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Getting Ahead by Staying in Place

HARDLY ANYONE takeskindly to being called a racist, presumably even those for whom the term is aperfect fit. Accusations of racial bias, therefore, generally ensure that theaccused spend so much time denying them that they hear nothing else that'sbeing said. Besides, without a damning utterance like the n word or at least a"nappy-headed ho," racism can be difficult to prove. Any questionableaction, including passing over a highly qualified African-American coachingcandidate in order to hire an underwhelming white one, can have multiplemotivations. Good luck convincing those accused of racism that bigotry is themain one.

So Charles Barkleymay very well have been right when he said that Auburn's hiring last week ofGene Chizik, who lost 19 of 24 games at Iowa State over the past two footballseasons, instead of Turner Gill, who in three years transformed Buffalo from adoormat to MAC champion (page 49), was primarily a matter of racial preference.He's certainly right that the hiring practices in college football havesystematically denied African-American candidates the chance to be headcoaches. The latest depressing employment statistic is that only 4% (five of120) of the head-coaching jobs in Division I-A are held by African-Americans ina sport in which 47% of the players are African-American, according to thelatest NCAA statistics.

But theprotestations of Sir Charles and others over the years have been about aseffective in changing the system as throwing marbles to knock down a concretewall. Correcting the injustice calls for a new approach. African-Americancoaches would be better served by focusing on creating powerful programs oftheir own rather than on trying to shame high-profile programs into fairerhiring practices. That's why Gill's being turned down by Auburn and signing aone-year extension to stay at Buffalo should not be seen as a disappointment.In a way, it may have been the best thing that could have happened for thegreater cause.

Consider collegebasketball, in which African-Americans hold down 28.5% of the head-coachingpositions. The breakthrough came after John Thompson took over at Georgetown in1972 and turned a program that had gone 3--23 the year before into apowerhouse, winning the national championship in 1984. "In those days ifyou were a black coach, the top programs didn't come calling," Thompsonsays. "So you had to turn your program into a top program." By doingthat, coaches such as Thompson and John Chaney at Temple began to open eyes tothe abilities of black coaches. It wasn't long before higher-profile schoolsgot the message and started signing their own.

Coaches such asGill, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, Mike Locksley, who was hired on Dec. 9 by NewMexico, and Ron English, who was named Eastern Michigan's new coach on Monday,might be able to create a similar model in college football. They have to buildrelatively obscure programs into something greater, threatening andoccasionally even beating bigger, more established teams and making a string ofbowl appearances in the manner of, say, Utah and Boise State. That seems a morepromising road to creating greater interest in black coaches than chasing therare chance to coach a traditional power, which can ultimately do more harmthan good. It might have been more helpful to African-American coaches as awhole, for instance, if Ty Willingham had stayed at Stanford, where he wasexceeding the Cardinal's relatively modest expectations, but instead he leftfor Notre Dame, where one good season and two subpar ones earned him a quickpink slip. "White coaches are evaluated individually," says former SanJose State coach Fitz Hill, now president of Arkansas Baptist College."Black coaches are evaluated collectively."

Athletic directorsand college presidents apparently don't care how they are evaluated, at leaston their football hiring practices. Years of being castigated by the mediahaven't spurred them to make anything close to a meaningful change. Forcingschools to interview black candidates isn't the answer—African-Americans aregetting interviews, but in most cases it's just a setup for disappointment thatHill calls the crackback. "It's like a player who thinks he's about to makethe tackle and then, bam, at the last second out of nowhere he gets knocked outby the crackback block," he says.

But a bracing hitcan sometimes bring clarity, and perhaps African-American coaches will realizethat the biggest job isn't necessarily the best one. It's hard to know, forinstance, whether Auburn's heart was in the right place last week, but for thetime being, Turner Gill certainly is.

If you have a comment on college football hiring practices, send it

Turner Gill's being turned down by Auburn and signing aone-year extension at Buffalo may have been the best thing that could havehappened for the cause of black coaches.