There remain relatively few Black head coaches in major college football, even in such conferences as the Big 10 or Pac-12 that are supposedly populated by schools with better track records historically on racial issues than those in the South. But there’s now a chance to at least partially correct that oversight as one of the nation’s premier coaching jobs is open. Southern California fired its head coach Clay Helton following a blowout home loss to Stanford.
At least for now, the Southern California head job does belong to a Black man, and a homegrown one at that. Donte Williams is the interim head coach, the first Black to occupy that position in school history. He’s been on the staff since 2020, starting as their cornerbacks coach and defensive pass game coordinator. He was elevated to associate head coach after last season. He will most likely keep the job through this season, but he faces the consistent rap that has dogged many other high-level Black assistants. That was voiced last week on ESPN by Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaischke when he was asked on the show “Around The Horn” about who should get the Southern California job.
“They’ll most likely keep Williams around,” he said. “He’s an excellent recruiter. But they need a bigger name. The job is too big to give to someone who doesn’t have a track record as a head coach.” So the familiar problem. Black assistant is viewed as a really good recruiter but he has never been a head coach so he has no experience in that role and no past history. It’s the same dilemma that evidently keeps Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy from getting a head job. Because he’s never been one, no one knows if he can be a good one. But if he never gets hired, then how can he prove he could be a good one?
Bienemy, a California native, has publicly said that while he prefers an NFL job, the Southern California position is one of the few college coaching jobs that interests him. But his name hasn’t been mentioned that prominently, and he seems to be at best a long shot for the position.
However there is one Black man out there who would seem to satisfy all the usual criteria for the position. That’s James Franklin, current head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions and before that the most successful head coach (in football) that the Vanderbilt Commodores have employed in the modern era. His name has been linked to the search, and the possibilities of his leaving were a dominant story over the weekend, even as Penn State team defeated Auburn in a nationally televised contest.
Franklin has been at Penn State for seven years now, and things there look pretty good for him. His team has already beaten two teams this year in the top-25 and according to many observers has the number one ranked recruiting class for 2022. He was born in Pennsylvania, played college football at East Stroudsburg and got his first coaching job in the state.
On the other hand, it can argued that there are some things where personal choice gets trumped by overall advancement for others. It would be a major feather in the cap for Black coaches overall to have a Black man running one of the nation’s most visible programs, though Penn State is certainly a high profile job. Franklin may well be happy with where he is, and that is perfectly understandable.
It would also be good to see Williams get the job, and get the chance to demonstrate his prowess as a head coach. But no matter what happens, who gets the Southern California job and why will say a lot about modern college football, and how much things have changed in regards to giving deserving people a chance to progress.