In college football and basketball, hiring the best coach regardless of skin color should be the top priority.
Two members of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees recently drew public attention when they voted against hiring new Fighting Illini football coach Tim Beckman because he has, in their view, the wrong skin color.
UI trustees Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery made it more than clear that they want a black head football coach. Noting the UI has never had a black football or men's basketball head coach, they urged their fellow board members to make hiring a minority coach their "top and express priority" when the next vacancy comes around.
That new UI athletic director Mike Thomas offered a lavish contract to Kevin Sumlin, the black Houston coach who accepted the Texas A&M job, was not enough. Oliver said that Sumlin's decision to accept what Sumlin perceived as a better job at Texas A&M proved the UI had not tried hard enough to hire him.
Just imagine the uproar if two white trustees asked their fellow board members to make hiring of a white coach a "top and express priority." Can't you just hear the expressions of moral outrage over the racial animus inherent in such a declaration?
Oliver and Montgomery, no doubt, would deny such a motivation, and, if one overlooks the clear import of their rhetoric, their denials would be plausible. Their contention is that it's time the UI had a black head coach in football or men's basketball.
For years, affirmative action advocates have argued persuasively that everyone's interests are best served if those seeking to fill important positions — whether it's a university football coach or a provost — engage in a broad search for qualified candidates. So it's not just wrong, but ironic to hear Montgomery and Oliver endorse a narrow search as a means to the end they seek.
It would be a clear mistake to follow their recommendation.
Coaching hires are an inherently risky business. Basketball and football coaches are hired to be fired.
Over the past 40 years, only one UI football coach, John Mackovic, has left voluntarily. The rest were dismissed, usually for losing. UI men's basketball coaches have fared much better, but it's still a dicey business.
To reduce the risks of failure, the UI has tried to identify as potential candidates head coaches from other schools who have demonstrated success. It's worked in basketball, but not nearly so well in football.
Top programs identify job candidates who are at or near the top of their profession, and that criteria narrows the possible pool of applicants to a group dominated more by whites than blacks. That pool has expanded over time, and it will continue to grow as black coaches bubble up to the top of the coaching ranks. But limited numbers are the reality athletic directors confront.
In one of its publications, Black Coaches & Administrators (BCA) states that "a successful record will always be a key influence in hiring. When coaches of color are successful in all of the common denominators of the professional profile formulae, the likelihood of becoming a head coaching candidate greatly increases," the association said.
There were 19 minority head football coaches at the beginning of the 2011 season, all but one (Mario Cristobal) black. But that's just a start. Those coaches have to win to move up the ranks, and black coaches fail just like white coaches.
The BCA examined the records of 44 minority head football coaches from 1979 to the start of the 2011 season. Of those 44, just eight had winning records. Of those eight, one coach (Tyrone Willingham, a winner at Stanford and Notre Dame before losing at Washington) was listed twice. Two others on the list are Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Ken Kiumatalolo (Navy).
Two others (Ruffie McNeil and Don Treadwell) achieved their winning records (a combined 3-0) during brief stints as acting head coaches at Texas Tech and Michigan State, respectively.
The three full-time black head coaches with winning records were Sumlin, Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Charlie Strong at Louisville.
Ironically, Dorrell was later fired by UCLA for not winning enough. He was succeeded by white coach Rick Neuheisel, who was fired after this past season for not winning enough.
Despite what Montgomery and Oliver say, hiring coaches is not about black and white, it's about wins and losses. Universities like Illinois must hire the best person available. Race is and ought to be irrelevant because once the losses start piling up fans become unhappy no matter the coach's skin color.