- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
HIS HIRING WAS viewed as a breakthrough, long overdue and something college football desperately needed.
That was nearly two decades ago, and Sylvester Croom isn’t convinced that much, if anything, has changed for Black head coaches in college football, particularly those in the Deep South.
“It’s not like anybody is asking for any favors,” said Croom, who became the SEC’s first Black head football coach when he was hired by Mississippi State on Dec. 1, 2003. “What we’re asking is for guys to get a legitimate chance and to be elevated to the kinds of positions that they’re going to get those chances.”
Croom, now 67 and retired from coaching, hasn’t stopped doing his part to try to ensure more Black coaches get head-coaching opportunities. He will go into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player later this year as part of the 2022 class. He knows the sport and knows the rigors of being a Black man trying to claw his way to the top of his profession.
Croom also knows his history. And he doesn’t need to be reminded that in 2022, for the second straight season, the SEC — a league in which more than 60% of the players and 48% of the on-field coaches are Black — won’t have any Black head football coaches despite 10 jobs having come open in the past three years. The SEC is the only Power 5 conference without any minority head coaches. The Pac-12 and Big Ten each have three Black head coaches, while the ACC has two. In the Big 12, Baylor’s Dave Aranda is Mexican American.
“It’s very frustrating. I was the first in the SEC, and you look around now, and nobody really says anything about it,” Croom said. “Look at how disproportionate it is, the large percentage of players and assistant coaches who are Black. And yet, here we are in the hotbed of college football, and there are no Black head coaches in the SEC anymore.”
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.
“We’ve had success in adding diversity in other sports as well as some of our athletic directors’ positions and at the president and chancellor level, but not in the head football coach position recently,” Sankey said. “We’ve adopted policies so that we can ensure there are diverse pools, but we don’t, and I don’t, make the hiring decisions. Those are made on the campus level.
“But we shouldn’t be in this circumstance.”
MIKE LOCKSLEY IS a rarity in college football: a Black head coach who got a second chance.
Croom took over a Mississippi State program that had won eight total games in the three years before he arrived and was facing stiff NCAA penalties. In his fourth year, he went 8-5, winning the Liberty Bowl and SEC Coach of the Year honors in 2007. After slipping to 4-8 the following year, he was fired. And after that?
“I got zero interviews, maybe one at a junior college,” said Croom, who finished his long coaching career as an NFL assistant after leaving Starkville. “That’s something else Black coaches face. A lot of times they don’t get another shot. It’s one-and-done, and I tell guys to make sure they’re going somewhere they have the right support, both from the administration and the resources, because that might be their only shot.”
For a while, it looked like that might be the case for Locksley. After a disastrous tenure at the helm of New Mexico (2-26 record), he became an offensive coordinator at Maryland for four seasons. When head coach Randy Edsall was fired following the 2015 campaign, Locksley got a call from then-Alabama OC Lane Kiffin about an analyst job.
“Lane called me, and I was fortunate financially to be able to take a step back because I still had a year left on my old contract,” Locksley said. “I had been a head coach or coordinator for 15 years, so it allowed me to step back and recharge my battery, organize my thoughts and get behind the curtain there with Nick [Saban] at Alabama. That access I was given to Nick and his program is what put me on track to get the Maryland [head-coaching] job.”
Locksley’s career arc underscores the importance of Black coaches being put in decision-making roles, especially on offense.
The 2022 season will mark the third straight season that none of the primary offensive playcallers in the SEC is Black. Offense is what sells and typically is what athletic directors are looking for when they’re in the market for a head coach — somebody with an offensive background and somebody who has called plays.
“There’s got to be more guys on offense given chances as the playcaller if we’re going to change things,” Croom said.
For anybody who attempts to rationalize the minuscule number of Black head coaches by saying the pool of qualified Black assistants is limited, Croom has a ready answer.
“Call me, because I’ve got a long list of them,” Croom said. “I place the responsibility on coaches that are not moving Black guys up, particularly on the offensive side of the football. You see it more on the defensive side, and I don’t know what it is on offense, if it’s that old idea of Black coaches not being smart enough. I hope not, but sometimes I think some of that is lingering in the background.”
Terrell Buckley, a 14-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, was named head coach of the new Orlando XFL franchise this summer. But as a cornerbacks coach in the college ranks over the past decade — the last six seasons in the SEC at Ole Miss (2020-21) and Mississippi State (2016-19) — Buckley said he felt “stuck and trapped” as a Black assistant coach and pigeon-holed as somebody who “could recruit and only coach my position.”
Buckley said he wasn’t interviewed for the Ole Miss defensive coordinator job this offseason when D.J. Durkin left for Texas A&M and knew at that point he had to do something different if he was going to advance his coaching career.
“There are a lot of Black coaches in that situation, where we’re just not going to get the opportunity,” said Buckley, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2019. “The deal is that [Black] guys still coaching in college can’t speak freely about it and say exactly how they feel because they have families and don’t want to burn bridges, and I understand that. But it’s worse than people think.
“What ends up happening with a lot of Black coaches is they throw some extra money at you, give you some title like assistant head coach that doesn’t really mean anything and say, ‘We’re going to pay you,’ but then a younger white coach with less experience is the one who gets the coordinator job and calls plays.”
Buckley announced on Jan. 21 that he and Ole Miss had agreed to “part ways” and said it was especially frustrating not to get a shot at the coordinator role after the Rebels improved from 107th nationally in scoring defense in 2020 to 51st nationally in 2021.
“It’s a shame to say, but I think we as Black coaches just aren’t looked at the same,” Buckley said.
In much the same way coaches develop players, Croom said it’s equally important for coaches to develop their assistant coaches.
“And it doesn’t always have to be the quarterback guy who’s supposed to have the brilliant offensive mind,” he said.
Case in point: Croom noted that Clemson’s Dabo Swinney was a receivers coach before being promoted to head coach.
“Then look at what Dabo did with Tony Elliott when he was coaching running backs,” Croom said of Virginia’s new head coach. “Dabo saw that this guy has a chance to be a coordinator based on his work, and he elevated him to that position after seeing his work. We need more of that, especially in the SEC.”
Saban, who is entering his 16th season at Alabama, echoed that sentiment, saying he wants to see more opportunities for Black coaches early in their careers.
“It starts with we, as head coaches, have got to get more people involved early on, like I have a lot of graduate assistants, analysts and interns,” Saban said. “We have to make sure we have a significant amount of minority representation, and the reason for that is to develop those guys so they can move up the ranks to be in positions to be coordinators and have a chance eventually to be head coaches.”
Over and above the developmental part, Saban said the “mission of exposing the best people available” has to be a priority for everybody in the profession.
“Whether it’s the best coordinators or the best people to be coordinators, you’re at least creating an awareness of who the best minority coaches are as they develop in their careers,” Saban said.
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, the SEC’s longest-tenured head coach behind Saban, said it’s every head coach’s responsibility to “empower minority coaches within your program.” Stoops’ associate head coach is Vince Marrow, who is Black and has been with Stoops his entire time at Kentucky.
“Vince has been a huge part of us building this program,” Stoops said. “When I’m not here, he’s the one who speaks to the team. We as head coaches need to make sure we have more minority coaches like Vince in leadership roles and give them those opportunities.”
CROOM ROUTINELY REFLECTS on his playing and coaching days under Bear Bryant at Alabama. An All-SEC center on the Crimson Tide’s 1973 national championship team, Croom later coached under Bryant at Alabama, even though he initially had no intentions of getting into the business.
“Basically, Coach Bryant picked me and John Mitchell to coach. That’s the reality of it,” Croom said. “Neither one of us were planning to do that. We still loved the game, but he came to us and asked us to give it a shot.”
Mitchell, now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the first Black football player to play in a game at Alabama. He was also Alabama’s first Black assistant coach and the SEC’s first Black defensive coordinator when he coached at LSU in 1990.
And while there’s no way to know for sure, Croom to this day believes Alabama — and not Mississippi State — would have been the first SEC school to hire a Black head coach had Bryant been around when he was up for the Crimson Tide job.
Croom was a finalist for the Alabama head position in 2003 that ultimately went to Mike Shula. Croom had worked under Bobby Ross as the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator from 1997 to 2000 and was the Green Bay Packers’ running backs coach when his alma mater called prior to the 2003 season.
“If Coach Bryant had lived long enough, I would have been the head coach at Alabama,” Croom said. “There ain’t no question in my mind about that, no question at all, and if Alabama had been the one to hire a Black coach, it would have changed everything, opened the door for other bigger-name schools in the SEC to hire Black head coaches.”
And that goes to Croom’s other key point. It’s not just about getting any job. It’s about putting Black coaches in jobs where they can thrive. Of the five Black head coaches in SEC history, two were at Vanderbilt (James Franklin and Derek Mason), one at Kentucky (Joker Phillips) and one at Mississippi State (Croom), three schools without a consistent track record of on-field success in football.
“There are not a lot of Black guys getting jobs at what I call resource schools, where you have the resources to win at the highest level,” Croom said. “And even though it wasn’t the SEC, that’s why I was thrilled to see Mel Tucker get the contract he got at Michigan State and Marcus Freeman get the Notre Dame job. Both of those things were huge.”
Tucker led the Spartans to 11 wins a year ago in his second season as coach. He signed a 10-year, $95 million contract last November, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in college football.
“I’ve had a countless number of people who’ve called me and stopped me and thanked me, lots of minority coaches just telling me, ‘Thank you. Thanks for hanging in there and showing the way,'” Tucker said.
Tucker nearly landed in the SEC as a head coach, when he was one of three finalists for the Tennessee job that ultimately went to Jeremy Pruitt.
“They never told me it was my job, but I thought I had it,” recounted Tucker, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator at the time. “But as my buddy tells me, ‘Thank God for unanswered prayers.'”
Croom said it’s impossible to ignore that the large majority of people most heavily involved in the process of hiring head football coaches — university presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and prominent boosters — are white.
“No question that plays into it,” Croom said. “And then sometimes when a Black coach gets a top job, like Charlie Strong at Texas, there’s somebody putting him on notice.”
Soon after Strong was hired at Texas in 2014, billionaire Texas donor and former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs said on a San Antonio radio show that Strong’s hiring was a “kick in the face” and added that Strong would “make a good position coach, maybe a coordinator.” McCombs later said he called Strong to apologize. Strong was fired after going 16-21 in three seasons at Texas. He had been 23-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville before taking the Texas job.
“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, people say the right things when asked about the lack of diversity in college football coaching.
But to Croom, more is needed.
“It’s disappointing that we’re still even talking about this,” Croom said. “So, no, not nearly enough progress has been made. Let’s quit talking about it and do something about it.”
Locksley is doing something about it.
He founded the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches in June 2020. The group’s mission is preparing, promoting and producing minority coaches at all levels of football. As part of the NCMFC, a group of coaches is designated for the “Coalition Academy,” a mentorship program that pairs influential athletic directors with minority coaches. Two members of last year’s inaugural class were Freeman and Elliott, who got head-coaching jobs at Notre Dame and Virginia, respectively, this year.
The NCMFC board includes some of the biggest and most prominent names in football: Saban, Mike Tomlin, Ozzie Newsome, Bill Polian and Doug Williams among them.
“Just look at our board, and you can see that it takes all of us,” Locksley said. “It can’t just be a minority issue where we as minorities are the only ones fighting.”
As Sankey notes, hires are made by individual schools. But last summer, the SEC adopted Bylaw 23, which requires schools to commit to including people from underrepresented groups for consideration when hiring for leadership positions in their athletic departments.
“It doesn’t mandate finalists. It doesn’t mandate hirings. That’s not something we as a conference can do,” Sankey said.
The bylaw also calls for a conversation with Sankey or one of his staff members prior to the beginning of the search process to fill the positions of AD, head coach or senior women’s administrator to make sure attention is placed on having diverse candidates.
“We’ve also worked to develop resources that our schools can access and are continuing to do so, so that they can have the most current information available relative to candidates to fill those roles,” Sankey said.
The league is working to implement its own developmental process to position candidates with search firms to help them prepare as they move along in their careers. Lee, who was hired as Vanderbilt’s AD in May 2020, said that minority representation in all facets is vital.
“So many of the football student-athletes are Black and brown young men. If they can’t see themselves in the decision-making positions, I think that sends a message to them that they begin to internalize,” said Lee, who was a captain on the Commodores’ women’s basketball team in 2002 and earned three degrees from Vanderbilt.
“If young people can’t see themselves in positions that matter, that’s a problem.”
When it comes to ADs looking for head coaches, Alabama’s Greg Byrne said one of the best things he and his peers can do is think and look outside of their own comfort zones and quit picking from the same coaching trees all the time.
“I think people are guilty sometimes of being narrowly focused on where a candidate pool could come from,” Byrne said. “In order to get a diverse pool, you may need to look in other parts of the country than what you normally would. So it’s kind of getting outside the box of what you typically think.”
It’s been almost 20 years since an SEC AD, Larry Templeton, went outside the box and hired Croom at Mississippi State. He understands his place in league history. He just wishes he had more company. His hiring precipitated a stretch from 2004 to 2020 when there was at least one Black head coach in the SEC in all but one season (2009).
“I thought there would have been more,” Croom said. “That’s what’s surprising to me.
“We’re right back to square zero, right back where we were.”
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