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Black Coaches Racism Catch-22

by Will Truman on 20 October 2009

Turner Gill Wins MAC At the end of every season, there is a game of musical chairs as coaching vacancies open up and some assistant coaches and head coaches at smaller programs get called up to head coaching jobs at big schools. Every year the sports writers ask the same question: Why aren’t there more black coaches? Their inclination, of course, is to blame racism. Skeptics counter by asking why anyone should believe that racism would trump a desire to win and that even if racism persists it is unlikely that it would do so in such a self-defeating manner.

Recently on ESPN360, they ran a report at half time on University at Buffalo head coach Turner Gill, who has been turned down twice in the last two years for open coaching positions at more prestigious universities (Auburn and Nebraska). Charles Barkley and many others believe that the reason he was turned down was because he is black (or because he is a black man married to a white woman).

Richard Thompson Ford wrote a great piece in the aftermath of Barkley’s remarks, suggesting that while the athletics programs themselves would likely love the good publicity that comes with hiring a black coach and all athletics departments want coaches that will win, they are stymied by the uncertainty of knowing whether a new coach will win or not and the belief that a white coach that has a little bit of trouble will retain fan and alumni support more easily than would a black coach in the same situation.

As evidence of racism, Auburn’s critics point out that Gill’s won-loss record was better than [new Auburn head coach Gene] Chizik’s. But a coach has to do more than win games: He also has to schmooze the boosters and alumni who contribute money to the college. One might even say that, from the perspective of the university, winning is a means to the end of successful fundraising. A coach who can rake in the contributions might be a “better fit” than a coach who wins more often but can’t charm the alumni.

But couldn’t fundraising success be related to race? It’s not hard to imagine a good ol’ boy booster network that responds more generously to a white coach than a black one. If the school’s hiring decisions are driven by the racial preferences of their donors, that’s still race discrimination.

I got to see first-hand the interactions that can provide disincentives to hire black coaches a year or two back when my alma mater had a vacancy and one of the two finalists for the job was a black assistant at a successful program. The university’s message boards were rife with comments about how the coach would bring his “homies” down to our university and our program would be on probation in a couple years. There was no reason to believe that this coach was unethical and there is no reason to believe that black coaches are unethical as a group. Nonetheless, it was comments like this and suggestions that the only reason he was being considered was “affirmative action” that probably make some programs think twice before taking a chance on a black coach rather than taking a chance on a white one.

Unfortunately, the hiring of a head coach is one of those things that it is extremely hard to pin down as far as qualifications go. Some schools put more emphasis on having head coach experience while others on recruiting. For any given hire, there are literally dozens of candidates that fit the basic criteria, so schools are looking for that bit extra. Nebraska say they took a pass on Gill because they wanted a coach with stronger defensive credentials. Auburn’s hire was utterly baffling, but Auburn has a terrific program and there were more white coaches than black coaches that had a stronger case for the job than the guy they ultimately hired. In the ESPN360 report, a couple people said that the lack of black coaches proves that the entire method of picking coaches needs to be changed. But how? Every program’s needs are different. Programs hire their coaches in different ways.

But one factor left frequently undiscussed is the role that all of the kvetching journalists and black coach boosters play in the process. They’re not influential enough to get Turner Gill a better job, and because the hiring process for coaches can be so peculiar they have difficulty making the case that any specific hiring at any specific university is racist, but they are influential enough to give a program that took a chance on a black coach a real black eye if they decide to fire that coach later on.

The more high-profiled example of this is Ty Willingham, the former coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Washington Huskies. Notre Dame took a chance on hiring Willingham. To hear Notre Dame tell it, things didn’t work out and they decided that they wanted to take a chance on someone else. To hear the sports media tell it, either Notre Dame suddenly woke up one day and realized that it hired a black coach and fired him because he was black or, somewhat more reasonably, they held him to a higher standard than they would have held a white coach.

The second interpretation is not wholly unreasonable, but it is also non-falsifiable. Willingham had, at Notre Dame, the exact winning percentage (.583) that his predecessor, Bob Davie, had. Davie was given a couple more seasons than Willingham was given, but giving Davie a couple extra years didn’t help much and so they may have just figured that giving Willingham a couple extra years wouldn’t, either. Maybe what Notre Dame did was fair and maybe it wasn’t, but the amount of punishment that they took from the media was substantial. Three years later, the University of Washington had to make a decision about whether or not to retain Willingham, who had a winning percentage only one-tenth of one percent higher than his predecessor (.305 to .304) who was fired after only two years on the job. They gave Willingham another season and they were rewarded not only with a winless season (0-12), but a season where they didn’t beat the spread even once.

The perception that it takes an 0-12 record and/or four miserable seasons to fire a black coach makes schools much less likely to hire a black coach in the first place. That’s not to say that all firings are controversial, but administrators never know which will be. UCLA’s Karl Dorrell (.564 winning percentage) and Kansas State’s Ron Prince (.459) had stronger cases that they were mistreated than Willingham, but almost randomly Willingham became a cause celebre. Little noise was made in favor of Dorrell and none for Prince, but every bad season that Willingham’s successor has at Notre Dame (Charlie Weis’s winning percentage prior to the start of this year was .580) is proof of Notre Dame’s racism in the eyes of many and it has become a black eye that won’t heal.

And even if you can avoid the harsh eyes of the media, you can still face penalties in the courts. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette fired Jerry Baldwin after he failed to win more than 6 games in three seasons (6-27), he turned around and sued the school and won two million dollars. Now, one could argue that Louisiana-Lafayette shouldn’t have the expectation to win, but I am sure that the ULL AD would like to be the ones to make that determination. Baldwin’s successor isn’t doing much better (.390 to Baldwin’s .182), but he’s still doing better.

New Mexico got some good press by hiring Mike Locksley. Since then, he has been the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit, he punched an assistant coach, and has gone 0-5 with the only one of those games within twenty points being the first loss to annual rival New Mexico State in six years (UNM has a 66-28 record with NMSU overall with only 14 losses since 1940). Do you fire a coach after one season? That’s always a tricky question. Made even trickier if they fire the first black coach they ever had after one season.

As much heat as Auburn took for declining to hire Turner Gill, they may have saved themselves some headaches in the longer run. They had just fired a coach (Tommy Tuberville) with a winning percentage higher (.680) than Gill produced in any of this three years at Buffalo. Perhaps Auburn’s expectations are unrealistic or perhaps not, though ultimately Auburn would probably prefer to make that decision for itself. Maybe the Gene Chizik’s success at Auburn will continue or maybe it won’t. But by hiring Chizik they retained the ability to define what they consider success to be. New Mexico may or may not have that luxury.

About Will Truman

Will Truman is the pseudonym of a recovered political blogging addict who has turned his attention to other things. He has been blogging on apolitical miscellany at Hit Coffee since 2005.

{ 3 comments }

1 Logtar 21 October 2009 at 09:09

Racism is hard to gauge at times. Some people will never admit they are racist, yet they hold very strong to prejudice about race. I think when it comes to a coaching job which to me is not as simple as just measurable by percentages, it is hard to gauge if there is true failure or success attached to race.

I go back to thinking that I want to be where I am wanted, if the people in an organization or even the fans or alumni of a program are not going to respect a black coach, I would not want to go there… however, without some people being brave and actually facing those challenges we would never have any progress in this arena.

2 Ugh 29 October 2009 at 12:52

almost randomly Willingham became a cause celebre

Wha? Willingham was the coach at the only school that has its own personal TV contract with network television, the school with perhaps the highest profile in the country and certainly the school with the most tradition (or at least the most legendary tradition), he was the first black coach hired by Notre Dame, and the first coach they ever fired before the end of his contract. There wasn’t anything random about the attention his firing got, it screamed out for attention.

3 Will Truman 30 October 2009 at 00:29

That the firing got attention was no surprise. That everyone decided that the firing was racist and emblematic of racism on the whole? Given the lack of data to support that argument and the certainty with which it was assumed that Willingham’s race was a deciding factor, I don’t think “random” is entirely wrong. Maybe a little wrong, but the reaction was quite disproportionate.

Bob Davie signed a five year extension on his contract in December 2000. He was fired in December of 2001. The guy whose job Willingham took in Washington was fired less than half-way into his contract. What Notre Dame did to Willingham may have been unusual for Notre Dame (a program unaccustomed to having to fire anybody), but college football was changing and so was Notre Dame. Contracts don’t mean what they used to.

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