Wednesday, December 10, 2008
By: Kevin Ware, Vanessa Longshaw and Sierra Rodriguez
On a Saturday afternoon in September of 1970, Rick Wright drove north on Interstate 81 toward Syracuse. He had never been to Syracuse University. Every school he attended from elementary school to college was predominately black. And now, he was going to a "white institution" to get his doctorate.
As he drove through Scranton, Pennsylvania, he turned on the radio. Nine black football players at Syracuse University were on strike, demanding equal treatment and a black football coach. "Oh my God," Wright said as he listened to the newscast. "There are problems at Syracuse."
More than 30 years later, Wright, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and an unofficial recruiter for the football program since 1975, says the nine football players planted the seeds for the recognition of black athletes and coaches but Syracuse still has not made the final push. There have been black assistant coaches at SU but never a black head coach. However, Syracuse is far from alone.
The 2008 season started with six black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division-1. Now, after the firings of Ty Willingham at the University of Washington and Ron Prince at Kansas State and the resignation of Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State, there are only three black coaches out of 119 FBS teams, the fewest since 1993. The all-time high of eight was in 1997. With jobs open, including Syracuse University's after the firing of Greg Robinson last month, that number could rise before next season. However, the issue remains a topic of debate in the sport.
"It's not just disgraceful, it's inexcusable," said Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches' Association and former-head football coach at the University of Rhode Island. "There really is a significant issue here. And it's been a disparity for a long time and it continues to be."
The lack of black head coaches at the college level is nothing new. The first college football game was played in 1869; the first black coach at a predominantly white college didn't arrive until 1971, Don Hudson at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
When Frank Maloney was fired as the head coach at Syracuse in 1980, there was a strong call for legendary SU running back Floyd Little, a black man, to replace him, Wright said. However, Dick MacPherson ended up being hired.
"The university just did not have the guts at the time, nor the leadership, nor the fortitude to do what they should have done and that was to hire a black coach," Wright said.
In 1991, MacPherson was succeeded by Paul Pasqualoni who was replaced by Robinson in 2005 which now leads some inside the program to believe it's time for a change not only in coaching style but race as well.
"Yeah, I'd like a black coach just to get some more diversity," said Syracuse sophomore wide receiver Da'Mon Merkerson. "… [Race] definitely plays a factor. It is hard to say race doesn't play a factor because everyone has these assumptions on race.” Merkerson said he would not be against having another white coach, though.
“[With] Greg Robinson, we didn’t do things that physical,” said freshman defensive end Romale Tucker. “We played it safe but sometimes I feel like you need to break out of that safe shell. Black coaches would mix it up a bit; they make it a bit unpredictable … A black coach would put a little bit of flavor into his play.”
The search for a new coach is underway, and so far athletic director Dr. Daryl Gross has interviewed multiple candidates (the exact number is not known), two of whom are black: Mike Locksley, the offensive coordinator at the University of Illinois and University of Buffalo head coach Turner Gill. However, sources report Locksley has agreed to become the next head coach at New Mexico, which would raise the number of black coaches to four. Gill is still in play to become the next Syracuse coach, but he is also being strongly considered for the opening at Auburn University, widely considered a better job than Syracuse’s right now.
"Is the university ready [for a black coach]?" asked Jeff Mangram, a safety under MacPherson from 1985-to-1988 and now an assistant professor in the Syracuse University's School of
Education. "I think so. With resources and the time, I think it would be. Is that person in the pipeline? I don't know. Is the pipeline again clogged in such a way to prevent men of color from being coaches, head coaches?"
There are 31 black coordinators in the FBS out of a possible 238 (13 percent). Blacks are being interviewed for head positions, but they aren't getting the jobs.
"At the end of the day, I still believe, interviewing is not hiring," Floyd Keith of the Black Coaches Association said.
The discrepancy of the percentages of black head coaches is evident from the college to the professional ranks. Just 2.5 percent of FBS head coaches are black, while in the NFL that number is 21.8 percent (7 out of 32).
Keith says a large part of the reason why the NFL has made progress is because of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for coaching spots. "On the college ranks, it's the A.D., the president, the board of trustees, now there's a search group and it's employed by a lot of the high profile searches," he said. "Then there's the significant others, meaning political or financial influence."
In the NFL, there are only two people of major power, the owner and the general manager.
"So you have more voices in the crowd [in college] and one of the difficult things is the voices, usually a majority of the time, aren't diverse or don't reflect diversity," Keith said. "So consequentially, you have the inherent problem."
While there is bigger money to be made in the NFL, the profit colleges make from football is vital to their athletic departments as football is typically its biggest moneymaker.
"I'll tell you what, we've got no choice," said Rick Wright when asked if the next head football coach should be black. "If we don't do this, we've just got to go out of business."
Not everybody agrees that race is the most important factor in the upcoming hire.
"No, I don't think [he needs to be black] necessarily," said former-SU coach Frank Maloney, who is now the director of ticket sales for the Chicago Cubs. "I think you want to hire the best one that you think after through your scrutiny and search that you can get to take the job. I think the ideal thing is to establish a criteria (sic) of what you are looking for in a head coach, and I don't think race should be one of them either way. I think blacks should have just as equal of opportunity as whites."
Gross eventually will need Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor to approve his choice. But for the meantime, the university is keeping the search under wraps.
"You want to get the right person," said Kevin Quinn, vice president of public affairs at Syracuse University, speaking on behalf of Cantor. "Race doesn't play a factor. I know that there are very strong African American candidates out there and I have absolute confidence that Daryl is considering them."
The coach who is hired will inherit a program with serious on-field problems. The Orange hasn't been to a bowl game since 2004, the final year of Pasqualoni's tenure. Under Robinson, SU went 10-47, including a 3-25 record in the Big East. And the immediate future doesn't look bright either. The Orange has only four recruits committed for next season.
While some people think hiring a black coach is the only solution, others are afraid hiring a black coach for the sake of hiring a black coach could ultimately do more harm than good.
"What would happen if you [hired an unqualified African American] and they weren't successful?" asked former Syracuse University Chancellor Kenneth "Buzz" Shaw. "You're making it hard for the next African American who's highly qualified."
Advocates for a black head coach might say because Gross is black he should hire a black coach. Gross declined to comment for this article. Even though Keith is calling for more black coaches, not all universities are as open to the possibility of a black head coach.
"Would it be good to have a black coach?" said Jake Crouthamel, the Syracuse A.D. from 1978-to-2005. "Sure. Would it be the greatest thing in the world? As long as that coach fits the criteria and fits the program. I don't think right now in the situation they're in color has anything to do with it. It’s coaching football."
Since 1982, there have been 466 head coaching vacancies in the FBS, according to the BCA 2008 Football Hiring Report Card. Blacks have been selected for 21 of those jobs, with all but one being hired after 1990. There have been 26 black head coaches in the history of college football.
"We talk about diversity but we don't really mean it," Mangram said. "Talk is a bunch of crap. It's about money and business and power. They aren't going to let it happen. That's why you have three out of 119. They don't think black people are smart enough. I'll go there. They don't think they have the brain capacity or the discipline. Nobody will say it, but three out of 119 does."
"It would be cool if we had a black coach," Merkerson said, "but I don't think it's going to happen. But that would be cool."