by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
Every once in a while, there’s some good news that comes out of such a devastating, tragic, once-in-a-century pandemic.
Cliff Simon, the head coach and athletic director at Imani Christian Academy in East Hills, said it himself in prayer, surrounded by his fellow African American high school head football coaches that are becoming ever-present in Western Pennsylvania.
With his head bowed, Simon gave all glory to God, as he had previously asked Him “to help us (Black coaches) through games, this season of 2020 where we were traveling unchartered waters, going through things that were not normal, Heavenly Father. But you were there to guide us, to lead us to the other side. We ask that you continue to lead us.”
CLIFF SIMON, left, head football coach and athletic director at Imani Christian Academy, with Bishop Canevin High School head coach Richard Johnson. (Photos by Courier photographer Rob Taylor Jr.)
From Westinghouse head coach Donta Green, to Clairton head coach Wayne Wade, to newly minted Brashear head coach Andrew Moore and nearly a dozen more in between, there’s a new organization that’s been formed in the region—the Pittsburgh Black Coaches Association.
With the coronavirus pandemic throwing sports off-schedule across the country, it was no different for the coveted high school football in Western Pa. Its teams had to deal with wearing masks at practice, or practices being canceled. Some players were ineligible to play due to COVID. Fans were, for the most part, not allowed in the stands. Regular season games were canceled sometimes just hours before kickoff.
Last fall, Simon found himself in a group text with other Black head coaches, wishing each other well prior to games and keeping each other in a positive mindset through the trying times.
When the football season ended, the talks between the Black head coaches continued. Eventually, the decision was made to form an official group, a unification of Black men who oftentimes, truth be told, are coaching against each other.
“God wanted it to happen, and he started putting things into place, if you ask me,” Simon told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.
By February 2021, the group had elected its officers. Things were in motion.
THE MEMBERS OF THE NEW PITTSBURGH BLACK COACHES ASSOCIATION—Front row: Donta Green, Westinghouse; Cliff Simon, Imani Christian Academy; Stacy Robinson, Union High School; Lou Berry, Obama; Cedric Lloyd, Clairton; Ed Dawson, Cornell. Back row: Mike Warfield, Aliquippa; Wade Brown, Monessen; Andrew Moore, Brashear; Wayne Wade, Clairton; Jose Rejus, Serra High School; Richard Johnson, Bishop Canevin. Not pictured: Leroi Johnson, Sto-Rox; Mike Fulmore, Northgate. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)
This past Saturday, April 24, the group finished its fourth in-person monthly meeting, held in Homewood. The Pittsburgh Black Coaches Association sometimes invites outside entities into its meetings to discuss possible community collaborations or summer camp opportunities. But then the meetings turn to supporting each member, making sure all student-athletes are receiving the best lessons on and off the field, and an overall message to each other that “teamwork makes the dream work.”
The Courier was invited to the Pittsburgh Black Coaches Association’s meeting, held March 27.
Coaches expressed that they each face “unique opportunities” because they were Black. They didn’t say definitely whether being Black was an advantage or disadvantage when applying for head football coaching positions in the overwhelmingly-White Pittsburgh region, but they agreed that if “you give us a level playing field, we feel like we can more than hold our own.”
The meetings give the coaches a chance to vent, to praise, to learn about other Black up-and-comers in the football coaching profession; maybe a former player who wants to join a team as a volunteer or assistant coach. Those opportunities can lead to head coaching positions in the future, and it’s the already-established Black head coaches that can provide that pipeline.
WAYNE WADE, left, longtime head coach of the Clairton Bears, with Cornell head coach Ed Dawson.
“There’s a lot that goes on in our communities and we’re in the position to really help our communities,” said Wade, who’s been head coach of the Clairton Bears since 2007. He said the collaboration gives the coaches a chance to discuss post-high school opportunities that could benefit many of their players. Those opportunities could be football-related, or maybe at a trade school, or the military.
“It’s just as important to be a father figure” to many of their student-athletes, added Aliquippa High School head coach Mike Warfield. “We’re coaches, but most of us in our community and the teams that we coach, we have to be moreso coaches off the field than we do on the field.”
Warfield’s assessment has been well-documented throughout the country. Black coaches are often who many well-known star athletes said they looked up to as a mentor, a person whom they could always depend on to steer them in the right direction. But across the country, one may be surprised to find so few organizations that unite African American coaches who lead high school football programs. In Houston, the African American Coaches Association was formed in 2018 by Dr. Kevin Simms. It’s largely made up of Black coaches from the Houston area (high schools), but has a few collegiate coaches involved.
LAROI JOHNSON, head coach at Sto-Rox High School.
In November 2020, it was announced that the Philadelphia Black Coaches Association was being formed. It’s a collective of 13 Black coaches from the Public and Catholic leagues, which “aims to make Philadelphia a must-stop destination for college recruiters, mentor young Black coaches, and ultimately create more role models for players of every race, color, and creed,” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report.
In the Inquirer report, Black head coaches in the Philadelphia area felt there had been a longstanding “crabs-in-the-barrel” mentality, where Black coaches were being “pulled down” by other coaches or forces, not allowing some coaches to ascend to higher levels or acquire higher-caliber talent, which could ultimately result in a more prominent football program.
“We have to get rid of that crab mentality that, ‘If you’re making it out, I’m going to pull you down so that I can make it out,’” said Central High football coach Rich Drayton, in the Inquirer story.
That type of mentality is not in the Pittsburgh Black Coaches Association’s vocabulary, the coaches told the Courier. Wade said that once he saw more African Americans getting head coaching positions in the Pittsburgh area, it was just another reason to make the organization a reality, a formality.
“Sometimes, competition creates dissension,” said Warfield. “The thing that I was looking for (in joining the Pittsburgh Black Coaches Association) was being able to collaborate with guys who look like me who are dealing with the same situations and problems that I deal with.”
And Wade added that by the Black coaches uniting, it hopefully will show their players that “when they go to each other’s communities outside of football, there’s still unity. We’re setting the example.”
During the March meeting of the coaches, Warfield was adamant about his fellow coaches never losing focus of the student-athletes who may not have those Division 1, 2 or even Division 3 college football offers. “We have more of those kids than anyone else,” he said. As long as those students can graduate to being productive citizens in society after high school football, “I think we’re successful,” he added.
At the March meeting, the group gave a collective congratulations to Moore, who was named head coach at Brashear, a City League school, on Jan. 26. He helped Brashear win a City League title as a junior in 2007, graduated the next year, then played the center position at Clarion University from 2008 to 2012. He spent four years as an assistant coach at Summit Academy, and had coaching stints at Hopewell, Carrick and Baldwin.
“Football is a game that I love,” Moore told the Courier, “and I’ve had people give back to me and help me through tough times. So, once my playing career was done…I couldn’t get away from the game. But then also having my creative mind, (coaching) helps me give back to the youth and create opportunities for them, to keep the cycle going of positivity.”