|Friday, February 1
Updated: February 2, 11:17 AM ET
Indiana making progress in sports
By Rex W. Huppke
INDIANAPOLIS -- In the early 1960s, baseball great Jackie Robinson was turned away from an Indianapolis hotel because he was black. Around the same time, Boston Celtics star Bill Russell was barred from an Indiana restaurant because he was black.
But now, with the Indianapolis Colts' hiring of Tony Dungy, Indiana has more black head coaches in high-profile jobs than any other state in the country.
"I think this is going to be a lightning bolt for other sports organizations in other parts of the country," said Richard Lapchick, director of the sports business management program at the University of Central Florida and author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card. "In these cases, it's an example of organizations that did not set out to hire an African-American coach, but set out to hire the best available coach."
It all began with Isiah Thomas, hired to coach the Indiana Pacers in 2000. Last year, Mike Davis officially became the successor to Bob Knight as Indiana University's basketball coach.
Earlier this month, Tyrone Willingham became Notre Dame's football coach, putting a black man at the head of one of college football's most storied programs. And now Dungy, fired by Tampa Bay a week earlier, is replacing Jim Mora with the Colts.
Four head coaches, all black, and all in Indiana.
"I think it's just four organizations that made four different decisions that these were the best people for them," Dungy said, succinctly.
Thomas, who played for the Hoosiers' 1981 national championship team, said the situation marks progress, both for the state itself and for the state of the sporting industry.
"Obviously, we've come a long way, but we still haven't come far enough for the simple fact that the question needs to be asked," he said. "We're one state out of 50."
Lapchick believes the Indiana hirings will make those involved in the world of sports more introspective.
"Some organizations have realized that unless we put away the typical patterns that we've used in the past, we're going to limit the possibilities of the future," he said.
James Madison, an Indiana University history professor and author of a book on a 1930 lynching in the city of Marion in northern Indiana, said the story of these four coaches also might help change perceptions of Indiana and the Midwest.
"I think there are Hoosiers and Hoosier leaders who have been, in their quiet and modest ways, pushing these things forward," Madison said. "Here we see the physical, the flashy consequence of a lot of good things done by a lot of good people over a long period of time, outweighing the bad things done by bad people."
Willingham, who hopes to revive the Fighting Irish, said the situation in Indiana could start a trend.
"I think all would agree that we hope it allows for a greater probability that those who have the skills, not just black, whether it be Hispanic or any other race, would be given a chance," he said. "I would hope that anything that can enhance our lives hopefully can have a positive ripple effect in all areas."
Rep. Charlie Brown, one of Indiana's handful of black lawmakers, said the significance of these four coaches will be magnified by the fact that they're in a state with a conservative reputation.
"Hopefully there will be a landslide of this where people are chosen because of their qualifications instead of overlooked because of the color of their skin," Brown said.
Dungy said he was not surprised to find himself in Indiana. Before he was hired by Tampa Bay, he never imagined his first shot in the NFL would come in the South.
"It just shows you that you can't prejudge anything," he said. "Just like you can't prejudge anyone."