In the history of race in sports, the milestones, like Jackie Robinson's breaking baseball's color line or Doug Williams's becoming the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, often come clearly marked. But some of the most significant moments aren't moments at all. They are subtle, almost imperceptible shifts in attitude that creep up on us when we're not looking.
It's hard to find a spot on the time line, for instance, to represent the change in thinking that has allowed two black men, San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker and Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham, to become arguably the most widely admired coaches in sports. It hardly matters whether the undefeated Fighting Irish can complete their surprising run for the national championship or that the Giants came up six outs short of winning the World Series. Willingham and Baker have already established themselves as men with distinctive, successful leadership styles, and a growing number of teams want them or someone like them. Baker, whose contract with San Francisco is set to expire, is certain to become one of the highest-paid managers in baseball, either by the Giants or by one of the other clubs that are lining up to bid for his services. "Dusty's hot enough that even teams who have managers in place might move them out if they felt they had a shot at him," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. It won't be long before Notre Dame is fighting off the NFL suitors who come calling for Willingham.
Baker, with his office full of jazz CDs and his hip, West Coast style, makes a connection with his players that most managers cannot, but it is Willingham's management approach that is shattering stereotypes. If Baker is every player's cool uncle, the no-nonsense Willingham is their demanding professor. The first black head coach in any sport in Notre Dame's history, he is being praised for reintroducing the discipline and attention to detail that the football program lacked under former coach Bob Davie, while Stanford, Willingham's previous team, has fans grumbling about the team's lack of precision under new coach Buddy Teevens. These are no small developments. When was the last time a black head coach was credited with running a tighter, crisper operation than his white colleagues?
But the fact that most of the public isn't even thinking in those terms is a sign of progress in itself. With every Notre Dame victory Willingham is talked and written about less as a pioneer and more as simply an exceptional coach. The fans and media in Chicago and Seattle who are urging their team to sign Baker aren't asking anyone to strike a blow for racial equality; they're just looking for the manager most likely to get them to a World Series.
As encouraging as Baker's and Willingham's success is, it shouldn't be taken to mean that the hiring process in sports has finally become color-blind, not when only four of the 117 head coaches in Division I-A football are African-American, not when lawyer Johnnie Cochran has threatened the NFL, which has two African-American head coaches among its 32 teams, with a lawsuit over the league's hiring practices. But when a black head coach like Willing-ham can be seen as the leading authority figure in his sport, when a black manager like Baker can sit back and wait for a bidding war over his services, there is something fundamentally different about racial attitudes in sports. It's like the turning of the leaves in autumn—we can't see it happening, but we know when the colors have changed.