This used to be a lot easier for Floyd Keith.
Seven years ago, he didn’t have to rack his brain to make sure he hadn’t forgotten someone. No, the executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators organization could count the number of black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision on one hand.
In fact, when he took in a battle between Karl Dorrell’s UCLA Bruins and Tyrone Willingham’s Washington Huskies at the Rose Bowl in 2005, only Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom — the Southeastern Conference’s first black coach — was missing.
“I saw two-thirds of the coaches that were black at one game. That tells you something,” Keith said. “There used to be a time when I didn’t need to have a list in front of me to recite everybody’s name.”
Yes, despite the firing of Kentucky’s Joker Phillips last week, Keith and the BCA believe progress is being made.
Institutions in Kentucky and Tennessee seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to hiring coaches of color. Along with James Franklin and Phillips, Willie Taggart is leading a resurgent Western Kentucky program, and Charlie Strong had Louisville off to a 9-0 start in his third year.
Then there is the SEC. While it took the league 72 years to hire a black football coach, the nation’s strongest conference is currently leading the pack with three black coaches.
Phillips will coach the remainder of his third season, but Franklin and Kevin Sumlin are enjoying immediate success. Franklin is on the verge of leading Vanderbilt to back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. Under Sumlin, Texas A&M has more than held its own in its first year in the SEC. The Aggies were 7-2 and ranked 15th as they headed into last weekend’s bout with No. 1 Alabama.
“Winning and running programs that become visible is the greatest marketing you can have,” Keith said. “When you see successful coaches running programs and doing it the right way, that is outstanding promotion. … Going into this season, when you saw three coaches of color in the SEC, that is pretty good. We can say we want to do better but there are some other conferences that have to catch up.”
But will consistent and unprecedented success in the SEC by a black head coach herald a widening of opportunities for all coaches of color?
According to Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams, the answer is yes.
“I think the door is open,” said Williams, who is one of just nine African-American athletic directors in the FBS. “If you can do it in this conference, I’m pretty sure you can do it anywhere else.”
The first sign of progress came eight years ago, Williams said, when Croom was hired at Mississippi State and became the SEC’s first black football coach.
In 2007, Croom was named the SEC Coach of the Year, the Bulldogs won eight games, including knocking off Alabama, and were victorious in the Liberty Bowl. The next year he went 4-8 and fired after five seasons, which included 38 losses.
While some saw disappointment, Williams saw progress.
“I thought that was a courageous move,” Williams said. “Him having success was an indicator to people you can hire an African-American head coach, they can bring you success and the sky is not going to fall. I think you’re going to see more of it.”
Still, closing the racial gap is far from over.
Of 120 FBS coaches, only 15 are black. That’s 8.5 percent. Two of the nation’s power conferences — the Big Ten and Big 12 —don’t have a single black head coach. Excluding historically black colleges and universities, only 26 football programs on the Division I level — FBS and Football Championship Subdivision — are led by minority head coaches.
That number looks even smaller when compared to the fact that 46 percent of Division I football players are black.
“Let’s temper this — I’m happy with the progress we’ve made. Now, do we reflect what we look like on the field yet? No,” Keith said. “We’re still a ways from that, because of the percentages. Those still aren’t equal. … We still have a ways to go there. But we’ve made a grand jump in terms of all Division I.”
Prior to 2003, only 21 African-Americans had ever coached a Division I football team. After that season, the BCA released its first hiring report card. Perhaps not by coincidence, over the next nine years, 28 FBS programs have been led by African-Americans.
“We’ve had a 600 percent increase since we started our report card,” said Keith, a former FCS head coach.
Schools are judged on four criteria: communication with the BCA, diversity of the candidates, diversity of the search committee and length of the search. If institutions follow those requirements, they can still receive an A grade without hiring a minority coach. Tennessee received Bs in consecutive years when they hired Lane Kiffin after the 2008 season and hired Derek Dooley the following year. Alabama received an F for its job search after the 2006 season, which ended with the hiring of Nick Saban.
Riding the momentum of his predecessor Rich Brooks, Phillips led Kentucky to a bowl in his first year in 2010. But after just five wins last year, the Wildcats rode a seven-game losing streak into a matchup against Vanderbilt. The Commodores rolled to a 40-0 victory and handed Kentucky its worst loss in the rivalry since 1916. The next day Phillips was fired but will coach the last two games.
“You’re measured on results,” Phillips said on a SEC coaches teleconference call last week. “As a coach, it is wins and losses. Therefore, change had to be made.”
Keith didn’t dispute the decision either. Last year he was also asked if the firing of Turner Gill was fair. Kansas gave Gill just two years. But the Jayhawks won just five games and ended 2011 on a 10-game losing streak. Keith pointed to a similar situation at Akron — one without the diversity issue involved. A white head coach, Rob Ianello, also lasted just two years after consecutive 1-11 seasons.
For Williams, hiring and firing by the same standards regardless of race is a huge step forward.
“I’ve always said one of the things about equality has to be the equality to get hired but the equality to be replaced when you don’t get the job done,” he said. “In a strange sense when you start to see that working like it works everywhere else, then you have reached a level where the landscape is changing. Is there work still to be done? Absolutely. … By the SEC doing what it is doing it sends a message we are just going to hire the best person.”