Wiedmer: Black coaches directing major wins

Wiedmer: Black coaches directing major wins

January 6th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

As the story goes, Charlie Strong - then a Florida assistant football coach - was interviewing for a head-coaching position in a BCS conference when that school's athletic director asked him whom he intended to hire as offensive coordinator if he was chosen.

When Strong reportedly said he planned to bring along a pass-happy coach from a lower-division school, the AD supposedly replied, "Then you haven't done your homework, because I've made it clear I want a coach who's going to run the football."

To which Strong is said to have fired back, "With all due respect, perhaps you haven't done your homework. He runs the football more than 50 percent of the time."

Nearly a decade later, that school hasn't sniffed a BCS bowl in more than 50 years and is on its third head coach since that interview.

As for Strong, he just pounded SEC beast Florida in the Sugar Bowl in guiding the Cardinals to an 11-win season. Given that he's also the fourth black head coach from a BCS league this holiday season to win a bowl, perhaps a lot of athletic directors should be doing more homework regarding black coaching candidates.

"Oh, you notice," new UT cornerbacks coach Tommy Thigpen said as he took a brief break from recruiting duties Saturday afternoon. "And it makes you proud. But not only because those guys are black, but because they're exceptional coaches with exceptional character.

"They've worked so hard to get where they are. It's great to see guys who've worked their way up through the system enjoy that kind of success. It gives you hope you can do the same one day."

Other than the color of their skin, the four -- Vanderbilt's James Franklin, Stanford's David Shaw, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Strong -- have clearly different personalities.

Franklin overflows with in-your-face enthusiasm, so much so that he sometimes refer to himself as a "psycho." Strong displays a quiet, determined dignity, the strong and silent type. Sumlin exudes an easy confidence, often smiling, as if he knows he's figured out a way to beat you that you can't stop.

Then there's Shaw, who just took the Cardinal to their second BCS bowl in two years, winning the Rose over Wisconsin and telling the media, "We're still ascending."

No wonder former Tennessee linebacker Eric Westmoreland was disappointed when UT athletic director Dave Hart failed to convince Strong he'd be happier in Knoxville than Louisville.

"Race really didn't have much to do with it," said the 35-year-old Westmoreland, an assistant coach at Baylor School. "It was what I knew about him as a recruiter. Look at that Louisville team. They had more than 30 players from the state of Florida. We need that kind of recruiting at Tennessee. We need better players.

"Charlie Strong's a great defensive coach, and we need to improve our defense. But just being black doesn't mean you can recruit. He has to be doing something else right to be able to communicate with those kids well enough to get them to come to Louisville from Florida."

If you don't think those four coaches' bowl wins by an average score of 33-18.5 is impressive, consider that only Stanford's 20-14 win over Wisconsin was by less than 10 points. And what appeared to be the most fascinating of the matchups -- Sumlin's Aggies versus defensive guru Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners -- turned into the biggest rout, A&M prevailing 41-13 behind Heisman Trophy winner "Johnny Football" Manziel.

But does the 41-year-old Thigpen believe such a showing will encourage other athletic directors to increase the current number of Division I black head coaches from the 19 who ran their shows in 2011 and 15 who controlled their sidelines this season?

With black NFL coaches Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and Tony Dungy (Indianapolis) having won Super Bowls in the past decade, why does college seem to lag so far behind?

"It has to be a good fit for both the school and the coach," said Thigpen, mindful that there were only four black Division I head coaches in 2009, the year President Obama was sworn into office.

"And it's not just at the head-coach level. Most guys become head coaches after they've been a coordinator somewhere. That's my next goal. To become a defensive coordinator and have a chance to make decisions that have a positive impact on young people. But right now it's ready, set, go for UT. It's all about recruiting for the next few weeks."

Two weeks from Monday we'll observe Martin Luther King Day. Come August we'll mark the 50th anniversary of his "I have a dream" speech.

As Westmoreland coaches impressionable young men each day at Baylor, he dreams of one day becoming a head coach at the prep level or perhaps a major college assistant.

But does he believe we'll one day no longer consider race when we talk about the content of one's character, or the depth of one's talent, as the Reverend King once dreamed?

"I think race will always be a factor," said the Marion County native.

That doesn't mean he doesn't think the 2012 successes of Franklin (9-4), Shaw (12-2), Strong (11-2) and Sumlin (11-2) won't help his coaching career somewhere down the road.

"Maybe one day I'll get a chance because of that," he said. "That would be great."

If this season's bowl results are any indication, it would also be smart.