LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Joker Phillips thought his longtime friend Charlie Strong would get the opportunity to be a head coach years ago.
It didn’t happen.
Each off-season would follow a similar pattern: Jobs would come open, the former Florida defensive coordinator’s name would emerge as one of the top minority candidates and each time the offer would be made to someone else. Someone white.
“I thought he would be the guy,” Phillips said of Strong.
The tide, however, finally appears to be slowly turning.
Both Phillips and Strong are among a dozen black head coaches at FBS schools, triple the number of black head coaches two years ago. It’s the most there have ever been, but still just 10 percent of the 120 FBS coaches.
“It’s coming,” said Tony Dungy, who led the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl and remains a leading advocate of diversity. “Now is it fast enough? Is it everything we’d like to see? No. But these new guys will come in and do a great job, and they’ll pave the way for others.”
Dungy knows there’s still plenty of work to do.
Of the 12 black head coaches in the FBS, only five coach at Bowl Championship Series schools: Strong, Phillips, Randy Shannon in Miami, Turner Gill in Kansas and Mike London at Virginia.
And there are only 17 minority offensive or defensive coordinators among the six major conferences.
Is it racism? The 47-year-old Phillips says it is simply about finding the right opportunity. Strong, who recently turned 50, won’t even broach the subject, though his tearful introductory press conference last December left little doubt how the long road to his first head job weighed on him.
The two will face off on Sept. 4 when Phillips leads Kentucky into Louisville, where Strong will try to rebuild a program that’s slipped from burgeoning national power to Big East doormat.
It’s a historic game in Kentucky, a state where nine out of every 10 residents are white according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Race relations in the Bluegrass have historically been spotty at best, particularly in college athletics.
However, all three of Kentucky’s FBS schools are led by black coaches — Strong, Phillips and Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky. It’s a significant milestone.
“From time to time Kentucky gets lumped in with other states, particularly in the South and gets a bad rap in terms of race relations,” said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. “I think we’re a very progressive state and it shows by the fact that we’re in a leadership role when it comes to having black head coaches at three major universities.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
Adolph Rupp built Kentucky basketball into a dynasty using rosters comprised entirely of white players. The Wildcats didn’t integrate until 1969, three years after Texas Western — with five black starters — stunned Kentucky in the NCAA tournament finals. Former Western Kentucky basketball coach John Oldham received death threats in 1970 when he opted to go with an entirely black starting five.
Phillips, who grew up in southern Kentucky, still cringes at the typical response he’d receive during out-of-state recruiting trips when someone would ask him where he was from.
“I’d say ‘Kentucky’ and they’d say ‘There’s minorities in Kentucky?’” Phillips said with a small shake of his head.
He understands why the state is stereotyped even while stressing he’s been welcomed with open arms wherever he’s gone in the Bluegrass since being promoted to head coach in January.
Regardless, Phillips knows there are people out there rooting against the Wildcats. He’s optimistic their bias has nothing to do with the color of his skin.
“The only way you’ll be able to win them all over is to win games,” he said. “Even then there’ll be some that are wondering if we’re doing the right thing not only for this football program but for this state in general.”
However, to win you first must get the opportunity.
Two years ago, Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators, could count the number of black head coaches in the FBS on one hand and rattle off the names without a second thought. It’s harder now — and he said that’s a good problem to have.
“I think there’s a realization that there are some very talented coaches who happen to be of color and can do the job that’s being asked for a head coach at that level,” he said. “You look at Charlie. He’s been a great coach for a long time. He was overdue.”
Keith hopes the path to the top for future black head coaches is considerably shorter.
The development of various programs and academies sponsored by the BCA and the NCAA is designed to speed up the process. Young minority coaches now have avenues to learn how to handle all the responsibilities that come with the job when your name is at the top of the staff list.
The programs helped prepare the 33-year-old Taggart when he interviewed at Western Kentucky last fall. The former Hilltopper star said the message he received while at the NCAA Football Coaches Academy was simple: be prepared because you never know when your chance is going to come.
“You’ve got to be ready,” said Taggart, the youngest FBS coach in the country. “Most guys don’t get jobs because they’re not ready. That was something that stuck with me. You’ve got to make it hard for them to tell you ‘No.’”
In some ways it already is.
Louisville running back Victor Anderson has been a volunteer coach at a local middle school for years. Whenever his playing career ends, he plans to get into coaching.
He doesn’t have to look far for role models. Strong’s staff includes five minority coaches. Phillips has four black coaches on his staff, including defensive coordinator Steve Brown. Anderson believes he’ll be judged solely on his ability, not his race.
“If you have enough success, you’re going to get opportunities,” Anderson said. “I don’t think people care about who you are or what your background is if you can do the job.”
It’s a sentiment that seems to finally be gaining traction nationally.
While Phillips agrees that it’s “ridiculous” that race in college coaching continues to be an issue a decade into the 21st century, he knows the only way to put the issue to rest for good is to win. A lot.
So does Keith, who points out that “money’s green, so is winning.” Yet he doesn’t see the recent rise in minority hires as proof that the fight for equality is over. In some ways, it’s just beginning.
“I don’t think we can take our foot off the pedal at all,” Keith said. “We’ve got a lot of years to catch up to.”
Associated Press Writer George Henry in Atlanta and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.