For African American coaches every great job isn’t a great job

Judson L. Jeffries, PhD

Over the past several days, two African American head coaches have gotten jobs at what are universally considered two of the nation’s premier football schools, the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State University. Charlie Strong left a successful program at the University of Louisville, where he lost a total of three games over two seasons. A school more known for its basketball program than its football team was seemingly a great fit for Strong. He was well-liked, held in high regard and produced a winning team annually without the pressures that are associated with some jobs. This week James Franklin, the head coach at Vanderbilt University accepted the same position at Penn State University, a program that has fallen on hard times since the school was beset with scandal two years ago. Both are high profile jobs that come with high expectations. Both Strong and Franklin left behind positions in which job security was seemingly not an issue nor was remuneration. Strong signed a new contract in January 2013 making him among the top ten highest paid football coaches in America while Franklin earned a cool three million at a school known more for its student’s high SAT scores than its athletics. After all, Vanderbilt has been called the Harvard of the South. This is not to say that the salaries for the head football coach at Texas and Penn State are not significantly higher than both Louisville and Vanderbilt; they are.

Apparently the uptick in salary and the prestige (especially the prestige) often prompts some African American coaches to leave behind a good thing for the glare of the spotlight that comes with being the head coach of a big-time college program. But not every big-time head coaching job is a good job for an African American coach. Turner Gill left the University of Buffalo for Kansas University, not a big-time football school, but a school in a big-time football conference, the Big 12. After two losing seasons Gill was fired. Years ago Sylvester Croom lamented the fact that he was passed over for the head coaching job of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Croom had played for the legendary Bear Bryant and served as an assistant coach at UA, hence he believed he merited strong consideration for the head coaching position. That he was not offered the job was probably a blessing in disguise. For African American coaches, there is little room for error; moreover the leeway afforded them is seemingly less than that accorded white coaches. Jon Embree, the former coach at the University of Colorado was dismissed after two losing seasons there.

African American coaches give alumni, boosters, fans and even athletic directors a convenient reason to call for their firing when winning does not come soon enough or often enough. This was the case with Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame who was fired following the 2004 season after suffering two consecutive losing seasons, despite the fact that he led his team to a 10-3 record in 2002 and capturing several Coach of the Year honors. Willingham had a five year contract, but was let go after three years. However, his successor, Charlie Weis, was allowed to serve out his five year contract despite his mixed success. This is especially true in cases where a coach may have been brought on board before the athletic director was hired. Simply put, because the athletic director was not involved in the hiring of said coach, not only is there no loyalty, but there is an absence of personal investment. Consequently, it is not uncommon for African American coaches to get ousted by recently hired ADs after suffering a losing season, despite evidence that the program was headed in the right direction (see Crooms at Mississippi State). All money isn’t good money.

With the high profile job comes great expectations and tremendous responsibilities. There are significant demands on their time. Some are required to help fundraise, host radio shows, television shows, schmooze with boosters and alumni. In some instances, alumni and boosters would prefer a coach that looks like them, especially those old hardline alums and boosters whose sentiments about race matters harken back to an earlier era.

African American coaches who get fired often do not get second chances. When they do, they are usually not at the type of high profile institutions at which they were previously employed. In college basketball, Stan Heath led the Golden Flashes of Kent State University to a 30-6 record during the 2001-2002 season. His lone year of head coaching experience resulted in an offer from the high profile University of Arkansas, which he accepted. Unable to enjoy the kind of consistent success to which fans had become accustomed during Nolan Richardson’s reign Heath was fired. His next job—the University of South Florida, a respectable university, but not of the caliber of Arkansas. Succumbing to the glamour of the big time job involves a degree of risk that may, in the long run, be detrimental to one’s career. This is not to say that African American coaches should not aspire to greater heights. However, sometimes the best move is to forego the proverbial once in a lifetime gig and prosper in one’s current position. A recent example of a successful African American head coach whom elected to stay put rather than be seduced by the allure of the money and cache (despite the fact that he continues to be a highly sought after commodity) is Shaka Smart, the basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University. Smart understands that not all money is good money and everything that glitters isn’t gold.

3 thoughts on “For African American coaches every great job isn’t a great job

  1. This blog is right on the money. No pun intended. I wish there were some way to make it more widely available, especially to Black coaches consider it a career move based on salary and prestige rather than something that would actually be a good fit. Excellent writing!! Keep up the good work!

  2. Excellent Blog Post!
    Race still matters to a lot of colleges and their alumni. Black African American Coaches don’t have a magic winning formula. Recruitment and relationship with players take time to develop and time is not always an option for them.

    HBCUs and UNCFs offer tremendous opportunities, if they would do three simple things. 1. Join another college association that allows players to be paid; 2. Pay 25% of the revenue generated per sport to those athletes and 3. Offer a tuition paid 4 year degree program guarantee for up to 10 years after they leave the college. This will totally disrupt the college sham that perpetuated by the NCAA and many colleges.

  3. Dr. Jefferies, great story. I thought that I was the only one who believed that Strong should have stayed at Louisville.
    I also believe that as Black working professionals we suffer the same type of faith. I myself have been guilty of leaving a pretty good job for more money, glitts and glamour. Needless to say, it did not turn out in my favor. The was a valuable and costly lesson for me, but unfortunately we sometimes have to learn the hard way. Shaka Smart was smarter than us sometimes blind go-getters… I am changing my last name!

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