Black Coaches Are Working Together Like Never Before. Now They Should Feel the Freedom to Speak Out.

Black leaders across the football landscape are gathering in private to speak with remarkable candor. What if they took the message public?
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Officially, the meetings are titled, “West Coast Zoom Clinic.” But as their popularity has rippled across the nation, the unofficial name among those involved is now “The Underground Railroad.” That has founder Alonzo Carter a bit conflicted.

“I am by no means Harriet Tubman,” said Carter, running backs coach at San Jose State. “That’s a sacred name. I’m not ever trying to put myself in the same sentence with the great leaders who did that work.”

Carter’s twice-weekly gatherings via Zoom technology of hundreds of minority football coaches—from high school to the NFL and all levels of college ball—carry nowhere near the historical significance of helping enslaved people escape to freedom. But a network of people quietly collaborating to improve the professional lives of Black coaches carries its own missionary zeal. Using word of mouth instead of social media, they are seizing an empowering moment to change the complexion of a sport their race dominates in terms of players but lags behind at the leadership levels.

What began with about 35 running backs coaches talking football in the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown has exploded into a movement of sorts, amplified by the racial strife that has gripped America since late May. Coaches have flocked to the meetings, both the general Thursday night calls and the Sunday HBCU version. They are eager to follow the group’s motto—“listen, learn and network”—while hearing many of the leading Black men in their profession speak with remarkable candor. The topics can be as mundane as facility fundraising or as weighty as race, politics and police relations in America.

A source provided Sports Illustrated access to an extraordinary call last Thursday. It was a seven-hour marathon that stretched well into Friday morning, drawing nearly 630 listeners—record numbers for both duration and participation. Those on the call were overwhelmingly Black, but not exclusively so—there were other coaches of color represented and several white coaches as well. It was an awesome congregation of voices.

“You hear people say there aren’t enough [minority] candidates for head-coaching jobs and coordinator jobs,” Carter said. “Then I see hundreds of them on these Zoom calls and say, ‘Here they are.’”

The assemblage I listened to heard unguarded, honest, sometimes controversial and often inspiring words from: Penn State coach James Franklin; William & Mary coach Mike London; Arizona State defensive coordinator; Marvin Lewis (former head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals); Oklahoma assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill (former head coach at East Carolina); and Oregon special teams coordinator Bobby Williams (former head coach at Michigan State). Previous meetings have included dozens of other highly accomplished leaders of color in the sport.

Marvin Lewis coaches the Cincinnati Bengals

In the chat function, participants sent in questions—fulfilling the “listen” and “learn” elements of the motto—and their contact information (the “network” part). Young high school coaches were alongside veteran NFL assistants. In terms of recurring congregations of Black brainpower, this is probably unprecedented in football annals.

This is not a subversive movement designed to set coaches of color against their white peers. Carter often says, “Don’t separate, educate." The goal is to provide resources and contacts to help colleagues get a leg up a ladder that is too often all-white at the highest rungs. At present, there are 14 Black head coaches in the NCAA’s 130-school Football Bowl Subdivision and three in the 32-team National Football League. Both numbers are embarrassing.

(So is Sports Illustrated’s staff diversity, in point of fact.)

What happens on the Zoom call largely stays on the Zoom call, and SI will honor that code—especially since not everyone on the Thursday call knew a reporter was part of the audience. 

“It’s kind of a safe zone for us to talk,” Carter explained. “It’s a delicate space, but it’s a beautiful space. You don’t know how many text messages I’m getting, especially from younger coaches, who are so inspired and encouraged. I want to keep great coaches coming on the Zoom and feeling comfortable about being raw and uncut.”

It’s working. The James Franklin of Thursday night is not the buttoned-up James Franklin you hear at a press conference. The emotion and edge emanating from Franklin and other “Underground Railroad” speakers is rarely on display in their public lives. And while that’s certainly understandable, it’s also too bad.

As salaries have escalated, coaches of all ethnicities have become increasingly averse to controversy. There is more to lose. While hundreds of college coaches have issued laudable statements and taken up voter registration actions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, a firebrand vacuum still exists within the profession.

There is no John Thompson in college basketball anymore, no Nolan Richardson, no John Chaney. Texas’s Shaka Smart is not afraid to take on the subject of race, nor is Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton or North Carolina Central’s LeVelle Moton—but they aren’t quite as forceful or as accomplished as some of their predecessors.

I'm not sure there ever has been a fearless challenger of the establishment among Black college football head coaches. Among the current 14, Arizona State coach and former ESPN analyst Herm Edwards might be the most likely to speak on racial issues without reservation. He’s also 66 years old and has made a lot of money in his life.

Fact is, there has always been a reluctance to speak out, for fear of alienating boosters and administrators. Given the number of Black coaches who have been fired quickly—and the rarity of second-chance jobs—that fear has some basis in fact. But change isn’t meant to be comfortable, and it wasn’t for the Thompsons and Richardsons and Chaneys, either. Thompson and Chaney were lauded in some corners for fighting against the NCAA's Proposition 48 eligibility requirements, and pilloried in others. Richardson’s thunderous, “I got here late” soliloquy from the 1994 Final Four was construed by many as more troublemaking from an angry Black man.

But there has been no time like the present for a jolt to the long-established balance of power. Public sentiment is largely on these coaches' side, and many university leaders understand that the current assaults upon the racial status quo are overdue. Some boosters may be alienated, but if the cause is to truly shake the foundation then those boosters are like the statues being toppled—better removed anyway.

The ground already is shaking, and it is the players who are shaking it. Mississippi State senior running back Kylin Hill helped unsettle the state of Mississippi to the point that it changed its Confederate-inspired flag. Oklahoma State senior running back Chuba Hubbard put his entrenched head coach, Mike Gundy, in the corner and demanded a better leadership style. Former Iowa players forced out the program’s strength coach, and former Clemson players got an infamous pro-slavery politician’s name taken off the school’s honors college.

A five-star basketball prospect picked historically black Howard University over Kentucky, UCLA and Memphis on Friday, for God’s sake. That prompted a tweet from Boynton that included this: “Another brother getting it done against all odds. I’m sure that kid won’t be the last. More of us just need an opportunity. #KeepApplyingPressure."

None of those things would have been even remotely conceivable as recently as mid-May. Here in July, the floor is open for the coaches. As America came around on the idea that there was no longer a justifiable reason for hundreds of Confederate Civil War monuments, it might also someday realize there is no longer a justifiable reason for the under-representation of head football coaches of color.

What an interesting thing it would be if Black college coaches’ eternal murmur of discontent joined the roar. If they followed the advice they now are giving their players to speak out on issues that are important to them. If they took the next step and, to use Boynton’s phrase, kept applying pressure.

Unable to get head-coaching jobs and coordinator gigs? Pigeonholed as recruiters, or labeled as “players’ coaches”? Confined to coaching “black” positions like running backs, wide receivers, secondary and defensive line? Take it from the Zoom call to the podium, please.

So let’s hear from the under-represented coaches about the inequalities and injustices they see and experience. They’re talking amongst themselves, but it’s time to widen the circle. Time to take the “Underground Railroad” above ground.

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