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Enduring Dixie: College football today

December 23, 2008

by Dave Zirin

Turner Gill
Turner Gill
In 2008 we are faced with a question: What is the easier path for an African-American male, becoming president of the United States or an NCAA Division I football coach? The answer reveals something sordid about college sports, as well as university presidents and the boosters who back them.

At present, there are 120 Division I-A football programs, and you can count the number of African-American head coaches on one hand … literally. There are currently four: Turner Gill at Buffalo, Randy Shannon at Miami. Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, the new head coach at New Mexico.

Randy Shannon
Randy Shannon
This number had been 50 percent higher, but then Ty Willingham of Washington and Ron Prince of Kansas State were pushed out the door – leaving just the four, half the number of a decade ago.

That’s 3.3 percent, in a sport where 50 percent of the players are African-American. It’s not as if there are no Black assistant coaches either. African-Americans make up 312 of the 1,018 assistant coaches. Therefore, the message being sent by the NCAA football world truly is as simple as black and white: African-Americans are only good enough to bleed, sweat and get their ACLs torn out. Only then are you qualified to hold a clipboard. But the top job has a “Whites Only” sign on the door.

Kevin Sumlin
Kevin Sumlin
Charles Barkley called this out when his alma mater, Auburn, hired Iowa State’s Gene Chizik for the coaching job instead of Gill, who against all odds has made a winner out of Buffalo. “You can say it’s not about race, but you can’t compare the two résumés and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé. …

Mike Locksley
Mike Locksley
“My biggest problem with the Black coaches is they’re not getting jobs and they’re getting [expletive] jobs when they are hired,” Barkley said. “They’re not getting good jobs. They’re not getting jobs where they can be successful. That’s why I wanted Turner to get the Auburn job. He could win consistently at Auburn. You can’t win consistently at New Mexico. You can’t win consistently at Kansas State. He could have won at Auburn.”

This reality is especially stark in the South Eastern Conference. The SEC is the gold standard division in college football. Top teams like Florida, LSU and a resurgent Alabama field the best players and have become pipelines to the pros. It’s also the conference that has the schools with a background of the most bitter integration struggles during the civil rights movement – among them, Alabama, Mississippi and Mississippi State.

It could be the conference that sets a trend nationally and makes a statement that the whole era of the old South is gone with the wind. But the SEC has had only one African-American head coach in its history, Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State, and he just resigned.

A number of college coaches, off the record, give explanations like the “small-mindedness” of university presidents, or say that the culture of college administrators is “resistant to change.”

Coach Johnny Lopes, who coached on the defensive side of the ball at USC from 1979 to 1985 said to me, “Many white coaches feel that Black coaches don’t have the intelligence to coach at the college level. The white fans still hold to their prejudiced feelings. College presidents need to have a good relationship with the fans. It’s about money.”

But all of this is a kind, roundabout way of saying the word “racism.” Qualified candidates are passed over because they have the wrong color skin. The sad facts are that 92.5 percent of university presidents, 87.5 percent of athletic directors and 100 percent of conference commissioners are white.

Even more important, the boosters who pull the strings aren’t looking for change. The wealthy funders of pigskin are the ones calling foul on any pretensions of diversity. They are looking for the familiar guy they can have a beer with, the guy they know. It’s like Eddie Murphy’s famous “White Like Me” SNL sketch come to life. As soon as all the Black folks are out of the room, it’s a party for everyone in the box, including the new coach.

The strength of boosters also makes affirmative action plans like the NFL’s somewhat successful “Rooney Rule” less than helpful. The “Rooney Rule” dictates that NFL owners must at least interview a person of color when a coaching opening arises. This has helped break down some of the walls in the NFL. But in the NCAA, where boosters call the shots, the individual choices of university presidents have far less sway.

College football, in particular, should be sensitive to these charges. The game has been referred to as a “plantation economy” because the student athletes don’t get a dime in a sport that produces billions of dollars in revenue. The solution is going to have to reside in sanctions far stricter than the “Rooney Rule.” The qualified assistants are there so conferences should have diversity quotas or be penalized bowl money and scholarships. This is the only strategy that will actually work.

It’s time for NCAA president Myles Brand to show some real leadership. Or maybe sports fans should begin to turn the channel. Even better, students on these college campuses should take out the clipboards they were using to register people to vote and start registering people in the struggle for a more diverse athletics department. The message is simple: The path to the White House shouldn’t be easier than the path to coach football at Oregon State.

Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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