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Hope They're Ready

11/14/2008
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Tyrone Willingham likes to say it's a shame when many are judged by one. Willingham, before this, his worst season as a head coach, always cautioned against getting too invested in one black man's success or failure. He knew that to this point, when a non-white man reaches a high point, the excitement around him is palpable and the expectations massive. (I'm reminded of the black Notre Dame fan who told me, "If Willingham fails, we all look bad.") Willingham knows that no man can possibly right all the wrongs that have preceded him. All he can do is coach.

But now that a black man is assembling his cabinet as the newly elected President of the United States, what does it mean in sports? Does it mean some of us can finally exhale because the collective playing field is at long last truly level?

Kansas City Chiefs President and general manager Carl Peterson has a record that suggests the seeds for a level playing field had already been planted.

In January of '06, when Peterson hired Herman Edwards, he didn't do it because of societal pressure. He did it because he wanted to. In the early 70's, as the receivers coach of Dick Vermeil's UCLA staff, Peterson tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Edwards as a player. Then, a few years later, while director of pro personnel for the Eagles, Peterson signed Edwards as a free agent. Peterson got to know Edwards and liked his approach to the game. "You try not to look at cultural or ethnic background," says Peterson. "That's not the reason I hired Herman."

But the color of a man's skin can't always be ignored. "The election of Obama alerts people to the possibility of minority groups getting hired," says Peterson. "It's not just giving it lip service." The fact that Obama's DNA comes courtesy of Kenya and Kansas is a statement of the times. "I like to think that we've come to the point where it's a multiracial society," says Peterson.

In fact, shortly after the Chiefs hired Edwards, Peterson used Edward's mixed race heritage to drive that point home. Peterson says one of the local sportswriters told him, 'I can't believe you hired a black coach.' Calling upon the I-don't-see-color humor since perfected by Stephen Colbert, Peterson quipped, "Oh, is Herm black? I thought he was German."

His own personal relationships aside, Peterson defends the Rooney Rule, which dictates every team interview a minority candidate for any job opening. "I can't speak for the collegiate ranks, but we've come a long way," says Peterson. "The Rooney Rule is working in the National Football League."

Super Bowl XXXXI was the first time the game had seen both teams coached by black men on that stage. For an entire afternoon, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith walked either sideline while their teams fought for the greatest prize in sports. In the two years since, there has been exactly one black coach hired. Since the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin, two others, Emmitt Thomas and Mike Singletary, have been appointed to interim positions. That makes seven total, but who's counting?

Floyd Keith is.

Keith, the director of the Black Coaches Association is always watching. Since 1988, it's been Keith's job to "address significant issues pertaining to the participation and employment of ethnic minorities in sport in general and intercollegiate athletics in particular." Keith seems perplexed by recent history. "You know, after Super Bowl XXXXI, I would have thought that would have made a difference in the number of minority coaches who were hired," says Keith. "But it did not."

And lest we be tempted to abolish this type of proactive policy, consider this: On election night, Bill Bennett, a conservative former Secretary of Education and by all accounts, a very smart guy, twice uttered the phrase, "Now we can close this chapter." These words are problematic because they suggest that this one victory signals an end to racial angst and not the beginning of long awaited change. People like Bennett need to realize that despite such momentous events, or maybe because of them, there's reason for blacks to remain vigilant in our pursuit of diversity.

Keith says the presence of Obama, and what kind of a difference that could mean, remains to be seen. "I hope it reflects America," he says.

Ah, hope. During the past two years, that word has been co-opted and made into a property. Keith has maintained a pragmatic view. "I gotta go with the numbers," says Keith of the just four black coaches who run Division one football programs. "You can become a general in the military easier than you can become a head coach."

He's right. While black participation in college football is high, the percentage of black coaches is at an almost mind-bogglingly low figure: less than 4%.

Keith's frustration is fueled in part because Ron Prince, a Black Coaches Association board member, was recently fired by Kansas State. This also caught Peterson's attention. "I don't think that Kansas State gave Ron Prince enough time," says Peterson. "Why give a guy a five year contract and let him go after three? But there are other factors there, like alums. I have to answer to one group—the Hunt family."

Finding a coach isn't scientific. It's subjective. But why is it so difficult to find minority coaches? Some would say it's a matter of "qualified" candidates. When the Miami Dolphins named former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron their coach in '07, they did so because they thought he was qualified. After the Dolphins won a total of one game, it was concluded that he was not.

I've heard all the arguments supporting the lack of qualified black candidates. I've also heard that decision-makers hire people they know, people they're comfortable with. And they just don't know any minority coaches. This is the weakest argument. You can't tell me that coaches, athletic directors and general managers don't know one another. Peterson knew Edwards. Former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White knew Willingham while both coached at Central Michigan. Those relationships led to opportunities. What NFL decision-maker alive today or coach who once played didn't develop relationships with black players? How is it possible to assume otherwise?

The most salient point on this topic was made by Bill Parcells, the man the Dolphins hired to select Cameron's successor. A couple of years ago, right after the Chiefs hired Edwards, the New Orleans Saints hired Sean Payton. Parcells worked with Payton previously, and was asked if he thought Payton was ready for the job. Parcells recalled the day he was hired to coach the Giants. "I don't know if any of us is ready," said Parcells. "I mean, you hope a guy is ready."

There's that word again.

Alan Grant played five years in the NFL, and is an ESPN The Magazine contributor. Read more.