In the blazing Atlanta morning sun on a Saturday in July, hundreds of teenagers go through drills at Lakewood Stadium. Football camp has arrived with a chance for all to impress the coaches, not to mention the families and friends in the stands. “I got a man down, I need a trainer”, one coach calls out, as a player limps off.
As I watch the first offering of talented players try out, the next batch arrive and wait patiently in the stands beside me. Quarterbacks, tight ends, wide receivers and defensive backs will get their chance next, when the linebackers, linemen and running backs finish. An elfin thirteen year old quarterback tells me of his dreams of playing in the NFL, before asking whether I’m a scout. I’m much lower down the food chain, I tell him. I’m a writer. Almost all the players around me waiting for their turn stare intently onto the field, irrespective of whether they’ve turned up with friends. The Minority Coaches of Georgia Association is convening this gathering talent. Coaches from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) pace the sidelines. This is a big opportunity for the budding recruits. Today, I’m featuring an interview with Ahmand Tinker, the executive director of the Minority Coaches Association of Georgia and the principal of Maggie Brown Middle School in Georgia. Tinker’s association organized the event at Lakewood Stadium. I’ll examine the role the organization he leads plays in increasing opportunities for ethnic minorities among the ranks of coaches in Georgia, and its prominent involvement in dealing with social and racial injustices at a state and national level. Evaluating Talent The majority of players on display at Lakewood haven’t come from Georgia. They’ve travelled from all across the country. A hundred players were bused down from Columbus, Ohio. Others from further afield - Mexico, Canada and Australia. Because of COVID, a lot of the HBCU coaches on the sideline have not coached in games for over a year. Budget constraints means this is a good chance for coaches and scouts to recruit all in one place. As Tinker explains, much in the same vein as a Black get teenager gets a scholarship to Yale for sports, a number of Caucasian young players receive scholarships to HBCUs. He likens recruiting to dating. “I see you now and I’ve done my research. Then I see you pass the eye test by making plays on the field. I ask you out for a second date. Then I’ll evaluate the film next. If I offer you a scholarship, that's marriage.”
Coaching Connections During Social Injustices
In an article last year, I focused on the logic behind these Zoom calls, which seek to tackle the problems that persist for Black coaches at all levels of football who are trying to advance in an industry designed to obstruct their upward mobility.
Perceived injustices and access to promotion are not new for minorities in football, and they certainly aren't confined to one level of the game. It happens in high school, college and pro football. The NFL has been slow to keep apace with change. Despite having over 70% minority players, last year there were only four Black general managers and three black head coaches in a 32-team league.
When the pandemic hit and outrageous systemic racism came to the fore, such as the death of George Floyd, became more prevalent, the Minority Coaches Association of Georgia was in a position to help coaches grow and continue their work remotely. “We were one of the first groups to set up and we had up to 500 coaches on some Zoom calls,” says Ahmand Tinker. Guest speakers included Penn State head coach James Franklin and Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal. “Zoom allowed us to reach out to people across the country, although this is not a new trend for us. We go back to 2008 when we used to host conference calls. We were the first coaching association that set up a symposium to talk about some of the social issues going on across the country. This is a positive movement aimed at lifting minority coaches up. Minorities does not just mean African American coaches but Hispanic, Asian, and LGBT communities too. If you are Caucasian coach at a HBCU you are a minority coach.”
Overcoming Divisions Social media has helped shape the narrative of unjust things that have occurred. More broadly, technology has helped highlight disparities. It also helped coaches to learn, grow and stick together. Being a cohesive, united force, Tinker stresses, is not something he believes comes naturally to African Americans, which creates challenges for coaches looking to progress. “Often, it is a crowd and bear mentality. Some of the challenge relates to underlying issues going back in history to slavery. I’m a data guy, I’ve majored in history. If you read the Willie Lynch letter, he pitted his slaves against each other in order to control them. The letter is 100% on point. In college football, take that, a lot of coaches are pigeon-holed in certain positions. It automatically created divisions between slaves. It pits Black coaches against each other. A lot of guys think that way and don’t help each other. When it comes to getting offered coaching jobs, Black coaches need to invest more in the networking and relationship side of the game. X’s and O’s are important but so is being a known quantity.”
Upwardly Mobile Coaches
Deoin Sanders, a football icon and Hall of Famer player, has entered HBCU football as head coach of Jackson State in Mississippi. It is great publicity for HBCU as Tinker argues. “All of a sudden, he has shed light on big social issues in the game and ESPN wants to cover more HBCU games. That’s a direct correlation with Deoin Sanders' arrival. You’re not going to get four or five star recruits in HBCU. The power five schools can fly recruits around on planes and treat them like kings. Deion has done great things for HBCU football. His sons were capable of starring at a Division 1 program. Instead they followed him to Jackson State.” True to form, after the 2021 NFL Draft, Deoin Sanders lamented that for the first time in a decade no players from HBCUs were drafted. He has also used his platform to encourage his team and operational staff, and the public in Mississippi, to get vaccinated.
Each One, Teach One
The hard work of Tinker, the Minority Coaches of Georgia Association and other organizations has enabled Black coaches to get more of a foothold in the game. Getting recognition for a coaching system that helps facilitate quality top in-state Georgia players such as Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields is a small part of it. Still, progress has been gradual rather than transformative. There's a long way to go, but on the evidence of the tryouts at Lakewood Stadium and how Black coaches have mobilized before and during the Zoom era, a sustained effort at working together and sharing ideas has a real shot at bringing about lasting structural change for minorities in football. And that’s a resoundingly good thing.