Race in Sports: How Coaches Are Hired and Fired

Last week, MaconDawg got a discussion going by asking whether S.E.C. basketball was reverting to segregation. His thoughtful posting upon the subject was in response to a C.B.S. SportsLine article in which Gary Parrish offered the following observation:

I'll provide the facts. Make of them what you will.

The facts are the past three SEC coaching changes had similar characteristics. They each featured a minority getting fired (Rod Barnes at Ole Miss, Heath at Arkansas) or leaving amid pressure for an inferior job (Smith at Kentucky). Then a white athletic director (Pete Boone at Ole Miss, Frank Broyles at Arkansas, Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky) replaced the minority with a white coach (Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, John Pelphrey at Arkansas, Billy Gillispie at Kentucky) and [sic.] southern roots (Kennedy is from Mississippi, Pelphrey is from Kentucky, Gillispie is from Texas).

Coincidence? I don't think so.


As usually is the case when a writer is choosing his facts to suit his point of view, certain pertinent details have been omitted from Parrish's recitation. He fails to mention, for instance, that Frank Broyles, who supposedly was motivated by racial animosity in firing Stan Heath, was the very same athletic director who hired Coach Heath in 2002. Nolan Richardson, whom Coach Broyles hired to lead the Razorbacks basketball team in 1985, is also black.

In addition, Parrish has overlooked the fact that, although Coach Heath's eventual successor came from a border state, John Pelphrey was not Coach Broyles's first choice. The job initially was offered to (and, briefly, accepted by) Dana Altman, who was born in Nebraska and received his associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees from colleges in Nebraska, New Mexico, and Colorado, respectively. Coach Altman's coaching stops have been in Nebraska, Missouri, West Virginia, and Kansas.

While I have written critically of Frank Broyles, it is silly for Gary Parrish to claim that the Arkansas athletic director is part of a conspiracy to hire white Southern basketball coaches when three of his last four hires for that post have been black or Western.

Those, though, are fine details having little or no bearing on Parrish's claims regarding the coaching changes at Kentucky and Mississippi. With respect to his larger point, the world has turned a few times since the recruitment of black athletes at Southern universities was a controversial proposition. I find it difficult to believe that college presidents and athletic directors in this day and age would be foolish enough to flout widespread public opinion and applicable law by basing their hiring and firing decisions on personal prejudices of a racial nature.

In situations such as these, when a Pete Boone fires a Rod Barnes and hires an Andy Kennedy, eyebrows may be raised, but more evidence than Parrish offers must be gathered before accusations properly may be leveled at the Ole Miss athletic director who tried to kill off Colonel Rebel despite the absence of any public outcry for the mascot's removal. Even Parrish acknowledges that the current "trend" could be "by pure fluke."

Why am I willing to give the athletic directors Parrish pillories the benefit of the doubt? The answer to that question begins on September 4, 1932, when Vincent Joseph Dooley was born in Mobile, Ala. Coach Dooley was raised in the segregated South and he attended Auburn University in the 1950s, during a tumultuous period of racially-charged politics in Alabama. Coach Dooley was hired to take over the football program at the University of Georgia in December 1963, just two years after integration came to Athens.

On the list of guys you would expect to harbor the sorts of racial attitudes Parrish accuses Southeastern Conference athletic directors of continuing to hold, Vince Dooley would be right up there at the top, given the time and the place in which he was raised. Nevertheless, Coach Dooley integrated the Bulldog football team in 1971 and, as athletic director, he orchestrated the pregame ceremony to honor those first black players (Richard Appleby, Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Clarence Pope, and Larry West) before the first Georgia home game in 2002.

Vince Dooley hired Tubby Smith, hired Dennis Felton, hired the football coach who made Kevin Ramsey his defensive coordinator, and made it known throughout Bulldog Nation that Damon Evans was his choice to succeed him as athletic director. Clearly, Coach Dooley was not attempting to do what Parrish has insinuated that his former colleagues are trying to accomplish, but that is not the point.

The point is that, in each of those examples, Coach Dooley hired the person whom he believed to be the best man for the job. In three of those four instances, he was right. In none of those cases was race a factor. In this respect, Coach Dooley appeared to be taking the approach advocated by Morgan Freeman:

Freeman . . . says the only way to get rid of racism is to "stop talking about it."

The actor says he believes the labels "black" and "white" are an obstacle to beating racism.

"I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man," Freeman says.


Coach Smith became a beloved figure in the Classic City during his brief tenure as Georgia's basketball coach as much because of his outgoing attitude as due to his won-lost record (which, in his first season, mirrored that compiled in the final season of the coach he replaced). Stegeman Coliseum came to be known as "The Tub" because Georgia's first black head coach embraced Bulldog Nation. He simply made race cease to matter; when Tubby's team was on the hardwood, the colors of consequence weren't white and black, they were red and black. Coach Smith became one of us and that was all there was to it.

Equality means being given the opportunity to be judged on one's individual merits, not (as a fellow Georgian memorably put it) by the color of one's skin, but by the content of one's character. Certainly, one can cite dubious hiring decisions in which qualified black candidates were passed over for jobs; Sylvester Croom at Alabama and Doug Williams at Kentucky spring to mind.

The firings by which Parrish is so affronted, though, were based upon the merits (or the lack thereof) of the coaches being let go. Kevin Ramsey was demoted because his defenses performed badly and there were reasons for the firings at issue here. It is quite a stretch to claim that the desire to make room for white Southerners motivated these three actions.

The downside of equality is the loss of the ability to blame all one's personal reversals on the antediluvian attitudes of others. Sometimes---most times---coaching changes result from records, not racism. If we truly want to live in a color-blind society (as I believe most of us do), we have to be prepared to accept such decisions at face value and not leap immediately to the conclusion that either cronyism or a quota accounts for every outcome in which a choice is presented between men of different ethnic origins.

I don't know whether either Mitch Barnhart or Pete Boone is a racist. I know, however, that the evidence before us provides no basis for assuming that either of them is. When we have no reason to doubt that men are being judged on their merits in particular instances, race-based grumbling, regardless of the skin color of those doing the grumbling or of those supposedly being victimized, does not serve the worthy goal of ensuring that the best man for the job gets the job, without regard to the continent on which his ancestors happened to have been living 400 years ago.

Go 'Dawgs!

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