The inside story of how a Rutgers professor is forcing college officials to diversify hiring pools for coaches

Jason Belzer has spent 15 years in sports-business management, marketing coaches and negotiating more than $100 million in coaching contracts in the world of college athletics.

During that time Belzer has seen how minority coaches get a proverbial stiff-arm from college administrators in football and basketball coaching searches.

“As far as I know I’ve represented more first-time minority coaches than anybody else over the last 15 years,” he said. “So I’ve been knee-deep in a business where I could see this inequality that’s happening. I have clients that go on interviews that are obviously extremely qualified for the positions that they’re interviewing for. And they can’t even get to the final table, or they’re getting to the final table but they’re not actually being considered as a serious candidate.”

It’s why Belzer this week started a nationwide push to improve diversity in the marquee head-coaching positions at the highest levels of college sports.

He created the Collegiate Coaching Diversity Pledge, which asks school administrators to have a finalist pool that includes a diverse group of candidates for head coach vacancies in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and football, per its website.

A Rutgers graduate who has taught a sports-business course at the state university for more than a decade, Belzer is asking athletics directors to diversify their hiring pools much in the same way that the Rooney Rule — a policy requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching positions — has done it in the NFL.

The NCAA, as a non-profit and voluntary-member association, has said legally it can’t adopt such a rule. In the past, the college sports governing body asked members to sign a pledge committing to promoting diversity and gender equity. And while more than 300 Division I school presidents signed it, minority representation among college basketball and football coaches remains low.

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While minority players comprise of 64.9% of the player pool, according to NCAA data, a recent study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) reported 26% of the Division I men’s basketball coaches were coaches of color in 2018-19 and the number of head football coaches of color at the Football Bowl Subdivision level decreased from 19 in 2018 to 18 in 2019. The TIDES report said white men represented 112 of the 130 (86.2 percent) head coaches at college football’s highest level.

“Racism in our country is a systemic issue,” Belzer said. “And my belief is that everybody has a lane that they can occupy, and it’s incredibly important for coaches, whether they’re at a big Power Five institution, or even at a small school, to be able to impact as many people as they can, whether it’s their student athletes, the kids that they teach in their class, their college communities or their fan bases. Many people don’t want to get involved in these things, and that’s how racism perpetuates itself. But it’s not until somebody with some influence over a group of people stands up and says, ‘No, this is not right. We have to take a stand. We have to do something different.’ And coaches are probably the best ambassadors of that because they’re well known, they’re respected, and they can influence a lot more people than they sometimes realize.”

More than 30 ADs from 18 conferences signed the pledge since it went live Sunday, according to Belzer, the founder of Athletic Director U, a digital media and professional development platform for college athletic administrators and coaches.

“The Rooney Rule is great in concept, but actually is highly ineffective,’ ” Belzer said. “And I think everybody realizes that part of the reason behind it is because there is no accountability in the Rooney Rule. The commissioner of the (NFL) is never going to go to one of his owners and say, ‘You broke your promise. You didn’t do what you have to do. I’m going to penalize you for it.’ So we said how do we create some sort of accountability and enforceability in the process, and then created a peer-accountability program where somebody makes a pledge to meet a very minimum standard. We’re going to put their name and image up there, and if they don’t follow through on what they promise, people are going to find out about it, and they’re going have to deal with the consequences of that whatever it may look like.”

As for the consequences, Belzer said it’s not intended to be “a gotcha” penalty for ADs whose list of finalists for a football or basketball head-coaching position doesn’t include a minority coach.

“The goal is never to shame people,” he said. “We’re asking people to include at least one diverse candidate, one non-diverse candidate in the process. So essentially eliminate the token interview, give a real opportunity for somebody with diverse background and get to the finalists table. I would hope that if there is going to be an AD that makes this promise and then violates it, it would have to be some sort of egregious violation to not be able to follow this. And if that’s the case, then they deserve to be called out for it. I hope that that never happens. And quite frankly, there’s irony in all of this is that if we are successful over the long run, eventually the pledge won’t have to exist anymore. Eventually, this will just become a standard operating procedure for administrators. And there won’t need to be some sort of watchdog that actually follows up with it didn’t happen.”

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An independent board that includes coaches, ADs, media members, former NFL personnel directors and national advocates will oversee the program, which is designed to work with college officials to ensure compliance with the procedures of the pledge.

While Belzer said he was pleased with the initial wave of ADs who volunteered to participate, he expressed disappointment about the lack of major-level ADs who signed on for the pledge.

“I think that Power Five ADs are going to hold out much longer than the mid majors primarily because they want to have as much control over their processes as possible,” he said. “And quite frankly, we’re not really asking them to do anything that they shouldn’t be doing. But we set out with this knowing we want to have a kind of critical mass of ADs go public with it, which we did (Sunday) night. And we already have a strong reaction. There are a lot of people that want to come on board. And for every person that comes on board, it just creates more and more pressure, for that final person to come on board and I would hate to be that AD who holds out longer than everybody else.”

Belzer said confidentiality isn’t an issue. The board will work with a third-party clearinghouse to randomly select a meaningful percentage of hires each year to review in order to confirm compliance to the pledge.

“There are plenty of ADs who don’t have a problem with it,” Belzer said. “There’s many that have said, ‘Hey, we’re an open book. We realize why it’s important.’ It’s all based on pure accountability. There’s no chasing somebody to try to point a finger at them.

“But if everybody adopted this thing today, within four or five years the numbers would proportionally equalize to where they need to be. Because ADs would have that slight pressure, that incentive to do the right thing. And when a candidate gets to the table, maybe (the AD) had no intention of hiring them in the first place but somehow they impress you or you don’t hire them but when (another AD) is doing the search you say, ‘Hey, I interviewed this guy and he wasn’t right for me in that moment but he is a rock star. You have to take a look at him.’ And that (minority candidate) is eventually going to get that opportunity. That’s all we’re trying to accomplish.”

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Keith Sargeant may be reached at ksargeant@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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