Black college football coaches pay it forward in effort to expand diversity pipeline

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

In the aftermath of the third annual NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit this week, the participants behind the event took turns hammering home the point that there is no shortage of Black men who are ready and qualified to become head coaches in the diversity-starved NFL — they just need a chance.

One level down in the NCAA, things are perhaps more dire. According to the most recent Racial and Gender Report Card, compiled annually by the University of Central Florida, 10.3 percent of Division I head football coaches were people of color, which is not only similar to the percentage of minority NFL head coaches at the start of the 2019 season (12 percent), but also represented a slight decrease of 0.1 percent from the prior year.

Those are concerning numbers, especially considering that 48.5 percent of FBS players were African American, UCF says. That’s one of the reasons why the University of Maryland’s Mike Locksley, one of just 14 African American FBS head coaches at the start of the 2019 season, has participated in the Quarterback Coaching Summit every year, even paying his own way in 2018, when the event was held in Atlanta.

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Maryland Terrapins head coach Michael Locksley is worried about the lack of a diversity pipeline in the college coaching ranks. (AP Photo/Will Newton)
Maryland Terrapins head coach Michael Locksley is worried about the lack of a diversity pipeline in the college coaching ranks. (AP Photo/Will Newton)

“This is something that has been on my mind,” Locksley told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview this week. “Our numbers in the college game reflect [the NFL’s] almost exactly ... and the thing that really scared me is that when you look back into it deeply, there’s not a whole lot of names of coaches coming up through the ranks in these positions to be able to vet, prepare, promote and then hopefully produce for these jobs when they become available.”

Locksley has a point. According to a study done by the Associated Press in February, only seven schools have a Black man in charge of the offense while four carry a co-offensive coordinator title

“It’s like the elephant in the room,” University of Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis told Yahoo Sports this week. “You have to acknowledge it. There is a burden that we have, as minority coaches, to be able to carry the torch, to be able to just create an opportunity or a pathway.

“Oftentimes, when you have minority coaches and they don’t do well, that immediately closes the door for opportunities in the future, so you don’t want to be the guy that shuts the door on someone else. You want to be someone that can build a bridge that can create opportunities for more coaches like us.”

The goal: Make the Summit unnecessary

For college coaches, the opportunity to build bridges — not to mention professional development and networking opportunities — is what makes the Quarterback Coaching Summit so valuable. 

“What we try to do is identify people that we think have a legitimate chance ... of moving up and coaching at the next level,” said Washington Redskins executive Doug Williams, who co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame and helped hold the Summit in tandem with the NFL. “Even if they don’t end up in the NFL, they might end up being coordinators or head coaches at the college level.”

Williams said this year’s summit, which was held over Zoom meetings due to COVID-19, had a record number of attendees on each day of the two-day conference, well over 100. This included several presenters from the college ranks, including Locksley and his offensive coordinator, Scottie Montgomery.

By the time the event ended, Williams insisted team owners and coaches have to get out of the habit of hiring who they know instead of the best possible candidate for the job. He didn’t explicitly address the college game, but the problem extends to that level as well, as athletic directors and powerful boosters who do the hiring must open their minds to a more diverse pool of candidates. 

No collegiate athletic directors presented at the summit this year, the Black College Hall of Fame said. But Woody McCorvey, Clemson’s associate AD of football administration, did participate, and there’s a chance athletic directors could be added to the mix down the road, although the hope remains that both the lagging collegiate and professional diversity numbers improve quickly enough that one day this summit will no longer be necessary.

“In five years, God [willing], I hope we don’t need it,” Williams said.

In the meantime, Locksley noted, Black college coaches must focus on two things to overcome the odds.

“We need to take aim at ourselves and make sure we are preparing and promoting and producing other coaches, creating this pipeline of giving back and paying it forward to some of the younger guys that are maybe not in these positions just yet to help create a pipeline for names of people that are qualified and able to do the job,” Locksley said.

The power of heeding Locksley’s words can be seen in Gattis’ uncommon rise through the coaching ranks. 

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said he benefitted from having Maryland coach Mike Locksley as a mentor and resource. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said he benefitted from having Maryland coach Mike Locksley as a mentor and resource. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

How Mike Locksley’s mentorship propelled Josh Gattis

Gattis, 36, is a former NFL safety who is now one of the handful of Black college coaches who have managed to coach quarterbacks and be an offensive coordinator, despite never playing the position in college or the pros.

“I think for a lot of us, we think — even myself early on in my career — that we couldn’t overcome the challenge of our skin color or the fact we didn’t coach quarterbacks or didn’t play quarterback to get the jobs that we want,” Gattis said. “It may take a little bit more work, it may take a little bit more polish to stand out, but we can do it and that’s the thing I stress to each and every one of the young coaches that I talk to daily.”

Gattis is quick to add that his rise would not have been possible without help from other Black coaches like Penn State’s James Franklin, who he worked with at Vanderbilt and Penn State from 2012-17 and Locksley, who he worked with at Alabama in 2018.

“Mike has been a great resource for me as a coach,” Gattis said. “He really kind of jump-started this opportunity for me, giving me a lot of responsibilities [at Alabama]. He really pounded the table to get me hired at Alabama, so I’ve had to earn it, but it’s not common. I don’t want people to look at my pathway and say, ‘Well, I want to be the next Josh Gattis,’ because realistically, it just doesn’t happen that way. But if you can surround yourself with great resources and role models, it can.”

And to his credit, Locksley has continued to build a diverse staff at Maryland, where his offensive coordinator is Black, as well as several other members of his coaching staff.

“Knowing the DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] area and knowing where we’re located ... so much of it is relationships,” Locksley said. “And I felt like it would be really important for me, from a diversity standpoint, to have my staff reflect that and reflect what this community that we’re in and located in is all about.”

The feedback Locksley received from coaches who observed his 19-minute presentation — which was filled with tips on recruiting and how to connect with and inspire today’s players — was positive. Shortly after he was done, five or six texts rolled in quickly from coaches with dreams of running their own programs one day.

“Some of the coaches who texted me are not young, and that’s the problem,” Locksley said. “Some of them are just coaches that, again, are a little older but never have been given these opportunities.”

And if Locksley and his fellow college coaches who were a part of the summit have their way, the NCAA’s poor diversity numbers in head-coaching positions will also start changing soon.

“What we’d like to do is show the people that are part of the NFL — and even athletic directors — that there are some viable, qualified candidates that took part in this summit that are capable of doing the job,” Locksley said. “And with this platform the NFL provided, it allowed them to see us doing what we do best.”

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