Chasing Stars: The Recruiting Utility of Black Football Coaches

By Dr. Christopher Corr, Troy University

The following article is adapted from “Chasing Stars: Racial Tasking of Recruiting Responsibilities among Power-5 Football Coaches,” published by the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport and co-authored by Chris Corr, Trevor Bopp, Christopher Atwater, and Calvin Nite.

On November 26th, 2023, Mississippi State hired Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby as head football coach. Two days later, Syracuse hired Georgia defensive backs coach Fran Brown to lead the Orange football program. Seemingly, the only similarities between Lebby and Brown are their ages (40 and 42), stops at Baylor, one-year of coaching experience in the Southeastern Conference each, and their being a head college football coach for the first time.

During his introductory press conference, “Coach Lebby” was praised by athletic director Zac Selmon for his “elite offensive mind” and ability “to attract the best coaches [and] the top talent” to Mississippi State. “Coach Fran” was introduced by athletic director John Wildhack who described Brown as “a dynamic recruiter with strong ties to the Northeast, the DMV region, and other areas of the country.” Wildhack went on to repeatedly emphasize Brown’s ability to form meaningful relationships with players and develop young men.

While somewhat innocuous as depictions during largely scripted introductory press conferences for college football coaches, the subtle differences in the manner in which Lebby, a White man, and Brown, a Black man, were characterized is somewhat of a microcosm of the stereotypical representations of Black and White coaches in major college football.

Like most stereotypes, there is some embedded truth. Also like most stereotypes, there are disproportionately harmful outcomes.

Such stereotype lies with the perceived ability of Black college football coaches to more effectively recruit players that are Black. The embodiment of such depiction right now is Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders.

Since his arrival in Boulder in 2022, “Coach Prime” has openly discussed the role of race in recruiting and coaching a top college football team in the United States. Media pundits have speculated Sanders will change the traditional viewpoint of Black coaches being solely viewed as recruiters.

While Fran Brown and Deion Sanders represent the opportunities for Black men to ascend to head coaching positions in major college football, only eight of the 69 football coaches in Autonomy Conferences are Black going into the 2024 season. While only 12% of head coaches are Black, over 50% of Autonomy Conference football assistant coaches (or position coaches) are Black.

While representing less than half of all assistant coaches in Autonomy Conferences, White football coaches comprise an overwhelming majority of coordinators (i.e., play-callers) and head coaches. The primary distinction between coordinators/head coaches and position coaches? Recruiting responsibilities.

NCAA rules restrict the head coaches’ ability to leave campus to recruit during various times of the year. Coordinators, due to their increased play-calling responsibilities, typically allocate more time to game-planning than recruiting. In turn, position coaches shoulder the brunt of recruiting responsibilities.

Considering that recruiting is characterized by the NCAA itself as the “lifeblood of college sports,” the ability for position coaches to effectively recruit and sign prospective players cannot be understated.

Actually, research has found that successful recruiting is directly correlated to winning in college football. Winning football games is directly correlated to increased athletic department revenue. Given the importance of generating athletics revenue and the value of winning football games from a branding standpoint, recruiting is truly the original lifeblood to success in college football.

Enter Black position coaches. Comprising over 50% of position coaches in Autonomy Conference football, Black position coaches are relied upon to secure the commitments of top Black football talent around the country. Considering 77% of football recruits signed by Autonomy Conference programs were Black in 2019 and 2020, the stereotypical view that Black coaches can more aptly recruit Black players is relatively commonplace.

In fact, recent research has illustrated that Autonomy Conference football coaches and recruits are “matched” according to their racial composition. Among 2019 and 2020 Autonomy Conference football recruiting classes, 80% of White players had a White coach listed as their primary recruiter on 247Sports. The primary recruiter designation indicates the assistant coach most predominantly responsible for recruiting a specific player.

While only 52% of Black players had a Black primary recruiter listed, the researchers found that Black coaches were disproportionately responsible for signing higher rated recruits than their White counterparts. In addition, Black coaches are disproportionately relied upon to secure the commitments of recruits from geographic areas with increased Black population densities. Considering many of the established recruiting hotbeds preside in major metropolitan areas with high Black population densities compared to the national average, Black position coaches are integral to the signing of the top-rated Black football recruits.

Herein lies the tremendous value generated by Black coaches in Autonomy Conference football. From a value proposition standpoint, Black coaches are recruiting top-rated Black talent that is directly correlated to winning college football games. Given position coaches shoulder the bulk of recruiting responsibilities, what incentive is there for predominantly White head coaches to promote Black coaches to coordinator positions that inherently occupy less recruiting responsibilities? As coordinator is a key rung on the proverbial coaching ladder, recruiting ability exists as a possible explanation for Black coaches being passed up by their White counterparts for promotional advancement.

The financial considerations are worth noting within the coaching hierarchy. While the average salary of a position coach in an Autonomy Conference was over $350,000 dollars in 2023, the average coordinator salary was $1,000,000 dollars. The average head coach salary was over $6,000,000. While a salary of hundreds of thousands of dollars firmly establishes position coaches in the socioeconomic echelon of United States society, the disparity between position coach salaries and coordinators and head coaches is glaring. Considering that Black coaches are disproportionately likely to be position coaches, the salary disparity affects them most dramatically.

However, in the modern era of college football, where the transfer portal mandates constant recruitment of your roster and NIL exists as an integral factor in the successful recruitment of prospective players, perhaps the value proposition among athletic directors making head coaching hiring decisions has changed.

Indicative of coaches like Deion Sanders and Fran Brown, athletic directors are seemingly more willing to consider hiring head coaches with no previous coordinator experience than they traditionally have been. The caveat? Both Sanders and Brown are heralded for the recruiting acumen and ability to develop genuine relationships with their players, both integral factors in the maintenance of the current roster and continued stockpiling of football talent.

While distinctive pathways to head coaching positions may present themselves as the value, importance, and investment in football recruiting continues to increase – especially among Autonomy Conferences – the depictions of Black coaches as purely recruiters serves to devalue their perceived football acumen. Indicative of the introductory press conferences for Jeff Lebby and Fran Brown, the language used to depict and describe coaching abilities continues to be racialized.

Corr, a former college football staffer, is an assistant professor in the School of Hospitality, Sport, & Tourism Management at Troy University and Executive Director of the College Sport Research Institute (CSRI).