Breaking a color barrier is never easy. Whether it was Jackie Robinson with Major League Baseball or President Barack Obama, progress is always on a collision course with backlash and regress.
Recently hired University of Texas football coach Charlie Strong has an impeccable resume with two national championships as a defensive coordinator at Florida, and three bowl game wins (including a Sugar Bowl win against Florida) at Louisville. Yet, for some Texas boosters like Red McCombs, the achievements of Charlie Strong are not enough to be a head coach at a major college program.
“I don’t have any doubt Charlie is a fine coach,” McCombs said. “I think he’d probably make a fine position coach, maybe coordinator.” McCombs has since apologized to Strong for the aforementioned statement.
While many in the African American community have blasted those comments as racist, I will not necessarily go that far. However, at the very least McCombs’ statement is condescending, disrespectful, devoid of true analysis and indicative of the unfairness that stills plagues college sports because of out of touch boosters and alumni.
Despite the predicament that he is facing, Charlie Strong should take a Robinson-like approach to paving the way for other coaches of color to have an opportunity at major college programs. Complaining about perceived racism will not knock down barriers; it will only create more obstacles for others in the future.
Although no athlete or coach in the modern era can even compare to Robinson, there are some similarities to their assignment in sports history.
Robinson had a notoriously bad temper and had no qualms with standing up to bigotry. Nonetheless with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was forced to control that temper and show that African Americans could handle the stress of playing Major League Baseball.
While Charlie Strong is not representing an entire race per se, he has a reputation of not being a brownnoser when it comes to the boosters and media. But in order to succeed at Texas, he will have to ignore the insults from boosters and maintain a civil relationship with them or they could make his stay in Austin, Texas unbearable and short.
And like the Negro League ball players of the early 20th century, Charlie Strong toiled for years in the background, before getting his shot in the big time.
According to sports columnist Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle, the former Louisville coach spent 27 years as an extremely successful assistant, while newcomers like Kliff Kingsbury (who is White), deservedly, got his shot as a head coach at Texas Tech in his early 30s.
Many have rightfully said that winning is the cure-all to unfairness. While that is true, Charlie Strong cannot simply win at Texas, he has to win the right way.
Like Robinson, he has to continue to be the consummate family man.
When racial epithets and hate mail are hurled at him, he has to ignore it and maintain a sense of class and professionalism.
Furthermore, when he is not accepted into certain cliques with Texas alums, he has to handle those slights with grace and dignity; all while resurrecting a football program and returning it to glory.
When Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, executive Branch Rickey became a pariah within Major League Baseball. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson is already taking a flogging for his historical hire of Strong.
Nevertheless, Rickey emphasized to Robinson repeatedly that he had to be a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Rickey urged Robinson to turn the other cheek and never meet his enemies on their own low ground.
While the stakes are not as high, the rope for Strong may be just as short as it was for Black baseball players in the 1940s.
Charlie Strong has an opportunity to thrive at a school with the richest football program in the country. If he can win a national championship for the Longhorns, the floodgates may open for other coaches of color to take the helm at schools like USC, Alabama or Michigan.
Tyrone Willingham was given a short rope at Notre Dame. Randy Shannon’s rope at Miami was a little bit longer. Hopefully, Strong can snatch the rope completely away from those that still believe that Black coaches are not up to the challenge of coaching big time college football.
Robinson was able to do it, and so was President Obama. Therefore, the new football coach for the Texas Longhorns can lean on the strength of those before him, to prove that he is strong enough to overcome any obstacle.