With that, one of the biggest challenges still facing black coaches is their ability to build a network that can propel them to where they want to be as a leader.
“Part of a network has to consist of people in position to actually hire, so your athletic directors and people in upper management,” said Martin. “There are even fewer African-Americans at that level. So when building your network, you have to work with someone who has groomed you to be the next ‘whatever’. And I think that’s still a problem for black coaches, getting those kind of people in your network. Getting the people with power to help you get an interview.”
Martin feels like this obstacle, like most hindrances, can be overcome with time.
“I think that will improve, whether in the NFL or in college,” the coach said. “It takes time to build relationships and to gain the experience to prove you can do the job. It shouldn’t just be that they get the job for being black. That’s how I have always looked at it.”
It is hard to argue that the presence of black coaches isn’t growing at all, though it is growing differently between different sports. In the NBA, 44-percent of the head coaches were black in 2012. Fourteen of the teams in the league are led by a black coach, up from 12 on 2008.
On the NFL front, things are not as progressive. Blacks make up 22-percent of coaches in the NFL, but this figure is extended to assistant coaches and coordinators. As far as head coaches go, only three African-Americans lead NFL teams, with Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel losing their jobs this past season. Of the eight head coaching jobs that were available, none were given to black coaches, a giant step back for the NFL, which is actively working to promote and increase diversity through their active enforcement of the Rooney Rule.
Martin says that aside from the lack of opportunity present, another issue plaguing black coaches is that they realize they want to be coaches later in their athletic careers.
“To speak for myself, some people determine at an earlier age when they wanna coach, “said Martin. “Some guys had a playing career, some didn’t. A lot of former players [like Doc Rivers] were ones that wanted to coach. I think that improves when more guys realize that that is what they want to do, and they go the route to get to what they wanna be. It’s arduous, it’s hard, it takes time and perfecting your craft.”
“I think that more need to decide to go into the profession, and then to have the opportunity to do so,” said Martin.
As Martin mentioned earlier, because pro sports have limited opportunity to begin with, cutting one’s teeth in the profession is not easy. Furthermore, since there are no minor leagues in the NFL, it makes the journey that much more difficult.
“It kills the market for lower level pro sports,” elaborated Martin. “Basketball can do it but even they go overseas. Baseball can do it too, but in football you don’t see it. You don’t have another platform to grow as a coach as a young guy other than the NFL or college ball.”
In spite of all these challenges, Martin believes that the industry will continue to change in the black coach’s favor, and any stigmas against them will dissipate much like those against the black quarterback did.
“For me as a former quarterback, it was at a time when people said you can’t have a black quarterback because they cant think,” said Martin. “And since then, people have realized that we can lead, and do a great job of it.”
“I think guys being able to prove themselves outside of the arena of being a player is important,” Martin said. “Look at David Shaw at Stanford; I tip my hat to him. He is doing an awesome job, at a university like Stanford. They had an open mind about it, and they hired Wittingham before that. I think people know what they have, and they just need to be given the opportunity to show it. And recently, they have proven it. Kevin Sumlin is another example, he is doing a great job at Texas A&M, making the most of the chance he was given.”
When we reflect on the various legacies that black people have in athletics, they all share a common start: someone believed in what they could do, and gave them the chance to flourish.
We are increasingly seeing that same thing happen in coaching, with African-Americans dispelling the notion that they cannot lead, that they can do nothing more than score points and make wealthy men even wealthier. In doing so, they set the stage for the next generation of coaches, making their route that much easier in the process.
And maybe, that little boy dreaming of a career in athletics will seek the day where he too can be “like Mike.”
Tomlin, that is.