To the freshly initiated Syracuse athletic director, the 21st century formula for hiring a college football coach was illuminated on that balmy night at Pro Player Stadium, with Pete Carroll pounding Bob Stoops into submission and validating a vision. Soon, Daryl Gross would be on his way back to upstate New York to start interviewing for the Orange job, leaving behind the Oklahoma Sooners' carnage as evidence that he and his old USC boss, Mike Garrett, had seen the light before the rest of the nation.
"The NFL coach coming into college is kicking the college coach's butt now," Gross said. "What Pete Carroll did to [Oklahoma's Bob] Stoops, none of us expected to see that happen."
Mike Garrett and Gross, both African-American, had been the athletic director and assistant athletic director, respectively, for the Trojans.Three years ago, they hired a twice-fired NFL coach amid a desolate landscape for minority coaches. The choice of Carroll, widely unpopular at the time, has transformed into an inspired hiring that has resulted in two national championships for USC and a burgeoning NCAA dynasty.
As the Trojans' success earned Gross a chance to take over at Syracuse, it elevated one more black athletic director into the center of a dicey political issue: the tug-of-war between changing college football hiring practices that resulted in three black coaches out of 117 schools in I-A football, and honoring a search for the best possible candidate.
Across one side, there could be pressure to hire a black coach, and across the other, the sound of others saying schools were doing it out of obligation.
"As a black athletic director, you're in a no-win situation," said Gene Marshall, Black Coaches Association executive and Ramapo (N.J.) College athletic director. "You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
Gross laughed over the phone this week, saying, "If I thought of it in those terms, it would've been frightening."
Only, it never was. Every step of the way, Gross kept BCA executive director Floyd Keith on the line, telling him the criteria for the job and the candidates involved. Gross interviewed five candidates, including three minority coaches: two NFL defensive coordinators, the Jets' Donnie Henderson and the Giants' Tim Lewis, and Southern Cal offensive guru Norm Chow.
What Gross wanted was unmistakable: a defensive expert with deep NFL roots, and one who promised to make Syracuse a national championship contender, the way Carroll had done at USC. The candidates had to fit that mold. Over and over, the search kept coming back to one name: Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who is white. Robinson had Carroll's endorsement, two Super Bowl rings as Denver's defensive coordinator and a spectacular season running the defense at the University of Texas.
"I was a week late to get Ty Willingham," Gross said. "He fit the model perfectly. I'm not sure we could've paid him [as well as] the University of Washington, but he would've been a prime candidate."
Willingham had NFL experience with the Vikings, and a winning record at Notre Dame, but truth be told, there is no pool of Division I-A head-coaching candidates rising through the ranks. The feeder system has been grooming coordinators, "ready to bust out soon," Gross insisted, but fair was fair: Robinson was the best man for the job, and it now belongs to him .
The BCA asked for nothing else from Gross. He studied several minority candidates, but chose Robinson. With Lewis and Henderson believed to be promising NFL candidates in the near future, Gross wasn't convinced their hearts were in taking a college job. Robinson wanted the Syracuse job, and wanted it badly.
"The NFL model has worked at USC, and other places," Marshall said. "There are not a lot of African-American coaches who fit that bill. But that's what we're asking for. What happens is that the more quality African-American assistants getting to interview, the more the network of ADs will talk and inevitably there will be an opening to hire somewhere else. Syracuse may not be the right place for Randy Shannon now, but, say, Northeastern might be a better fit down the road."
The BCA considered the Syracuse job a legitimate search, unlike the University of South Carolina's back-door movement to hire Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks circumvented traditional hiring practices, hustling Spurrier into Columbia under what it called special circumstances.
"That's the old boy network taking over," Marshall said. "That's Coach Holtz, Spurrier and [A.D.] Mike McGee out on the golf course on Hilton Head, saying, 'This is what we're going to do.' If the best candidate is a white male, so be it. But only as long as the search is diverse. You can't just pull five names of your friends out of your pocket and call that the search anymore."
Gross swears that he never did feel the pressure as a black athletic director to hire a black coach, only the obligation to consider those candidates. Who knows? Maybe it would've been different had Willingham been available a week later, but it wouldn't have changed much on the barren college football landscape. At Washington or Syracuse, Willingham still would have made it three out of 117. The wheels of change would still be churning slowly.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, will be released on Feb. 17. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.