Drew Brees Joins Purdue Football Staff, Potentially Addressing Coaching Racial Inequities

Drew Brees joins the Purdue football staff, potentially resolving racial inequities in college coaching.

Drew Brees spent two decades in the NFL after graduating from Purdue University in 2001. Brees led the New Orleans Saints to nine playoff appearances and three NFC championships during his 15-year tenure as quarterback. He was awarded MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, in which the Saints won their first championship. When he retired from the NFL in 2021, Brees set records for career touchdown passes, completions, yardage, and completion %.

Brees was named Interim Assistant Coach of the 8-5 Purdue Boilermakers football team just before their game against LSU in the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl. Brees is a white man. Ryan Walters, the University’s new head coach, a Black man, gladly welcomed Brees to the interim position on his staff. The athletics department website features a page dedicated to Brees. This hire had no effect on the ethnic diversity of Purdue’s coaching staff. It does, however, present a potentially reproducible solution to one of college football’s most perplexing diversity issues.

NCAA Demographics Database

According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 14% of head football coaches in 2022 were Black; this figure would be lower if Historically Black Colleges and Universities were excluded. Defensive Coordinators (24%) and Offensive Coordinators (11%), two usual paths to head coaching jobs, had better and worse black representation. Last year, black males and two black women held 34% of the other football assistant coaching positions at NCAA member schools.

Purdue is a member of the Big Ten, one of the five conferences known colloquially as ‘The Power Five.’ I provided numbers demonstrating that Black men comprised 55% of football teams across the 65 Power Five universities in a 2018 USC Race and Equity Center study report on Black student-athletes and racial disparities in college sports. Purdue had 56% Black scholarship student-athletes on its football team for the 2021 season. The team’s coaching staff had a significantly lower level of racial diversity.

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It’s a pity that while Black males make up a sizable proportion of college football players, they are vastly underrepresented among coaches at all levels. Former outstanding players like Brees should be considered for collegiate coaching positions. Almost 70% of NFL players are African-American. Why wouldn’t their alma maters and other colleges aggressively pursue more of them for full-time or interim coaching positions?

It’s important to understand that playing and teaching are not the same thing. However, it appears that an interim assistant position, such as the one Purdue has created for Drew Brees, might provide former NFL players with opportunities to demonstrate their coaching aptitude. Some will be significantly more talented than many current assistant coaches, but not everyone will be as decorated and accomplished as Drew Brees. Interim positions are typically low-stakes. More colleges and universities should look for talented former athletes of color.

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Brees was asked why he accepted the interim post and if he planned to coach at the collegiate level in an ESPN College GameDay interview hours before the Citrus Bowl. “First and foremost, I’m doing this for Purdue University because I adore my alma mater,” Drew Brees responded. “There was a transition period from the Big 10 championship game to prepping for this bowl game – our head coach goes, takes a lot of his staff – and instantly I thought, hey, we’ve got a bowl game to play, a bowl game to win, and these kids deserve the best opportunity and experience there.” Brees stated that this prompted him to contact the University and offer his support.

Thousands of Black men have excelled in collegiate football. Some of them made it to the NFL, where they also played admirably. It’s also possible that, like Brees, many of them like their undergraduate alma mater and would be thrilled to accept interim coaching positions there. Short-term assignments may persuade people to stay for longer-term opportunities. It may also provide them with possibilities to be noticed by other colleges and universities that have convinced themselves that their failure to hire Black coaches is due to a lack of pipeline.

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More colleges and universities should issue the “come check us out for a little while” invitation to former college and professional athletes like Brees. They simply need to be more deliberate in ensuring that such invites aren’t offered only to white men.

To be sure, the transitory onramp to college coaching isn’t just for football players. Athletic directors could, for example, seek out Black women who excelled as college basketball or track athletes. Before going on to have noteworthy careers in the WNBA or the Olympics. In addition to benefiting from their knowledge of the sport. And the star power that these retired athletes of color would bring is likely to excite prospective student-athletes. Who are being recruited to the institution, similar to the recruiting success that the University of Colorado is experiencing. As a result of Deion Sanders’ appointment as head football coach last month.