Charlie Strong’s hiring earlier this week as the University of Texas’ new head football coach is significant. He becomes, after all, the first African-American to lead the nation’s richest college athletic program and has a great opportunity to become the first African-American to win a national title, potentially changing the complexion of his profession as John Thompson did in 1984 when he became the first black head coach to win the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship.
For sure, that complexion is already changing. A decade ago, African Americans held four percent of the 120 head coaching positions at college football’s highest level. That has risen to more than 10 percent. Last year, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin became the first black head coach of a Heisman Trophy winner. And Strong’s hire means Texas follows Kentucky as the second state in which its two largest universities are led by black head football coaches. Strong and Sumlin’s vast platforms will alter perceptions in the minds of millions of young Texans of what a prototypical college coach looks like.
It seems inevitable that one day the fact a black head coach was hired at such-and-such big-time college program won’t matter. Just look at other sports. Hardly any sportswriters found it worth mentioning last week that Lovie Smith became the third black head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Eventually we’ll get to the point where this is not an issue anymore,” Floyd Keith, the former executive of the Black Coaches and Administrators, told the New York Times. “We’re not there yet. What’s missing is a national championship.”
But there’s more missing. Yes, John Thompson’s title at Georgetown was a game changer, opening the doors for subsequent championship-winning coaches like Nolan Richardson at Arkansas and Tubby Smith at Kentucky. Likewise, in the NFL, Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl in 2007. That win, along with an 11-year-old rule mandating NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for open head coaching positions, have helped more black coaches get a foothold in the pros.
Still, while a championship accelerates progress, it wouldn’t signify the ultimate breakthrough for minority coaches in college football. That won’t happen until black head coaches, like white head coaches, get second and third chances, says Dr. Fitz Hill, a former San Jose State University head football coach who has studied the issue for decades. “Race will no longer be an issue when the day comes that an African-American football coach is unsuccessful, but you still go and replace him with another African-American football coach.”
According to Hill, in the history of major college football, 28 black head coaches have been fired or forced to resign—usually because of losing records. In each of these 28 instances, the school hired a white coach as successor. That includes Hill’s own 2001-04 tenure at SJSU, where he went 14-33 before being let go. Hill believes this primarily comes from unconscious bias, not deliberate discrimination, on the part of the mostly white administrators and boosters involved in these hirings. He believes college football athletic directors tend to judge the performances of black coaches more collectively than they do for white coaches. The reason boils down to familiarity: powerful white men looking for tips during a coaching search are less likely to run in the same social circles as black coaches than white coaches—or the people who know them. A Charlie Strong at Texas, or David Shaw at Stanford, has the chance to influence deeply entrenched good old boy networks, but change along these lines can take years if not decades.
In the meantime, minority coaches “have a more difficult road to tread,” former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney said in November 2012. McCartney was speaking out on the early termination of his former protege John Embree, who had been fired after a 4-21 record at Colorado. “We don’t get second chances,” Embree said after his dismissal, speaking for all African-American coaches.
Hard to argue his point. Consider Tyrone Willingham is the only black coach to be fired at one major college program and hired at another one. That happened when he landed in Washington nine years ago after flaming out at Notre Dame. Everybody else leaves the business or resurfaces as an assistant.
The situation is different in Division I men’s basketball, where in the 2011-12 season 18.6 percent of head coaches were African-American. There, programs are far more likely to hire a black coach after firing a black coach. Arkansas, for instance, tabbed Stan Heath to replace Nolan Richardson in 2002. Five years later, Arkansas fired Heath. But he immediately got the head-coaching gig at South Florida, where he replaced another African-American who had been fired—Robert McCullum. Or look at Ray McCallum, who coached Houston to a 44-73 record in 2000-04. He was removed from that job, but resurfaced after two assistant stints as head coach of the University of Detroit Mercy, which he led to the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
College football isn’t as advanced as its basketball counterpart when it comes to coaching diversity. Charlie Strong’s new gig shows steps are being made, but its the non-success stories which will signify the goal has been reached. The most true sign of progress won’t be how high African-American coaches can climb in their profession, but how long they are allowed to fall without being yanked from the game altogether.