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Original Issue


It's time to give black football coaches a chance

It's nice to see college football addressing itself to racial injustice by denouncing the Arizona voters' rejection, on Nov. 6, of a Martin Luther King holiday. The colleges reacted swiftly—many of them decried the vote, and several of them even refused to play in the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix—on an issue of largely symbolic importance, but they still have not addressed themselves to a concrete failing in their own ranks. Can anyone explain why Dennis Green of Stanford and Francis Peay of Northwestern are the only black head football coaches at NCAA Division I-A schools? The obvious answer: Whatever they may say, schools don't have a strong enough commitment to equal rights to make a sincere effort to hire qualified African Americans.

College presidents and athletic directors insist that they are just as colorblind in football as they are in basketball, where there are 52 black coaches at the Division I level. But, say the administrators, with only 106 schools playing Division I-A football, compared with 296 playing top-level basketball, football jobs are simply tougher to get, for whites as well as for blacks. That thin excuse serves only to obscure some disturbing perceptions that are more widespread than the colleges would care to admit.

First, there is the persistent notion that football is less a black coach's sport than basketball is. In the Southwest Conference, two members, Arkansas and SMU, have black head basketball coaches, but another, Baylor, did not even have a black assistant football coach until two years ago.

Then there's the idea that football, which provides most of the athletic department revenues at many schools, would be hurt financially by a black head coach because boosters would bolt. We're talking here about the well-heeled good ol' boys—every university has them—who like to rub elbows with the coach at the local country club, many of which do not accept blacks as members.

"Many presidents and athletic directors fear they'll lose some of their grass-roots support if they hire a black coach," says Frank Falks, the black assistant head coach at Arizona State.

The few schools that have taken a chance on black coaches are the desperate ones that seem to have no hope of having a successful football program. Consider what happened to Willie Jeffries, who left South Carolina State in 1978 for Wichita State, where he became the first black coach in Division I-A. Today, Wichita no longer plays football. Brown, a I-AA school and a perennial loser, offered black alumnus Ron Brown, the receivers' coach at Nebraska, the head coach's job last December, but he preferred to wait for a better opportunity.

The situation in football is so bad that only a handful of blacks have risen to offensive or defensive coordinator, jobs that are springboards to head coaching positions. Instead, blacks are kept on interminably as the receivers' coach or the secondary coach or the recruiting coordinator.

Many black coaches have grown so disillusioned and cynical that they are loath to seek interviews for head coaching jobs because they believe that athletic directors are using them to create the mere appearance of fairness and open-mindedness. After the pro forma interview, the black coach gets rejected, supposedly on the grounds that he lacks experience, either as a head coach or a coordinator. "That's the one thing I can't fight," says Sherman Lewis, the receivers' coach for the San Francisco 49ers, who has long sought a head college job, "and that's the one thing that eliminates every black coach, because none of us have it."

To Lewis and others, the experience roadblock is a thinly veiled excuse for racism. Nobody could seriously question the background, ability or education of such qualified black assistants as Lewis, Falks, Brown, Iowa's Carl Jackson, Alabama's Larry Kirksey, Penn State's Ron Dickerson or Miami's Alex Wood. And yet none has hope of getting a top job anytime soon.

So the black coach finds himself in a dilemma in which the only solutions are to leave the profession or resign himself to a career as an assistant. Jim Webster, who is Wake Forest's defensive ends coach, briefly left the game three years ago but returned, mainly because he thinks the social and moral pressures will finally become so strong that universities will be forced to give blacks an opportunity.

As Webster puts it, "What kind of example are we setting for young black kids when so few of us are getting to the top positions in our profession?" A rotten one, obviously.

Last week, Dick Crum lost his job at Kent State, and Mike Archer quit one step ahead of the posse at LSU. Purdue's Fred Akers will probably be gone as soon as the season is completed. Now is the time for these and other schools to give more than lip service to the principles espoused by Martin Luther King. Let's hope that some qualified black coaches get a crack at those vacancies and that the indignation directed at the people of Arizona is channeled into action that would truly honor King's memory.