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Race and coaching

2008 December 30
by Skip Sauer

At Slate, Richard Thompson Ford presents a mostly balanced inquiry into race and coaching in college football. But towards the end, Ford serves up the “red meat”:

Even if it’s not proof of racial discrimination, the disparity between the percentage of black athletes and of black coaches is relevant, at least symbolically. A sport that’s dominated by white coaches and black athletes—white overseers giving orders to young black bucks who do the physical work—can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a plantation. (And, fair or not, this resemblance is just a tiny bit greater when the overseers give their orders with Southern accents and the school is located in the former Confederacy—sorry, Auburn.) Add to that what many consider to be the exploitation of so-called “student athletes,” most of whom won’t make the pros and don’t receive a decent education because they need to spend most of their time practicing or playing ball. To the critics, we have an overwhelmingly white university administration and booster base that are happy to benefit from these black kids’ efforts in their athletic primes but won’t support even the best of them as coaches later in their careers. To be sure, none of this proves that Turner Gill was turned down by Auburn because of his race. But it does suggest that college football is in need of reform that goes much deeper than getting rid of the Bowl Championship Series.

I have a couple of quick observations to make. First, the proportions are way out of whack here. Given the disparity — 5% black coaches, predominantly black players — something important is going on, and it is worth making an attempt to understand it.

The basic claim of Ford and others is that “soft discrimination,” stemming from the onerous task of pumping rich white boosters for money, is unique to college football, and that black coaches have the wrong skin color to do this effectively. That is, boosters are bigoted. The proportions of black coaches in major college basketball (28.5%) and in the NFL (pushing 25%), where fund-raising is not in the job description, are viewed as evidence in favor of this claim. But if boosters are the problem, and boosters are unique to major college football, then the proportion of black coaches should be significantly higher in sports such as track and field and in Division II and III football. If the proportion of black coaches in these sports were on the order of 25%, that would be strong evidence in favor of the booster bigotry hypothesis.

I also have some contrarian points to make. First, Auburn’s hiring of Chizik might be stupid, but in hiring a white guy they didn’t do anything different than Clemson, Syracuse, and Tennessee in not hiring Turner Gill. Auburn is getting a bit of a bum rap on the race issue (Brian has already chimed in on the stupid angle). Second, Gill’s record at Buffalo can be compared with Brady Hoke’s (a white guy) at Ball State. Both coaches turned around losing programs. Gill’s 8-5 Buffalo team upset Hoke’s 12-1 Ball State squad in the MAC Championship game, but the better year overall clearly belonged to Ball State. So one might ask, for what jobs was Brady Hoke considered? I don’t know the list, but in the end he took the job at San Diego State, which is not remotely close to the stature of the Auburn job. Turner Gill may indeed be destined to be a big time major college football coach. But it will help his cause to have more than one winning season on his record when he takes the next step.

Finally, consider the failure rate among black coaches in college. With a head coach count on the order of 5 or 6, the passing of Croom at Mississippi State, Prince at Kansas State, and Willingham at Washington has to give an AD pause. If Gill wins the MAC next year and ends up at a Big Ten school, Auburn will take another round of whipping in the media. But it just makes sense to me that Gill, or any other coach, put more on his resume before stepping into the recruiting and on-the-field wars of major college football. The process of integration in college football coaches has begun, but it will take a good while longer to play out.

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