“Since I’m a long-in-the-tooth guy in this business,” Locksley said by phone Friday, “I’ve got a large Rolodex of people.”
The problem: The section in his Rolodex for “African American head coaches” is small. Tiny. And that’s terrible.
“When I was at New Mexico in 2009 or ’10, you looked around and we had gotten into the 16, 17, 18 range in terms of minority head coaches across the country,” Locksley said. “But I found myself, when I got the Maryland job, really reflecting back on that. You move on 10 or 11 years, and we’re going the wrong direction.”
The number of Black head coaches at the sport’s highest level in college, the Football Bowl Subdivision: 14. This is progress? No, this is America.
“We have to remove some of the roadblocks and create some pathways,” Locksley said. “We still are struggling to have equitable opportunities.”
The numbers are stark, and they need to change. There are 32 NFL head coaches; three are Black. Almost half the players at the highest levels of college football are Black; more than four in five head coaches are White. According to data compiled by the NCAA, it’s not much better at the coordinator level: 72 percent of defensive coordinators and 80 percent of offensive coordinators are White.
Locksley wouldn’t say it, so I will: The only way there are outcomes like those is if systemic racism is built into the hiring process. There’s no other explanation.
So here comes Locksley, entering his second season as the Terrapins’ head coach — assuming there can be a season, what with this pesky global pandemic and all — now armed with both an idea and some associates. On Thursday, Locksley announced the formation of the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, which could be read as lip service to a serious problem until you discover he has enlisted Mike Tomlin, Nick Saban, Ozzie Newsome and others to help him talk these problems out. That’s the Rolodex in action.
“I’m at the job that I’ve always wanted, and I want to do a great job here,” Locksley said. “But I also feel like I owe it to myself to pay it forward.”
This is the time to do just that, and Locksley comes with the credibility to do something about it. It should be a strange conundrum that a sport built on the backs of Black athletes has so many White people in leadership positions. Yet instead of being strange, it fits in with how America works. We are flawed — and deeply — and it’s time to start fixing that.
These are the kinds of conversations Locksley said he has had for years with his fellow minority coaches. Two years ago, he was talking with Pep Hamilton — the former Howard quarterback who is currently the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Chargers and has a long career as an NFL and Division I assistant. They looked around and lamented the lack of Black quarterbacks coaches.
Again, Locksley wouldn’t say it, so I will: If the assumption among decision-makers has long been that African Americans aren’t equipped to play quarterback at the highest level, then it follows that those same decision-makers would just assume White men do the coaching, too. Sad but true.
Locksley remembers talking with Hamilton about the ascension of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur — all former assistants with Washington’s NFL team, all groomed for head coaching jobs, now leading the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, respectively. Oh, and all White.
“We needed to have a network that would work like that,” Locksley said.
So Hamilton and Locksley first made a commitment to a cause and then started making phone calls. They called offensive-minded, minority coaches in college, from the SEC to HBCUs. They called NFL decision-makers. In June 2018, they gathered all these brains at Morehouse College in Atlanta for what they branded a “Quarterblack Symposium.”
“We just exchanged ideas and networked and talked football — with the hopes of trying to be able to share and communicate our experiences and to try to increase the number of quarterback coaches that are minorities,” Locksley said.
The NFL sent Rod Graves, a former general manager who was then an executive in the league’s office and is now the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which fights to get African American coaches opportunities for head coaching jobs in the NFL. The league liked the idea so much that the following year it paid for coaches to fly in and participate but also rebranded it as a “Quarterback Summit.”
So when Locksley arrived at Maryland, he kind of needed a new project. He enlisted the help of Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach and a coaching contemporary of Locksley’s, as well as Saban, the legendary Alabama head coach for whom Locksley once called plays, and a host of others: Debbie Yow, the former Maryland and N.C. State athletic director whom Locksley considers a mentor; Miami Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier; Newsome, the former head of the Baltimore Ravens’ front office and a legendary tight end. On and on.
It must be noted that this effort is coming in 2020, with all the overtones that implies. Like most Americans, Locksley watched in horror the video of George Floyd dying at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May. He has talked with his players about the unrest that followed.
“For me as a father, as a head coach that leads 18- to 22-year-old young men, it scared me,” Locksley said. “It angered me. It made me question a lot of things, and it made me do some self-reflection. I had to think of things I can do better as a Black leader, a Black head coach, that would put me in a position that helps me create solutions rather than more questions.”
Here’s the thing: Task forces and coalitions are great. Groups need to be formed if change is going to happen. But the mere formation of a group such as this doesn’t guarantee change. Locksley said the coalition plans to prepare candidates so they know how to approach jobs and to advocate for promotion once candidates are in the profession. The group also will work with teams and college programs to help identify qualified candidates.
So let’s watch these people — these leaders — and chart the progress going forward. In 10 years, if football is taking the steps it needs to — if America is taking the steps it needs to — there won’t be three Black NFL head coaches and 14 Black head coaches at the highest level of college. Michael Locksley might be on the back nine of his coaching career, but he’s just starting what could be his most important contribution to the game.