It sounds like an old story because it is.
While significant gains were made by NCAA men’s basketball head coaches — 53% of the Division I college basketball head coaches hired in the last cycle were Black — after the police murder of George Floyd, college football head-coaching minority hires have not improved in 40 years. Since 1981, less than 10% of college football head coaches and athletic directors hired have been Black.
In 2020, 13% of Power 5 schools had a Black athletic director and 15% of Power 5 schools employed a Black head football coach. Meanwhile, 46% of the football players at Power 5 schools were Black. The disparity remains staggering.
One area that is getting increased scrutiny is how the hiring for these positions is done. Search firms have been used by university athletic departments for a long time, but dependence on them has increased in recent years.
“[Search firms] are not really new,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told The Undefeated recently. “They’re much more prevalent today than they were years ago and they do a lot of excellent work, depending upon what you ask them to do.”
Based on the hiring statistics, it’s clear that these firms have yet to make an impact on the diversity of college football coaches and athletic directors. One problem could be that the search firms themselves are a homogenous lot that looks much like the upper echelons of the athletic departments they work with.
Herb Courtney, founder and CEO of the Renaissance Search & Consulting firm, is attempting to make a difference, both by the firm’s existence as well as providing athletic departments with diverse lists of potential candidates to hire.
Courtney founded Renaissance in 2020 and has already had an impact on the college athletics landscape, as one of the few, if not the only, Black-owned search firm working in college athletics. He has already placed candidates at high-profile Division I institutions, including Aarika Hughes, head women’s basketball coach at Loyola Marymount; Althea Thomas, Vanderbilt director of cross country and track and field; Corey Lowery, head men’s basketball coach at Lincoln University. Renaissance assisted in a search for Vanderbilt that resulted in the hiring of head women’s basketball coach Shea Ralph.
Courtney, 36, played basketball for four years at the University of Delaware, worked at Binghamton University for close to seven years as director of basketball operations, coordinator of player development and as an assistant men’s basketball coach.
Courtney says he created the search firm to make the changes at the leadership level of college athletics.
“When you look at firms, they’ve really taken over a lot of the hiring for institutions over the last 10 to 15 years. There’s not too many people of color, no one who owns their own,” he said. “I saw it as a unique opportunity as a former student-athlete, as a former coach and having experience on the corporate side with talent acquisition and placing individuals I thought I could offer a unique lens and experience that’s not in the market. And I really wanted to do it with the focus of diversity, equity and inclusion and I don’t think firms traditionally have done that.”
To understand how Courtney’s firm can make a difference in diversity hiring, one must understand what search firms do. There is no secret algorithm firms have that leads them to perfect candidates. Like any other industry where people are making hiring decisions, it is often a matter of who they know, or who they choose to know, in this context.
“As much as anyone would like to say that they’re not biased and run an open search, it’s not possible. We’re all human beings,” Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott said. “One of the concerns that people of color have with the search firms as they are today, is that, I don’t want to say they have a pool of people that they go to, but search firms like any other human beings tend to go where they’re most familiar or comfortable. And if they don’t have extensive networks with people of color, I think it makes it harder for a search firm to be able to recruit a person of color to a high-level athletic administrative position.”
To be clear, no matter who runs or works at a particular search firm, that firm is expected to look beyond its personal network and search firms are used for a variety of reasons, including background searches, contract negotiations and confidentiality.
“I also think there are search firms that provide a list of candidates that they don’t know,” Smith said, responding to what he considered a generalization. “That’s kind of a misnomer that they only present who they know. But, there are some that do that.”
However, there is no denying that diversity within a particular search firm, or someday diversity within the search firm industry, will be more likely to consistently produce a diverse set of qualified candidates.
“You have some search firms that have diversity in their employee pool, diversity in their staffs, so that helps with the consciousness that needs to be in an organization. Yes, I think having a minority-owned, -led, -driven search firm is an asset. That firm — I would hope — would have some credibility in the space that provides them an opportunity to really present a diverse pool of candidates to hiring authorities,” Smith said.
Former Arizona Cardinals general manager and current chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Rod Graves, when talking about the NFL’s lack of diversity in its head-coaching ranks, once told me that “diversity has to be an intentional act.” Courtney has embraced that idea, as has Andy Fee, athletic director at Long Beach State, who has worked with the Renaissance Search & Consulting firm.
“The increase in minority-owned search firms and other boutique firms is really vital and critical if we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, which is to create diverse pools and to bring diverse candidates and employees. I think you have to have that intentional piece,” Fee told me. “It’s not to be critical of non-minority-owned search firms, because minorities have been hired, but not at the rate that we need. I can’t think of a better way to get where we want [other than] by being intentional. Our goal is to be diverse and we feel we have a diverse athletic department, but we can always be better. By working with someone like Herb Courtney, I know we will be better and I know we will continue to have diverse candidate pools, diverse finalists and those that join us here at Long Beach State.”
Courtney pointed out the leadership examples for student-athletes and possible financial benefits for institutions.
“When you look at college sports, it’s the most diverse environment,” Courtney said. “Student-athletes come from all different parts of the world, different ethnicities. So, for coaches and administrators, it should reflect that. Student-athletes should be able to see themselves in their leaders.
“I think people look at it more from a social standpoint, a social cause or social responsibility, but there’s tons of data that support financially why diversity is so important,” he continued. “To be able to connect and engage with other people in the community.”
As important as Courtney is to the industry in creating diversity at search firms and in turn, promoting and furthering diversity in college athletic departments, his firm finds itself in the same position that many great minority coaches and administrators have found themselves throughout history: overqualified, yet dependent on a reluctant majority to hire them and give them a chance. This is accompanied by pressure to be successful so that other minorities will be trusted to follow in their footsteps.
Felicia Hall Allen, president and CEO of FHA Associates and an agent for college basketball coaches, puts the onus on universities to put their money where their mouth is and hire Courtney’s firm for major searches.
“In order for us to really make some noise, [Renaissance] is going to have to receive some of these high-profile searches at Power 5 institutions,” Hall Allen told The Undefeated. “And he shouldn’t have to partner with a traditional search firm in order to ensure that the traditional search firm has diverse candidates. There have been situations where [Renaissance] has been called in to help ensure that the traditional firm has a diverse pool.
“If diversity, equity and inclusion is a business strategy, why not start with the executive search firm you choose to use?” Hall Allen continued. “And you may not use [Renaissance] for every opening that you have, but why can’t athletic administrators say, ‘For every five searches that we have, we’re going to be intentional about using a search firm that is minority-owned.’ ”
Courtney believes that he is already making a difference, nonetheless.
“I do feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “I’m in rooms that I haven’t been in before. I’m getting support. I think [athletic directors] realize that there needs to be a change and they want to be a part of that change and they realize Renaissance can do that.”