Tyrone Willingham retired back in 2008, yet he has seen just a few Black men receive the kind of elite opportunity he got when he was hired as Notre Dame’s first Black head football coach more than two decades ago.
He was encouraged when Michigan hired Sherrone Moore to replace Jim Harbaugh.
Black head coaches at the Division I level often have been given jobs at struggling programs with limited resources and thus smaller chance of long-term success. Moore, however, is taking the reins at a blue-blood program that just won a national title.
Willingham, 70, said the topic of Black coaches’ previous lack of access to head coaching jobs at top programs has not just been a Black issue, it has been symbolic of a foundational American issue. In an email interview, he said he was glad to see Black men finally being considered rising stars in line for the best jobs. He sees Moore’s hire as similar to Notre Dame hiring Marcus Freeman — the school’s second Black head football coach — in 2021.
“Let us be about hiring the best, and that attitude will serve our country well in all aspects of our society,” wrote Willingham, who also coached at Stanford and Washington. “I believe Sherrone Moore and Marcus Freeman meet that standard, and if given the correct resources, they will do very well. They are excellent leaders of young men and university communities.”
Moore is well aware of how special his opportunity is.
“It’s an honor,” Moore said. “It’s a privilege. It’s something I don’t take lightly. For all the African American men who have worked, I just want to show them that you can do it.”
Michigan’s hire came as the NFL added three Black head coaches -- Atlanta’s Raheem Morris, New England’s Jerod Mayo and Las Vegas’ Antonio Pierce — this cycle. There will be at least nine minority head coaches to start the 2024 NFL season, the most ever.
“We’ve been waiting for this type of year for so long now, I began to wonder if it was ever going to come,” said Richard Lapchick, founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport.
Floyd Keith, a former executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said it matters that programs such as Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State have Black coaches. James Franklin has an 88-39 record since taking over at Penn State in 2014. With the backing of programs with rich histories and plentiful resources, Moore, Freeman or Franklin could become the first Black coach to win a national title.
Like Franklin, Moore's experience is on the offensive side of the ball. The 37-year-old coordinator went 4-0, including wins over Ohio State and Penn State, while Harbaugh was serving two separate suspensions last season.
Maryland coach Mike Locksley founded the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches in 2020. The organization provides professional training and educational programs to help prepare minority coaches for coaching jobs. Both Moore and Freeman have participated in the programs. Locksley said his organization's goal is to help coaches like Moore be ready when doors open.
“That to me is where the timing of it is," Locksley said. "It’s not by accident that he was put in this role.”
Moore got help from Black mentors along the way. He was a graduate assistant at Louisville before Charlie Strong made him his tight ends coach in 2012. Strong left Louisville to became head coach at Texas, becoming one of the rare Black coaches to land a head coaching job at a powerhouse program.
“Charlie is like a big brother and father figure,” Moore said. “He gave me my first chance to be a position coach, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
Moore said he also admired two other Black coaches on the Louisville staff -- Vance Bedford and Clint Hurtt. Bedford was defensive coordinator at Louisville and Texas. Hurtt was just hired as defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles after being defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
Moore’s biggest leap forward came this past season, when Harbaugh made him a playcalling offensive coordinator last season.
“Anything is possible,” Moore said. “As long as you take your time, regardless of your background, you can earn an opportunity.”
Three Black coaches – Moore, Derrick Mason at Middle Tennessee and Fran Brown at Syracuse – were hired at the top tier of Division I (Bowl Subdivision) this cycle. Two of the 13 Power Five conference hires and one of the 15 Group of Five hires were Black.
Overall, there are now 15 Black FBS coaches out of 134 schools — about the same percentage as there have been over the past decade in a division where about half the players are Black.
“We’ve seen some growth,” Locksley said. “Is it corrected? No, it’s not corrected yet. But to see these types of hires, and the success that these coaches have and continue to have or will have, are going to be the things that push us forward.”
AP Football Writer Ralph D. Russo and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and Alanis Thames contributed to this report.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football