When Mississippi State University's head football coach leads his team onto the field for its season opener against Tulane this Saturday, it will represent both a symbol of progress and inertia in the college football-crazed South.
Hired last November, Sylvester Croom is the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference's 71-year history.
"It signifies what people who have grown up in the South have known for a long time," he says. "Things have changed considerably over the last 30, 40 years. To the rest of the country, this really amplifies that even more."
But some experts say Mr. Croom's hiring is less an indication of Southern progress than of national neglect. Croom is one of only five African-American head football coaches in major college football, which encompasses 117 schools. (The other African-American coaches work at Notre Dame, UCLA, San Jose State, and New Mexico State.)
"You have a better chance of being Patton than you do of being a head [college football] coach," says Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association (BCA).
He's not kidding: More than 8 percent of US Army generals are minorities compared with 4.3 percent of major college football coaches, according to BCA research.
The National Football League has a poor record as well, though recent additions have helped. Five of its 32 head coaches are African-Americans, the most in its history. Between 1920 and 2002, six of 400 head coaches hired in the NFL were blacks, according to one study.
At the college level, Mr. Keith and other critics point to administrators beyond the locker room as the chief culprits: Most university chancellors, presidents, and trustees are white males. In turn, they tend to hire people who look like themselves.
As with football coaches, the ranks of college athletic directors also lack minorities. In the six major college conferences - the Big East, Big 10, Pac-10, Big 12, Southeastern (SEC) and Atlantic Coast (ACC) - there are four African-American athletic directors.
"We have fewer head coaches and ADs who are African-American than we did five years ago," says Richard Lapchick, head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which is based at the University of Central Florida. "It's overwhelmingly the old-boy's network at play."
Mr. Lapchick's group, which compiles annual scorecards on diversity in college and professional sports, doesn't break figures out by region. The perception of the South as being slower to adapt than other regions is no longer valid, as it was through the 1970s, he says. Instead, "it's become a national problem."
Even so, the hiring of Croom - and related racial maneuvers in college football - resonate more in the South, the arena for most civil rights standoffs of the 1960s. The SEC didn't have its first black player until 1967, when Kentucky's Nat Worthington broke the color barrier. Other schools in the league didn't follow suit until Alabama head coach Bear Bryant integrated his squad in 1971. He was prompted by a thrashing a year earlier at the hands of the University of Southern California, a team led by star black running back Sam Cunningham.
"Someone like Bear Bryant had power that couldn't be measured - he was on a level with Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr.," says William Ferris, professor of Southern history and folklore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Head coaching is "an area where blacks have not really been allowed to move in a significant way."
Nearly half (42.1 percent) of college football players were African-American in the 2001-01 season - down from 47.6 percent four years earlier, according to Lapchick. The fluctuation, he says, is too recent to discern a trend. He and other critics say player participation is less important than coaching and administrative jobs, since those positions are where the power and money reside.
Even so, Bill Curry, an ESPN broadcaster who played at Georgia Tech during the 1960s and later coached at Alabama, Kentucky, and his alma mater, sees progress. Black quarterbacks, once verboten, are now commonplace.
"Nobody even thinks about it," he says. "In two decades, it's changed to, 'Just play the best player.' That's going to happen with coaches, too. Why does it take 50 years longer than it should? Racism."
For Croom, race is but a small concern at the moment. He's inherited a woeful team, one that has lost 27 games the past three seasons. Also, the Bulldogs probably will be placed on NCAA probation, stemming from violations committed under previous coach Jackie Sherrill.
And, as Croom points out over and over, without wins, no head coach has a chance. For African-Americans, that scenario is exaggerated: While coaches connected to violations of NCAA rules, such as George O'Leary, Rick Neuheisel, and Mike Price, have all been given second chances in recent years, no black coach has ever been rehired in Division I-A after losing his job for any reason.
"What we need is for Ty Willingham to have a great year at Notre Dame or Sylvester Croom turning around a program at Mississippi State," says Lapchick. "Then they can feel comfortable enough to speak out about this problem."
If black coaches prove successful, boosters and administrators will hire them, adds Mr. Ferris, the Southern historian.
"People will put aside racism for winning seasons, especially in the South. It's that important," he says.