In 2003, there were exactly three minorities among the 120 college football head coaches in Division I-A, now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"It was easier to become a general in the Army than become a head football coach" if you were black, said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators Association, which began tracking the numbers that year.
"The numbers were so paltry, it was such a glaring error, a deficiency in athletics that it was hard to define," said Keith.
That's why Keith and other advocates are celebrating the increase to 15 football coaches of color this year. With Wednesday's hiring of Joker Phillips, Kentucky becomes the first state in the country to have three black head football coaches. That means ALL of the state's Bowl Subdivision football coaches are minorities.
Late in 2009, the University of Louisville hired Charlie Strong and Western Kentucky University hired Willie Taggart to guide their football programs.
"It's unheard of; it's never been done," Keith said.
UK's football program had black players as early as 1967, and it had a multitude of black quarterbacks in the 1970s — Bill Tolston, Derrick Ramsey, Larry McCrimmon, Terry Henry — before it was mainstream. But for Kentucky, which has not always had the most progressive track record in the realm of civil rights or on issues of race and sports, to be the first state with three black head football coaches at its major colleges is nothing short of head-turning.
The schools have made it clear that these hires weren't made for the history books, but to win more football games. Taggart is a Western alumnus who had also coached there. Strong has been an assistant at some of the top football programs in the country, including the University of Florida. Phillips, a UK alumnus who also coached at Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina before returning to Lexington as an assistant under Rich Brooks in 2003, was chosen as Brooks' successor two years ago.
"I don't think race had any impact at all in making these hires," said Wood Selig, the athletics director at Western. Selig said he was glad for the state to make history, but "we hired the best person. It sounds trite, but it's true."
At a press conference on Wednesday, Phillips even acknowledged that the only history that matters will be the win-loss record: "I'm an African-American hire, but I'll be an African-American fire if we don't win," he said, only partly joking.
So, Kentucky forged its way into the history books. But the biggest deal about all this might be that for many, it's not that big a deal.
'Qualified head coaches'
Take Frank Cardwell. He was the principal of Franklin-Simpson High School in Franklin when Joker Phillips went there. Phillips was always a standout, Cardwell says, particularly as part of the back-to-back state football championship teams in 1979 and 1980.
"I wish we could talk more about the fact that these gentlemen are qualified head coaches rather than they are black" Cardwell said. "From the first day I knew Joker, I don't think I ever heard the word 'race' come out of his mouth."
For UK President Lee Todd, a reputation for increased diversity is a plus, but, "we chose the best coach we had available to replace Coach Brooks, and I'm sure Louisville chose the best coach they could find in America to head their program," he said. "So these coaches are not being chosen because they're African-American. They're being chosen because they have the skills and they happen to be African-American."
Certainly for a generation of young people who now see President Barack Obama, a few black football coaches are hardly worth a remark.
Former UK receiver Keenan Burton, who has played for the St. Louis Rams the last two seasons, said some people might focus on race, but Phillips' greatest benefit to the program is consistency.
"If you don't hire him, your program starts over," Burton said. "So you hire the best man, and Joker Phillips happens to be black."
'Nobody wants to reflect'
But the difference in generational viewpoints is based on experience. John Johnson, the head of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, also grew up in Franklin, situated between Bowling Green and Nashville, and attended its segregated schools with Phillips' mother, Cressie. When Joker was just 5 years old, Johnson fought a pitched battle to integrate the public swimming pool there.
"Nobody thinks anything of it now," he said. "Our society has changed tremendously, and nobody wants to reflect on it."
Phillips' mother, who attended Wednesday's press conference, said Kentucky's new national standing as the third school in the state with a black head coach "is a huge thing. Kentucky has a chance to be part of history."
And it's huge, says P.G. Peeples, partly because the system finally worked.
"Here you have three eminently qualified guys who were in the market at the time the vacancies were there," said Peeples, who graduated from UK in 1968, the same time that UK's football team started its first black players. "Historically, African-Americans were not given those opportunities."
Advocates had long realized that there was something wrong with a sport in which roughly 50 percent of the players were black, but less than 10 percent of the coaches were. "It suggested that African-Americans were physically gifted but not cerebral and could not coach and manage the team," said Peeples.
'Do the work'
People such as Floyd Keith of the BCA and Richard Lapchick, founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, first started bringing attention to the issue in the 1980s and 1990s.
They both think that diversity at the college level has followed more minority hiring of coaches at the National Football League.
Nothing convinces people like winning does, after all. Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007, and he was the first African-American coach to do so. Dungy, who retired last year, has been an outspoken advocate for more diversity in coaching.
"I think the climate has changed," Lapchick said in a phone interview from the University of Central Florida, where his institute is based. "The NFL has had such tremendous success, and there were no qualms from fans."
Lapchick noted that UK had a black basketball coach from 1997 to 2007 in Tubby Smith, and he praised the athletics department for anointing Phillips as Brooks's successor.
Derrick Ramsey, the athletics director at Coppin State University in Baltimore, was the first black quarterback to play for UK. He heralded the state's achievement but said he will save real celebration for when the people making those hiring decisions — athletics directors, college presidents and other power brokers — also reflect more diversity.
"In the bigger scheme of things, there's still a lot of work to be done," Ramsey said.
Dicky Lyons Jr., a wide receiver who played for Phillips between 2004 and 2008, said the fact that UK now has its first black football coach — and the state has two more at Western and U of L — matters only to the extent that it will generate buzz across the country.
"As a player, you never really looked at that," Lyons said. "But that's something that's going to grab national attention. It's going to be a first time an African-American might win the SEC championship as head coach. All these milestones that are going to be recorded in history, we're going to be a part of."
And once barriers such as these are broken, they tend not to go up again.
"You just continue to do the job, and people will call," Phillips said Wednesday. "That's what happened to Charlie Strong, that's what's happened to Willie Taggart, and that's what's happened to me."
Herald-Leader reporters Ryan Alessi and Mark Story contributed to this report.