Deion Sanders was the star attraction in this year's class of new Black coaches taking over major college programs.
Of course, he didn't have a lot of competition.
Sanders, who left Jackson State for Colorado of the Pac-12 Conference, was one of just three Black head coaches hired by Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the recently completed cycle for the 2023-24 season.
Barring any additional changes, there will be 14 Black coaches at 133 FBS teams next season — roughly 10.5% of overall coaches and a drop from 15 at the start of this season, even as the FBS division adds two new schools in 2023.
The lack of diversity remains striking in a sport where more than half the players identify as Black.
Sanders was joined by two other Black head coaching hires. Purdue picked Ryan Walters, the defensive coordinator at fellow Big Ten school Illinois, to replace Jeff Brohm. And Kent State went with Minnesota assistant coach Kenni Burns to lead its program after Sean Lewis left to become Sanders' offensive coordinator at Colorado.
Also, Zach Arnett appears to be the first Latino to lead a Southeastern Conference program, promoted from defensive coordinator at Mississippi State after the death of Mike Leach. And Lance Taylor, who is of Choctaw heritage, landed the top job at Western Michigan after serving as Louisville's offensive coordinator.
The remaining 19 openings — including Georgia Tech sticking with interim coach Brent Key for the full-time job — were claimed by white candidates.
Sanders posted a 27-6 record and created plenty of headlines during his three years at Jackson State, a historically Black university in Mississippi. Now, “Coach Prime” will take over a Colorado program coming off a dismal 1-11 season. He said part of the reason he accepted the job at a school where wins have been scarce was to open doors for more Black coaches.
“It’s about an opportunity,” Sanders said.
The Big Ten has the most diverse lineup among Power Five leagues with four Black coaches among 14 member schools — Walters, Michigan State's Mel Tucker, Penn State's James Franklin and Maryland's Mike Locksley.
The 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference remains at two Black coaches with Syracuse's Dino Babers and Virginia's Tony Elliott. The only other Black coaches at Power Five schools are Sanders and Marcus Freeman at independent Notre Dame.
The Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, both set to have 14 teams in 2023, have no Black coaches.
The numbers are even punier in the Group of Five leagues: The Mid-American Conference, located largely in the same Midwest region as the Big Ten, has three Black coaches at its 12 schools: Burns, Thomas Hammock at Northern Illinois and Maurice Linguist at Buffalo.
Three other conferences have one Black coach each: Jay Norvell at Colorado State (Mountain West), Stan Drayton at Temple (American) and Charles Huff at Marshall (Sun Belt).
There are no Black coaches in Conference USA or the handful of other schools without a league affiliation.
The lack of diversity in the FBS ranks led Locksley to form the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches two years ago. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, he said he's not discouraged by numbers that show little progress and insisted that more schools are reaching out to his organization in the search for candidates of color, which he expects to eventually pay dividends.
Locksley said he doesn't favor offering incentives — such as extra scholarships or bigger bowl payouts — to schools that hire minority coaches.
“That, to me, is kind of working backward,” he said. “The only reason you're doing it is to gain a reward, whereas it should be in the fabric of the hiring process. We want to make it an even playing field, where these schools are hiring the right guys for the right reasons.”
Sylvester Croom, who in 2004 became the SEC's first Black head football coach when he took over at Mississippi State, decried the lack of progress. There have been only four other Black head coaches in the SEC since Croom led the way, a glaring lack in a region with a large population of minority groups.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has called out his own members for not having a single Black coach, even though 10 schools have made coaching changes in the last three seasons (and Auburn twice).
“No, there’s definitely not enough progress,” Croom told the AP. “It’s almost 20 years now, and the fact that we still have to have these conversations is disappointing and it’s frustrating."
There also appears to be remnants of a discriminatory system hindering progress in a region where college football rules: Segregation prevented major Southern schools from recruiting Black players until the 1960s and '70s.
Virginia, the school where Elliott's debut season was marred by the tragic shooting deaths of three players, is the only FBS team led by a Black coach in the southeastern U.S. and the states of Texas and Oklahoma.
Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Reach him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
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