Eric Shelton/Associated Press, via Natchez Democrat
For more than two decades, Fitzgerald Hill has fought to have minority and African-American head football coaches hired at predominantly white colleges and universities. In his new book, “Crackback: How College Football Blindsides the Hopes of Black Coaches,” written with the veteran journalist Mark Purdy, Hill, a former head coach at San Jose State, tells about those efforts. He uses “crackback” as a metaphor to describe what often happens to black candidates seeking head coaching jobs at predominantly white universities.
Last week Hill was surprised when Alcorn State, a historically black university in Lorman, Miss., announced the hiring of Jay Hopson as its coach. Hopson, 43, became the first white head football coach in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which is made up of historically black colleges and universities.
Hill had mixed reactions to the hiring.
“I’m not disappointed, it seems like H.B.C.U.s are saying, ‘We’re moving forward in the 21st century, and we hired the best coach,’ ” said Hill, the president at Arkansas Baptist College. “It’s a very interesting twist.”
But Hill said he was disturbed by the implications. The hiring of a white football coach at a historically black college — when white institutions have been slow to do the opposite — could also be interpreted as a slap in the face.
“Are you telling me that there was not a qualified football coach anywhere in the United States of America they could have hired to lead that program?” Hill asked, referring to African-American candidates. “It’s interesting to me that Alcorn felt they couldn’t find an African-American to lead their program.”
Hill studied hiring trends of minority candidates and wrote his dissertation on their experiences.
“In my studies, people say the reason that they have not hired an African-American to lead their Division I program is because there aren’t any qualified African-American coaches,” he said. “We couldn’t find one — that’s been the story for the last 20 years. Alcorn is saying the same thing. If the majority schools can’t find any and the H.B.C.U.s can’t find any, where does the black coach go?”
Alcorn’s president, Christopher Brown II, defended the selection.
He pointed out that of the thousands who coach football at the college and professional level, he received 51 applications for the position. “There was a pool of candidates,” he said. “I had to look at who was in my pool. Do I start calling every head coach in America to say, ‘Why didn’t you apply for this job?’ I don’t think so.”
Brown said he picked the best candidate from among the applicants. Hopson has been an assistant at nine colleges, including Michigan and Mississippi. Last season, he was the defensive coordinator at Memphis but he resigned after two games.
“This hire is only for Alcorn, and this coach is only for Alcorn,” Brown said. “I’m not telling any other school to hire a particular coach. We hired the coach we wanted. This only works at our place at this moment in time because of who we are and because of who the candidate is.
“If this was any other school and any other candidate, this might not work.”
For African-American coaches looking for the plum, well-paying assistants’ jobs, historically black colleges and universities often are not a prime destination. Especially not a school in rural Mississippi paying the head coach in the vicinity of $150,000 a year. Just as blue-chip black athletes flock to predominantly white intercollegiate programs, top black assistants aim for those bigger programs, not those at historically black colleges, which are underfinanced and lack the charisma and prestige. Those positions are not seen as steppingstones to the so-called big time.
With shrinking education and sports access and rising tuition, historically black colleges and universities continue to be safety nets and caldrons of opportunity for wider, more diverse groups of students, administrators, professors and athletes. The Bethune-Cookman women’s golf team recently won the Division I PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Tournament with an all-white team, and many nonrevenue sports in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are full of white athletes seeking a chance to play. Hill’s baseball team at Arkansas Baptist, a predominantly black college that participates in the N.A.I.A., is 65 percent white.
Ed Hill, the sports information director at Howard, a MEAC member, said the university’s swimming and lacrosse coaches were white. “I never look at them as white coaches at historically black colleges,” he said. “I judge them on how they run their programs and how successful they are. I’ve seen the changes taking place at some of the H.B.C.U. programs where some of the sports are dominated by Caucasians, but that doesn’t bother me.
“It’s kind of a change that’s taking place, not dramatically, but there is a change. To be competitive on the field, these coaches are going after the best athletes. Those student-athletes now are looking at these H.B.C.U.’s not necessarily as O.K., that’s an H.B.C.U. and it’s for people of African-American persuasion. They’re looking to become more diverse, to enrich their lives. They welcome the challenge.”
Brown, the Alcorn president, noted that Hopson was born near Lorman, in Vicksburg, Miss. “He did not choose Alcorn because it was an H.B.C.U.,” Brown said. “He chose it because it was the university in the community he grew up in and he wanted to get back home.”
While we shouldn’t read too much into the hiring of one coach (“No one decision can change history,” Brown said), Alcorn’s move could easily segue into a broader — and much-needed — conversation about the relevance and continued need for African-American-run organizations and institutions.
Brown received his B.S. in elementary education from South Carolina State — a historically black university — his master’s from the University of Kentucky and his Ph.D. from Penn State. He has written extensively about historically black colleges and universities.
“I think these institutions collectively and individually are national treasures,” he said. “They are living monuments to a nation’s history and the quest and desire for oppressed people in that nation to obtain an education and to grow their economic relevance in this society.” He added, “In a sense, these institutions are cultural artifacts and cultural repositories of that growth and development in the nation.”
Although Fitzgerald Hill said the historically black universities must recapture their communities, Brown said they must broaden and reinvent themselves and establish a new niche “that makes us self-sustaining.”
“We have a choice collectively, particularly H.B.C.U.s,” he said. “We can either play violins and sing and mourn about how wrong we’ve been done over 150 years in the country or we can play a trumpet and talk about good things that happen on this campus and what happens moving forward.”
Trumpets and violins notwithstanding, the historically black colleges continue to provide an alternative educational experience for an expanded and diverse pool.
“Our institutions have to become multiple things to multiple people,” Brown said. “To the extent institutions do that well, I think they will be successful; to the extent they don’t, they will continue to lose market share and continue to lose relevance. To the extent they go overboard, they will lose their identity completely.”
Two days after introducing Hopson as the coach, Brown announced that Fred McNair would serve as the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. McNair is the older brother of Steve McNair, the former N.F.L. quarterback who had a legendary career at Alcorn. “Some who were on the ledge are now trying to get back off the ledge and saying maybe it’s not that bad,” Brown said.
What historically black colleges and universities share with every other institution with a football program is that alumni want to win. At Alcorn, where winning records have been scarce in recent years and the team went 2-8 last season, there is renewed excitement, if not agreement, about the hire.
“This is the rallying cry they have needed,” Brown said. “A winning program calms a lot of frustrations. Winning makes everything better.”
That is generally true. Whether it will be true at Alcorn remains to be seen.