After graduating from Purdue University in 2001, Drew Brees spent two decades in the NFL. During his 15 seasons as quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, Brees took the team to nine playoffs and three NFC championships. He was named MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, in which the Saint’s secured the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl win. Brees held records for career touchdown passes, completions, yardage, and completion percentage when he retired from the NFL in 2021.
Just ahead of its matchup against LSU in the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl, Brees was named Interim Assistant Coach of the 8-5 Purdue Boilermakers football team. Brees is white. Ryan Walters, a Black man whom the University named its new head coach last month, enthusiastically welcomed Brees to the interim role on his staff. This appointment did nothing to improve the racial diversity of Purdue’s coaching roster. It does, however, introduce a potentially replicable response to one of college football’s most vexing diversity problems.
According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 14% of head football coaches in 2022 were Black; that number would be lower if it didn’t include Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Black representation was better and worse in the two roles that are typical runways to head coaching gigs: Defensive Coordinators (24%) and Offensive Coordinators (11%). Black men and two Black women held 34% of the other football assistant coaching positions at NCAA member institutions last year.
Purdue is in the Big Ten, one of the five conferences that comprise what’s affectionately known as ‘The Power Five.’ In a 2018 USC Race and Equity Center research report on Black student-athletes and racial inequities in college sports, I furnished statistics showing that Black men comprised 55% of football teams across the 65 Power Five universities. At Purdue, 56% of scholarship student-athletes on its football team during the 2021 season were Black. Racial diversity on the team’s coaching staff was exponentially lower.
It’s a shame that Black men comprise such significant shares of college football players, yet are so underrepresented among coaches at all levels. Former standout players like Brees ought to be pursued for collegiate coaching careers. Nearly 70% of NFL players are Black. Why wouldn’t their alma maters and other universities aggressively recruit more of them for full-time, or at very least interim coaching roles?
It’s worth acknowledging that playing and coaching are not the same. It seems, though, that an interim assistant role like the one Purdue has created for Brees could afford retired NFL players opportunities to demonstrate their coaching potential. Not everyone will be as decorated and accomplished as Brees, but some will be far more talented than are many current assistant coaches. Interim roles are usually low stakes. More colleges and universities should pursue gifted former athletes of color for them.
In an ESPN College GameDay interview hours before the Citrus Bowl, Brees was asked why he accepted the interim role and if he was considering college coaching in the future. “First and foremost, I am doing this for Purdue University because I love my school,” Brees replied. “There was a transition period from the Big 10 championship game to preparing for this bowl game – our head coach leaves, takes a lot of his staff – and immediately I thought, look we’ve got a bowl game to play, we have a bowl game to go win, and these guys deserve the best opportunity and the best experience there.” Brees said this compelled him to call the University to offer his assistance.
There are thousands of Black men who were college football standouts. Some of them made it to the NFL where they also performed extraordinarily well. It’s totally plausible that like Brees, many of them love their undergraduate alma maters and would be excited to accept interim coaching roles at those institutions. Short-term stints could entice them to stay for longer-term positions. It could also afford them opportunities to be seen by other colleges and universities that have convinced themselves that their failures to hire Black coaches are attributable to pipeline shortages.
More institutions should extend the ‘come check us out for a little while’ invitation to former college and professional sports stars like Brees. They just have to be more intentional about ensuring that such invitations aren’t extended only to white guys.
To be sure, the interim onramp to college coaching isn’t limited to football. Athletics directors should, for example, pursue Black women who were outstanding basketball or track athletes in college, then went on to establish distinguished careers in the WNBA or in the Olympics. In addition to benefitting from their expertise about the sport, the star power that these retired athletes of color would bring is likely to excite prospective student-athletes who are being recruited to the institution – similar to the recruiting success the University of Colorado is experiencing in response to Deion Sanders’ appointment to the head football coaching position there last month.