Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Neil Armstrong had it easy. He only had to walk on the moon.
Willie Jeffries, the first black head coach in Division I football, had to walk into the homes of recruits – often Caucasian – and try to convince them to play for him at Wichita State.
"There was a northern kid – I was visiting his home in Philadelphia – and he said he could not bring himself to play under a black head coach," recalled Jeffries, who coached Wichita State from 1979 to 1982. "I decided to joke about it, and I said I was happy to find that out before it was fourth-and-1. His parents laughed and we kept drinking our hot chocolate and eating cookies."
Now retired and living in South Carolina after a successful career in which his teams were 174-130-6, Jeffries said those kind of hurtful incidents were rare. He said his players, boosters and community were 100 percent supportive, and he rewarded their loyalty by guiding the Shockers to an 8-3 finish in 1982.
That was Wichita State's highest victory total in 21 years. It was only their second winning season in that span, which was a big reason Jeffries was coaching there in the first place.
"The schools that hired black coaches early were schools that were at the end of the road," Jeffries said. "They tried and tried all kinds of things and said we've got to try something never tried before to see if we can get the program going."
Since Jeffries was hired in '79, there have been 20 black head coaches in Division I-A. In the vast majority of cases, the schools had struggling programs.
A common theory was that a black coach might be better able to relate to minority players. Some recruits then might be drawn to a program with a minority coach.
"Some will and some will not," Jeffries said. "You have individuals who want different things. Where there's an advantage with one kid there may not be with another."
The recruiting process clearly isn't a black-and-white issue, and some of today's players who chose to play for black coaches maintain they were not influenced by race.
Two years ago, Josh Freeman — a four-star quarterback prospect from Kansas City — was the jewel of Nebraska's 2006 recruiting class.
The Chosen Few
There are currently just six black head coaches among the 119 major college football programs:
He had committed to Nebraska in June that year, and the likely schedule of his progression called for him to serve as Zac Taylor's understudy for one season. Then, he would step in to direct the Huskers' West Coast offense for coach Bill Callahan — who is white.
Three weeks after Kansas State hired Ron Prince – who is black – as its football coach, Freeman reneged on his six-month commitment.
A year later, Freeman acknowledges that it was Prince's presence which lured him to Kansas State — but not for the reasons some might think.
"It had nothing to do with race at all," Freeman said. "My mom is white and my dad is black. It has more to do with that person. Coach Prince is someone you're comfortable around every day and he'll push you to be the best you can be.
"Callahan is a great coach, but he's not the type I want to be around every day. In no way would I have had the type relationship I have with Coach Prince."
Alterraun Verner is a former three-star cornerback prospect from Carson, Calif. Verner chose to play at UCLA for coach Karl Dorrell, who is black. But like Freeman, Verner said Dorrell's race did not play into his decision.
"The times I talked to him (in recruiting) he was always positive and that's what appealed to me," Verner said of Dorrell. "He's the same way (now) he was when he recruited me. He didn't feed me any false dreams."
Dorrell is popular with his white players, too — who obviously showed they had no issue with race by choosing to play for him.
"I think it could definitely be an issue for some people," said UCLA senior linebacker Christian Taylor, who is white. "I lived in California my whole life – and I'm not saying there isn't racism in California – but I never really saw it. In other states race may be a factor. Because of some kids' beliefs they might not got to a school (with a black head coach). But race has never been an issue for me.
"(Coach Dorrell) is still my coach and he's still someone to go to for leadership just like any coach. He's a great guy and he's very fair. He's a man of morals and he truly wants what is best for his players. Football is important, but he wants us to graduate and do well. He cares about us as a team but he cares about us as individuals more."
Relating to and attracting players from all ethnic backgrounds is important, but the majority of highly rated prospects are black. About 70 percent of Rivals.com's top 250 rated players of 2007 are African-American.
Verner speculated that some black athletes might be influenced by the race of coaches when choosing a school, but guessed that's the exception — not the rule.
"I think there are probably a few players that will take that into consideration," he said. "But probably most programs have at least one African-American coach on the team, anyway. I really don't think it matters. I think that's more for the fans (to talk about)."
On-field and recruiting success would seem to support that opinion.
The five Division I-A programs that were led by black head coaches last season finished a combined 24-38. Only two – Kansas State and UCLA – posted winning records.
Just as revealing is how those programs have recruited. Of the six Division I-A programs that now have black coaches, only Miami (now led by Randy Shannon ) had a class ranked among the top 30 this year by Rivals.com.
Miami ranked No. 18, while Washington ranked 35th, UCLA 38th, Mississippi State 39th, Kansas State 41st and Buffalo 108th.
In Dorrell's defense, he had a limited number of scholarships available this season.
Climbing in those rankings is dependent on relationships rather than race.
"It's all about relationships," said first-year Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, who is white. "It's your ability to build a relationship with high school coaches, parents and kids. You'd like to think a kid is choosing a school because he's likes the school, but that's not always the truth. Kids choose schools because of relationships with coaches."
Brewster, who is white, has a reputation as a tremendous recruiter. As an assistant at Texas, he was instrumental in getting Vince Young to Austin — which would seem to reinforce that race isn't a major issue in recruiting.
However, Brewster also has six black assistant coaches on his nine-member full-time coaching staff. That seems to indicate race is a factor at least on some level.
But Freeman adamantly disagrees.
"The coach at Texas (Mack Brown) is white and the coach at Florida (Urban Meyer) is white, and they have no problem getting black players," he said. "(Athletes) just want to go somewhere to play, have a good time, go to school and win football games. Race doesn't really tie into it."
At least, it doesn't matter as much as it did for Jeffries about 25 years ago.