Of the dozen years Fitz Hill spent with the Razorback football staff, 1993 to 1997 were most grueling for him because Danny Ford was head coach. In these years, which former assistant coach Hill describes as a "living hell," Ford regularly referred to black men as "boys" and didn't understand why they would be offended, said Hill. The racially insensitive comments didn't end there. Once, during discussion of a school health care plan, Hill told the staff he had three dependents: himself, his wife and a daughter. "Yeah, he's like all the black guys," Ford chimed in. "He's got babies all over the place." Although disturbed, Hill chuckled. "That's what you do when you're scared to speak up. I wanted to keep my job. I knew I was expendable."
"I truly believe in his mind, he didn't mean any harm," Hill wrote in an e-mail. "But unfortunately at that time, he didn't know any better." Hill later told Ford the comments hurt. Ford apologized, and stopped saying such things. Hill forgave, and moved on, eventually landing in his current job as president of Little Rock's Arkansas Baptist College. But the experience further strengthened his resolve to study the dynamics between minority coaches and college football. While serving as head coach at San Jose State from 2001 to 2004, he interviewed hundreds of black and white coaches around the nation to complete a doctorate dissertation on the scarcity of legitimate head coaching opportunities for minorities. The culmination of his research is "Crackback! How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches," a new book Hill co-authored with San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Mark Purdy, which Tate Publishing will distribute nationally on April 24.
When the 2012 season begins, 15 of 120 major college programs (Football Bowl Subdivision) will employ black head coaches, according to Hill. That's two fewer than last year. Whatever progress has been made along these lines in the last couple decades hasn't been enough, Hill and Purdy contend.
There are a number of reasons for the enduring disparity between the number of black coaches and black players, who constitute roughly half of Division I. At the heart of the issue is severe disagreement between races regarding whether minorities are treated fairly in the coaching ranks or not, Hill discovered in the course of polling more than 500 white and black college football coaches who worked from 1988 to 2001, and after speaking with many other coaches at various clinics and conventions. "I found out white coaches and black coaches are in two different worlds," Hill said. On one hand, 90 percent of the 175 black coaches who responded to one of his surveys said they felt "a diversity plan to increase the number of black coaches is necessary." On the other hand, many white coaches told Hill that blacks are getting far more breaks and have a much easier time getting good jobs, despite statistics to the contrary. There are about 1,200 coaching jobs at elite FBS schools and many white administrators and coaches believe equality for black coaches means less equality for white coaches, Hill said. "Thousands and thousands of men want those jobs," Hill and Purdy write. "Backbiting and politics are inevitable. Toss in the racial component, and you are brewing a dangerous stew."
Hill believes progress will be made only if whites and blacks listen to each other. He is eager to listen to white coaches' concerns, and believes dialogue on a wider scale will stop pigeonholing for both black and white coaches. Many black coaches Hill surveyed believed their success with white employers was based more on their perceived ability to recruit black players from inner-city neighborhoods than the ability to "coach." Hill said his research also indicated black assistant coaches weren't getting as many jobs as offensive or defensive coordinators, or even offensive line coaches — strategy-intensive positions that demand critical thinking and often serve as launching pads to head coaching positions.
Hill believes boosters, the alumni and fans, who donate millions to major college programs, have too much say in who becomes and remains their college's head coach. Typically, these boosters have the ear of the athletic director and other administrators, as that program's growth often depends on the boosters' long-term pledges. Regular donations come with perks. Hill recalls UA boosters who were given sideline passes and allowed to dress as coaches. "I even heard a booster suggest a play that should be called during the critical moments of a game," he added.
If a new head coaching opportunity opens at a major college program, boosters often try to call the shots. The typically white male boosters tend to recommend candidates in their circles, which are typically white and male. Further amplifying this good ol' boy feedback loop, some boosters also harbor harmful stereotypes of blacks, similar to Ford's. "They realize that their money buys them access, power and the ears of the athletic directors and presidents — and the ability to tell inappropriate, racially oriented jokes at public gatherings with impunity," writes Hill.
Mostly, Hill has heard about such joking through the grapevine. He feels less explicit bias, though, has cost black coaches jobs. Take Jerry Baldwin, for example, who in 1999 became the first black head coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. From the start, Baldwin said he didn't get much support from boosters or the administration. "When I got that job, I was told there are no Division I players on this team and you'll be lucky to win any games in the first two years. And they were right — there were no Division I players on that team, none at all," Baldwin told an audience at Arkansas Baptist College in March. "I remember in spring practice we didn't have enough linemen for scrimmage."
Despite a 6-27 record through three seasons, Baldwin felt the team could turn a corner in his fourth year. Plenty of talented players would return, and the team's GPA had steadily increased while drug and discipline problems under previous coaches had diminished. Nonetheless, the athletic director coldly informed him he would be fired. A frustrated Baldwin went higher, to President Ray Authement. "I went in and he had tears in his eyes. He said 'Coach, I can't explain, but I can't take the pressure no more. I believe you're gonna win the conference next year. I believe that, but I can't take the pressure of you being an African-American coach.' "
Baldwin added some administrators understand their boosters well enough to not risk rocking the boat with a black head coach. He recalled what Mike Garrett, a former athletic director of the University of Southern California, said at a black coaches' clinic: "I would love to hire an African-American, but I can't because of the pressure."
Given these circumstances, Hill believes outside intervention, through the NCAA, is necessary to promote equity. "Currently, the bias that's ingrained in the process does not do that."
Hill recommends the NCAA mandate at least three things: a) a graduate assistant position added to each FBS football staff, to be filled only by minorities, that would eventually expand the pool of qualified minority coaching candidates; b) the formation of a year-round athletic advisory board consisting of five or six university "stakeholders" (i.e. administrators, trustees, faculty members, students, alumni and boosters) to diversify input during coach selections; c) that football programs interview one minority for each vacant head coaching position, as the NFL's Rooney Rule requires.
"I'm not saying that you have to hire an African American. I'm just saying there are African Americans out there to be considered that are not being considered because of the color of their skin."
Entering last fall, Arkansas was one of 84 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that hadn't yet hired a black football head coach. Change may be coming. Taver Johnson had recently become the first black interim head coach in Razorbacks history before John L. Smith became head coach on Tuesday.
Moreover, two other blacks — defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and former offensive coordinator and current University of Alabama at Birmingham head coach Garrick McGee — also appeared to be in the running for the UA's permanent head coaching gig. Together, the three men represented a strong chance the state's largest sports program would experience a significant watershed moment.
Hill wants the hiring practices of athletic administrators to be more open. He doubts that will happen naturally.
Writer Evin Demirel, a University of Arkansas graduate, lives in North Little Rock.