Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman understands why he stands out in the Black college coaching community.
The history of Black men getting opportunities to lead FBS programs is limited, even as representation of Black players has increased on the field. About half of Power 5 teams have never hired a Black head coach, including the past five national championship winners (Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Clemson and Ohio State).
Those who get head-coaching jobs usually spend many years as assistants before taking over programs near the bottom of the Power 5 or Group of 5, such as Derek Mason (Vanderbilt), Turner Gill (Kansas), Jon Embree (Colorado) and Joker Phillips (Kentucky). Of that group, only Mason lasted longer than three seasons before being fired. Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who in 2020 launched the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches to promote and develop more candidates, is one of few Black coaches who received a second chance after struggling at his initial opportunity (2-26 at New Mexico).
Freeman, meanwhile, began generating head-coaching buzz as a Group of 5 defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, interviewing for Illinois' head-coaching vacancy in 2020 and other jobs. Then, after just one season as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, he was selected to replace Brian Kelly in late November. At 35, Freeman became head coach of arguably the sport's most famous team.
"He is a unicorn, to get a job like Notre Dame right off the bat," Locksley said. "There's definitely the added pressure, not that he needs to put on himself, but just the microscope he's going to be under."
Since his promotion, Freeman has heard from Black coaches around the sport.
"You understand that you are a representation for a lot of people," Freeman said. "I want to make sure that I do this in the right way so that future generations and coaches continue to get the opportunity that I was presented."
There's increased attention and initiatives on diversifying the college coaching ranks, and industry insiders note that candidates are out there, even if some remain under the radar. To shine a light on those who could follow Freeman on a faster track, I spoke with coaches, athletic directors, search firm executives and agents to compile a list of 45 minority coaches under the age of 45 who project as future FBS head coaches. Although several coaches listed could land jobs soon, even in the upcoming cycle, I've tried to identify those who can be realistic candidates in the next 5 to 7 years.
There are plenty of 30-somethings in the list, and even a fast-rising 27-year-old. The list was very competitive, but to gain some variety, I divided names by both team designation and title, and included some NFL assistants with college backgrounds, as well as head coaches outside of the FBS.
Let's take a look at who could be next in line.
POWER 5 COORDINATORS
Coaches who have offense, defense or special teams coordinator titles are included here even if they aren't primary playcallers.
Josh Gattis, Miami offensive coordinator
The 2021 Broyles Award winner (nation's top assistant coach) helped energize Michigan's offense en route to the program's first CFP appearance. He now gets even more autonomy at Miami under Mario Cristobal. Gattis has interviewed for several head-coaching positions and should get an opportunity soon, likely at a Power 5 program, if Miami's offense begins to surge.
"He's a big-time rising star," a Power 5 coach said.
Ryan Walters, Illinois defensive coordinator
He has held a coordinator title in the Power 5 since 2016 and now has a second playcalling credit in his profile after a stint at Missouri. A former safety and captain at Colorado, where his father, Marc, played quarterback, Walters could soon be in the mix for head-coaching jobs in the Pac-12, Big 12 or Mountain West. Illinois' defense took a nice step in his first season as DC.
Zach Arnett, Mississippi State defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Arnett, who is Hispanic, has made his mark in two seasons at Mississippi State after an extensive stretch under defensive guru Rocky Long as both a player and coach. In 2019, he coordinated a San Diego State defense that ranked third nationally in points allowed. Arnett will soon be up for head-coaching jobs in a market warming to defensive coordinators.
Sherrone Moore, Michigan co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach
Moore was a sneaky good under-the-radar hire for Michigan after four seasons at Central Michigan. After three years coaching tight ends, he switched to offensive line in 2021, and Michigan won the Joe Moore Award as the nation's top O-line. Moore is a strong recruiter and talent developer who will get more say in the offense after Gattis' exit. He will share coordinator duties with Matt Weiss.
"I love him," a Power 5 coach said. "He's big time."
LeVar Woods, Iowa special teams coordinator
Since 2018, Iowa leads the nation in special teams expected points added, and has gone 35-13 despite an often-shaky offense. Woods' impact on the kicking game and the team has been profound. He has the charisma to lead a program, and has coached positions on both offense and defense. A potential drawback: He has spent his entire career at Iowa, his alma mater.
Des Kitchings, Virginia offensive coordinator/tight ends coach
Kitchings has a solid résumé, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, and joined Virginia after a season with the Atlanta Falcons. He held co-coordinator titles at Vanderbilt and NC State earlier in his career, and now gets the primary title under offensive-minded coach Tony Elliott. Virginia is Kitchings' fourth Power 5 stop, as he has coached tight ends and running backs.
Lance Taylor, Louisville offensive coordinator
Taylor landed his first coordinator opportunity after stints at Notre Dame, Stanford and the Carolina Panthers. He coached Christian McCaffery during a record-setting 2015 season at Stanford, and had a nice stretch with Kyren Williams and other Notre Dame running backs. Louisville coach Scott Satterfield will call plays, but Taylor can enhance his profile at U of L.
"He's a fast riser who will end up on somebody's head-coaching list this coming season," a Power 5 coach said.
Alex Atkins, Florida State offensive coordinator/offensive line coach
Atkins is the latest young coach to get a coordinator opportunity under Mike Norvell, who got his first OC shot at 29. Norvell's influence on the Florida State offense will remain, but Atkins should benefit from continued improvement with the unit and the line, a major concern before his arrival in 2020. Before FSU, Atkins was Charlotte's offensive coordinator in 2019 under Will Healy.
Tony White, Syracuse defensive coordinator
There's some urgency around Syracuse, which needs to show improvement this fall, but White's overall profile makes him appealing as a potential head coach. He has worked on both coasts and came up in the Rocky Long system (New Mexico, San Diego State) before becoming a coordinator at Arizona State in 2019. White, who is Black and Korean, oversaw a top-20 Syracuse defense last season.
Tem Lukabu, Boston College defensive coordinator
Entering his third season as BC's coordinator, Lukabu brings a nice mix of college and NFL experience, and has connections to Greg Schiano and Chip Kelly. BC's defense has improved in each of his first two seasons, and another boost should put him on the radar for jobs. Lukabu has spent most of his college career on the East Coast but worked at Mississippi State in 2018.
Chris Marve, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach
The former All-SEC linebacker at Vanderbilt has rapidly ascended in coaching, first at his alma mater, then with position coaching jobs at Mississippi State and Florida State. At just 32, he landed his first coordinator job and will learn from new Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry, a respected defensive mind. Sharp and dynamic, Marve could fit into several future job profiles.
Junior Adams, Oregon co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach
A Bay Area native, Adams played wide receiver at Oregon State and Montana State and has become one of the more connected coaches in the Northwest. He spent the past three years at Washington and has worked at Boise State and Eastern Washington. He held a coordinator role at Western Kentucky (2017-2018) and now will work alongside Kenny Dillingham at Oregon.
"Junior has been on the radar," an industry source said. "Oregon has put together a strong and diverse staff."
Jay Valai, Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach
The hard-hitting ex-Wisconsin safety only started coaching in 2016 but has since been busy. His work credits include Alabama, Texas, Rutgers and quality control jobs with Georgia and the Kansas City Chiefs. Valai received his first coordinator title with new OU coach Brent Venables. He excels in recruiting, and should grow under Venables and Ted Roof.
GROUP OF 5 COORDINATORS
Doug Belk, Houston defensive coordinator/associate head coach
Belk will only be a Group of 5 coordinator for one more season, as Houston is set to join the Big 12. He's one of the top names on this list after Houston's breakthrough last fall. The Third Ward defense ranked in the top 10 for yards allowed and sacks, and 19th in points allowed. Belk spent 2014 to 2016 on Nick Saban's Alabama staff and coached cornerbacks at West Virginia before becoming a DC.
Travis Williams, UCF defensive coordinator
Like Belk, Williams will transition to the Power 5 (Big 12) in 2023. A Broyles Award nominee in 2021, UCF's defense improved significantly down the stretch and ranked seventh nationally in pass efficiency. Williams held a co-defensive coordinator title alongside Kevin Steele at Auburn in 2019 and 2020 and coached a talented group of Auburn linebackers from 2016 to 2020.
Ilaisa Tuiaki, BYU defensive coordinator
Tuiaki has had a key role in BYU's recent success under another Polynesian coach, Kalani Sitake, and boasts extensive ties in the state, coaching defense at Utah and also offense at Utah State. He was a Broyles Award nominee as a position coach in 2013 (Utah defensive line). Tuiaki might not be a fit outside the region but could see his profile expand as BYU transitions to the Big 12 in 2023.
Ephraim Banda, Utah State defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Banda is an impressive young coordinator who last year helped Utah State to its first Mountain West title and a top-25 finish. Utah State ranked second nationally in tackles for loss and 10th in red zone defense. Banda, who is Hispanic, came up under Manny Diaz, working for him at Mississippi State and Miami, where he was co-defensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020.
Tyler Stockton, Ball State defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach
The former Notre Dame defensive lineman has excelled at his first on-field coaching job in the Group 5, helping Ball State to the 2020 MAC title and its first bowl win. That fall, he became the second-youngest FBS coordinator (30) and has been a Broyles Award nominee the past two years. In 2018, he coordinated a Western Illinois defense that ranked 23rd in the FCS.
Freddie Banks, Colorado State defensive coordinator
New CSU coach Jay Norvell made a smart, under-the-radar coordinator hire in Banks, who helped Montana State to the FCS national title game last year, behind the nation's No. 6 scoring defense. Banks coached defensive backs for Norvell at Nevada in 2020 but has spent most of his career in college football's lower divisions. He could rise quickly with success in Fort Collins.
Brandon Jones, Houston co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach
Jones is a veteran offensive line coach who became co-offensive coordinator at Houston in January 2019. He held a run game coordinator title at Cal and then Houston, and also coached offensive line at Texas Tech, his alma mater. The Dallas native has connections to several Air Raid coaches, including Lincoln Riley, Sonny Dykes, Kliff Kingsbury and now Dana Holgorsen. The Air Raid tree hasn't had many prominent Black coaches, but Jones could be one.
POWER 5 POSITION COACHES
Fran Brown, Georgia defensive backs coach
Brown remains one of the best-known assistants in the Northeast and finished as the runner-up for Temple's coaching vacancy last winter. He came up under coach Matt Rhule at Temple and then Baylor before returning to Temple as a co-defensive coordinator in 2019. After two seasons with Rutgers, Brown now gets a prime opportunity under Smart and Will Muschamp at Georgia.
Nate Scheelhaase, Iowa State running backs and wide receivers coach
Scheelhaase has a fascinating profile, given his age and responsibility level, as he oversees two key position groups for coach Matt Campbell's offense. The Kansas City native and former Illinois quarterback began his career at his alma mater, before joining Campbell's ISU staff. He has worked with two-time All-America running back Breece Hall and several standout receivers.
"He's young but has a high ceiling," a Power 5 athletic director said.
Holmon Wiggins, Alabama wide receivers coach/assistant head coach of offense
Wiggins has established himself as one of the nation's top wide receivers coaches, mentoring Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith in 2021 and other standouts. The Los Angeles native also brings a geographically diverse profile, after making stops at Virginia Tech, Memphis and Tulsa. He generated Group of 5 head-coaching interest in last year's cycle and should get more this winter.
Brad Davis, LSU offensive line coach
Davis, who served as LSU's interim head coach for the Texas Bowl, was the only on-field assistant who new coach Brian Kelly retained. A dynamic personality from Baton Rouge, Davis has coached O-line for four SEC programs and boasts a co-offensive coordinator credential at James Madison, in addition to serving as recruiting coordinator at two Group of 5 programs.
Jerry Mack, Tennessee running backs coach
Several industry insiders said Mack is already on the head-coaching track. He has been a head coach at North Carolina Central, where he won three straight MEAC titles (2014 to 2016). Mack has coordinator experience at Rice and has coached receivers, tight ends, quarterbacks and running backs. The Memphis native has worked for college programs in six Southern states.
"He's been a head coach before, he had some success, he's [worked] under some good coaches," a Power 5 coach said. "He has a chance down the road."
Elijah Robinson, Texas A&M defensive line coach/assistant head coach
Robinson has become one of the nation's top defensive line coaches and soon could be in the mix to lead his own program. He came up under Bill O'Brien and Larry Johnson at Penn State, his alma mater, and then began his coaching career with Rhule at Temple and Baylor before joining Texas A&M, which just signed arguably the best-ever crop of defensive line recruits.
Lou Ayeni, Northwestern running backs coach/recruiting coordinator
Ayeni is an elite recruiter and talent developer who has had multiple opportunities at both the college and NFL levels. He has remained at his alma mater, but has generated head-coaching interest and could soon get more traction, especially in the Midwest. Ayeni spent eight years with Campbell (Toledo, Iowa State) before boosting Northwestern's recruiting efforts.
Donte Williams, USC defensive backs coach/defensive pass game coordinator
The Los Angeles native is an elite regional recruiter and has had his profile grow after stints at Oregon and now USC. He served as USC's interim head coach after Helton's firing, and was a candidate for Fresno State's vacancy. Williams was the only assistant Lincoln Riley retained. If the team improves, he should be positioned for head-coaching jobs, especially on the West Coast.
Bush Hamdan, Missouri quarterbacks coach
A former Boise State quarterback, Hamdan has a strong résumé that includes three coordinator stops and five as a quarterbacks coach, including the Atlanta Falcons in 2017. His stint as Washington's offensive coordinator didn't go well, but the unit's problems continued after his departure. Hamdan, who is of Pakistani and Palestinian descent, has worked on both coasts and brings a charisma that will help in the interview process.
JaMarcus Shephard, Washington wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator
After a successful run at Purdue alongside Jeff Brohm, Shephard will work with another talented offensive coach in Kalen DeBoer. He gained a co-offensive coordinator title at Purdue and coached Rondale Moore, David Bell and other standouts. In 2016, Shephard worked with Mike Leach at Washington State. He was Western Kentucky's special teams coordinator in 2015.
Bryan McClendon, Georgia wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator
McClendon has spent his entire coaching career at Power 5 programs, and begins his second stint at his alma mater, where he was recruiting coordinator and interim head coach in 2015. He also finished 2021 as interim head coach at Oregon, where he was passing game coordinator. McClendon held South Carolina's primary offensive coordinator title in 2018 and 2019.
Mike Hart, Michigan running backs coach
Michigan's all-time rushing leader carries name recognition, and has made his mark in coaching, especially within the Big Ten. He became associate head coach at Indiana in 2020 before returning to Michigan, where backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum stood out last fall. Hart is a strong personality who can lead a team, but might need a coordinator stint first.
Jahmile Addae, Miami secondary coach
Addae's profile includes a national championship with Georgia in 2021 and Power 5 stops at Minnesota, Arizona and West Virginia, his alma mater. The Tampa, Florida-area native has geographic diversity in his profile, and even two seasons on offense as Cincinnati's running backs coach. He has worked in four power conferences and is known as an elite-level recruiter.
Kenni Burns, Minnesota running backs coach/assistant head coach
Burns has become one of P.J. Fleck's most important assistants, first at Western Michigan and now Minnesota, where he oversees a loaded running backs room. He helped North Dakota State to three consecutive FCS national titles, and also coached receivers at Wyoming. Burns would be a candidate for multiple MAC jobs and perhaps some in the Mountain West.
"He is a holistic person developer, a purpose-driven recruiter, a faith-based principled leader, an adaptable game planner and pristinely organized," a Group of 5 athletic director said.
Lee Marks, Washington running backs coach/assistant head coach
An emerging presence on the West Coast/Northwest, Marks became one of Kalen DeBoer's top assistants at Fresno State before following him to Washington. He was Fresno State's interim head coach for its bowl win in December, and coached standout running backs at Fresno, Boise State and elsewhere. The California native also coached special teams at Boise State in 2019.
Cortez Hankton, LSU wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator
After a nine-year career in the NFL and United Football League, Hankton has quickly risen as a receivers coach and makes his third SEC stop after Georgia and Vanderbilt. The New Orleans native is an accomplished recruiter who developed several strong wideouts at Georgia. Hankton's impact at LSU, his home-state school, will shape his head-coaching candidate profile.
Paul Gonzales, TCU safeties coach
Gonzales played a significant role in TCU's defensive success under former coach Gary Patterson, and was retained by new Horned Frogs boss Sonny Dykes. He has coached both safety positions and worked with multiple All-America selections. The California native played baseball at UC Davis and coached at Pacific. He could be a fit for West Coast jobs in addition to those in Texas.
NFL POSITION COACHES
This group includes NFL assistants who have spent time at the college level or, in the view of industry insiders, could be considered for future college head-coaching vacancies.
Brian Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach
The only question with Johnson is whether he would be willing to return to college or aim for an NFL head-coaching role. He interviewed for Boise State's opening in early 2021 and will be a candidate at Utah, his alma mater, whenever Kyle Whittingham retires. Johnson has coordinator credentials at Utah, Houston and Florida, and coached Dak Prescott at Mississippi State.
Thomas Brown, Los Angeles Rams tight ends coach/assistant head coach
After a fast rise in the college game, Brown has enhanced his NFL profile, generating some NFL head-coaching interest this winter. He's set to lead his second position group with the defending Super Bowl champions, after coaching running backs at four Power 5 programs as well as the Rams. Brown served as Miami's offensive coordinator from 2016 to 2018 under Mark Richt.
Ra'Shaad Samples, Los Angeles Rams running backs coach
The son of a Dallas high school coach, Samples has accelerated his career at an amazing pace. After spending 2018 as assistant wide receivers coach at Texas, he played a major role in SMU's rise under Dykes, and became assistant head coach in 2021. Samples was set to join Dykes at TCU but instead left for the Rams. His recruiting and coaching skill, especially in Texas, could make him a very attractive candidate for programs in the region.
Ryan Mahaffey, Green Bay Packers assistant offensive line coach
The Iowa native has held two coordinator stints at Northern Iowa, his alma mater, and coached tight ends in the FBS at Western Kentucky. He spent 2021 as a quality control assistant with the Packers before being promoted. Mahaffey also worked at Notre Dame as a graduate assistant, working with the wide receivers. He could eventually be an interesting candidate in the Midwest.
HBCU AND DIVISION II COACHES
Willie Simmons, Florida A&M head coach
Other than Jackson State's Deion Sanders, Simmons is the HBCU coach generating the most buzz for FBS jobs after nearly landing the Florida International gig in December. Simmons is 45-21 as an FCS coach with top-25 finishes in the past two seasons that the Rattlers competed. The former Clemson quarterback has FBS coordinator experience at Middle Tennessee.
"I'm a huge Willie Simmons fan," a Power 5 coach said. "He's got a tremendous upside."
Added a Power 5 athletic director: "I can definitely see him as a Group of 5 head coach as a next step."
Tremaine Jackson, Valdosta State head coach
More Group of 5 athletic directors are looking to the lower divisions for candidates, and Jackson could soon be on their radar. He went 10-3 as Colorado Mesa's coach after successful assistant stops at Abilene Christian, where he served as defensive coordinator, University of Sioux Falls and Texas Southern. Jackson has ample experience in Texas but has worked in other regions.
Jonathan Saxon, South Carolina State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach
Saxon has established himself as one of the top defensive minds in the FCS. South Carolina State shut down Sanders' Jackson State team in the 2021 Celebration Bowl, surrendering only 10 points and 194 yards. He came up under Charlie Strong at Louisville and has developed quickly as a playcaller. Saxon coached at the 2022 Senior Bowl and is growing his network, which should help position him for future jobs.
Antone' Sewell, Morgan State defensive coordinator/assistant head coach/safeties coach
Sewell is one of the more accomplished coordinators in the HBCU ranks. He made his biggest mark at Division II Bowie State, his alma mater, where he generated championship-level defenses that thrived with sacks and takeaways. Sewell was in demand for FCS roles, briefly going to Alabama State before Morgan State. Success there could put him on the FBS radar, although he's likely several years away.