African American Head Coaches in Division Football

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The sports field has become a platform for matters of great cultural significance, an issue which is in itself fiercely debated. The topic of diversity has been extensively covered in sports literature as well (Cunningham & Sagas, 2004). In the past years, the lack of African American head coaches in the sports industry and the issue of racial discrimination have gained increased media attention and scrutiny. The fact still remains, however, that there is a marked lack of diversity in college football coaching and a low number of minority head coaches.

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This lack of minority coaches is not representative of the diversity of NCAA DI college football (Kopkin, 2014), and therefore cannot be attributed to a homologous candidate pool for coaching positions. This literature review will explore three primary themes that contribute to the lack of diversity in NCAA Division I coaching stacking and limited career pathways, access and treatment discrimination, and leadership stereotypes and homologous reproduction. After exploring the current literature and research available about these themes, conclusions will be drawn using two different theoretical frameworks. Two primary theories that have framed the discussion on the lack of diversity in NCAA football coaching: Critical Race Theory and Stereotype Threat Theory. These theoretical frameworks will provide a structure to analyze the three primary themes and to inform a discussion of the literature synthesis to develop exciting conclusions and indications for further research. The purpose of this literature review is to examine the current literature about diversity in NCAA DI college football coaching and identify the common themes that point to the underlying factors responsible for lack of African Americans in head coaching positions.

Stacking and Limited Career Pathways

Research suggests that the majority of candidates in the applicant pool for coaching positions in NCAA D1 football are former college football athletes, so it logically follows that the demographics of the coaching staff would be reflective of the diversity in the college football league (Bopp & Sagas, 2012; Finch, McDowell & Sagas, 2010). Studies show, however, a remarkably low number of minority coaches in head leadership positions. Researchers have explored a variety of factors contributing to the disparity between the diverse candidate pool and homologous coaching staff. Studies found that position stacking plays a large part. Stacking Position stacking is the term used in the sports world to describe the way that former players of a position become coaches for that specific position (Bopp & Sagas, 2012; Day, 2018; Cunningham, 2010; Finch, McDowell & Sagas, 2010). Due to this position stacking phenomenon, career pathways for coaches are often limited by the position that they played on the field, for example, a college quarterback is highly likely to become a quarterback coach and is very unlikely to become a wide-receiver coach (Bozeman & Fay, 2012; Day, 2018). This creates a type of pipeline that can predict the career trajectory of an athlete regarding coaching success based on their position.

Limited Career Pathways

This pipeline structure funnels players into different strata of coaching positions, often referred to as central or peripheral (Bozeman & Fay, 2012). Because the majority of central positions in football are occupied by white athletes (Bopp & Sagas, 2012), it follows that the majority of central coaching positions are also occupied by white coaches, which contributes to the lack of minorities in head coaching positions. Bozeman and Fay posit that in order to attain the highest level of coaching, the head coach position, it is typically required that a coach have central coaching position experience such as an offensive coordinator. While a sizable number of African Americans occupy assistant coaching positions, under 20% of coordinator positions in all of college football are held by African Americans (Kopkin, 2014). This limits the upward mobility for African Americans to be able to achieve prominent coaching positions. The hierarchical structure of the football coaching organization thus is a significant factor in limiting the number of African American head coaches in NCAA D1 football. The majority of coaches who climb the ranks to a head coaching position come from a background in offensive positions, who are predominantly white (Turick & Bopp, 2016).

A recent study on the increase in African American quarterbacks indicates the need for further study to understand why the increase in central positions held by African American athletes has not significantly impacted the number of minority coaches. Access and Treatment Discrimination Discrimination is the practice of treating certain groups of people differently or unfairly based on their gender, race, or another distinguishing factor like sexual orientation or religious belief. Discrimination has been studied extensively in the sporting world, and two primary forms have been identified: access and treatment discrimination. Cunningham (2010) defines access discrimination as the prevention of members of a particular group from entering a particular career and explains that treatment discrimination is when certain groups are presented with fewer opportunities or rewards than they deserve while already in a given profession. Critical Race Theory (CRT) examines how race and racism impact outcomes in educational and economic practices. This theory provides the framework for discussing access and treatment discrimination in NCAA football coaching. Finch, McDowell, and Sagas also used CRT to conclude that career opportunities for African American coaches in intercollegiate athletics have been restricted by institutional racial discrimination (2010). Other studies also point to the role that racism plays in explaining the low number of minority coaches in NCAA football and the fact that coaches of color are less likely to be hired (Kelly, Pastore, Hodge, & Seifried, 2015; Soebbing, Wicker, & Watanabe, 2016).

Several research reports show that both types of discrimination are present when considering the lack of minority head coaches in NCAA D1 football. Access Discrimination Data shows that African Americans have limited access to head coaching positions in NCAA D1 football coaching (Cunningham, 2010; Day, 2018, Cunningham, Bruening & Straub, 2006). Access is limited by a variety of factors, namely position stacking and homologous reproduction. According to research, institutionalized discrimination limits the diversity among D1 NCAA football head coaches, and access discrimination further compounds the impact (Finch, McDowell, & Sagas, 2010). Other studies also point to the role that racism plays in explaining the low number of minority coaches in NCAA football and the fact that coaches of color are less likely to be hired (Kelly, Pastore, Hodge, & Seifried, 2015; Soebbing, Wicker, & Watanabe, 2016). Treatment Discrimination Furthermore, studies show that once hired as a coach, African Americans are less likely than their white counterparts to be promoted to leadership positions such as coordinator (Cunningham, 2010). They are also valued for their non-coaching abilities, like recruitment, and are more likely to be dismissed from their position (Cunningham, 2010; Cunningham, Bruening, & Straub, 2006). This means that African American coaches are not only less likely to be hired, but they are also more likely to be fired from a coaching position (Kopkin, 2014). Not only that, but Kopkin explains that once fired, black coaches are much less likely to be rehired than white coaches, who are often given a second chance after losing their position. Critical Race Theory served as the fundamental theoretical framework for Day’s study, in which he explores the extensive research and theory on the role that race plays in determining pathways to promotions to explain the advantage of white workers over black workers regarding treatment once hired (2018). Therefore, access and treatment discrimination impact the lack of people of color in NCAA Division -1 football head coaching.

Leadership Stereotypes and Homologous Reproduction

Another contributing factor to the lack of diversity in NCAA D1 football coaching that has been explored extensively by researchers is leadership stereotypes that lead to homologous reproduction. Stereotype Threat Theory (STT) explains the phenomenon of self-perpetuating stereotypes in which people of a specific group adjust their behavior based on fear of living up to a negative stereotype, which in turn causes them to become that stereotype. Historically the NCAA has been characterized by white male leadership (Kopkin, 2014), which has reinforced leadership stereotypes and propagated homologous reproduction. Leadership Stereotypes A stereotype is defined as “”a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment”” (Meriam Webster online). Preconceived notions about leadership and African American athletes play a significant role in limiting the number of minority coaches in DI college football coaching. Stereotype Threat Theory explains why in 2015, all of the new NCAA DI football coaches hired were white and replaced white coaches because of the stereotype that white men occupy leadership positions while black men are relegated to assistant positions (Turick & Bopp, 2016).

White men as natural leaders. Leadership stereotypes promote the idea that white men are more qualified leaders because they are more ethical and smarter candidates for leadership positions (Cunningham, 2010; Day, 2018). This could account for the fact that over the past 20 years, out of over 190 coaching head football coaching positions, less than 7% of positions have been awarded to African Americans (Cunningham, 2010). Not only that, but stakeholder expectations of seeing white men in leadership positions leads to the lack of diversity in coaching because investors influence athletic department decisions (Cunningham, 2010). Black men as better players than coaches. There is a large pool of black athletes in Division I college football, many of whom express desires to pursue a career in coaching (Kelly, Pastore, Hodge, & Seifried 2015).

However, many black athletes choose not to pursue head coaching positions, which could be explained by the fact that the stereotype exists that African Americans are better athletes than coaches (Cunningham, 2010; Finch, McDowell & Sagas, 2010). From a Stereotype Threat theoretical perspective, it is plausible to question whether black athletes have internalized this stereotype, thus limiting their options by reinforcing behavior that makes this stereotype a reality. Further research into the attitudes and perspectives of black athletes on coaching and administrative positions is warranted to explore this possibility. Homologous Reproduction These stereotypes inform hiring decisions, which lead to homologous reproduction, or in other words the practice of certain groups exclusively hiring and promoting candidates that are also a member of their group. Leadership positions in NCAA DI athletics such as athletic directors, head coaches, and university presidents are overwhelmingly occupied by white men (Harrison, Lapchick & Janson, 2009; Kopkin, 2014). This means that the majority of people who make hiring decisions and impact succession come from one racial group.

African American candidates for head coaching positions, therefore, network and participate in different social groups than the people who are in a position to hire them (Kopkin, 2014) and could account for the low number of African American head coaches. Studies show that when candidates are equally matched concerning qualifications and experience, white men tend to hire white men over African Americans (Cunningham, 2010), which indicates that a level of homologous reproduction due to implicit bias is present in the coaching industry. White coaches are also more likely to hire white assistant coaches, which limits the access of African Americans to gaining assistant coaching experience, especially for central positions (Cunningham, 2010). Limited access to central positions impacts the career trajectory for minority coaches, which indicates the cyclical and institutionalized nature of the barriers that prohibit African Americans from gaining head coaching positions in NCAA DI football.


The purpose of the literature review was to examine the current literature about the lack of African Americans in NCAA Division I college football coaching and investigate the factors that contribute to the low number of minority head coaches. I analyzed three predominant themes found in the literatureposition stacking and limited career pathways, institutionalized access and treatment discrimination, and leadership stereotypes and homologous reproduction. When studied together, it becomes clear that the lack of diversity in NCAA Division I college football cannot be attributed to one specific cause, but rather is a symptom of greater institutionalized and systemic economic and cultural discriminatory practices. This literature review explored the reasons why a lack of African Americans in NCAA DI football coaching exists, but it did not offer insight as to why having diversity is particularly important or the impact of a diverse coaching staff on a team.

Some research has been conducted that indicates that racial diversity among coaching staff positively impacts team performance (Cunningham & Sagas, 2004). This is one avenue that should be further explored to gain a comprehensive understanding of the effects of diversity and bolster the argument to increase the number of minority coaches on staff for NCAA DI football teams. No quick fix will erase the disparity between white and minority head coaches, but rather a multitiered approach that addresses a variety of factors is the only way to tackle this problem. Further research should consider the greater systemic implications of how studying the diversity of football coaches can be applied to addressing diversity in other fields. A longitudinal study that tracks the trajectory of young minority athletes through high school and college to pursuing a career in the athletic industry could provide insights into how education plays a role in counteracting the barriers to attaining head coaching positions.

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African American Head Coaches in Division Football. (2020, May 08). Retrieved from