Ben Carrington

The long road to Strong

Photo Credit: Jack Mitts | Daily Texan Staff

UT’s first football team in 1893 didn’t have a coach.

Some aspects of the game were different then: Field goals were worth more points than touchdowns, and it was played almost exclusively by wealthy, upper-class white men with Ivy League connections.

Since that inaugural season, Texas has had 29 different head coaches — 21 since the team became known as the Longhorns starting in 1903 — and earlier this month, it hired Charlie Strong, the University’s first black head football coach.

“College football is changing, and everybody’s welcoming change and they should,” Strong said in his Jan. 6 introductory press conference. “People are being given opportunities and they know it. There is always going to be a first somewhere, so this had to be the first.”

Strong will coach his first season a full 120 years after Texas’ first head coach, R.D. Wentworth, coached his. Strong has been involved with college football since 1983, when he was a graduate assistant at Florida. He has witnessed the slow progression of the nation’s most popular college sport, which has made great headway among black athletes, but little with black coaches. In the 2012-2013 academic year, about 47 percent of DI college football players were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, only 13 out of the 120 head football coaches in the FBS — or about 11 percent — were black in 2013.

Texas integrated its athletics programs in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Julius Whittier became the first black football player for the Longhorns, paving the way for players such as Earl Campbell in 1974. 

College football has a more traditional, network-driven, way of hiring new head coaches, compared to professional sports like the NFL. The NFL’s Rooney Rule, which was established in 2003, requires teams to interview minority applicants when filling a vacant head coaching or senior operations position. The NCAA has no such rule in place.

Sociology professor Ben Carrington, whose research focuses on race and sports, told The Daily Texan in May 2012 that UT hiring a “well-paid, well-qualified black head coach is the day we can really say we’ve changed.” 

Now, less than two years later, Texas has made that change and Carrington believes it has come from the hiring of newly appointed men’s head athletic director Steve Patterson. 

“It’s interesting that Steve Patterson has come from the professional sports world,” Carrington said. “Most of his experience is in the NBA and the NFL. And now, within four weeks, Steve Patterson had appointed an African-American head coach, which hadn’t happened in the history of UT until then. So I don’t think that’s a coincidence.” 

But Carrington said he believes the true test of this historic moment will be if Strong and other African-American head coaches are given a second chance if they fail in their first attempt. 

“I will say it will be a historic moment when these head coaches have bad seasons and they are rehired by somebody else if they are fired after that down turn,” Carrington said. “I think that will be when that notion that there is a question mark against these African-American head coaches will be truly gone. This is only a good first step.”

Strong, still adjusting to his new job in Austin, is now faced with his biggest challenge in what was former head coach Mack Brown’s strong suit: networking. Even after a disastrous 5-7 season in 2010, Brown kept his job for three extra seasons, partly by staying in the good graces of boosters.

Strong, on the other hand, has already come under fire from boosters less than a month after his appointment. Red McCombs, who has donated more than $100 million to the University, spoke out against Strong's hire a few days after the announcement, calling it a “kick in the face,” which he later apologized to Strong for. 

In the end, Strong’s ability to win football games may quiet the doubters and prove that he is the right coach for the job. 

“Change takes time,” said Paul Hewitt, past president of the Black Coaches and Administrators organization. “But, that is the beautiful thing about sports, the good coach will always show. The scoreboard is the ultimate decider.” 

Strong has recognized the historical significance of his hire. He understands his part in the changing world of college football, but, for him, the most important thing he has to do is what he was hired to do — coach football.

“[The world] has changed and it will continue to change,” Strong said at his press conference. “That’s what it’s all about. A lot of times people look at it, just being the minority. I’m just a football coach, a football coach directing young people’s lives and I want to change lives. That is the only thing I’m looking to do.”

Clarification: Red McCombs' comments have been clarified since the original posting of this story. McCombs criticized the decision to hire Strong.

Q&A

Ben Carrington, Associate Professor

The Daily Texan sat down with associate professor Ben Carrington to discuss a variety of topics, including UT’s slow integration process to the Rooney Rule, to what the University athletic department can do to separate itself as a beacon of diversity. Carrington’s research interests include the politics of race and sport, African diaspora studies, masculinity and national identity formation and the nature of cultural resistance within the arena of popular culture. He is the author of “Race, Sports, and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora.”

The Daily Texan: UT didn’t integrate its athletics until the late ’60s, although integration became a norm in universities across other parts of the country in the 1930s. Why do you think UT was so reluctant to jump on the trend, if not for anything, but to increase competition?
Ben Carrington:
The answer is linked to questions of identity. Especially in parts of the South and Southwest, men’s football teams were seen to be the embodiment of the University. Often, these big state universities are the embodiment of the state identity itself, and they wanted to project the image of what it meant to be from say Alabama, Tennessee and of course, Texas. These states envisioned themselves as white spaces. Therefore, with more integrated teams and all the changes that were taking place in the ’50s and ’60s in society, football was seen as sort of the last bastion or last space of white privilege. It was an attempt to hold to a mythical, nostalgic notion of white Southern identity, and because of the important role of the football team as the social identifier, the entry of black athletes into those spaces wasn’t a question of ability of skill.

DT: You’ve mentioned the way black athletes have been described historically, has that changed as society has progressed?
Carrington:
People are less likely to use the same type of overt descriptors that you would have seen in the ’50s and ’60s. It highlights the central contradictions to why these changes came about in the latter half of last century. I would suggest that those powerful myths that begin to emerge in the 20th century that ‘produce the idea of the natural black athlete’ are still alive today. There is a tendency for sports writers and commentators to talk about white players being able to ‘read the game,’ being intelligent. They tend to used cognitive descriptors of the white athlete working hard to get to where they are, and that their success is down to their intelligence, whereas sports commentary tends to focus on gifts of natural speed or strength when talking about black athletes. In the ’60s and ’70s, black athletes were compared to animals. They were “fast as cheetahs” and “jump like monkeys.” You obviously tend to see that less today, because people understand the connotations of comparing black people to animals. That overt framework has changed today, but it still manifests itself quietly.

DT: Shifting gears to Texas itself, how do you think the university has done in progressing past its racially charged history?
Carrington:
I think it’s a complex picture, because we tend to focus our attention mostly on football, men’s basketball and maybe occasionally baseball. But if you look at athletics as a whole, it’s worth pointing out that most of the students that engage in sporting activity here are white. So it really depends on what sports we are looking at. The encouragement is that there is a shift from the mentality of the ’60s — that notion that black players can’t play football, for example, doesn’t exist anymore. The dangers though, is that we end up reinforcing stereotypes by thinking if we recruit black football players we’ll have the better team, because of the notion that they are naturally better at football. To me, we can say UT has really moved on when it hires a head black football coach. If you want to talk about a symbolic moment, I think UT’s football team being headed by a well-paid, well-qualified black head coach is the day we can really say we’ve changed. Also, that head coach would need a chance to prove himself. If that coach can lose five times straight to OU, twice by record losses, still have his job and then go on to success, is the time you’ll see that UT has moved on. The problem with many athletic departments across the nation is that there is a white power structure. A white athletic director hires a white head coach and then there are some black assistants who can recruit black players. It’s not easy to break into that top level role. It’s disappointing to look at the number of black head coaches in college football as compared to NFL where they’ve implemented the Rooney rule. It’s clear that it’s helped change the perception of the black head coach. College football has been very slow to adopt something like this.

DT: Texas A&M, a school with a noted conservative history, hired a black head coach this year as they transition to the SEC. What are your thoughts on that? Is this an indictment against UT, or a huge step forward for Texas A&M, or is something that we just have to wait play out before we deem it anything?
Carrington:
I think time will tell. The evidence seems to suggest that black coaches are hired after white coaches, even when their CVs are better, and if there is any downturn in performance of the team, they tend to get fired sooner than white coaches, and that’s the key thing for me. People will say “Oh, we gave this minority candidate a chance, but they just aren’t good enough and we gave him two years, and he didn’t produce.” The example of Mack Brown is a good one. If you look at the time it took him to win a national championship from the time he was appointed, the numbers of years UT lost straight to OU by huge margins, if we are in a situation to give a black head coach or a minority head coach the time to prove themselves then that’s a positive step. There at least needs to be a recruitment process where these candidates are screened so someone can analyze whether or not they are qualified, but the case is that they are just often ignored or overlooked. I mean a few years ago, UT was already thinking that eight years down the line, the best coach for UT football would be Will Muschamp. So they appointed someone on the inside, for a future opening which is quite incredible, but he obviously left anyway. Hopefully, maybe the athletic department will look around and they will make manifest their espoused commitment to diversity.

DT: What change can sports as an entity do to affect change or become an agent for it?
Carrington:
It doesn’t have an essence that suggests it can break down barriers or increase barriers. But because of that I think it’s important because we can go both ways with this. There was a comment I read some while back, where a senior profile UT athletic director said something like, “We aren’t keeping up with the Jones’, we are the Jones.’” It can be read as quite an arrogant statement, but let’s take that as being the case. That means we can perhaps introduce changes and policies that could be a beacon for what a progressive, diverse athletic department would look like. People would stop associating UT as the last team to win a championship with all white players and say UT was the first to win championships with minority head coaches.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Diversity still slow to come at UT

The media creates false perceptions about black athletes in America and advances stereotypes of superhuman strength and aggressive sexuality, said a UT associate professor at a lecture on Wednesday.

Associate sociology professor Ben Carrington said many people make an assumption that Americans are living in a post-racial society, especially after electing a black president.

“We may have reached a significant milestone in the advancement of racial progression, but at the same time, it seems to be permitting us not to talk about problems that persist,” said Dave Junker, director of the Senior Fellows Symposium which sponsored the event.

Carrington said that if America is a post-racial society, it stirs even more questions for race relations. He said the overrepresentation of black athletes in the media is spinning stereotypes about the sexuality and culture of African-Americans.

“This idolization of the black athletic form produces a black athlete as post-human,” Carrington said. “Strange creatures [who] possess [the] alien-like and certainly subhuman abilities to jump higher, hang in the air longer, punch harder and run faster.”

It is almost as if these black men are leaving the realm of humankind all together, he said.

Carrington illustrated this notion by showing several examples from commercials and images that portray African-American athletes and actors as muscular men projecting an image of a “perfect man.”

In an Old Spice commercial, black actor Isaiah Mustafa is topless the entire time, showing off his muscles. A message appears at the end of the commercial that says, “Smell like a man, man.”

Carrington also used African-American golfer Tiger Woods as an example of who the media targets. After Woods’ scandal became public, the media scrutinized every aspect of his life, called him a sex addict and falsely alleged that he has a strong sexual appetite for white women, he said.

Anthropology professor Kevin Foster said most young black men prefer going into sports and becoming athletes because of the glorifying images the media produces. In reality, he said, the number of black career professionals is much higher than the number of black athletes.

“But you would not get that impression from media’s representation of race,” Foster said. “It has a huge impact on black boys.”

He also said some people who oppose the view that racial stereotyping still persists in today’s media are black athletes who enjoy prosperity because of their successful careers.

“The problem is that their perspective is limited to their experiences,” Foster said.

The relationship between the media, race and sports is a complex issue because images are manipulated and crafted by the media, said sociology graduate student Vivian Shaw. She said people consume this material without consciously acknowledging its effects.

“It is really difficult to know the extent of the influence of the images,” Shaw said.