Willie Simmons has compiled a 54-23 record as a head football coach at Florida A&M and Prairie View A&M, never posting a losing season. In recent years, several publications have named him among the rising prospects ready to take the reins of a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
“A lot of us are having behind-doors conversations about what is realistically next for us,” Simmons said in a recent interview. “Do we attempt to relinquish our titles as head coaches [at HBCUs] to go up to Power Five and be position coaches with the hope that will propel us down the line? …
“We try to keep moving, try to keep pressing forward, and we all are strong believers in what God has in mind for us: ‘When it’s time, it’s time.’ But the human element says: ‘What more do we have to do? How many more lists do we have to be on?’ ”
The calculus of landing any head coaching job at a Power Five or even Group of Five school is difficult. It’s particularly so for Black coaches, whose historical underrepresentation mirrors the NFL’s and is re-examined, to little effect, amid each end-of-season hiring cycle.
Heading into the 2022-23 season, Black coaches accounted for roughly 11 percent of head coaches in the FBS (15 of 131) — a percentage that has stalled in recent decades even though Black athletes account for roughly 50 percent of the players.
Deion Sanders is this season’s highest-profile Black FBS hire, vaulting from Jackson State, which he led to back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships in his three seasons, to Colorado. He’s joined by three other incoming FBS coaches of color: Purdue’s Ryan Walters, Kent State’s Kenni Burns and Western Michigan’s Lance Taylor, who is Native American.
It represents no net gain, however, because four Black coaches who started the 2022 season are gone. Herm Edwards (Arizona State), Karl Dorrell (Colorado) and Willie Taggart (Florida Atlantic) were fired, and Stanford’s David Shaw resigned.
What made Sanders’s hiring so notable, apart from his Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials and megawatt personality, is that he is just the third HBCU coach to land an FBS head coaching job — albeit a Pac-12 rebuild with 1-11 Colorado.
Said Simmons of the improbable leap that was first made by South Carolina State’s Willie Jeffries, hired by Wichita State in 1979: “We don’t get the respect of our peers or the respect of our upper administrations because the SWAC and the [Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference] are looked down upon, for whatever reason. The quality of players, the quality of coaches is not held in the same regard as other [Football Championship Subdivision] conferences. For us, that has been very frustrating.
“If you change the logo on our shirt and the color of our skin, I just feel like those opportunities would be flooding in.”
Sanders’s three-year tenure at Jackson State drew national attention to the caliber of HBCU football, as well as the need for greater resources to provide the breadth of coaching and support services he enjoyed as a Florida State star decades ago.
Said Simmons of multiple roles HBCU football coaches juggle: “We are the sports psychologists, we are the nutritionists, we are class-checkers, we are the head coaches all in one — and still asked to win games on Saturday. You give us a program where all we have to do is coach and recruit, and imagine how much more efficient we could be!”
Sanders now grasps this firsthand.
After MEAC champion North Carolina Central handed Jackson State its only defeat of the 2022 season — a 41-34 overtime thriller in the Dec. 17 Celebration Bowl — Sanders praised the expertise and readiness of fellow HBCU coaches who he believes don’t get their due.
“There are some wonderful, very talented coaches that can coach their butts off and not just advance to a higher level of college football, but some of these guys should get an opportunity to coach in the NFL,” Sanders said, citing Simmons, Alcorn State’s Fred McNair and Mississippi Valley State’s Vincent Dancy, whom he hired to join him at Colorado.
“I could go on and on and on,” Sanders added. “They don’t get credit; they really don’t. Anytime I can shine light on them, I’m not just doing it just to shine a light. These guys are really good, and they should be noticed. They should be focused upon.”
That’s the concept behind the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, founded in 2020 by Maryland Coach Michael Locksley. The coalition focuses on preparing, promoting and producing minority coaches at all levels of football, HBCUs included.
The idea took shape, Locksley explained in a recent interview, amid the enforced pause of the pandemic, which for the first time in 30 years gave him the opportunity to reflect on the lessons of his career as he headed into what he calls “the back nine.”
His progression was anything but a straight line, he recalled, recounting the devastation he felt upon getting fired from his first head coaching job, at New Mexico. He managed to rebuild his career with the help of mentors — chiefly longtime Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow — who guided him around what he refers to as the “roadblocks” that often impede the progression of minority coaches before ultimately landing his dream job at Maryland.
“The roadblocks are the lack of access to hiring officials,” Locksley said, noting that they often take the form of frequently moving targets.
“We have heard, ‘There aren’t enough guys [of color] that have head coaching experience,’ ” Locksley said. “Then we hear, ‘We want more guys that come from the quarterback room.’ Or, ‘We want more defensive coordinators.’ The goal post is always moving, and we can never seem to pin it down. Every year at this time, there are these stories that come out that bring attention to [the lack of Black coaches] because it’s the hiring cycle, and then it disappears, and it resurfaces again. It’s like the dog chasing the tail.”
At the heart of the coalition is an academy that pairs individual coaches with an athletic director to build strategic relationships akin to the one Locksley had with Yow.
She advised him after the experience at New Mexico to chart a deliberate career plan — to pass on jobs that prioritized his recruiting ability, for example, in favor of lesser opportunities that gave him the chance to showcase his play-calling ability.
That’s how Locksley ended up with a $35,000-per-year job in a cubicle as an off-the-field analyst on Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s staff. Locksley excelled and, in time, rose to offensive coordinator, which he likened to Saban handing him “the keys to the Ferrari.”
Today, Saban serves on the coalition’s executive board, along with Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, former NFL executive Bill Polian, Missouri Athletic Director Desireé Reed-Francois, Yow and others.
“This isn’t just a Black issue or a minority issue,” said Locksley, 53. “It’s an opportunity.”
The coalition also has gotten support from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, whose conference has had just five Black football coaches and has none now — something Sankey acknowledged was “a glaring gap” at December’s SEC football championship game soon after Auburn hired Hugh Freeze for a vacancy that many felt would have been ideal for Sanders.
“Is there anything that can be done?” Sankey said about the lack of representation. “The answer is absolutely. The people who are involved in hiring decisions make a decision to expand perhaps beyond where their normal pool of candidates are, to look specifically and invite people into the consideration. Then what’s key beyond just the interview process is making a decision to name an individual from an underrepresented group as a head football coach.”
In Locksley’s view, the surest route to more representative hiring is through the relationship-building the coalition cultivates. That played a role, he said, in Walters getting the Purdue job and Taylor landing at Western Michigan. Other recent hires who were part of the academy include Tony Elliott (Virginia), Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame) and Jay Norvell (Colorado State). And it’s how Locksley interviewed last year for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job, invited by General Manager Chris Grier, whom he has known for decades.
“The coalition is not here to bang the table and tell you who to hire,” Locksley 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 the decision.”