Coach John Thompson has won a national basketball championship. His Georgetown team is a perennial power in the Big East Conference, which many consider the nation's best. He has one of the highest winning percentages of any active or retired college coach. He was recently president of the basketball coaches' association.
On top of that, Georgetown is considered an outstanding program in a country plagued by academic and athletic recruiting scandals. Thompson's players graduate at a rate of nearly 90% when only 27% of Division I players graduate nationally.
If Thompson were an example of what is happening at American colleges and universities then there would be reason for encouragement. Unfortunately, Thompson is hardly the norm. What he does share with most coaches in college sports is that he was hired to revive a dead program. Georgetown won only three games the year before he accepted the offer to coach at this nearly all-white campus.
Illinois State hired Will Robinson as the first black head coach at a predominantly white Division I school one year before Thompson went to Georgetown. Almost two decades later, there are only 30 black head coaches at predominantly white universities. There are another 18 at the predominantly black schools. When you limit consideration to blacks coaching at predominantly white colleges, the percentage is only 10.9. Nearly half the players at this level are black.
Those figures, however, are better than for women's basketball. There are 27 blacks coaching 280 Division I women's teams. That includes the 18 predominantly black colleges. If they are excluded, we are left with a total of 3.4%.
NCAA Division I basketball is actually behind the NBA where there were 4 blacks coaching (17%) the 23 teams in the 1986-87 season.
College football will not yield too many candidates for the long-awaited first black head NFL coach. The Southeastern Conference, one of the nation's top football conferences, is a good example of the state of the art in college football. In 1986, 46% of the SEC players were black. There were no black head coaches and only 11 of 90 assistants. Only Auburn had more than one assistant who was black.
Willie Jeffries, now Harvard's coach, became the first black to coach a Division I-A program when he took over Wichita State in 1979. Right now there are only three: Cleve Bryant, who left the New England Patriots to take the Ohio University job in 1985; Wayne Nunnely and Francis Peay took over weak programs this year at Nevada Las Vegas and Northwestern, respectively.
These programs seemed doomed before the arrival of these coaches. Jeffries took over one of the most scandal-ridden schools. Further, Wichita State had only one winning season in more than a decade. Football was dropped at the end of this season several years after Jeffries moved on to Howard.
Bryant's Ohio U. team has been 3-19 in his two years. Nunnely is competing within UNLV against a top basketball team which brings in millions of dollars for the university. Northwestern plays in the Big Ten and has been the perennial doormat. Considering this, Peay had a remarkable 4-7 record last season.
Beyond the revenue sports, black athletes compete heavily in college track and baseball. There are only five black track coaches (4.5%) at the 109 Division I-A schools. College baseball, like the major leagues, has the worst record of all. There is not a single black baseball coach at a Division I-A school.
Basketball (men and women), football, track and baseball are the sports in which most black athletes compete in college. Of the 1,102 head coaching positions available in those sports in Divisions I, I-A and I-AA, 47 are held by blacks. That is a meager 4.2% of the pie.
The most extensive survey on this matter was compiled by Clarence Underwood in "The Student Athlete: Eligibility and Academic Integrity." Underwood is assistant commissioner of the Big Ten. In 1983, he canvassed America's 13 biggest conferences representing 277 schools. Sport by sport, there were blacks serving as assistant coaches as follows:
Basketball 72 (an average of 1 for every 4 Division I programs).
Football 97 (average of 1 for every 2 Division I-A and I-AA programs).
Track 21 (average of 1 for every 5 Division I-A programs).
Baseball 2 (average of 1 for every 130 Division I-A programs).
Critics of the college system point out that where blacks were assistants, their primary role was to recruit black athletes.
College Sports Administration
Gale Sayers became the first black athletic director when he got the job at Southern Illinois in 1973. Charles Harris was next when he was appointed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980. In 1987 there are only two black athletic directors at Division I and 1A schools. Gene Smith is at Eastern Michigan and Charles Harris has moved to Arizona State. There are more than 800 athletic directors at predominantly white colleges. Smith and Harris represent less than one-half% of the total. Five (6.8%) of 73 NCAA staff members are black. There are no black commissioners of Division 1-A conferences.
In Underwood's survey of 277 schools, there were only four black associate ADs, 10 assistant ADs, three business managers, no ticket managers, two sports information directors, nine trainers and 20 equipment managers.
Wilford Bailey, the current NCAA president, knows there is a long way to go. "In general, colleges and universities have taken this seriously . . . unquestionably, as in society in general, progress has been uneven and somewhat spotty."
He told the Chronicle of Higher Education: "I think you'll see more upward mobility" with a concerted effort for athletic departments to seek out qualified black coaches and administrators.
Still, opportunities for blacks as coaches and administrators at the college level provide little hope for the pros. Worse still, a huge percentage of black student-athletes major in physical education or sports administration. If they graduate, how will they apply those studies if blacks are shut out of this job market? And only 20% of black Division I basketball and IA football players graduate.
Colleges are supposed to help serve as guardians of the nation's values. But when discrimination is part of the hiring system, when exploitation is part of the recruiting process, when athletes don't get an education, they forfeit part of that guardianship.