Within some communities of color, a familiar metaphor is often used to explain when members intentionally sabotage one another’s progress instead of joining forces in pursuit of a common goal.
Veteran Black high school football coaches in the Philadelphia area say they’ve seen enough of that behavior within their own ranks, so they’ve organized to create change.
Thirteen Black football coaches within the Public and Catholic leagues recently have formed the Philadelphia Black Coaches Association.
In its simplest form, the group’s mission is to create more opportunities for its players. To achieve that common goal, however, veteran coaches say they first had to do something that largely had been lacking, they say, during their tenures.
Neumann-Goretti football coach Albie Crosby, whose coaching career spans two decades, birthed the idea of the PBCA and also serves as its president. Crosby said that competition to build the best football program has come between Black coaches in the past.
Rich Drayton, who has coached his alma mater, Central High, since 2009, described the problem using a well-known metaphor.
“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,’” Drayton said in a phone interview.
By joining forces, the association 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.
“Ultimately,” said Mastery North coach John Davidson, “the goal has always been what’s best for our kids. What we’ve realized is that as coaches we haven’t always been best for kids. We have not always done what’s right by our kids, our players.”
Captive crabs piled upon each other in either a barrel or bucket have been known to pull each other down, ensuring that none escape. The phenomenon has even led scientists to study possible similarities within human behavior.
Coaches within the PBCA don’t need science to know what would happen if someone climbed the summit, reached back, and then lifted the next person to relative freedom.
One potential answer is exactly how Crosby came up with the idea.
“I stole it from Mike Locksley, the head football coach at the University of Maryland,” Crosby said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
In June, Crosby and Olney Charter football coach Ron Flowers met with Locksley, who already had begun to form the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, a nonprofit that seeks to aid the advancement and development of football coaches at every level.
The organization’s board of directors includes prominent Black NFL coaches and executives such as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Baltimore Ravens executive vice president Ozzie Newsome, and the Washington Football Team’s senior vice president of player development, Doug Williams.
In an August statement, Locksley, 50, talked about his 25-year coaching career and how he benefited from those who came before him and now feels “a sense of obligation to help others.”
When they met in June, Locksley shared similar sentiments with Crosby, who talked to Flowers as the pair drove back to Philly.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Flowers, who has more than a decade of experience coaching youth football, though 2019 was his first year coaching in high school. “I was all in. I wish that we had thought of it before.”
Within days, Crosby said, he got other Black coaches on the phone, some of whom were just as eager to collaborate.
“That’s what’s been part of the [problem] in Philadelphia,” said Davidson, the coach at Mastery North since 2012. “'I’m going to do for me and my [program] only.' That [mentality] to me has been the thing that has held us back.”
It didn’t take long in 2012 for “this was a mistake” to cross the mind of Keary Dias when he came from Georgia to start a football program at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in West Philadelphia.
After all, Dias had been a successful Black head coach at Osborne High in Cobb County, Ga., where, he said, the school had four football fields, a weight room rivaling that of a small college, and a roster of at least 110 players.
At KIPP, however, finding the right sliver of Fairmount Park to call a practice field and sometimes planning an eight-player practice because most of his 25- to 30-player roster were no-shows, made him immediately long for home.
Instead, Dias spent six years building a competitive program at KIPP because a longtime friend who was an administrator at the school asked him to help start the school’s athletic department.
Dias eventually moved back to Georgia in 2018, but he still remembers how the culture of coaches in the Pub was much less cooperative than in the South. Dias said he belonged to several coaches associations in Georgia. In fact, the Minority Coaches Association of Georgia has been around since 2014.
In Georgia, he said, Black coaches from the same area — even bitter rivals — would help each other scheme and game-plan if one of their teams faced an opponent from outside their shared area.
“In Georgia that definitely would’ve happened,” Dias said via phone. “But when I came up [to Philly] and saw that stuff wasn’t happening, I thought, ‘Damn, maybe they don’t really click like that up here.’”
Dias said he built a good relationship with Crosby, whom he called frequently to talk football and culture. In Georgia, he said, coaches call that “sharpening your axe in the offseason.” He also contacted coaches at St. Joseph’s Prep and La Salle to learn from their programs. Dias, however, said his attempts to encourage more cooperation among Public league coaches ultimately led nowhere.
Davidson, the treasurer of the PBCA, said poor communication in the past among Black coaches sometimes led to bad experiences, which also led to bad relationships, which then sometimes led to backbiting and bitterness.
But maturity, the passage of time, the continued threat of gun violence faced by Black men, and the realization that most coaches genuinely want their players to succeed, seems to have yielded common ground.
“In the state of our world right now,” Davidson said, “the lack of organization by Black men has already led to so much of the dismantling of the Black community, from academics to athletics, to households to [businesses]. So, why not? Why shouldn’t we organize? For Black folks it’s a must right now.”
To be clear, members of the PBCA still maintain their memberships within other coaches associations and plan to continue that way. It is not uncommon for coaches to belong to several associations.
“It’s bigger than the word Black,” said Flowers, vice president of the PBCA. "We aren’t only helping Black kids. [Our teams] have players from multiple races. We’ll help any player who wants to get better and improve.”
In the monthly meetings that have already begun, PBCA members have also agreed to communicate with one another if a member’s player contacts another member about transferring, in order to promote transparency.
For younger coaches, PBCA discussions also have focused on etiquette both on the sideline and on social media. Effectively communicating with referees, building relationships on and off the field, and sharing recruiting contacts also have been emphasized.
In the past, Davidson said, some college coaches visited only a handful of high schools in Philly because those college coaches trusted the character of that school’s coach and thus the character of the players they produced.
“It’s not just about wins and losses,” Davidson said. “It’s also about how we represent ourselves.”
For Drayton, a standout wide receiver at Temple (1987-1990), it’s also about teaching his players to work together in their careers after football. It’s something he also teaches his own children.
“So that when one gets a degree in real estate, then another gets his in law, and another gets a degree in business, then you can all bring something to the table,” he said. “Then we all get paid and we all can eat.”
“Those things are things we need to encourage amongst ourselves so that these kids don’t have to rely on the streets,” he added. “They can rely on their education instead, because not everybody’s going to the league.”
Those with the talent to turn pro likely don’t need help with recruiting. Others, however, can benefit by being promoted by opposing coaches.
PBCA members are encouraged to steer college coaches toward quality players at other programs to increase opportunities for more area athletes. It also allows more young Black high school coaches to expand their network by meeting college coaches.
“Albie already knows a lot of people and he wants to share that info,” Drayton said. “That means now we all know a lot of people and we can get these kids some exposure.”
Crosby built Imhotep into a perennial Public League power and won the Panthers' only PIAA championship in 2015. He stepped down in 2016 but took over Neumann-Goretti a year later. He led the Saints to the Catholic League Blue division championship in 2019. Dozens of his former players have played various levels of college football, including Imhotep graduate D.J. Moore, who is in the NFL.
“If everybody sees that this is how we should operate, then it becomes easier for someone else to recommend another school’s player,” Drayton said. “It’s not about a knock on your program. That college coach might not even recruit that player, but he might know somebody else who needs a player at that position.”
Ultimately, the PBCA has larger plans to host combines, send players on college tours, supply SAT prep courses, and maybe even expand its membership to Black coaches from other sports. They are still finalizing their bylaws and setting up an LLC. Crosby said they may even collaborate with a group of New Jersey football coaches who recently founded the N.J. Minority Coaches Association.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Crosby said. “But we just have to respect each other. Ultimately this will mean more coaches involved, more kids playing, more programs being built, and more kids being safe in the city of Philadelphia.”