Jeff Pearlman

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Give the ball to LeRoy

Photo by Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post.

Back in the 1970s, when SEC schools finally began recruiting—and depending upon—black football players, words like “nigger” and “coon” and “spook” were replaced by a simple, yet ugly, phrase: “Give the ball to LeRoy.”

In short, the words translate to, “Let the nigger run so we can win.” It was disgusting then, it is disgusting now. But, in the minds of many white fans, coaches and administrators, it was gospel. That, after all, was the genesis of the black proliferation of college athletics in the south. It was rarely about social justice or equality. No, for most whites, what it came down to was a simple realization that many of the region’s fabulous athletes were not being put to use. Hence, before long the rosters of southern football powerhouses were overflowing with blacks. Were they allowed to play quarterback? No. Were they ever described as “intelligent” or “philosophical”? No. Would 99.9 percent of the white fans who cheered for blacks allow, oh, their daughters to date one? No way in hell.

LeRoy was wonderful if he ran for 180 yards and three touchdowns.

Using your toilet, however, was off limits.

Yesterday evening Jon Embree, the second-year head coach of the University of Colorado football team, was fired following two crappy seasons. The Buffs finished 1-11 this year, and 3-10 in 2011. Not good. Yet Embree, an African-American man and former star at the school, never really had a chance. The coach he succeeded, Dan Hawkins, had endured five-straight losing seasons, and left the cupboard painfully bare. For Embree to have guided the Buffs to, oh, a .500 record would have qualified him for coach of the decade. The talent level was that low.

Whether white administrators and boosters would like to or not, there’s no turning back on black players in college football. They have, of course, fully integrated and—without question—bettered the game. Black coaches, however, are another thing altogether. Embree was one of a mere 14 African-American head coaches in major-college football, and now that he’s been fired he’s almost certain to vanish into the abyss. Just ask Turner Gill, the African-American Kansas coach who, similarly, was axed last year after a mere two seasons. “I mentioned that to (AD Mike Bohn),” Embree told the Denver Post. “You know we don’t get opportunities. At the end of the day, you get fired and that’s it, right, wrong or indifferent. (Former Notre Dame coach) Tyrone Willingham was the only one who got fired and got hired again. We get bad jobs and no time to fix it.” As Embree noted after his dismissal, he was never given the chance he was promised. This was not a one-year job, or a two-year job, or even a three-year job. It required major muscle and a major overhaul.

No matter.

Some strides have been made in hiring black coaches.

Keeping them around—now that’s another issue.

  • Kirk

    Thought the general rule for college sports was 4-5 years, allowing a coach to get his/her recruiting program rolling and a chance to show what they could do with “their players”.

    Regardless of race, 2 seasons seems awfully short, no matter the record, though it would be interesting to see what point differential was to judge how much of a downward trend they were going in.

  • Slade

    I see no mention of Gene Chizik getting fired two years after winning a national title. Or of NC State firing Tom O’Brien after winning 25 games the last three years (almost unprecedented at NCSU). Or of Ellis Johnson at Southern Mississippi after ONE year. Or that Turner Gill, who you mentioned, took over a team two years removed from a BCS bowl bid (and one year after a 5-7 season) and went 5-19 in the two years after and actually currently has a job. The problem isn’t a race thing…it’s a patience thing.

  • Jordan

    Ok. But wouldn’t one argue that the cupboard was more bare at Vanderbilt when James Franklin (who happens to be African American) took over. Vanderbilt is also in the SEC and has much higher academic standards than Colorado. I really think that Embree’s lack of success both on the field and recruiting wise did him in.

    Franklin won 8 games this season and has the 17th ranked recruiting class according to Rivals. Most anyone would argue that Vanderbilt was much harder to turn around than Colorado who won a Big 12 title last decade and a National Championship in the last 25 years.

  • Jeff

    While there is still validity to your point, the race card should probably not be wasted on a 4-21 head coach. The new bloated conference TV contracts have made it much easier for a PAC 12 school to quickly fire a coach & re-invest in an expensive new regime. Our society will have come a long way when we can fire a man for poor results without charges of racism.

  • Dave G

    Franklin was the head coach in waiting at Maryland, and damn I wish we kept him.

  • Tim

    The two most shocking things to come out of this story were: 1. that fact about Willingham being the only black coach to ever get a second chance and 2. Bill McCartney, the former Colorado coach and a man I’m sure I agree with absolutely zero percent of the time, gave an impassioned interview about this guy getting screwed because he was a black man.
    Yes, Colorado was awful this year. AWFUL. But they were awful before Embree took over. His recruits were only freshmen and sophomores this season. Whatever the reason for his firing was, it stinks.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life