When the 2012 season begins, only 15 of the 120 FBS programs (12.5 percent) will employ African American head football coaches, down from 17 of 120 one year earlier. Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the 2011 NFL regular season, 10 of the 32 teams (31 percent) were being coached by African Americans. To equal that percentage at FBS programs, 22 more black head coaches would have to be hired immediately. So why isn't there more outrage about this state of affairs, even among the African American community? Why is it that the National Football League has advanced so much further in giving opportunities to African American coaches? Why do most African American college coaches, when they do receive job offers, wind up at the schools with the least resources? And what do both white and black coaches really think about the issue? Dr. Fitz Hill, the former head coach at San Jose State, addresses all this in Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches. Here is an excerpt:
When people discover that I have spent the last two decades researching the issue of black football coaches and their struggle to get a fair shake at the college level, I am usually asked one or all of the following questions:
-- No matter what color you are, isn't the job still just coaching and teaching and winning and losing?
-- Don't white coaches have to deal with the same problems and challenges?
-- Is it really so different being a black coach?
In response to all those questions, I tell a story.
It has nothing to do with a touchdown, nor with a halftime adjustment or a videotape session. That's real football stuff. No, this story is about the most critical constituency a college coach has to please: boosters. The fat cats who support football teams at universities across the country, often in a big way -- by writing out big checks.
A few months after the 2003 season at San Jose State, the athletic department held a gathering of our major financial contributors -- people who donated two thousand dollars or more to the athletic programs on an annual basis. The gathering was held at a downtown San Jose hotel. The mood was upbeat, even though we had finished the season with a disappointing 3-8 record. In spite of the results, we were making progress. Our home attendance was up. Our players' academic records had improved.
In my first three years as head coach, we had won twelve games and lost twenty-four. Not spectacular, I'll admit. But the record books reflect the challenges my predecessors, John Ralston and Dave Baldwin, and I all faced. Like me, they struggled to make San Jose State a winner. Ralston, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, had a 10-25 record in his first three seasons with the Spartans. Baldwin was 11-22 in his first three seasons at the school.
Despite this history, I really felt better days were ahead for our program. Thanks to generous contributions from a few boosters, I had been able to hire a top-notch new defensive coordinator for the 2004 season -- Keith Burns, the former head coach at Tulsa and someone I had worked with on the coaching staff at the University of Arkansas. Keith was a white guy; I didn't think his color mattered.
As the evening progressed in the hotel ballroom, several of our boosters enjoyed glasses of wine. No problem on my account. This was supposed to be a relaxed and informal occasion. At one point, a booster carrying a glass of wine came up to me and started a conversation. He was trying to be complimentary about Burns's hiring but wound up making a comment about the racial makeup of our entire staff. The booster said he was just trying to be honest with me and that he and some of his booster friends believed I would have been more successful during the 2003 season if I had hired fewer black assistant coaches. At the time, there were four.
After thanking him for his candor, I asked if by "successful" he was referring to wins and losses -- because in all other areas, the San Jose State program had definitely improved. The booster agreed. "Well," I said, "then I assume you must have also told Coach Baldwin and Coach Ralston that they didn't do better because they had too many white coaches. Because, you know, they won fewer games than I did in their first three years here." "I didn't know that," the booster replied.
I then talked about how black coaches often deal with the belief that they are unqualified simply because of their skin color. White coaches? Just the opposite. They are often deemed qualified simply because of skin color. This, I told the booster, wasn't fair to either party. And that pretty much ended our discussion.
If he had wished, though, I'd have gladly continued the conversation with him, acknowledging that boosters have always been part of college football. In the beginning, they were the fans and alumni who showed up in their raccoon coats to cheer their favorite teams. The most prominent and passionate of these folks evolved into well-organized groups that raise thousands or millions of dollars for their schools. As such, boosters are often described as the "lifeblood" of the sport. I would have noted, however, that the "lifeblood" always has a lot more white blood cells in it than any other kind. From coast to coast, booster club members are overwhelmingly males -- and overwhelmingly white. That could change one day. But right now those are the unabashed facts. And as the evidence bears out, it is definitely a factor when athletic directors and school presidents make coaching decisions.
I could have also pointed out to this booster how Mack Brown of Texas and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech, who are both white, probably never had their qualifications questioned because of skin color even as they struggled early in their head coaching careers. I could have explained that while Brown has been very successful at Texas, he compiled an 8-24-1 record in his first three seasons as North Carolina's head coach, including back-to-back 1-10 seasons. I could have expressed my admiration for Beamer, who has built Virginia Tech into a top program but, during his first three seasons there, lost twenty-one of his first thirty-four games. It's probably a stretch to think that Virginia Tech would have hired Beamer if he had been black. But let's pretend he had been African American. Could the school have sustained pressure from boosters to dump him after losing two-thirds of his games? I don't know for sure, of course. It's a hypothetical question.
But I know what my gut tells me.
Actually, I don't even need my gut. I just need my eyes. Look what happened at Notre Dame, where Ty Willingham was fired after three seasons with a better record than previous Notre Dame coaches -- all of whom were white -- had posted after their first three seasons in South Bend. Notre Dame proved that membership has its privileges. The membership I'm talking about has nothing to do with American Express. It is the membership that comes from being born white.
Six months after my conversation at the booster gathering, I received an e-mail from another San Jose State booster following our team's loss to Southern Methodist University. This booster asked me to resign and turn over our program to Keith Burns -- the defensive coordinator I had hired the previous winter. Again, Keith is white. Obviously, I think he's an excellent football man. That's why I wanted him on our staff. But when Burns was the head coach at Tulsa, his teams had posted a 7-28 record -- and in our head-to-head encounters, I had won both games. Just like me, Burns had struggled in building his program. We often spoke about the challenges he faced with similar limited resources. I concluded that there is only one thing worse than being an unsuccessful football coach -- and that is being an unsuccessful black football coach.
I also concluded that in terms of the machinery that creates this situation, boosters provide much of the fuel for both black and white coaches. Many of them are well-heeled professionals who are accustomed to having influence at work. So they naturally expect to be influential when they fork over sizable donations to their favorite schools or favorite teams.
And where does that influence count most? The NCAA has strict rules about what boosters can and cannot supply to student-athletes. Although the rules are violated by some schools, most make a strong effort to enforce them. So the boosters know they can't simply hand over a bundle of money to the starting quarterback. They can, however, hand over bundles and bundles of money to athletic departments. Boosters can also designate where and how they want the money to be used. They can have it pay for part of a new stadium or other athletic facility -- and have a building or room named after them. Or they can make a contribution to a special foundation that is used to augment the salary of coaches.
They can also make contributions to endow scholarships for football players. In 2007, a Sports Illustrated story reported that at Ohio State, more than a hundred boosters had underwritten athletic scholarships to the tune of thirty-six million dollars. Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director, told the magazine that if not for those endowed scholarships, "I might have to cut travel and recruiting and equipment."
There are no rules against any of this. And the boosters are no dummies. They realize that their money buys them access, power, the ears of the athletic directors and presidents -- and the ability to tell inappropriate, racially oriented jokes at public gatherings with impunity.
Yes, that really happens. I experienced it firsthand during my coaching career. Boosters often feel enough at ease to crack jokes with blatant racial overtones at university gatherings. And I'm ashamed to admit that I never uttered much of a protest. It made me feel half dead, not having the courage to pull aside the offending boosters and tell them: "You know, those jokes might be funny to you. And please don't think I'm overly sensitive or that I have a chip on my shoulder, but they are not acceptable around me. I ask that you refrain from cracking racial jokes -- or at least, don't tell them around me if you feel the need to continue getting your laughs that way."
Of course, it would help if the school presidents and athletic directors confronted such boosters with the same sort of advice. But I'm also ashamed to say that many administrators go right along and laugh at the jokes, even though they're not funny.
Here's another story, courtesy of an African American former assistant coach at a Conference USA school: One night during the 2007 season, this assistant coach was sent to represent the head coach at a beer-and-chicken-wings gathering of boosters at a popular restaurant. The assistant coach wound up occupying a large booth with several people, including the owner of a local company, a man who was a major donor to the athletic department. He was sitting at the opposite end of the booth.
"As we're sitting there," the assistant coach told me, "this guy starts talking about things at work. He says, 'I am so tired of these niggers I have who show up late and leave early -- I'm going to fire them all.' I mean, I heard this with my own ears. I got up and walked over past him and made sure he saw me. This guy's friend later pulled me aside and apologized, saying his friend was just mad and didn't mean what he'd said. Then the guy himself comes over and offers to buy me a drink. He didn't apologize, just offered to buy me a drink. I didn't take up his offer."
If that particular booster had been brazen enough to use such offensive racial language in the presence of an African American assistant coach, don't you think the booster has probably used that language in the presence of white administrators? Why would the administrators put up with that? Why would they even want his support?
I'll tell you why: those administrators too often see only one color -- green. Money will make you sell your soul, eat cheese, chuckle, smile, and grin at things that you don't like or things that make you feel uncomfortable. The administrators probably feel they are taking one for the team so that they can collect those booster checks for the school or athletic department.
But let's connect some dots. What happens when those booster checks are used to directly pay for a football coach? Typically, when a university makes a head coach hiring, the new man receives part of his compensation package as a "contribution" from a foundation that is funded by the booster club. Often, that "contribution" effectively doubles or triples the coach's listed salary. Without that "contribution," a university would not be able to hire any of the top people in the field.
You know what the real problem is? The system allows it to happen, and boosters know how to play the system; they maximize their influence by pledging literally millions of dollars to the school over a ten- or twenty-year period, spreading out their donations over those years. That financial commitment buys the boosters long-term influence. It can also buy them entry into exclusive areas -- comically so, at times. I have personally witnessed boosters being given sideline passes and allowed to dress as coaches. Believe it or not, while coaching at Arkansas, I even heard a booster suggest a play that should be called during the critical moments of a game. You can't buy that kind of access in the NFL, which is precisely my point. Pro football's culture doesn't include boosters who can sidle up to the top decision-makers and lobby for -- or against -- a black head coach.
I know what you’re thinking: college football's booster dynamic surely affects the hiring of all coaches, no matter their color. You're right. But it's clear to me that African American head coaches are affected more than any others.
Let me share another experience with you.
Don Kassing became president of San Jose State in 2004 during my fourth season at the school. He was elevated to that position from his previous job as vice president of finance and administration. Kassing had been one of my biggest supporters during my first three years at San Jose State. One time, he stood in front of a booster group at a "Quarterback Club" meeting and backed me to the hilt in a situation that involved gross negligence by the school bureaucracy. Because of this negligence, our coaching staff was stunned just twenty-four hours before our 2004 season opener against Stanford.
Here's what happened: As we sat down to review our game plan on Friday morning, an administrative official informed us that several of our key players who had supposedly been certified as academically eligible by the school were, in fact, not eligible to play the next night. It was a paperwork issue, not a grade-point or scholastic issue. University officials said they needed more time to certify the players' records -- even though I knew that other football programs always seemed to get this work done with no problems and no delays. But that did us little good. We were in a train wreck of a situation. Without the key players in uniform, we would be forced to play Stanford with backups who had not even been practicing the game plan.
After consulting with my staff and athletic director, I made a drastic decision. I said we would not play the game at all. I knew this would cause a stink. But I was fed up. During the previous three years, I had been confronted with similar issues and had suppressed my anger. I wasn't going to do it again. I also knew our chances to beat Stanford were very slim with those backup players on the field -- and it wasn't fair to them either. Against our biggest neighborhood rival, these players would be asked to perform without proper preparation. In that situation, I would rather forfeit.
President Kassing caught word of my plan. Six hours prior to kickoff, he came to our hotel and asked us to play the game. And because I trusted him, we did. We lost, 43-3. But I really believed in Kassing. I thought that with him as president, things would be better for me and our program. I was wrong.
After the Stanford debacle, Kassing and I had a frank discussion. We agreed that the bureaucratic messes couldn't continue. Trying to battle a schedule of tough Division I opponents was difficult enough. I didn't need to also battle my own school. Kassing told me he understood the challenges facing me. He said, forcefully and boldly, that I could count on him to correct the problems. Because I felt he was an open, up-front guy, I had faith in him. But about a month later, Chuck Bell, my athletic director, came to me with some unsettling information. He'd been informed that a meeting had been called by a group of influential boosters, including the late Bill Walsh, the former 49er head coach, a San Jose State alumnus. This meeting was said to have been held at Stanford University, where Walsh worked. Kassing was supposedly not involved with the group -- or at least that's what he told Bell.
That fact seemed important, especially after I learned that the upshot of the Stanford meeting was that the boosters wanted to fire Bell and me. I figured that with Kassing in our corner, we were safe. But since Bell and I are now no longer employed at San Jose State, I would have to assume that I was incorrect -- and that Bell's source was a credible one.
Within weeks after this discussion, Kassing met with Bell. Then he met with me. He more or less pushed us into resigning after the institution found money to pay off the remainder of our contracts. Obviously, in his new position, Kassing had somehow found money that we were told the institution didn't have -- and the money wasn't merely used to fund the contract buyouts for Bell and me. Kassing hired a new athletic director, who subsequently hired my own replacement. Kassing approved a contract that doubled the compensation I'd been paid. The boosters raised more money so that the school could hire more experienced assistant coaches.
Previously in my relationship with Kassing, he had assured me that any influence pills he swallowed from the booster club would have a placebo effect on him. But I guess he, too, fell guilty to "booster-itis," a virus that plainly affects the hiring and firing of football coaches.
One might ask: "Coach Hill, with your 14-33 record, how did you expect President Kassing to fight off the boosteritis virus?" My answer -- and my prescription to fight off the virus -- was very simple. I wanted the opportunity to do my job with the same support and resources given to my successor. Nothing more. Nothing less. But I never was given that chance. These things happen to white coaches, too. But my research suggests it happens to black coaches more frequently.
Kassing would retire as president of San Jose State during the summer of 2008 but would return on an interim basis in August of 2010 through the summer of 2011. I remain disappointed about my experience with him but I forgave him and moved on a long time ago. I honestly believed that Kassing had my back, because he frequently applauded my leadership skills and lunched with me regularly; Kassing had supported my idea to stage a home football game with Grambling State that would benefit the cause of literacy. It drew the largest home crowd in the history of San Jose State's football program.
Before the 2002 season, Kassing had even sent me a book called "Good To Great" by Jim Collins. Inside the book, Kassing wrote: "You're a natural leader, so you will relate to the ideas in this book. Check out particularly the 'Level Five' leader, because I think you have many of those characteristics."
You think Kassing ever mentioned that to the boosters?
If the booster-itis virus could infect San Jose State, which hardly leads the nation in booster contributions, then just imagine what the virus does at places such as Notre Dame or USC.
You'll never find an athletic director or university administrator who will openly admit that the boosters influence a decision whether to hire a football head coach of color. Despite that story involving the "n" word from my friend at a Conference USA school, racism in this day and age is usually not out in the open. It is not a roomful of people in white hoods, nor a sign on the wall above a drinking fountain. Racism today is more often something you can feel but can't see -- just like humidity or a cool breeze on a summer day. But I can think of at least two instances where the humidity was thick -- and the breeze was downright chilly.
Consider the curious case of Doug Williams, the former quarterback of the Washington Redskins and Super Bowl MVP. In 1998, Williams took over the football program at Grambling, a Division I-AA program, where he proceeded to win fifty-two of his first seventy games. In short, Williams had an ideal profile for a major college coaching job. He had done everything possible to earn that consideration: with an NFL pedigree and a proven record as a college head coach, he related well to young people and obviously knew the game.
After the 2002 season, the athletic director at the University of Kentucky called and asked him to be a candidate for the school's vacant head coaching job. The phone call was a potential history-maker, because at that time, no school in the Southeastern Conference had ever hired a black head football coach. Kentucky could have made Williams the first. He had a great interview with athletic director Mitch Barnhart ... or so Williams thought.
A few days later, Barnhart told Williams the school wanted to go in a different direction. Kentucky ended up hiring Rich Brooks, the former University of Oregon head coach, who was looking for a place to land after two unsuccessful seasons in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams.
How did Brooks do? Before retiring in 2009, he compiled a 39-47 record in seven seasons as Kentucky's head coach, although he did win three bowl games and finish 7-6 in his final season. I guess that's not terrible. But in my opinion, Williams was just as deserving of the opportunity. It's obvious to me that given a choice between a retread such as Brooks or a fresh face and a proven winner like Williams, it would make sense for Barnhart and the school to select a proven winner like Williams. However, Kentucky went with the retread. Why?
After being told by Kentucky that he'd been eliminated as a candidate, Williams asked Barnhart the same question. "He told me that he was more 'comfortable' with hiring Coach Brooks," Williams said in August 2003, eight months later, when he appeared at a seminar about minority coaches that I helped organize. And how did Williams respond to that remark from Barnhart? "I didn't know how to respond," Williams said. "I still don't know what that means."
Here's what I think it meant: most athletic directors don't believe their mostly white boosters are going to be wildly enthusiastic about seeing a black face representing their school on the sidelines. In my opinion, the only thing Doug couldn't adjust on his résumé, the only thing that kept him from being selected as a head football coach at Kentucky or a major institution, was his skin color.
Here's what else I think Barnhart meant: If he had hired Williams, Kentucky would have been the first SEC institution to simultaneously employ black head coaches in both of the major revenue producing sports. Tubby Smith, the Wildcats' basketball coach at the time, is also an African American. In 2009 when Brooks retired, I had to give Kentucky some credit for tapping Joker Phillips, an alum of the university, who is African American, as Brooks's replacement. Two years earlier, Phillips had been named as the school's “coach in waiting” as preparation for Brooks's departure. It could be that in the years that passed since the Kentucky folks snubbed Williams, those folk had become more open to a minority hiring. Or perhaps that mysterious "comfort factor" developed because Phillips was a familiar face at the school.
Nevertheless, since non-discrimination and equality are my goals, I must be consistent and criticize the "tag team" handoff approach. At Kentucky or anywhere else, it is hardly fair for other coaches—of any color—who might want to interview for the job. Also, as I was pondering the Phillips "tag team," I remembered the following: Tubby Smith is now the head basketball coach at Minnesota. The Kentucky basketball team is now led by John Calipari, a white coach. What does that mean? There will not be two African American faces simultaneously leading the university’s two most prominent sports teams.
If boosters aren't afraid to question whether a school has too many black assistant coaches, you can bet that administrators hear the rumbles about too many black head coaches. I know that Bell, my athletic director at San Jose State, heard rumblings from the school boosters there. Some complained about Bell's efforts to hire the most talented coaches based on their résumés and their qualifications rather than their race. Nearly half of the head coaches hired by Bell during his tenure at San Jose State were people of color.
Do the vast majority of boosters not feel "comfortable" with minority coaches? I'm not sure. It is quite possible that many athletic directors are just assuming the boosters feel that way and never bother to ask. Regardless, the result is the same.
There are both funny and sad aspects to all this. College football purists often gripe that their sport is becoming too much like pro football in terms of commercialization. But if college football were more like pro football in terms of a business model, there would be no boosters or donors or "influential supporters" in the college game. In the NFL, owners and general managers hire coaches without having to worry about how the alumni are going to like the decisions. The mission is to win games and fill up seats. And if you do the first, the second follows. It's brutally competitive. But it's not complicated.
Pro football owners only have to worry about television ratings and selling tickets and luxury boxes to corporations and fans. The owners don't have to worry about romancing a select group of those fans in the hope that they will donate twenty-five or fifty thousand dollars to help keep the "franchise" afloat -- or play host to back-slapping cocktail parties where the head coach is supposed to be the meet-and-greet star.
As an illustration, let's look at John Tyson, the former CEO of Tyson Foods, which is based in Northwest Arkansas. Mr. Tyson wanted to help my own beloved University of Arkansas to reach its goal in a billion-dollar fundraising campaign. So he made a seven-million-dollar gift to the school. I've met Mr. Tyson. He is a great man of vision who exemplifies hard work. These are reasons why Tyson Foods is so successful. But I also have heard from reliable sources that Mr. Tyson speaks frankly with university officials about issues surrounding the head football coaching position with the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The booster tentacles can reach even higher up the food chain. When John White was serving as the University of Arkansas chancellor -- he's now retired -- some very credible and reliable sources told me that White wanted to remove Frank Broyles (pictured at right) as the school's athletic director. A very similar thing had happened at the University of Georgia to Vince Dooley, the school's longtime beloved football head coach who moved up into the athletic director position and stayed there for twenty-five years -- until the school's president soured on Dooley and demoted him.
At Arkansas when the same plan was afoot, a few key board members -- the ultimate boosters -- got wind of White's intention. I was told the board members told White that he would be dismissed himself if, in fact, he decided to fire Broyles. But things can change, and here’s the kicker: In 2007, about ten years after White's initial plan was foiled, word on the street is he did indeed force Broyles to step down and move into a fundraising position with the Razorback Foundation. Who do you think gave White the authority to enforce what he originally wanted to do with Broyles? Very credible sources revealed that it was the board of trustees -- many of whom were also big athletic boosters.
This just shows how the hiring process at universities is influenced by people of power -- who usually are the people with money. These relationships set the table for a dinner of gourmet hypocrisy.
How so? In 2001, a survey was administered by the American Football Coaches Association. The organization sent a questionnaire to the athletic directors at all Division I football schools. The athletic directors were asked to list the qualities they most sought when searching for a new football coach at their school. According to the survey results, "integrity" was the number-one attribute that athletic directors wanted. The second most important quality was "football knowledge and intelligence." There was no mention of "winning record." Of course, if you pay attention to the sports headlines every December, plenty of coaches with "integrity" and "football knowledge" are fired. But that's not why I found the AFCA survey so fascinating.
When I looked farther down the list of qualities that athletic directors sought, I saw such items as "salesmanship" and "fundraising." I don't imagine an NFL owner is concerned too much about these things. If so, such great coaches as Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells would have probably never been hired. Imagine asking Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots to be more people-friendly and have a few drinks with sponsors and potential fans so they will buy more tickets or lease more skyboxes.
The truth is, if you are a head coach in college football, it is far more important to have the support of your school's board of trustees than the support of your athletic director -- or even your school president. Just ask Ty Willingham about that. During his three seasons at Notre Dame, no one ever questioned his "integrity" or ability to endure criticism with class. In 2003, a court case later revealed, a Florida man who said he was a Notre Dame fan called up Willingham and left a threatening message on Willingham's phone mail. The message included racially charged language and a threat to burn a cross in Willingham's front yard. The Florida man, Andrew French, eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and received a year's probation and two-thousand-dollar fine.
Willingham never uttered a peep about the case, either when it occurred or when it was settled. And yet Willingham's unquestioned "integrity" and ability to work well with the athletic director at Notre Dame didn't help him one bit when it came down to deciding his future at the school in December of 2004.
The full and gory details of Willingham's experience at Notre Dame may never be made public. But when he was fired as the Fighting Irish head coach in spite of his overall winning record, there was no question about who pushed Willingham out the door. In the days following Willingham's departure, athletic director Kevin White admitted that he had not been in favor of the move. Even more incredibly, the school president said the same thing. Father Edward Malloy had only a few months left in his tenure when the Willingham decision was made. For this reason, Malloy decided he would sit out the deliberations on football's future at the school. But when he was asked a week after Willingham's firing to comment on the decision, Malloy unloaded.
"In my eighteen years here, there have been only two days that I've been embarrassed to be president of Notre Dame -- Tuesday and Wednesday of last week," said Father Malloy (pictured at left). "Notre Dame will get a new coach. I hope the person does well. But I think the philosophical hit that we've taken is a significant one. I am not happy about it, and I don't assume responsibility for it."
If the athletic director and school president didn't want Willingham fired, who did? According to published reports, the decision was made by two members from the board of trustees and five other Notre Dame administrators.
I think the AFCA sent its survey to the wrong people.
Willingham's treatment received a lot of attention because of Notre Dame's elevated visibility. But that exact scenario -- a small group of boosters wielding an inordinate amount of power—plays itself out every year at far less prominent schools. And if you think race doesn't play a factor for black coaches when such decisions are made ... well, let me have you sit down with Jerry Baldwin.
From 1999 through 2001, Baldwin was the head coach at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. He had been a successful assistant coach at Louisiana State University. Our paths crossed often while recruiting student-athletes when I was an assistant at Arkansas. But at ULL, he won a total of only six games in those three seasons and was fired. Baldwin, a minister and a man of strong faith, filed a lawsuit, alleging that the university discriminated against him by not providing him the same support or offering the same treatment it offered his white successor.
After I agreed to serve as an expert witness based on my studies of black football coaches at predominantly white colleges and universities, I was flown down to Baton Rouge by Baldwin's attorney. I was never called to testify but did sit through a day of proceedings. In the end, the jury found Baldwin's race was indeed one of the reasons for his dismissal, if not the only reason. Baldwin didn't get his job back. But he won a two-million-dollar judgment. According to the jurors, university officials broke Baldwin's contract and inflicted emotional distress through negligence.
In my discussions with Baldwin, he made no bones about the fact that many important school boosters were not on his side, even before he coached a game.
"You can say there is racism among athletic directors," Baldwin told me, "but really, athletic directors are controlled by the support people. Athletic directors may not be racist, per se. But they are moved to do things in a racist manner because of the people who support the program. And I never experienced a huge level of alumni support."
According to the lawsuit, ULL president Ray Authement told Baldwin (pictured at right) that he was not "a popular choice" with the community. The school president also supported the decision to terminate Baldwin because, Authement said, he "could no longer take the pressure" of having a black coach. Two deans on the football coach selection committee told Baldwin that athletic director Nelson Schexnayder did not want Baldwin as head coach because of his race. Baldwin was also told that one booster asked Schexnayder, "Why do we have to have all of the black coaches?" This booster was referring to the fact that the men's basketball team at ULL also had a black head coach.
It was interesting to observe this case and visit with Baldwin as the courts sorted through all the accusations and listened to the testimonies of university officials. But having been where Baldwin was, I can say without hesitation that where there's smoke, there's probably fire. My research has shown and my personal experience borne out that there is a pattern in the way black coaches are managed by their superiors. I can only hope that Baldwin's willingness to address the issue head on will create a higher level of sensitivity toward the hiring and firing of black head coaches.
So it was confusing to Baldwin, he told me, when he felt shunned by the Black Coaches Association (BCA) because certain black coaches thought his lawsuit would ruin advancement opportunities for them. In fact, Baldwin believed just the opposite -- that his lawsuit was aimed precisely at creating a better employment climate for African American coaches.
Baldwin testified during his case that Schexnayder, the athletic director, pulled out on a plan to have the school's games televised, canceled the head coach's weekly TV show, eliminated a marketing position in the athletic department, cut the football equipment budget, and took twenty-five thousand that was donated to the football program and used it for other purposes.
That story sounds very familiar. I never had a television show during my head coaching tour of duty at San Jose State. Dick Tomey, (pictured below at left) who replaced me, did a television show after the new athletic director found a sponsor to underwrite it. While I coached at SJS, the marketing director's position was eliminated. So was the position of my personal secretary.
In the academic arena, I am embarrassed to mention the lack of support my student-athletes received in the critical areas of university-funded tutors and support personnel. But two years after my resignation, San Jose State athletic director Tom Bowen (who had replaced Chuck Bell) blamed me for the Academic Progress Rate scores of the football team. I wonder if Bowen even knew that in 2004 there had been such a lack of funding for academic matters that during spring semester my staff and I were forced to personally serve as tutors for our players. Today, there are four additional academic support personnel available to the football team and a learning specialist position funded out of the school president's office.
During my tenure, there were limited funds to hire assistant coaches. But after I resigned, Bowen organized a "Coaches Circle" of donors. These people contributed an additional two hundred thousand dollars to help supplement the salaries of Dick Tomey's assistants. I want to note that this sort of thing is not unique to black coaches. White coaches are also fired and then see their successors receive superior resources. But the net effect is far greater on black football coaches when this situation occurs-- because employment trends indicate that only rarely will black coaches be recycled as head coaches in the same manner as their white peers.
I can only speculate as to the motivation behind all of these machinations that took place after I left San Jose State. But I believe that in the subconscious minds of those same boosters who felt that I had hired too many minority assistants, there was an assumption that Tomey would not hire as diverse a staff. In the 2009 season, Tomey employed one African American and one Samoan American.
Tomey retired at the conclusion of that 2009 football season with a 25-35 record at San Jose State. His final team recorded a 2-10 record. I really hope that during his time with the Spartans, Tomey didn't endure through the same wrenching process I went through when trying to hire assistant coaches. As I mentioned earlier, I did have a single school booster in Chuck Davidson whom I could rely on for support. Davidson assisted me in bringing aboard Keith Burns as our defensive coordinator. At that juncture, I was told that the entire California State Universities were under a hiring freeze and that funds were not available to hire Burns. I still fought tooth and nail to try and get him to come to San Jose State. Finally, my athletic director told me that I could receive financial help to pay for a chunk of Burns's salary from a certain group of boosters -- if I hired "the right guy."
I knew what that meant. The boosters didn't want me to bring in another black coach. So when I brought in Burns for his campus visit, I took him to meet my top boosters. Why? Because those boosters were going to fund a portion of Burns's paycheck, and I needed the boosters' tacit approval to hire him. Otherwise, I would have to abide by the hiring freeze that I assumed was in place at our sister institutions. As it turned out, Fresno State and San Diego State were able to ignore this hiring freeze because they could count on the more generous contributions of their booster clubs and foundations.
That brings me back to Coach Jerry Baldwin at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. Not surprisingly, Baldwin was succeeded by a white coach, Rickey Bustle. According to Baldwin's legal claims, Bustle was immediately given a television show and the benefit of a new athletic department marketing man. Looking back, Baldwin believes his undoing began when one particular financial supporter of the university -- who had also been one of Baldwin's biggest supporters -- died during Baldwin's last season. Baldwin also cannot forget those booster meetings where, try as he might, he always felt out of place.
"One, I'm African American," said Baldwin. "And two, I'm a Christian. I didn't drink, party, and do all that stuff. Some of those guys didn't know how to relate to someone like that. The booster meetings weren't crowded, I can tell you that. They were casual and uncrowded. Racism and discrimination is not overt now. It manifests itself in other ways -- you know, by people who don't come to booster club meetings or don't volunteer for something they would have volunteered to do if the coach was white."
All right, so put yourself in the athletic director's place at a Football Bowl Subdivision school. The athletic director must satisfy his core constituency of boosters. But if he or she hires a black football coach, there is a chance some of those volunteers won't be volunteering their time or their money. Do you think this crosses the athletic director's mind while he or she assembles a list of candidates for a job opening? Do you think the board of trustees and the school president ever bring up the topic?
"I guarantee you," Baldwin said, "that in those closed meetings, they discuss it all from a racial perspective. But they can't ever talk about it openly, because it would be admitting some of their boosters are racist. And they're really counting on the fact that African American coaches aren't going to say anything because it might give them a label of being malcontents, and maybe they've got a family and are afraid of losing their jobs and not being hired somewhere else."
Ultimately, Baldwin said, that's why he filed his lawsuit. Just like me, he's no longer a coach. He works for the state of Louisiana and is also a church pastor in Ruston. Through his lawsuit, he focused as bright a light as possible on this topic -- but even in Louisiana, very few people realize that Baldwin won his lawsuit to right a wrong. In the minds of the university leaders and boosters, their actions were not inappropriate. They simply believed that Baldwin wasn't the right coach for them. Bottom line: they believed that their lack of support played no part in his 6-27 coaching record.
You know the great irony here? In the NFL, unlike academic institution, the powers that be have put the racial issue front and center and are never afraid to address it. This has led to more African American coaches being interviewed and hired in pro football. Meanwhile, the alleged educators of our nation, who should be in favor of dialogue on the issue, are running away from it like a freshman cutting a tough chemistry class.
Baldwin wasn't surprised.
"Come on," he told me. "Educators don't run universities. Politicians do. You've got some alum out there who is, say, successful in the construction business but maybe didn't get his college degree. He didn't finish school. But now he's got money. So he's got a voice."
I am wondering how many black coaches have heard the same voices at other schools in other parts of the country. Even worse, I am wondering what some of those voices say when we are not around to hear them.
You know what, though? Every December, when universities fire and hire football coaches and I see excellent minority candidates not even receive interviews, I hear the voices of those boosters without them saying a single word.
-- Excerpted by permission from Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches by Dr. Fitzgerald Hill With Mark Purdy. Copyright (c) 2012 by Dr. Fitzgerald Hill. Published by Tate Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.