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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

The Labor Market Context of Social Capital: 
Race and Social Networks in the Occupational Internal Labor Market of College Football Coaches


Jacob C. Day

North Carolina State University


    Scholars examining the effects of social capital on racial inequality in coaching labor markets have focused primarily on differences in individual coaches' access to, quality of, and returns from their use of social connections (see for example Day and McDonald 2010; Sagas and Cunningham 2005).  The labor market context in which social capital operates has received less attention. Researchers have conceptualized coaching labor markets as occupational internal labor markets (OILMs) where movement is prevalent across firms within the same occupation and where high status incumbents control access to and mobility within the labor market (Smith 1983; Smith and Abbott 1983). In this paper I argue that these features of the college football coaching labor market make social capital particularly important for advancement. Analyzing data on connections among all full-time college football coaches in a major conference during the 2007 season I find that high status coaches have more ties to other coaches in the same conference, serve as intermediaries to more relationships, and have more racially homophilous connections than coaches in lower status jobs. 

Social Capital and Racial Disparity in Labor Market Outcomes

     Unequal amounts of social capital—resources such as information, influence, and status that are embedded within one's network of social relations (see Lin 2001)—are a common explanation for racial  inequality in employment outcomes (Mouw 2002; Parks-Yancy 2006). According to Lin (2001), social capital is associated with inequality through two general mechanisms: 1) capital deficits, which refer to a lack of access to informative, influential, and status conferring ties; and 2) return deficits, or the processes from which similar amounts of accessed social capital lead to different outcomes (e.g. differential mobilization, contacts' effort, or institutional responses).

    Race homophily (i.e. same-race ties) is especially influential in cutting off minorities from effective personal and professional networks. Although less homophilous than white's networks, minorities' reliance on racially similar others leads to them being connected to lower status members of the labor market who tend to be less informative and influential, especially among high status and high authority professions (Ibarra 1995; McDonald et al. 2009). This lack of access to higher status contacts has been linked to lower wages and fewer promotions for black workers (Parks-Yancy 2006; Smith 2000).  Whites' preference for racially similar others further compounds these inequalities by producing "network-based social closure" in which whites engage in indirect, and often times unintentional discrimination as a result of a preference for hiring, referring, and providing information to their network members, who happen to be predominantly white (McDonald and Day 2010).  However, changing the structure of their networks will not by itself lead to better labor market outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities. Similar types of social capital can produce unequal results across race and ethnic groups.

    Research focusing on differential returns to social capital finds that racial minorities benefit more from racially heterophilous ties, weak ties, and higher status ties than whites (Green et al. 1999; Ibarra 1995).  These differential returns result in part from different mobilization strategies, differential contact effort, or institutional-level responses to whites and minorities' networks. Research shows that minorities mobilize their connections differently than whites as a result of lowered expectations for career advancement (Ibarra 1995) and that white contacts provide more help to other whites in their networks than they do to minorities (Royster 2003). Research also demonstrates that many black contacts are hesitant to provide assistance to network members as a result of their perceived perilous position within a work organization or labor market (Smith 2005) and that using influential minority contacts to find work is more beneficial when their race is not known by the potential employer (Kmec and Trimble 2009). 

    The social capital disadvantages of race and ethnic minorities have received increasing attention in academic research. However, scholars have had less to say regarding how social capital may operate to enhance racial and ethnic inequality in different labor market contexts. Research showing that informal job search methods are particularly common among those of lower socioeconomic status or those applying to lower status jobs suggest that the extent to which labor markets encourage informal hiring practices makes social connections particularly important for finding and being promoted at work (see Marsden and Gorman 2001 for a review). Similarly, research showing that same-race network ties increase the likelihood of race/ethnic job matching (Stainback 2008) suggests racially homophilous ties are more or less effective depending on the racial context of the job and labor market one is being matched to.

    The college football coaching profession offers a unique opportunity to examine the labor market context of social capital and how it may operate to produce and/or exaggerate racial inequality in a high status occupation.  First, it is a managerial labor market in which a relatively large proportion of minorities are applying for jobs and seeking promotions. Entering the 2010 college football season, black coaches accounted for 28% of the total assistant coaches. However, while blacks are overrepresented in the coaching profession compared to the population of the United States, they are underrepresented compared to players, the population of potential coaches, of whom 47% are black (Zgonc 2010). This underrepresentation is especially pronounced in the highest status positions within the profession. Blacks account for only 11% of the head coaches and 12% of the offensive and defensive coordinators. In the next section I describe the basic structure of the college football coaching labor market, and how scholars have examined the impact of social capital within it.

Labor Market Structure, Social Capital and Inequality in the College Football Coaching Profession

    Division IA coaching staffs include one head coach and nine full-time paid assistants.   The head coach on a staff is the equivalent of a CEO; he oversees the entire program.  The full-time assistant coaches are also separated into different levels of prestige, with the offensive and defensive coordinators acting as the divisional managers in charge of their offensive and defensive divisions respectively. Their lower level-managers include the full-time position coaches who are in charge of coaching one or two positions.  There are also numerous other peripheral positions that are a part of typical division IA coaching staffs including graduate/student assistants, director of football operations, strength and conditioning coach, video coordinator, and volunteer assistants.  These positions are important in the coaching profession in that they can operate as entry ports for coaches just beginning their careers. 

Figure 1
Organizational Structure of a Division IA College Football Coaching Staffs

Note: HC=Head Coach, DC=Defensive Coordinator, OC=Offensive Coordinator, PC=Position Coach.  Dashed lines indicae a position coach who is on the offensive or defensive side of the ball depending upon the team and the type of offense and/or defense they employ.

    The structure of a typical college football coaching staff appears to portray a relatively short job ladder within the profession. However the labor market of college football coaches is not structured as a typical internal labor market (ILM) where mobility occurs within a single firm.  Rather, previous studies on college football and basketball coaches have classified their labor markets as an occupational internal labor markets (OILM) where mobility is most prevalent between different organizations within the same occupation (Smith 1983; Smith and Abbott 1983).  OILMs include the basic structures of ILMs in that they have a distinct job ladder, limited entry ports, and mobility associated with increased knowledge and skill, but are different in that they are primarily controlled by the current job holders in the market rather than by a firm or employer (Althauser 1989).  As a result, OILMs, such as the college football coaching labor market, have fewer rules and regulations governing movement between positions and programs (Smith 1983). This lack of formalization should lead to social connections being particularly important and perhaps exacerbate racial inequality compared to labor markets with more formal promotion practices (Reskin 1993; Tomaskovic-Devey 1993).

    Loy and Sage (1978) were two of the first scholars to posit the importance of social capital to the careers of college coaches. They found that the prestige of the institution where a coach played was related to the prestige of the program where they held their best assistant coaching job and that the prestige of that institution was related to the prestige of the program where he received his first head coaching position. Combining these results with findings that educational attainment, athletic achievements, and coaching experience and success had little effect on coaches first or present job, Loy and Sage (1978) suggested that sponsored mobility—mobility determined by sponsorship from elite members of the profession rather than through open competition (i.e. contest mobility)—was the most common route to promotion in the coaching labor market.  Smith (1983) and Smith and Abbott (1983) further emphasized the impact of incumbents on mobility in coaching labor markets by examining the movement of job vacancies (i.e. vacancy chains) between two academic years. They demonstrated the interdependent nature of mobility within the college football and basketball profession by highlighting the necessity of a current position being vacated in order for coaches to enter the profession and move up the career ladder. They also, found that vacancy movement between levels of prestige (measured by enrollment) was relatively uncommon.

    This earlier work provides important insights into the structure of the coaching labor market, and the importance of incumbents on mobility, a key feature of OILMs. However it was limited by focusing on narrow career segments and by not measuring important individual correlates of mobility (e.g. human and social capital). Loy and Sage (1978) relied on coaches retrospective accounts of only a couple points in their careers and could only infer about the importance of having an elite member's sponsorship from the prestige of the institution because they did not measure the extent of coaches' personal or professional contacts. Although effectively using the vacancy chain perspective to describe the structure of mobility in college coaches' labor markets, Smith (1983) and Smith and Abbott (1983), were less effective in explaining why individual coaches or groups of coaches are mobile and others are not. 

    Recent work has paid more attention to racial differences in career outcomes among both college and professional football coaches. Generally, these studies have demonstrated that black coaches are underrepresented in higher status positions, have significantly fewer promotions, are less satisfied in their coaching careers, and perceive more barriers to advancement than white coaches (Anderson 1993; Braddock 1989; Cunningham et al. 2006; Day and McDonald 2010; Fee et al. 2006; Sagas and Cunningham 2005). With this shift towards the individual level of analysis, these scholars have focused on the individual investments in skills, experience, and social contacts as the major determinants of coaches' differential mobility.

    Sagas and Cunningham (2005) were the first to ask coaches directly about their social connections. In a mail survey sent to all full-time Division IA coaches in 2002, they asked coaches about their relationships with and the characteristics of up to 12 people who "...have acted to help your career by speaking on your behalf, providing you with information, career opportunities, advice, or psychological support or whom you have regularly spoken regarding difficulties at work, alternative job opportunities, or long term goals (Sagas and Cunningham 2005)." They found that white coaches had more same-race contacts than black coaches and that same-race contacts were associated with higher levels of self-reported occupational status and promotions net of human capital variables. Sagas and Cunningham (2005) interpreted their results from a capital deficit framework, suggesting that isolation from same-race networks hindered black coaches' career development. Day and McDonald (2010) built on their work using the same data by examining the return deficits associated with black coaches' networks. They found that the effects of social capital, including race homophily on coaches' promotions was contingent on coaches' race. That is, black coaches appear to benefit from a diverse range contacts (e.g. different-race ties, weak ties, and higher-status ties) while white coaches' benefit more from contacts who are similar to them. 

    These more recent studies of the college football coaching profession have provided important insights regarding racial differences in career outcomes and the importance of individual-level human and social capital in producing them. However, in doing this they have moved away from researching and theorizing about the impact of labor market structure on coaches' mobility, which was the strength of earlier work. Also, by relying on ego-centered, name-generator methods of collecting data on coaches' connections, Sagas and Cunningham (2005) and Day and McDonald (2010) were limited to studying coaches' direct ties. This is a significant limitation considering that relationships among contacts or the effects of "friends of friends" have important implications for network resources and labor market outcomes (Granovetter 1973; Lin 2001). In an effort to bridge the structural focus of earlier work and the individual focus of more recent work I analyze structural network data on all full-time coaches in a major NCAA Division IA conference from 2007. When placed within the broader labor market context of an OILM, the data allow me to describe social connections among different levels of hierarchy within the profession and the potential racial differences in network structure.

Data and Methods

    I examine the networks of college football coaches with data on all full-time college football coaches in a major conference at the NCAA Division IA level in 2007. The football programs' media guides serve as the primary source of information on each of the 10 full-time coaches for every team in the conference. Media guide biographies include complete career histories reporting every football program coached at and every position held throughout a coach's career. Also, most media guide biographies include a picture, information on coaches' playing experience, and information on their educational attainment. This type of archival data is common in prior research on college football coaches and other similar populations (see Anderson 1993; Braddock 1989; Fee et. al 2006). 


Dependent Variable:

    The outcome of interest in my descriptive analysis is a dichotomous indicator of whether or not coaches currently hold an "executive" position. Referring back to Figure 1, I conceptualize head coaching positions and offensive and defensive coordinator positions as executive positions because they involve leadership over the entire program or their offensive and defensive divisions respectively. 

Network Variables:

    In order to describe social capital differences among coaches who currently hold executive positions and those who are position coaches, I constructed network data from coaches' detailed career histories. Instances where coaches worked at the same program during the same season indicate a connection. The data include all connections between coaches in this particular conference in 2007 prior to each coaches' most recent job transition. Although these measures are temporally prior to the outcome of interest, they do not allow for causal inference. By sampling based on current coaches in a single conference and moving backwards through their career to determine the extent to which they are connected, any difference found between executive coaches and position coaches could be a result of different network properties or the fact that executive coaches are in charge of the hiring and promotion decisions, thereby self-selecting the range of their potential contacts. From this structural network data I constructed multiple indexes using the social network analysis program UCINET (Borgatti et al. 1999) to measure the extent of individual coaches' connectedness and the composition of their immediate ties. The following structural network variables are created with binary network relations that indicate whether or not a tie between two coaches is present.

    First, degree centrality measures the extent to which a coach is connected to other coaches in the same conference. It indicates the proportion of other coaches in the conference who each coach is connected to (see Wasserman and Faust 1994). Second, betweenness centrality is a measure of the extent to which an individual coach lies between other coaches in the network. It indicates the proportion of paths between all pairs of connected coaches in the conference that each individual coach mediates. Theoretically this measure taps into Burt's (1992) concept of structural holes. 

    Along with these structural measures of coaches' connections, two network composition measures indicate the proportion of same-race ties and the proportion of high status ties each coach is directly connected to. Same-race ties are those contacts identified to be of the same race as an individual coach. This indicates the race homophily of a given coach's contacts, an important correlate to coaches' career outcomes in prior research (see Day and McDonald 2010 and Sagas and Cunningham 2005). High status ties are ties to executive coaches. Again, prior research and theory on coaching labor markets has suggested that high status ties are important for mobility (Loy and Sage 1978) and that they may be particularly important for racial minorities (Day and McDonald 2010). 

Control Variables:

    In order to describe racial differences in social capital and current position, I measured coaches' race by coding his media guide picture as white, black, or other. This is a common strategy in prior research on similar populations that use similar archival sources (Anderson 1993; Braddock 1989). All coaches in this sample were coded as either white or black and thus a single dichotomous variable indicates this distinction.

    Prior research has suggested that the playing experience at certain levels of prestige and in certain positions is an important determinant of coaches' future career attainment (Anderson 1993; Loy and Sage 1978). Division IA playing experience is measured by a dichotomous variable indicating whether or not coaches played at the highest level of college football. Central playing experience categorizes coaches' playing positions as central or non-central based on prior research on racial segregation, or "stacking," among athletes (see Kahn 1991). Research has generally found that minority athletes at both the collegiate and professional levels tend to be overrepresented in non-central positions or those with less responsibility over the outcome of the game (e.g. wide receiver, running back, defensive line, and defensive back) and underrepresented in central positions or those with more responsibility (e.g. quarterback, offensive line, linebacker). Coaches who played at the Division IA level or in central positions may be more likely than those who played at lower levels or in non-central positions to develop the skills and connections necessary to advance into executive positions. 

    Along with playing experience, prior research has identified coaching experience as an important determinant of career outcomes (Braddock 1989; Day and McDonald 2010; Loy and Sage 1978; Sagas and Cunningham 2005). General coaching experience is measured by the number of seasons coaches have worked at the college or professional levels. Executive coaching experience measures the proportion of seasons in which coaches have held executive positions at the college or professional level. If the coaching labor market reflects an OILM more experienced coaches should fill the higher status positions. Additionally, prior experience in general and in executive coaching positions should make coaches more likely to currently hold executive positions because of the skills, experience, and connections they develop. Finally, graduate/student assistant experience measures a potentially important entry point to the profession by indicating whether or not coaches spent time as a graduate or student assistant during their careers. 


    Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics for each measure described above. 32 of the coaches (about 27%) in the sample are black compared to 86 who are white (73%).  This is similar to the general population of coaches at this level of whom 28% are black (Zgonc 2010). In terms of playing experience, the majority of coaches in this sample (54%) played at the Division IA level (92% played at some level of college football) and 42% of the coaches had playing experience in central positions (i.e. quarterback, offensive line, and linebacker). Coaches in this sample have coached at the college or professional levels for about 17 seasons on average, and have spent about 20% of their coaching career in executive positions (about 4.5 years on average). However, 52 (43%) coaches in this sample have never coached an executive position at the college or professional level.

Table 1
Summary Statistics

Current Executive
Degree Centrality
Betweenness Centrality
% Same-Race Ties
% High Status Ties
DIA Playing 
Central Playing
General Coaching
Executive Coaching
GA/SA Experience
Note: N=118

    Table 2 displays mean differences by current position. Executive coaches have significantly higher mean levels of three of the four network variables. Compared to position coaches, executive coaches are connected to a larger percentage of the other coaches in their current conference (5% vs. 3%), mediate a larger percentage of the relationships between pairs of other coaches (3% vs. 2%) and are connected to a larger percentage of same race ties (74% vs. 59%). In terms of race, executive coaching positions are disproportionately filled by white coaches. Relative to their representation in the sample (27%), black coaches are underrepresented in executive positions (9%) and overrepresented among position coaches (35%).  Executive coaches also have significantly higher mean levels of career experience. Compared to position coaches, a larger percentage of executive coaches played at the division IA level (71% vs. 47%). Executive coaches have spent an average of 21 seasons at the college or professional level with about 38% of those seasons being in executive positions compared position coaches who have spent an average of 16 seasons at the college or professional level  with about 13% of those being in executive positions. 

Table 2
Mean Differences by Current Position

% Same-
Race Ties
% High
Status Ties
DIA Playing
Cetral Playing
General Coach-
ing Experience
Executive Coach-
ing Experience
GA/SA Experi-
Note: N=118 (84 Position Coaches, 34 Executive Coaches).
*p<.05; t-test significance levels are based on bootstraped standard errors with 500 replications.

    Table 3 presents mean differences by race. The only network variable in which black and white coaches are significantly different is the percentage of same-race ties. About 75% of white coaches' ties are to other white coaches compared to 33% of black coaches' ties connecting them to other black coaches. Racial differences are more apparent in the career experience variables. Compared to black coaches, a larger proportion of white coaches have experience playing a central position (48% vs. 28%). Whites have coached an average of 19 seasons at the college or professional level with 26% of those seasons being in executive positions compared to black coaches who have an average of 11 college or professional seasons with about 3% of those being in executive positions.

Table 3
Mean Differences by Race

% Same-Race
% High-Status
DIA Playing
Central Playing
General Coach
-ing Experience
Executive Coach-
ing Experience
Note: N=118 (32 Black, 86 White).
*p<.10; **p<.05;  t-test signficance levels are based on bootstrapped standard errors with 500 replications.

Discussion and Conclusion

    The results of this study suggest that the OILM structure of coaching labor markets affects college football coaches' job matching and mobility. Because the data are limited only to connections among coaches who are currently in the same conference (albeit those connections that existed prior to their current jobs), finding that coaches in high status positions are better connected reflects a characteristic feature of OILMs: high status incumbents control the hiring and promotion decisions. That is, executive coaches essentially hired, and therefore selected, the available network contacts in this analysis. This is further supported by the finding that executive and position coaches have similar levels of high status ties.  Since executive coaches play a role in hiring every coach in the available network, connections to executive coaches are evenly distributed throughout the sample.

    The effects of the OILM structure on career development in the coaching profession is further supported by the prevalence of coaches who played at the Division IA level and worked as graduate/student assistant coaches and by the relative experience of executive coaches compared to position coaches. Like all internal labor markets, OILMs have limited entry ports and mobility associated with increased knowledge and skill (Althauser 1989). Finding that the majority of coaches had experience as an athlete at the highest level of college football and as a graduate or student assistant coach suggests that these are important entry-ports into the OILM of college football coaches. Playing at the division IA level also appeared to be important for advancing in the profession in that this type of playing experience was especially pronounced among high status coaches. Also, the substantial differences between executive and position coaches in the number of seasons coached and the proportion of their careers spent in executive positions suggests that knowledge and skills gained through prior professional experience are associated with attaining and maintaining successful coaching careers. 

     How race influences the effects of labor market structure on social capital and career attainment is less clear in the present analysis. The finding that whites hold a majority of the executive coaching positions and that they have significantly more race homophily than black coaches, suggests that incumbent control of hiring processes in this OILM would likely exacerbate racial inequality. Prior research on college football coaches supports the contention that racially homophilous networks operate to benefit the career progress of white coaches yet harm the progress of black coaches (Day and McDonald 2010). The majority of racial disparity in this study appears to result not from differences in coaches' network structures but from substantial differences in white and black coaches' relative levels of experience. However, prior research on more representative samples has demonstrated that net of experience and other human capital variables racial disparities in the coaching profession persist (Sagas and Cunningham 2005).

    Unfortunately, the data analyzed in this paper limit my ability to make strong causal inferences regarding the effects of labor market structure, social capital, and race on coaches' career mobility. The retrospective nature in which the data were collected do not allow for separating the effects of supply-side factors such as coaches' network structure and composition from the effects of demand-side  factors such as incumbent control over hiring and promotion decisions. Future research will benefit from a prospective design that allows for causal inferences regarding the effects of social networks and labor market structure or, at the very least, a random sample of coaches from the entire population of Division IA football coaches that would more accurately describe the structure and composition of coaches' networks.

    Even with these limitations, this research begins to take an important step in considering the context in which social capital operates to produce different career outcomes. By merging recent work focusing on social capital as the primary mechanism explaining the documented racial inequality among college football coaches with the structural focus of earlier research on coaching labor markets, I suggested some mechanisms through which OILM structure of mobility within the coaching profession may serve to exaggerate the effects of social capital (e.g. incumbent control). Future theoretical and empirical work in this vein will allow for a better understanding of how social capital operates to produce inequality in both coaching and general labor market contexts. 


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