Call me an old soul, but I'm not A Guy who gets spit at then smiles when told it's raining. When someone is victimized, I notice. When it keeps happening, it must be addressed. And because it's been happening for decades in college football—just six African-American head coaches at 119 FBS programs—here's hoping that Charles Barkley continues to run his enormous, politically incorrect mouth.
Just so we're clear, I'm not just talking about the decisionmakers at Auburn, who sparked Barkley to speak out when they hired Iowa State's Gene Chizik, a white coach, over Turner Gill, a black coach with better credentials. Chizik was 5–19 in two seasons with the Cyclones, and his program was in decline. Three years ago, Gill took over at the University of Buffalo. This year, the Bulls won eight games, the same number they had won in the five years before Gill arrived. The team was also invited to play in Jan. 3's International Bowl—its first post-season game. And Gill came to Buffalo with sterling credentials: He was 28–2 in three years as Nebraska's QB, and worked as an assistant coach on three Cornhuskers national title teams. I don't know what they call this at Auburn, but where I come from it's called qualifications.
And this isn't about one school. I'm looking at anyone involved with the college game who thinks like the Auburn folks. I'm talking about athletic directors, alumni, university presidents, boosters and, most insidiously, all those under-the-radar types who wield influence—without regard to merit.
In fact, I think the problem was best explained by Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who told Outside the Lines that, sometimes, the person really doing the hiring isn't even in the interview room. In the college game, there are a lot of people involved we don't know about, Sumlin explained. And if he knew how to change that, to help black coaches ingratiate themselves with those real decisionmakers, we wouldn't be talking about the lack of minority head coaches.
But we still are—in 2009.
Even Mike Locksley, an African-American who was hired by New Mexico in December, acknowledges the difficulty black coaches face. He says it's not uncommon for a decision about a candidate to be made by people who haven't even met him. Sometimes "it's just a matter of someone saying, Hey, I'm going to give you a chance," says Locksley, who had been offensive coordinator at Illinois, the Big Ten's top passing team.
Understand, I'm not saying black coaches should get the job security of a Supreme Court justice. Nobody should have a problem with Tyrone Willingham's being fired at Washington. The man was winless this season. I could've had the same results—with more entertaining press conferences! And no one can argue with Sylvester Croom's resigning from Mississippi State after going 4–8. But there's no way Chizik should have gotten the Auburn job over Gill. And how is it that the three African-Americans coaches hired in the past month represent half of all black coaches?
Is there legit reason for this bias? Floyd Keith, executive director of Black Coaches & Administrators, knows the answer: "No! Nothing. The one thing I've discovered is that unless I have a personal relationship with an AD, I don't know how to value what I'm told. At the end of the day, when the door gets shut and the people who make the decisions are sitting around the table looking at each other, most of the time there's not a person sitting there who looks like me."
Which means, in my humble opinion, that radical steps are called for. We're not trying to compare the plight of black football coaches to that of Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement who refused to give up her bus seat 53 years ago. But that incident could serve as a blueprint for fixing the coaching problem. In Parks, the civil rights movement had a face who personalized the issue. College football likewise needs a coach who can lend a public face, who can handle the heat and who's willing to put his career on the line to bring appropriate attention and provoke needed change.
It's a lot to ask, I know. In the interim, Keith and Everette L. Scott Jr., a Philadelphia lawyer, have established a hotline for wannabe black head coaches seeking advice. Callers get anonymity to start, but if their case is substantive they'll have to step into the light. "Basically, it's about a coach understanding they'll probably never coach again if they come forward—and be willing to move forward anyway," Keith says. "I knew that was the case with me."
So until that person—that Rosa Parks of the college football coaching ranks—steps forward, we'll have to rely on Charles Barkley to serve as watchdog. And in that role, he should be as politically incorrect as he needs to be.