College football’s melting pot: race and discrimination

The trial of opportunity can come at a moment’s notice when it presents itself or sometimes it comes out of the blue. Those are the moments where some people have to succeed. However, in some instances, that chance may never come because those opportunities are reserved with a bias for others. 

That is what Dr. Kevin Simms is saying in his lawsuit against the University of Houston. 

Simms, CEO and founder of the African Americans Coaches Association (AACA), filed his lawsuit in 2019 against the university because he believes the school failed to notify any coaches of the schools’ open head coach position. After going 0–3 in bowl games and losing 70–14 against Army, Houston head football coach Major Applewhite was terminated on Dec. 30, 2018.

Three days later, the University of Houston announced the hiring of Dana Holgorsen on Jan. 2. Over the weekend during that time and before that day, nothing was posted about the head coaching by the school. According to Simms, by not letting coaches like himself know of the availability of the open placement, the university discriminated against African Americans and other hopefuls.

“We have coaches that would have applied for that job that are qualified division one head coaches if they knew about the posting,” said Simms, a former employee of the university. 

The lawsuit states that the University of Houston operated in violation of Texas Labor Code 21, which requires a job to be posted a minimum of two weeks. The lawsuit was filed Aug. 15 in Harris County District Court.

University of Houston quarterback Greg Ward (1) on the run against San Diego State University at the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline

“African-American candidates, including Dr. Kevin Simms were not afforded an opportunity to apply for the Head Football coaching position at the University of Houston. Clearly better qualified African-Americans candidates not only were unable to apply, interview or become the successful candidate. The job opening was not posted as required by law. Thus, prohibiting qualified African-Americans from being selected or considered for the position. Defendant, University of Houston violated Plaintiff’s rights under Texas Labor Code Chapter 21, et. seq,” part of the lawsuit reads.

The legal affidavit goes on to cite racial discrimination in this employment matter.

“University of Houston., violated Texas Labor Code and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act when it refused to because of his race, African American, allow Dr. Kevin Simms and other qualified  African  American candidates to apply, interview, and hire Dr. Kevin Simms,” the lawsuit states.

Simms is seeking damages totaling $20 million and benefits, the amount of the five-year contract Holgorsen signed with the school.

The lawsuit is looking at the damages for “loss wages, lost earning capacity, future pecuniary losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life.” Simms has requested a jury trial in his case. Damages even include “back pay and front pay and loss of all employment benefits.”

A University of Houston football cheerleader doing her thing at the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline
A University of Houston football cheerleader doing her thing at the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline

Simms also filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit adds, “the University of Houston continues to bypass African Americans in applying and being considered for the head football coach position as it does not adhere to the job posting and advertising requirements.”

Although Simms is advocating for Black coaches to get these jobs, he also is fighting for minority coaches to receive a fighting chance at netting these job opportunities. He believes that if schools follow coach searching rules, they will start to naturally see a bigger pool of diverse candidates for coaching positions.

“Because of this suit they will not just pick anybody and they will follow the law,” Simms said. “I’m not just advocating for Black coaches, I’m advocating that you’re just supposed to follow the law. If you follow the law, you’ll get the diversity you’ll need in society.” 

Usually, when a university or program is looking for someone to fill a high-paying coaching position, they will higher an outside search firm to assist in finding the right candidates to consider. Once there are about three candidates,  the president will then select who they feel is the correct person to be in charge. 

Simms also mentions it is unfair that the school used taxpayer dollars to hire and retain Holgorsen.  

“If we do not have any of these laws or statures, then we’ll be in trouble as a society,” Simms said.

One of the other participants in this whole situation is Tilman Fertitta, the University of Houston board of regents chairman and owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. In a Sports Illustrated article, it was reported that Holgorsen and Fertitta had a verbal agreement to terms for the position before the Cougars played in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22.

Applewhite had no idea this was going on while he was still in charge. The University of Houston released a statement to counter the complaint that Simms filed.

“The University of Houston believes this case is without merit and looks forward to its resolution,” the statement reads. 

The school has attempted to get the case dismissed with a 47-page document on how the lawsuit was null and void. That claim failed when the judge denied them this request. When Holgorsen was announced as the University of Houston’s new head football coach at a press conference, Simms was there. Simms questioned the university’s actions and motives behind the hiring.

“Why was (the position) not opened up so other minorities could apply?” Simms said.

Chris Pezman, the university’s athletic director, said the school did a thorough search until they decided on Holgorsen. 

“We interviewed a spectrum of candidates of all diversities,” Pezman said. “It was not just one person, one moment.”

Fertitta who was present at the conference then jumped into the conversation: “I can tell you this, at the University of Houston we have a colorblind process. If we decide to go after somebody, we go after them. I don’t care if they are white, black, Chinese or Indian.”

Holgorsen joined the University of Houston after spending eight years at West Virginia. He was the previous offensive coordinator at the university from 2008-09 under head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is African-American.

In his first season as head coach for the Cougars, Holgorsen went 4-8 and was paid $3.6 million. Currently, the team is 2-3 and his record at the school is 6-11.

Simms believes if that was any other coach in that position, they would have been removed as the head coach immediately. 

The University of Houston battling against San Diego State at 2016 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline
The University of Houston battling against San Diego State at 2016 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline

With 30 years of coaching experience, Simms thinks that if there was a job posting, coaches such as Ty Willingham or Eric Bieniemy could have lined up for the job. Bieniemy is the current offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Cheifs and works with Patrick Mahomes who was NFL MVP in 2019. 

At the college level, there are not many coaches of color, but there is an abundance of impact players who are Black playing for highly notable universities. 

“Victory will bring equity to the university,” Simms said. “There is no watchdog or parody that brings equity. The case will not be a failure because they broke the law.”

As the lawsuit continues, Simms is certain his case will make sure colleges or universities no longer take advantage of the coaching system and fix the racial disparity at the head football coach position.  

“This will stop racism in the choosing of coaches such as UH did,” Simms said. “If they get away with this, you’ll never see any Black head coaches because they don’t pick them.”

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