Forgotten History: LSU hired SEC's first Black coordinator in 1990, Bama pioneer John Mitchell

Glenn Guilbeau

LSU made history 31 years ago when it became the first Southeastern Conference school to hire a Black coordinator, but it went largely unnoticed in the mainstream.

"A lot wasn't made of it," remembers the Jackie Robinson of Southern college football – John Mitchell of Mobile, Alabama. "It just kind of happened."

Mitchell was promoted to run LSU's defense on Jan. 5, 1990, after serving as outside linebackers coach for three seasons.

Paragraph 16 of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate newspaper, Jan. 6, 1990, reported: “Mitchell, 39, is the first black coach to become a coordinator at LSU.”

The fact he was first in the SEC was not mentioned, or perhaps realized. The first 15 paragraphs focused on Pete Jenkins, who was switched from defensive coordinator to assistant head coach to help head coach Mike Archer with discipline after a 4-7 season.

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"I was surprised because Pete was a great coordinator," Mitchell told the USA TODAY Network in a phone interview from Pittsburgh, where he has been an assistant coach with the Steelers since 1994.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell watches from a blocking sled during NFL football rookie minicamp, Friday, May 6, 2016 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
John Mitchell

Mitchell was also the Alabama Crimson Tide’s first Black football player in 1971 as a defensive end under coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. Tailback Wilbur Jackson was Alabama's first Black signee in 1970, but Mitchell played first and more as he started after transferring from Eastern Arizona Junior College. 

More:Former Bama player, coach John Mitchell named to junior college Hall of Fame

Mitchell went on to become Alabama's first Black All-SEC player in 1971, its first Black All-American and co-captain in 1972 and the Tide's first Black assistant coach in 1973. 

The John Mitchell story, though, is only part racial pioneer. The other is that he is coaching's version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, which is based on the theory that any two people anywhere are six or fewer acquaintances apart. Only he is closer than that.

Mitchell, who will be 70 on Oct. 14, is set to begin his 49th year in coaching. He has worked under seven coaches who have won a combined 23 championships – 14 national titles in college, nine Super Bowls – before, during or after his time with them, stretching from 1961 through 2021.

He is not on the proverbial Mount Rushmore of coaches, but he is the only one to have coached under three who are: Bryant, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. He also served under national champion coach Lou Holtz, Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin with Pittsburgh and Bruce Arians, who won with Tampa Bay last season.

Oh, and he played pick-up basketball with Bill Clinton.

"It's amazing the people he has coached under," said Archer, who promoted Mitchell to defensive coordinator in 1990.

A low-key bold hire, then racism

“Being at LSU when a guy calls you and says you’re the defensive coordinator was a great moment," Mitchell said. "That was a big deal at the time because there were no African-Americans in the SEC in charge of offense or defense.”

With Mitchell as outside linebackers coach, LSU had gone 10-1-1 in Archer’s first year in 1987 and won the 1988 SEC title at 8-4 and 6-1.

"What I remember most is the band coming out at Tiger Stadium," Mitchell said. "The hair on the back of my head – the little I had – stood up. The place just went damn crazy."

Behind the scenes, though, some reacted loudly and harshly to Mitchell's promotion. Archer said some members of LSU's Board of Supervisors and others were not happy.

"I had some interesting mail, as did Mitch," Archer said. "It got nasty. But I had told him he better have a thick skin, and he did."

Mitchell experienced such treatment as an Alabama player in 1971 and ‘72, particularly at away stadiums.

“They would call you the N-word,” Mitchell said in a 2019 interview. “You could hear that as you walked on the field easily – easily.”

The way Mitchell handled himself impressed Bryant, who hired him as an assistant coach after his senior season in 1972. Mitchell coached defensive ends from 1973-76.

There would be no Black offensive coordinator in the SEC until 1995, when South Carolina coach Brad Scott hired Florida State receivers coach John Eason.

“I don’t get caught up in being the first,” Mitchell said. “If you’re first and you don’t do anything with it, it doesn’t mean anything. But I was happy with the opportunity.”

Coaching with champions

“Probably no one has worked with more coaches who have won it all than Mitch," said Archer, whom Pittsburgh hired in 1996 on Mitchell’s recommendation.

Bryant, Belichick and Saban have 19 championships among them: six national titles by Bryant at Alabama in the 1960s and '70s, six Super Bowl crowns by Belichick at New England in the 2000s and seven national championships by Saban in the 2000s, with one at LSU and six at Alabama.

"If you add up all the national championships and Super Bowls from the people I got to work with, it's pretty impressive," Mitchell admitted.

Pals with President Clinton

After Alabama, Mitchell moved on to coach the defensive line at Arkansas from 1977-82 under Holtz, who would later coach Notre Dame to the 1988 national title.

While at Arkansas, Mitchell crossed paths with a future election champion, so to speak – the president of the United States. Bill Clinton, president from 1993-2001, was Arkansas' attorney general in 1976-77 and was also Holtz' lawyer while teaching a law class at Arkansas.

“Bill would come over a lot and play basketball with coaches at lunch,” Mitchell said. “Bill is 6-foot-2 and was about 195 at the time; good athlete. He’d also travel with the team. When he was governor (first term, 1979-81), he'd come to the hotel when we played in Little Rock and visit with coaches or eat with us. Great guy.”

When Clinton visited Pittsburgh on a book tour after being president, Mitchell visited one of the signings.

“I could hear people asking, ‘Who in the hell is this Black guy talking to the former president of the United States?’” Mitchell said with a laugh.

A coaching path

After Arkansas, Mitchell bounced from the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL and to Temple, where he coached under Arians in 1986 before jumping to LSU. Along the way, he learned that knowing when to move is key.

LSU suffered a second straight losing season in Mitchell's first and only year as coordinator in 1990, and Archer was fired. LSU hired Southern Mississippi coach Curley Hallman, who was an assistant with Mitchell at Alabama and wanted to keep him. But Morris Watts, a coach Mitchell worked with at Birmingham, recommended Mitchell to the Cleveland Browns' new defensive coordinator with whom he'd coached. A guy named Saban.

“At Cleveland, Nick was just like he is now – demanding,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “He expected everybody to pull their weight. He turns over every stone to find some edge to win."

Saban was in his first year as an NFL coordinator. Belichick was in his first head coaching job. The two rebuilt Cleveland from 3-13 in 1990 to an 11-5 playoff team in 1994.

“It seemed difficult at the time under Bill, but all the most difficult jobs I’ve had have been the most beneficial,” Saban said during spring practice. “I think John would tell you we all became better coaches because we got coached by Bill."

A home with the Steelers

Mitchell left the Browns after the 1993 season for an offer he was advised not to refuse.

“One thing I was told by a lot of people who worked in Pittsburgh was if you ever get a chance to work for the Rooney family (Steelers’ owners since 1933), don’t turn it down,” Mitchell said. “That was true. The Rooneys are an unbelievable family."

Mitchell coached Pittsburgh's defensive line from 1994-2006 and was assistant head coach/defensive line from 2007-17. He has been assistant head coach without position responsibilities since 2018 and has been part of four Super Bowls with the Steelers – two each under Cowher and Tomlin for a 2-2 mark.

“To have an opportunity to work for coach Bryant, Lou Holtz, Belichick, Saban, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, I was blessed," he said. "I can’t say anything else.”

Learning from a legend

It all started with Bryant.

“He was great. He treated everybody the same – bad,” Mitchell laughed. “No, coach Bryant was great guy to play and coach for. He'd tell the assistants, ‘Make sure they know what to do and when to do it, and I’ll get them to do it.’ People don’t realize, coach Bryant wasn’t a yeller. He taught technique, which he felt meant discipline.”

When Mitchell was at Alabama, the Tide was 63-9 with five SEC championships and one national title in six years.

“Coach Bryant would always say, and I’ll never forget this, and I tell my players all the time: ‘You’re Alabama, and they have to beat YOU. You don’t have to beat them because they don’t think they can beat you.’ And we won a lot of games.”

But Bryant almost lost Mitchell, who had signed to play at USC in 1971.

The previous offseason, Bryant spoke at USC coach John McKay’s clinic. USC, which had played Black players since the 1920s, had routed Alabama’s all-white team, 42-21, at Legion Field in Birmingham.

At dinner with Bryant, McKay said he had signed a John Mitchell from Mobile via Eastern Arizona. Bryant and his staff had not recruited Mitchell from all-Black Williamson High. As soon as Bryant found a phone, he called Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Ferrill McRae, who helped him recruit talent-rich Mobile.

"Judge McRae got in the phone book and called every John Mitchell until he got my father,” Mitchell said.

He could have just called Mitchell's on Dublin Street, the Mitchell family’s restaurant. John Jr. bussed tables, washed dishes and cooked there.

The very next day, Alabama assistants Pat Dye, Clem Gryska and Hayden Riley were in the Mitchell home.

More:Alabama's win at USC in 1971 with John Mitchell started the Tide rolling again

The son of John Mitchell Sr. still went to USC, but as an Alabama player. He made the tackle on the opening kickoff on Sept. 10, 1971, and Alabama beat USC, 17-10, at the Coliseum.

“If McKay doesn’t open his mouth, I would’ve been at Southern Cal,” Mitchell said. “Everything would’ve been different. But I’ve had football heaven right here on earth. So, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”