It’s hard to be a Black head football coach

OPINION: Yes, Deion Sanders is upsetting the status quo, but in the NFL and NCAA power conferences, there’s a distinct preference for white men to lead all those non-white players and assistant coaches.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.  

Content warning: This story includes discussions of alleged sexual misconduct.

Among the wildly popular Nike merch that’s inspired by Deion Sanders and running out of stock are shirts that read: “I ain’t hard 2 find.”

That’s easy for him to say. 

Media encircles Coach Prime like planets orbit the sun. He was the talk of college football at Jackson State and remains the lead story at Colorado, where “60 Minutes” just featured him for the second time in a calendar year. There’s no doubt Sanders is extraordinarily different, one of one.

But he’s also one of eight coaches (at the moment) who stand out for chromatic reasons, not charm and charisma. 

As soon as Michigan State is done with Mel Tucker, the percentage of Black head football coaches at the 69 power conference schools will dip from .115 to .101. The number includes high-profile assignments like Notre Dame (Marcus Freeman) and Penn State (James Franklin) and inconspicuous gigs like Syracuse (Dino Babers) and Purdue (Ryan Walters). Unless another brother is hired to replace Tucker, Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Tony Elliott (Virginia) will round out the Magnificent Seven.

They can double-team their NFL counterparts and have a sub on the sidelines. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay) and DeMeco Ryans (Houston) are the league’s only Black head coaches, representing .093 of the 32 incumbents. No wonder former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and three teams, claiming the obvious:

Not counting HBCUs, it’s hard to be a Black head football coach. 

Tucker did the crew no favors by admittedly masturbating during a phone call with Brenda Tracy, a prominent rape survivor and activist hired by the school to speak to the football team. She says Tucker’s sexual act was a disgusting violation; he says it was consensual in their intimate relationship. Whatever the case, the roughly $80 million remaining on his contract is at risk of disappearing.

Regardless of their melanin quotient, any coach could land in a similar he said/she said situation. But when composing 11% of your peers, aim to be twice as good at your job and doubly cautious in your comportment. Mixing pleasure with business is never clever. “While this miscarriage of justice has devastated me and my family, I find solace in knowing that the investigator concluded we had a ‘personal relationship,’” Tucker said Tuesday in a statement.

Even if consensual, personal relationships with university vendors are probably unwise. Perhaps it’s less risky if the parties file disclosures and waivers with the school, but it’s more hazardous than hooking up with someone who’s unaffiliated. Opportunities for Black head coaches in power conferences are too rare to be risked on iffy sexual activity. Motormouth Skip Bayless says similar fear is a hindrance in the NFL because white team owners don’t want their wives interacting with Black coaching candidates

Like NFL owners, college presidents shy away from hiring Black head coaches (and offensive coordinators) but have no problem employing other Black assistants and players up and down the roster. Black quarterbacks used to be an oxymoron but now don’t garner second looks. Their ability to lead is no longer questioned, which makes the dearth of head coaches so infuriating. 

Nearly 70% of NFL players and nearly 50% of NCAA power conference players are Black. But few head coaches look like them, creating a dangerous subliminal suggestion about qualifications: They’re good enough to play and good enough to assist, but they lack the competence to be in charge. They don’t fit the image.

Sanders certainly doesn’t fit the image. But neither did great coaches like Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, FAMU’s Jake Gaither and Tennessee State’s John Merrit. Those HBCU legends achieved unparalleled success that surely could’ve carried over to the power conference level. But they were denied the opportunity Sanders earned as Jackson State’s coach after three PWIs rejected him.

His team just beat Colorado State in a double overtime thriller that featured another Black head coach, Jay Norvell, across the way. Sanders inherited a program that went 1-11 last season. Colorado State was 3-9 the year before Norvell arrived. Fixer-uppers seem to be the only option (in the pros, too), but at least it’s a shot. They accept the deficiencies while rooting for one another.

“I’m happy that (Norvell) is a head coach,” Sanders said during his postgame news conference. “I’m truly happy for any brother that’s doing it in a successful manner … I don’t know him but I’m happy for him. I wish the best for him. My success doesn’t have anything to do with his, so why wouldn’t I want him to succeed?”

Sanders’ achievements and Tucker’s actions have nothing to do with their peers’ feats and deeds. But that fact doesn’t stop folks from making unfair connections. Theoretically, Coach Prime’s success could lead to more opportunities while Tucker’s situation leads to fewer. 

Never mind that coaches of all colors run the gamut, ranging from awesome, to average, to awful. But in the NFL and NCAA power conferences, there’s a distinct preference for white men to lead all those non-white players and assistants.

Yeah, being a Black head football coach ain’t easy.

That’s yet another reason to thank God for HBCUs.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at

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