Black coaches go on offensive to boost ranks

American higher education has been one of the loudest voices for affirmative action and ethnic diversity on campus. You'd never know it, though, from looking at the roster of its top football coaches.

Just four of the 117 head coaches in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I-A football – the most elite and well-funded teams – are black, although 47 percent of its players are black. Statistics show sharp racial imbalance in college baseball and basketball coaching as well.

Increasingly frustrated by the lack of representation in top coaching ranks, the Black Coaches Association (BCA) in Indianapolis last week unveiled a multipronged offensive to put pressure on colleges and universities to hire more blacks into head coaching positions – especially in Division I-A football.

"It's really disgraceful that only 20 colleges have had a black head coach in the history of college football," says Richard Lapchick, chairman of sports business management program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who has closely tracked the racial divide.

The BCA's move comes just weeks after a group headed by lawyer Johnnie Cochran announced a similar push to promote the hiring of more black head coaches in the National Football League. Part of the problem cited there was that the hiring pipeline for professional coaches comes from the big college football programs where whites predominate.

The BCA's phalanx of initiatives is part public-relations blitz and part razzle-dazzle field tactics. It plans advertising and apparel slogans, including the logo "Don't Play Where You Can't Coach" – to influence players to decide against attending a school where hiring procedures keep blacks from being considered for the top spot.

The plan also recommends that the NCAA certify the hiring process of Division I-A institutions as race-neutral. Most critical, perhaps, is the BCA's new hiring "report card" on college Division I-A football coaches. The first report card will be delivered August 2003, says Floyd Keith, the BCA's executive director.

"The problem is accountability," he says. "We don't hire head football coaches like we hire deans, so there's no accountability."

Old-boy networks and fundraising

That accountability problem falls in several areas, he and others say. First, there's the old-boy network. Of the 836 colleges in all divisions, excluding historically black institutions, 29 have black athletics directors. After a coach departs, there is intense pressure to hire a replacement quickly, which means that few if any minorities make it into the group being considered.

"People hire who they are comfortable with, so it's not remarkable" whites are hired more, Mr. Keith says.

Another unspoken assumption is that black coaches may not be able to connect with largely white benefactors and bring in the fundraising dollars white coaches do as part of their jobs, according to Keith. "Winning precludes everything else," he says. "It doesn't matter if you are black or white. People always support a winner."

A push for a winning record

Most often, though, black coaches get the call to coach Division I-A football from schools with perennially losing records. That means it is difficult for them to establish a winning record that opens the door for more black coaches.

But that's what Omon Fitzgerald "Fitz" Hill is trying to do. A veteran of the Gulf War, he is the only black football coach to have a doctorate in his field. He has also done studies of the problems facing black coaches.

Since 1982, there have been 348 head coaching vacancies at the Division I-A level. Black coaches have been selected for 17 (5 percent) of the head coaching vacancies with 13 of those appointment after 1990, according to a study Dr. Hill released in May.

"Black coaches must be honest and frank, and continue to educate those they come in contact with as well as institutional leaders who possess the authority to change the unjust hiring practices, using tactful and strategic planning," Hill wrote in his study.

Following the 2000 season, there were 34 head coaching vacancies. But Hill was one of only two African-Americans hired. He took the job as head coach of the San Jose State University Spartans, one of the worst teams in the NCAA Division I-A in recent years.

Last year, his team finished 3-9. Still doggedly upbeat, he appeared on the verge of a breakthrough with his underdog team, achieving a 4-4 record prior to Saturday's game, which San Jose lost to Boise State University. A turnaround there could prove Hill's ability.

A milestone?

But the media spotlight and most of the pressure has fallen on Tyrone Willingham – the only other black coach hired last year. In a milestone for black college-football coaches, Mr. Willingham was hired as head coach of the fabled Fighting Irish football team of Notre Dame University.

To the delight of Hill and aspiring black college-football coaches in America, Willingham is showing so far just how good a coach he is, with a sterling season so far. After its victory over Florida State University Sunday, Notre Dame remained undefeated (8-0).

Already, he has joined an elite group – one of only four great coaches, including Ara Parseghian – to lead the Fighting Irish to win their first five games of the season.

"Part of my philosophy is that there's a greater good," Willingham told the Associate Press in August. "That [you're] out there to benefit not just yourself, that's important, but to benefit others."

That's good news for the likes of Woody McCorvey, the running-backs coach for the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team. He coached at North Carolina Central, Alabama A&M, and Clemson before serving the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide as assistant coach.

Despite his many credentials, he has yet to fulfill his dream of becoming a head coach one day – and for that reason is holding out hope that Willingham's continued success along with BCA initiative will open doors.

"I do wish him well," Coach McCorvey says of Willingham. "And I hope that, at some point in time, some of the people I have worked for – when they're looking for a head coach – will be open-minded enough to not really look at the color, and give us an opportunity, a real opportunity, to be a head coach."

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