One of the hottest topics of the December coaching carousel continues to be the lack of black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Turner Gill/Auburn situation was plastered all over the national media, with Auburn alum Charles Barkley sharply criticizing his school for passing over Gill, a black head coach who has resurrected a moribund program at Buffalo, in favor of Gene Chizik, who had a two-year record of 5-19 as the head coach of Iowa State.
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That story was the focus of a recent ESPN Outside the Lines episode. The 30-minute show revisited the Gill drama and lamented the fact that there were only four black head coaches in Football Bowl Subdivision program (recent hires by Eastern Michigan and Miami of Ohio have increased the number to six).
What the show failed to mention was the University of Kentucky football program, which has shown itself to be ahead of the curve with regards to minority coaching hires. UK Coach Rich Brooks has a black offensive coordinator (Joker Phillips) and defensive coordinator (Steve Brown).
Notre Dame and Mississippi State were the only other FBS schools to have two black coordinators in 2008.
Brown started out as a secondary coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator last season. Brooks hired Phillips, a Wildcat letterman from 1981-84, as a receivers coach/recruiting coordinator on his first UK staff in 2003, promoted him to offensive coordinator in 2005, and Phillips has been named UK's next head coach whenever Brooks decides to step down.
"I've always tried to hire who I felt like were the best coaches for each situation, and that's what happened with both Joker and Steve," Brooks said. "They're both guys that have been on my staff that I'm familiar with and comfortable with. I think the fact that it gave two guys an opportunity when maybe there aren't as many opportunities there is an added bonus."
Kentucky's diverse staff and Phillips' status as head coach-in-waiting seems to sit well with both current players and recruits.
"I think it does help certain players feel at ease a little bit," said junior defensive tackle Corey Peters, who was recruited by Phillips. "Players see what's going on out there, and for a school to make a commitment to a black head coach and to have two black coordinators speaks well for the program."
"One thing I've noticed since I've been here is the people in our administration don't have issues with skin color," junior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "I think that's pretty obvious. I know that it's a huge bonus for some guys to come in and see a diverse coaching environment. It helps people get familiar with different kinds of people and breaks down stereotypes."
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart thinks Brooks' commitment to diversity has been overlooked.
"He hasn't been given enough credit," Barnhart said. "You look on Outside the Lines or hear all the people discussing the topic, and they're tattooing people left and right. Not one of them mentioned that Kentucky had two African-American coordinators and an African-American head coach-in waiting. People want the problem to be fixed, yet they're not doing their homework, either."
Phillips called Brooks a 'driving force' in the minority hiring push. Phillips' only experience with Brooks prior to coming to UK was at a coaching clinic when Brooks was the defensive coordinator of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"I remember in one of the first conversations we had, he was talking about how few minorities were getting coordinator's jobs," Phillips said. "Of course, I didn't know at the time that I'd end up being his offensive coordinator and eventual successor. I'm certainly thankful to him for the opportunity. What he's done has been big and has made waves throughout the BCA (Black Coaches' Association)."
Brown first got to know Brooks when he was recruited to play for him at the University of Oregon.
"He's just genuine, loyal, and he believes in the people he hires," Brown said. "Look at all the people he promotes from within. He just doesn't think along color lines."
Phillips realizes that how he performs whenever he becomes UK's head coach could have an impact on the minority coaching landscape.
"You want to do well, first for yourself, and then for the program. Nobody wants to fail at this business. But in the back of your mind, you realize that if you do well, there'll be other opportunities. I think the chances will come. We've got to continue to be prepared when we get interviews, and we've got to continue to get coordinator's jobs and do well when we get those opportunities."
Phillips points to Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong as a perfect example of the inequity in coaching hires. Strong led solid defenses at South Carolina and is about to participate in his second national championship game with the Gators, yet he hasn't landed a head coaching job.
"He's more than ready to be a head coach. I mean the guy could be on the verge of his second national championship," Phillips said. "It's definitely frustrating when you see a guy like him not getting a chance somewhere.
Gill just signed a contract extension at Buffalo and will be there at least another year.
Brown is hoping he'll get his chance down the road. He interviewed for the Mississippi State job that ultimately went to Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.
He acknowledged the difficulties that come with trying to land a head coaching job.
"One of the things you hear is that they want you to have head coaching experience, maybe you need to go to a smaller school and get that experience," Brown said. "Turner Gill went to a smaller school and did well, and he's having a hard time finding a good job. And then you look at guys like Bob Stoops, Phil Fulmer, and Tommy Tuberville, they didn't have to get head coaching experience. They were just great coaches who made the most of an opportunity.
"It can be frustrating. There are a lot of fantastic coaches and people who can develop young men and relate to players who just aren't getting an opportunity."
Another issue with black coaches is the caliber of jobs that they receive. Of the six black FBS coaches, only one is at a BCS school (Randy Shannon at Miami).
"Let's be honest, when a job opens, a lot of times they open because they're not very good jobs," Brown said. "And most of the jobs that first-time coaches get aren't very good. I don't think that's different for white or black coaches. It's a cyclical thing. Schools go in a certain direction, and then three or four years later they move on a try again. Every situation is a little different, but with the number of bad hires that have been made over the last 5-6 years, you would think that more people would roll the dice with qualified minority candidates."
Brown said that while the landscape can get a little depressing at times, he feels that black coaches must maintain their patience.
"I don't know if you can ever totally change anything, because the bottom line is people are going to hire who they want to hire," he said. "But it's upon ourselves to continue to do the best job we can do and put it in God's hands. If you let it frustrate you too much, then you become bitter, and that really makes things difficult."