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March 13, 2007
Complete coaches: More than just recruiters
When Trooper Taylor worked as Tennessee's running backs coach, the Volunteers had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time in school history.
In Taylor's first season coaching receivers last year, Robert Meachem set Tennessee's single-season receiving record.
Yet Taylor still is recognized more for his recruiting prowess than his coaching progress.
Taylor has plenty of company among his peers in that regard.
Each of the last two seasons, Rivals.com has named a black assistant coach as its national recruiter of the year: Penn State's Larry Johnson in 2006 and Louisiana State's Larry Porter in 2007. Black coaches have comprised 44 percent of the representatives on Rivals.com's last two annual lists of the nation's top 25 recruiters.
But all those recruiting victories haven't translated to success in the job market. Blacks hold only six of the 119 head coaching jobs in Division I-A football.
"That's the barrier we have to overcome,'' said Taylor, who has been selected by Rivals.com as one of the nation's top 25 recruiters two of the last three years. "It's the perception that all you can do is recruit and that you don't know how to coach, how to strategize and how to handle yourself in fundraising.''
Plenty of other black assistant coaches also have noticed that stereotype.
Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said he has gone to job interviews in which almost every question has centered on recruiting instead of X's and O's. Phillips remembered telling himself, 'They don't even know what they've got as a coach," when he was hired afterward.
"You're labeled as a good recruiter," Southern California running backs coach Todd McNair said, "and your coaching skills are overlooked."
That's bad news for a guy like Taylor, who has dreamed of a coaching career since a knee injury his junior year at Baylor crushed his hopes of playing in the NFL. He remembered the way his coaches had helped shape him into the man he is today.
Taylor was in the seventh grade when his father died, leaving him without a clear male role model. His coaches taught him everything from how to shave to how to change his oil.
"I learned you don't have to have the same last name as someone to be family," Taylor said. "They treated me like family. The same way they taught me when they were there – the same values they used, the same work ethic – I still use to this day."
Taylor wanted to repay the favor by growing up and serving as a mentor to the next generation of young athletes.
He has spent the last 15 years coaching at four Division I schools. The former defensive back has coached positions on both sides of the ball, and currently is Tennessee's assistant head coach.
Taylor eventually would love to take over his own program, yet he withdrew his name from consideration for Howard's head coaching vacancy last year.
Why did he take himself out of the running? Taylor believed his current position gave him a more direct path to his ultimate goal.
"When Eddie Robinson doesn't get a Division I job in the SEC, Big 12 or something like that after all the games he won (at Division I-AA program Grambling), it's not encouraging for me to go that route," Taylor said. "Any decision you make, you want it to be an educated one. I researched everything. I took money out of the equation and looked at the doors it would open for me.
"I just didn't see how coming from assistant head coach here to head coach at Howard would allow me to reach the goal I'd set for myself, which is to be a Division I head coach in a major conference."
Jim Tressel proved a Division I-AA coach can succeed at the I-A level when he made the transition from Youngstown State to Ohio State, but coaches at historically black colleges and universities such as Grambling rarely get a chance to make similar moves.
For example, Joe Taylor owns a 191-73-4 record in a 24-year head coaching career that includes a 130-44-1 mark at Hampton. Taylor has led Hampton to eight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and seven trips to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs, yet he hasn't made the move to the I-A level.
"He flat-out wins every year, he graduates his kids and he does it right,'' said Gene Marshall, the president of the Black Coaches Association. "He doesn't cheat. He should be a candidate for a I-A program, but he'll never get a shot because he comes from a (historically black college or university)."
Then again, head coaching opportunities also aren't coming very often to black assistants at big-time programs.
Twenty-three head coaching jobs opened up at Division I-A schools this offseason. The only black candidate to fill one of those vacancies was Miami's Randy Shannon. The only other minority head coach hired was Florida International's Mario Cristobal, who is a Cuban-American.
Those facts give Trooper Taylor and other talented minority assistants reason to worry.
"I'm not playing the race card," Trooper Taylor said. "I'm playing the qualified card. If a guy's able to do the job, don't keep him from doing it just because you're worried about him being a minority. Give him the opportunity because you're fired up about him and believe he can do the job."
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, the first black to hold that position in Atlantic Coast Conference history, acknowledges having some concern over the offseason developments. But he also believes the number of black head coaches could increase rather soon.
"Everybody's focus is on it," Littlepage said. "That would lead me to believe it's going to get better, but it is a little bit of a concern knowing there are so many talented people out there who aren't getting opportunities. I think as some of the young African-American coaches who are getting their opportunities achieve higher and higher levels of success, it's just a matter of time before those numbers and opportunities increase."
Slowly but surely, more black coaches are capitalizing on those opportunities. A close look at coaching staffs across the country reveals a growing number of promising young black assistants.
UCLA, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan now have black offensive and defensive coordinators. The 2006 season turned into a banner year for black assistants.
• Rivals.com named Michigan's Ron English the national defensive coordinator of the year after the Wolverines led the nation in run defense his first season as coordinator.
• UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker played a key role in the year's biggest upset when UCLA's pass rush shut down Southern California in a 14-9 victory that knocked the Trojans out of contention for the national title.
• Florida co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong helped construct a defense that limited Ohio State to 82 yards of total offense in the national championship game.
"We're just now getting the opportunity to be coordinators," Phillips said. "As we continue to have success as coordinators, I think you'll start to see more head coaching opportunities for minorities. I honestly believe that."
Recent developments in the NFL offer these promising assistants more reason for optimism.
Many of them considered it a watershed moment earlier this year when Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Chicago's Lovie Smith became the first two black head coaches to lead their teams to the Super Bowl.
"I'm glad I lived to see that," Trooper Taylor said. "There was a time I didn't think I would. I was fortunate to be alive to watch the Super Bowl when Doug Williams was the quarterback for the Redskins (the first black quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl). To be able to see that in my lifetime, that's a huge step. It's a big deal. It would be like having a minority President. It tells you it can be done."
Some of these assistants aren't necessarily waiting for head coaching opportunities. They're satisfied right where they are now.
McNair, for instance, looks like a natural head coaching candidate. He tutored Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush at Southern California and was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 3 recruiter last year.
There's only one problem. McNair says he's not interested.
Then again, McNair also never planned to enter the coaching profession in the first place. The former NFL running back changed his mind only after two of his old coaches – Marty Schottenheimer and current New York Jets running back coach Jimmy Raye – continually encouraged him to follow that path.
"I don't plan on being a head coach or anything," McNair said. "I just like being around the guys and teaching. But if enough seeds are planted, you can always change course."
Any change in course might require a change in attitude from the people in power.
For his part, Trooper Taylor has tried to answer the questions that often follow any black assistant who expresses an interest in becoming a head coach. He believes his accomplishments prove he's a quality coach and not merely a recruiter.
Trooper Taylor also believes he could make himself an effective fundraiser. He cites recruiting victories such as luring four-star running back Lennon Creer out of Texas this year as evidence that he knows how to make an effective sales pitch.
"It's a lot harder to convince someone to become part of your university than it is to convince someone to give money to a university they already love and respect,'' Trooper Taylor said.
He now finds himself in the same situation as many of his peers in the black coaching fraternity.
They've proved they can effectively recruit the nation's top high school players.
Now they want the chance to sell athletic directors on their ability to run a program.