At Stanford, a symbol of real change

Stanford's David Shaw has quickly made a name as one of college football's top coaches. Kyle Terada/US Presswire

STANFORD, Calif. -- It is a fact, pure and simple, that Stanford University is the only FBS school that employs African-Americans as the athletic director, head football coach and head men's basketball coach.

A fact, yes. But is it news?

To a younger generation, it is a dog whistle heard only by those old enough to remember lily-white football teams in the '60s and token black assistant coaches in the '70s. "Who cares?" the younger generation says.

To those who hear the dog whistle, African-Americans in Stanford's three most visible athletic jobs is a milestone.

Stanford hired Johnny Dawkins as men's basketball coach in 2008, promoted David Shaw to run the football team in 2011 and hired Bernard Muir as athletic director a year ago next week.

A year has passed, and almost no one has mentioned it. Maybe college athletics, barely 40 years after the last major FBS team integrated, has gone post-racial.

"I think it is a story that it's not a big story," Shaw said. "That's a great story!"

Leave it to a Stanford guy to go meta.

"For all the things we always hear that are negative and bad," Shaw said, "this is kind of a positive thing that it wasn't splashed across all the newspapers, and there weren't riots in the streets and people pulling money out. That things have actually continued to progress is a story in itself."

Once upon a time, we counted African-American basketball coaches. Once upon a time, we noticed black quarterbacks. Now, no one blinks.

We are not quite at that point with FBS head football coaches. There will be 13 this season, down from 15 last year. Minority candidates complain that they get literally no-win jobs, are given no time to fix them (see Jon Embree at Colorado or Turner Gill at Kansas) and get no second chances. Tyrone Willingham remains the only African-American college football head coach to be hired (Washington) after being fired (Notre Dame).

Still, when Shaw and Charlie Strong of Louisville became the first African-American head coaches to win BCS bowl games last January, they received virtually no acclaim. Move along. Nothing to see here. So it is with Stanford's hiring practices.

"I can say with confidence and sincerity that the fact that they were African-American had nothing to do with our hiring them," Stanford provost John Etchemendy said. "So, go figure. We did three separate searches, and in each case, the very best candidate came out and happened to be African-American."

The athletic department reports to the provost. Etchemendy either ran the search or approved the hiring of Dawkins, Shaw and Muir. The provost said the university makes sure it includes minority candidates in any hiring. After that, Stanford picks the best candidate.

"At a place like here," Muir said, "they just want you to be successful and strive for excellence in everything we do. I think this is the sort of culture where it doesn't matter, and yet still there is great respect in understanding that, boy, what an opportunity we've created, at least in this case, for the three of us to assume these leadership roles and do our craft as well as can be expected."

Once Stanford hired Muir, Etchemendy said, no one in the university administration put two and two together. But here's the crazy thing: Muir didn't notice, either. Only when a reporter from his hometown paper, The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, asked about it did Muir realize what Stanford had done.

Students and administrators here speak of "the Stanford bubble." The real world exists on the other side of El Camino Real, the commercial thoroughfare that borders the campus and runs pretty much the length of the peninsula. It may be that only at Stanford could a coach like Shaw hear about Muir, meet him and then later think about the significance of the hire.

"Which I think is such a positive," Shaw said, "because way back when, that was always the first thing. And now it is, 'What kind of person? What kind of background? Is he ready for this?' Those were all the things that came to all of our minds first, and then race came second, which I think is the way that it should be."

Muir understands the symbolism of what the university has done. He talks about "becoming a beacon," not only for minority coaches and administrators but for other universities as well.

"I would be perfectly fine if people saw this as an example," Etchemendy said. "A statement, I beg to differ. I hesitate because it isn't a statement. It wasn't that we were trying to make a statement."

Etchemendy sliced it pretty thin there.

"I am a philosopher by training," he said with a smile. "I make distinctions like this, you see."

Last season, Shaw also had African-American coordinators -- Pep Hamilton on offense, Derek Mason on defense. In January, Hamilton left for the Indianapolis Colts. Shaw promoted offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren into the job. Bloomgren is white.

No one noticed that, either.