Carrying the Torch: YCS's Brian Marrow

YCS’s Brian Marrow is the Valley’s only black head football coach.


Vindicator sports staff

Brian Marrow has spent most of his life around football, but he’s never wanted to be a head football coach.

This is a problem for two reasons:

- People keep asking him to coach their football teams.

- He’s really, really bad at saying no.

It started more than a decade ago with his church pee-wee team, the New Bethel Braves, and continued five years ago when Woodrow Wilson High School’s principal talked him into coaching the Redmen for the program’s final three years.

Marrow resisted — being a head coach is a huge time commitment and being Wilson’s football coach was the least sought-after job in the Mahoning Valley — but he finally acquiesced. He went 3-27 over three years while helping the team become more disciplined and competitive.

Once Wilson folded, Marrow figured his head coaching days were over. He signed on to be an assistant coach at Cardinal Mooney, which would allow him to stay around the game while easing his time commitment. Marrow already had a full-time job as a methods engineer at DDi Ohio in North Jackson.

Then, in 2007, just before heading to Florida on vacation, Marrow got a call from Youngstown Christian School principal Mike Pecchia. Eddy Witham, YCS’s only coach since the program started in 2002, was leaving and the Eagles needed a coach. Pecchia wanted Marrow.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Aren’t you going to open it up to other coaches?’” Marrow said. “But I had attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes and we’d gone over this book on spiritual leadership. It hit me after I finished the book that God kept placing me in leadership roles and I’d either turn them down or run away.

“So I prayed about it with my wife and I said, ‘This is what I should be doing.’”

Just like that, the Valley’s only black head football coach had found another job.

Lack of diversity hits all levels

In November 2008, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida released a study reporting the number of black head coaches in major college football had dropped to its lowest total in 15 years. Of the 119 universities in the bowl subdivision, just four head coaches were black.

The NFL is better, with six black head coaches for 32 teams.

But since Mike McClendon left Wilson after the 1997 season, there’s been just one black head football coach in the Valley: Marrow.

Boys basketball isn’t much better. The Valley had just two last season — Ursuline’s Keith Gunther and Harding’s Steve Arnold — and will add a third this winter, Liberty’s Marlon McGaughy.

Besides their race, the four men have something else in common — they aren’t high school teachers.

According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, only 30 percent of coaches statewide are teachers. But that figure includes assistants; the percentage is much higher for head coaches, particularly in high-profile sports such as football that can draw dozens of r sum s.

“If every district had their way, their coaches would be 90 percent or 100 percent teachers,” said Harding athletic director Paul Trina. “They are trained to teach young people, and they understand the importance of balancing athletics and education.

“When we interview someone, we’re looking at the quality of the applicant and not at the color of his skin,” Trina said. “But I think the first place the district looks a lot of times is in the building. Especially when it’s the head coach.”

The Ohio Revised Code R.C. 3313.53 (D) mandates that a teacher in the school system has the right to the job before any candidate outside the system.

So, if two equally qualified candidates apply for a job, a teacher who works in the school district will almost always get the position. Private schools seem to be more likely to hire outside the system but in-house candidates still have the inside track.

And therein lies the problem — there aren’t enough black teachers.

According to a recent story in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, only 2 percent of the nation’s 4.8 million teachers are black men. The percentage is slightly higher for black women, but studies show that 80 percent of educators are white.

Youngstown City School District has a total of 438 teachers. Of that number, 41 are black (34 women and only seven men).

It’s not just Youngstown’s problem, either. In Cleveland, 35 percent of district students are black males but only 6 percent of teachers are black men; 48 percent are white females.

It’s hard to pinpoint why there aren’t more black male teachers — speculation ranges from lack of opportunity to low pay to low graduation rates to the scarcity of examples in the profession — but until it changes, increased coaching diversity will continue to be a problem.

Race secondary on East staff

Brian Shaner has been a head football coach, first at Rayen then at East, since 2003. He also teaches at East, a high school that is 80 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 7 percent white. (Chaney, the district’s other high school, is 67 percent black and 26 percent white.)

Three of Shaner’s six assistants are black: Gary Thornton (offensive coordinator), Adrian Brown (RB/LB) and Dana Friendly (assistant OL/DL and assistant freshman coach). That’s about average; Youngstown athletics administrator Ed Matey estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of the city’s coaches are minorities.

But, Shaner said, race had nothing to do with their hiring.

“In our program, I never preach color,” said Shaner, who is white. “When we pick up someone like Adrian, it isn’t because he’s black. We’re looking for guys who have a football background and who aren’t just looking to coach, but also be role models.

“Coaching here, you’re not just leaving when practice is done. You spend a lot of time with guys on the side dealing with situations in life. Sometimes you have to be a dad or an uncle. I think that’s a big reason why I’m at East.”

Although Shaner has given the program both stability and success — he’s 34-27 at the two schools — having a diverse staff can be helpful, Thornton said.

“He relates really well to the kids, but there are some things I can do that he can’t do,” said Thornton, a South High graduate whose son played for Shaner at Rayen and East. “That’s just how it is. If he were to go out to Poland, he could get to some kids that I couldn’t. It’s just a cultural issue and a trust factor.

“I live in the same place they live. I come from the city myself, so they know I’m telling them no jive.”

Thornton, who works as an educational assistant at East, is among the area’s black assistants who may target a head coaching job. He started as a volunteer at South High in 1991, then moved on to Wilson, East, Rayen, Eagle Heights Academy, Kennedy Catholic, back to Rayen and now East. He’s been an offensive and defensive coordinator, so he’s plenty qualified.

“This is my 18th year, so I’ve put in my time,” said Thornton. “But there just aren’t many opportunities.”

One potential roadblock is his teaching position. The school district considers him an hourly employee, which may prevent him from getting a head coaching job since hourly employees must be paid overtime. But Thornton believes he could make an impact, even at a struggling program.

“You look at what Ted Ginn [Sr.] did at Cleveland Glenville,” he said. “He took a struggling Glenville program and turned it around. And if you look at his situation versus our situation [in Youngstown], I’ll take our situation anytime.

“I believe God will bless me with something.”

Coaching more than Xs and Os

Chris Amill is the only black varsity assistant coach at Cardinal Mooney, a school that is 83 percent white and 13 percent black.

Amill, an all-conference receiver with the Cardinals in 1993, played with head coach P.J. Fecko in high school and is starting his sixth season on Mooney’s staff. He works as a case manager for Mahoning County Job and Family Services and has coached with both Marrow (at New Bethel) and Thornton (at Eagle Heights).

Although he has no immediate plans to become a head coach — he has two sons and misses enough of their games as an assistant — Amill believes black coaches can play an important role in the lives of black athletes.

“A lot of younger black males don’t have strong male role models,” he said. “You can learn X’s and O’s, you can learn blocking schemes and pass patterns, but you can’t just learn how to relate to inner-city kids. It’s just something you have or you don’t.”

Amill said he’s learned from the example set by his fellow coaches at Mooney.

“I’ve not only learned a lot about coaching from guys like Ron Stoops, but just seeing what type of person he is,” Amill said. “These guys are about so much more than football. They want to see you succeed in life. Guys like Mark Lyden and [Paul] Palumbo have grown up in the city and coached in the city and it’s important to them.”

That devotion, more than race, is the crucial element, Amill said.

“Kids can read you,” he said. “They know if you’re there just as a stepping-stone to another job or if you really care. They have to know that you care. If you don’t, they’re not going to go all out with you.”

Kids come first on Marrow’s staff

This brings us back to Marrow, a former standout football player at South High and at the University of Wisconsin.

When he was first hired at Wilson, he talked to his players about life in the city, from football to school to drugs. Early in his first camp, he remembers a black player coming up to him and saying, “Coach, I just feel more comfortable around you. I believe you when you say you’ve been through things we’ve been through.”

When asked if his race makes a difference, Marrow paused for several seconds, then answered, “That’s a tough question. Maybe as far as going through some of the same things in the community.

“You could have something there.”

Marrow believes he could have developed Wilson into a winning program with a little more time. He has high expectations for Youngstown Christian, which began playing football in 2004 and won its first league title last fall.

The school is 60 percent white and 38 percent black. Of his seven assistants, only one is black: Kevin Poindexter.

Ultimately, Marrow said, race has less to do with a coach’s success than his knowledge of the game, his work ethic and his devotion to his players.

His offensive coordinator, assistant head coach Dave Gessler, and offensive coordinator, Robin Hanni, are both white and, Marrow said, “They can reach anybody.”

“Last year we had Latinos, white guys, Italian guys, multiracial parents. ... It’s a unique situation,” Marrow said. “It’s all about putting the kids first. Color doesn’t matter.”

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