Coaches see progress in hiring

New Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is the first black head coach at a major football school in the state of Texas. The SEC, which the Aggies will join this fall, now has three black head coaches.

These are interesting factoids, but the more substantive -- and better -- news is that they are of secondary importance to this: Sumlin was the first African-American to be a certifiable "hot" coaching candidate.

If Sumlin hadn't had his heart set on A&M, he could have become the head coach at Arizona State. And he also could have become the head coach at UCLA. He didn't have to fight and claw to get his toe in the door at an AQ school.
Big-time football programs sent a limo to pick him up and were waiting with their finest meats and cheeses when he arrived.

His race was incidental. Sumlin wasn't the perennial black candidate about whom everyone was wondering "When will he get a chance?" No, he was the guy who won big at Houston, the top highlight on a strong résumé. He was a guy of whom folks in the know said "Dude can coach." He was a guy who made many immediate short lists as 26 schools made coaching changes. He was a guy whom schools like New Mexico and Toledo eyeballed wistfully -- "We can't get him!" -- while A-list programs amassed forces and organized sales pitches to charm him.

In 1994, there were only four black head coaches at FBS schools. In 2002, that number bounced all the way up to … four. Things weren't much better in 2008, when there were just five black head coaches. And for many these numbers were a source of consternation, from the Black Coaches Association to the NCAA and to the media. Really, for anyone who cared about fairness, particularly in a business in which around 50 percent of the players are African-American.

But Sumlin's ascendance is part of a larger recent trend: real progress, which is worth noting during Black History Month. Not only are there now 15 black head coaches in FBS football, seven of them have AQ conference jobs.

"Yes, I think things have definitely improved," Colorado coach Jon Embree said. "Some of it has been the right timing."

"Timing" here reflects Embree's hiring as well as David Shaw's at Stanford after the 2010 season. In both cases, jobs opened at their alma maters at points when they had the solid résumés and the behind-the-scenes support to get hired. They were two of six African-Americans hired just over a year ago.

The wheels of positive and enlightened change churn slowly, but it's not unreasonable to suspect that college football has clicked decisively past a cog in history's twining. Hiring a black coach is no longer seen first through a sociological prism. It's seen more through a prism of potential for wins and losses in a business where the former are are valuable and the latter get you fired quickly. And that's all anyone ever asked for -- to be judged on merit, one way or the other.

"Whoever is doing the hiring should pick whoever he wants to be his head coach, period," Shaw said. "We can't put pressure on people, telling them whom to hire. What we can do is put pressure on people who are doing the hiring to make sure they are truly open to the best candidates possible."

Shaw is Stanford's third black head coach following Dennis Green and Tyrone Willingham. That hiring record is unmatched at the AQ level. Embree, like most black coaches at AQ schools, is Colorado's first black head coach.

"It's up to us to have success to keep opening up doors," Embree said. "No one thinks anymore about a black coach winning the Super Bowl. It's been done a few times."

That's the rub. Conference and national championships are the new "firsts," the new measure for how to put the finishing touches on a sense of normalcy for an athletic director to hire an African-American without spending much time thinking about making history.

There's another reason hiring black coaches is getting easier: The talent pool is deepening behind the scenes as more African-Americans are getting coveted coordinator roles. Both Shaw's coordinators are black, and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton almost certainly will start raising some eyebrows if the Cardinal offense keeps churning, post-Andrew Luck.

But Stanford isn't alone. In the Pac-12, it's one of five programs with black coordinators. No longer are black assistants merely position coaches who are lauded for recruiting. They are now calling the plays. And that's the best way to get a head-coaching job.

Some despair the very existence of this subject. They counter that we should insist on being color-blind and that keeping track of how many black head coaches there are smacks of social engineering. Still, 15 out of 120 doesn't yet feel like an arrival at a glorious destination of equal opportunity. Further, Shaw and Embree don't see race going away as an issue that folks pay attention to -- with college coaching jobs and elsewhere -- any time soon.

"I think that is still far off," Shaw said. "We're nowhere close to that. I think it is always going to be a topic, something that comes up."

Yes, but it can come up in different ways. In 2008, there was frustration over a stunning lack of progress. But just four years later, the numbers seem to point toward improvement.

Race has long been a sensitive -- and sore -- subject in this country. And it's not going away. But that doesn't mean the narrative can't shift.

"I don't know if it will ever be a nonissue," Embree said. "But 25 years from now, I hope there are some other barriers broken down -- a couple of national titles won by African-American head coaches."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-12 for ESPN.com. You can find his blog here.