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Bucking a Trend: ISU is one of the few football programs to have a black coach and black coordinators
TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State head football coach Trent Miles has a simple philosophy when he hires assistant coaches for his staff.
“I hire the best people possible whether they’re black, green, yellow, white … it doesn’t matter to me,” Miles said.
On ISU’s 2009 staff, the men Miles has hired to be his offensive and defensive coordinators — Troy Walters and Shannon Jackson — are both black. And that makes the ISU football program a rarity among its Division I brethren.
ISU is the only non-Historically Black College and University (HBCU) football program in the Football Championship Subdivision to have an African-American head coach and African-American offensive and defensive coordinators. ISU is one of only two Division I programs overall to have that distinction.
Walters was hired in February and second-year defensive coordinator Jackson was hired when Miles took over the ISU program in 2007. When Walters was an All-American receiver at Stanford, Miles was his position coach. Jackson previously worked at ISU from 2001-04.
“I hire the best people, it doesn’t matter about color. It just so happens that they’re African-American. I hired them because they’re good people,” Miles said.
It’s a distinction not many, if any, ISU players are aware of. Mainly, because the coaches themselves have never mentioned it.
“I didn’t know that at all, until you [the reporter] mentioned it to me, I had never heard that,” ISU linebacker Jacolby Washington said.
“It’s nice to be playing for them, but it doesn’t really enter our minds. As everyone knows we had a black coach before this one [Lou West], so it doesn’t play that big of a role,” ISU wide receiver Jeramie Gray said.
Gray’s words are echoed by the coaches themselves. All of whom expressed the fact that their ties are bound by a love of football and an opportunity to better their careers, not necessarily by the color of their skin.
“It’s something to be proud of, but I’m honored just to be an offensive coordinator. It’s a tremendous honor. I just look at it as coming in and doing the best I can and to show that race doesn’t matter,” Walters said. “There are great African-American minds at all levels. If I can show people that African-Americans can be offensive coordinators, then so be it, but I just want to help this university win games and help these kids on and off the field.”
“I’m happy coach Miles gave me the opportunity to come, but I think football coaches are football coaches. It doesn’t matter what color you are as long as you love the game and love to work with student-athletes,” Jackson said.
Still an issue
While Miles, Walters and Jackson downplay their skin color, they all acknowledged African-American representation in football coaching ranks is important and has been a hot-button issue for a long time.
Too long for many, who believe the percentage of African-American coaches is too far below the percentage of African-American athletes in the sport.
Excluding the HBCU schools, there are 224 Division I schools that offer scholarships in football. Among those schools, there are 10 African-American head coaches, comprising 4.4 percent of the sampling.
That’s far below the 45.9 percent African-American participation level in football, a percentage taken from the NCAA’s most recent report in 2007.
Only six non-HBCU FCS schools currently have black head coaches and only three, including Miles, are at schools that offer scholarships. One of them — Richmond’s Mike London — coached the Spiders to the FCS championship in 2008.
There are currently seven African-American head coaches at the FBS (former Division I-A) level, including the only other Division I staff that has a black head coach and black coordinators.
Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo is coached by Turner Gill with offensive coordinator Danny Barrett and defensive coordinator Fred Reed.
“[Minority hiring] is still an issue. It seems like NFL has gone in front of college football as far as hiring minority head coaches,” said Walters, a former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver, who retired from the NFL in 2008.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed, and maybe my being hired can help address that. If athletic directors see that we’ve had success here, maybe it will open up doors elsewhere,” he added.
Miles downplays the skin color of his coaches in the context of the current ISU staff, but he has opinions on the state of minority coaches in the game overall. Miles has coached at eight different Division I universities and was an assistant coach on the staff of fellow African-American coach Tyrone Willingham at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
Having worked with countless coaches and having been around several administrations, Miles is disappointed by the lack of minority opportunities.
“We need more African-American coaches in a position of leadership and with coordinator titles so they can become head coaches. It’s a crying shame that there’s 119 (FCS) schools and there’s so few minority head coaches. There’s quality people out there,” Miles said.
“I’ve coached with [African-Americans] that are excellent football coaches and their whole career will be nothing more than being an assistant who’s looked upon as a recruiter because of the color of their skin. That’s wrong,” Miles added.
No easy choices
One of the issues African-American coaches — and other minority coaches — are vexed by is when an opportunity does come up, it’s usually not with a program that’s desirable for anyone to take.
It’s a difficult decision to take a job where one might ultimately fail and damage a career versus not taking a job at all and keeping one’s career limited.
“With very few exceptions, usually the minority coaches are getting jobs on the lower end that need to be rebuilt. You’re usually not getting jobs that are ready-made. Tyrone Willingham is an exception, though it’s forgotten that he was brought in to fix Notre Dame and to fix Washington,” Miles said.
To wit, Miami’s Randy Shannon is the only black head coach currently in charge of a program that has made a BCS bowl appearance since the system came into place in the 1990s. London is the only FCS coach in charge of a recent playoff program.
Miles took over the ultimate rebuilding project at ISU, a program that is 1-50 since mid-2004.
In Miles’ case, he was a former ISU player and a Terre Haute native, and rebuilding the Sycamores appealed to him. Miles had peers question why he’d want to put himself in a position where the losing ways of a program that could drag him down professionally.
“You’re taught, no matter what color you are, not to take jobs you can’t be successful in. Before I came here, I had people tell me, ‘What are you doing?’” Miles said.
“For me, I had the high-paying assistant jobs, but I wanted to come home and take on the challenge of fixing this. I have a supportive administration that’s behind me and this is a great community. I was willing to take that chance, some coaches aren’t,” Miles added.
Some long-time black assistant coaches are criticized for not taking the same chance Miles has. Some prefer to keep high-paying assistant jobs in major conferences. Miles can understand reluctance to jump into the kind of situation he took.
“What happens sometimes is you put in the ground work in a tough situation and either the university runs of out patience and fires you, or, you run out of patience and move on,” Miles said. “That’s not going to happen [at ISU] because we’re going to win, and I have a supportive administration, but that’s what can happen. That’s what usually does happen.”
Miles continually stressed the color of Walters’ and Jackson’s skin had nothing to do with their being hired. But since they have been hired, he wants to do all he can to ensure that members of his staff can move on to more prominent jobs, if they want to.
“Troy Walters and Shannon Jackson are two excellent human beings and their football knowledge is as good as it can be. I sent Shannon and Troy to the NCAA Expert Coaches Academy this summer because they have the potential to do big things. I went through it and I got a head coaching job,” Miles said.
And while Miles believes college football has significant strides to make in hiring African-American coaches, he will continue to hire his coaches based on merit.
“I just know what I was taught from my dad [former coach and Terre Haute City Councilman Chuck Miles] and what I’ve learned from some very good role models — my dad, Mike Kennedy, Bob Clements, Dennis Raetz, Marvin Lewis, Pat Hill, Tyrone Willingham — I don’t look at it as hiring a black coach, I hire good people. I wouldn’t know if I talked to them on the phone what color they are anyway,” Miles said.
By Todd Golden