No matter how you paint it, the picture in the SEC when it comes to head football coaches is one without color. The conference has had 70 years and 340 openings to change it. Critics say the time is now.
GAINESVILLE - From the moment he heard another head coaching job was opening up in the SEC, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong knew the phone would start ringing.
Yet again friends, colleagues and reporters would be asking: Is he a candidate? Could this finally be the one?
When you're one of a handful of minority coordinators at a Division I-A football program, the calls for interviews often come; the jobs don't.
Especially in the SEC.
In its 70 years of existence, the SEC has had 340 head football coaches, including interim appointments. None have been black.
The issue has become such a pockmark on the league that it has started keeping a list of potential black coaches for future openings.
Strong, considered a top candidate, has had five interviews for head coaching jobs, most recently at Vanderbilt two years ago. He was turned down in favor of former Furman coach Bobby Johnson, who got his first league victory Saturday.
With each opening, the scrutiny intensifies.
"It's going to happen, I have no doubt that's true," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. "But it should have happened already. It's 2003.
" ... I think there's some degree where there's out and out racism at play when coaches aren't considered, but I think by and large African-American coaches are not in the hiring loop."
Why is it, four years into the 21st century, one of the most traditionally rich football leagues in America has not realized the need for change before now?
Many believe the problem is who is doing the hiring. Athletic directors tend to hire coaches they are familiar with. The SEC has never had a black athletic director.
"People hire people that they're comfortable with, and it takes a little bit of doing to take the people who make those decisions and get them to know a broader group of people," said Rod Gilmore, an attorney and ESPN college football analyst. "They'll hire someone they know, and that usually isn't an (African-American). It's not going to change overnight. One of the fallacies is there aren't enough qualified African-American candidates. That is ludicrous. I believe there are."
Florida is a typical example. When Steve Spurrier left after the 2001 season for the NFL, athletic director Jeremy Foley interviewed Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan before hiring Ron Zook.
"It (familiarity) does help," Foley said. "Obviously that's one of the reasons Ron Zook's here. The next go around when we're hiring a coach, let's say Charlie Strong (is a candidate), now I have a personal relationship with him too. Because certainly at a high-profile program like this, at the end of the day you get judged by wins and losses, no question. But in college athletics, integrity, knowing how people are doing business, who they are personally and what their ethics are, I know that with Coach Zook. I knew that with Bobby Stoops. I knew that with Coach Shanahan. That's important. So who you know does become a factor at some point and time."
Big-money backers can be influential too. With 80,000-seat stadiums come major boosters with deep, old pockets, many of whom belong to Southern wealth not far removed from a generation when blacks and whites didn't share the same restrooms much less locker rooms. None of the million-dollar boosters at Florida are African-American.
"It's very much like the hiring process," said Fitz Hill, coach at San Jose State and a former assistant and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas. "The people making the major contributions, the powerful backers of these programs are not African-American. Tradition is strong and that tradition doesn't include many minorities in key positions."
Lack of success among the few black head football coaches hasn't helped matters. Of the 20 black coaches who have run a Division I-A program, Tyrone Willingham is the only one who left the school that hired him with a winning record, going 43-35-1 at Stanford from 1995 to 2001. He is 13-9 in his second season at Notre Dame.
James Caldwell went 26-63 at Wake Forest from 1992 to 2000 and was fired. Bob Simmons was 29-37-1 at Oklahoma State in 1995-2000 and left. John Blake was 11-21 at Oklahoma in 1996-98 and was fired.
Hill once was among those considered prime candidates for a head coaching job in the SEC but took the job at San Jose State two years ago.
"People thought I was crazy for coming to San Jose State, but I told them my research tells me that my opportunities will be very limited," said Hill, who has a Ph.D. and has done extensive research on the subject of the lack of minority head coaches.
Hill grew up in what is now SEC country - Arkadelphia, Ark., and is well-versed in the league and its history. He believes fundamental changes have to be made at the top to break through the white-dominated league.
"We've got to change the hiring structure, that's the No. 1 problem right now," Hill said. "If you go to any campus, the University of Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, there is not another position on the college campus where one person basically dictates a department head being hired.
"College football is the only one that does that. When you get ready to hire a dean, when you get ready to hire a college president, do you think one board of trustee can say, "I want that guy to be president of the university?' That won't happen. So when we can get a qualified pool of people to be interviewed and the decision is made by more than one individual or two individuals or a very influential booster and you get academic people involved and you get a whole range of people involved ... you'll have more opportunity for diversity."
The NCAA is pushing for just that. President Myles Brand is urging universities to create a wider search process when hiring coaches. Also, as part of its efforts to increase minority hiring, the NCAA recently selected 20 minorities to participate in its first NCAA Advanced Coaching Program. The program is designed to strengthen the skills of potential minority coaches and provide more exposure and networking opportunities.
"I think anything that we do that makes people realize how many qualified coaches are out there is a positive thing," Lapchick said. "There are a lot of people out there who are ready for it (head coaching job) who have never been called."
At least two prominent black organizations want to make sure the initiatives effect change.
The Black Coaches Association and Operation PUSH, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have been vocal proponents of increasing minority hires in the SEC.
When Mike Shula, who is white, was hired as Alabama's coach last summer over Sylvester Croom, who is black, Jackson called for an investigation of the school's hiring practices. Jackson has urged politicians pressure universities to open up their search process to mirror the policies of other departments at the schools.
Mississippi State is the SEC school presently on the hot seat as it searches for a replacement for Jackie Sherrill, who is retiring at the end of the season. Strong has been mentioned as a candidate, along with Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. Both are black. Both are longtime assistants with impressive resumes.
After so many near misses, Strong refuses to even think about the possibility of becoming a head coach. It only gets in the way.
"I think it becomes a distraction," he said. "I think it became a distraction at South Carolina (where he was defensive coordinator) because every time an opening happened, my name came up and now here at the University of Florida it's the same issue. But I just have to worry about what happens here and now."
Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton has said the school hopes to replace Sherrill sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He said he believes the list of potential black candidates is better than when he hired Sherrill 13 years ago.
Will one of those end up the head coach?
"I wouldn't rule out anything, personally," Templeton said. "But I can assure you Mississippi State is going to hire the best qualified coach."
The school's president, Charles Lee, agrees with Hill's suggestion. He has said he will chair a seven-person committee that will search for the new coach. It will include representatives from alumni groups, the student body and faculty.
If a black head coach isn't selected at Mississippi State in the next month, then when?
Foley believes change is coming. If Zook were to leave in the next five years, would searching for a qualified black coach become a priority?
"I don't think there's any question about it," Foley said. "If I thought it was the individual that could take this program where I wanted it to go, red, green, black or white, I wouldn't care."
Some believe change is on the horizon as new faces assume top positions throughout the league. Mike Slive is in his second season as SEC commissioner. Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi have new athletic directors, and Georgia's Vince Dooley is retiring next spring. Auburn has a new school president and Florida's new president will take over in January.
The BCA wants to ensure the new administrators understand the seriousness of the issue.
Last month the organization announced its plan for a hiring report card to monitor and judge how Division I schools search and hire minority head football coaches.
Schools will be evaluated in five categories: contact with the BCA during the hiring process, efforts to interview minority candidates, the diversity of their hiring process, the time frame of the search and whether schools are following their institution's affirmative action hiring policies. The BCA will publicly announce the report card annually and hopes athletes will use it when choosing a college.
"This will serve as a cornerstone for accountability," BCA executive director Floyd Keith said.
The organization also has urged colleges to fill at least one of every five head football coaching vacancies (20 percent) with a minority by August 2005.
The BCA could consider pursuing legal action if results don't improve over the next three years.
If history is any indication, change won't come easily.