Why Is There a Stigma Against HBCU Alum Football Coaches?
There seems to be something against HBCU alums that are coaches. A stigma if you will.
For the second year in a row in the Celebration Bowl, Jackson State presumably had a more talented team than its opponent. Last year, it was South Carolina State, coached by SCSU grad Buddy Pough, at that time in his 20th season at the helm.
Saturday, it was a similar scenario. Jackson State was the favorite over North Carolina Central (although I don’t see how if you know about NCCU). JSU had four- and five-star recruits. The Tigers had head coach Deion Sanders. Yet the Eagles, coached by NCCU alum Trei Oliver, took care of the Tigers, 41-34, in overtime to win the HBCU national championship.
Sanders leaves JSU now for Colorado, 0-3 in opportunities to win an HBCU national championship. He came in with hype as the JSU head coach, with the kind of introductory press conference that we would expect from Primetime. Yet, for all we heard over the last two years and three seasons, he leaves with no championships.
There is a problem with this picture.
The coach, who had never coached on the college level, who needed that coaching experience to move on to the next level, was able to move on to be head coach at a Power 5 school. That coach played at Florida State, and because he needed to get his degree, received his degree from Talladega College, an HBCU. This is admirable. He could have gone almost anywhere, but chose an HBCU.
Pough, who has built and ultra-successful program at SCSU, has never got a shot to be a head coach on the FBS level. After a very successful stint as a high school coach in South Carolina where he won a state championship, he was an assistant coach for five years at South Carolina under Lou Holtz. He contemplated retiring a few years ago, so he is on the back end of his coaching career.
Oliver is still relatively young and may still have a chance to be a head coach at the FBS level. And that is something, if presented the opportunity, he would want. He has paid all of the dues to be a head coach at the FBS level. He started as an assistant coach at Delaware State before moving on to North Carolina Central and coaching under Rod Broadway at three different stops, along the way winning HBCU national championships at NCCU, Grambling, and North Carolina A&T, before moving on to be defensive coordinator at Southern for three seasons (2016-18). But will he get that opportunity at the FBS level?
History says there is a very slim chance.
The first Black head coach and HBCU graduate to become a head coach at the I-A/FBS level was SCSU alum Willie Jeffries, who in 1979 became the head coach at Wichita State. His last season at Wichita State was 1983.
It took almost 40 years for the an HBCU grad to reach that level, when Charles Huff was hired as the head coach at Marshall in 2021. Huff is a Hampton graduate and played for the legendary Joe Taylor, winning an HBCU national championship as a player in 2004. In his first year at Marshall, he led the Thundering Herd to a 7-6 record and a bowl game appearance. This year, the Thundering Herd went 9-4, finished third in a tough Sunbelt conference that had an almost historic year with wins over Power 5 programs, including the Thundering Herd’s Week 2 victory over then No. 8 Notre Dame. On Monday, they defeated UConn in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. Marshall is on a five-game winning streak.
Huff’s path was a little different than Oliver’s. He started at Tennessee State, where he was an assistant for three years, before joining the Maryland staff for one year, and then a year at Hampton. He then had stops at Vanderbilt, with the Buffalo Bills, Western Michigan, Penn State, and Mississippi State. His last stop before Marshall was as associate head coach/running backs at Alabama under Nick Saban.
While Oliver could make history and Huff has, look at all of the coaches that were HBCU grads/alums that didn’t get their opportunities. Pough comes to mind more recently. How about Bill Hayes, the first Black assistant coach in the ACC in the 1970’s at Wake Forest. He went on to be head coach at Winston-Salem State and then North Carolina A&T, where he left as both schools’ all-time winningest coaches.
Then there are the coaches who aren’t HBCU grads but had a great success at HBCUs over a sustained amount of time and didn’t get opportunities to coach at the FBS level. Taylor and Broadway are prime examples. And look at all the greats who would have never even been considered for the opportunity because of segregation, racism, and just plain ignorance.
So is there a stigma against HBCU coaches?
It certainly seems like there is. And what’s interesting is, with some of the dysfunction at our schools at times, if you can win at an HBCU, wouldn’t it make sense that you could win anywhere, particularly at an FBS school where there are more resources and money?
Additionally, not to go too far off subject, but part of the problem with the lack of Black coaches in the NFL is the lack of Black head coaches and coordinators at the FBS/Power 5 level. Partly. Because, while it may be a little unorthodox, we need to see more than HBCU coaches getting NFL internships and fellows. We need to see HBCU coaches getting coaching positions with NFL teams.
From HBCU to NFL.
If they want it, Connell Maynor at Alabama A&M or Damon Wilson at Morgan State should be considered for FBS head jobs. These are two HBCU grads (North Carolina A&T and Bowie State) who are still young enough and have had great success at various levels, including winning national championships. As a matter of fact, Maynor has some professional coaching experience, having been the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League, winning the title in 2008. During this time, he was also the quarterbacks coach at Fayetteville State (2000-08) and the Broncos won two championships (2004 and 2005). The next year he became offensive coordinator at FSU and they won the CIAA championship.) How about Fred McNair (Alcorn State) and Dawson Odums (Norfolk State)? And while he’s not an HBCU grad, Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons certainly should be considered.
FBS athletic directors, our coaches can coach too. Look at us.
Donal Ware is the host of the nationally syndicated sports talk radio program FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW, airing in over 26 markets across the country and on ESPNU Radio SiriusXM and on SiriusXM Channel 142 H.B.C.U. He is a Morgan State University graduate and has been covering HBCU sports for more than 20 years, 17 of those as BOXTOROW host.
Why Is There a Stigma Against HBCU Alum Football Coaches?
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