- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Harry Alderson has been trying to climb the ladder for nearly a decade.
A former officer in the U.S. Air Force, he's moved from coaching at the Division III level of college football to the NFL as a scout. Since 2011, Alderson has served as a recruiting and operations assistant at Stanford.
He works for David Shaw, one of the most respected coaches nationally by his peers and the public alike.
Just so happens that Shaw is black, like Alderson and two of the most prominent head-coaching appointments of this college hiring season.
Charlie Strong at Texas and James Franklin at Penn State gained widespread notice over the past two weeks as the first permanent black head coaches at their prestigious programs.
"Their bodies of work speak for themselves," Alderson said. "It's just like [Shaw]. He did his work. Given the opportunity, any of them can succeed. But finding the right opportunity, that's the hard part."
Minority attendees last week at the American Football Coaches Association Convention in Indianapolis lauded the hirings of Strong and Franklin as milestones for an industry in need of more diversity.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, black head coaches represent less than 10 percent of the positions available at the FBS level. After coaching changes that included the hiring of Dino Babers at Bowling Green and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt to replace Franklin, black coaches direct 11 of 126 programs -- down from 12 in 2013.
Some black coaches at the convention said they won't consider it real progress until moves like those made by Strong and Franklin are no longer noted for the coaches' race.
"When we get to the point where we're not even bringing up the fact that they're African-American, then we're there," said Trooper Taylor, a former Auburn assistant recently hired as cornerbacks coach at Arkansas State.
Taylor said he heard regularly from black colleagues at the convention about their satisfaction in watching Strong, who jumped to Texas from Louisville, and Franklin land powerful jobs.
"The discussion ought to be that they're qualified," Taylor said, "not that, 'Oh, they got a black head coach at Texas, or that they copied Texas A&M.' It ought to be about how those guys are qualified to do the job."
Franklin said much of the same in an interview with the Associated Press.
"I don't underestimate the significance of this moment," Franklin told the AP. "I take a lot of pride in it. But the most important thing is that we're getting to a point where universities and organizations and corporations are hiring people based on merit and the most qualified guy.
"We're making tremendous strides. The more opportunities that coaches get and go out and do well and succeed, it helps. It helps change perceptions, and perceptions are a powerful thing."
Baylor associate head coach Brian Norwood described it as "very refreshing" to watch the recent hires from afar.
"It used to be a big thing, for the longest time, to be considered for those positions," Norwood said. "Now, being called into duty in those spots, it's tremendous."
Tulsa athletic director Derrick Gragg, who spoke to an audience of coaches in Indianapolis on leadership and hiring, described the recent advancements as "monumental."
"Texas and Penn State are places that people, in the past, might have seen as an unreachable height," Gragg said. "This is giving young coaches hope that they can ascend to those positions."
Perhaps a young coach like Karibi Dede of Woodbridge (Va.) High School soon won't consider the significance of a black head coach at Texas.
For now, said Dede, 30, a former Auburn linebacker and quality-control assistant, "it's something."
"It makes a major statement for college football," he said. "Penn State and Texas have set a standard that says, we're going to go for the best available candidate. We just have to continue to understand that there are guys out there who are qualified and just need opportunities."
Often, opportunities coincide with encounters. In other words, it's whom you know as much as what you know.
Alderson benefits not only from his experience but also from working with a proven winner like Shaw and a rising star like Mason.
Alderson got into coaching largely on his own.
"I was persistent," he said. "I believed in my skill set. I believed in my abilities. I just wanted a shot. I told them to just give me an opportunity. I just wanted a chance."
Thanks to trailblazers Strong and Franklin, Alderson and black coaches who came after him may get a boost on the climb up that ladder.
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