Commentary

Proving our progress is Strong

Texas' first African-American head football coach is key to growth of sport, culture

Updated: January 8, 2014, 11:34 AM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

The University of Texas, the last all-white football team to win a national championship, introduced Charlie Strong as its first African-American head football coach Monday morning.

If you understand the politically conservative nature of this state, it's a huge decision made even bigger because now Texas and Texas A&M each have an African-American football head coach.

One day, we hope, that won't be such a big deal. For now, it is.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsCharlie Strong (with university president Bill Powers) is the first African-American head coach of a men's team at Texas. "This is a historical day," Strong said. "There's always going to be a first somewhere."
That will upset some of you. Too bad.

Race remains a part of virtually every meaningful discussion we have in this country, as it should. There's nothing wrong with that. Constructive dialogue is liberating because it promotes growth and understanding.

You could make the argument, as a friend did the other day, that the hires of Strong and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin are signs we're progressing as a country, perhaps on par with that of the election of President Obama.

The point has validity, if you think about it.

Some voters cast a ballot for Barack Obama solely because they wanted to see an African-American in the White House, and they would've voted for him regardless of political platform.

Others simply wanted to see someone who looked like them hold our country's most important position. Throw in some moderate conservatives and liberals frustrated with our country's direction who wanted to give Democrats an opportunity to stimulate change ... and you have your first African-American president.

After eight years of Obama, will anyone be shocked if those same moderates provide Republicans with an opportunity to change our country's direction?

Strong's hire had zero to do with political agendas. It was strictly about finding the best man to make Texas' football program one of the nation's best again.

"When you think about it, yes, this is a historical day," Strong said. "It was a historical day when [Obama] was named the president of the United States also.

"There's always going to be a first somewhere, so this had to be the first. Whenever there's a first, we're going to make it good. We're going to do what we have to do and we're going to make it better.

"But I don't ever want to look at it as the first. I just want to look at it as, I'm a coach and that's the way I want to be treated."

Still, Strong understands his responsibility as an example for others. Floyd Keith, former executive director of the Black Coaches & Administrators, made sure of that.

"What you need to think about is all the African-American coaches you are representing right now that didn't get the chance you're getting," Strong said of a recent conversation with Keith. "And that's all that needed to be said."

The reality is, Texas may be the one of the last places you'd expect both flagship state universities to have African-Americans heading their most visible and valuable commodities.

After all, we're talking about the heart of the Bible Belt, where change comes slowly because of its conservative nature. We're talking about a state where slaves were emancipated three years after President Lincoln signed the document freeing them from bondage.

Texas, one of the last schools to integrate its football team, didn't have its first African-American player until Julius Whittier joined the team in 1970.

At Texas and Texas A&M, the universities' power brokers have showed us winning is their top priority when it comes to hiring a football coach. If we're honest, that hasn't always been the case.

The true test of equality will arrive when Strong and Kevin Sumlin have disappointing seasons. Will each man receive the benefit of the doubt? Or will they be quickly dismissed like Ty Willingham, who was fired by Notre Dame two seasons after a 10-3 record?

Strong must have time to build Texas' program back up to an elite level. Miracle workers don't exist.

Strong went 7-6 in each of his first two seasons at Louisville before going 23-3 his last two seasons.

It will take time to transform Texas from the mentally and physically soft program it has become to a confident program with swagger like the one that beat USC for the BCS National Championship after the 2005 season.

Nick Saban went 7-6 in his first season at Alabama. Pete Carroll went 6-6 in his first season at USC. Bob Stoops went 7-5 in his first season at Oklahoma.

See, it takes time.

The topic of Strong being Texas' first African-American coach wasn't an overwhelming theme at his introductory news conference. Strong didn't mention it until the 24th minute of a 40-minute news conference.

The only direct question on the topic occurred a couple minutes later.

"A lot of times people look at you as just being a minority. I'm just a football coach. I'm a football coach directing young people's lives," Strong said.

"I just want to change lives; that's all I'm looking to do."

Now he has college football's biggest platform to achieve it.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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