Getting Ahead by Staying in Place
Only 4% of the head-coaching jobs in Division I-A are held by African-Americans
It hasn't helped that Ty Willingham and others have struggled in big jobs
Black coaches need to follow the lead of basketball coaches like John Thompson
Hardly anyone takes kindly to being called a racist, presumably even those for whom the term is a perfect fit. Accusations of racial bias, therefore, generally ensure that the accused spend so much time denying them that they hear nothing else that's being said. Besides, without a damning utterance like the n word or at least a "nappy-headed ho," racism can be difficult to prove. Any questionable action, including passing over a highly qualified African-American coaching candidate in order to hire an underwhelming white one, can have multiple motivations. Good luck convincing those accused of racism that bigotry is the main one.
So Charles Barkley may very well have been right when he said that Auburn's hiring last week of Gene Chizik, who lost 19 of 24 games at Iowa State over the past two football seasons, instead of Turner Gill, who in three years transformed Buffalo from a doormat to MAC champion, was primarily a matter of racial preference. He's certainly right that the hiring practices in college football have systematically denied African-American candidates the chance to be head coaches. The latest depressing employment statistic is that only 4% (five of 120) of the head-coaching jobs in Division I-A are held by African-Americans in a sport in which 47% of the players are African-American, according to the latest NCAA statistics.
But the protestations of Sir Charles and others over the years have been about as effective in changing the system as throwing marbles to knock down a concrete wall. Correcting the injustice calls for a new approach. African-American coaches would be better served by focusing on creating powerful programs of their own rather than on trying to shame high-profile programs into fairer hiring practices. That's why Gill's being turned down by Auburn and signing a one-year extension to stay at Buffalo should not be seen as a disappointment. In a way, it may have been the best thing that could have happened for the greater cause.
Consider college basketball, in which African-Americans hold down 28.5% of the head-coaching positions. The breakthrough came after John Thompson took over at Georgetown in 1972 and turned a program that had gone 3-23 the year before into a powerhouse, winning the national championship in 1984. "In those days if you were a black coach, the top programs didn't come calling," Thompson says. "So you had to turn your program into a top program." By doing that, coaches such as Thompson and John Chaney at Temple began to open eyes to the abilities of black coaches. It wasn't long before higher-profile schools got the message and started signing their own.
Coaches such as Gill, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, Mike Locksley, who was hired on Dec. 9 by New Mexico, and Ron English, who was named Eastern Michigan's new coach on Monday, might be able to create a similar model in college football. They have to build relatively obscure programs into something greater, threatening and occasionally even beating bigger, more established teams and making a string of bowl appearances in the manner of, say, Utah and Boise State. That seems a more promising road to creating greater interest in black coaches than chasing the rare chance to coach a traditional power, which can ultimately do more harm than good. It might have been more helpful to African-American coaches as a whole, for instance, if Ty Willingham had stayed at Stanford, where he was exceeding the Cardinal's relatively modest expectations, but instead he left for Notre Dame, where one good season and two subpar ones earned him a quick pink slip. "White coaches are evaluated individually," says former San Jose State coach Fitz Hill, now president of Arkansas Baptist College. "Black coaches are evaluated collectively."
Athletic directors and college presidents apparently don't care how they are evaluated, at least on their football hiring practices. Years of being castigated by the media haven't spurred them to make anything close to a meaningful change. Forcing schools to interview black candidates isn't the answer -- African-Americans are getting interviews, but in most cases it's just a setup for disappointment that Hill calls the crackback. "It's like a player who thinks he's about to make the tackle and then, bam, at the last second out of nowhere he gets knocked out by the crackback block," he says.
But a bracing hit can sometimes bring clarity, and perhaps African-American coaches will realize that the biggest job isn't necessarily the best one. It's hard to know, for instance, whether Auburn's heart was in the right place last week, but for the time being, Turner Gill certainly is.