ONCE AGAIN, a round of changes in head coaching positions came and went in college football this winter, with minimal change in terms of considering minority candidates.
Former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham landed in Washington, and Southern California offensive coordinator Norm Chow was a finalist for the Stanford job. Other than that, the well seems to remain dry if you intend to run a Division I-A college football program and intend to be anything other than white. For those liking numbers, that would be three positions held by people of color out of 117.
And that's particularly relevant as national signing day approaches, with 51 percent of the players being people of color. Droves of minority football recruits will make choices about which schools they'll spend the next four to five years. In some cases, they will end up giving implicit approval to a process that might shut them out of a job they might want 20 years down the line.
Fair or not, it seems that the people on the field have been the only proven catalysts for change in college athletics' revenue sports, in ways small and large.
Only 20 years ago it was a novelty for an African-American to coach a men's college basketball team. Then came John Thompson's success - thanks to players willing to play for him - followed by John Chaney and Nolan Richardson. In my house, we rooted for our home team, Kansas, then Georgetown, which might as well have been located in Amsterdam as far as we knew.
By the time Allen Iverson started playing for the Hoyas, having a black coach in college basketball was so common that it was tough to be objective as a student journalist when USC hired Henry Bibby as its basketball coach in 1996. It wasn't a matter of my being too supportive of him, but of being the opposite, wondering, why they would hire this guy? And even though he had vindicated the school's faith in him, it wasn't a big deal when he got fired last month.
That such an environment in that sport exists owes thanks to players who trusted coaches like Thompson, Chaney and Richardson in the 1980s, Tubby Smith in the 1990s and Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech in this decade.
In college football, there's still a hope that the soft-shoe act works. You have appeals to conscience. You have mentoring programs. The Black Coaches Association monitors the hiring process that schools follow, and maybe a bad grade gets a university to look closer at what they do. You even have a few minorities running athletic programs.
Unfortunately, as you can see with something as small as the Bowl Championship Series formula or something as large as a grade-fixing scandal, only a crisis works to get people moving in major college athletics. In terms of minority hiring, the closest thing to that is to have prospective recruits decide it's more important to play at a school that would value them beyond their eligibility than to play for a school that merely has nice travel sweats from Nike.
Floyd Keith, executive director of the BCA, suggested as much earlier this month. "We're going to have to stop shopping in our stores," he said in The New York Times. "Why would you go play at a program that wouldn't hire you as a coach or an athletic director?"
The most prominent example of a player's recruitment being directed by this issue was that of Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, who wouldn't agree to the early 2001 decision by his son, Kellen, to play at Washington.
Fairly or not, the elder Winslow didn't feel like there were would be any minorities of power around his son, whether it be in athletic administration or on the football staff.
As it turned out, the younger Winslow, also a tight end, played at Miami - where the receivers coach was an African-American - before becoming a first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns last spring.
"I just wanted him to be with a black man who is in a position of authority," Winslow Sr. said in 2001. "That should be part of his growing experience, to have a mentor who provides an example of what you should strive for."
That thinking is not for everyone. And whether it made a difference depends on your level of cynicism.
But suddenly, African-American men are the head coaches in football and men's basketball at Washington - Willingham and Lorenzo Romar - a turnabout that might not have happened if not for one episode surrounding one player.