Long before Gene Cross joined the Mid-American Conference as the University of Toledo men s basketball coach, he heard something about the league that stuck with him.
It was a speech by then-Ball State coach Ray McCallum at a national coaches convention more than a decade ago heralding the MAC s reputation for diversity in its coaching ranks.
He called it the Black MAC, said Mr. Cross, UT s first-year coach.
Mr. McCallum s words certainly ring true today.
Eight of the 12 current MAC men s basketball coaches are black, compared with about 22 percent in NCAA Division I hoops.
Of the seven African-Americans who hold head coaching jobs at the top level of college football, three are in the MAC.
College coaches, athletic directors, and advocates for equality in sports applaud the MAC which includes UT and Bowling Green State University for being so far ahead of the curve in providing opportunities for African-American coaches.
But they also say major college sports programs throughout the country have plenty of work to do.
Exclusive candidate pools, predominantly white athletic and university administrators, influence from donors, a lack of experience interviewing for head coaching positions, and the smaller window of opportunity to succeed are just some of the issues keeping the number of African-American head coaches relatively low.
Although some athletic directors nationally recognize the racial imbalance and have committed to improve the situation, they have a long way to go to catch the MAC, which has the highest ratio of black head basketball and football coaches of any conference in Division I.
It s one of our brands, in a healthy way, MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst said.
Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators organization, and Dutch Baughman, executive director of the 1A Athletic Directors Association, are on opposite sides of the hiring dynamic.
They both agree that of the two major college sports, hiring more black football coaches requires immediate attention.
This is an enormous issue and one you can t paint with a broad brush, Mr. Baughman said. If we re going to make real progress in either sport, football has to come first. Obviously we re not finished with either sport.
After the most recent off-season coaching shuffle, seven of 120, or 5.8 percent, of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) teams have African-American head football coaches, or 5.8 percent. About 50 percent of FBS players are minorities.
Just one of the African-American football coaches heads a team in a major conference Randy Shannon, whose Miami (Florida) Hurricanes compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In basketball, 70 of 322, or 21.7 percent, of Division I coaches (excluding the 21 coaches at historically black schools) are African-American. About 60 percent of Division I men s basketball players are black.
I take the lead from what my members tell me, Mr. Keith said. I m not hearing the same sense of frustration on the basketball side that I m hearing on the football side.
He said so few black football coaches are hired because most administrators aren t comfortable with handing their prorams over to African-Americans.
He said their angst is caused by black coaches collectively short records for success and by the backgrounds of people involved in the hiring process.
No African-American has ever won a football national championship at Division I s highest level. Then again, no black man has ever coached in a FBS championship game.
A study released Thursday by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport said 92.5 percent of university presidents at the FBS level in the 2007-08 school year were white. The same study said 86.7 percent of FBS athletic directors are white.
Mr. Keith said some white athletic directors and presidents, when influenced by white financial donors and friends they rely on for advice, don t step out of their comfort zones to include minority candidates.
Unless there is a sensitivity to equality and inclusion, it s hard to change, Mr. Keith said. We re going to continue to make these suggestions to promote an inclusive hiring process. But some schools just aren t going to make that hire.
Up, then down
When comparing black head coaches national statistics in Division I football and basketball, many more strides have been made in basketball.
It helped that legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson became the first African-American to coach a men s basketball team to a national championship in 1984, and Arkansas Nolan Richardson followed in 1994.
But even on the hardwood, there is evidence to support the notion that African-Americans are not getting the same opportunities as whites.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the proportion of black coaches in college basketball has gone down since 2005-06, when it was 25.2 percent.
Nine of the 34 coaches, or about 26 percent, hired before the start of this season were African-American.
Black head coaches are astonishingly few in some major basketball conferences. The 11-team Big Ten has one, the Big 12 has two, the 11-team Southeastern Conference has one, and the 16-team Big Eas has three.
Those numbers certainly suggest more can be done, Mr. Keith said. There s only one in the SEC? Wow, there should be more.
Tubby Smith, who heads Minnesota s program, is the Big Ten s lone African-American basketball coach. A national champion when he coached at Kentucky, a traditional SEC and national power, in 1998, he said progress has been made for racial equality among basketball coaches.
An issue of barriers
Louis Orr, BGSU s second-year coach, tells the story of being recruited by Syracuse as a player in the spring of 1976, when the team s coaching staff had no African-Americans.
That s no disrespect to Syracuse, Mr. Orr said. That was just a sign of the times then.
But Mr. Smith, Mr. Keith, and Mr. Orr are just three of many who recognize the barriers black coaches face. Mr. Smith and Mr. Orr said it s about administrators being willing to do what s best for their programs as well as black coaches finding the right fit and making the most of their first opportunities.
These jobs are tough jobs, Mr. Smith said. Trying to raise a program up is a tough business. It s about how many administrators are willing to do what they have to do. It doesn t matter if you re white or black.
Mr. Baughman, who said athletic directors must first address the lack of diversity among college football coaches, said the cause is gaining traction.
He and a group of athletic directors and equality-in-sports advocates, drafted a set of guidelines to include more blacks in coaching searches two years ago called Acceptable Standards.
He said 20 African-Americans were interviewed for head coaching jobs in football in 2007 and 27 in 2008 up from two interviewed in 2006.
Mr. Keith s BCA organization also releases a yearly report card for hiring in football. The report tracks the opportunities afforded minorities.
Unlike NFL teams that must follow a rule stipulating that at least one African-American canbe interviewed for every head coaching vacancy, athletic directors are not bound to such guidelines.
But Mr. Baughman said many people in a position to hire are taking to heart the need to interview more black candidates.
I trust our 1A directors to do the right thing, Mr. Baughman said.
Mr. Baughman, Mr. Cross, and others all said it is important for more African-Americans to gain experience interviewing for head coaching jobs so they are ready when they are interviewed for the position that best fits them.
Gene Smith, athletic director at Ohio State and an African-American, said one problem is too few of those jobs are out there. He said many qualified black coaches don t apply because of a school s history of losing seasons.
He said a black coach who doesn t win big right away might not be a head coach again.
That s an underlying theme that s never talked about, the OSU athletic director said. For black coaches, the first head coaching job they get might be their only shot.
Breakthrough in Buffalo
Warde Manuel, Turner Gill, and Ron English, who are black, bucked the trend that OSU s Mr. Smith mentioned.
In 2005, Mr. Manuel and Mr. Gill took jobs as athletic director and football coach, respectively, at Division I-A fledging Buffalo. In December, Mr. English accepted the head football job at perennial doormat Eastern Michigan.
Buffalo, which like Eastern Michigan is a MAC school, won 10 football games in seven years after entering Division I-A play in 1999.
Mr. Manuel, who was an associate athletic director at Michigan, and Mr. Gill, previously an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers, knew they were taking a gamble.
And it s paying off.
Buffalo s athletic department is experiencing its best year in school history. The Bulls won their first MAC football championship in 2008, and the men s basketball team, which Reggie Witherspoon has headed for 10 years, was 17-7 and leading the MAC East Division entering this weekend.
A lot of people thought this was a job where you wouldn t have success, Mr. Manuel said. People said to Turner and me, Don t go to Buffalo because there are better jobs. You will ruin your career.
What Turner has shown is regardless of name, you can go somewhere if you believe in the place, have resources behind you, and are creative. You can look at it as an opportunity to prove yourself.
Mr. English, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan who is African-American, is hoping for similar results. He is taking over a program that hasn t been to a bowl game since 1987.
I don t look at it like everyone else, taking into account about what has happened here, Mr. English said. It s not about the history in my mind, although in the minds of others that is a big issue.
Buffalo and Eastern Michigan are two prime examples of willingness by MAC schools to diversify their athletic departments.
Buffalo became the first school with African-Americans as athletic director, football coach, and men s basketball coach after Mr. Gill was hired. Eastern Michigan is the first university that is not historically black to have six African-Americans in prominent positions in the athletic department.
For a long time it s been certainly a value and a priority for the conference, said Mr. Chryst, the MAC commissioner, who is to leave his position in June after 10 years. It s a combination of a lot of factors. I don t think there s any one point of causation.
At a presidential level and athletic director level, I think it s been leadership that has been fully committed to being broad in terms of searches. In so many ways this league offers people opportunity.
The two MAC schools in northwest Ohio, UT and BGSU, hired black men s basketball coaches in the last two years. When Mr. Cross was hired at UT in April, he followed Stan Joplin, who is also African-American.
Mr. Cross is in his first season as head coach after 12 years as an assistant at other schools.
The MAC can be, in some aspects, a cultivator of coaches, UT said Mike O Brien, athletic director. When you look at coaches who have come through our league no matter the sport, there is the possibility of moving on. This is a terrific place to start.
Louis Orr, who is in his second season as BGSU s coach, is the first African-American men s basketball coach in school history. But this head coaching job is not his first.
He held that post at Siena and at Seton Hall before taking over the Falcons. Ball State s Billy Taylor and Northern Illinois Ricardo Patton, both African-Americans, also had previous head coaching experience before they joined the MAC two years ago.
The MAC has a reputation as a launching pad for coaches, BGSU athletic director Greg Christopher said. Then two years ago, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, and Ball State all made basketball hires of coaches with experience. We all had the good fortune of hiring coaches with tremendous track records. If you can find someone with success as a head coach, it helps.
Both UT and BG hired head football coaches in December, and neither is a minority. But in each case, African-American candidates applied and were interviewed.
Mr. Christopher, who hired former Tennessee assistant Dave Clawson, said one of the three finalists to be BGSU s new football coach was black.
My belief, going into any search, is to be color blind, Mr. Christopher said. as athletic directors we re held accountable for putting the best people in place. You want to look across the landscape and make sure you have a diverse pool of candidates. Diversity goes beyond race.
Contact Joe Vardon at:email@example.com or 419-410-5055.