photo courtesy of Duke athletics
With the eyes of our nation focused on racial equality or the lack thereof, in all facets of life, TOM has decided to look at how African-Americans have fared in landing coaching jobs at the DI level. Some of the greatest legends of our sport are African-Americans. Kenny Monday, Kevin Jackson, and Jordan Burroughs have ascended to the top step on the Olympic podium and have been awarded gold medals. Others like Lloyd Keaser, Nate Carr, Chris Campbell, Townsend Saunders, Jamill Kelly, J’Den Cox, Greg Gibson, Rodney Smith, and Randi Miller have won either Olympic silver or bronze medals. Today Burroughs, Cox, Tamyra Mensah-Stock, Jacarra Winchester, G’Angelo Hancock, and Kamal Bey are prominent African-American athletes that are currently the faces of USA Wrestling.
Despite the history and current success of African-American wrestlers, there are few examples of accomplished African-American head coaches at the collegiate level. The most notable example is Bobby Douglas. Bobby was the first (and only) African-American head coach of an NCAA title-winning team when he led Arizona State to a title in 1988. Douglas also was at the helm for Cael Sanderson’s unprecedented 159-0 run through NCAA wrestling from 1999-2002. The drop-off from Douglas to the rest of the field is rather noticeable.
Looking outside of the wrestling world, NFL football is the professional league that has put measures in place to at least ensure that minority candidates receive an interview for a vacant head coaching position. In 2002, the Rooney Rule was passed after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy, who had a winning record, and the Minnesota Vikings fired Dennis Green. Green suffered through his first losing season in ten years in Minnesota. At the Rooney Rule’s inception, statistics showed that African-American head coaches were hired less and fired more often than white coaches. After the implementation of the Rooney Rule, the Cincinnati Bengals hired Marvin Lewis, but minority hiring by NFL franchises has been spotty, at best, and some teams have even skirted the process. Earlier this year, the league looked to modify the rule as none of the five head coaching vacancies were filled by minority candidates despite the Kansas City Chiefs having won Super 54 on the strength of a prolific offense led by Eric Bieniemy, an African-American offensive coordinator. Whether or not the Rooney Rule has been a success is up for debut and a discussion suited for a different forum. What’s evident is that the number of African-American head coaches (2 of 32; 6.25%) is extremely disproportionate to the African-American NFL players (approximately 70% as of 2018). The total number of head coaches that can be considered minorities totals four, which still only increases to 12.5%.
Now turning the attention back to the wrestling mats, do we have the same problems as the NFL when it comes to disproportionate numbers when African-American athletes are compared to their coaches? The “eyeball test” after being around the sport for three-plus decades tells me that we certainly don’t have the number of African-American participants as football, but I was still eager to see the actual ratio.
With the hiring of Chris Pendleton by Oregon State University in late-March, there are now three DI programs currently being led by African-American head coaches (Glen Lanham at Duke and Angel Escobedo at Indiana are the others). Only five teams currently have a minority head coach. Three of 78 (current DI teams – counting Cal-Baptist) is only 3.84%. Five of 78 is 6.4%.
Looking at the total number of African-American coaches (assistants/volunteers) in 2019-20, we find that 28 of 295 coaches were African-American. That’s 9.5% of the coaching population. Minorities accounted for 50 of those roles, or 16.9%.
How do numbers like 3.84% and 6.4% percent compare to the wrestlers on the mat? It’s challenging to get an exact number of African-American wrestlers since rosters are always evolving and sometimes never updated. With that being said, we looked at the number of African-American wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA Championships over the past five seasons. In 2020, 42 African-American wrestlers earned spots at the tournament, representing 12.7% of 330 participants. That number dropped, ever-so-slightly, from 2019 when 43 African-American (13%) wrestlers punched their tickets to Pittsburgh. That total did not change from the previous year. 2017, saw the fewest number of African-American wrestlers going to nationals when only 37 (11.2%) qualified. In 2016, 40 (12.1%) wrestled in Madison Square Garden. The average over this five-year period is 41 African-American wrestlers or 12.4% per year.
Here’s what each conference looked like in 2019-20, as far as the African-American and minority coaches go.
ACC – 4/24 African-American coaches (16.7%) and 6/24 minority coaches (25%)
Big 12 – 2/49 African-American coaches (4.1%) and 8/49 minority coaches (16.3%)
Big Ten – 4/55 African-American coaches (7.2%) and 7/55 minority coaches (12.7%)
EIWA – 5/62 African-American coaches (8.1%) and 9/62 minority coaches (14.5%)
MAC – 9/55 African-American coaches (16.4) and 10/55 minority coaches (18.2%)
Pac-12 – 3/21 African-American coaches (14.2%) and 8/21 minority coaches (38.1%)
SoCon – 1/27 African-American coaches (3.7%) and 2/27 minority coaches (7.4%)
A much deeper dive into the numbers and rosters would be necessary to tabulate the proportionality of minority coaches to the minority wrestlers that competed at nationals. But to the matter at hand, there is a discrepancy between the number of African-American athletes to coaches (especially head coach). Does that mean we need a Rooney Rule in place during the hiring process? Maybe and maybe not. Like most other facets of our lives, the best thing to do right now is to have some of these uncomfortable discussions.
We need to ask, “Are African-American coaches being ignored as AD’s round-up potential coaching candidates? Are there any facets of the hiring process that could be improved upon? Do certain athletic departments hire fewer minority candidates (across all sports) than others? Have African-American coaching candidates received all of the proper training (inside and outside of the wrestling room) needed to get hired at the DI level? Do age-old sports stereotypes like, “the gritty, white, gym rat” compared to the “naturally gifted black athlete” play into who is groomed for a potential coaching position?”
One of the best ways that wrestling prepares you for the rest of your life is that, to grow, you have to be introspective. Rather than blaming a teammate, we’re forced to find our own weaknesses and errors and address them. This is a pivotal point in our society where we, as a wrestling community, need to look inward and find what hasn’t worked or what needs to improve and address those deficiencies. While the numbers aren’t as out of proportion as at the NFL level, another look or two at the racial makeup of our coaching staffs would be a good start.