How one Black coach is building a pipeline to bypass football’s biases

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Michigan State University head football coach Mel Tucker at the first day of practice in East Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 4, 2022.

Mel Tucker just sat down, and he already sees something he doesn’t like.

It’s August, and a new season is on the horizon. In the Michigan State University football office, staffers greet each other with cheery salutes of “Happy first practice!” But Tucker, the head coach, is stoic as he eyes the spliced-up practice film playing on the big screen, which illuminates the otherwise dark room.

The potato salad and green smoothie in front of him go ignored. Tupac Shakur plays faintly in the background. Tucker’s eyes are locked not on a missed block or tackle but on a small white towel hanging from the back of a linebacker’s pants. In here, coaches call that “flair” – any adornment that juices up the uniform. Tucker considers armbands, compression sleeves and even towels flair. And he hates flair.

He strives to keep it off his practice fields, but he must’ve missed the towel during that morning’s practice, which is surprising because he seems to notice everything else. One player was abnormally quiet all day; another came off the field upset. Tucker let them be, not wanting to jump to conclusions. Now, though, in this darkened room, he shares what he observed. And he calls out the towel.

“Can’t take your eyes off that dude,” he seethes.

It’s an attention to detail that’s common, even cliche, among football coaches. But there’s more to it for Tucker, a Black coach intent on building not just a program but a pipeline.

As he denounces flair, seven of the coaches in the room are Black and five are White. This is intentional. Tucker knows as well as anyone that the path to becoming a head coach, in college or the NFL, typically starts in these rooms. In 1997, he was the young Black graduate assistant on Nick Saban’s Michigan State staff. Eventually, he became an interim head coach in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2011 season, a mirage of an opportunity that came as the league appeared on the cusp of progress with 10 Black men at the top.

But just four years after getting his one shot, Tucker was out of the NFL and back in college. Before the shortened covid season of 2020, he was named Michigan State’s head coach. The next year, the team went 11-2 and won the Peach Bowl. The school rewarded Tucker with a 10-year, $95 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid Black coach in any U.S. sport, college or pros.

This season, his Spartans (5-6) are struggling, and an ugly brawl in the stadium tunnel at the University of Michigan last month led Tucker to suspend eight players. With every loss and all the bad PR, his historic, guaranteed contract comes under greater scrutiny.

Still, Tucker has lofty aspirations for his program, with visions of five-star recruits and national titles. But perhaps no goal is loftier than Tucker’s desire to prepare young, Black assistants to enter the coaching ranks of top-tier college football and the NFL, where racial inequity still festers almost 20 years after the league implemented the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview candidates of color.

Tucker employs 17 Black people as assistants, trainers or support staffers at Michigan State. He calls them his “shorties.” He’s their “OG.”

“I tell some of [my friends] this is probably more Black people than any other staff, other than HBCUs,” says Brandon “BT” Jordan, a Michigan State assistant who works with the team’s pass rushers. “I’ve got OGs to help me along the road and give me stories on how they started, obstacles they had.”

When Jordan gained a reputation as just a trainer – someone all-pro NFL pass rushers sought out for offseason workouts as he held down a maintenance job for a New Orleans apartment complex – Tucker created a position for him.

After Gerren DuHart, a former bartender, spent two seasons at a Division II school in Detroit coaching defensive backs, Tucker gave him a graduate assistant job, which essentially works like a scholarship. At 30, “this DuHart kid,” as Tucker calls him, also gets hands-on training, working directly under Tucker with the Spartans’ secondary.

Inside the coaches’ room, a new scene plays on the projection screen. In it, all of Tucker’s assistants are watching as the offense runs its play. But once the play, a handoff to the running back, is in motion, they take off running after the ball, just as Tucker demands of his staff during high-intensity practices.

“Who’s that chasing the ball?” Tucker asks the room.

It’s the coach with the long dreadlocks hanging beneath his hat.

“Is that DuHart?” Tucker asks.

Tucker knows the young Black men in this room have a lot to learn before taking the next step. And the lessons aren’t always on the field. For instance: Why won’t DuHart cut his hair? There has never been a Black head coach in the NFL with dreadlocks, Tucker points out.

But he likes what he sees on the screen, DuHart not just running behind the play but flying, which Tucker has been imploring him to do. He needs DuHart to know a Black man in this business has to do more, go harder, be better. This expectation is not always fair, but it’s the truth as Tucker has experienced it.

The play rewinds and replays again and again, and there’s DuHart in an endless loop, exploding out of the backfield – the Black man with long dreadlocks running, running, running. Tucker pauses for a beat, then mumbles.

“About time.”

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton.
Michigan State University head football coach Mel Tucker, right, in his office in East Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 3, 2022, with Darien Harris, left, director of player relations and program advancement, and Saeed Khalif, center, the team’s general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting.

The landscaping that decorates the Michigan State University sign outside of the football complex is so impeccable that they call it “Spartan National,” after golf’s Augusta. It wasn’t always that way: When Tucker got here, he thought the area looked like a “goat ranch.” He requested more flowers and plants around the sign, offering a more beautiful backdrop when graduates and their parents take photos.

Appearances matter. Tucker learned that as a young boy growing up in Cleveland, where he toured residential buildings with his father, Melvin Sr., a property manager, inspecting every detail from the curb appeal to the laundry room.

He also followed his father into football. Melvin Sr. was an all-conference player at the University of Toledo; Mel played defensive back at Wisconsin before a brief stint in the Canadian Football League.

When he joined Saban’s staff as a 25-year-old, Tucker was still thinking about the little things. He removed the stud from his left earlobe and said “yes, sir” to every ask: filling the ink in the printer, picking up a coach’s daughter from school, shoveling another coach’s driveway after a snowstorm.

“Watching him in that role as a graduate assistant,” recalls Bobby Williams, who was a coach for 13 seasons at Michigan State, “. . . as a position coach, you say, ‘This guy is very organized.’ “

When Saban promoted Tucker to an on-field position, Williams pulled the young graduate assistant into his office.

“Don’t screw this up,” Tucker recalls Williams telling him.

The message – simple words from his OG – still echoes in Tucker’s head. Everything about him, from his work ethic to his appearance, had to be on point. He had to say yes to the most menial of tasks. And even today, he insists on projecting a polished look. A fight in a stadium tunnel damages that image. In Tucker’s eyes, the same goes for shoddy landscaping outside the complex.

“It’s hard to get buy-in with people when there’s a lack of organization,” he says. “That’s almost like not knowing what you’re doing.”

Pressure to perform comes for anyone with that salary. But when a White coach signs a hefty contract and fails, the school buys him out and the world moves on. The path for a Black coach is more complicated.

“I think any minority coach understands that they carry the weight of not just the job itself, but you also carry the weight of your brothers who have aspirations of becoming head coaches,” says Hue Jackson, the former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders coach who now leads Grambling State University. “If you do great, there’s a great opportunity that is going to move forward. And if you don’t, there’s a great opportunity you’re going to move things way back.”

Tucker knows this, and he knows his job is as much chief marketing officer as it is coach. A day before practice, he studies a mock-up of the new murals to be displayed outside Spartan Stadium. Later, he retreats to his office with Saeed Khalif, the team’s general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting, and younger brother Jordan, whom he hired to run his social media accounts.

But even these efforts are more complicated for a Black coach. Tucker is embracing his brother’s efforts, even agreeing to appear in TikTok videos. But trend dances do not fit the Mel Tucker brand. He can’t be the $95 million Black coach dancing. Appearances matter.

“You’re never going to see me dancing on TikTok,” he says. “I see a commercial and there’s like five people in the commercial and anytime they show the Black person, he’s dancing – every single time. Somebody else will be like driving a car, pushing a stroller – and then there’s the Black guy doing the Running Man.”

Jordan and Khalif laugh. Tucker doesn’t.

“When’s it going to stop, bro?”

In the coaches’ room, every seat at the table is filled by more veteran coaches, so Brandon “BT” Jordan, the janitor-turned-pass-rush-specialist coach, sits directly behind Tucker’s right shoulder. At the head of the table, defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton swivels his chair toward Jordan and asks about a lineman’s technique.

“He’s reaching,” Jordan says, pointing out how the pass rusher should be using his feet, not his hands, to beat his blocker.

“How’s that one, BT?” Hazelton asks later.

“That looked good. Put the inside move on him,” Jordan responds.

A native of New Orleans, Jordan played offensive tackle at a Division II college in rural Missouri. After graduation, he tried playing overseas and attended camp for an Arena Football League team in his hometown. Then he settled into coaching. Though he had only played offensive line, he was tapped as the defensive line coach at Austin Peay.

In 2015, the entire staff was fired. Jordan returned to New Orleans and spent day after day emailing college coaches about potential openings. Football coaching is a network often fueled by nepotism and cronyism. Whom you know – and often whom you are related to – has helped countless White men land jobs in the NFL and in the college game. But Jordan had neither a famous last name nor a plugged-in mentor. He tried extending his network, and during his first few years out of work, he estimated that he reached out to more than 1,000 coaches at Division I, II and III schools. His emails went unanswered, and Jordan went on unemployment.

To stay in the game, he volunteered at a high school on New Orleans’s West Bank. He also went around the neighborhood making his pitch to kids: If they want to work out, they could find him at the park around the corner.

Jordan started with one player, who told his friends they needed to come to the park as well. The group kept growing, and one of Jordan’s friends said he needed to do a better job of promoting himself. So he began to post the workouts on social media with the title “Brandon Jordan Training.” The new kids would come to know him as “BT.”

Jordan never charged the kids he trained. Though he had little money, he would buy them pizza so they could take dinner home to their families. He knew the children of the West Bank were just like him – they just needed a chance.

“Lot of times, I almost gave up. I was just doing this for free to clear my mind,” he recalls. “I helped them out, but they were helping me out, too. Because it got me out of the mind-set of, you know, [being] a failure.”

College players in the area noticed Jordan’s posts and asked for their own free workouts. A high school trainer in Houston wanted Jordan to work with kids at his facility, then a trainer in Dallas reached out, too – this time offering pay.

Soon he heard from an NFL player, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, who was with the New York Giants at the time. More players sought him out: all-pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, all-pro linebacker Von Miller, recent draft picks, the entire Dallas Cowboys defensive line. In total, Jordan has trained more than 200 NFL players. He was getting paid, too, but once he finished training players in the offseason, Jordan would return to New Orleans and his day job.

“I used to be picking up trash, working with some of the best pass rushers in the NFL, and I’m like: ‘Man, how is nobody [hiring me]? Am I doing something wrong? What am I doing wrong? Do I need to change the way I act?’ ” Jordan says. “Other races will go and hire their families, [even though] their families never coached football, never played football. But a Black guy – you’ll never see that situation happen. Somebody will just get [them] from the street and pull [them] up. You got to go through the process. So it’s hard out here for us.”

The result is an inequity that exists at every level of the sport, including at its pinnacle. Nearly 60 percent of NFL players are Black. But over the past 32 years, only 20 Black men have held full-time head coaching jobs, compared with 154 White men. Black men are similarly underrepresented in top assistant jobs.

College football, where many NFL coaches start, is no different. In 2021, across Division I but excluding historically Black colleges and universities, 44 percent of the players were Black. But just 8 percent of head coaches were Black – and 87 percent were White, according to the NCAA Demographics Database.

When he played Division II football, Jordan did not have a Black position coach, let alone a Black head coach. He remembers the exhaustion of feeling misunderstood while in rural Missouri. He’s a big, Black man, and since he’s not someone who smiles all the time, he had to be aware of his facial expressions and tone to not appear angry.

“People not knowing, not understanding you is a big thing,” Jordan says, “because it makes you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, but it’s not wrong.”

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Michigan State University graduate assistant Gerren DuHart works with defensive backs during practice in East Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 4, 2022.

Gerren DuHart says he has mostly worked for Black coaches, so he has never had to worry about talking too loudly or looking too angry. And no one blinked when he came to work with dreadlocks down to his waist.

He started growing his hair after his final high school football season. He soon would continue his career at Wayne State University, and he thought the tiny twists would look good hanging out of his helmet – his version of flair.

Over time, he kept growing them – when he coached defensive backs at his high school alma mater, when he left behind coaching and moved to Miami, when he worked as a bartender at Dave & Buster’s, when he came home to Ohio after the death of his father. His hair grew longer and longer and became part of his identity.

Last year, DuHart was coaching at Wayne State when Hazelton, the Spartans’ defensive coordinator, reached out to his network seeking recommendations for a graduate assistant – a low-paying, entry-level job known for fueling nepotism in coaching. DuHart got the job. The first day, he met with Tucker, and for more than 45 minutes he listened as the head coach laid out his journey, everything he had to do to get here.

Tucker asked DuHart about his career goals; DuHart wants to be a head coach one day. To get there, Tucker told him what he had to do. Every good college coach must be a master recruiter, Tucker said. And there was one other thing: his hair. As Tucker sees it, there’s always one more thing for a Black coach with aspirations.

For Washington Commanders secondary coach Chris Harris, his earrings were that one more thing. In 2012, he played his final season as a defensive back in the NFL. Tucker, who recently had been passed over for the top job with the Browns and the Jaguars, was his coordinator.

After Harris retired, Tucker, then the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator, hired him as a quality control coach. Before a game in Minneapolis, Tucker pulled Harris to the side – the same way Williams had huddled with him back in the late 1990s, an OG sharing a hard truth with his shorty.

“I will never forget, and I thank Mel for this,” Harris says. “I really respect Mel. He says: ‘Chris, come here. Look around.’ So I look around. He said: ‘Look at all the Black coaches around here. Do you see any of them with earrings in their ear?’ “

To mute his personal expression, even in a slight way – Harris viewed that as a necessary sacrifice. He has never worn earrings since. It’s a discomfort experienced by people of color across corporate America: to be yourself and present a professional look – but one that conforms to White standards. To be Black but not too Black.

Harris was 30 when he entered coaching, the same age DuHart is now. He knew he had to work hard and stand out to move up. Still, Harris didn’t know all that his dreams and aspirations in coaching would demand from him. He hadn’t heard the talk.

“[Tucker and I] would talk about everything – how to move and navigate this system that is coaching,” Harris says. “Understand the dos and the don’ts. The things that you can’t get away with. ‘I don’t care if somebody else is doing it; you can’t get away with this. You can’t do this.’ We had those types of conversations the two years we were together. I’m forever grateful for that.”

DuHart knows he can be the recruiter Tucker says he needs to be to climb the coaching ranks. He has an easy charm and a quick wit that will go over well in five-star recruits’ living rooms.

But while Harris removed his earrings, DuHart has refused to cut his dreads. He believes he’s just as professional as an assistant who sports a buzz cut. He says when peers look at him, they don’t see a threatening Black man. They see a football coach. So he doesn’t feel the need to conform.

Appearances may matter. But, he says, so does authenticity.

“I’ve always told myself when I was completely done playing football that I was going to let it go, start new and start fresh. But I’ve always loved my hair, so I kept it,” DuHart says. “They just represent – just me. It’s a part of me. It’s a part of my expression. It’s a part of my professionalism. I think it represents the whole package of who I am.”

After Tucker’s dig about DuHart finally showing some hustle on film, some of the other assistants burst into laughter, responding in a way that makes it clear DuHart’s foot speed is a long-running joke in this room.

“He’s got you on that one, G!” Hazelton says.

DuHart remains quiet, eyes fixed on the big screen, then looks down at his phone.

Years ago, when Tucker was the young, silent one in the room while also working as the after-school chauffeur and driveway shoveler, he learned what it took to be a head coach. He was a shorty to Williams but also to Charlie Baggett and Marvin Lewis, the older Black coaches who showed him the way – and told him the truth.

“See, here’s the problem with some of these young guys – they look at me and they think, like, I just popped up here,” Tucker says. “When I started . . . I learned from Marvin. I didn’t know what they had gone through.”

Tucker’s eyes stay on the film, never shifting toward DuHart. But catching something that seems as inconsequential as an assistant coach running behind the play matters to him. It means DuHart is growing.

The film session continues for more than an hour. When the lights come back on, Tucker is rubbing his eyes. He grabs his second energy drink before 2 p.m.; the long first day of practice is not over.

“DuHart, let me holla at you real quick,” Tucker says while heading into his office.

DuHart walks in and knows to sit at the empty chair next to Tucker’s desk. Tucker tells DuHart what he wants cued up on the film they’ll show the defensive backs. But he also wants DuHart’s opinion about what he saw on the field that day. DuHart leans in close, his dreadlocks hanging low. His OG listens.