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No avoiding race as an issue in Florida Gators coordinator Strong's failure to get a head-coaching job

MIAMI — I wish I could say Charlie Strong is mistaken.

I wish, with all of my heart, I could say he is wrong in his belief that his race has something, maybe everything, to do with the fact that he has never been given an opportunity to be a head football coach in college.

I wish I could say that it is coincidence, bad luck, a closet full of skeletons or some other unforeseen factor that is holding Strong back.

I wish I could say any of those things, but I'm afraid I know better.

University of Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is almost certainly a victim of racism. Maybe it's not overt, and maybe it's not intentional. It can probably never be proven, and there's a chance it will one day be remedied.

But, at this moment, none of that makes it any less unfair for a man who deserves better.

A couple of weeks ago, Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was hired to be the head football coach at Mississippi State. Nothing wrong with that. Mullen is a good man and may prove to be an excellent hire for the Bulldogs.

But consider this:

In 1999, Mullen went to work at Notre Dame as a graduate assistant, the bottom rung position on any coaching staff. That same year, Strong left Notre Dame to be the defensive coordinator at South Carolina.

Ten years later, Mullen has gone from that part-time job to being a head coach in the Southeastern Conference. Strong, meanwhile, is still working as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.

Is that proof of anything? No. Maybe Mullen does better in job interviews than Strong. Maybe Mississippi State liked the idea of hiring an offensive-minded coach. Maybe 100 other factors went into that decision.

But, the thing is, this is not an isolated situation.

Of the 120 jobs available for head coaches in Division I-A football, only seven are held by African-Americans. (And only one of those — Randy Shannon at Miami — is among the BCS conferences.)

That's a fairly staggering situation. Consider, on the final weekend of the NFL season, seven of the 32 head coaches were African-American. That would be 22 percent in the NFL, compared to the current 6 percent in the NCAA.

Why is there such a disparity between college and pro? It could have something to do with the NFL's aggressive policy — the Rooney Rule — that encourages teams to interview minority candidates.

But I tend to believe it has more to do with the fact that college athletic programs depend greatly on their boosters, and that university presidents and administrators worry about the popularity of black coaches among the luxury suite crowd.

When asked at the BCS media day if he could have ever imagined there would be an African-American in the White House before he got a job as a head coach, Strong responded with a question of his own. What demographic, he asked, was influential in electing Barack Obama president? Young voters, was the response.

To this, Strong just nodded. The inference being university leaders are from a different generation.

That he was willing to talk about it this week — and he did so with great reluctance — is a measure of how frustrated Strong has become. He has talked about it with friends for years but has never gone public with his concerns.

The issue has gained prominence in recent weeks, however, with speculation that Turner Gill did not get the Auburn job because he is a black man with a white wife. Strong heard the same rumors about himself, and his white wife, when he interviewed for a job at a Southern school several years ago.

If it is not his race, it is hard to explain why Strong hasn't gotten a shot. He has worked under some of the biggest names in coaching, Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer; has been a part of five SEC titles; has reached the national championship game twice in the past three seasons; and is well-regarded throughout the sport.

Here's another way of looking at it:

Dan Mullen is 36 and has four years' experience as a coordinator.

Urban Meyer was 36 when he was hired as a head coach, and had never been a coordinator.

Charlie Strong is 48 and has been a coordinator for 10 years.

For whatever reason, he is still waiting.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

No avoiding race as an issue in Florida Gators coordinator Strong's failure to get a head-coaching job 01/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:46pm]
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