(AP Photo / Brennan Linsley)
Less than a year ago I attended a seminar on race and racism on college campuses. It was for the most part an open forum discussion, and the main issue was how race is perceived, and racism prevalent, at this particular predominantly white college campus. What I took away from the discussion can be summed up in the following statement: minorities are constantly running against the wind.
The dialogue was led by professors of the sociology department, persons experienced in this topic. They all seemed to unanimously agree that though racism may no longer exist in an overt state, it still lives. It is now institutionalized in our country, and racial minorities in the U.S. still have a tougher journey to achieving success than Caucasians.
When the University of Colorado fired their head football coach Jon Embree on Nov. 25 I’m sure it wasn’t solely motivated by the fact that Embree is African-American – it’s not 1950 after all, and they hired him knowing he is black in the first place.
What I do wonder is, if Embree was white would he have been granted more time to change the direction of the program.
Embree was hired in December of 2010. His tenure as head ball coach lasted less than two years.
As noted in an article titled Coaches see progress in hiring by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller, in 1994 there were four black coaches in Division One FBS football. That number was the same in 2002 and rose by one in 2008.
The number improved this past year with 15 head coaches being African-American; however, that’s still just a percentage of 12.1, compared to the 51 percent of FBS players who are black.
A large majority of FBS head coaches played football at the collegiate level. Coaching is a natural next step for players to progress to after their on-the-field careers end. So where does the discord occur in the number of black players turning into coaches? I don’t have the exact answer, but there could be several factors. No matter, the reality is that it exists.
During Embree’s farewell press conference he didn’t play the “race card” in relation to his firing, but he did speak in a tone, and using words, that tells that he feels he was not given a fair shake, and that possibly his race played a role.
When Embree did address his race, it was in relation to what his firing means for other black coaches. He implied that a double-standard exists in the hiring of black coaches who have previously been fired from a head coaching job.
“We don’t get second chances,” Embree said. “And that’s OK, you know it going into it … But every minority coach knows that going into it. Eventually that’ll change.”
The standard generally seems to be at least three years for football coaches to prove their worth. Coaches need time to implement their system, instill discipline in players which may have been lost, develop chemistry amongst their staff, recruit players that fit their vision, and many other details that go overlooked, before they can produce a championship product. Two years simply is not enough.
What Embree did achieve in two years will not endear him to many new job offers.
Embree did not field a product that would wow anyone. The Buffaloes finished this season 1-11, and they were 4-20 in Embree’s two seasons. College football is ruled by money more than it ever has been, and when a team regresses from one year to another, patience becomes short. Many Colorado boosters, as well as fans, were calling for a change.
At the surface level, it seems self explanatory how Embree did not make it to year three.
Looking deeper, Embree inherited a team in peril. Colorado has not had a winning season since 2005 (7-5). They haven’t had a nine-win season since 2002. That is 10 years of undoing. The team that Embree inherited did not know how to win.
It takes time to win the right way – that was a point of emphasis for Embree. He’s not in the business of taking shortcuts in order to produce quick results. When current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend, Ind., his team was hurting from three straight years of mediocrity, yet still much more talented than the team Embree inherited. Even so, Kelly knew he had to show his team the right way to do things. Where did he start? The locker room. To Kelly, his players didn’t even know how to properly store equipment in their locker and keep it clean; how could they know how to do things the right way on the field if they couldn’t do it in the locker room?
Something tells me, Embree was met with a similar, and likely worse, situation.
To question whether his race played a role in the short leash he was given would appear to be valid. To state that black coaches are not given second chances is valid. The result of not being given enough time to prove one’s worth leads to few future opportunities.
For Embree to say that black coaches don’t receive second chances, he’s not out of line. Black coaches on average don’t carry the net worth of white coaches. They are not as likely to be rubbing shoulders with boosters (who carry much more power than they should). They don’t come from lines of coaching families either. In a world where the large majority of school presidents and athletic directors are white, black coaches don’t carry the same clout because from the beginning they didn’t have the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
According to Paul Starr, author of Civil Reconstruction: What to do Without Affirmative Action, in the U.S., a black family who earns $60,000 per year has a lower average net worth than a white family who earns less than $15,000 annually. How does this happen? Because of institutionalized racial inequality.
The first black head coach at a Division 1-A (now FBS) school did not enter the picture until 1979 when Willie Jeffries was hired at Wichita State. That means that from thenceforth, black coaches have been taking small profile jobs with the hopes of working their way up, leaving them roughly 100 years behind the path started by white coaches.
I don’t believe that all of the athletic directors and presidents want black coaches to fail. They aren’t trying to blackball them because of their color. But both situations are happening because of a system that from its initiation was not set up for minorities the same as it was for whites.
Tyrone Willingham is the only black coach to be re-hired as a head coach after being fired from another school. Willingham was let go after three seasons at Notre Dame. Even then, many felt that he could have been granted more time.
Nonetheless, Willingham did get a second chance and it helps that he was able to place the University of Notre Dame on his résumé.
Will Embree be able to say the same? At Colorado he had support to land the job. He was endorsed by his former coach at Colorado, Bill McCartney. He may not have the same luck with another school.
“Men of color have a more difficult road to tread,” McCartney told John Henderson of The Denver Post in an interview. “It didn’t happen to me. Why should it happen to a black man?”
If the University of Colorado felt that the program was not headed in the right direction, it’s hard to judge their intent as otherwise. They are much more in the know of the inner dealings of their athletics than anyone of us are. But Embree has every right to feel that he has to run through more wind than his peers. History dictates so.
Other former black head coaches, such as Bobby Williams, Karl Dorrell, Sylvester Croom, and Randy Shannon, have not had a head coaching opportunity arise again at the FBS level – they haven’t even appeared on any shortlists. Turner Gill, the former coach at Kansas, had to go down a level to the FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) to get another head coaching job.
When Croom was hired at Mississippi State in 2004, he became the first black head coach in Southeastern Conference history, 37 years after the first black player put on an SEC uniform.
It’s easy to say that these coaches just aren’t good enough and to use to their records as proof. The reality is, however, they all entered positions, in their first head coaching job, where they were set up to fail, white or black. Institutionalized racial inequality has led to black coaches being put in such positions and consequently to their disappearance from future consideration for new positions.
Stanford’s David Shaw and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, both black head coaches, appear to be carving their own paths to success. Fortunately for Shaw, who is taking his team to their second BCS bowl game in his second year, he did not enter program left in peril, but one where the previous head coach left for better opportunities, and not by way of firing.
Hopefully Embree gets another chance. Hopefully he gets more time to work with than just “one and a half” recruiting classes, as he put it. He may not ever be head coach material, but if given another chance, and maybe another after that, like his white peers often receive, at least we can know that for sure.