Deion Sanders has made a leap that almost no other HBCU coach has made
“A lot of us are having conversations outside the door about what’s really going to happen next,” Simmons said in a recent interview. “Are we trying to give up our titles as head coaches [at HBCUs] move up to the Power Five and become position coaches with the hope that it will take us further?
“… We’re trying to keep moving, we’re trying to keep moving forward, and we’re all strong believers in what God has in mind for us: ‘When the time comes, the time comes.’ But the human element says, “What else do we need to do?” How many more lists should we be on?”
The calculation of landing a head coaching position at a Power Five or even Group of Five school is complicated. This is especially true of black coaches whose historical underrepresentation reflects the NFL and is revised with little effect during each end-of-season recruiting cycle.
On the eve of the 2022-2023 season. black coaches make up about 11 percent of head coaches in the FBS (15 out of 131), a percentage that has stagnated in recent decades, while black athletes make up about 50 percent of football rosters.
Deion Sanders is the hottest FBS black this season, jumping from Jackson State, which he led to Southwest Athletic Conference championships in three seasons, to Colorado. He was joined by three other FBS coaches of color: Purdue’s Ryan Walters, Kent State’s Kenny Burns and Western Michigan’s Lance Taylor, who is Native American.
That doesn’t mean a net gain, though, because the four black coaches who started the 2022 season are gone. Herm Edwards (Arizona), Carl Dorrell (Colorado) and Willie Taggart (Florida Atlantic) were sacked, and Stanford David Shaw resigned.
What made Sanders’ hiring so notable, aside from his Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials and megawatt personality, is that he’s only the third HBCU coach to land an FBS head coaching job — albeit a 1-11 Pac-12 rebuild of Colorado.
Simmons said of the incredible leap first made by South Carolina’s Willie Jeffries, hired by Wichita State in 1979: “We don’t have the respect of our peers or the respect of our senior administrations because SWAC and MEAC are looked at for whatever reason. The quality of the players, the quality of the coaches, it’s not done like other FCS conferences. It was very unpleasant for us.
“If you change the logo on our shirt and the color of our skin, I just feel like those opportunities are pouring in.”
Sanders’ three-year tenure at Jackson State brought national attention to the scale of HBCU football and the need for more resources to provide the breadth of coaching and support services he enjoyed as a Florida State star decades ago.
Said Simmons said HBCU football coaches fill multiple roles: “We’re sports psychologists, we’re nutritionists, we’re classroom testers, we’re head coaches, all rolled into one — and we’re still asked to win games on Saturday. You give us a program where all we have to do is train and recruit people, and imagine how much more efficient we can be!”
Now Sanders understands this firsthand.
After Mid-East Atlantic champion North Carolina Central handed Jackson State its only loss of the 2022 season – 41-34 overtime thriller in the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 — Sanders praised the experience and willingness of other HBCU coaches, who he feels don’t get credit.
“There are some great, very talented coaches who can coach themselves and not just go to a higher level of college football, but some of these guys should get an opportunity to coach in the NFL,” Sanders said, referring to Simmons, Alcorn State’s Fred McNair and Mississippi Valley State’s Vincent Dancy, whom he recruited to join him at Colorado.
“I could go on and on,” Sanders added. “They don’t get credit; they really don’t. Whenever I can shine a light on them, I don’t do it just to shine a light on them. These guys are really cool and should be noticed. You need to focus on them.”
It’s the brainchild of the National Minority Football Coaches Coalition, founded in 2020 by Maryland coach Michael Locksley. The coalition focuses on training, promoting and graduating minority coaches at all levels of football, including HBCUs.
The idea took shape, as Loxley explained in a recent interview, amid a pandemic-enforced pause that has given him the opportunity to reflect on the lessons of his career for the first time in 30 years as he heads into what he calls the “back nine.”
His development was anything but a straight line, he recalled, recounting the devastation he felt after being fired from his first head coaching job at New Mexico. He was able to rebuild his career with the help of mentors — chiefly longtime Maryland athletic director Debbie Iove — who guided him around what he calls the “obstacles” that often impede the progress of minority coaches, eventually landing his dream job at Maryland.
“The roadblocks are the lack of access to hiring officials,” Loxley said, noting that they often take the form of frequently moving targets.
“We heard, ‘There aren’t enough guys [of color] who have head coaching experience,” Loxley said. “Then we hear, ‘We want more guys coming from the quarterback room.’ Or, “We want more defensive coordinators.”
“The bar is always moving and we can never seem to pin it down. Every year around this time, stories like these emerge that grab attention [the lack of Black coaches] because it’s a cycle of recruitment and then it disappears and reappears. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.”
At the heart of the coalition is the academy, which brings together individual coaches with the athletic director to build a strategic relationship similar to that between Locksley and Yeo.
After his experience in New Mexico, she advised him to make a deliberate career plan — passing on a job that prioritized his recruiting ability, for example, in favor of smaller opportunities that would give him a chance to showcase his playmaking ability.
That’s how Locksley landed a $35,000-a-year job as an off-field analyst on Alabama coach Nick Saban’s staff. Locksley excelled and eventually became the offensive coordinator, which he compared to Saban handing him the “keys to a Ferrari.”
Today, Saban is a member of the Coalition’s executive board, along with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, former NFL executive Bill Polian, Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, Yow and others.
“This is not just a black or minority issue,” said Loxley, 53. – This is an opportunity.”
The coalition also received support from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, whose conference had only five black football coaches, and now none — what Sankey acknowledged was a “glaring gap” in December’s SEC football championship game shortly after Auburn hired Hugh Freeze for a job that many believe would be perfect for Sanders.
“Is there anything we can do?” Sankey said about the lack of representation. “The answer is absolutely. People involved in hiring decisions make the decision to expand, perhaps beyond their normal candidate pool, to search specifically and invite people for consideration.
“Then the big thing, aside from the interview process, is making the decision to appoint someone from an underrepresented group as the head football coach.”
According to Loxley, the surest path to more representative hiring is to build on the relationships that the Coalition cultivates. That, he said, played a role in Walters landing a position at Purdue and Taylor landing at Western Michigan this year. Other recent academy hires include Tony Elliott (Virginia), Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame) and Jay Norvell (Colorado State). That’s how Locksley interviewed for the Miami Dolphins head coaching job last year, which was approached by general manager Chris Grier, whom he had known for decades.
“The coalition is not here to pound the table and tell you who to hire,” Loxley said. “What we want to do is put people in front of you — people who are qualified to do the job — and then you make a decision.”
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