Doug Belk at Houston is among the latest group to get access and advice from prominent athletic directors
Sidelined is a season-long look at the NFL’s lack of diversity in coaches and team executives.
SHREVEPORT, La. – On the practice field inside Independence Stadium here, it’s clear that Doug Belk, the defensive coordinator for the University of Houston Cougars, is a young coach on a fast track, with the potential to reach the top of a profession that’s been immensely difficult for minorities to crack.
Belk, 35, also has an advantage that wasn’t available to older Black assistant coaches. He’s one of an elite group of minority coaches in a program that has played a role in four Black coaches receiving Division I head-coaching jobs in the last two years, including three at heavily resourced Power 5 schools.
Belk’s defensive unit at Houston has a lot of fanciful names – “Third Ward Defense” and “Sack Ave.” But on this day Belk is focused on the details of how to protect its own end zone against the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 23.
One minute he’s leading the defensive backs in a press-the-receiver drill. Then he’s slinging spirals so tight some of his defensive players can’t hold on to the passes. Next he’s standing around the 40-yard line, chatting up other assistants.
Finally, about 30 minutes in, the energetic Belk is engaged at midfield in a conversation with his boss, Cougars’ head coach Dana Holgorsen. It’s been a lousy couple of weeks for Holgorsen. On Dec. 12, one of his mentors, Mike Leach, the man he coached under for seven years at Texas Tech University, died following complications from a heart condition.
The Houston team, including Belk’s once-stingy defense, had also taken a step back from 2021, when it went 12-2 and finished 17th in the nation. This bowl game against Louisiana is a chance at redemption, an opportunity to send 2022 out on a good note after a 7-5 regular season.
For now, Holgorsen doesn’t have to worry about Belk leaving the Cougars. The head coach ponied up a seven-figure salary last year to keep the coach he refers to as “my guy.”
“Whoever your guy is, you’ve got to empower him and be able to trust him to do things,” Holgorsen said in an interview before practice. “Doug’s my associate head coach and my defense coordinator. So if I’m not here, he’s the most important guy in the room. I trust in what he says. His loyalty is extreme. I know he’s saying the right things when I’m not around.”
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The program Belk is part of is run by the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, which was launched in 2020 in the middle of the shutdown that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s reckoning on race. The coalition, which includes coaches from youth football to the NFL, now has more than 1,200 members, coalition officials said.
The national coalition was started in 2020 by Mike Locksley, Maryland’s head coach and one of eight Black men running a Power 5 football program. Its most high-profile initiative is the Coalition Academy, which pairs a small group of standout assistant coaches like Belk with influential athletic directors for mentoring and networking. Academy participants are mostly coordinators from the FBS, although a few are from historically Black colleges or assistants in the NFL.
Four members of the first class, from 2021, have since been hired or promoted to run the football teams at Notre Dame, Virginia, Colorado State and Purdue.
“We analyzed how we can best help prepare coaches, not only to obtain a head-coaching role, but once they’re in that head-coaching role, how can we help them be successful,” said Desiree Reed-Francois, athletic director at the University of Missouri and a coalition board member who, along with Locksley, hatched the Academy idea.
“When they go from an associate head coach or a coordinator or an assistant to a head-coaching role, they are usually very well versed in recruiting and in Xs and Os,” Reed-Francois said. “They’re great tacticians. Where there is a jump is as the CEO.”
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Only seven Black men have been hired as head coaches at the Football Bowl Championship schools in the last two years, a total that has always been low compared with the disproportionate number of Black players on college rosters.
Indeed, the number of Black head coaches in college football has barely budged even as the FBS has grown from 120 teams in 2011 to 131 today. Eleven years ago, there were 14 Black head coaches. Today there are still 14 Black head coaches.
This hiring cycle has seen three Black coaches get a top job in the FBS. Yet, four Black coaches were separated from their schools – three were fired and one retired. That leaves the FBS down one Black head coach from a year ago, when there were 15.
The low number of Black head coaches isn’t correlating with the number of Black players. In 2021, about 60% of FBS football players were people of color, including 43.9% Black, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida. The percentage of black coaches: 10.68%.
Theories abound about the cause of the discrepancy, but remedies have been few.
Sylvester Croom was the first Black coach in the Southeastern Conference, the league that’s claimed 12 of the last 16 national college football titles. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Croom called out his old conference and all of college football. There are no Black coaches among the SEC’s 14 schools even though 60% of the conference’s players are Black.
“There’s definitely not enough progress,” Croom said. “It’s almost 20 years now [since Croom was hired at Mississippi State], and the fact that we still have to have these conversations is disappointing and it’s frustrating.”
Locksley, head coach at Maryland since 2018, knows the data. He said he wants to be part of the solution. Locksley is the rare Black head coach who got a second chance to be a head coach after fumbling his first opportunity. From 2008 to 2011, Locksley coached the University of New Mexico but was fired with a 2-26 record and several off-the-field controversies.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban hired Locksley as an offensive analyst in 2016. By 2018, he was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator. In 2018, Locksley took over the Terrapins program, a place where he’d served as offensive coordinator and interim coach after leaving New Mexico. He began the coalition for minority coaches in the spring of 2020, while college football was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was a former fired minority head coach from New Mexico who failed miserably there,” Locksley said. “And I’m now at my dream job, which is the University of Maryland.”
Locksley said that he got help and advice on starting the coalition from Saban and NFL luminaries Ozzie Newsome, general manager of the Baltimore Ravens; Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Doug Williams, senior advisor to Washington Commanders president Jason Wright, and Hall of Famer Bill Polian.
Sizable sponsorships come from businesses such as Under Armour, SAP and Morgan Stanley. The coalition hired a staff, including civil rights attorney Raj Kudchadkar as executive director. Kudchadkar said the coalition has around 20 other sponsors who have contributed $20,000 to $30,000 each.
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The academy is the coalition’s way to show immediate results for a small number of coaches even as it works on long-term solutions. Leaders renamed the initiative the academy powered by Under Armour after the company pledged $1.5 million over five years.
The coalition’s leaders understand that football coaches can be workaholics and have tunnel vision on the game. The coalition sought to pair college and NFL coaches such as Belk and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton with college sports administrators who could help them broaden their business skill set. An FBS college football head coach can be responsible for hundreds of people, from staffers to student-athletes.
“I’ve often used the term that coaches are now elected and not necessarily hired,” Locksley said. “These athletic directors have to make the hire that passes the optics test, which goes back to being elected. And what we’ve got to do is get these one-on-one relationships with their mentors, [who] are prominent athletic directors across the country, to develop a yearlong relationship so it’s not just the coalition fighting and advocating for these people.”
Athletic directors and college presidents look more favorably on candidates who are recommended by people they know and trust, he said.
“They’re mentors that are in those closed-door meetings with other athletic directors or hiring officials to say, ‘Hey, I know Pep Hamilton really well. I mentored him a year ago and this guy’s the real deal.’ People hire people they know and they like – and that’s what part of the academy’s process is – to expose these coaches to some of the more powerful people in college football [and] to develop a genuine relationship and get to know each other to where this hiring official can pick up a phone and validate and vouch for a coach.”
The first academy class included Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Nevada head coach Jay Norvell. Freeman was named head coach of the Fighting Irish, Elliott is head coach at the University of Virginia and Norvell went to Colorado State. Another member of the academy, Lance Taylor, a member of the Choctaw tribe, was recently hired as head coach at Western Michigan University.
After being hired, Freeman penned a letter to The Players Tribune to the Notre Dame community in which he credited the coalition and its academy for fighting for him.
“And being a part of this coalition has been an important reminder that: Hey, you are a representation of a lot of people,” Freeman wrote. “And that’s what I want to be. I want to be a representation, but also more than that I want to be a demonstration. I want to be a demonstration of what someone can do, and the level they can do it at, if they are given the OPPORTUNITY. Because that’s what is needed: opportunity. We need more minorities to get the opportunity to interview — and we need more minorities to get the opportunity to do a job that they can have success in.”
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The most recent academy participant to be elevated to a Power 5 coaching job is University of Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who was named head coach at Purdue on Dec. 14.
In the academy program, Walters was mentored by Jack Swarbrick, the influential athletic director at Notre Dame, the school that hired Freeman. Swarbrick credits the academy for helping put both Freeman and Walters on the college head-coaching radar. His experience mentoring Walters “reinforced just how good he’s going be as a head coach,” Swarbrick said.
“He was great at approaching those calls in a real organized way, having questions he wanted to talk about,” Swarbrick said. “We talked a lot about my decision with Marcus and sort of the things I looked for and how that worked. We talked about his interviewing experience in Colorado the last time. And the lessons learned from that. We talked a lot about being picky, you know, the desire to be a head coach is strong, but go to a good place. Go to a place that’s got the resources and it’s going give you the support you need and certainly that’s what happened.”
He also said Walters “has a really keen sense of why he coaches and what he wants to accomplish. You’d be shocked at the number of times I’ve talked to a prospective coach and they really don’t have a compelling answer for why they coach. And he had he had a really clear sense of that and what he wanted the culture of his program to be. So he just he was incredibly impressive and thoughtful in talking about both what he was looking for, but in, you know, in responding to my counsel.”
Not every new minority coach this hiring cycle took part in the academy program. Kenni Burns, who was an assistant head coach and running backs coach at the University of Minnesota, is taking over as head coach at Kent State University. Burns is part of the coalition but didn’t participate in the academy.
Kent State had an opening because its former head coach, Sean Lewis, who is Black, left to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Colorado, whose football program is now in the hands of Deion Sanders, the former NFL and MLB star also nicknamed Coach Prime. Sanders moved from historically Black Jackson State University, where he had led its football team the past three seasons. He’s not affiliated with the coalition, but Locksley wants to recruit Coach Prime.
“It’s a win for us when a guy like Deion gets a job at a Colorado,” Locksley said. “And if he can have success, that only helps our mission.”
Belk and Locksley coached together at Alabama when Belk was a graduate assistant. Belk joined the coaching coalition as soon as it started.
Earlier this week, Belk was in room 306 at the Hilton Shreveport a little after 11 a.m. preparing for that day’s 1 p.m. practice. Dressed in a grey sweatshirt and black jeans, he didn’t look that far off his playing weight of 190 pounds on his 6-foot frame. On his phone, “Pick Your Poison” by the Los Angeles rapper Blxst and featuring Grandmaster Vic was playing.
Belk also wore a black and white baseball cap with the word “RUTHLESS” above the bill. It was overlaid by the phrases “3D” and “UH.” “3D” is a reference to Houston’s gritty 3rd Ward, which the Cougars’ style of defense, ranked sixth in the nation last year, came to symbolize.
“We wanted to play a ruthless brand of football,” he said. “So it’s 3rd Ward defense.
“It was a little corny at first,” he said. “But I knew the kids were believing it. And then we talked about it. And then when we started practicing, they were just playing hard.”
He said lineman D’Anthony Jones, one of the defense’s trash-talkers, came up with a new phrase: Sack Ave. Belk and the team’s media manager got some red street signs made with that phrase on it. After a game against Tulsa in which Houston had four sacks, Belk said, SportsCenter showed the sign and it became part of the team’s identity.
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The hotel conference room had four tables pushed together as one with laptops and half-full cups of coffee on them.
Belk sat at one table with defensive analyst Larry Hart and defensive line coach Brian Early. Early knows that Shreveport is going to be cold on game day, perhaps no more than 26 degrees.
“Doug, in my experience in cold temperatures like this, the team that runs the ball well wins the game,” Early said.
Belk had been a high school star quarterback in Valdosta, Georgia, and played quarterback and running back at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee, a Division II school. In 2010, his playing days were over and he was thinking of trying to play football professionally in Canada and going to graduate school. His college coach, Ken Sparks, thought Belk would be a wonderful coach and asked him to work at some camps for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Belk ended up taking a coaching job at Valdosta State University. His head coach there, David Dean, said Belk had something a lot of other coaches didn’t.
“He’s got a passion for young people and wanting to develop them,” Dean said. “Just having a relationship with players – that’s huge in our industry. And getting guys to believe in what you’re telling them and to get them to trust you with everything that you say. He’s been able to do that. The time that I was around him, you could see our guys hung on every word that he said.”
Kirby Smart, then defensive coordinator at the University of Alabama and a former Valdosta State coach, heard about the young Valdosta assistant and arranged for Belk to visit Tuscaloosa to talk about a position as a graduate assistant. “When I got the call from Alabama – that they wanted to hire him, I wasn’t surprised,” Dean said.
Even though he was leaving a full-time job at Valdosta for a graduate assistant post, Belk said, was betting on himself. He was young, single (as he is today) and could take a chance working for Saban, one of the greatest college coaches of all time.
“And so I met with Kirby and had to evaluate some players and I go into Saban’s office and he has like a garage opener” he uses to shut his oak door so he won’t have to get up, Belk said. “He hits the garage opener. I’m sitting in his office and all these rings and helmets and things and we have a good conversation.”
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Belk tried to learn as much as he could from Saban and a dozen assistants and other graduate assistants who would become head coaches, including Smart, Lane Kiffin, Jeremy Pruitt, Mel Tucker, Dan Lanning and Mike Locksley.
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“I went to Alabama and I figured out I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” he said. “I learned a lot about the business. If you just look at the staff of the people when I was there to where they are now. And pretty much every position coach that was there is a head coach now.
“I thought Kirby was, like, the smartest guy I’ve ever been around and then Coach Saban was just so consistent every day. Same thing, same routine, discipline, all the stuff that they talked about, that they preach to the players, they embody that. Right. And so that’s one thing that I, that I was able to learn from them.
“But I tell everybody it’s fourth and goal every day. Right. OK. And so, so you are on the clock every day and it’s intense consistently.”
By then, Holgorsen had been head coach at West Virginia for five years and his defensive coordinator, Tony Gibson, wanted to lure Belk to Morgantown.
“Nick Saban had signed off on him,” Holgorsen told me. “He came in and was our corners coach for two years. I moved him to secondary for a year. Moved him to a defensive coordinator two years later [at Houston] because I was about to lose him if I didn’t promote him. And just saw his growth from a really good position coach to now being a really good coordinator.”
Belk has become renowned for his ability to relate to players such as Jayce Rogers, a fellow Valdosta resident who committed to West Virginia and Belk. Rogers encountered some academic issues and wound up at a Mississippi junior college. When the Holgorsen-Belk duo made its way to Houston, Rogers’ grades were good enough to allow him to become a Cougar, where he’s now a senior nickelback.
“He’s very upfront,” Rogers said of Belk. “Very straight up and down about how we’re going to do things and how we’re going to run things around here. But most of the time it’s freedom to do what you want as long as you show up on time and be where you’re supposed to be and handle your business, man, you’re going to have no problems.”
Belk, Rogers said, has made him a better football player.
“I’m light-years from where I was coming out of high school and juco,” he said. “He took my game to the next level as far as understanding formations, understanding route concepts, knowing what’s coming next, getting leverage. Coming out of high school I was just raw. He made me become a student of the game.”
Belk is already the subject of media speculation about future jobs. Holgorsen has given him responsibility to oversee the entire defense, call the plays, supervise the other coaches and figure out the salary pools. The Cougars are joining the Big 12 next year, putting them in a Power 5 conference that might or might not still have Texas and Oklahoma for a short while. His salary is at seven figures.
His mentor, Reed-Francois, talks to him about being patient for the right opportunity. “I just try to give from the lens of an athletic director,” Reed-Francois said. “I just give him my best vantage.”
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“He’s high-character and he’s low ego but very high-energy,” she said. “When he speaks about his student-athletes, you can feel the depth of connection and the depth of care that he has for the young people he works with.”
“There’s no doubt that he has the skill set and the pedigree” to be a head coach, Locksley said. “He’s been around the right people and has taken the role that he has been given there, D coordinator of Houston, and elevated himself to being a part of our academy.
“Now the next thing we’re doing is just preparing him for the head coaching interviews and giving him the tools that he’ll need to run a program. And there’s no doubt that he should be a guy in the next year or two that should be called upon and lead the charge at a major college program.”
Dwayne Bray is a senior writer for Andscape. He writes about topics ranging from general sports to race relations to poverty. He previously ran ESPN television’s award-winning investigative team and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.
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Doug Belk at Houston is among the latest group to get access and advice from prominent athletic directors