Earlier this month, I had a smaller scale experience when the University of Texas at Austin announced that CHARLIE STRONG would become the first Black head football coach. Contextually, for those who live, sleep, eat, and breathe football, his rise to the top job is no less celebrated than the first elected Black city mayor or university president with a history of exclusion. At first, it seemed a bit surreal because only days ago during a conversation with a friend we thought UT would not likely hire a Black head football coach.
After hearing the news reports hinting at Strong being hired, we checked back in with each other in quiet disbelief and quickly predicted we saw it coming. We already knew that UT Athletics had a number of people of color and women in administrative and coaching positions. However, we wondered how things might change, if not for the better, with Strong’s appointment. We watched the news conference as if a new chapter opened in the life of college football because Charlie Strong would lead one of the best known, most scrutinized, ultra-competitive college sports programs in the country.
Here is one of the biggest challenges. There is a special hardship with being first and Black that brings the negative attributes associated to race. Liken to the election of the first Black president, I imagine Coach Strong will have his dishonorable pundits ranging from radio talk show hosts, opinioned journalists, and religious leaders to legislators, disgruntled alumni and students, and political partisans.
For example, among the President’s obscene critiques, they accused him of being incompetent, a racist and communist, stirring racist tension and violence, and anti-Christian among other cruelties better left unsaid. Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly described an era of racist comments during the President’s years in office.
“We are into the sixth year of the era of a black president. In that time the conservative movement has gorged on a steady diet of watermelon jokes, waffle jokes, affirmative-action jokes, monkey jokes, barbecue jokes, terrorist machinations, secret Muslim plots, and dastardly Kenyan conspiracies. Three months ago, the movement reached a new low, waving the flag of slavery in front of the Obama’s home. It is tempting to call this the climax of a long campaign. That would exhibit an unearned optimism at odds with history.”
Some may find the special hardship position pessimistic; however, I expect as I imagine Coach Strong has already experienced that a steady diet of racist remarks will be made about him regardless of his success or failure. The cautious optimistic, realist part of me says maybe I should be more open-minded to the possibility that times have changed. Admittedly, times have changed for many of us. Unfortunately, there are those curmudgeons where times have begrudgingly passed them by, who will curse the day Coach Strong was hired, threaten to abandon their alma mater, and feverishly wait for the wave of protest on the 40 acre.
Thankfully, the support and criticism has mostly been glowing and relatively fair. Inquiries center on Coach Strong’s commitment to full-scale student-athlete development, improving recruitment of Texas talent, navigating relationships with influential alumni, promoting and achieving academic excellence, fulfilling his public media obligations, and considering how the Longhorn community may receive him.
As expected, a major UT Athletics patron, Red McCombs, already came out against Strong’s appointment. McCombs referred to Strong’s hire as a “kick in the face,” and he would be better suited in a lower, less influential coordinator or position coach, lacking the qualifications to be at one of the most powerful programs in the world. Nevertheless, McCombs later apologized for his comments. In 2010, Lou Houltz, a venerated former University of Notre Dame and University of South Carolina head football coach, said Charlie Strong was not a hip hop coach, straight from the top-shelf of backhanded compliments. It is also rumored that Strong did not receive a head football coach offer at the University of Florida because his wife is White. Although these injurious remarks may reflect a minority opinion, they also represent views many have grown to expect and anticipate seeing them become harsher and more venomous.
In the media, focus on the transition from the Mack Brown dynasty to the Charlie Strong era seemed to be another concern. For me, Charlie Strong’s legacy is partly about the transition from the tried and true good old boys network to something potentially new and different. From the 2013 season, Coach Strong represents one of 15 Black head football coaches or nearly 13 percent of all head football coaches where approximately 60 percent of the players are African-American. At minimum, Strong embodies the slow bend that provides more coaching and administrator positions to minorities and women.
There are some exceptional points to be made. If you have not already heard, Coach Strong will be one of the highest paid head football coaches in the country making nearly $9.4 million. His paycheck will be a combination of his $5 million paycheck from UT and over $4.3 million that the university will pay to buyout his University of Louisville contract. Along with Nick Saban at the University of Alabama and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M University, Charlie Strong will be part of an elite class of college football coaches paid more than $5 million annually.
Recent reports have also indicated Coach Strong has set a high bar, expecting everyone from the coaching staff, graduate assistants, and returning football players to step up. For example, although winning games has been a chief concern, academic excellence has not been perceived as a consistent focal point. The university, in general, is under great pressure to aggressively improve four-year graduation rates, but overall concerns about student athletes retention and graduation rates continue to be a worrisome issue.
During Mack Brown’s tenure, UT football has improved their Academic Progress Rate, demonstrating enhanced academic performance. However, placing academic achievement next to winning football games is a significant adjustment. There is room for improvement. Holding student athletes accountable to higher academic standards (i.e., graduation) with real consequences for falling short of expectations is a refreshing development. Highlights on Coach Strong’s expectations include attending classes regularly with clear guidelines about classroom etiquette (i.e., sitting in front two rows) and attire (i.e, no headphones or texting), emphasizing team cohesion over special privileges or cliques, and practicing change instead of talking about it.
Coach Strong risks representing more of the same, as well. Meaning, he may welcome in a tide of Longhorn pride the university has never seen before. At the same, there will be old challenges of hiring a culturally diverse coaching staff, honing the skills of minority and female professionals who are oftentimes overlooked, and creating an environment promoting inclusive excellence among the other responsibilities of developing student-athletes and managing alumni’s lofty expectations. The backdrop to all of this fervor of expectations is the distasteful truth if he fails. The other reality is that Coach Strong will likely not receive another chance at a top-tier head football coaching position if the Longhorns do not experience major success in the coming few years.
Emerging challenges include juggling and fulfilling all the responsibilities of being the College Football CEO, appropriately managing controversy such as gay football players if and when it arises, vague consideration of significant financial compensation for student-athletes, navigating the behemoth of media attention that comes with college sports, and improving on gains made to increase diversity among college coaching and administrative staff.
Many trailblazers throughout our history recognized the burden that comes with being first. Liken to first-born children, they often identify the struggles of dealing with unfair criticism, undue responsibility for maintaining harmony, and the unenviable position of trying to please everyone. The Texas Strong era will have its burdens, successes and failures, and opportunities to excel in ways others have faltered. During trying times and perceived failure, Strong’s character, competency, intelligence, values, morality, professionalism, and readiness for the head coach position will be questioned oftentimes unfairly because he is African American. Even during his team’s victories, there will be those in the backrooms ripping into him unless he achieves the pinnacle of success: A national championship.
Despite these challenges, Coach Strong has already demonstrated great feats which landed him the opportunity at the University of Texas at Austin. With all the anxiety and doubts, I am excited and optimistic to see what he will be able to accomplish. As a native Texan, I have had a special sense of pride watching the Longhorns win and distinct displeasure of heartbreaking loses. As an African American, I would be lying if I did not admit that I feel an additional sense of shared accomplishment seeing a Black man at the helm considering the legacy of discrimination related to college admission and other issues on the 40 Acres.
We have seen the successes of others such as Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M University, James Franklin at Vanderbilt University (maybe going to Penn State), and David Shaw at Stanford University among the few Black head football coaches across the country. My hope is that time will demonstrate to the ones responsible for Coach Strong’s hiring that they made the right decision. They may also see everything he brings including his experiences as an African American, college football player, coach, and leader prepared him fittingly. To the naysayers, it will be an ongoing uphill battle from jump until the end. Although the crude and covert racism will likely persist, there is little doubt in my mind that success is on the horizon.
Live. Texas. Strong!