SBJ/September 30 - October 6, 2002/Opinion

Same old, same old in coaching circles

All across the nation, cheers greeted the return of college and pro football. Baseball's tangled labor negotiations and questions about steroid usage made the start of these seasons even more anticipated than usual. With great players, great teams and their fans, the fall arrived as a breath of fresh air.

Yet serious commentators on sport have focused closely on football's lingering problem of the lack of African-American head coaches.

In the entire history of the 117 Division I-A schools, some going back more than 100 years, plus the two schools that hired African-American coaches but no longer play Division I football, there have been 11,413 seasons of football played. Only 72 of those seasons have been led by an African-American head coach. Only 19 African-American men have ever led a Division I-A team. Their average tenure was less than four years, and only Dennis Green, Ron Cooper and Tyrone Willingham ever got a head coaching job at more than one school.


Looking at all current and former NFL teams, there have been 1,636 seasons of pro football played. Yet only 34 of those seasons have been led by an African-American coach. If you count Terry Robiskie's three games as head coach of Washington in 2000, there have been six African-American head coaches in the history of the NFL. Their average tenure was less than six years. Only Ray Rhodes and Tony Dungy got second chances.

Often we hear white coaches, in their press conferences upon hiring, say something like: "Dreams do come true. I worked hard. I was patient and my dream came true." History teaches African-American coaches to scale down their dreams.

Only four Division I-A schools and two NFL teams have an African-American head coach in the 2002 football season. Five years ago, there were twice that many in college and three in the NFL. It is getting worse, not better.

None of the African-American college coaches started the season at a top-25 school. In the Sports Illustrated preseason ranking, Michigan State was highest at No. 28, Notre Dame was 39th (though wins in its first four games brought the school into the top 10), New Mexico State 97th, and San Jose State was 107th.

African-American coaches, when they do get a chance, usually end up in troubled programs where there is very little likelihood for success. Starting with Wichita State in 1979, here are the schools that have ever hired an African-American coach: Northwestern (both Green and Francis Peay), Ohio University, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Stanford (two African-American coaches, Green and Tyrone Willingham), Long Beach State, Wake Forest, Eastern Michigan State, Temple, North Texas, Louisville and Oklahoma State.

The most significant hires arguably took place between 1996 and 2002. John Blake took over at the University of Oklahoma in 1996, Michigan State hired Bobby Williams in 1999 and Notre Dame hired Willingham in 2002. In that period New Mexico State and Southwest Louisiana State hired African-American head coaches. In 2001 the first 24 openings went to white coaches until San Jose State hired Fitz Hill for the final vacant position.

In the last six years, there were 109 vacancies in Division I-A. African-Americans took over six of those posts.

Throughout this history, various assumptions have been made by some athletic directors who did not consider African-American candidates. Among doubts frequently heard behind closed doors were that African-Americans cannot lead white players, that African-Americans cannot work with white alumni organizations, and that African-Americans would be unable to raise the funds to support a big-time football program. The fact that head coaching packages now regularly surpass $1 million makes athletic directors even less likely to take a chance on an "untested" coach. But how do you get tested without the opportunity?

African-American assistant coaches were hired in the 1980s and 1990s. Hill, whose Ph.D. thesis studied attitudes on the issue, said many African-American assistants felt they were brought in to watch over and handle the increasing number of African-American players on the teams. Most were coaches of receivers, running backs or defensive lines.

Hill said that African-Americans don't speak up for fear that they would be labeled malcontents while whites don't speak up for fear of retribution if they were thought to be "politically incorrect." The result is that real feelings are being suppressed and the undercurrents of stereotypes and covert racism are left to fester.

In 1997, there was an all-time high of eight African-American head coaches. The number dropped to six in 1998, five in 1999 and four in the year 2001.

Current hiring practices in college football can be portrayed as a pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid, 50.6 percent of Division I-A scholarship athletes are African-American.

Looking up the side of the pyramid, 20.4 percent of the assistant coaches in Division I football are African-American. Are there coaches in the pipeline below Division I? When you combine all three NCAA divisions, only 14.9 percent of assistant coaches are African-American.

Approaching the pinnacle, approximately 10 percent of the coordinator positions, considered to be the most important channels to head coaching positions, are held by African-Americans.

At that top, a narrow 3.5 percent of all Division I-A schools and 2.4 percent of all Division I schools have an African-American head coach.

I don't think we need to know anything more than the Eddie Robinson story. As this college football season began, many debated whether Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno will hold the all-time record for wins in college football. Most seem to have forgotten that Robinson had 80 victories more than either one of these giants by the end of his incredible career. He sent more athletes to the NFL than any other head football coach in the history of college football. His athletes graduated at a rate of nearly 80 percent in a sport where the rate is nearly 50 percent. And only in this last year were any of his players ever in trouble for crossing social norms.

In spite of this amazing record, Robinson not only was never hired by a Division I-A school but was never offered an interview. I think that tells the story even more than the numbers.

Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sports Business Management master's program at the University of Central Florida.

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