Searching for diversity

Thumbing through the sports section that chilly Friday morning, former Illinois running back James Coleman stumbled across 461 words that sent him into a rage.

It was a story updating the search for a new football coach at the University of Illinois. In it, several signs pointed to former Florida coach Ron Zook.

Eleven days earlier, Coleman and 62 other former Illinois athletes sent a letter to Illini athletic director Ron Guenther encouraging the school to consider a list of minority candidates for the coaching opening. "We're finally gonna get one," Coleman told his co-workers.

But there it was, the day Guenther was reportedly meeting with Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the day before Guenther was to sit down with Kirby Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals -- both African-Americans with Illinois ties -- and Coleman was reading that the decision may already have been made.

He lost it. He jumped off his couch, marched through the patio door, pulled off his Illinois letterman's ring and chucked it as far as he could. It disappeared into a heap of snow in his backyard.

"I was always taught to stick by your team, no matter what," said Coleman, the Illini's MVP in 1977 who now works at a juvenile detention facility in suburban Chicago. "But you can only take so much. When you read in the paper that they're just waiting out the minority candidates … that just set me off. It's just not fair.

"I told myself, 'I'm done with Illinois.' "

For those seeking a change in the face of college football's head coaches, Coleman's frustrations were nothing new. In 25 years of Division I football, only 17 African-Americans have occupied any of the 2,846 head coaching positions.

This year, there were 22 Division I-A head coaching vacancies. Only the University of Washington, which selected former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham, hired a minority. The decision-makers at the other 21 schools came to a different conclusion: the "best fit" for their university was a head football coach who happened to be white.

"They talk about this, they talk about that, but they haven't moved," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association. "I don't know whether it will take an earthquake to wake people up or what.

"This is a problem."

The numbers agree. Of the 117 Division I-A football schools, only three will have an African-American coach next season (Mississippi State, UCLA and Washington.) That's less than 3 percent in a sport where an estimated 52 percent of the student-athletes are black.

A young black male has three times better chance to become a general in the U.S. Army than he does a head football coach for a Division I-A school. He has a better chance at becoming president of a Fortune 500 company than he does leading a college football team onto the field.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Willingham, who this offseason became the first minority head coach to be hired by a school after being fired by another. "I do not think they offer great commentary for where we are today. But at the same time, to those who aspire to be head coaches that are of ethnic backgrounds, never give up the battle. Keep pressing forward because that is the only way that change will be accomplished."

The problem only seems to plague college football. Of those same 117 schools that play I-A football, 34 -- roughly 30 percent -- have an African-American head basketball coach. The NFL, which in 2002 adopted the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coaching vacancy, has seen its ranks of black coaches rise from two to a record five. The rule is far from perfect and has been widely criticized for only leading to token interviews, but if Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel gets the Cleveland Browns job, the NFL would add a sixth minority head coach among the league's 32 teams -- a respectable 19 percent.

"With where we are right now," Keith said, "we feel there's enough talent out there that if the process is done fairly, you won't be able to keep a candidate of color from one of those college jobs.

"If you do it right."

That's the motivation behind the minority hiring guidelines the BCA released last year. Calling for at least 30 percent of search committees and finalist pools to consist of people other than white males and coaching searches lasting at least two weeks in length, the guidelines were designed to make each search fair and open. The goal is for minorities to eventually account for 20 percent of hires on the I-A level. NCAA President Myles Brand praised the guidelines, calling the current number of minority coaches "simply unacceptable."

Accompanying the guidelines was a report card that graded schools on the fairness of its hiring process. The BCA's first Minority Hiring Report Card came out last fall with 10 of the 14 Division I-A schools receiving a B or better. The University of Nevada was the only school to receive an F.

Grades were made public in an effort to educate parents, teachers, coaches and potential recruits on schools that did or didn't follow procedure. The overriding message: don't play where you can't coach.

Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow encouraged his son to take a similar stance when Kellen Jr. chose his college in 2001, refusing to sign Kellen Jr.'s letter of intent to play for Rick Neuheisel at the University of Washington. Winslow eventually signed with the University of Miami, where he played for a black position coach.

"All I was saying is take a look at who the decision-makers are," Winslow said. "And if you don't see somebody who looks like you, ask why."

Given the rapid turnover of college football head coaches, Keith is confident that half of I-A schools should have some sort of grade within three years. This year, with 22 openings, including high-profile schools like Notre Dame, Florida, LSU and Washington, the information is sure to stir headlines.

The 2005 report card won't be out until this fall, but ESPN.com explored the three high-profile coaching searches of the offseason to examine whether the BCA's guidelines were followed. (Click here for the complete report.) The search at Illinois left hundreds of former Illini athletes disappointed in their alma mater. South Carolina bypassed an open search given the opportunity to sign Steve Spurrier. And at New Mexico State, athletic director McKinley Boston, himself a minority, hired Hal Mumme, a white coach with a controversial past.

'We ought to be ashamed'

At a time when Illinois has the No. 1 basketball team in the country and school pride should be at an all-time high, a group of former Illini athletes couldn't be more embarrassed.

Purdue and Illinois are the only remaining schools in the Big Ten to never have employed an African-American football or men's basketball coach. The hiring of Zook failed to change that.

"It isn't right," said former Illini running back Howard Griffith, a nine-year NFL veteran. "And there's nothing they can tell me to make it right. I don't need the rhetoric. All I can do is see. And what I see is that they're not passing. But I'm supposed to be excited because they have the No. 1 basketball team in the country? It's shameful."

Griffith was one of the 62 former Illini athletes, from three generations and varying racial backgrounds, that signed his name to the letter requesting that the school "strongly consider" minority candidates for the job. Included in the letter was a list of 13 potential candidates -- all of whom the group had contacted to ensure their interest in the job.

The letter was dated Nov. 22, the day Ron Turner was fired. But the group said it didn't hear from Guenther until Dec. 3, after it grew impatient and sent the letter to the chancellor's office. By then, reports had already begun to surface that the job looked like it was going to Zook even though the group was aware that Frazier and Wilson had yet to interview.

Per state affirmative action laws, a formal announcement wasn't made until Dec. 6, two weeks after the job was originally posted.

"To their credit, they put together a process that was much more equitable than most schools," said Dino Pollock, a former Illini receiver during the 1980s who is now a social worker who works with Chicago youth. "But what happened on paper wasn't what happened behind closed doors. The winks, the handshakes. Those things aren't documented, but we feel like Zook was basically a done deal before it should have been.

"That might roll if you're in Idaho and you've got a small minority population -- but you can't run that game in Illinois."

The university denies any wrongdoing. Larry Mann, the chairman of the chancellor's equal opportunity committee, examined the search process before an announcement was made and approved it as open and fair.

"There was a rigorous effort to determine who, among the finalists, was the most qualified for the job," Mann said. "And that left Ron Zook.

"There were reports that he had already accepted the position and had been extended an offer," Mann said. "Rumors how much money, how long of a contract. They just weren't true."

The explanations haven't satisfied the group. When they took their complaint public, they found other former Illini athletes who also were upset. A group of 62 now numbers nearly 200. And not only have several of them said they pulled their financial support from the university, they plan on getting their message out to the parents and coaches of future Illinois recruits.

"Just so they know, yes, your son or daughter is going to be able to come down here, win Big Ten titles in track, jump, dance, whatever," Griffith said. "But don't expect them to run the football program. It won't happen.

"People criticize us for not supporting the university. But wait a minute. The program is already hurt. And we ought to be ashamed."

'Extraordinary circumstances'

There were 24 hours this past November when the University of South Carolina didn't have a college football coach. Twenty-four hours between the announcements of Lou Holtz's retirement and Steve Spurrier's hiring.

But that's just a technicality. Holtz himself alluded to Spurrier in his farewell news conference, saying his replacement was "a very well-known, proven winner ... that I play golf with."

And that's what doesn't sit well with the BCA. Forget an unfair search. Forget a search that looks good on paper but may have been contrived behind the scenes. At South Carolina, there was no search.

Holtz reportedly informed South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee of his decision to retire following the Tennessee game on Oct. 30. McGee has said Spurrier was the only candidate he contacted. The two sides reached an agreement within three weeks and Spurrier was introduced as Holtz's successor on Nov. 23.

The explanation for the lack of an open search: It's Spurrier. Any school would have done the same thing to lure one of college football's greats.

But where is that line drawn? Bill Parcells? Steve Mariucci? Urban Meyer?

"If we keep accepting these facts, that it's Steve Spurrier, so it shouldn't matter, then when does this stop?" Keith said. "How long do we continue to let it go without demanding change?

"You go back to the '60s, 'You can eat at this restaurant, but you've got to get the food out back.' 'You can ride the bus, but you can't sit.' At some point, you can't tolerate it anymore. Enough is enough."

McGee declined a request to be interviewed for this story, but explained his side in a released statement.

"These were unusual and extraordinary circumstances that we faced," McGee said. "We had the opportunity to replace an accomplished and national championship coach with another accomplished and national championship coach. The window for that to occur was clearly uncertain. It certainly was not the normal type of coaching transition that an institution faces."

Whatever the explanation, the BCA was not pleased. And after Spurrier was introduced, Keith encouraged recruits, their parents and prospective assistant coaches to spurn South Carolina because the school did not follow the BCA's hiring guidelines.

Afterward, Gamecock assistant Ron Cooper -- an African-American and a former head coach at Louisville -- supported McGee, saying the athletic director came to him in early November to let him know he was a potential finalist for the job. When Spurrier's name came up, Cooper told him, "if you can hire Steve Spurrier, I would go hire him now."

Spurrier himself said that interviewing a minority candidate would have been "phony and misleading" since he and McGee came to an agreement before a search had been conducted.

But Keith said that shouldn't matter. A fair and open search should have been conducted to fulfill a public job.

"Sometimes, when it rains, don't try to tell me when I'm standing under the water and the sprinkles are coming down, don't tell me its lemonade when I can smell that it's urine," Keith said. "That don't float. We aren't going to tolerate that."

'He's really got it'

When McKinley Boston took the job as New Mexico State's athletic director on Dec. 15, there was no time to celebrate, unpack boxes or find a place to live.

He had to find a football coach. And soon.

Three weeks earlier, the university did not renew the contract of Tony Samuel, once an up-and-coming minority assistant at Nebraska. Though his Aggie teams were more competitive than those of the past, Samuel managed just two winning seasons in eight years in Las Cruces. With the Aggies joining the Western Athletic Conference next season, the school felt a change needed to be made.

Enter Boston, one of just nine African-American Division I athletic directors in the country, thrown into the middle of a search at a school that had just fired a minority coach.

"I don't want to say that I felt any undue pressure," he said. "The pressure was to hire the best coach with the fit for what I was trying to do at New Mexico State. At the same time, I was sensitive to the number of minority coaches who were terminated, including Coach Samuel. You have to be."

He had two main criteria in his search for finding a new football coach: experience and offensive expertise. Of the initial pool of 48 applicants, only eight met his standards. "The rest just didn't have it," he said.

Three of those were minorities, but Boston said the most attractive name on the list was Hal Mumme.

The same Mumme whose Kentucky football teams turned heads with a run-'n-shoot offense and more than 35 recruiting violations.

Mumme resigned in 2001 amid the ensuing NCAA investigation. He was never found guilty of any personal wrongdoing, but was criticized by the NCAA for a lack of oversight. The Wildcats, though, were hit with a one-year bowl ban, the first the NCAA had handed out in four years. After a year out of football, he landed the head coaching job at Southeast Louisiana, compiling a 12-11 record in the team's first two seasons on the Division I-AA level.

Boston understood second chances. He was a vice president at the University of Minnesota during the men's basketball academic scandal. Never directly implicated in the investigation, Boston's contract was not renewed in 2000 for failing to exercise sufficient oversight.

After a series of one-on-one interviews with Mumme and discussions with several colleagues, including longtime friend and former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, Boston was convinced Mumme was his man. The day he made the decision, he stayed up until 1:30 a.m. to finalize the details with Mumme's agent, including language that would put the football program under specific and routine compliance reviews.

"Sometimes they've just got it," Boston said after introducing Mumme. "And he's really got it."

The decision was a blow to minority coaches, who were hoping that a minority athletic director would have replaced Samuel with another minority. After all, would Mumme be getting the same second chance if he were a minority? Willingham, remember, is the only minority head coach to be re-hired after being previously terminated.

"I understand the criticism from a minority coach who's never had that opportunity," Boston said. "The perception is out there that there are double standards. But as far as I'm concerned, I did what I thought was in the best interests of our program."

The search is on
After tossing his ring in the snow and seething for a few hours, James Coleman's emotions finally cooled later that Friday morning. And when they did, his 10-year-old son Jordan approached. Jordan had always adored his dad's ring like he had won it in a Super Bowl. And father had promised son that one day, when he grew up, the ring would be his.

With the ring now lost in a pile of snow and Coleman's emotions settled down, Jordan voiced his complaint.

"Dad?" he asked. "Why did you throw away my ring? Isn't it going to be my ring?"

He was right. Coleman's temper had gotten the best of him. So the two headed out back into the snow-covered area where Coleman watched the ring land. They started running their fingers through the snow. Forty-five minutes later, when they were just about to give up, something yellow glistened in the distance.

It was the ring.

"You realize then that you did something stupid," he said. "Luckily it wasn't dark or there hadn't been a snowball fight back there or something. You can't say somebody would have given it back."

For now, the ring is resting in a protective case, where it will stay until the spring. When the weather warms, the ring will return to Coleman's right hand. Eventually, it will be passed on to Jordan with a deeper message than his dad ever could have expected.

"I want him to look down at that ring and realize you can achieve anything you want," Coleman said. "Hopefully, by then, Illinois will have had a black coach and he can remember some of the pioneers that went through there to make it possible.

"Better yet, hopefully we'll come to a time where there won't be color. We won't worry about that.

"It will just be about achievement."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.