A profound racial/social change has occurred in American football at both the college and the professional levels during the past 30 years -- change that has been overlooked in the recent furor surrounding the absence of black baseball managers and football head coaches.
Black athletes are being used in ever-growing numbers in the ''thinking,'' or ''high-IQ,'' positions at the bowl-bound colleges and in the National Football League. And that is what will produce black football coaches and executives.
Some 30 years ago, the University of Minnesota football coach, Murray Warmath, asked me for help in recruiting Sandy Stephens, a black quarterback from Uniontown, Pa. Minnesota football had been in the doldrums for years, partly because of rumors that its longtime coach, Bernie Bierman, would not use blacks in the backfield or at other ''skilled'' positions.
''Will you play Stephens at quarterback?'' I asked.
In a Mississippi drawl so thick you couldn't saw through it, Warmath said, ''I want to win. I'll play anybody anywhere.''
We got Stephens, who as an All-America quarterback led the Golden Gophers to two consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. But NFL teams were not interested in black quarterbacks in 1962, so Stephens went to Canada to play pro ball.
Consider the situation now. The nation has been revving up for weeks for this Saturday's showdown between two college titans, Oklahoma and Nebraska, each led by black quarterbacks, Jamelle Holieway for the Sooners and Steve Taylor for the Cornhuskers. Holieway is injured and out for the season, but Oklahoma will use a backup black quarterback, Charles Thompson, to duel with Taylor in what clearly is the big game of the season.
On the professional scene, it was front-page news here Monday after Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs yanked his slumping Pro Bowl quarterback, Jay Schroeder, and brought in black quarterback Doug Williams, who quickly threw two touchdown passes and led the Redskins to victory over the Detroit Lions.
It was a remarkable scene at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Nothing was happening on the playing field, but the crowd of 53,593 was roaring in approval. Simply because Williams was warming up. These fans didn't care whether he was black, or as green as a man from Mars; they just wanted to win, as Warmath did.
Meanwhile, a black quarterback, Warren Moon, was throwing for 252 yards as the Houston Oilers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-3, and another black quarterback, Randall Cunningham, was making playoff contenders of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The unwritten rule used to be that quarterback and center were the ''thinking,'' ''leadership'' positions and that those were off limits to blacks. Some experts now say the best center in the NFL is a black man, Dwight Stephenson of the Miami Dolphins. When the Redskins meet the Los Angeles Rams next Monday night, they will have Williams at quarterback, Raleigh McKenzie at center and free safety Todd Bowles calling the defensive signals. They are all black.
That lineup represents a quantum leap away from the age-old stereotype of the black athlete being all brawn, no brains. It is good for football, and healthy for the nation.