The SEC never has had a black head football coach. Ever. In all of Division I-A there are four African-American head coaches and just two at BCS-level programs. Mississippi State, currently looking for a successor to Jackie Sherrill, is in position to make a historic, groundbreaking and feel-good decision.
But history is not the reason Bulldog athletic director Larry Templeton should hire an African-American – Sylvester Croom of the Green Bay Packers – for the job.
He shouldn't choose a black coach out of some sense of social justice, to be politically correct or out of fear of Jesse Jackson.
MSU should do it because at this point, at this place, a black coach would be a major boon to the fortunes of its football program. Being black is an overwhelming positive rather than a negative.
In a perfect world, of course, the only race that should matter is for the SEC championship. But SEC football in 2003 isn't a perfect world.
It was the same way in college basketball back in the 1980s. Black head coaches were scarce even with black players succeeding everywhere. But the schools smart enough to hire capable black coaches – Georgetown with John Thompson, Arkansas with Nolan Richardson, Temple with John Chaney – thrived as recruits from around the nation flocked to play for them.
It was only natural that black players and parents would be won over by Thompson, feel more comfortable with Richardson, develop immediate respect for Chaney. Having a black head coach didn't get their schools every recruit, but it sure helped.
The same thing will happen in football.
"When [a black recruit] is choosing between two big-time schools and one has an African-American coach and one has a Caucasian coach, a lot of the time a kid is a lot more comfortable with an African-American coach," says Drake Wilkins, who is black and the football coach at Detroit's Denby High. "It's a natural feeling to have someone he can relate to, identify with and who often came from the same background."
Kelvin Ratliff, a black coach at powerhouse John Tyler High in Tyler, Texas also highlights the advantages in recruiting.
"Some kids would be interested in a school because there is a black coach at that school, especially if they are at successful programs. A black coach there would have quite a bit of an advantage."
When was the last time Mississippi State could boast "quite a bit of an advantage" in recruiting?
Why it has taken so long for colleges to realize this always has befuddled me.
Racism obviously exists in America. But if there is one thing that usually trumps all else in college athletics, it is the desire to win. Schools will do anything for victory. They hire cheaters as coaches, recruit punks, fix SAT scores and pass out steroids. You name it.
This is particularly true in the SEC, where all 12 athletic departments have been found guilty of at least one major NCAA infraction since 1990.
So why not do a simple thing like hire a coach who will generate incredible media attention and open new recruiting doors?
Croom, the running backs coach for the Packers, is the obvious choice here. He was an All-American at Alabama under Bear Bryant, and spent 10 years as an assistant at Alabama and 17 seasons in the NFL. He is the son of the late Sylvester Croom, Sr., a legendary Alabama minister and civil rights icon.
His resume is sterling. His roots are deep. His potential is limitless.
He doesn't have experience as a head coach, but MSU only has won eight games in three seasons. The school is going to have to take a few chances to get better.
You have to think a black coach of Croom's stature would help recruiting in a sport where 67 percent of NFL players are black? Or in a state such as Mississippi, where 37 percent of the population is black?
You have to think that he might steal a few studs out of Alabama, where there still are plenty of hurt feelings in the aftermath of Croom interviewing for but not getting the Crimson Tide job last spring?
You have to think that black high school coaches, principals and parents – who have seen many qualified black coaches (among other professionals) passed over – might now have an affinity for Mississippi State?
In a perfect world, of course, race doesn't matter.
This isn't a perfect world.