Willie Taggart became the head football coach at Oregon on the basis of his record. He earned the job through tireless recruiting, explosive offensive game plans and training under the likes of Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. Over four years, he turned the moribund University of South Florida into a 10-2 conference power. He is, at 40, one of the best young coaches in the country, and he is at a place worthy of his ascent.
Taggart’s hiring is noteworthy, regrettably, because of the color of his skin. In a sport in which a majority of players are African American, Taggart became the seventh black man in charge of a Power Five conference football team, of which there are 65. In all of major college football, 14 of 128 schools are coached by African Americans. A lot of big-time football programs have never hired a black head coach. Before Wednesday, Oregon had been one of them.
“I never thought Oregon would hire a black football coach,” Portland-area civil rights activist Sam Sachs said. “I never thought I would see that day.”
Sachs was a primary force behind the state of Oregon’s passing of House Bill 3118. Following the example of the NFL policy commonly known as the Rooney Rule, the law requires state-funded schools to interview qualified minority candidates for top coaching and athletic administration positions. Oregon remains the lone state to enact such a law.
There is no way to know the exact role that state law played in Oregon’s choice. But it came two days after Portland State promoted Valerie Cleary, an African American woman, to be its athletic director. It ensured Oregon would have to expand its pool of qualified candidates, and it may have helped lead Ducks officials to Taggart.
“Willie earned it,” said Floyd Keith, the former head of Black Coaches and Administrators. “It’s a testament to that process because of the result. When he was interviewed, there were people saying he didn’t have a chance. But he did. The interview made a difference. You have to be happy with that.”
In 2007, Sachs was a senior black studies major at Portland State, having returned to school after spending years as a sheriff’s deputy. The school rushed to hire Jerry Glanville as its football coach without a search. Sachs implored school officials to seek qualified minority candidates. When they didn’t, Sachs became angry enough to lobby state legislators.
With the help of other advocates and statistics from Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the bill passed in 2009. It included no penalties for schools that violated the law.
“My goal wasn’t to punish schools,” Sachs said. “My goal was to get schools to think differently and act differently. And that’s what’s happened.
“Since the Rooney Rule came into place, there have been significant hires in places we didn’t think would happen. If I take any satisfaction in anything, it’s that Oregon and other schools are starting to open their minds to include diverse candidates and give them a chance, and then go a step further and have faith in hiring them.”
For the past decade, Lapchick has called on the NCAA to create the Eddie Robinson Rule, named after the legendary Grambling coach, to serve as the organization’s version of the Rooney Rule.
NCAA Associate Director of External Affairs Gail Dent said the NCAA does not have legal authority to establish a hiring law. She said the NCAA “can adopt best practices and guidelines to strongly encourage our member school administrators to interview minorities for positions and to open their candidate pools to a broader base.”
In September, the NCAA encouraged schools to sign a diversity hiring pledge.
Lapchick and other advocates disagree. Lapchick pointed to the example of publishing graduation rates. The NCAA once said it could never compel schools to publish graduation rates. When Congress pressed, it became standard practice, and now graduation performance is even tied to postseason participation.
“If they want to do it, they could do it,” Lapchick said.
The pledge is “not enough,” Sachs said. “They have to have a rule in place so schools will include minority candidates in their pool of candidates. They say they have no power to do that, but that’s a lie. They just don’t want to.”
At the peak, in 2011, 18 African Americans were head coaches at the highest level. The number has dropped and stagnated, even as a handful of teams have moved up from lower levels.
“Colleges have to make it more of a priority,” said Jed Hughes, vice chairman of the search firm Korn Ferry. “I’m not sure when LSU and Texas hired their coaches, did they interview diversity prospects? Right there, in the NFL, you couldn’t do that. You got to make sure you’ve got diversity.”
Charlie Strong’s hiring Sunday at South Florida provided a rare occurrence. Strong lasted only three seasons at Texas after he built a powerhouse at Louisville. History indicates it is acceptable for white coaches to fail, but not black coaches. Black coaches are not only statistically likely to have shorter tenures, but also less likely to receive a second chance.
According to Lapchick’s data, Strong joined Tyrone Willingham as the only black coach to get fired from a major college football program and be hired again as a head coach at another. (Washington hired Willingham after Notre Dame dismissed him after three seasons.) Sachs said he recently spoke with a black coach who told him, “It’s hard to get a job. It’s even harder to get another job.”
The lack of diversity can be traced to academic and administrative leadership. The overwhelming majority of school presidents and athletic directors are white. While those in charge may not be actively blocking black coaches, they most likely rely on established relationships for key hires. And the likelihood will be the people they are closest to, both professionally and socially, will look like them.
“Because of the nature of those jobs, the comfort level of the decision-makers is usually with those they associate closely with,” Keith said. “It still has something to do with relationships and knowledge and awareness of people. You have to know that still is a crucial factor: People hire people they are comfortable with. Until our leadership becomes more diverse in a sense, you’re not going to see that reflected going down, either.”
And that may be the best argument for a college Rooney Rule. Oregon, by law, had to interview someone from outside the typical pool. And when they did, they didn’t see Willie Taggart as a diverse candidate. They saw him as the best candidate.
“Oregon, the whitest state in the country, made two significant hires of minorities,” Sachs said. “If we can do it, I think other states and other places can do it. And the NCAA, they need step up and take some ownership. It’s pathetic they keep saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ No, there’s nothing that they want to do.”