Minority coaching ranks on the rise

With the college football season over, capped by the BCS national championship game last week and marked by the NCAA’s annual convention in Atlanta this week, it’s time to reflect on significant changes that took place off the field within the ranks of NCAA head football coaches.

The NCAA recognizes that it does not always garner the attention it deserves — head coaches are key educators on college campuses. They help lead student-athletes to excel in the classroom, achieve on the playing fields and develop as productive individuals.

This past season marked noticeable improvement in the number of ethnic minorities hired as head coaches of NCAA football programs. When the season began last fall, there were eight head coaches of color among the 120 universities that compete in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision; now there are 14.

The six recently hired in the FBS are Turner Gill (Kansas); Mike London (Virginia); Joker Phillips (Kentucky); Larry Porter (Memphis); Charlie Strong (Louisville); and Willie Taggert (Western Kentucky).

Two more head coaches of color were hired in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision — Nigel Burton (Portland State) and Latrell Scott (Richmond) — bringing the total in that subdivision of Division I football to seven, out of 101.

Admittedly, the numbers are still too low. But these hires represent progress and hope for continued change.

I believe we moved closer to turning the corner on this issue this past season for a number of reasons.

Unlike the NFL, with its Rooney Rule mandating interviews of minorities for head coaching positions, the NCAA cannot dictate to its 1,000-plus member campuses who they should interview.

Nonetheless, courageous campus leaders — presidents, chancellors and athletics directors — pressed on and displayed real leadership in the search process for new head football coaches. I commend them for seeking to interview and, most significantly, hire the best fit for the job, regardless of that person’s race or ethnicity.

Another important element is professional development. It takes more than on-field skill to get to the tier of head coach. Several of the recent hires are alumni of the NCAA Coaches Academy programs. This tells me that expanding the pipeline of qualified individuals and linking them to those who have hiring influence is a plus.

Key individuals and organizations — such as Tony Dungy, the Black Coaches and Administrators and the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association — also lent their strong voices, bully pulpits and networking savvy.

Even with these latest hires, though, only 4.4 percent of head coaching positions in all three NCAA divisions are held by people of color — while more than 50 percent of football student-athletes in Division I alone are ethnic minorities.

The same aggressive attitude used to recruit minority football student-athletes to campus should be employed when colleges and universities recruit candidates for football head coaching positions.

Our nation continues to become increasingly diverse and inclusive, shown by the election of an African-American president for the first time in American history. Higher education and intercollegiate athletics should be leaders nationally with diversity and inclusion, taking advantage of the strengths derived from our different backgrounds, experiences and talents.

To be sure, the NCAA and its member institutions have not crossed the goal line yet on this issue. But the recent hires show we are moving the ball down the field.

Charlotte Westerhaus is vice president of diversity and inclusion at the National Collegiate Athletic Association.