Playing catch-up: Iowa high schools and coaching diversity


Noah Rohlfing, [email protected], @noahrohlfing

Dowling Catholic High School football coach and athletic director Tom Wilson. Photo courtesy of Lifetouch Services.

Noah Rohlfing

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a three-part series about the diversity of coaches in the high school and collegiate ranks. The first part came out on Monday, April 9 and can be found here

Demographics and applicants.

Those are two key areas to look at when talking to high school coaches and administrators about the lack of minority high school coaches in Iowa.

It’s hard to find specific demographics of high school coaches in the state of Iowa (it’s not the capital of high school football like the state of Texas, which is also lacking in football coaches of color).

Iowa is, however, a state that still struggles with race issues, and that extends to minority representation in the coaching ranks. In fact, the state’s first African-American football coach was hired only 20 years ago when, in 1998, Keith Hanks was awarded the head job at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School. That opportunity led him to a job at class 4A Sioux City North, where he coached until 2009.

The first Iowa high school basketball coach of color to win a state title came 27 years ago in 1991, when Ames legend Wayne E. Clinton led the Little Cyclones to a class 3A title (you may know him as Fred Hoiberg’s high school coach).

Part of the issue is the reality of a high school coaching job in the state. Iowa, unlike Texas, Florida, Georgia, California and other states known as “football factories,” doesn’t produce much in the way of Division I talent on a yearly basis (although in 2017 the state of Iowa produced over 30 Division I commitments). Combined with other factors, that means that there simply isn’t the same amount of funding for schools in Iowa as opposed to the previously mentioned states.

Many high school coaches in Iowa also teach in some capacity at their schools, as the salary from being a coach is on its own not enough. Assistant coaches, even at class 4A metro high schools, sometimes only make around $3,000-5,000 per year for their work with their teams.

Tom Wilson has been a head coach for over 20 years, and he is now in his 14th year at Dowling Catholic High School as the school’s athletic administrator as well.

He says that in all his years of coaching in the state of Iowa, he’s only come across three head coaches who were African-American.

“I never thought about the reasons for that,” Wilson said.

Iowa City High School athletic director Terry Coleman said that while demographics don’t necessarily preclude someone from taking a job in high school coaching, the lack of diverse applicants can have a big impact on diversity numbers. He specifically mentioned potential coaches that have looked to move to Iowa from different states.

“It would be naive to say that doesn’t have some impact on people when they decide where they want to start their professional careers,” Coleman said.

Stability can also limit opportunities. In many Iowa high schools, coaches can hold their positions for 20-plus years, leaving few spots left for up-and-coming coaches to break the “glass ceiling” and get a head coaching job of their own.

Both Wilson and Coleman get at a larger issue as to why that is: the teaching profession. In Iowa, it is almost paramount that head coaches work in the school as a faculty member. For many people looking into high school coaching that aren’t associated with the teaching profession, that can become a huge stumbling block.

According to Wilson, even assistant coaching jobs, specifically in football, have more often than not become a year-round commitment. When coaches aren’t in the building as faculty, the possibility that a coach comes from out of state to take an assistant job in Iowa is very slim.

“That’s not what pays the bills,” Wilson said.

Due to those stumbling blocks and other less-known issues, often times there aren’t many diverse applicants for jobs, assistant or head coaching.

Coleman said that, while concerning, it’s not really a surprise.

“There just aren’t very many applicants overall,” Coleman said.

Funding issues can limit the candidate pool as well at some schools. Coleman mentioned that unlike the Iowa City High School Board, his athletic department doesn’t possess the resources needed to properly go out and find coaches from diverse backgrounds. According to Coleman, that’s “just the nature of high school athletics.”

When diversity does show up in Iowa high school athletics, it’s usually at the assistant level. Wilson has four African-American coaches on his staff, including former Waterloo Columbus Catholic head coach and athletic director Aundra Meeks. Meeks had a storied career at the class 2A school, becoming the first African-American coach in Iowa high school history to win a state championship in football (he won in 2004).

After a restructuring of the position, Meeks joined up with Wilson and has been able to connect with an ever-diversifying Des Moines community.

Meeks said that where the jobs open up can have an impact on who applies. More rural areas are not as likely to have a candidate of color as in the Des Moines metro. He mentioned that there’s a balance to prioritizing diversity “and searching, first of all, for the best candidate.”

“I think there’s some good ones out there, and some good ones still to come,” Meeks said.

At Dowling, Wilson said that the school’s minority population has risen to 26 percent over the years, and when adding new coaches to his staff he wanted coaches that could relate to the players and student body. He made it clear that he felt they were the most qualified candidates and hired them not simply because of their race.

Wilson thought it would be silly not to make an effort to diversify, and that there were no shortage of qualified assistants out there.

He also mentions that, as many college programs attempt to diversify their assistant coaching staffs, that begins to “trickle down” into high schools across the state.

“When those times change, we have to change,” Wilson said. “I would be lying to you if that doesn’t play a role.”

When asked if other Des Moines high schools adding diverse coaches could become a trend as Des Moines itself becomes a more diverse community (although the state as a whole is lagging behind), Wilson was very frank.

“It had better.”