The University of Nebraska-Lincoln holds a unique but glaring distinction in the Big Ten. It is the only school in the conference that has never hired a Black head coach in any sport.
Along with that, Nebraska is just one of just three schools in the conference, alongside Wisconsin and Minnesota, that does not currently have a Black head coach.
The Huskers have had legendary coaches throughout the years, some who have broken down barriers for social change. In the 1960s, Bob Devaney ramped up recruiting of Black athletes at a time in which many teams had none. Tom Osborne worked alongside Devaney for years and made his own efforts in areas of diversity during his time as athletic director.
Over the summer, Nebraska coaches released statements committing themselves to combating injustice following the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests.
However, the fact that the school has still never had a Black head coach in any of its 20 varsity sports is glaring. Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos, who has made nine hires since come to the university in 2017, is aware of this issue.
“I’m very sensitive to it, and I certainly want to make sure I hire the best coach that’s the best fit,” he said.
This isn’t a new situation for Moos. As Oregon’s AD from 1995-2007, he hired Ernie Kent, the Ducks’ first Black head coach for men’s basketball in 1997. He hired two Black head coaches at Washington State where he was AD from 2010-2017. Keidane McAlpine was named the head women’s soccer coach in 2012, and Moos hired Kent again in 2014.
“(Kent) had been a player at Oregon but had gone and learned the coaching craft from the ground up and had success not only as a Division I college assistant but also as a Division I head coach,” Moos said. “He was in a pool with three other candidates who were white individuals, but Ernie was the best choice for a variety of reasons.”
Outside of his coaching hires, Moos has shown commitment to diversity in other areas. At both Washington State and Nebraska, he hired a director of diversity and inclusion, a position which hadn’t existed at those schools prior to his arrival.
At Nebraska, that position is held by DaWon Baker.
Before coming to Nebraska, at the University of Missouri, Baker researched the lack of Black athletic directors in the NCAA. While head coach is a completely different position, Baker said Nebraska’s situation is disappointing. He also said it’s something the university has paid more attention to, especially Moos.
“I’ve heard him actually speak with student athletes about this, which really took me back because it’s something that again, I don’t necessarily want to hide it, but it’s not something that I’m proud of as a staff member,” Baker said. “But he’s very open in saying, ‘No, this is something that we need to fix, and when the time is right and we identify this candidate, we’ll try our best to make that move.’”
Making sure the time is right is one of the biggest parts of the equation. As the AD, Moos makes the final decisions on all head coach candidates. He said he’s always looking for the right person for the job and that he wouldn’t create a finalist pool based on whether someone is of color or not.
In sports such as football, men’s basketball and baseball, Moos said he conducts the search and hiring process on his own. Outside of those sports, he may have an associate handle everything up until the final decision.
As the lists are narrowed down, Moos said the diversity of the candidates is taken into consideration. This is a necessary step Nebraska takes to try and combat any implicit bias.
“People tend to migrate to people that are more like themselves,” Moos said. “And I know I am always aware of that when we’re making hires and such throughout the department.”
Baker also acknowledged that implicit bias exists and is a contributing factor in many hires in general.
“You might have a default of the individual that you look for,” he said. “We need to break what that default looks like or we need to know that that default is there so that we can actually start to expand our thinking a little bit more.”
Of course, this problem is not only tied to Nebraska and dates back long before Moos was hired in 2017. There wasn’t a single Black Division I head coach in football or basketball until the 1970s.
In 1979, Willie Jeffries was hired at Wichita State, becoming the first Black head coach in Division I football. A year earlier, Jamie Williams, Ed.D., started his career as a tight end at Nebraska.
Over the years, Williams, a former 12-year NFL player, researched Black men and leadership and became being well-versed in history. In general, Williams said the reason that there aren’t more Black head coaches, particularly in predominantly-Black sports such as football and basketball, is a mix of history and the enforcement of stereotypes.
Of course, Black athletes were “late to the game” in popular sports due to the fact that they were mostly excluded from playing against white athletes for a while. When integration really took hold, stereotypes maintained a glass ceiling, according to Williams.
In football and other sports, “stacking” took place. Black athletes were rarely considered for leadership positions on the team, such as quarterback, and were placed in positions that required more athleticism. Williams said that with mostly white ownership in sports, the decision sometimes isn’t solely made based on merit.
“It comes down to what do you want to represent your organization? Do you want a person of color? Are you comfortable with a person of color representing your university even though they have all the skills and vision to lead a team?” Williams said. “So, that’s been a tough ceiling to break through historically.”
Devaney helped racial progress in athletics during his time at Nebraska. By the time Williams arrived on campus, Osborne had taken over as head coach, but Devaney was still the AD. Williams praised Devaney’s acceptance of him and other Black athletes.
“He just saw you as your personality, and it was pretty obvious. There was no unconscious bias that came out,” he said. “He saw you as a person, as an athlete, and always tried to make me feel comfortable. He wasn’t worried about you making him feel comfortable. He was more concerned about making you comfortable and I’ll never forget that.”
Further down the road, Nebraska football had one of its best opportunities to hire a Black head coach.
When Williams racked up 222 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 1982, Turner Gill was the one under center. After his college career ended in 1983, Gill came back to the Huskers in 1992 as the quarterbacks coach and was the assistant head coach in 2003.
Then, following the 2003 regular season, head coach Frank Solich was fired. Gill was passed up by two white coaches, Bo Pelini and Bill Callahan. Pelini was named the interim head coach before Callahan was hired. Nebraska came under fire from some UNL faculty and Floyd Keith, the executive director of the now-defunct BCA (Black Coaches Association). Keith and others criticized Nebraska at the time for passing over Gill and other qualified minority candidates.
Williams was also perplexed by the decision and said that Gill should’ve at least had the opportunity, whether he succeeded or failed.
“He led a team for years here,” Williams said. “…We all felt that he was the shoe-in, you know, and he never even got the opportunity and he can’t get those years back. He can’t get that time back. And there’s a travesty.”
Gill declined an interview request for this article.
He went on after Nebraska to have head coaching stints at Buffalo, Kansas and Liberty, winning MAC Coach of the Year at Buffalo in 2007.
In the same year Gill earned that award, Osborne returned to Nebraska as the AD and hired six head coaches in his tenure from 2007 to 2013, in football, men’s basketball, baseball, cross country, men’s gymnastics and rifle. He said he offered head coaching jobs to two Black coaches, but both ended up declining.
However, that wasn’t all Osborne did on the diversity front. Williams joined the staff of his former head coach in 2012 as the associate athletic director of leadership, student-athlete recruitment and diversity initiatives.
“He’s a very capable guy,” Osborne said. “He’s very knowledgeable about athletics at certain levels, and I thought he was somebody that certainly had administrative capabilities.”
In January 2013, Osborne retired. Williams stayed at the university until 2016 when he took a job at Maryland.
Williams said Nebraska and other schools have to be willing to make the effort and interview these candidates. There are plenty of qualified Black head coaching candidates, he said, but there has to be a commitment. With that, however, Williams stressed that it has to be the right person.
“People on the outside, especially in our culture, the Black culture, we know our good or bad, we know when you got a real candidate, we know when you got somebody, we know when you put a token in place,” he said. “You cannot go down the road of tokenism, which is when you put somebody there but they’re not really qualified, they’re kind of to be seen and not heard. You know, that doesn’t work. You have to find someone who you’re going to give autonomy to and you’re going to provide them support.”
Williams said this would also serve Nebraska better in the long run since the state is predominantly white with Black people making up an estimated 5.2% of the population as of 2019. The current and historical lack of diversity may deter a minority coach from coming. Giving opportunities to Black coaches may change the rest of the nation’s perspective, according to Williams.
Baker and Moos also touched on Nebraska’s location as a factor. Moos said he doesn’t think the location turns minority coaches away but understands that it may not be as appealing. Baker added that a way to improve on this is building community.
“Something I think that we can do a little bit better as far as not just athletics, but as a city, I think if we create more opportunities to really highlight and create a community with our Black professionals and students,” he said. “That’s something that hasn’t really existed a lot in the city of Lincoln.”
Baker also acknowledged that it’s not an easy process and that many administrators and coaches have tried in the past to improve on this. However, one thing Nebraska is focusing on is “building their own,” according to Baker. This means investing in Black assistant coaches and staff members who are currently at the university and making sure they stay.
At Nebraska and across the country, the calls for more diversity among head coaches are ramping up, and things are being done to make progress.
The West Coast Conference recently created ‘The Russell Rule,’ which will require all schools in the conference to include a minority finalist in all athletic job openings.
Husker athletes have spoken up as well about this issue. In early August, over 25 Nebraska student-athletes involved with Nebraska’s newly-created Minority Student-Athlete Collective (MSAC) tweeted out the #LegacyOverImage hashtag along with a letter of requests to the athletic department. Part of the requests were for better representation in the athletic department, including the hiring of minority head coaches.
Since the letter, the group held a rally outside Memorial Stadium against police brutality and racial injustice and met with the athletic department. Near the end of October, Nebraska released a video in which Moos sat down and had a conversation with some MSAC members.
While Nebraska is still yet to have results in terms of hiring a Black head coach, Moos sees progress being made.
“I think we’re doing things very, very well here,” Moos said. “And we will continue to put a great deal of emphasis and attention on it.”