OXON HILL, Md. – Camera lighting made beads of sweat emerge from Tony Elliott’s forehead as he fielded questions ranging from football philosophy to something he could share about his private life.
The Clemson co-offensive coordinator paused, smiled and couldn’t hide his joy about riding an all-terrain vehicle through the woods. The walls broke down as Elliott made a human connection with mock interviewer Jon Oliver in the best possible preparation he can get for a head coaching job.
Despite helping the Tigers win a national title, Elliott has never interviewed for a head coaching job.
“Two phone calls,” Elliott said.
College football as a public entity can’t institute a Rooney Rule like the NFL, which compels teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs. So instead of focusing all its efforts on the schools, the NCAA is putting some of its rising coaching candidates through its Champion Forum to better prepare them for the interview process.
It is an effort to increase the diversity in the Power Five conferences and across the country.
“You can’t shame people into hiring people,” said Oliver, a former University of Virginia athletics administrator who now works with the Champion Forum. “You can’t tell (schools) what they need to be doing. But what we can do is make sure (the candidates) are ready.”
Minorities make up only 19 percent of Division I head football coaches and less across the Power Five conferences: the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12. In contrast, 61 percent of Division I players are minorities.
The Champion Forum has helped Penn State’s James Franklin, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Stanford’s David Shaw, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin and others get head jobs, with the aim of pushing along the next generation.
Elliott, Michigan assistant head coach Pep Hamilton, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, South Carolina offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper are all part of the latest class. Picked by their conferences and schools to go through the program, they’re all in Phase 2, which includes one-on-one mock interviews, conversations with search firms and information about contracts and what to expect from being a head coach.
“It’s just the knowledge of what goes into becoming a head coach, what (athletic directors) look for, what search firms look for,” said Jasper, who has been a candidate for jobs at Georgia Southern, Yale and Rice during his time at Navy. “Having those tools in our toolbox now and know what people look for, now we can address those issues and work on getting better at it.”
Jasper and Elliott had back-to-back mock interviews with their wives seated a few feet away. Oliver played the role of the interviewer for a job at a fictional Atlantic University in Florida, firing questions at each coach about a head job and asking if they had any questions of their own.
Afterward, Oliver critiqued them on everything from how fast they were talking to what they shouldn’t have said. Oliver has seen coaches go from not being able to finish answers to having a better idea of what to expect the next time the phone rings about an opening.
“Had I not gone through this process, I wouldn’t know what I was getting into,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t have been encouraged to go prepare in the areas where I needed to prepare to ultimately be successful. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just becoming a head coach. It’s being a successful head coach and building a successful program.”
The success of coaches like Franklin helps because Oliver is well aware that minority coaches who don’t succeed are less likely to get a second chance. In his eight years running the Champion Forum, director of NCAA leadership development Curtis Hollomon has seen progress with more minority coaches being in the mix for openings.
“What we’ve seen is the awareness of these coaches,” Hollomon said. “That’s one of the main things that we’re trying to do: let them know that these coaches are out there, they’re in these positions and they’re ready when the opportunities present themselves.”
The program includes two steps of interview training, video clips to show strengths and weaknesses, and an in-person follow-up by former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly and other officials. This year, the NCAA invited the coordinators’ wives to sit in on the program and welcomed their input.
“It made me realize how much he has grown,” said Elliott’s wife, Tameka. “Just watching him grow and seeing his transition and seeing how he has to interact with more people than he was used to interacting with – not just the player and the family. Now you’ve got the AD and fundraisers, stuff like that.”
Jasper learned from his Rice interview to have questions prepared, and Oliver told Elliott not to broach a topic but to expect it to be brought up by the interviewer. Recognizing they’re getting plenty of help from the process, coaches also understand they have to do their homework and earn the jobs they’re being prepared for.
“It’s a great initiative in what they’re doing in giving guys an opportunity to just be considered,” Elliott said. “And then from there, we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to go get the job, we’ve got to be the best person for the job and then when we get the job we’ve got to be successful.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.