African-American coaches break through and shine.
When Charlie Strong hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy over his head, after his Louisville team put a 33-23 thrashing on the overwhelming favorite Florida Gators, he became only the third African American coach in history to take a team to a BCS bowl game. The joy Strong expressed in the post game celebration was due to much more than merely winning a football game though. The win was the culmination of years of hard work, patience and perseverance.
To make it to the Sugar Bowl victory, 52 year-old Charlie Strong traveled a long and tedious road. He spent twenty six years as an assistant, for six different college teams, without ever receiving one head coaching offer. In 1999 he broke the SEC color barrier, a conference that didn’t hire its first African-American head coach until 2004 (Sylvester Croom), when he became the first African-American defensive coordinator at the University of South Carolina. He spent 15 years in total as a University of Florida assistant coach under Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. Under Meyer, Strong won two national titles as defensive coordinator.
Known as a man of high character and integrity among his peers, as well as a great tactician among his competitors, Strong was consistently passed over for head coaching positions. He suffered a heavy dose of the same institutional racism, that almost all qualified African-Americans have experienced. Currently, there are only 15 African-American head football coaches out of 124 FBS conference schools, up from only 5 in 2008. That’s only 12 percent, when African-American Student athletes represent 46 percent of the Players in Division I football. Worse than the hiring record is the lack of rehires. Former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham is the only African-American coach to ever be fired from a FBS school and hired by another. One?
It’s well known that major universities have been guilty of conspicuously not hiring African-American head coaches to lead their football programs. Schools have remained reluctant when it comes to hiring African-American’s to the top spot; due to lingering attitudes on the part of university presidents and football boosters. Coaches have to endear themselves to boosters who make large donations to schools. Those donations give the boosters the power to control much of the decision making at colleges. Schools hesitate in hiring African-American coaches, fearing the cultural differences will make the boosters stop their checks. In a January 2009 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Charlie Strong expressed his belief that race played a large part in the reason he hadn’t been offered a head coaching job. Strong, whose wife is white, especially cited prospective employers’ discomfort with his interracial relationship.
Strong finally got his shot three seasons ago, when Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich sought him out for the head job. This season he exceeded expectations, and proved what many already knew about his coaching ability. He lead his young Louisville team to eleven wins and a Big East title; in just his third season. He also proved what many knew about his strength of character when he turned down a $3.5 million deal to take over the vacant head coaching job at Tennessee. His loyalty remained to the players he recruited to come to Louisville, and to the school that gave him the opportunity he long deserved.
“When you get a chance to go work for an AD that is willing to give you everything you ask for, then I could never turn and walk away from him,” said Strong. That loyalty was rewarded by the Athletic director, in the form of a six year contract extension. That extension will pay Strong $2.3 million per year, through 2019.Louisville will leave the Big East conference for the ACC in 2014. Next year, Led by QB super star in the making Teddy Bridgewater, and 18 returning starters on offense and defense. Strong has now set himself up to build a national power program, at what has always been known as a basketball school.
It’s a shame that African-Americans are still setting records as it pertains to racial advancement. Charlie Strong, while being a victim of institutional racism, handled himself with class and dignity, while awaiting his long overdue chance. When it finally came, to outside observers, Strong’s team shocked the world. For Strong and other African-American coaches though, it was an I told you so moment. Current African-American head coaches; David Shaw of Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, also won big bowl games. Shaw won the Rose Bowl, a BCS Bowl, and Sumlin captured the Cotton Bowl, in what may have been the most impressive team performance of the bowl season’s games. Whatever happens from this point on, will only be more cream on top of an already sweet lifetime achievement, for a few. But, each win greater fuels the desire, of all African American coaches yearning to show they’ve got what it takes. There’s still no guarantee Strong’s and others’ performances will make the powers that hire even the playing field, However. What It will do, is heap more shame on them if they continue to refuse…