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Is something amiss when a coach with a 5-19 record gets a major promotion?

Is it race?

Last week, Auburn University, a premier college football program that as recently as 2004 went 13-0 and finished ranked second in the country, hired Gene Chizik, former head coach of Iowa State as its new football coach. This followed the resignation under pressure of Auburn’s previous coach , ten year veteran Tommy Tuberville. Though Auburn had a tough year in 2008, the Tigers’ head job is a coveted one. Alabama is a football-crazy state and Auburn plays in the nation’s toughest league, the Southeastern conference. The pressure is intense, but so are the rewards, including multi-million dollar annual pay. Chizik had a connection to Auburn – he was the team’s offensive coordinator until he was hired by Iowa State before the start of the 2006 season, including during the great 2004 season.

Iowa State has long been a bottom-feeder in college football, a cellar-dweller in the highly competitive Big 12 conference. Even by Iowa State Cyclones’ standards, however, Chizik’s two seasons there were a disaster – the team went a combined 5-19 (the Cyclones went 18-18 in the final three years under Chizik’s predecessor). Five wins in two years in a major college football program normally gets you fired. In Chizik’s case, however, it was a spring board to an offer from a far more prestigious program. And Charles Barkley, perhaps Auburn’s most famous alum, has been livid:

“I think race was the No. 1 factor…You can say it’s not about race, but you can’t compare the two résumés and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé.”

The other resume in question here was that of Turner Gill, an African American who also interviewed for the position. There has been a lot of attention of late to the fact that of 119 football programs in college football’s top division (the FBS), only four have Black head coaches. And Auburn’s decision to pass on Gill in favor of Chizik only adds fuel to the fire. Gill arguably performed the coaching miracle of 2008, leading the heretofore uncompetitive SUNY Buffalo program to a conference championship and a bowl game appearance. Buffalo has only been in the FBS since 1999. And in its first seven seasons, through 2005, its best record was 3-8. Most years, records like 1-11 were the norm. Gill was hired in 2006 and in this, his third season, the team went 8-5 and won its conference title (he has now received an extension and raise from Buffalo).

Whether race was an explicit and self-conscious reason for rejecting Gill is hard to know. Barkley knows the program and the state better than I do, of course. Regardless, in sports, as elsewhere, even if race isn’t an explicit factor, hiring is often a product of networking, insiderism and familiarity and, as a consequence, Blacks still face significant obstacles to getting positions that, on the merits, they’ve earned, because they are often excluded from the kinds of social networks that lead to sought-after positions. This is one reason why cries about affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” are perverse in fundamental respects. Blacks face many informal as well as formal disadvantages in job markets that only explicit interventions can correct. The NFL has improved its hiring situation significantly in the past few years by implementing its own version of affirmative action – the Rooney rule. But the Chizik hire is an example of something about which I have written previously – the persistence of arguably higher standards facing Black athletes and coaches in big-time athletics. Chizik’s employment by Auburn is a reminder that we will be able to say that real progress has been made in hiring when a Black coach with a 5-19 record on his resume can score a major promotion.