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Coaching pioneer sees progress

When Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin in December, the Associated Press news story reported Sumlin's race in the 11th paragraph. Why so low? Because it wasn't news. There is progress in what we don't read.

Remember way back when, in 2005, when Football Bowl Subdivision schools employed three African-American head coaches? The Southeastern Conference, once the last bastion of all-white locker rooms, now has that many by itself.

There are 15 African-American head coaches at FBS schools today, and that's two fewer than last season. If you include those of Hispanic and Asian-American heritage, the number of minority head coaches climbs to 18.

It may not be the beginning of the end, as the former British coach Winston Churchill once said, but it looks like the end of the beginning.

"What it used to be was like being in the Sahara Desert," said Floyd Keith, the executive director of Black Coaches and Administrators. "I think we've made real strides in the last three years. The hiring has been good. The opportunities are there."

In 2004, Keith began putting out an annual hiring report in which the BCA graded schools based on interviewing minorities. It doesn't have the oomph of the NFL's Rooney Rule, which provides for fines for NFL teams that don't interview minorities. But in the FBS, public shame has been an effective substitute.

"They [the coaches] don't look at it now that they are pioneers," Ron Dickerson Sr. said. "When we got to that point, that the African-American coach is not a pioneer -- that he is not labeled as 'an African-American coach' -- then we feel like we've gotten to a point that we are very successful."

Dickerson, 63, was so much a pioneer that his first courtesy car was a covered wagon. He wasn't the first African-American head coach. That honor went to Willie Jeffries, whom Wichita State hired in 1979. But Jeffries' hire jump-started little. Over the next 12 years, you could count the number of black hires on one hand.

Dickerson, a well-respected assistant coach, had been interviewed by six schools. He wasn't going to turn down the interviews, even when he and the athletic director both knew he was there as a token.

When he finally got an offer, after the 1992 season, Dickerson leapt at it. Temple had joined the Big East two years earlier and had yet to win a conference game. Penn State coach Joe Paterno, for whom Dickerson had worked for seven seasons, advised him to wait for a better opportunity. Dickerson went to Temple anyway.

Weeks later, Eastern Michigan hired Ron Cooper, and the Eagles opened the 1993 season against the Temple Owls. For only the second time in history -- and for the first time on ESPN -- two FBS teams coached by African-Americans would play one another. In a steady rain at Rynearson Stadium at Eastern Michigan, Temple won, 31-28. The result that mattered little outside of Eastern Michigan and Temple.

"When we get a fair number of [African-American] head coaches, it will be forgotten," Dickerson said at the time to my colleague, Gene Wojciechowski, who covered the game for The Los Angeles Times. "I don't know when that will be, but I think it will be in the very near future."

The natural optimism that led Dickerson to take the Temple job, where he won eight games in five overmatched seasons, also led him to get the time frame wrong. Simple math tells us that 15 head coaches at 120 schools is not a "fair number" in a sport in which 56 percent of rosters are comprised of African-American players.

"Obviously, I feel elated," Dickerson said of the state of FBS hiring. "Yet I am not satisfied."

Signs of progress are all around the sport. Once upon a time, fans kept track of black quarterbacks. No one does any longer, unless it is to point out that black quarterbacks have won three of the past six Heisman Trophies. Keith points out that the past six Super Bowls have included an African-American head coach or general manager.

Dickerson sees another sign of change. Last year he took a job as defensive line coach at FCS Gardner-Webb for a first-year head coach by the name of Ron Dickerson Jr. Across the country, Stanford just went to the Fiesta Bowl under first-year head coach David Shaw, the son of longtime NFL and college assistant Willie Shaw.

"When I started coaching, the kind of offspring that were coaching were the Bowdens," Dickerson said. "Now we've finally made it, in 2012. … It truly is a dream come true that I have the opportunity to coach with my son. I am proud of him, not just because of the position he holds."

Hiring African-American coaches is not news any longer. And it just may stay that way.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.