June 10, 2007

Black coaches confident in progress

DORAL, Fla. The first steps of a long run are typically slow.

Then, momentum builds and speed is increased.

In its 20th year of existence, the Black Coaches Association is hopeful it has finally gained sufficient momentum and is on the verge of picking up speed in their run for fairness.

It has been well-documented that men of color have had few chances to be head coaches in Division I-A football. While some white coaches have gotten multiple opportunities to succeed, Washington's Tyrone Willingham - who was previously at Notre Dame and Stanford - is the only black head coach to be fired at one school and rehired at another.

Black coaches aren't asking to be hired because of their color. However, they don't want to be denied for that reason, either. They feel their road has been blocked by college football's hiring process. A head coaching candidate typically must be approved by several people, including big-money donors who are usually white. The feeling whether true or not is those supporters may be more apt to contribute if they're more comfortable with the candidate who looks like them.

Yet, many black assistants whose head coaching aspirations have produced exasperation expressed cautious optimism for the future during last weekend's Black Coaches Association convention. Several cited the matchup of two black coaches in the Super Bowl and the University of Miami's hiring of Randy Shannon as reasons to hope opportunities await.

"I'm a positive person, so I'm very optimistic because I believe in myself," said Kentucky defensive backs coach David Lockwood. "But when you look at the number of minority coaches it humbles you a little bit because of that reality. But we'll see what happens."

J.D. Williams, the secondary coach at the University of Washington, is in the uncommon situation of working for a black coach Willingham and competes in a conference with another black head coach, UCLA's Karl Dorrell. Williams can see first-hand that the possibilities are there.

"I think the opportunities are slowly coming about," Williams said. "But I do think college football is a couple of steps behind the NFL."

That's a sore subject with black coaches. Just last February the Super Bowl matched two black head coaches Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears. The BCA points to that as the final piece of evidence that black coaches are unquestionably qualified and should have more opportunities.

The Chosen Few
There are currently just six black head coaches among the 119 major college football programs:
Turner Gill, Buffalo, hired 2006
Ron Prince, Kansas State, hired 2006
Randy Shannon, Miami, hired 2007
Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State, hired 2004
Karl Dorrell, UCLA, hired 2003
Tyrone Willingham, Washington, hired 2005
"That shows we're capable of organizing and leading and motivating," Georgia Tech tight ends coach Jeep Hunter said.

BCA Executive Director Floyd Keith was more direct.

"We had a guy win the Super Bowl," Keith said. "That should be the end of the discussion."

Of course, it isn't. But the Super Bowl could spark discussions and perhaps crack open doors at some schools that have been always been locked.

"It's got to," said Carey Bailey, the head coach at Division I-AA Howard and a former Minnesota assistant. "I like to think it will. Now that that has happened, it's got to be better than it was."

Williams echoed that optimism.

"It's got to have an influence," he said. "College football is a little different than the NFL because the head coach is a lot more in the community. It's slowly changing, but we're not there."

In the two decades of the BCA's existence, there has been progress in terms of minorities on coaching staffs, but the steps for hiring black head coaches move at a glacier-like pace.

Keith pointed out that only seven men of color six African-Americans and one of Latin decent are currently head coaches at the Division I-A level, which includes 119 schools. That's especially disconcerting considering more than half the scholarship players are African-American.

He suggested that at least one-fourth of the schools in Division I-A should have black coaches.

"I don't want to put a limit on it," he said. "I think if we could fluctuate from about 23 to 28 percent that would be fair because half the people on the field are people of color.

"The NFL has 32 teams and six black head coaches. That's about 20 percent, and it should be better. But that's almost three times what we have in the college ranks. We should have more in college than in the NFL. The bottom line is there is a systemic problem in the process."

Keith said college football's hiring process is perhaps greatest obstacle facing black coaches.

"In the NFL you might have to convince two people the general manager and the owner," Keith said. "In colleges there is the athletic director, the president, the search committee, the Board of Regents and significant others."

The significant others, of course, are the donors that bankroll many of the country's largest athletic departments. Some programs are so well funded they can operate financially independent from the university.

Many black coaches are leery that those donors have too much control over hiring coaches because they can threaten to stop their donations if they don't approve of a candidate.

"The booster clubs will make the final decision," Hunter said. "In the NFL you have the owner making the decision. That's one human being as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions."

Bailey agreed.

"The reality is most decisions are not made by the athletic directors or the presidents," he said. "There are three or four guys in the back of some restaurant that are calling the shots."

Bailey said blacks need to get into that group calling the shots by becoming significant financial donations to their universities. He called for professional athletes with multi-million dollar contracts to become more financially involved with their alma maters.

"We (African-Americans) have a lot of athletes, but once they leave college there are few cases where the guys give back in the donation process," Bailey said.

But that's just one area which could lead to opening doors. More immediately, Bailey feels if a black head coach can lift his program to national prominence and keep it there more people will take notice.

"When (former Georgetown head basketball coach) John Thompson won a championship and then maintained a high level of play, more black coaches got an opportunity," Bailey said. "It will take Randy Shannon or Ty Willingham to win it all to validate us."

Historically, black coaches have gotten opportunities at colleges where Bear Bryant himself couldn't have been successful. For example, Tony Samuel was 34-57 and had two winning seasons in eight years at New Mexico State. But he's also the second-most successful coach in school history. Before he arrived in Las Cruces in 1997, the Aggies had managed one winning record (6-5 in 1992) in 18 years.

Willingham is rebuilding a once-proud Washington program, and Karl Dorrell has done an admirable job at UCLA.

But Shannon, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to Miami's head coach last December after Larry Coker was fired, takes over a program that's one of the most prestigious in college football. The Hurricanes count five national championships since 1983.

But Miami was just 7-6 last season, and if Shannon can lead a return to national prominence it will provide further evidence that black head coaches can be successful on an elite level if given the chance.

"I think that will open up a lot of doors for us," said a coach from a rival ACC school. "He has six minorities on his staff full time. Those guys are going to get it done. He's a hell of a football coach."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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