Commentary

Number of African-American coaches remains unconscionable

Originally Published: November 11, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Let me guess: You never saw the story. Or if you saw it, you didn't care. Or if you did care, you don't know what can be done about one of the most depressing numbers in major college football.

Four.

That's it. Four African-American head football coaches out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, the lowest total since 1993 and 2005. It used to be six -- whoo-ee! -- but that was before Washington pink-slipped Tyrone Willingham and Kansas State pulled the rip cord on Ron Prince's purple parachute in recent weeks.

Do the math. Four out of 119 equals 3.36 percent (120 schools were studied, including one transitioning into FBS). That's less than you tip the worst waitress in the world. Now compare that to the other numbers published in a recent study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida:

• 54 percent of FBS players are minorities (50 percent of those African-American).

Outside The Lines

Outside the Lines will take a full look at the issue of black coaches in college football on Sunday, Dec. 14 at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.

• 5.04 percent of FBS head coaches are minorities.

• 92.5 percent of FBS university presidents, 87.5 percent of FBS athletic directors and 100 percent of FBS conference commissioners are white.

Nothing changes. The numbers fluctuate slightly from year to year, but the simple, numbing fact remains that African-Americans still can't punch a hole through the turf ceiling. They're good enough to play the game, good enough to become offensive and defensive coordinators (31 of 255), good enough to become assistant coaches (312 of 1,018), but not good enough to become head coaches?

"Give us an opportunity and an open mind," says Turner Gill, the third-year head coach at the University of Buffalo. "That's all we ask."

Turner Gill
Jeff Harwell/US PresswireBuffalo coach Turner Gill is one of four African-American coaches remaining.
Gill is one of the surviving four. There's him, Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Miami's Randy Shannon.

The proud. The too few.

"I agree with you on that," Gill said.

According to the recent study, co-authored by longtime diversity watchdog Richard Lapchick, there have been 199 available head coaching jobs since 1996. Only 12 of those jobs have gone to African-American candidates. This despite the ongoing efforts of the Black Coaches Association, the 1-A Athletic Directors' Association, Lapchick and, to some extent, NCAA president Myles Brand.

"I guess, sadly, the numbers have been prevalent for so long, the issue has been out there so much, that people are almost callous," said Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel, who hired Gill before the 2006 season.

He's right. The numbers have meaning, but they don't. We see them, we shake our heads, and then we turn to the NFL box scores to see how Drew Brees did in our fantasy league. It's old news. Or more correctly, it's the same news.

Nearly 20 years ago, then-Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson walked off the court before a game in protest of NCAA legislation -- Prop 42 -- that would prohibit partial academic qualifiers from receiving athletic scholarships. But here's the thing: Thompson has caused the anti-Prop 42 movement to reach critical mass. The legislation was overturned a year after its passage.

"If you feel something is wrong, you act on it," said Thompson, now a radio and TV commentator.

Just four African-American head football coaches is wrong. It's wrong because, admit or not, the unspoken rules seem to be different for minority coaches.

Facts are facts. Willingham is the first and only Notre Dame football coach in the modern era to be fired before the completion of his five-year contract. His successor, Charlie Weis, had exactly one more victory than Willingham after three seasons. Willingham got canned. After seven games at South Bend, Weis got a contract extension that runs through 2015. Meanwhile, Prince "resigned" before the end of his third season at K-State.

The trickle-down effect is that skittish university presidents and athletic directors can use those failures as an excuse not to hire minority head coaches. It happens, too.

I struggle with the why, to be honest. Why this is going on as long as it has. Why people who are coordinators in successful programs haven't had a chance to be a head coach, while others with less accolades, less records, get these jobs.

--Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel

"If a white person is not successful in a particular position, that doesn't mean another white person would not be successful," said Manuel, who happens to be African-American. He added: "I struggle with the why, to be honest. Why this is going on as long as it has. Why people who are coordinators in successful programs haven't had a chance to be a head coach, while others with less accolades, less records, get these jobs."

Why? Because it's safer. Because there's less blowback from university presidents, trustees, donors and friends of the program.

"I've always said that good white folks are reluctant at times to break the mold because of the pressures that are put on them," Thompson said. "They may feel a little freer to do the right thing now that we have a president of color. With [Barack] Obama going in, I'm just hoping that's the case. It gives them permission to do the right thing."

Gill inherited one of the worst programs in major college football. Before he arrived, the Bulls had won only 10 of their previous 79 games. Under Gill, they've won 12 of their last 33, are 5-4 this season, and could become bowl eligible with a victory at Akron on Thursday night. His success could lead to a more high-profile job, as well as create more opportunities for minority candidates. As it is, he gets occasional requests from other coaches asking for advice.

"All you do is share your experience," he said. "I tell them, 'You've got to do your best job there. That is all you can do.'"

You can also do what Thompson did. You can draw a line in that turf and say, "No more." You can make a stand, make noise and perhaps make a difference.

But Thompson, says Manuel, was a national and international basketball figure. He had larger-than-life stature and credibility, thanks partly to his NCAA championship in 1984. For a minority football coach to walk off a playing field in protest of hiring practices might not carry the same weight.

Thompson isn't buying it.

"Next time you talk to him," said Thompson, his deep voice softening, "you tell him John Thompson said he was glad Rosa Parks didn't feel that way. She didn't have to be Dr. King. She didn't have to be Malcolm X or Jesse Jackson. She was just tired."

We should feel the same way. Not callous, but tired. Tired of 3.36 percent.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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