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College football hits a landmark for black coaches

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Floyd Keith remembers way back in the day when he could watch two-thirds of the black head coaches in Division I football in one game. The executive director of the Black Coaches Association flew out to the Rose Bowl to see them both, in a UCLA-Washington game.

"Way back in the day" was 2005.

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Kevin Sumlin led Texas A&M to a victory over No. 1 Alabama and a No. 9 ranking in the AP poll. (AP)

Those two coaches, Karl Dorrell and Tyrone Willingham, didn't last all that long at their schools. When Barack Obama became America's first black president in 2009, there were only four black head coaches in a sport that is nearly 50 percent African-American. Ten years ago, there had been only 21 black head football coaches at Division I schools – ever.

But now, finally, things have changed.

For the first time this week, according to Keith, there are four teams led by African-American head coaches ranked in the top 25. They are: Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin), Stanford (David Shaw), Louisville (Charlie Strong) and Kent State (Darrell Hazell). They are young – three of four are in their first head coaching jobs – and they are being spoken of as "hot" names in a business that has traditionally been cold to minority leaders.

"It's a landmark, symbolic, watershed moment," says N. Jeremi Duru, author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.

"I think there's been a broadening of the pool of people to fill these jobs."

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Over the years, a lot of the jobs given to minority candidates have come at schools without deep winning traditions. Think Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State and Joker Phillips at Kentucky. Tyrone Willingham getting hired at Stanford, Notre Dame and then Washington was an exception. Louisville's Strong, though he built a ferocious defense as a coordinator for Urban Meyer at Florida, went years without a top job. But now younger minority coaches are making winners out of teams that haven't had tremendous BCS success. Louisville's been in only one BCS game, under Bobby Petrino, but is headed that way under Strong this season. Shaw took Andrew Luck and Stanford to a BCS bowl in January – the first African-American head coach to do so in 12 years. Vanderbilt is bowl eligible under James Franklin. So is Western Kentucky with Willie Taggart. And perhaps most impressive of all, Hazell has Kent State ranked for the first time since 1973.

Just as tellingly, Hazell says this week's milestone for African-American coaches never crossed his mind.

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Track Facts

USC vs. UCLA

For years, the UCLA Bruins were one of the dominant teams in their conference and in the nation. From 1975 to 1988, winning seasons, conference championships and bowl berths were routine for the Los Angeles school.

Since then, however, the Bruins have fallen on tough times. There have been glimpses of greatness here and there, but overall, mediocre or losing seasons have become the norm.

Even worse, UCLA has been owned by crosstown rival USC every year but one since 1998. That's 12 wins in 13 years for USC. Only the 13-9 upset victory in 2006 that cost the Trojans a spot in the BCS championship game prevented it from being a 13-year streak.

Most recently, UCLA went belly-up against USC last year, losing by an embarrassing 50-0 score.

Enter head coach Jim L. Mora, who arrived at UCLA this season. The results have been impressive: an 8-2 record, a spot in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 South Division title, and two victories over ranked teams – Nebraska and Arizona, the latter 66-10 hammering. One of the Bruins' losses was by a touchdown to now-nationally ranked Oregon State.

In addition to Mora, freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has ignited the UCLA offense, while senior running back Johnathan Franklin is averaging 127 rushing yards per game – far and away his best season as a Bruin. At long last, No. 17 UCLA is ranked higher than No. 18 USC heading into the rivalry game.

As the Bruins continue their journey back to college football relevance, they finally appear to be well-equipped to battle the Trojans when the two teams collide Saturday. How the Bruins fare against the Trojans will be a good indicator of how far they've come and how far they still have yet to go.

– Eric Ivie

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"This is the first I've heard of it," Hazell said by phone Wednesday.

And that raises a question: Why is this worth bringing up, when things seem to be mended?

"You have to worry about backslide," says Duru. "If you don't continue to attend to the issue, you become complacent about it. It's easy to drop back into easy habits."

It was only four years ago when Charles Barkley railed against Auburn's hire of Gene Chizik over Turner Gill, saying the "No. 1 factor" in the decision was race. Chizik was 5-19 at Iowa State, while Gill had led woeful Buffalo to a MAC championship.

So what changed? Obama's election has played a part, according to Keith. "I think that's eased any concerns that when a person of color is in a position of leadership that it's going to affect money and all that," he explains. "It all comes down to whether you produce."

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But an even bigger factor has been the Rooney Rule, which mandates NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate per open head coaching job. Established in 2003, the results in the pros have been fairly compelling, with Mike Tomlin being one of four recent African-American coaches to make the Super Bowl (though the Steelers insist the rule didn't play a factor in the hiring decision).

Three years later, the number of black head coaches in Division I football jumped to 16, and the number of minority coaches reached 18. The SEC led the way with three African-American coaches for the first time ever, with Sumlin, Franklin and Phillips (who was recently fired).

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Darrell Hazell has Kent State ranked for the first time in nearly four decades. (AP)

"For me it's been a great experience – having my first job, controlling my own room," says Grant Heard, who played at Ole Miss and is now coaching receivers there for Hugh Freeze. "There's always something I'm learning, every day every week."

Asked if he felt any impediment to getting a job at an SEC school, Heard said, "I haven't had any resistance. Coach Freeze allows us to go out and meet other coaches."

Hazell's ascent at Kent State is a good example of what's working now. While many coaches in the past have benefited from networking, Hazell says, "I haven't spent as much time networking as I probably should have." But it hasn't mattered, as he's gotten strong mentoring from successful former coaches Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Don Nehlen at West Virginia and even Jon Gruden. Hazell, 48, says he's had virtually no interaction with Sumlin, Strong or Shaw.

Hazell's feeling is that attention paid to mentors and "careful note-taking" has been enough for him. He never looked at the coaching profession as a ladder to climb. "I've always believed that if you put enough work and effort into something," he says, "everything else will take care of itself."

That's how it should be. But is it? Do we now have a level playing field?

Yes and no. Minority coaches are getting chances, but are they keeping those chances? Petrino is likely to get another job at a top school, even after his disgraceful exit from Arkansas this year. But what about Gill, who was replaced by Charlie Weis at Kansas after only two seasons? He's at Liberty (Va.) now. The Big Ten, meanwhile, hasn't had a black head coach in 10 years. There are only nine minority athletic directors at FBS schools.

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"Coaches are getting dismissed because the leashes are shorter," Keith says. "You used to have five years, now you have three. It's still up for debate about whether leashes are shorter for coaches of color."

Nobody's calling for quotas – "I'm not sure that would be terribly productive," says Duru – but continued awareness is important.

"Let the ball run," Duru continues. "It can trend it organically. Success may be able to beget success and opportunity. I don't think there's any particular place where we say we're done, we've succeeded."

Sounds like something a head coach would say.

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