And I think to back it up a little bit further, to get into the game of coaching, it’s like any other type of fraternity, there’s ways that you can get in, but normally it’s seen as a grandfathered type of system. And with America and the way that it was built, of course it would be dominated by the White male.
Tradition, more specifically a practice of doing things a certain way because that is the way that it has always been done, has quietly manipulated the system. Key contributors to the perpetuity, Charlie believes, are institution’s sports boosters. Boosters, who are financial contributors to an institution’s athletic department, will safeguard their investments by exercising their influence on the program. Similar to the quarterback representing the face of the program, a head coach can and often will act in that same role on a larger scale. The universities and colleges, who are desperate for financial backing, will work diligently to accommodate the expectations of their wealthy supporters. “Your boosters are always going to have an influence. When you’re speaking about those people, they have their own elite fraternities and the familiar faces in those elite fraternities aren’t minorities.” Affluent boosters are predominantly older White males and, similar to the above mentioned student-athletes, relate to coaches with similar backgrounds.
Another concept that Charlie introduces to the fraternity establishment is what he refers to as the “tree concept.” Essentially, the tree concept is a coaching lineage that binds coaches with other coach’s successes or failures. In other words, if Charlie spends four seasons working under one head coach, he will then take on, in many respects, the reputation of that coach. For instance, if State University wins a national championship this year in football, Charlie will be seen as a commodity because he coached on a staff that experienced the highest level of success. Conversely, if the head coach is found to have violated several NCAA bylaws and has a reputation of attracting negative attention, Charlie will be stigmatized by the coach’s characterization.
What we’re dealing with now and the topic that we’re on is all about opportunity. It’s all association in this game and it’s who’ve you aligned yourself with and who you’ve had the opportunity to work with that somehow deems that you’ll be successful at some point. The perception from the periphery, the media, the fans and all that is basically going to say, were you with someone successful or were you not?
Charlie uses the “Bill Belichek tree” to reinforce this statement. As head coach of the New England Patriots, Belichek has produced a number of coaches that have gone on to take coaching jobs in the NCAA and elsewhere in the NFL. The perception is that these coaches have a certain pedigree for success and will bring that same success to their new organization. He then pauses and says, “We’re just starting to see it now with Tony Dungy and the slew of people that have come from him and where he’s come from.” Dungy was the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl and has been given credit for starting his own coaching tree, which consists of other Black coaches such as Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears), and Jim Caldwell (former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts). He admits that it is progress, but the Black coaching trees are still in their infancy.
Coakley (3) defined burnout as the point that “stress becomes so high and fun declines so much that a person decides to withdraw from a role or activity” (p. 644). Scheduling a time to meet with Charlie was not an easy task during spring football practices. The only time the interviews could be conducted was during lunch time on Fridays. Each time Charlie arrived for an interview, he would be hustling out of a staff meeting eager to move onto the next thing in his day. “You would think, with the hours we work, we were actually curing cancer,” Charlie quipped. In the spring he worked 16 to 18 hour days, which he admitted could have been longer if it was not necessary for him to sleep. Unlike the rest of the coaches on the staff, except for the only other coaching graduate assistant, Charlie also has togo to school during the week. Part of the responsibilities of being a graduate assistant was working toward obtaining a master’s degree in exchange for tuition reimbursement and a position on the football coaching staff. Charlie confessed, “You can’t cheat the work by any means.” In both arenas, school and coaching, his production is readily exposed and he must be diligent in both to sustain his position.
In the spring of 2010, Charlie left his previous graduate assistant position to take the graduate assistantship at State University. Including his playing career, the coach at SU was his fourth head coach that he worked under and he willingly admitted that the turnover affected his production. He referred to the language of the game and the demand to master the language so that the entire staff could remain cohesive on the field. “Football has a language of its own and it changes on every different staff. So, breaking that barrier of language is just like the English language.” Charlie was working with the offense and he praised the efforts of his offensive coordinator for his diligence in bringing the entire staff along at the same pace. He also underscored the necessity of adapting to a new staff. He does,however, warn that at other schools, coordinators, and even head coaches can be guarded with assisting other coaches.
You’re limited in what you know because of what you’re exposed to. That’s the challenge. I think our offensive staff does a really good job of being vocal and everyone is exposed to what our quarterback sees. We talk a lot about throwing mechanics and things like that. Our coordinator does a really good job of that. I can’t really say that we promote pigeonholing knowledge to everyone on the staff here. You know, I think a lot of staffs do.
Working towards a master’s degree, learning his fourth “language”, trying to climb up the coaching ladder, and all the other salient responsibilities were part of Charlie’s everyday life. “There have been plenty of coaches that have jumped into coaching and are out of it in a year or two.” He continued, “A lot of it’s just accepting coaching football. It’s some intense, long hours and it’s not for everybody.”
Most student-athletes, once they have exhausted their eligibility, will have played the sport of football for nearly 18 years. Charlie started playing football when he was five years old. Early on in his life he made a conscious decision to dedicate a majority of his time to learning the game and maximizing his opportunities to participate in whatever capacity he could. “You have to think, you finish playing football at 22-23 years old, that’s 18 years that you’ve invested in a game.” Charlie’s enthusiasm for the game is evident in his passionate tones and his drive to be successful. However, participating as a coach is not the same as participating as a player, which is a struggle for some former student-athletes who are looking to become coaches. “If you were 18 years of investing in Nuclear Science, when you finish college, ‘hey what do you want to do? Go play football? No.’ You want to go into Nuclear Science.” In effect, these coaches have further pigeonholed themselves into this profession, which has been a factor in burnout.
In the researcher’s findings, a notable fourth category emerged with Charlie that separates from the previous literature. As mentioned before, Charlie was relentlessly enthusiastic about anything that dealt with football and coaching. This final theme is attributed to the positivity, persistence, and hope for change engrossing Charlie that will, in his mind, revolutionize the coaching profession.
When Charlie left media to enter the coaching ranks, he did so because he saw a growing misrepresentation of student-athletes, especially Black student-athletes, in the media. He saw how television highlight shows and radio talk shows would primarily focus on the persona of an athlete rather than the accomplishments of the athlete on the field. He wanted to prevent student-athletes from providing media outlets with damaging material to broadcast from the ground level of coaching. In choosing to pursue this career, Charlie said he was aware that coaching was a White-dominated industry and that “he did his homework.” His secret to success has been, “I just try to stay positive through it and not let it weigh me down,” as his smile widened and he began to chuckle. “It’s not like I was the cause of it or something.” His optimism, he believed, can inspire change.
Charlie’s positivity has also fueled his persistence. He did not have an opportunity to play in the NFL after his college career, but that did not discourage him from remaining in the game. So when he was asked, why do you keep coming back to work every day? He simply responded, “I love it. I love football.” Of course that response was a simplistic version of the real answer, but he did eventually expand on that thought.
We’re trying to put our hands on people that are going to affect society at some point. I’m tired of hearing all of the negative and whatever I can do in my little part I want to. Then, you know I love football, so it’s two parts of one being around the game and one being around motivated people.
He believes that being around young people has kept him young in spirit as well. Charlie’s perception of the role of a coach went much deeper than the “X’s and O’s” of football. He viewed his role as a coach as someone that would instill the appropriate values in a student-athlete, which he needed to become a successful man, not just a successful athlete.
As Charlie stood on the sideline during an SU spring practice session, he attentively watched the first-team offense run a play. The running back who had just carried the ball came over to the sideline after the whistle had blown and the team reset for the next play. As the student-athlete came to the sideline, he removed his helmet and dropped to one knee with his head gear supporting his opposite side. Charlie turned and positioned himself directly in front of the student-athlete, bent over and with a hand on his shoulder pads spoke to him with intent. The conversation was one-sided with Charlie doing all of the talking. When he was done, the student-athlete stood, towering over the shorter Charlie, put his helmet back on and patted his coach on the back. The student-athlete had received ample coaching and Charlie turned to watch the next play. This exchange was one of many similar that was observed of Charlie during the scrimmage. In fact, at times it was extremely difficult to distinguish the difference between him and the other full-time coaches on staff.
As Charlie continues to work with his student-athletes in improving their character, he is also continuing his efforts to change opportunities for Black coaches. He understands the obstacles that lay before him and other minority coaches, but he believes that over time progress will be made. He attributes this belief to the impact research can have on the industry and the effect of, what he calls, “new success.” He says, “Believing in new success or believing that there can be new success, that’s huge. That’s huge believing that there can be new success and when there is, accepting it.” Charlie’s reference to new success is his belief that, as Black coaches accumulate greater accomplishments, there will be a higher propensity for diversity in the coaching profession.
After discussing the dynamics of the coaching profession with Charlie, it is clear that his perception is that most aspiring Black coaches are aware of the glass ceiling and that it has contributed to the determent of prospective coaches in the industry. Factors that have added to the racial inequity in college coaching include a failure to attain career success, a lack of human and social capital, and discriminatory actions against Black coaches (25). Charlie’s experiences with each of these factors is further evidence that Anderson’s (1) and Finch et al.’s (10) updated argument that Black coaches are limited in their ascension within coaching was accurate. It is the idea of new success that Charlie introduced that is most intriguing regarding this research.
Positivity and new success are elementary concepts, yet have not been applied to the coaching industry in this capacity. In a way, this theme is the antithesis of burnout, referring to the dissatisfaction of an aspiring coach. However, it is arguable that positivity and new success has to do with genetic makeup of the coach and his mindset toward the profession as a whole. Charlie entered the coaching profession because he noted a trend of players being misrepresented in the media. His purpose in his coaching pursuit was to make a difference in student-athletes’ lives. His positive predisposition allowed him to stay and flourish within his job, which may be a factor not present in coaches that previously participated in similar studies. The findings of this research indicate that attitude may heavily impact the success and perception of Black coaches in the industry.
Assistant football coaches have a regimented order in which they ascend up the coaching ranks (1, 10). As a graduate assistant, Charlie is in the first stage of this process. His challenge is making the leap from graduate assistant to running backs coach and eventually to quarterbacks coach, a position he aspires to hold in the short term. As Charlie came on to his undergraduate campus, he was a quarterback. After his coach moved him to wide receiver and eventually running back, he lost ties to the original position that he desired to play. Charlie’s coach moving him to a position with less leadership responsibility is common for Black student-athletes (26). That experience alone may have set Charlie back in his progression towards his goal. As he reemerged as a graduate assistant, he was pigeonholed again as a graduate assistant running backs coach and was working with that position at the time of this study.
Although Charlie did not feel that stacking was a current practice in college sport, there was evidence that he was subjected to the practice during both his playing and coaching careers. Essentially, stacking is moving Black participants, in this case student-athletes, into non-central or non-leadership positions (12). In addition, Day (8) argued that those groups that were susceptible to stacking would have noticeably lower social capital, a necessity in ascending in the coaching industry. Charlie was moved from a central position, quarterback, to non-central positions, wide receiver and running back. The same phenomenon is seen in the coaching landscape with the majority of Black coaches holding the non-central positions of wide receiver, running backs, and defensive backs coaches. White coaches, conversely, are in leadership positions such as offensive and defensive coordinator and head coach. The tension lies in the opportunities, or lack thereof afforded to Black coaches.
The concept of burnout is fascinating when applying it to coaching football. Charlie was not alone working those 16 to 18 hour days. Some of the coaches on staff were known to sleep in the office during busy times. Burnout can certainly impact any coach, regardless of race. However, it is interesting to compare burnout with White coaches as opposed to Black coaches. A White coach, who aspires to become a head coach, could potentially put in years of working 80-plus hour weeks. His regimen could include traveling all over the country, sleeping in hotel rooms, and separation from his family. The same could be said for a Black coach, except the White coach is more than five times more likely to achieve his goal of becoming a head coach (7). As Charlie demonstrated, he is aware that Black coaches are not given the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of coaching as often as White coaches are. For those who aspire to become a head coach, the realization that this goal is nearly impossible to attain underlies why coaches leave the profession. It is also an indication why former Black student-athletes do not enter the profession to begin with.
IMPLICATIONS, LIMITATIONS, AND FUTURE RESEARCH
Charlie’s story is an example of many flaws in the system, as it relates to opportunity. The Black student-athlete as an “athlete” has their growth in leadership positions inhibited. Charlie had exceptional athletic ability and was persuaded to move to a different position to fill a void. Although he had the measurable attributes necessary to play quarterback in college, he also had elevated attributes in other areas that made him marketable at wide receiver and running back. Essentially, his versatility hindered his opportunities to play quarterback. Once he was moved to a different position, he was pigeonholed in that position moving forward through his playing career and into coaching, thus creating a cycle for the student-athlete that demonstrates exceptional athletic ability.
The effect of placing these student-athletes in a pigeonhole is that they are limited in attainable knowledge as they progress in their career. For example, a wide receiver will only learn the nuances of the passing game, while the quarterback necessitates a wider skill set of knowledge (1, 10). Once a former receiver or running back enters coaching they are assigned to a position they did not want to play, but the only one they have enough experience in to coach. Couple those factors with a lack of mentoring and guarded colleagues; there is a reasonable understanding as to why there is so few Black coordinators and head coaches.
A few limitations existed in this study. Charlie’s story, although supported by theory, was a singular example of these practices. His story is relevant to further understanding the perceptions of Black coaches, but is limited in its ability to generalize throughout FBS football. Also, the interviewer in this examination is White, while Charlie is Black. Though Charlie did not seem uncomfortable divulging in his experiences, he may have been more comfortable speaking to a researcher of the same race. Similarly, the interviews were conducted in Charlie’s office. He was forthcoming in his answers and did not seem to hesitate in addressing sensitive topics, but discussing this topic in that setting may have caused him use restraint in his responses.
Charlie, himself, calls for a need for additional inquiry on this topic. As the percentages of Black coaches increase, perceptions of the glass ceiling may change as well. In addition, there is a similar discrepancy in college basketball between Black participants and Black coaches. As the only other revenue-generating sport in the NCAA, basketball warrants further examination on this topic as well. While there is quantitative work in this area, there is a need for further qualitative research on this topic. Therefore, a case study involving a larger group of aspiring Black coaches would render more findings important in forwarding our understanding.
For “Charlie” and him accomplishing his dreams.
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