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Northwestern's landmark hiring goes largely unnoticed

University of Illinois Athletics

When Northwestern hired Spencer Allen as head coach on June 14, it barely registered in the college baseball community.

The non-reaction made sense. Northwestern last had a winning season in 2000 and last won the Big Ten in 1957. Outgoing coach Paul Stevens is respected in the game, but Allen, 37, never has led his own program.

Allen's hiring came down in the midst of college baseball's postseason push. Northwestern announced Allen just before the start of Day 2 of the College World Series. If there was a personnel move that screamed to be confined to the transactions section of the sports section, this was it.

But college baseball fans, especially those attending or watching this week's Virginia-Vanderbilt CWS Finals, should note this hire. Not just because Allen is a bright young coach with a strong track record as an assistant, most recently at Illinois, which won a Big Ten-record 27 straight games this past season.

But also because Allen is black, and being a black head coach in major college baseball is, unfortunately, a very big deal.

"It is a banner moment," former Missouri assistant Kerrick Jackson said. "It shouldn't be in 2015."

Allen becomes the first black baseball coach in Big Ten history. He's believed to be just the third black baseball coach ever to lead a Power 5 conference team, and the first since Dave Baker completed a six-year run at Kansas State (then a Big Eight member) in 1983.

Bubba Morton was the first and only black baseball coach in Pac-12 history when he led Washington (then a Pac-8 member) from 1972-76. The SEC and ACC never have had black baseball coaches.

"It's about time," longtime Texas coach Augie Garrido said of Allen's hiring. "I applaud Northwestern for doing what's right and hiring the man of their choice."

The decrease in black baseball players at all levels has been gaining attention -- comedian Chris Rock recently addressed it on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" -- but the near absence of black college coaches at major programs goes largely unnoticed.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips led an exhaustive search that led to Allen. He and four staff members reviewed more than 400 bios, vetted qualified candidates and conducted 27 phone interviews and nine on-campus interviews before bringing back Allen and another finalist a second time.

Mindful of diversity in any search, Phillips noticed that the number of minority candidates, especially black candidates, was very limited. But he had no idea of the milestone in hiring Allen, whom he describes as a "shining star."

"I was shocked when somebody told me," Phillips said. "It's just unacceptable. ... Spencer, at the end of the day, got the job because of his abilities and his talent level and his success."

At Iowa State, Allen played alongside few black players. He coached with or against even fewer during assistant stints at Washington State, Purdue, Creighton and Illinois. But at the time, he didn't give race much thought.

"I don't feel like I'm necessarily a pioneer or anything," Allen said. "People in 2015 are trying to get the most qualified people. I truly believe it's not that people are trying to keep black players and coaches out.

"The NCAA will continue to promote African-American coaches once there's more there. That is at the root of the lack of coaches."

Unlike college football or college basketball, where qualified black assistants have been passed over for top jobs, college baseball simply lacks candidates.

"If you're trying to look beyond the historically black colleges, the list of potential [head-coaching] candidates is small, really small," said Mike Gustafson, president/CEO of the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. "You don't even see black assistants."

The NCAA reported only four black head coaches in Division I in 2014, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card produced by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. That data does not include the 11 black coaches employed at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 2014.

One of those four black coaches working in 2014 was the late Tony Gwynn, who coached his 12th and final season at San Diego State, his alma mater.

"The numbers have been very low, they've never increased with any kind of significance in a particular year," TIDES director Richard Lapchick said.

College baseball's racial makeup isn't much different than when Baker coached. He landed his first job at Creighton in 1972 and was succeeded by another black coach, Jerry Bartee, in 1978. But other than Bartee and St. Mary's College coach Miles McAfee, he didn't know any other black coaches in the sport.

Baker called the lack of black coaches in the past three decades "a little disturbing," but he isn't surprised.

"I started coaching right after Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated," he said. "There were a lot of opportunities for minorities. That was my time and I had the credentials and the ability. I wasn't thinking about being the first this or first that. I was a baseball coach. Times have changed, and the game of baseball is just not the favorite sport of young African-Americans.

"I'm not happy with that, but I understand that."

Current and former college coaches all link the shortage of black coaches with the decline in black players. While the number of black Division I players increased from 2013 to 2014, the low percentage (4.8) reflects the lack of representation throughout all levels of the sport.

There are only four black players in the championship series in Omaha, all from Vanderbilt. Neither team has a black coach on staff.

"You can understand [the lack of black coaches] when you look at the makeup of the teams," said Pollock, who just completed his 11th season at Presbyterian, his alma mater. "It's a representation of what the game actually looks like."

Baseball is attempting to reconnect with young black athletes, who have been pulled toward other sports, namely basketball and football. College coaches praise initiatives like Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, and last year's Little League World Series run by Jackie Robinson West, a team of black players from Chicago.

But the most significant measure, coaches say, is to make baseball and softball head count sports, so coaches can offer guaranteed full scholarships like their colleagues in football and basketball.

"We need [to be] a head count to get the inner city kids and the African-American parents aware," Garrido said. "So that when the kid is 11-, 12-years-old, they say, 'We're going for baseball.' Football has won that battle."

Until the numbers on the field change, the numbers in the dugout likely will remain low.

"In college baseball and all of college coaching, ADs want to see people who played at the Division I level," Allen said.

It's similar in pro ball: the 14 black managers in MLB history all played in the big leagues.

Boosting player participation is paramount, but coaching perception is another factor. The idea of a black college baseball coach remains unfamiliar.

When Kerrick Jackson recruited for Missouri at high school showcase events in the South, many saw the tiger on his cap and assumed he worked for Grambling, a historically black institution. Those who correctly identified Missouri's logo had other comments.

"People would say, 'You did really well winning the SEC East this year! Are you looking for running backs or quarterbacks?'" Jackson recalled. "And I'd say, 'Actually, I'm looking for pitchers and catchers.'"

Jackson often joked with his Missouri colleagues that he went 0-for-10 or 0-for-12 on recruiting trips - not in securing prospects, but in encountering people who correctly identified him as a baseball coach. Even recruits were surprised to see a black coach from a major program. Jackson was, after all, the only black assistant in the SEC.

"Some of the black kids I was able to recruit here or attempt to recruit, the idea that they were talking to a black assistant coach in the SEC, that gave them a greater sense of pride," Jackson said.

Added Pollock: "If you don't see anybody doing what you aspire to do who looks like you ... it can foil your dreams a little bit. But when you see it, you know it's tangible. It gives hope."

Both Allen and Jackson provided hope as recruiting coordinators for Power 5 programs. The more black assistants in similar positions could boost participation numbers.

But there were only eight black Division I assistants in 2014, according to the NCAA data provided to TIDES. Breaking into the game isn't easy. There are limited positions, especially at lower levels, and some jobs are voluntary. Garrido has had black players go on to coaching careers in the MLB -- Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Mike Harkey, who Garrido coached at Cal State Fullerton, is one -- rather than return to the college game.

"Only recently, in the last 10 years maybe, were there financial rewards to being a college baseball coach that were significant enough," Garrido said. "And the game is completely different. I couldn't go coach a major league team."

Another issue is the lack of awareness about the low numbers at the college level. When Jackson discussed his head-coaching prospects with Missouri executive associate athletic director Tim Hickman, he floored Hickman by telling him he was the SEC's lone black assistant. Lapchick, who founded TIDES in 1984 and has been a leading voice for diversity in college coaching, said he had never been interviewed about black college baseball coaches until ESPN.com contacted him last week.

"I was stunned and I was saddened and disappointed that there hasn't been progress in college baseball," said Northwestern's Phillips, president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. "We have to do a better job and pay attention to these things."

Vanderbilt first baseman Zander Wiel, whose father, Randy, coached basketball at UNC-Asheville and Middle Tennessee, said the lack of black coaches in college baseball is "kind of astounding."

"I look in the big leagues and see guys like Ron Washington and Dusty Baker," Wiel said. "I grew up knowing that these guys are big-time managers. I just thought there were more in college coaching."

For now, the spotlight is on Allen. Pollock hopes Allen opens doors for other aspiring black coaches like Georgia State recruiting coordinator Edwin Thompson.

"It's huge," Jackson said. "You want him to be successful. Nobody will come out and say if he's not successful, 'Well, there you go.' But in some people's minds, it may click that, 'Can he be successful as a black coach?' Baseball is such an old-school sport that there's some of those things. They're taboo. People have those thoughts but they won't come out and say it."

Said Garrido: "It's enormous. That's the way it should be. Hopefully other candidates for head jobs, assistant jobs, in college baseball, the opportunity will be enriched by this bold move.

"All eyes should be on him, and everyone should applaud him and support him."

ESPN's Mitch Sherman contributed to this story.