When the call came early last month, Randy Shannon knew the drill.
Mississippi was interested in interviewing him for its head coaching position. After 14 years as an assistant, four as defensive coordinator at Miami, Shannon has had a few of those calls.
He went. He interviewed. He didn't get the job. He moved on.
As he sees it, what else was he supposed to do?
"Until people realize that we're all coaches, until people understand that we're all the same and stop dealing in black and white, that's just life; you deal with it," Shannon said. "What can be done? You can't make the president or athletic director or anybody hire you if they don't want to hire you."
Never has that been more evident.
This past season, there were 18 openings for head football coaches at the Division I-A level. One was filled by a black coach, meaning three of the 117 I-A coaches are African-American: Sylvester Croom (Mississippi State), Karl Dorrell (UCLA) and Tyrone Willingham (Washington). Of the approximately 10,000 scholarship players in I-A, nearly 50 percent are black.
NCAA president Myles Brand called the numbers "unacceptable" but said it's the job of the universities to correct it, not the NCAA. Brand is an ardent supporter of the Black Coaches Association's "report card" effort in tracking minority hires and supplying schools with help in the hiring process, but he said he isn't in favor of mandatory interviews of minority candidates, saying it's unfair if schools already know whom they want to hire.
"The numbers are unacceptable and the problem remains systemic," said Floyd Keith, the BCA's executive director. "Those doing the hiring continue to be in search of people they know, or who have been associated with people they are familiar with."
Most head coaches are allowed to hire their assistants, and they generally hire those they've worked or had ties with, making Keith's concerns valid. But that premise took a hit at New Mexico State. McKinley Boston, one of the few Division I-A black athletic directors, bypassed longtime Nebraska assistant Turner Gill to hire Hal Mumme to replace Tony Samuel, the black head coach who was fired at the end of the season. Gill is considered one of the top black assistants in the country; Mumme, who is white, is the former Kentucky coach who went 20-26 and whose tenure ended with the school headed for NCAA probation.
"There's always going to be some coaches that will get recycled, and there will be many more coaches that have been great coordinators that will never get a job," Shannon said, not specifically referring to Mumme. "Is it fair? No. But life ain't fair."
Flaws of the hiring process aside, there's a deeper problem, many say: Black coaches aren't being hired in key positions as coordinators, where most advancement stems from. When Florida began its search for a new head coach, athletic director Jeremy Foley made it clear he wanted someone with head coaching experience.
The list of potential candidates provided to Florida by the BCA was a who's who of current and former NFL coaches: Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards and Dennis Green. None were interested in the Gators' job, but they were the only minorities with head coaching experience. Florida hired Urban Meyer, the Utah head coach who hadn't been a coordinator when he was hired at Bowling Green in 2001.
Shannon and Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong are the top candidates on the BCA's list of assistant coaches.
"I think the thing people don't realize is that head coaching jobs are hard to come by, period," said fourth-year Miami coach Larry Coker, who toiled as a collegiate assistant for 22 years. "There are not that many out there, and sometimes the ones you get aren't very good. I don't think there's any doubt about it, Charlie will be a head coach someday. I kind of shy away a little bit from the notion of being an African-American head coach and the numbers and all of that. Charlie Strong is a good football coach; that's the same thing I can say about Randy Shannon. The fact that they are African-American has nothing to do with it."
Shannon believes that continuing to focus on the issue may be detrimental: "When you start getting into the black and white issues, sometimes it's best to leave it alone and let people hire who they want to hire."
Many in the field disagree.
"For those universities that are committed to diversity, it's an issue that has to remain in the forefront and be addressed," said Keith Harrison, director of the Paul Robeson Research Center at Arizona State, which collects data for the BCA report card.
Strong spent three weeks as Florida's interim head coach and said the experience was invaluable. He said the most important thing for minority head coaches is to get exposure and experience, and to be successful in their assistant roles.
The rest is out of their hands.
"The main thing is for guys to get opportunities and that's hard," Strong said. "I think that what's happening is it's becoming more of an issue, more people are talking about it. So if they talk about it enough, maybe it will change.
"I was telling Randy it may not happen for me, maybe for him or whomever else, but we have to continue to do a good job. If we continue to do a good job, then someone coming behind us, we've paved that road for them and then they'll get an opportunity. Who knows when it's going to break, but it will."
CHANGE AT THE TOP
Division I-A football teams that will have new coaches next season:
SCHOOL 2004 COACH 2005 COACH
Brigham Young Gary Crowton Bronco Mendenhall
East Carolina John Thompson Skip Holtz
Florida Ron Zook Urban Meyer
Illinois Ron Turner Ron Zook
Indiana Gerry DiNardo Terry Hoeppner
Mississippi David Cutcliffe Ed Orgeron
New Mexico St. Tony Samuel + Hal Mumme
Notre Dame Tyrone Willingham + Charlie Weis
Ohio Brian Knorr Frank Solich
Pittsburgh Walt Harris Dave Wannstedt
San Jose St. Fitz Hill + Dick Tomey
South Carolina Lou Holtz Steve Spurrier
Stanford Buddy Teevens Walt Harris
Syracuse Paul Pasqualoni Unfilled
UNLV John Robinson Mike Sanford
Utah St. Mick Dennehy Brent Guy
Washington Keith Gilbertson Tyrone Willingham +
Western Mich. Gary Darnell Bill Cubit