The Big Ten once looked like the pacesetter for minority coach hiring in college football.
The first two African-Americans to coach in a major FBS conference worked in the Big Ten, as Northwestern appointed Dennis Green in 1981 and replaced him with Francis Peay in 1986.
While the rest of college football largely shied away from minority candidates, Wisconsin hired a Hispanic coach, Barry Alvarez, in 1990. Nine years later, Michigan State became the Big Ten's first public institution to appoint an African-American coach, as it promoted assistant Bobby Williams to the top job.
Of the first eight African-Americans hired to coach major FBS teams, three were in the Big Ten.
"Before African-Americans were getting opportunities at schools that didn't have great football traditions, suddenly here was the Big Ten stepping out," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. "It looked like maybe it would open other opportunities."
Doors eventually opened elsewhere, but not in the Big Ten.
The league hasn't had a single African-American coach since Michigan State fired Williams late in the 2002 season. There have been 15 coaching changes in the Big Ten since Williams' dismissal (not including two changes at Nebraska, which joined the league in 2011). Only one institution, Iowa, hasn't made a change during the span.
While the hiring pattern outside the Big Ten wasn't much different immediately after Williams' firing -- only five major FBS programs hired African-Americans between 2002 and '07 -- there has been a boom in recent years. Since 2007, 22 programs have hired African-American coaches (non-interim), including 10 in major conferences.
There are currently African-American head coaches in four of the six BCS automatic-qualifying conferences, including three in the SEC. The only leagues without one: the Big Ten and the Big 12. (In the Big 12, Kansas fired Turner Gill last season, while Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin in 2011 but will move from the Big 12 to the SEC this fall.)
"I'm surprised," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the Big Ten's only African-American AD and the fourth in league history. "I've watched it since I've been in this business, since 1983. There's been growth. Is it on a trajectory we all are pleased with? No. But hopefully it does change over time.
"But when you say three [African-American coaches] in Big Ten [history], it does surprise me."
He's not alone. Surprised is one of several words Floyd Keith uses to describe his reaction to the Big Ten's drought in hiring African-American coaches.
"There's a red flag," said Keith, executive director of Black Coaches & Administrators and an assistant football coach at Indiana from 1984-92. "You look at it and you go, 'What's happening here?' You go through all the major conferences -- SEC, there's representation; Pac-10, there's representation -- and you go, 'Wow, Big Ten, what's wrong?'
"I'm kind of baffled."
Keith points out one potential factor: coaching stability.
Last month, Penn State introduced a football coach for the first time since 1966. Iowa has had two coaches since 1979. Wisconsin has had two coaches since 1990. Before hiring Urban Meyer in November, Ohio State had two coaches between 1988 and 2011.
On the flip side, 11 of the 12 Big Ten programs have made at least one change since 2006, including Michigan, which made two changes after having only three coaches between 1969 and 2007.
The national trend of more coaching changes has impacted the Big Ten. The national trend of more African-American coaches has not.
Are Big Ten schools equitable in the way they conduct football coaching searches? For the most part, yes.
Every year, the BCA, in conjunction with Lapchick and the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, publishes a hiring report card for college football. Schools are graded on four categories: direct communication with the BCA during the search; percentage of people of color on the search committee; candidates of color interviewed; and duration of the search/hiring process. Schools can receive A grades even if they don't hire a coach of color.
Of the 11 Big Ten schools that received grades between 2004 and '10, eight received A's or B's. Indiana received A's for both its 2004 and 2010 searches.
Michigan received a C for its 2010 search (the school got an A for its 2006 search). Purdue received a D for its search that resulted in Danny Hope's being named coach-in-waiting. Wisconsin didn't report to the BCA the steps it took to consider minority candidates during its transition from Alvarez to Bret Bielema and received an automatic F.
"I know there have been [minority] coaches interviewed," Keith said. "I can't quite get the fact that the [hiring] numbers aren't better."
Keith confirmed minority coaches were in the mix for two of the Big Ten's most recent vacancies, Illinois and Penn State. In January, two of Illinois' trustees, Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery, voted against a contract for new coach Tim Beckman, saying they didn't believe the school had tried hard enough to look for an African-American coach.
Illinois is one of three Big Ten programs -- Purdue and Nebraska are the others -- never to have never hired an African-American coach in football or men's basketball, which Oliver called a "dubious distinction."
Illinois made a strong push for Kevin Sumlin, an African-American who played linebacker at Purdue and rose to prominence as Houston's coach before taking the Texas A&M job in December. Keith didn't specify names but said he was "kind of shocked" Illinois didn't end up with an African-American coach.
Minnesota came close in January 2007, when it chose between Tim Brewster and Charlie Strong, an African-American who then was Florida's defensive coordinator.
"I had two finalists and one of them happened to be a black coach," athletic director Joel Maturi recalled. "Tim Brewster was not, and I hired Tim Brewster. Looking back, maybe I should have hired the other guy."
Brewster was fired midway through the 2010 season after going 15-30. Strong won Big East Coach of the Year honors in 2010 at Louisville.
Maturi also considered African-American candidates in the search to replace Brewster. He consulted regularly with Minnesota alum Tony Dungy, the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl and an advocate for minority coach hiring. Although Minnesota ended up hiring Jerry Kill, who is white, the school received an A grade for its search.
"We have an obligation to look at minority coaches," Maturi said. "There's the Rooney Rule in the NFL. There's not such a rule at our institution or in the NCAA, but at the same time I think we have that obligation and I think most of us follow that. I don't say that meaning it's therefore token, but I'm certainly serious about it."
The Big Ten's main involvement in the issue has been its participation in an annual minority coaches' forum, launched in 2006 and held annually through 2010 by the commissioners of the BCS automatic-qualifying leagues.
The event brought together top minority assistant coaches, athletic directors and conference officials to network and discuss the hiring process. The Big Ten had 17 African-American assistant coaches attend the forum between 2006 and '10. Five since have gone on to become FBS head coaches, and four -- Ron English (Eastern Michigan), Darrell Hazell (Kent State), Don Treadwell (Miami University in Ohio) and Garrick McGee (UAB) -- remain in those roles.
"They were giving us an idea of the parameters they were looking for and how to get your foot in the door, who are the good resources to talk to," said Hazell, an Ohio State assistant from 2004 to '10. "Some things you knew going in, but some things you heard from a different perspective, from their perspective, and it opened your eyes up a little bit."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner regularly attend the forum, along with athletic directors like Maturi, Smith, Iowa's Gary Barta and Michigan State's Mark Hollis. The two-day event includes an informal networking event and formal meetings.
"It was a marvelous idea," Smith said. "You had athletic directors sitting in the room with these associate head coaches, these offensive and defensive coordinators who historically had not had a chance to sit in the room with athletic directors from other schools. There were great candid conversations about what they needed to do to prepare, how they needed to be willing to be open to I-AA [opportunities].
"They did a good job of creating an environment where people would just open up."
The forum, held in conjunction with the Fiesta Frolic, didn't take place in 2011 because of the fallout from the Fiesta Bowl scandal. The leagues had a conference call scheduled for Tuesday to discuss a 2012 forum, which could take place in June at the athletic directors' convention.
"It's important for us to continue," Rudner said. "This really was the one vehicle, at least on the football side, that everybody in our conference coalesced around."
There are other initiatives, too. Maturi mentors an African-American assistant coach at another Big Ten program. Hazell said that while at Ohio State, Smith provided him insight on relationship-building and the hiring process.
But there still has been no movement in the Big Ten head-coaching ranks. The league's history with black head coaches is limited to two men (Green and Peay) hired to repair arguably the worst program in college football, and another (Williams) who was dumped after less than three seasons.
Asked about the league's drought, Rudner deferred to Delany, who was unavailable to comment for this story despite multiple requests from ESPN.com.
"They should be concerned about it right now," Lapchick said. "There's been too little movement there for too long. And just like I think we should be concerned about it everywhere, the Big Ten is so important athletically and academically as institutions of higher ed, they have a special place. It places them in the position that they can influence other schools to follow their lead.
"If they're not leading in this area, nobody's going to follow."
Are Big Ten programs resistant to hiring African-American coaches for high-profile sports?
Big Ten schools like Michigan and Indiana had African-American football players in the 1890s. In the 1960s, Michigan State became a pioneer in offering opportunities to African-American players from the segregated south.
"I don't think that any of us who are in the positions of doing this hiring care about the color of the skin," Maturi said. "We want to make sure it's the right fit for that individual as well as it is for our institution. Why there's only been three, I can't answer that."
Smith said Meyer was the "clear" choice for Ohio State's recent vacancy, but he always keeps minority candidates on his short list. While serving as Eastern Michigan's AD in 1993, Smith hired an African-American coach, Ron Cooper.
"I know almost every AD at FBS schools in the country, and they all think diversity, all of them," Smith said. "They've got a short list of 5-8 people, and it's more diverse than it's ever been. I'd say 10-15 years ago, that probably was not the case.
"And the pool is greater than it's ever been."
A promising indicator for the Big Ten can be found in its sister league, the Mid-American Conference. The MAC has three black coaches, each of whom has Big Ten ties: English (Michigan), Hazell (Ohio State) and Treadwell (Michigan State).
Two recent Big Ten appointments, Beckman and Kill, came from MAC programs. Four Big Ten ADs -- Maturi, Smith, Illinois' Mike Thomas and Northwestern's Jim Phillips -- previously led MAC athletic departments.
Hazell said he hasn't been contacted for any recent Big Ten vacancies, but Treadwell interviewed for Indiana's opening in 2010. English earned MAC Coach of the Year honors last fall after guiding Eastern Michigan to its best season in 16 years.
"I'm very comfortable that there will be some changes in the near future," Hazell said. "It's changing slowly, but it's happening. The last couple years, you're seeing a lot more advancement with hiring minority coaches, and at some point in time, it's going to end up in the Big Ten."
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.