In the middle of crowded collegiate stadium on a warm December day the cheers rose, even led to a standing ovation. It wasn’t for a star player, or a legendary coach. In fact, it was for interim coach Odel Haggins, Florida State University’s first African-American head football coach, a sign that times surely are beginning to change in a sport where it’s long overdue.
Earlier this season, Erin C. Tarver of the New York Times unloaded on a laundry list of criticisms of college football going all the way back to the 1890s, which included half-truths, and a failure to update a number of reforms and changes. But one that sticks is the dearth of black collegiate football coaches. Despite nearly half of all football players being African-American, only a handful of African Americans are coaches.
Years ago, we were told that there weren’t enough African American QBs in college and professional football. Now there are many more than just a decade or so ago. Coaches today are where we were ten years ago. They should be, and will be, increasing their numbers, as Florida State University is showing.
Haggins, a former defensive line coach since 1994, who played that position at FSU, was elevated to the head coaching position on Saturday when Coach Jimbo Fisher left for the Texas A&M job. In doing so, Haggins passed the offensive and defensive coordinators, both white and senior to him in rank, to become the school’s first African-American head football coach. How would fans react to this sudden change in school history?
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In the middle of the second quarter, we got our answer. The team was up only 7-0 in the second quarter against the little-known University of Louisiana-Monroe in a must-win game to keep the team’s bowl streak and chance at maintaining a streak of winning seasons. Haggins’ image was put up on the scoreboard, the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation, seeming to rally the team. The ovation was repeated at the end when he was doused in Gatorade by grateful players after the team’s 42-10 win, and again as he left the field, carried by his players.
After the game, he and his players were surrounded by adoring fans in the parking lot. Despite the long day, Haggins signed everything handed to him, posed with every selfie-seeker, and pivoted all of my questions about coaching and bowl games to the athletes who play for him. His players, white and black, reflected their coach’s professionalism as well, choosing to mingle with the fans despite being exhausted from the game. And in the coming weeks, the school hired Oregon coach Willie Taggert to be the full-time FSU coach.
Is there any value to FSU’s diverse team and coaching staff? Research by Kendrick T. Brown, Tony N. Brown, James S. Jackson, Robert M. Sellers, and Warde J. Manuel found support for Allport’s 1954 hypothesis that biracial interaction can reduce prejudice, and that’s also the case with team sports. They write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology: “White student athletes playing team sports who had higher percentages of blacks as high school teammates expressed more policy support for and greater positive affect toward blacks as a group than did their counterparts playing individual sports.”
Are African-American coaches valuable to the community? “Black male coaches have played a significant role in reducing crime and delinquency among at-risk youth as well as influencing positive youth outcomes. Yet this population of African-American men in disadvantaged communities has received little attention,” writes Joseph B. Richardson writes in the Journal of African American Studies. “This study found that black male coaches serve as a critical form of social capital for black male youth and single parents in high-risk neighborhoods.” And I would go one further, finding any great coach, regardless of skin color, can play this role.
Sure, we should not just assume that people cheering for a player in a game alone will lead to racial change. But research, as well as Saturday’s experience in Tallahassee, demonstrates that progress should, and will, be made in the sport, to the benefit of the community.
John A. Tures is associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JohnTures2.