Warde Manuel hire speaks to value of diversity in college sports

Warde Manuel is the 12th athletic director in the 118 years that the University of Michigan has had a formal title for the job. He’s the first that has experience leading an athletic department at a different school. And he’s the second African-American man in that office.

The first two distinctions have been noted several times since news of Manuel’s return to Ann Arbor became public knowledge earlier this week. The last one has garnered very little mention, if any at all. That Manuel’s skin color is no longer something worth talking about is, in itself, something worth talking about. It’s a great thing that has come to fruition because of Manuel’s many accomplishments and the groundwork laid by others who helped him along the way.

When Manuel was hired as Connecticut’s athletic director less than four years ago, it took the Hartford Courant less than a sentence to bring up his race. His first official quote in the paper as sitting athletic director was, “They hired me to do a great job at UConn whether I'm white, black or whatever background I come from.” It was, at the time, a part of the story that merited mention.

Tom Goss, who hired Manuel for his first full-time job at Michigan, was the first African-American man to sit where Manuel is now. Goss was No. 9 on the athletic director list for the Wolverines.

“Back when I got the job, I was the ninth athletic director and the first African-American,” Goss said. “That was the headline.”

During Manuel’s 45-minute introductory news conference in Ann Arbor on Friday afternoon, skin color, breaking barriers or diversity didn’t come up once.

“Isn’t that cool?” Goss asked after watching his former protégé hold court on campus.

Manuel’s ethnic background is now at most a footnote at the bottom of a long and impressive resume, which includes 10 years of experience leading a department, three degrees from Michigan and a national Athletic Director of the Year award from 2014.

Manuel was a part-time athletic department staffer when Goss arrived as the school’s athletic director in 1997. Goss gave the former football player a chance to organize a career-fair event for athletes on campus, something that the school had not put much focus on in the past. He knocked it out of the park, according to Goss, and that earned him a full-time gig.

More responsibilities followed. Goss put Manuel in charge of the football team, then basketball, and then he asked hockey coach Red Berenson, an institution at the school, to help train Manuel in how to handle a sport that was a little more foreign to the New Orleans native. In short, he saw initiative and intelligence in Manuel and steered him toward any leadership opportunity he could find. When Bill Martin took over for Goss in 2000, he continued pushing Manuel to do more. The new athletic director thanked them both on Friday for opening doors early in his career.

“That’s the only way you’re going to grow in this business,” Goss said. “I only take credit for promoting him to his first full-time job. He did the rest.”

If Manuel ends up sticking around as long as he said he wants to, those early promotions might end up being the biggest contribution Goss made to Michigan athletics. Manuel has done more than enough in his career to earn the job and the accolades he has now, but he might never have had the opportunity without someone like Goss in his corner.

"Warde has had a great career progression and is an outstanding individual," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. "But that outstanding individual might never have been able to even begin dreaming the dream without a pioneer like Tom Goss there in the first place."

Lapchick was the first to introduce the idea of an Eddie Robinson rule, a proposed equivalent of the NFL's Rooney rule for college sports. The Robinson rule would require any school to have a person of color and a woman as finalists for all senior positions in college athletic departments.

Earlier this month, the National Association for Coaching Equity and Development threw its support behind the rule. Lapchick first proposed the rule in 2007 while giving Robinson's eulogy, but is hopeful that NAFCED's support will help push the NCAA to accept it. Currently there are 12 African-Americans among the 128 athletic directors on the FBS level, three in the Big Ten.

The reason programs like the NFL’s Rooney rule and the proposed Robinson rule are important is because they put people like Goss in position to put people like Manuel in the position he currently holds. The complaints about such programs -- that they award jobs on the basis of something less than merit -- are shortsighted. The rules exist for people like Manuel, who has beyond any shadow of a doubt earned his spot as the leader of one of the country's largest and most storied athletic departments.

And yes, Mr. Goss, that is pretty cool.