Austin Ybarra can look around a coaching staff meeting and recognize why he’s unique. He doesn’t think about it often, but the reality is always there.
A former junior college and NAIA linebacker, Ybarra, 28, started coaching at the high school level before joining the college ranks. In the last few years, he’s been a support staff member for two Division I programs, at Idaho and Montana State.
By any statistical measure, though, Ybarra is an anomaly in the profession. He’s Mexican-American, part of the broadly defined Hispanic/Latino ethnicity category. Despite making up nearly a fifth of the U.S. population — the country’s largest minority group at 18.5% — coaches of Hispanic and Latino descent account for just 1% of all Division I football coaches, according to Winston-Salem Journal research.
“It’s almost like you’re navigating your own experience, but there’s no one really to lean on,” Ybarra said. “... From my experience, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a minority coach.’ And sometimes schools are looking for a minority coach, but maybe I’m not the minority they’re looking for.”
The Journal polled every Division I school and asked whether their football coaching staffs — the head coach and 10 on-field assistants — featured any coaches who identified as Hispanic/Latino heading into the 2021 season. The outreach consisted of an initial inquiry, followed by two follow-ups, to sports information directors at every FBS and FCS program.
Spanning about 2,800 coaching jobs, the Journal finished with a list of 32 coaches. Six of those are head coaches. Another seven have a coordinator title with game-day responsibilities such as offensive, defensive or special teams.
Some of these coaches are first-generation football fans, and others made the sport a family tradition. Their paths consisted of hard work that led to breakthroughs. Careers changed thanks to an email sent across the country or a friendship fostered in the profession.
They hope their success leads to more opportunities for the next wave of people like Ybarra to get their opportunities on the field, too.
“It took me forever to get to this position, when I felt that I was ready for it six, seven years ago,” said Appalachian State offensive coordinator Frank Ponce, who is Nicaraguan-American and will coach near his hometown on Saturday against No. 22 Miami. “But that’s just the way it works out. I could’ve easily kind of said 'forget it,' kind of quit on it. ... You’re going to keep working because I believe you’ve got to be resilient, you’ve got to be persistent, and perseverance will always overcome any obstacle.”
Injecting football into families
Diversity in opportunities requires access. Dr. José Alamillo thinks of a clear example right away.
Just ahead of World War II, the United States tried to strengthen its relationship with Latin America. Called the Good Neighbor policy, President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to establish better connections with countries with which the United States had interfered in the past.
Alamillo, professor and chair of Chicana/o Studies Department at California State University Channel Islands, said the effort consisted of many attempted cultural connections, sports being one of them. The United States planned to send coaches to teach different sports to young people in the Latin countries.
Ultimately, the only coaches sent over were American football coaches, Alamillo said. Youth in Mexico City got their first interaction with the sport.
In the same vein, exposure for Hispanic/Latinos came infrequently during the game’s early days. Mainly because, Alamillo pointed out, its origins came at Ivy League universities, which featured sparse Hispanic/Latino populations, if any at all.
“When we think about what are the entry points when Hispanics do take up football,” Alamillo said, “I think high school football is definitely one of those entry points.”
The eventual increase of access to football coincided with an increase in the Hispanic/Latino population. The U.S. Census first quantified its Hispanic/Latino population in 1970, determining the group made up 4.5% of the population. The percentage has more than quadrupled since then.
Juan Navarro, 40, is the start of his family’s football lineage. The defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at N.C. Central found himself drawn to structure while growing up in Pacoima, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. His interest first led him to junior ROTC, piqued by the uniform and drills.
Then he found football.
“I fell in love with the release that football provided,” said Navarro, a Mexican-American. “And I fell in love with the team concept that football provided.”
Staying busy is a family trait. His parents, both natives of Michoacán in the south of Mexico, were migrant workers who expected energy to be spent.
Navarro said his mother is naturally skeptical. When he wanted to start playing, she challenged his commitment. Have a game on Friday night? Too bad. He was expected to help his father work at 5 o'clock on Saturday morning. She would sneak up to his practice to see if he was there. She’d do the same when he was supposed to be walking home.
He went on to play in college at the University of Redlands, a Division III school in California, where he received a Coca-Cola first-generation scholarship. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, focusing on communicative disorders, speech and language.
His father, a vegetation worker, and his mother, a seamstress, valued manual labor. Navarro thinks they enjoyed watching him play, but their pride came from his existence in a university setting to begin with.
“For them, they're like, we're in a venue that we're not supposed to probably be in,” Navarro said. “And our son's going to school, and our son's going to college.”
His experience gave foundations to the second-generation football players like Paul Gonzales. A fellow Mexican-American who is now the safeties coach at TCU, Gonzales learned about football from his father. His dad played, and later coached, at the high school level while also working a graveyard shift at the San Jose airport. Gonzales wanted to coach like his father, and he knew at an early age.
Gonzales’ journey has been unique. He went to UC Davis as a baseball player. During offseasons, he worked for the athletics department, spending time around the football program and in the equipment room.
Like Navarro, he began a college coaching career at his alma mater, albeit after a few years at the high school level. He worked there two seasons before a two-year stay at Pacific, then landed as a defensive grad assistant at TCU in 2012 thanks to a connection in the business.
He was elevated to coaching cornerbacks ahead of the 2015 season, moving to safeties in 2018.
Gonzales had concern at the start of his career about being a minority coach. He didn’t play college football. He poured his focus into trying to make it, financial strains and struggles to boot. Gonzales stacked boxes at a FedEx facility some nights, worked security at a nightclub some others as his career budded. He wasn’t afraid to work the same way his father did, even though his father didn’t want him to.
“I think it is kind of a hard club to break, you know?” Gonzales said. “Someone's got to give you the chance, that's for sure.”
Navarro’s decision to go into coaching surprised his parents.
Sports didn’t fit in their understanding, Navarro said. They realized athletes could become famous, but not necessarily how their son could be part of that world.
He explained his goal as the best he could. Still unconvinced, his parents met with Navarro’s old coach, his soon-to-be boss, to learn more. Later, they attended a summer camp. They saw the way players flocked to him. Navarro said the day made it clear for them.
After coaching a few years, Navarro looked to climb in the profession. He didn’t really have a network. He decided to email the defensive staff members at Miami for advice. None of them responded. Then Navarro shifted his focus to the offensive side, finding one coach who returned his plea for guidance: Mario Cristobal, who is Cuban-American.
“If somebody was going to help me, I was hoping it was going to be somebody that kind of looked like me,” Navarro remembers thinking as he sent the email.
That started a relationship. Navarro said he went to visit Miami during spring camp. He stayed in touch. Finally, after more than a year, Navarro asked: "How do I get where you’re at?" Cristobal responded that he liked the work Navarro was doing, but he couldn’t be as helpful on the other side of the country.
Navarro wrote his letter of resignation the next day. Twelve days later, he moved to Miami and became an offensive assistant for the Hurricanes. His parents visited for the 2006 season opener, a Florida State-Miami matchup in the Orange Bowl. His mother cried for an hour after the game just because he was part of it.
“I've flown them at least twice a year, wherever I'm at,” Navarro said. “Wherever I'm at, I want to make sure that my parents’ vision or their dream gets accomplished by going to go see wherever I'm at.”
A diverse coaching tree
When Mario Cristobal received Navarro’s note, he was the offensive line coach for the Hurricanes.
Funny enough, Cristobal’s coaching career started with an outreach, too.
In 1997, the former lineman attended a Syracuse-Miami game where the Orange dominated his alma mater. As he left the 33-13 Hurricanes loss, a security guard recognized him, surprising Cristobal.
“He's like, 'Man, why don't guys like you come back and help?'” Cristobal said.
Cristobal decided to fax some protection suggestions over tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski, who prompted Cristobal many times afterward about becoming a grad assistant. Cristobal later met with head coach Butch Davis and agreed.
That started a career that has now spanned more than 20 years, shifting from his original goal of working for the Secret Service.
“I fell in love with it,” Cristobal said. “And then when the call came to go do federal work, it was a very, very difficult time and decision. But I felt like I found what I really want to do. I found what my passion was meant to be.”
That led to his first head-coaching gig at Florida International in 2007. He hired Frank Ponce as his wide receivers coach, Juan Navarro as his director of football operations (he’d later shift to an on-field position), as well as Alex Mirabal, a high school teammate, as his offensive line coach.
He inherited a new program – the school started playing football only five years earlier – with a small budget. The staff made a makeshift weight room on a few racquetball courts. Football players used a Bowflex for some of their workouts.
Cristobal remembers days where the staff would go to boosters' offices to make copies because the program’s budget was maxed out.
Still, that staff found success. The Panthers were 2010 co-conference champions in the Sun Belt. 2010 and 2011 are the first winning seasons in the program’s history. But an injury-riddled 2012 produced a 3-9 mark. Cristobal and staff got fired in a move widely considered unjust.
College football, quite bluntly, is a sport where second chances don’t come as quickly for minority head coaches. Cristobal, however, felt he and his staff proved enough in their Florida International turnaround to garner interest.
“I never felt that,” Cristobal said when asked whether he worried about head-coaching opportunities in his future. “I felt like the comeback was going to be even better because of what we had learned, quite honestly.”
Right after, he heard from three schools with head-coaching vacancies and NFL teams regarding offensive line positions. Cristobal ended up at Alabama working under Nick Saban, and he was right: the comeback was better.
After three years and a national championship, Cristobal became the co-offensive coordinator at Oregon. He earned the head coaching job at the end of 2017, and his Ducks teams are 25-10. That includes a 12-2 season in 2019.
More important, though, has been his impact on the coaching community. Cristobal’s Oregon staffs have been heralded for their diversity, something he attributes to an upbringing in the multicultural haven of Miami.
Two of his former coordinators, who also happened to be Hispanic, are currently head coaches right now: UNLV’s Marcus Arroyo and Boise State’s Andy Avalos.
Avalos, a former Broncos linebacker in his first season, said small moments would resonate with him, like when Cristobal would answer phone calls and have conversations in Spanish.
Being part of those Oregon staffs provided an enrichment to Avalos’ understanding of how football can affect a person’s life.
“That's a beautiful thing about this sport, and that's why I'm very fortunate to do what I do because it is a combination of people,” Avalos said. “We are people first that are very lucky to be a part of this sport in whatever capacity. But we are people first, being able to celebrate, learn and enjoy each other's differences from cultures.
“That's a big part of it. That's one of the biggest blessings.”
Opportunities more than earned
Frank Ponce arrived for his interview, looking sharp.
It was 2007, and the newly hired Cristobal at Florida International was piecing together his first staff.
Ponce had coached 14 years at that point. He was the head coach and offensive coordinator at Miami Senior High. He’d never considered a move into college football until Cristobal called and asked to come by the school.
“I was taught old school ... even if you go talk to somebody, if it’s job-related, you go dressed to the T,” Ponce said. “And I’m there in a tie, suit, dress shoes, and all of a sudden I’m lining up in a wide receiver stance, and I am coming off the ball in a whole suit. And I would not take my jacket off.”
He’d built for that moment but hadn’t realized it yet. He showed up at universities around the state trying to learn about quarterback play and different offenses, digesting the ideas of anyone willing to share knowledge.
He took as much time as he could with coaches such as Steve Spurrier while he was head coach at Florida or Mark Richt, the quarterback coach and eventual offensive coordinator at Florida State.
“When I tell you I would spend hours and travel to all these universities from being in Miami – I had no money, so I had to go nearby,” Ponce said.
Ponce was more than familiar with Cristobal when he called. He and Ponce went to rival high schools – Ponce at Miami Senior High and Cristobal at Christopher Columbus. Cristobal would swing by to visit Ponce on recruiting trips.
Ponce worked a camp with Cristobal when the latter coached the offensive line at Rutgers. There Ponce showed versatility bred by his time as a high school coach; though quarterbacks were his interest, he bounced around position drills to help the camp run smoothly.
Later, Cristobal told Ponce those moments were the start of an interview process, culminating in Cristobal hiring Ponce as wide receivers coach at FIU.
When Ponce traveled from school to school, soaking in information as a high school coach, he remembers only one Hispanic/Latino coach in the state: Mike “Chico” Canales, who was at South Florida from 1996 to 2000. Now, he’d join Cristobal and Canales in the ranks.
Ultimately, Cristobal hired three high school coaches for that FIU staff: Ponce, Alex Mirabal and James Coley. All are from the Miami area, all of Hispanic descent. Mirabal and Coley, like Cristobal, have Cuban heritage.
Ponce, 50, is now the offensive coordinator at one of the prominent Group of Five schools in the nation. Mirabal is the offensive line coach at Oregon, working for Cristobal again. And Coley coaches tight ends at Texas A&M.
Mirabal and Ponce gravitated toward each other, trying to navigate a new landscape for the first time. If one had a question and was too afraid to ask, they’d talk it out instead. Mirabal felt they had the tools to figure out anything with their experience as teachers.
“Some people tell me ‘Hey, you never GA’ed,” Mirabal, 51, said. “I said I GA’ed for 16 years. It's called being a high school teacher.
“...To me, those were invaluable lessons that I learned.”
In 2010, Cristobal picked Scott Satterfield as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Ponce likes to tell Satterfield that he made the deciding vote in his hiring.
Ponce drove Satterfield, a North Carolinian accustomed to small towns, around the different sections of Miami. They would go to a Latin restaurant, where Ponce would translate Satterfield’s order to the restaurant workers. They affectionately called Satterfield “El Americanito.”
Satterfield returned that favor in 2013, after he’d been elevated to be the head coach at App State, his alma mater. He gave Ponce a tour of Boone.
Ponce decided before the visit that he would take the vacant quarterbacks coaching job if Satterfield offered it. The winding drive up U.S. 321 didn’t change Ponce’s mind, even though he felt as if his car might slide down the cliff face. Neither did the cold or the snow, two weather traits he had never experienced.
Ponce knew he had to go because he’d get to coach the position that sparked his interest in the game. It was time to leave home and leap. He worked with Satterfield in Boone for five years, then followed him to Louisville for another two before Ponce got his first offensive coordinator job back in the North Carolina mountains.
“I tell Satt that every time. Every time we talk,” said Ponce, who will battle with fellow Miami native and Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz on Saturday. “I think he gets tired of hearing it from me, and like Coach (Shawn) Clark, he hears it from me probably 100 times saying, ‘You know how grateful and thankful I am for the opportunity to be here?’
“Because nobody else would give me this opportunity, when I felt I was rightfully deserving of at least a look at and never got it.”
A chance on the field
If Austin Ybarra thinks about his career peak, he’s got a goal in mind.
He doesn’t think the head-coaching life is for him. The idea of being a defensive coordinator at the FBS level seems more like it, though. That journey, regardless of the person, has to start on the field somewhere as a position coach.
Ybarra pushed his way into the college football ecosystem. After Ybarra finished playing, he coached three seasons at Helena Capital High School. He became a volunteer assistant at Idaho in 2018, then joined Montana State as a grad assistant/quality control coach. Those roles feature tasks like practice setup and prescouting of film. They don’t allow for the coaching and teaching that drew Ybarra to the profession.
On-field roles eluded him. He saw others become pigeonholed in support gigs, and he didn’t want that to happen to him. Ybarra wondered how long he would stick out his career as interviews became fruitless. Truthfully, he felt the start of a burnout coming.
“It was kind of to a point where it's like, all right, is this what I want to do?” Ybarra said. “But then I'm sitting there like, ‘OK, well, I'm not coaching — I don't want to give up on this thing yet if I'm not coaching it.’”
Then an opportunity found him. Montana Tech, an NAIA school in Butte, needed a linebackers coach. The school’s head football coach, Kyle Samson, was part of the staff at Montana State-Northern during Ybarra’s time there as a player. He offered Ybarra the job, which he started near the beginning of August.
Ybarra joins a team hungry to play — the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the Orediggers out of their 2020 season and caused a modified 2021 spring season. The move has rejuvenated him already. Since he’s coming from a Division I program, he feels immediate credibility and that his position room listens.
“They're really easy to learn. They're just like, ‘All right, he must know his stuff,’” Ybarra said. "So, in that aspect, it's been awesome because they're dialed in and they're acting like sponges and they just want to soak up everything I have to say, which has been super cool to watch.”
A few months ago, Ybarra felt stuck in a silo. Now, for the first time in his career, he will work with a fellow Mexican-American, Jorge Magaña, the school’s defensive line coach.
Ybarra could name a few coaches with Mexican heritage — like Baylor’s Dave Aranda and UNLV’s Arroyo, as well as NFL head coach Ron Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Now he at least knows the network is bigger than he realized.
The group, however, still needs to grow. Coaches like Cristobal, Navarro and Ponce foster the belief that Ybarra could be part of the Division I community, too, one that would include a higher percentage of Hispanic/Latino coaches.
“It's been cool to see those guys take off because it's such a new and fresh ordeal, especially in college football,” Ybarra said. “... They're not just getting to that spot, but they're excelling.
“So it's kind of cool because, for a guy like me, it kind of gives me hope. You're sitting here like, ‘Wow, if they can do it, I can do it then, too.’”