At the University of Texas, football is religion. At Penn State University, they need football for redemption. So when these storied programs hired black head coaches within days of each other to return them to past glory, it was a major moment for a sport that has been among the slowest to promote African-American leaders at the highest level.
There have been other black head coaches at top football schools — Notre Dame, Stanford, Miami, UCLA. But the recent hiring of Charlie Strong at Texas and James Franklin at Penn State sent a powerful message, because of the combined prestige, mystique and influence of those teams. “It’s a historical moment,” said Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl and a former head coach at Grambling. “We’ve come a long way in a couple weeks,” Williams said. “Even though we don’t have as many as you would like, but when you get a Penn State and a Texas, them schools together almost make up for about 10 schools.”
There are 125 colleges playing in the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision. In 2013, 13 of them had black coaches. That was down from 15 in 2012 and an all-time high of 17 in 2011. Strong and Franklin have not been replaced by African-Americans, so the overall numbers remain low. For Franklin, the numbers are less important than the opportunities. “I don’t underestimate the significance of this moment. I take a lot of pride in that,” he said in an interview. “But the most important thing is we’re getting to a point where universities and organizations and corporations are hiring people based on merit and the most qualified guy.