The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.
But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.
Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.
"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."
There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.
Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.
"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.
"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."
Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.
“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.
"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."
The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.
Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.
"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."
That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.
"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."