As a graduate of the University of Texas and the author of Integrating the Forty Acres: The 50-Year Struggle for Racial Equality at the University of Texas (University of Georgia Press 2006), were you surprised that UT hired Charlie Strong as its next football coach?
Before I answer your question, I must first apologize to Ed Robertson, one of my former students at UT. After Ed posted on his Facebook page that University of Louisville’s Charlie Strong was rumored to be the next football coach at the University of Texas at Austin, I quickly responded with, “UT will never hire a black dude to coach its football team.”
Ed then wrote that Bucky Godbolt—an African American sports personality at ESPN 104.9 in Austin, Texas—said the very same thing on his radio program. “Listen to Bucky and me,” I wrote back to Ed. “UT lives in the past, and their boosters don’t want a black dude leading their precious boys.”
“I love my University, good, bad, all of it. Love can conquer anything, including the ‘old ways,’” Ed responded.
I told Ed that I was still shocked that Texas A&M—a school with a peculiar racial history as well—had hired African American Kevin Sumlin to coach their football team, but I have always believed that A&M has (sort of) addressed their odd racial past. “UT has not, and, in fact, doesn’t even think it has a racial problem,” I said.
Ed did concede my point—“bleach, bombs, eggs on MLK statue, crazy stuff people don’t know about still goes on, but change….”
Jenny, another former UT student of mine, chimed in on Ed’s Facebook post: “UT needs to hire a black coach if they want to connect culturally. Eventually the old money donating alumni will die and the younger folks like me that embrace cultural diversity will have a say and it will be said!!!!!” I didn’t respond to her post because I still believed that they were both living on fantasy island.
But I was wrong. On Sunday, January 5, the University of Texas announced that it had hired 53-year-old Charlie Strong to replace Mack Brown as its 29th football coach. At the University of Louisville, Strong had amassed a 37-15 record and was 3-1 in four-straight bowl game appearances, including a victory over No. 4 Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.
Strong’s appointment is even more remarkable when one considers UT’s racial history with regards to its sports programs. When the University of Texas integrated its undergraduate programs in 1956, the UT Board of Regents and university administrators offered at least six different reasons on as many different occasions as to why intercollegiate sports could not be integrated: (1) the student body would not accept the change; (2) the university had a binding “gentleman’s agreement” with other Southwest Conference (SWC) schools not to integrate athletics; (3) the university should not be the first to integrate its intercollegiate teams when some schools had not even integrated their student bodies; (4) segregated housing and eating facilities posed too great of a problem for teams traveling; (5) no good African American athletes were also good students; and (6) recruiting of good white athletes would suffer. UT administrators also eliminated such intramural sports as swimming and wrestling where they believed that bodily fluids might be exchanged between blacks and whites.
When students and faculty at UT began to speak out against segregated athletics, UT football coach Darryl Royal was “quite pronounced in not wanting any Negroes on his team until other Southwest Conference teams admit[ed] them.”
On November 9, 1963, the regents unanimously voted to desegregate all student activities at the University of Texas, and this included varsity athletics. One month later, James Means, Cecil Carter, and Oliver Patterson became the first African Americans to participate in intercollegiate athletic workouts at UT.
Still, while other SWC schools like Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston signed black football players, UT would not even recruit them. Although Royal said that he “had no objection to integration of intercollegiate athletics as such,” he worried about its effect on recruiting, claiming to fear that other schools would use UT’s integration in recruiting efforts “with the white boys and their parents who might object to such a system or prefer to live, socialize and play with white boys.”
In 1969, the University of Texas football team won a national championship with no black football players on its varsity roster—the last time an all-white team won a national championship. Many observers say that that dubious distinction still bothers Royal, whom a 1987 book quoted as saying, “What can I say? There were other all-white teams. They just didn’t win the national championship.”
The following year the University of Texas did have an African American player on its football roster, and in 2005, African American quarterback Vince Young led the team to a 13-0 record, including a 41-38 win against the University of Southern California in the BCS National Championship game. This was the University of Texas’ first national championship in football since its all-white team had won 36 years earlier.
Before the Charlie Strong hire, the University of Texas had only had one black coach to lead one of their four major programs (Rod Page had coached the women’s basketball program for two years in the 1970s), and UT had never had a black coach lead a major male sport.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, members of the Board of Regents and some university administrators privately worried about losing the moral—and more importantly, financial—support of white alumni, whose donations helped to supplement improvements to the school and athletic department. I suspect that today’s administrators privately shared these concerns, though the Austin-American Statesman reported last month that Red McCombs, a wealthy UT donor, would “support school officials if they hired a minority coach—assuming he was the right candidate for the job.”
Although reports suggest that Charlie Strong was probably not the first candidate that athletic director Steve Patterson wanted to hire to replace outgoing coach Mack Brown (rumors were that UT wanted to hire Alabama’s Nick Saban and UCLA’s Jim Mora, among others), he is an intriguing choice and a welcoming sign that UT is finally ready to address its racial past and erratic racial present.
As Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” said on Monday’s show regarding Charlie Strong’s hire, “For the University of Texas to hire a black coach shocked the hell out of me…. I hope it’s a good fit, but I don’t know yet.”
“If you win, it’s a good fit,” Tony Kornheisher responded.
I hope Charlie Strong is a good fit, too.
I began doing research for my dissertation and what would later become my book Integrating the Forty Acres in 1996, and I have rooted against the University of Texas football program since then, mostly because I could not ignore its racial past and its desire to keep African Americans as second-class citizens both on the gridiron and in the classroom. Whether we like it or not, the football program constitutes the most public face at UT, and even pessimists like me have to admit that hiring Charlie Strong says something about the way UT and/or the world has changed for the better.
Perhaps it means too that I can more enthusiastically support my alma mater, which has contributed greatly to my success as a professor. As a writer of a book on segregation at UT, I recognize the symbolic nature of the hire; let’s just hope the support he receives from students, faculty, administrators—and most importantly, donors—is more than symbolic.