Difficult road for black coaches
It's 8:15 on a Thursday night in mid-December, and Frank Wilson's cell phone is buzzing.
Wilson, the Southern Mississippi running backs coach, is in his native New Orleans with the Golden Eagles, who will take on Troy in 72 hours. But tonight Wilson's priority is to see his daughter play a youth basketball game. As his cell phone keeps buzzing, he glances down at it as he sits at a red light. "Dan Mullen," it reads as the BlackBerry screen glows.
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The 35-year-old Wilson likes working at Southern Miss, where he feels he is learning the potent spread scheme of Larry Fedora, and the first-year staff is coming off the best year of recruiting in school history.
But he is tempted by Mullen's offer.
Mullen, too, has an impressive reputation for devising an offensive game plan, having worked as Florida's offensive coordinator. Wilson would love to learn the Muller/Urban Meyer system. Plus, the job means a return to the SEC and more money. A lot more money. Mullen needs an answer.
In the back of Wilson's mind, there are many questions. Like most assistant coaches, he dreams of running his own program, and he has played out several scenarios to gauge which might be the best path for him. As an African-American college coach, the odds of his eventually getting a head-coaching job aren't great. In fact, even getting to run his own offense could be considered a long shot.
His next big step in the coaching ranks is to become an offensive coordinator. At USM, he is probably third in line for that, maybe fourth. And who knows how quickly that progression could be made? Still, he also knows Fedora could be a rising star in the coaching world, especially once some of the young talent USM has brought in gets its chance to blossom. It is not an easy decision for Wilson.
Plotting the ideal path to landing a head-coaching job is something all assistants wrestle with at one time or another. The reality for African-American coaches is that they have a better shot to advance to the top in the NFL ranks than they do in the college game.
A decade ago, the lack of African-American head coaches was a delicate issue for the NFL. However, that topic has faded in recent years. Over the weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired 32-year-old Raheem Morris as their new head coach. The fact that he became the league's seventh African-American head coach seemed a non-issue. Yet in the major BCS conference ranks, where there is just one African-American head coach (Miami's Randy Shannon), it's a sensitive matter for the NCAA.
Vance Joseph was a promising college assistant who had coached at Colorado and Bowling Green before jumping to the NFL, where he is now the San Francisco 49ers' secondary coach. Joseph, a Louisiana native, also happens to be Frank Wilson's godbrother. Asked if it's easier for an African-American to get hired as a head coach in the NFL versus college, he explains that there are fewer variables in the NFL. "When it comes to the hiring process in the NFL, you really only gotta impress two people: the general manager and the owner," he says, adding that in college it's more like a dozen after you factor in the college's athletic director, its vice president, its chancellor, major donors, alums, etc.
"I do think it's important to get into the right circle," Joseph says, pointing out that if you're working at a BCS school, you might get to know some assistant athletic directors who someday might run their own athletic departments. "My best advice is to build as many relationships as you can, because it's a referral business."
“Tyrone Nix should be on the radar of most college ADs. The 36-year-old Nix first became a defensive coordinator at Southern Miss in 2001. This past year, he had a wonderful season at Ole Miss, helping lead the Rebels to a 9-4 season that included dismantling Texas Tech's prolific offense in the Cotton Bowl. And, thanks in large part to Nix, the Rebels were able to get more pressure on Tim Tebow than anyone did all season as Ole Miss defeated Florida in the Swamp in September.
I just think the more qualified you make yourself, the more marketable, the better job you do, hopefully someone will notice.” -- Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix
Nix says he tries not to worry about what his next job might be. "I just think the more qualified you make yourself, the more marketable, the better job you do, hopefully someone will notice," says Nix, who had previously interviewed for head-coaching vacancies at UAB and Southern Miss.
Nix says while it might be human nature to have an eye on your next move, you have to keep pressing on knowing that "your biggest obstacle is keeping the job you've already got and not getting embarrassed on Saturdays."
Asked if he foresees the college ranks someday opening up for African-Americans as much as the NFL did, Nix pauses for a few moments. "That's really hard to say. Right now it really looks like a slow process, but things do tend to trickle down from the NFL to college, so we'll see."
Frank Wilson has been a head coach before. At 27, he was named the coach of New Orleans' rugged O. Perry Walker High School's football program and transformed it into one of Louisiana's great success stories. He instituted mandatory study halls and pre-school breakfasts. Players had to wear dress shirts and ties every day. They had to sit in the front row of the classroom. Wilson arranged for an academic counselor, who was paid through a grant funded by the NFL's Play It Smart program. In one year, the team's GPA jumped from 1.5 to 2.5. The team also gave powerhouse John Curtis Christian School its first district loss in 25 years. By his third season, Wilson had the school playing in the state title game.
While attending his daughter's basketball game last month, he was a celebrity to many of the folks in the community who knew not only that he coached at Ole Miss, but also how he invigorated O. Perry Walker.
The trip back to New Orleans proved quite a success. His daughter Sa'bree was the star of her basketball team's win. Two days later, Wilson's USM team defeated Troy in overtime. The next day Wilson told Mullen he was accepting his offer at MSU. With Mullen prepping the Florida Gators for Oklahoma in the BCS title game, Wilson sought to help bring some much-needed playmakers to the MSU program.
However, Wilson's stay in Starkville was short. Seventeen days after joining the staff, Wilson was on the move again. His former boss at Ole Miss, Ed Orgeron, sold new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin on his theory that Wilson would be a great addition to its staff. Again, Wilson had a big decision.
Could he possibly relocate again, marking his fourth school in 14 months?
"I'd have to be insane not to take the opportunity to come to Tennessee and be a part of such a great staff and be in the company of the best minds in coaching and be around [new UT defensive coordinator] Monte Kiffin, who has been a mentor to so many guys."
Wilson says he isn't worried about how some negative recruiters might spin his past year aboard the coaching carousel, bouncing from job to job.
"If I'm faced with some question about my allegiance I will tell the recruits that I would hope you're deciding which school can prepare you to be the best you can be, and it's the same for me, as I'm trying to become the best coach I can be."
And for now, Wilson, like Nix and Joseph, knows that is all he can concern himself with.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.