Simmons, Bob 1948–
Bob Simmons 1948–
College football coach
There are few African-American head coaches in college football—in the 1999-2000 season there were only six. Until his retirement in December of 2000, Bob Simmons was one of the few. Becoming head coach in a sport which has not supported black coaches was infinitely far from easy. Simmons toiled in the assistant coach rankings for twenty years before finally tasting his ultimate plum: a head coaching job with a major college football program. Even then, Simmons found further struggle ahead of him. With a six-year losing streak, the program at Oklahoma State was in shambles, and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Simmons, however, was more than up to the task.
Bob Simmons was born in Livingston, Alabama in 1948. The son of a sharecropper, Simmons was raised in a racially-charged environment. “You were in the South, and you knew you were black and had to abide by the rules,” Simmons’s father, Fred, told Sports Illustrated. “Sometimes you’ve got to look the other way.” Yet, despite this racially-tense environment, Simmons’s upbringing was rather normal. His father instilled in him a strong work ethic and a deep sense of family dedication. Sports Illustrateds S.L. Price noted: “Young Bobby Simmons, coming of age in the radical 1960s, stuck by the rules: work hard, keep your nose clean. He grew up living what was the American dream, becoming the high school football star who dated—and later married—the cheerleader from his old neighborhood.”
After high school, Simmons attended Bowling Green, playing on the football team. He won All-Mid-American Conference honors as a linebacker. When he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1971, Simmons was the first in his family to earn a college degree. The following year, Simmons earned a master’s degree in college student personnel, also from Bowling Green.
In 1974 Simmons began his coaching career as a receivers coach at Bowling Green, under the tutelage of Don Nehlen. Nehlen was fired two years later and was subsequently hired as the head coach at West Virginia University. Simmons followed his mentor, becoming West Virginia’s linebackers coach.
Simmons’s work ethic drove him to excel. Evenings, weekends, and vacations were sacrificed for watching
At a Glance…
Born June 13, 1948, in Livingston, AL; son of Fred and Annabelle Simmons; married Linda Davidson; children: Brandon, Nathan, Lelanna. Education: Bowling Green, bachelor’s in physical education, 1971, master’s in college student personnel, 1972.
Career: Bowling Green, receivers coach, 1974-77; West Virginia University, linebackers coach, assistant coach, 1977-88; Colorado University, assistant coach, 1988-94; Oklahoma State University, head coach, 1994-00.
Awards: Named Big 12 Coach of the Year, 1997.
Addresses: Stillwater, OK.
hours of game films and numerous recruiting trips. But his commitment to work took its toll on his family life. His children began to grow up around him and Simmons was missing it. “I was at the point where I couldn’t tell you when their birthdays were,” Simmons told Sports Illustrated. “I’d leave on a trip and come back, and they’d be walking.”
While living in Morgantown, West Virginia, the Simmons family had to deal with more than just Bob Simmons’s demanding work schedule. The family awoke one night to find a giant cross blazing in their yard. Then, when Simmons’s wife, Linda, took four-year-old Brandon to be tested for kindergarten, she was told that Brandon was mentally deficient and should be signed up for special education. Linda refused. Brandon, who had already spent a year in kindergarten, clearly did not require special education. In fact, two years later he was placed in the school’s gifted student program. The only black child in a school of 700, a racial slur was launched at Brandon nearly every day.
During those racially-charged years while Bob Simmons was paying his dues in the coaching ranks, Linda Simmons kept the family together through faith and religion, an element somewhat foreign to Bob. Linda instilled her deep faith in her children, if not in her husband. “When you go through something like that, you have to have a faith in God,” Brandon told Sports Illustrated. “When you grow up and see that the infrastructure is not geared toward you—I’m not supposed to succeed—you can’t put faith in the people or that society. You have to trust in God.”
After eight years at West Virginia, Simmons felt the next necessary stepping-stone to his eventual goal of a head coaching job was to become a defensive coordinator, a pedigree typical of coaching ranks. His mentor, Don Nehlen told Simmons that when the next coordinator’s job opened up Simmons might get it, but it didn’t happen. Although Simmons had spent eight seasons at West Virginia, in 1988 Nehlen, worried about staff jealousy, brought in an outsider for the job.
Simmons left West Virginia and landed at the University of Colorado in 1988, where he met famed coach Bill McCartney. Simmons found himself managing the defensive line for a team that became a perennial contender. The Buffaloes were in the spotlight and Simmons ultimately used the team’s success to his advantage.
Simmons quietly began adopting many of the spiritual principles laid down by McCartney-the man who would ultimately form the large Christian men’s group, the Promise Keepers. On recruiting trips, McCartney read selections from the Bible to Simmons, who, at first, only pretended to listen. But Simmons began spending more time with his family. In 1993 he attended a Promise Keepers meeting. Moved by the sight of 50,000 men gathered in fellowship and praise, Simmons discovered his own faith.
From 1989 to 1993, Simmons served as a coordinator for a program that finished in at least the top 25 every season. In 1991, Colorado won the national championship with an 11-1 record. Two years later, Simmons’s hard work and sacrifice started to pay off. McCartney named him the assistant head coach, in addition to the job of guiding the defensive line.
When the head coach quit, Simmons thought he was next in line, only to be disappointed again. “Early in my career, I was just like everybody else,” Simmons told Sports Illustrated. “There aren’t many minorities in college coaching, and that is the issue. But I got to the point where it was an obstacle I couldn’t control. As my faith grew, I didn’t worry anymore. It allowed me to be more patient, more open, more receptive. If it was going to happen, it was going to be ordained through Him.”
However, while Simmons remained quiet on his jilt for the top coaching job, many were up in arms. Rev. Jesse Jackson dressed down the university for not selecting Simmons. But Theophilus D. Gregory, the then-athletic director at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, did not side with those rallying for a boycott. “I’m very proud that Bob Simmons had the opportunity to be considered.” Gregory was quoted as saying by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. “I think there will be more black coaches because there are more Bob Simmonses out there. What will overcome racism is quality.” Linda Simmons, however, had a different view. She told Sports Illustrated, “God wanted people to see it as a race issue…to see that racism is alive in this country. And it’s really prevalent in sports.”
Simmons forwarded his resume to Oklahoma State University. He impressed school officials and, after all his hard work, Simmons had finally hit pay dirt: he was named head football coach at a Division I program. However, Simmons inherited a program that had a less than stellar reputation. With an 18-game winless streak, OSU’s team needed a complete overhaul.
Simmons spent six seasons with OSU, rebuilding the football program. In his first season, OSU went 4-8. Again, in 1996, Simmons’s teams showed slight improvement, this time finishing the year at 5-6. It was in 1997, however, when Simmons and his OSU squad had their biggest success. Using a healthy balance of offense and defense, Simmons’s Cowboys ran off to an 8-4 regular season record. That season marked the first winning campaign at OSU in years, earning Simmons Big 12 Coach of the Year honors along the way. The Cowboys also made the postseason, losing to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl. During the season, they were ranked as high as No. 12. At the end of the year, they still finished in the top 25, ending the season at No. 24.
Following the Alamo Bowl loss, March of 1998 proved to be the most pivotal for Simmons and his family. Over the years, Bob Simmons’s kidneys had been failing and he now required a kidney transplant. Linda offered her own kidney. Initially, Simmons resisted the idea. “I was trying to get him to understand this was a gift,” Linda told Sports Illustrated. Finally, Simmons agreed. The Simmonses kept the situation under wraps. The didn’t even tell their children about the transplant until a week before the surgery. Word didn’t reach the press until after the surgery.
It wasn’t long after the transplant that Simmons was back on the football field. But the following seasons were lean ones for Simmons and his team. The Cowboys finished 5-6 in 1998 and 1999. While his statistics started to waver, the Board of Regents at OSU remained supportive, approving a contract extension that would keep Simmons as head coach through 2005. “Our goal with football at Oklahoma State is to develop a consistent, winning program with integrity and one in which our student-athletes graduate,” OSU Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips told The Daily O’Collegian website. “In order to accomplish this, we have to have stable leadership. I am delighted that we have Bob Simmons as our head football coach and this extension further stabilizes our program.”
Simmons was proud of his accomplishments at OSU. “I’ve really tried to have a solid program,” he told thedailycamera.com. “From where the program was to where it is now and where it can go, we’re building.” Simmons’s first concern was not winning—though winning was, of course, a priority—but really building up a solid program that would win and continue to win down the road. “There should be a commitment to getting this program going,” he told thedailycamera.com.
But in 2000, Simmons was ready to retire. It was time for a break. He had endured so much: racism against himself and his children, kidney disease, and countless professional disappointments. He had also accomplished much, building a stable football program at Oklahoma State University, discovering the strength of his own faith, and, most importantly, raising a family whose faith in God and love for each other carried them through every hardship. As Don Nehlen observed in Sports illustrated, “That family is so strong.”
The Complete Marquis Who’s Who, 2001.
Jet, January 9, 1995, p. 50; January 22, 2001, p. 52.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service Dec. 9, 1994.
Sports Illustrated, July 6, 1998, p. 78; December 13, 2000, p. 53.
The Daily O’Collegian website, http://www.ocolly.com
—John Horn and Jennifer M. York
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