Keith: College football needs more coaches of color

Updated: February 28, 2007, 1:30 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Floyd Keith has a reputation for getting things done. As a former head football coach at the University of Rhode Island, from 1993 to 1999, Keith guided the Rams to a No. 22 ranking in 1995.

When Keith took over as executive director of the Black Coaches Association in 2001, the organization in Indianapolis had 172 paid members. The figure stands at 4,000 today.

While guiding BCA, Keith has become one of the most vocal proponents of increasing minority hires in sports. The All-American Football Foundation named him executive director of the year in 2004. In 2005, Black Enterprise magazine named Keith one of the 50 most powerful African-Americans in sports.

Keith, 58, is a native of St. Mary's, Ohio, where he grew up rooting for Ohio State, then coached by Woody Hayes. Keith also has coached at Indiana University, Howard University, the University of Colorado and Miami University.

Although he is an Indianapolis Colts season-ticket holder, Keith says he remains neutral as a fan.

"I just appreciate seeing a great game," he said.

Floyd Keith
AJ Mast/AP PhotoBCA executive director Floyd Keith: "I think history always teaches us that you have to understand the past before you can address mistakes being made today."
Remaining true to his cause, though, there is one team Keith always roots for: "If there is a coach of color, I'm always wishing him the best."

On the occasion of Black History Month, Keith talked with ESPN.com about minority hiring in sports, among other subjects. In a year that has seen two African-American coaches in the Super Bowl and improved representation by blacks in NBA and Major League Baseball coaching and managerial positions, only seven out of 119 Division I college football coaches are African-American. Why? And how can it be changed?

The small number is one reason we have had the hiring report card in place over the last four years. We evaluate every open search at the Division I-A level in an effort to enhance the inclusion of diversity in the search process. Our method of accountability is intended to hold the search process accountable. [But], at the end of the day, we are still low in numbers in regards to coaches of color in college football. Women's basketball is just about as bad. There are only 12 athletic directors of color, or seven percent of the total. What we want to do is [ensure] that there will be an honest and open search based upon achievement and body of work as opposed to being held down by what they look like or their ethnicity. Obviously, there is a social injustice here that has prompted a call to arms to speak out about the disparity that exists. One only has to compare the numbers in the NFL -- six out of 32 head coaches are people of color -- and consider that this is [sport] at the highest level, where it's really a business. Then, look at the numbers on the NCAA side -- seven out of 119. That just doesn't compute in any way, shape or form.

On the BCA Web site there's a quote from Earl Campbell: "If it weren't for the dark days, we wouldn't know what it is to walk in the light." He's talking about Fritz Pollard in football, Jackie Robinson in baseball and Earl Lloyd in the NBA, to name a few. Can you expound on Campbell's thought and why it's important for African-American athletes and coaches to remember?

I think history always teaches us that you have to understand the past before you can address mistakes being made today. I always look at four things: knowledge, accountability, and political and financial influence. From my viewpoint, this gives you a blueprint and allows you to move forward.

What achievement during your tenure as BCA executive director makes you most proud?

I think our increase in membership from 172 paid members in March 2001 to 4,000 members today. I'm also proud of the fact that we're very visible. Seventy percent of our membership is collegian. That voice is heard. We have a voice in issues that pertain to hiring and participation of student-athletes. We're involved in that. We're happy about the programs we have put in place. The coaching achievement program. The A.C.E. [Achieving Coaching Excellence] program for women is in its fourth year. There have been 42 participants that have resulted in seven head coaching positions. When you compare that to the 6.6 percent of women of color who are head coaches in Division I-A basketball, it's significant. [And] our hiring report card program has been a milestone.

In terms of racial harmony, what lessons can society learn from the relationships fostered on a football team?

Take a huddle, for example. It encompasses a lot of different things. In the average huddle, half the players are going to be people of color. The other half are not. They are going to join hands for a common effort. They will be of different religions, different economic levels, different sizes and different shapes. There are at least 11 different individuals brought together for a common goal. They have to depend on each other and work together. No one cares how much money you make or where you come from. It's all about the result.

Jim Brown said recently that the on-field antics of some African-American football players are inexcusable and perpetuate racial stereotypes. Agree or disagree and why?

I can't speak for Jim Brown. I can only say that when I was a coach, I was never one for celebration. That was me. I'm of the school where you hand the ball to the referee and move on. In sport, when we -- not just African-Americans -- draw attention to ourselves more than the team, I think we cross the line. I don't mind team celebrations. Team is what it's about.

The dream for many talented African-American athletes is to make it in the pros. Often they don't succeed and, as a result, are left with limited choices. What needs to happen for that mind-set to change?

We have to be realistic and stress the advantage of education. Sports are short-lived. Less than one percent of [college players] are getting into the NFL. You can work toward it, but it's not going to be there forever. Our youths are victims of the Internet speed of our society. We have to get there fast. I see it with coaches as well. Coaches can help mentor their players on the importance of using sports as a vehicle to secure a worthy profession outside the arena of sports. That should include financial, social and spiritual development. As a coach, my philosophy was to [handle] my players as I would raise my family.

Who's an African-American athlete, past or present, you admire and why?

Muhammad Ali. He went through many milestones, and he still stands. He was challenged in so many different ways. He made a stand when it was not popular. He can bring people together. He was a marvelous athlete. He was grace, and he never compromised his values.

As a coach, what's your favorite sports moment?

In 1995, when my Rhode Island team beat UConn. It was homecoming, our home field, and there was a driving rainstorm. We were down four, and we got the ball on our 2-yard line with three minutes to go. We went 98 yards. That's probably as proud as I've ever been.

What about as a fan?

It just happened. When I sat at Dolphin Stadium in the pouring rain and watched Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coach in the Super Bowl. That was amazing. There had never been a coach of color in the Super Bowl. We had two. And I was there.

George J. Tanber contributes to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.