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NCAA program gives black coaches the secret sauce for moving on up

Football assistants get trained on how to ace the interview for head coach

Florida State football coach Willie Taggart was just 25 years old when he interviewed for his first head-coaching job at Western Kentucky University. Taggart had been a legendary quarterback for the Hilltoppers, and once his playing days were over he impressed everyone there with his work as an offensive coach.

Taggart certainly knew football. But he did not know what it took to be a head coach.

During the interviews, there were few questions about what Taggart knew best: recruiting players, and the X’s and O’s. Instead, school officials wanted to know about his vision for the program, his coaching philosophy and how he would deal with the media. They were concerned about budgets, hiring plans and the many other things involved in running the complex enterprise that is a Division I college football program.

“I was not ready,” recalled Taggart, who turns 43 on Aug. 27.

It is a fate that befalls many aspiring head coaches, particularly African Americans, who are woefully underrepresented in college football’s head-coaching ranks. Black coaches can be victims of negative racial stereotypes, weak professional networks and a shortage of useful information. The challenges they face are similar to those faced by black people in other industries, where top jobs go not just to the most talented or hardworking but to those with the best connections and inside knowledge.

Stanford head coach David Shaw leads his team onto the field to face Cal at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on Dec. 1, 2018.

Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The NCAA is attempting to address the yawning racial gap in head-coaching jobs with its Champion Forum, a professional development program aimed at helping promising black and other minority candidates climb to the top of the coaching ladder.

Working with the Power 5, college football’s top conferences, the NCAA each year identifies a half-dozen minority assistant coaches for intensive training. Some of these rising stars are already offensive and defensive coordinators, who are typically one step removed from a head-coaching job. Others are position coaches who are usually not immediately considered for head-coaching jobs but nonetheless look to have what it takes to rise to the top.

The program includes a three-day seminar during which the participants hear speakers on every aspect of coaching, from academics to fundraising. They engage in simulated job interviews that are closely critiqued. They meet with search firms that compile lists of candidates for schools looking to fill head-coaching jobs. They learn the basics of contracts, both for themselves and the staff they will hire if they ascend to a head-coaching position.

Most of all, they are taught to think like a head coach, a person who has to communicate simultaneously with players, the student body, academic officials, fans, boosters, the media and all others who feel they have a stake in a big-time football program. Their spouses are also brought in to offer feedback on what the coaches are leaving out of their interview answers, and in the process they get a glimpse at the demands their husbands would face were they to land a head-coaching job. After the seminar, the forum follows up with individual campus visits.

“The two big things for the forum is, No. 1, is to create as big a pool of candidates as possible. You are not going to make people hire someone, but you want to create the best pool of candidates possible, particularly among those who are underserved. ” — Stanford coach David Shaw

It is an eye-opening experience for many participants.

“You get a lot of shellshocked people the first time they hear about all that is required of a head coach: the fundraising, alumni relations, media, school administration,” said Jon Oliver, a former executive associate athletic director at Virginia who helps lead the program. “In many places, the football coach is the face of the university.”

Of course, the rewards are bountiful: Big-time football coaches are often among the highest-paid employees on a college campus. But being confronted with the varied demands of a head-coaching job is stunning for many program participants, who sometimes struggle to tailor their knowledge and experience to fit what is expected of a head coach.

Lou Ayeni, 38, the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Northwestern University, said the Championship Forum gave him a broader view of what it is going to take to fulfill his dream of becoming a head coach.

“It shows you that it’s about much more than X’s and O’s,” Ayeni said. “It makes you think about things that you don’t normally put in the front of your mind.”

The NCAA has run the program in different forms since 2006, and it has produced some notable alumni. They include Taggart, Penn State coach James Franklin, Stanford’s David Shaw and Derek Mason of Vanderbilt.

Still, the number of black head coaches at the top rung of college football remains dismal. Black athletes account for about half of all Division I football players, but just 15% of Division I head coaches are black. That number slips to just 7% when historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are excluded, according to 2018 NCAA statistics.

Not only is the number of black head coaches small, but so is the number of black offensive and defensive coordinators — the people most programs look to when they want to elevate an assistant to a head-coaching job. Just 9% of Division I offensive coordinators and 17% of defensive coordinators at non-HBCU schools are black, according to the NCAA.

“The two big things for the forum is, No. 1, is to create as big a pool of candidates as possible,” said Stanford’s Shaw, who has spoken at forum training seminars several times over the years. “You are not going to make people hire someone, but you want to create the best pool of candidates possible, particularly among those who are underserved. But also to have athletic directors and others participate in this so they can have access to these people and potentially break down any stereotypes that they may have.”

For the relative handful of black assistants in position to even be considered for a head-coaching position, the challenge is to ensure that they don’t blow whatever opportunities come their way.

“I think the mistake a lot of guys make is you get to these interviews and you think they’re about football and then they’re not,” said Penn State’s Franklin. “The people who are interviewing you — the athletic directors, the search firms and the school presidents — going in there and drawing up plays for them is not what they’re looking for.”

A big part of moving up the coaching ranks is learning how to promote yourself in ways that will set you apart. It was a constant focus for the six participants at the most recent Champion Forum earlier this summer. As the aspiring head coaches moved from windowless meeting room to windowless meeting room at the sprawling Orlando World Center Marriott hotel for small lectures and mock interviews, they were constantly reminded to share anecdotes that would allow their talents to shine through in clear, memorable ways.

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin speaks at Big Ten media day in Chicago on July 19.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

During his mock interview, Ayeni was urged to slow down as he talked about himself and to give examples that illustrate his ability to forge close relationships with players. Ben Albert, 47, a defensive coordinator at Duke, had to be reminded to mention some of his most impressive work during his many years as an assistant coach.

Albert, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and a former assistant there, recruited former New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz to his alma mater. He later helped develop one of the best defenses in the country while coaching the defensive line at Boston College, and he has worked with six players who went on to the NFL. More than that, he said, every player he has recruited has graduated from college.

But when he was asked about his accomplishments with the video camera rolling during a mock interview, he said none of that. Instead, he slipped into coachspeak, talking about working hard and producing good players, students and citizens.

“You’ve got to organize these great statistics and stories in your mind,” said Todd Goodale, a former associate athletic director at Virginia who was coaching him through the interview. “In situations where you are talking to so many coaches, all of them can run together unless you differentiate yourself.”

The headhunters who attend the forum are a revelation to many assistant coaches. At the very top of the football pyramid, most universities use search firms to help decide which candidates to interview.

Hayden Garrett, a principal at Parker Executive Search in Atlanta, said candidates have to be prepared to move quickly when a head-coaching job becomes available. “The process often moves fast when jobs open, meaning coaches have to think about how to package themselves and they have to know how to think beyond football. When you are a head coach, you are like a CEO.”

That is a lesson that Florida State’s Taggart learned the hard way. After bombing during his first interview at Western Kentucky, he said he paid close attention to how his head coaches operated. It paid off. Western Kentucky hired him as head coach in 2010, when he was 33. His career flourished from there, as he moved up to become the head man at the University of South Florida and then Oregon before landing a reported six-year, $30 million contract to coach Florida State in December 2017.

Taggart said he took to heart what he heard Warde Manuel, now the athletic director at Michigan, say at one of the NCAA training sessions. “He said African American coaches are losing jobs on the interviews. I paid attention to that.”

After benefiting from that admonishment, Taggart was the one giving advice to aspiring black coaches in Orlando. “Get to know people,” he said. “Change your circle a little bit. No excuses. We got to prepare ourselves for these jobs. The doors are open. You can do it.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.