Charlie Strong was announced as Texas' first black head football coach on Jan. 6, and it felt like an event freighted with historical meaning. As in: Decades hence, when we point to landmark moments in college sports that brought us to a (nearly?) colorblind age, it seems certain we will flip to a photo of Strong standing in a burnt-orange shirt. We will automatically know that moment was a positive advancement in the complicated history of race relations in the United States.
African-American football coaches have won Super Bowls and Rose Bowls and coached Notre Dame and in the SEC, but Texas is perhaps the most high-profile college coaching job in the country. Further, Strong's hiring, coupled with Kevin Sumlin leading Texas A&M, means the two most-storied FBS programs in a football-crazed state are led by black men. When you toss in Penn State's luring James Franklin away from Vanderbilt, and the SEC school replacing Franklin with another African-American, Derek Mason, this hiring season resonated even more.
For many journalists, covering these coaching changes inspired a phone call to Floyd Keith, the longtime executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators, formerly the Black Coaches Association, who has been at the forefront of the fight to create more opportunities for black coaches. That's exactly what the New York Times, among others, did.
"Like when Tyrone Willingham was hired at Notre Dame, [this is] even bigger, because this is a program that can win a national championship," Keith told the Times about the Strong hiring.
What slipped by many as a relevant fact, though, was that Keith was at that point the "former" executive director of BCA. He resigned his position in March 2013 "to pursue other professional opportunities." Yet that's not even the primary issue. People change jobs, particularly after 12 years.
What is presently most notable is that the BCA is no longer active and is in the midst of a prolonged limbo. Its future is uncertain.
"The BCA has kind of gone away," Keith said last week. "I'm not saying that's because I'm not there. I'm not there to fan the flames."
The BCA, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization, has done a good job of fanning the flames through the years. Along with Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport, the BCA has been on the forefront of pointing out not only the inequity of hiring practices, but also educating minority coaching candidates and administrators doing the hiring about how to get their two sides together. Its annual "report card" was the main litmus test for progress. Or a lack thereof.
As Keith points out, since the first BCA report card after the 2003 football season, there has been a strong increase in black FBS head coaches, from just three to a high of 15 at the start of the 2012.
While the overall numbers are down to 11 heading into 2014, four of the 19 coaches hired this offseason were black. Mason was the fourth black head coach hired in the SEC over the past four years.
"I think that there have been more and better candidates in the last few years, and that is partially a result of the Black Coaches Association, because of the awareness, because of the preparation and hard work that's gone into it hopefully evening the playing field to a certain degree," Stanford coach David Shaw said.
The issue then is whether the recent progress is threatened in the absence of the chief advocacy group for the cause. Lapchick, for one, is concerned.
"It's very important that the BCA gets back on its feet," he said. "It's been down for about a year. Its voice was so important over the course of the last decade."
Getting someone to talk about what went wrong and the future of the organization isn't easy. Keith said he has moved on. He's now a consultant for the NCAA Office of Inclusion and Leadership Development and serves as a senior advisor for the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida, where Lapchick is based. He also has his own consulting group, PPA Professional Services.
"I think my time had come. I was there for 12 years," he said. "I don't know where the BCA is going forward now."
He then added, "It's difficult to keep an advocacy group together. You're always looking for money. It was a very difficult task. The same people you're asking for money from, you're shining a light on them."
I don't know where the BCA is going forward now.
”-- Ex-BCA executive director Floyd Keith
Notre Dame assistant head women's basketball coach Carol Owens was the president of the BCA board when Keith resigned and became the organization's leader after his departure.
In a short story from February of last year, Owens told ABC57 in South Bend, Ind., that "changes were in the works" and "something big is coming to make the association more inclusive of all minorities." Owens didn't respond to interview requests from ESPN.com. A Notre Dame spokesperson said, "The BCA is currently undergoing a restructuring and as such, she is not in a position to comment at this time."
"Restructuring" is a term used multiple times by those familiar with the inner-workings of the BCA. It appears the BCA continues to look for new funding and leadership, though it's unclear when -- or if -- that is going to arrive.
Said Floyd: "Maybe the model isn't the model it needs to be now. Maybe times change."
Lapchick pointed out that, despite the recent marquee football hires, the playing field in big-time college coaching is not yet level. He noted that the number of African-American Division I basketball coaches has been trending downward in recent years. Research from Dr. Fitz Hill, a former head coach at San Jose State who now works with Lapchick, shows that "in the history of major college football, 28 black head coaches have been fired or forced to resign. ... In each of these 28 instances, the school hired a white coach as successor," according to an article from the Daily Beast.
The wheels of social progress typically grind slowly, and the movement tends to be more of a zigzag than a straight line. When you talk to black coaches and administrators and those who have long fought for their cause, there's certainly a sense of progress.
But there's also a sense that a need still remains for sustained vigilance and advocacy.
"I think the goal is to get to the point that you don't need things like the Black Coaches Association," Shaw said. "The goal is to get to the point where those things are unnecessary."
Then he concluded, "I don't know if we've reached that point."