That may be one reason why race was not a dominant theme when Strong and Franklin were named last week. Some noted that Texas, which fielded college football’s last all-white championship team in 1969, had never had a black coach before. And the success of the black coach Kevin Sumlin at archrival Texas A&M made race less of an issue with Strong.
But the issue was still there — when T-shirts went on sale with Strong’s face and the words “Black is the new Brown” (a reference to outgoing coach Mack Brown), or when people questioned whether race was the reason billionaire Texas booster Red McCombs criticized Strong’s hire and said he would make a good position coach or coordinator.
John Thompson, the pioneering black college basketball coach with Georgetown, said it doesn’t make sense when so many players but so few coaches are black.
“If you love something well enough to perform at it, you got to perform at it intellectually as well as physically. You can’t be a good football or basketball player consistently and be stupid,” Thompson said. “So (when) you are not in management, you’re still perceived as the one who picks the cotton rather than owns the plantation.”
Football coaches usually get their first top jobs after success as offensive or defensive coordinator. Strong was stuck for a decade as defensive coordinator for championship Florida teams, getting passed over for numerous head coach positions. In 2009, just before Louisville made him its head coach, Strong said he was told that one Southeastern Conference doormat did not hire him in part because his wife is white.
Franklin, 41, is a dozen years younger that Strong. In some ways, his rapid rise illuminates the greater opportunities available to a new generation of black coaches.
Franklin hopped back and forth from college to NFL jobs before spending 2008-2010 as Maryland’s offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting. Vanderbilt hired him for the 2011 season. Three winning campaigns later, he landed one of the most prestigious jobs in college sports.
Since his arrival at Penn State, Franklin’s narrative has not been about race — Mike Tomlin has won a Super Bowl down the road in Pittsburgh — but about restoring Penn State’s reputation, which crumbled beneath the horrific child rape scandal that ended Joe Paterno’s reign of 45 years as head coach.
“There’s no question that the so-called prime jobs, programs with great traditions, have been less available to African-Americans,” said Richard Lapchick, who has spent decades advocating for more diversity in sports.
He said it has been tougher for black coaches to build winning traditions because they usually get opportunities with losing teams, and it’s tough to turn that around before the ax falls in two or three years.
“Stepping in at Texas or Penn State,” Lapchick said, “makes that a lot easier.”
(AP Photo: In this Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 file photo, Penn State’s new football coach James Franklin prepares to catch a football from his daughter, Addison, 5, after being introduced during an NCAA college football news conference at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.)