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Written by Dave McMillian   

Ty Willingham 

by DAVE MCMILLIAN 

In 2002, I wrote my first college sports article on the hiring of Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame. The title of my article was “And then there were FOUR.” The FOUR referenced the total number of black coaches in NCAA Division 1-A football. At the time of Willingham’s hiring (Tyrone was Notre Dame’s third choice), it was kind of a big deal in college sports and was thought to have been the spark in dispelling the myth that blacks have the ability to run the plays, but are unable to call the plays. Boy! Were we wrong. I have always felt that celebrating “firsts” in racial equality in the “new millennium” was a step backwards. My thinking is, “Why are we rejoicing about a slow and unhurried progress towards racial equality? It has been decades since the Civil Rights movement?” But there is my mistake… “decades,” not centuries. Americans often pretend that Segregation and the Civil Rights movement predated the dinosaurs, but the truth of the matter is that there is still a living generation of conservative bigots from that time period, who control the purse strings at our colleges and universities.

 

Last month we all celebrated an overwhelming election victory of America’s first black (or half-black) president. After attending an election party, I felt that I needed to celebrate more, so a friend (who happens to be white) and I decided to drive to the White House to commemorate the historical occasion. I am sure most of you witnessed the beauty of the moment on the news: Young people from all races and classes were cheering as if they all had won the presidency. It was a rare moment in American History that I wish more people could have experienced. One would anticipate that with America’s overwhelming choice of a black president that the country is finally making an aggressive move towards true racial equality and erasing stereotypes, but in the world of sports something else happened last month. The something else was that Tyrone Willingham of University of Washington, Ron Prince of Kansas State and Sylvester Croom were all released from their respective Head coaching positions…bringing the number of black coaches in Division I-A from 6 to 3, in the year Two Thousand and Eight. (Mike Locksley, former Illinois offensive coordinator, was recently hired at the University of New Mexico…bringing the number back up to 4)

In 2004 Sylvester Croom made SEC Football history. Officials named him Mississippi State’s head football coach, making Croom the first black head coach in Southeastern Conference history. Croom took over a perennial league doormat, but for this deed to happen in the state of Mississippi was ground-breaking. Croom’s success was average, culminating in a Liberty bowl win in 2007, but after another sub par 2008 campaign and mediocre recruiting classes, Croom decided to hang it up. According to all reports, Croom’s resignation was not because of pressure from the university, but was self-imposed. Croom is an honorable man who would never put the blame of his slumping program on anyone else or any outside force, however, I think he was beginning to feel the pressure of the folks in the power positions. Can you imagine Croom at the annual Mississippi State Football Booster Christmas party? Sylvester in a room full of McCain supporters and Limbaugh listeners. Talk about an awkward moment. I’m sure he felt like an outsider and they looked at him as an outsider. He probably felt like Brian Scalabrine in the Boston Celtics locker room. Speaking of reversing the situation: How many Historically Black Colleges have employed white head coaches. Maybe one or two? If that is the situation, then maybe the hiring of black football coaches has less to do with extreme racism and more to do with employers hiring based on whom they would feel more comfortable with. So who would you invite to your Christmas party?

If you ever have some spare time to browse on the Internet, look up Dr. Richard Lapchick’s annual report card on Race and Gender in College Sports; the numbers are staggering. The statistics for 2007-2008 have not been finalized, but the 2006-2007 numbers address the problem in football. In 2006, almost 46 percent of college football players were black, but only 6 percent of all college head coaches were black. That is equivalent to tuning into a professional hockey game and seeing two black head coaches coaching against each other. I don’t think there would be riots in Canada, but I’m sure most sports fans would find it peculiar. The most telling stats that I saw on the report card were the numbers describing the “power positions“ in NCAA Division I-A sports. In 2006, 93.3 percent of College presidents were white, 86.7 % of College Athletic Directors were white and 100 % of the conference commissioners were white. These absurd numbers do not even include the number of boosters and donors who have more influence than any college employee. My father and I often discuss the fact that while the hiring of a black head coach at a university may look like progress, it is really of little significance in the scope of the sports world. We have always felt that unless you are Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno , a head coach’s power is only relevant for three hours on Saturdays. And the funny thing about the Saturday game is that nowadays teams have so many coordinators and assistants on both sides of the ball, that the head coach has been relegated to a figurehead. With virtually no play-calling responsibility, a college football head coach is simply the central face of the organization or business. In case you haven’t noticed, College Football is BIG business. So do we honestly expect white people in power positions across the nation to hire black men as the face of their university? I don’t like assuming, but do you think university presidents or college boosters voted for change on November 4th?

On the eve of election night, President-elect Barack Obama was asked about the one thing he would change in sports. The President cited the catastrophe of the college football Bowl System and declared a need for an immediate playoff system. Three weeks later he was asked to elaborate on his position on college football on “60 minutes.” Like 66 Million others, I admired Obama’s charisma and completely agreed that college football’s lack of a playoff system is an important concern. But it is not and should not be the number one priority for change in sports. Please don’t misunderstand me, the executives and decision makers in college football are the best example of capitalist greed in all of sports and their current Bowl Championship Series should be destroyed. I just feel that the lack of black college football head coaches should be the NCAA’s number one priority and should have been on the mind of our future president. Obama had a great opportunity to give the issue the needed national exposure, but instead he struck out like a blind baseball player. Or maybe President-elect Obama chose the problem with the easiest solution. After all 99 % percent of all college football fans agree with Obama’s idea of a Division I College football playoff. But not too many folks have come up with any workable solutions for hiring more black head coaches in Division I football.

Recently the members of the Black Coaches and Administrators (BCA) basically threw their collective hands up, saying “We thought the results of the report card would change things, but we have gone backwards.” At least the sports community is addressing the problem. The next move is to find something that works. The NFL found something called the “Rooney Rule”, which mandates that every team in search of a head coach must interview at least one person of color. I like this rule because it does not employ absolute Affirmative Action. Absolute affirmative action is just another form of racism in an effort to combat racism. But examples like the Rooney Rule work because it opens the eyes of an employer to a pool of qualified candidates that he or she might not have thought of. Jason Whitlock, of FOXSPORTS.COM, said the problem with black head coaches in college football is that black coaches are accepting the wrong jobs. Whitlock referenced John Thompson, Jr. and his gradual rise to power in college basketball through trial and error. When Thompson took over the Georgetown basketball program, his team was one of the worst in the nation. But with the complete support of the university and its community, Georgetown basketball reached an elite level. I agree with Whitlock. I feel that most black coaches who accept these high-profile positions enter the situation with two strikes against them. Tyrone Willingham was not given the chances (or extension) that Notre Dame has given Charlie Weiss, despite virtually identical underachieving records. Most new college coaches take their bumps and bruises (Rich Rodriguez at Michigan); but would you rather go through the hardships in the basement of college football or on national television every Saturday?

Perhaps a regulation similar to the “Rooney Rule” will bring about needed change in college football. Maybe black coaches will begin to select coaching positions based on the college environment rather than on salary. All of these possible solutions are extreme possibilities; they may or may not work. One thing that I think would show immediate results would be for celebrated high school athletes to start questioning the lack of black head coaches during the recruiting process. Can you imagine the impact of black athletes considering only schools with black head coaches? But that is truly wishful thinking because our athletes no longer aspire to be agents of social change like Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali; they would rather be global icons, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

 

 

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