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Good for the Game : There Are Three African-American Coaches in Division I-A, and Two of Them Met on the Field Thursday Night

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They met near the 37-yard line of a rain-soaked Rynearson Stadium and exchanged postgame handshakes. Temple Coach Ron Dickerson, his team a 31-28 winner, leaned toward Eastern Michigan Coach Ron Cooper and said, “I thought it was a great college football game.”

Great? Not really. Memorable. Without a doubt.

In front of 13,000 fans, Dickerson and Cooper shared in a bit of history Thursday evening. Actually, it was more an addendum than anything else, but an important one at that.

For only the second time in NCAA Division I-A football, two African-Americans faced each other as head coaches. Dickerson savored the moment. Cooper, perhaps because his team had lost for the second consecutive week, seemed less interested in discussing the night’s historical ramifications.

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But whether he acknowledges it or not, it happened. And it was important because there are three African-American head coaches in Division I-A football, a membership that includes 106 programs, and two of those coaches were on the same field. Or as Dickerson said afterward, “I think the hype about this game, Ron and I meeting head on, was good for college football.”

Good, he said, because it showed that Cooper and he knew what they were doing out there. Good because it attracted attention--reporters from across the country nearly needed reservations to squeeze into the Eastern Michigan press box. Good because it emphasized how lopsided the hiring numbers are.

“When we get a fair number of (African-American) head coaches, it will be forgotten,” Dickerson said of the night. “I don’t know when that will be, but I think it will be in the very near future.”

But until then. . . .

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THE TEMPLE COACH

Somewhere in Kansas City on Thursday night, Ron Dickerson Jr. was busy trying to find someone with a television satellite dish. He had everything he needed, mainly the viewing coordinates for his dad’s coaching debut, but he didn’t have an actual dish.

He found one. In fact, Dickerson would have made the trip to Ypsilanti himself, but when you’re a rookie free-agent wide receiver for the Chiefs, you can’t just get up and leave. Unless, of course, you want to become a former wide receiver.

But Dickerson probably thought about going AWOL. Anything for his old man.

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Which brings us to a story told by Ron Dickerson Sr., the first-year head coach at Temple. It is the same story he told his team a few weeks ago.

The subject was perseverance, a topic that Dickerson knows all too well. In search of a way to connect with his team, a team that won one game last year, two the year before, Dickerson peeled back a layer of his own emotions.

“My son nearly died when he was seven years old,” Dickerson said. “He went into a coma for three weeks. We were told that if he ever came out of it, he would be a vegetable. He had mononucleosis encephalitis.”

Ron Jr. came out of it all right. He went on to play at Arkansas. And not long ago, he learned that he had made the final roster of the Chiefs. You want perseverance, Ron Sr. told his team. That’s what it looks like.

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It was because of his son that Dickerson never gave up on his own dream--to one day coach a Division I-A program. When he got the offer from Temple, the first person he called was Ron Jr.

“My son is probably my inspiration, because of what he went through,” Dickerson said. “When I called, I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to take it. The only thing I ask is that you let me come to the press conference.’ ”

And when asked if he planned to call his son after Thursday night’s victory, Dickerson said, “If he doesn’t beat me to the phone first.”

For years, he tried to get a head coaching job. If there was a Division I-A position available, you could almost bet that Dickerson’s resume was in the mail. Seven times he interviewed for jobs at programs large and small--at Maryland, Northern Illinois, Louisville, San Jose State, Toledo, Stanford and even his alma mater, Kansas State--and seven times he heard the same answer.

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“I was told no, that I wasn’t qualified,” he said. “I fought the obstacles.”

Sometimes he fought them better than others.

“There are moments of doubt,” he said, “moments of dissatisfaction, moments of, ‘Am I any good?’ I felt like writing a book, ‘Not Qualified.’ But I finally realized that I was going to stick this thing out and get it done.”

So here he is at Temple, a school that hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since the late 1970s, a school that has had only one winning record in the last eight years. It was a program down on its luck, which is probably why Dickerson could relate to it so well.

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Dickerson speaks his mind. Always did. The way he figures it, at 45 he’s too old to be tactful.

“Somebody said to me today, ‘Has there been any change in the last 45 years in college football?’ ” Dickerson said. “I said, ‘There really hasn’t been.’ I mean, three new (Division I-A African-American head coaches) for the first time. Where in the world are we?”

Wake Forest’s Jim Caldwell, who is one of those three coaches, has heard this before. He worked with Dickerson for three years at Colorado and five at Penn State, where his office door was only two down from Dickerson’s. They are friends, but they agree to disagree when it comes to philosophy.

“He constantly talked about having the opportunity to be a head coach,” said Caldwell. “He was really aggressive. I might have taken a different approach.

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“Ron made a really big push. I did just the opposite. I did not apply. I knew if I just kept my nose to the grindstone, I’d get my chance.”

THE EASTERN MICHIGAN COACH

W.H. Cooper and his wife of 45 years, Martha Baker Cooper, were sitting in the den of their Alabama home last Dec. 9 when Martha simply said, “I think something’s wrong.”

“Oh?” W.H. said. “What’s wrong.”

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And then she collapsed. “Just keeled over,” W.H. said. “No pain, no nothing.”

The heart attack came at about 11 a.m. Fourteen and a half hours later she was dead. Martha Cooper was 65 and she died, W.H. said, thinking about her son Ronald, the football coach.

Three days earlier, Ron had called with the news of his hiring. Not only would he be the youngest head coach in Division I-A, but he would be one of only three African-Americans to hold such a position.

“I’m happy for you,” Martha said. “But remember one thing: I always want you to be fair, but be firm.”

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That would be the last time they would speak to each other.

Martha and W.H. had plans. They were going to delay their world cruise to China, Australia, Europe and other ports of call and instead follow their son to the Mid-American Conference--to Ypsilanti, to Toledo, to Akron, to Mt. Pleasant, Mich., to Miami, Ohio.

That’s how it had always been. During his entire coaching career, Ron could always look up into the stands and find his parents. They had been there when he was a graduate assistant coach at Appalachian State and later at Minnesota. They visited him at Austin Peay, at Murray State, at East Carolina and Nevada Las Vegas. And when he became an assistant on Lou Holtz’s staff at Notre Dame, W.H. and Martha became regular visitors to South Bend.

W.H. was at the game Thursday evening. He sat in the chilly rain and watched as Ron paced the sidelines like an expectant father. As always, W.H. kept a photograph of Martha with him. All the Coopers do.

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Cooper grew up in Normal, Ala. His parents were teachers at Alabama A&M;, but Cooper’s eyes wandered to Tuscaloosa, where Bear Bryant was putting the finishing touches on a legacy. Cooper followed the amazing career of Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson. He felt comfortable with football. He knew that one day he would like to coach, too.

“I thought it was a bright future, to be truthful,” Cooper said. “I don’t have some of the true hard feelings that some (black coaches) do.”

That’s because Cooper’s career has barely paused to catch its breath. At Appalachian State, Mack Brown gave him on-field responsibility his very first year. Two seasons later he had his first full-time job. Two years after that he was a defensive coordinator. At Notre Dame he became an assistant head coach.

Cooper never pursued a head coaching job in his life. He had a timetable--to run his own program by 32--but he wasn’t going to beg.

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“I just wanted the opportunity to interview,” he said.

Eastern Michigan made it easy on him. It called first.

If college football’s aspiring black coaches are looking for a hero, Cooper suggests that they look elsewhere.

“I haven’t thought about anything like that,” he said. “This program was 1-10. It had the worst turnover ratio of any Division I-A school. It was last in our conference in every category. That’s what’s on my mind right now.”

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That isn’t exactly true. W.H. and Martha are on his mind. All the time.


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