Today’s guest columnists are Chris Corr and Christopher Atwater of Troy University.
The arrival of another National Signing Day will bring yet more commentary on the dominance of the SEC, both on the field and the recruiting trail. The conference just had two of its teams face off for the national championship, and heading into the final week of recruiting, its members occupy 13 or the top 26 spots on 247Sport’s recruiting rankings. Neither of the championship opponents, Alabama and Georgia, even hold the top spot, which goes to Texas A&M. Those results reinforce the long-established relationship between recruiting at the highest level and winning football games, and while that deserves attention, there should also be some acknowledgment of how those top classes are built and who benefits from them.
A recent study by researchers at Troy University and the College Sport Research Institute (CSRI) reveals that black assistant football coaches are tasked with greater recruiting responsibilities than their white counterparts, and that black assistants not only sign more recruits overall, they’re also more heavily relied on to secure top talent (i.e. five-star recruits). Despite their increased duties and higher rates of success, there remains a disproportionately low number of black head coaches in college football. Among the Power Five conferences 16% of head coaches are black, while the SEC has no black head coaches.
Assistant coaches, however, are almost evenly divided, and their near 50/50 split may reflect the composition of recruits. During the 2021 college football season, 45% of Power Five football players were black. This number, as reported by the NCAA, includes every player on every team, regardless of scholarship status. But our internal research shows that the number of scholarship and starting players yield percentages of black participation much higher than 45%. In fact, more than 70% of starters during the 2021 FBS Bowl Season were black, and in the past three recruiting classes, 84% of signees in the SEC were black. And as the Troy/CSRI study showed, the majority of those athletes were recruited by black coaches.
Take Alabama’s 2021 recruiting class. The Crimson Tide won the 2021 National Championship over Ohio State, then signed the top-ranked class in the country, according to 247Sports. It included seven five-star recruits, all of them black. The 247Sports database also shows that the primary recruiter for each of the seven was black, and that associate head coach Charles Huff landed four of the seven.
The Tide’s title and recruiting helped two Alabama assistants land head coaching jobs elsewhere. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was hired by the University of Texas, and Huff went to Marshall University, a Group of Five school. One year later, Marshall is coming off a 7-6 season and currently has the top-rated recruiting class in Conference USA, while Texas went 5-7 and currently has the top-rated class in the Big-12. Huff was paid $755,000 in 2021; Sarkisian earned $5.4 million.
At the end of the most recent season, nearly a quarter of Power Five athletic directors (14 of 65) decided to shell out millions in buyouts and severance pay to hire new football coaches. This unprecedented rate of coaching turnover comes on the heels of a pandemic that left many athletic departments sputtering financially. And while there are multiple considerations that go into picking a head coach—booster and alumni relations, program management and coaching acumen, among others—recruiting is a key factor. Alabama and Georgia and the rest of the SEC have made it abundantly clear, you have to recruit like us to win like us.
And yet, even amid the unprecedented number of head coaching changes in 2021, only two black head coaches were hired at Power Five programs; Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame and Tony Elliott at Virginia. Black assistant coaches help secure the top talent in the country but are rarely afforded the opportunity to lead the top programs.
SEC teams will surely continue to vie for national championships, in large part by recruiting at the highest level in the sport. Hopefully more of the coaches responsible for accumulating that top talent will get the opportunity to become a head coach within the conference.
Corr and Atwater are assistant professors in the School of Hospitality, Sport, & Tourism Management at Troy University. The College Sport Research Institute (CSRI) is housed in the Department of Sport & Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. More information on CSRI and their annual Adjusted Graduation Gap Reports can be found at www.csri.org.