"I know they're in the stands heckling 'Why did he hire all those white coaches?' I haven't heard it, but I know it's there. When we're winning, they'll all like us." -- Jim Tsilimos, Howard assistant coach.
One of the mose significant breakthroughs in intercollegiate sports -- a truly integrated coaching staff -- was accomplished last spring at Howard University when rookie Coach Floyd Keith hired his five full-time assistants at the predominantly black school.
Three of the coaches were white.
The event passed with little fanfare, because Keith was hiring football coaches, not social pioneers. To understand why Keith downplayed the hirings, one needs only to read the quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana posted on the wall behind Keith's desk.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Santayana said.
Keith, 31, was hired at Howard after serving as the only full-time black assistant on the University of Colorado staff. He says he did not intend to be a hypocrite and practice what would amount to reverse tokenism.
Keith also said he did not plan an even breakdown among blacks and whites on the six-man staff.
"I really didn't count them," he said. "I never worried whether they were black or white, if a guy wants to work and if he wants to be a good coach. You know, in my mind, athletics is one of the last fields of prejudice. It's where you're judged as an individual in what you do, how you perform. If you beat somebody, you beat them because you're just plain better."
Keith looked for young, energetic men who shared his ideas of discipline and hard work and character and had a background in the 300-mile radius around Washington Keith defines as Howard's prime recruiting territory.
His interviews were painstakingly thorough. He started the day he was hired, Jan. 24. He finished the day before spring drills started, in late March. He interviewed approximately 40 applicants. He decided three whites were "just plain better."
Carl Angelo, 31, the defensive coordinator who came from Denison University. He coached high school football at Warren G. Harding, an integrated inner-city school in Warren, Ohio. "Floyd Keith is one of the super young coaches in the country," Angelo said. "He's the reason I came here." Angelo's office radio is tuned in to WOL, a local soul station.
Jim Emery, 27, the secondary coach who left an assistant coach's job at Ball State. He comes from a small, all-white community in Ohio. His father was a coal miner. Yet, he says, his parents brought him up to judge people as people. "My honest assessment," he said, "is I don't realize I'm in a black university. I'm here doing my job. I'm around people I like."
Tsilimos, 25, the offensive line coach who arrived at Howard after serving as a graduate assistant at North Carolina State. He played for Angelo in high school. A mutual friend told him the job was open and he said he pestered Keith until the new coach hired him. "I'm an easygoing person. I can enjoy anyone," he said. "I'm a football coach and I'm not going to have any prejudices and no one should have any against me."
The two black assistants are Tom Perry, 24, the defensive line coach who played under Keith at Colorado and was a graduate assistant there last year, and Rickie Harris, the eldest member of the staff at 36. Harris, a former Redskin defensive back, coaches the offensive backfield. Keith himself is offensive coordinator, quarterback and receivers coach.
"I'm sure there will be people along the way whose eyes will open up when they see him," Keith said of his white coaches going to recruit black youngsters. "But the kind of program I'm trying to develop is one that people can leave this program and respect another person as a human being. If someone can't respect another person, they're going to have a tough time living.
"You've got to be open-minded and you've got to learn to work with people and with all types of people. So if the young man's offended by a mixture of coaches, then I know he probably isn't going to work out in the type of football program I have. I'm just interested in results."
This season the results are 3-4, about what Keith figured for his first season. The school has pumped additional money and academic help into the program. The addition of 15 scholarships, three full-time assistants and a weight room puts Howard on an equal footing with other Division I-AA schools.
But, now, Howard is unique among all Division I schools because of the racial mixture of the coaching staff.
Keith remembered the days when he aspired to be a coach and would see all-white staffs on the sidelines of the games on television. In those days, the networks did not telecast games among predominantly black schools as they do now.
"You go back to the old times," Keith said. "I can remember when the idea of here was Alabama . . . very seldom could you ever find (black) coaches. You never saw people who mixed. And I think that's real injustice, and it's one of my pet peeves.
"I always said you could look around the country and probably find a black coach on a staff. And people used to refer to them and say, 'Well, who's their black coach?' It's kind of funny. A person should be a coach, not 'their black coach.'
"The same is true here. I look around a lot of other staffs at other (predominantly black) schools and everybody has 'a white coach.' So you swing from one end of the extreme to the other. Nobody says, 'Yeah, this is a coach.' That's my opinion. I always felt that you look around and found that few major college staffs have two black assistants . . . that are in positions of coaching. They have some that recruit."
Keith thinks that Ohio State may be the only major college staff in the country with two black assistants in coaching positions.
There is one major problem facing the white assistants at Howard, according to Harris. Many of the players never have had contact with a white teacher or coach.
Harris recalled his early days with the Redskins.
"I never hung out with white players or black players but with both sides. If I'd been on an all-black kick, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. At camp, the Redskins had the Cardinal Club. I was the first black Cardinal, because I was the first black guy who went drinking with them.
"It was Sonny Jurgensen and some other guys. They taught me a lot about the game. I would have never learned it, if I had a closed mind.
"Anytime you have a closed mind, you can't learn."
Harris tells the Cardinal Club story to illustrate what he tells Howard players who complain the white coaches don't "understand me, because he can't identify with me."
The response, Harris said, goes something like this: "He can understand you because you're dealing in football, not your color. He's judging you on football ability or talents, not how you were brought up. He's judging you or correcting you because he wants you to learn it, not because it's a black-and-white situation.
"I've fought and cheated and stole like they've done -- and told lies just to get you over, I recognize it. You blame somebody else and if there's a white person there, it's easier to blame him than somebody else because you don't understand him."
"I've had no problems," said Tsilimos. "What's been my biggest problem? They couldn't pronounce my name. They just called me 'Coach.' I've probably got more respect here than I would have gotten in a white institution . . . These are good kids here; they come from good homes with concerned parents.
"They have never been exposed to this kind of discipline and team atmosphere. They never lived in the same dorm before. It makes them think they're a football team. There's light at the end of the tunnel. Rome wasn't built in a day. Before there was no light. He (former coach Doug Porter) did a good job with what he had."
"There should not be a black-white relationship in coaching anyway," said quarterback Ron Wilson. "You don't have to live with them, just play for them. I haven't noticed any major difference. We all get along."
"Color doesn't make the coach." tight end Fitz Fowler commented. "They (white coaches) respect us and treat us as people. And we respect them."
"As long as he knows his job that's what counts," defensive back Wesley Mitchell remarked. "I'm surprised that the white coaches here have built up such a quick rapport in an all-black school."
"Most of the coaches I've played for are white, so I'm used to it," line-backer Scott Facyson said. "A black player may open up to a black coach quicker than to a white coach but that's probably because he's a black man first. It just takes more time to go to a white coach with your problems. mThe guys who have been here for a while were open with Porter. In a couple of years the team here will be as open to Coach Keith and his staff. As far as black-white relationships go, we get along fine."
Keith chuckles when asked about the relationship between his players and his white assistants.
"I think players are more concerned with what they learn from somebody," he said. "Wouldn't it seem kind of a weird situation here if a player came to me and said, 'I think this coach is prejudiced; he doesn't like me.'"