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Howard’s Larry Scott said no to Nick Saban and Alabama to try to rebuild football program

Black coaches like him face choices of being a Power 5 assistant or HBCU head coach

In January, Larry Scott decided to stay at Howard and coach his own team. The choice was undeniably difficult, even though it really shouldn’t have been.

Alabama’s Nick Saban – the best coach in college football and the sport’s ultimate kingmaker – wanted Scott. Thirteen of Saban’s Alabama assistants have become head coaches in the FBS, college football’s highest tier. Two assistants who in January helped Alabama to its sixth national championship under Saban – offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and running backs coach Charles Huff – landed head-coaching jobs at Texas and Marshall, respectively.

Huff was the only Black head coach hired by an FBS school in the most recent cycle. The 37-year-old lacked offensive coordinator experience, usually a prerequisite for any offensive assistant – especially a Black assistant – to become a head coach. Didn’t matter. He had worked for and thrived under Saban for the past two seasons, overseeing a position group.

Scott now had the same opportunity. If he boarded a plane to Tuscaloosa to visit with Saban, he likely wouldn’t return as Howard’s head coach, but as Alabama’s tight ends coach. The other option was to stay at Howard and coach his first official practice with the Bison the next day (Howard hired Scott in February 2020, weeks before the pandemic hit and wiped out spring practice and the fall season).

“It’s Alabama, it’s Coach Saban, it’s one heck of an opportunity for any coach,” Scott said.

On Jan. 20, Scott elected to remain at Howard. The 44-year-old chose the job he had targeted for two decades on the sideline. This week, he debuts as Howard faces Delaware State to start a nonconference-only spring season.

“It was more going back to my why and the purpose for even taking on the opportunity,” Scott said. “It was a chance to run a program and be a head coach. We hadn’t begun to do anything. We hadn’t played a game. At that time, we hadn’t had a practice. … For me and who I am and why I do what I do, it’s more important for me to stay.”

An FCS head coach turning down a Power 5 position coach job isn’t much of a headline. But for Scott and other head coaches at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), career choices aren’t always clear. History shows the easier and better route is to leave HBCU campuses.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s part of the decision-making process,” Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons said. “Because guys at [predominantly white institutions] at this level aren’t as enticed to leave those places as head coaches to go be position coaches at Group of 5 or Power 5 programs. They realize they have a great job where they are. It’s just that for us, because of that perception, because of that label of being stuck at an HBCU, it forces us to have to think about that.”

Decisions like Scott’s to stay could be significant, but until an FBS school hires an HBCU coach to lead its program, there will be doubts about which path to take.

The stigma is real

Simmons isn’t sure of the origin of the idea that coaches who come to HBCU programs will struggle to move up.

“What I do know,” he said, “is that it’s not coming from us.”

The stigma is real, though, and surfaces when Black coaches gather to discuss career ambitions, as they’ve often done through Zoom meetings and seminars during the pandemic. Like all coaches, many at HBCUs aspire to lead teams at the sport’s highest levels. Some NFL and FBS head coaches spent time at HBCUs – former New York Jets coach Todd Bowles, the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator, started his career at Morehouse and Grambling.

There has been only one coach from an HBCU — Willie Jeffries left South Carolina State to coach Wichita State in 1979 — to go to an FBS school. Marino Casem, who won four Black college national titles at Alcorn State and also coached Southern and Alabama State, told Ivan Maisel that he interviewed for Washington’s coaching vacancy in 1974 but didn’t land the job. Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, the Hall of Famer, turned down the Los Angeles Rams in 1977.

But for the most part, HBCU coaches know that a move up in classification likely comes after a move down in job title.

Head coach Willie Simmons of the Florida A&M Rattlers: “We want to feel like if we do a good enough job, we will have the same opportunities as our white peers. For so many of us at the HBCU level, that’s not always a reality.”

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

“We want to feel like if we do a good enough job, we will have the same opportunities as our white peers,” said Simmons, who is 36-18 as a head coach at Florida A&M and Prairie View A&M. “For so many of us at the HBCU level, that’s not always a reality. Perceptually, we’re not valued for our success the same way coaches are at North Dakota State, James Madison, even though we’re at the same level, even though we have the same number of scholarships, even though we’ve had the same successes on the field.

“Honestly, that’s very frustrating.”

Although FCS coaches of all races don’t land FBS jobs in waves, some have made the leap. After guiding Youngstown State to four national titles in Division I-AA (the precursor to the FCS), Jim Tressel went to Ohio State in 2001 and led the Buckeyes to a national title in his second season. More recently, the past two coaches to leave FCS power North Dakota State, Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman, got FBS jobs at Wyoming and Kansas State, respectively.

The same goes for James Madison. Everett Withers, who is Black, moved on to Texas State, while his successor Mike Houston got the East Carolina job after the 2018 season. Withers, who spent time as an assistant at several Power 5 programs, calls James Madison “as close to FBS as you could get.”

“The academics, the ability to recruit, it had all those things going for it,” Withers added. “I took the JMU job thinking one day, that program was going to make the FBS move.”

HBCU programs aren’t viewed in the same light. Resources for facilities, staffing, recruiting and other critical areas aren’t at the same level as the top FCS programs. Their donor bases and budgets, which drive college football at all levels, aren’t as deep.

Although several HBCU programs have achieved consistent success, the wins that generate national attention for all FCS programs and coaches – against FBS opponents – don’t occur often. North Carolina A&T is the only HBCU program with multiple FBS wins (3) since 2014. Howard and Tennessee State are the only other HBCU teams to earn one during that span.

“That’s the stuck part,” Huff said. “You go there and think, ‘I’m going to check the box of head-coaching experience.’ People forget, when they say head-coaching experience, [athletic directors] want you to have done really, really well. They want you to have dominated, recruited at a high level, raised money at a high level. And at those places, that’s hard to do. You don’t have the supporters, you don’t have the boosters, they’re not donating in the $1 million range, you’re not going to be able to improve facilities. So what are you going to have to show to an AD or a search firm other than the fact that, yes, I’m a head coach?”

“I always felt if you went there, you would get stuck. It’s a combination of the lack of resources, the lack of exposure, you don’t play on ESPN, nobody gets to see you.” – New Marshall head coach Charles Huff

Huff played at an HBCU program, Hampton, and began his coaching career at another, Tennessee State. When he mapped out his career, he decided that if he hadn’t landed an FBS head-coaching job by age 50, he would try to get one at an HBCU and ride it into retirement. After a second stop at Hampton in 2010, Huff became an NFL assistant with Buffalo and then coached running backs at Western Michigan, Penn State, Mississippi State and Alabama. He interviewed for six FBS head-coaching jobs before Marshall hired him in January.

Like others, Huff had concerns about whether an HBCU job could springboard him to the FBS.

“I always felt if you went there, you would get stuck,” he said. “It’s a combination of the lack of resources, the lack of exposure, you don’t play on ESPN, nobody gets to see you. You can’t dominate long enough, so you’re never going to get the respect. You look at Coastal Carolina, [Coach Jamey Chadwell] goes there, beats a couple Power 5 schools, now he’s the hottest coach in the country.

“At an HBCU, it’s going to be hard for you to be flashy enough to catch the eye of an AD.”

‘Why do we do what we do?’

When Miami fired Al Golden midway through the 2015 season, the school turned to Scott, then the team’s tight ends coach, to lead the rest of the way.

Miami went 4-2, beating No. 22 Duke with an eight-lateral touchdown on the final play. Scott received an interview for the permanent job, but Miami hired Mark Richt, an alum who had coached Georgia for the previous 15 seasons.

A year later, Scott interviewed at Florida Atlantic, which picked Lane Kiffin. In 2019, Scott interviewed at South Florida, where he had played offensive line and later served as an assistant. But USF went with a different Coach Scott, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.

Larry Scott held good jobs: Tight ends coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee, tight ends coach at Florida. He was paid well and respected in recruiting and coaching circles. But he wanted to lead a program. Howard gave him a shot.

Larry Scott was the interim head coach for the Miami Hurricanes in 2015. He said of coaching at Howard: “Here’s an opportunity for you to go bet on yourself, bet on the fact that these things can be done at an HBCU, that you can become a head coach and put together a respectable program, a program that plays for championships.”

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

At an emotional introduction, Scott said some of his coaching friends “probably wouldn’t understand this move.”

“Here’s an opportunity for you to go bet on yourself, bet on the fact that these things can be done at an HBCU, that you can become a head coach and put together a respectable program, a program that plays for championships,” Scott said recently. “If you really hold true to why you do what you do, at the end of the day, the level of football becomes minuscule to the big scheme of it all.”

Scott hired assistants who also had coached on football’s biggest stages: Warren Belin (Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Georgia, Carolina Panthers), Vernon Hargreaves (Missouri, Arkansas, Miami) and Lee Hull (Oregon State, Maryland, Indianapolis Colts). He wanted men who wanted to be at Howard.

He also knows the HBCU life isn’t for everyone.

“Why do we do what we do?” Scott said. “Some guys purely do it for money, or they purely do it for the initials that are on your shirt when you walk into a school or a stadium. They want that, they need that, they crave that. Some guys do it for the day-to-day operation of what it means to leave an impact on young people’s lives, no matter where that is.”

New Howard University head football coach Larry Scott expresses what it means to him to be able to help young men on Feb. 6, 2020, in Washington.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Morgan State coach Tyrone Wheatley ran the football at the highest levels, first as an All-Big Ten back at Michigan and then for 10 NFL seasons with the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. He then coached running backs, rising from Eastern Michigan to Michigan to two NFL teams. Wheatley had financial security but grew bored with coaching running backs, a job dominated by Black coaches in college and a difficult spot from which to advance. “A graveyard position,” Wheatley said.

Like Scott, Wheatley jumped at the chance to lead an HBCU program. He also has higher aspirations and views Morgan State as a learning ground for a first-time head coach.

“All the things that I’m coming across, if I’m able to move up and go someplace else, no other problem would compare,” Wheatley said. “I’ve seen it, I’ve done it.”

He’s quick to add: “I’m not counting anyone’s pocket.” Every coach’s financial situation is different. The chance to earn $400,000 or more at a Power 5 program, even as a position coach, is tough to pass up.

But Wheatley isn’t running back to a Power 5 position role, even after the concerns he heard when the Morgan State opportunity first surfaced.

“One of the things was, ‘You’ll get stuck there,’ ” Wheatley said. “But here’s my deal: I’m a Black man on a Black campus. What better place to be stuck if I get stuck? I’ve helped other institutions make millions and millions of dollars. Why not change it and help the institution with people who look like me, who talk like me, with some of the similar culture and characteristics that I have.

“Why not try and make millions for this institution?”

Embraced the HCBU experience

Mike London is entering his 12th season as a college head coach, overseeing his fourth program. He made the rare jump from the FCS to the Power 5, but did so from Richmond, his alma mater and not an HBCU, to Virginia. In 2017, he became Howard’s head coach, and spent two seasons there before leaving for another FCS program, William & Mary.

London left Howard to live closer to his parents’ home in Hampton, Virginia. He loved his time at the university, from connecting with fellow Phi Beta Sigmas on campus to coaching the Bison, 45-point underdogs, to a win at UNLV in his first game.

“The biggest upset in college football history,” London said.

The team returned to campus the following day and received a large ovation at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, where services were being held. London then went to his office, only to have Rev. Jesse Jackson poke his head in the door. Jackson, who played quarterback for North Carolina A&T, came to offer his congratulations.

Mike London (second from left) next to Rev. Jesse Jackson (center) after Howard’s upset victory against UNLV in 2017.

Mike London

“I was like, ‘Rev. Jackson?’ He said, ‘That’s right.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ ” London recalled. “I took pictures, it was unbelievable. And then he came back the next day to talk to the team about the significance of that win and how it brings attention to not just the school but to HBCU football.

“It was so surreal, because here we are at an HBCU, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the pride and the history, Thurgood Marshall, just all those things.”

London embraced his HCBU experience, but also understands the resource realities and the challenges of attracting coaches and players. He hopes that recent coaching moves, like Scott staying at Howard or Deion Sanders, a candidate for Power 5 openings, going to Jackson State last year, change the way the jobs are viewed.

In January, South Carolina contacted Simmons about its running backs position. Like Scott, Simmons chose to stay put.

“[HBCU coaches] are committed to dispelling the myth that HBCU programs aren’t valuable, that we don’t have a place in the entire college landscape,” Simmons said. “Because we do. We have provided opportunities for African Americans for over 150 years, in many cases, and for football programs, for over 100 years. So for people to have this certain notion that HBCU football is somehow inferior to other FCS programs, it’s a slap in the face. Guys like myself, Larry Scott, [Grambling coach] Broderick Fobbs, those of us who have committed ourselves to being here and doing a great job here, it means more to us.”

“A guy like Larry Scott, who has done everything, what would be the reason he cannot be considered for a head-coaching job at the Power 5 or FBS level? That’s the conversation we have.” – Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons

Withers thinks those in hiring positions ultimately must “get out of their comfort zone” and actually research HBCU coaches, their backstories and job challenges.

“There’s a ton of talented coaches in HBCU programs,” Withers said. “It’s such a comfort for athletic directors and administrators to speak with what they’ve always known. I hate using the term ‘good ol’ boys system,’ but it is, to a point.”

Simmons applauds Scott for staying at Howard, noting that it wasn’t like Alabama offered a coordinator job or even an assistant head coach title.

“We should not be stressed with the dilemma of: ‘OK, if I stay, is this a bad move?’ Because being a head coach is never a bad move,” Simmons said. “A guy like Larry Scott, who has done everything, what would be the reason he cannot be considered for a head-coaching job at the Power 5 or FBS level? That’s the conversation we have.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re forced to make those kinds of decisions or have those types of dilemmas, because any opportunity to be a head coach is phenomenal, and we should not be afraid to do so at a historically Black college or university for fear that we may never get an opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.

“That’s a problem we face right now, and it’s something that needs to be changed.”

Scott is aware of the problem and bothered by the outside view of HBCU coaches, but refuses to dwell on negativity.

“It puts you in a place of peace in doing what you say you love to do,” Scott said. “If you operate off of your true intentions and your true why, the value is something you can’t place a dollar sign or the initials of a certain university around. You can’t. Because if not, you’ll be searching and bouncing around to job to job to job to job. Tell me where your true peace is. Tell me where you’ve truly had an opportunity to leave a legacy.”

Adam Rittenberg is a senior writer covering college football for ESPN.com. He joined ESPN in 2008 and has reported extensively on the college football coaching industry. Like every team, he ain't played nobody.