Willie Jeffries led the way for African-American college football coaches
Within the last two offseasons, African-American head coaches have been hired at Texas A&M, Texas and Penn State, three of the nation’s most prestigious programs, and it hardly seemed like a big deal.
That it wasn’t a big deal is, the way Willie Jeffries sees it, evidence that one of the last glass ceilings for blacks in American sports has been crashed through.
"’I’m so happy that’s the case," he said. "Times have changed."
Things were a lot different in 1979, when Wichita State hired away South Carolina State’s head coach, Jeffries, making him the first African-American head coach in what was then known as Division I-A (FBS).
It was a big deal.
"Every paper in the country," Jeffries said.
Jeffries grew up in South Carolina. He went to segregated schools, which were always named after either a black leader or the street on which they were built. He started his coaching career in 1960 as an assistant at Barr Street High School in Lancaster, S.C., then was given a head coaching job in Gaffney, S.C., where he went 64-8-2 in seven seasons.
By the early ’70s, the idea that blacks ought to be better represented on coaching staffs had entered the public consciousness, and in 1972 Jeffries got a call from Pitt.
"They were on them up at Pitt about they didn’t have any black assistant coaches," Jeffries said. "I took the job up there in ‘72 and I worked a year, and I guess South Carolina State was watching my progress. They called and made me head coach."
So Jeffries made something of a name for himself at South Carolina State and in 1979 the Wichita State job comes open. It’s a D-IA job, yes, but it was the smallest of three D-IA schools in a state that doesn’t produce many D-1A football players.
Jeffries knows of a couple coaches who turned down the Shockers.
"The word was out about Wichita State and how hard it was to recruit," he said. "The school was I-A, it was a major school, but basketball was the key sport."
Jeffries took it, anyway. He says he never had any issues on account of his race. Well, except for the billionaire booster who threatened to turn off the money spigot. Oh, and the country club he wasn’t allowed to join.
"One booster – this guy was a billionaire, not millionaire – threatened to quit supporting the athletics department and the university if they hired me," Jeffries said. "Later on, believe it or not, he became a friend. That was later on."
Jeffries speaks well of Wichita. From a coaching perspective, he said he only had one racial issue, which was on account of a tackle he was recruiting in Philadelphia. That recruit said he couldn’t see himself playing under a black head coach.
"I said, ‘ Well, I’m happy to find out before fourth-and-one," Jeffries said. "His mom and dad laughed. We were having hot chocolate and cookies his mom had made. He came out with it."
Although there isn’t any official distinction between a Wichita State, which dropped football in 1986, and a Texas A&M or a Penn State, there is a difference every sports fan understands. It’s one thing for a little basketball school in Kansas to hire an African-American head coach, and it’s another for Ohio State or Texas or Alabama to do it.
"I think (Ty Willingham) at Notre Dame might have been the first one with a chance," Jeffries said. "Every time he sees me he says thanks for opening the door, coach."
Teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB and college basketball seem to have moved past whatever hesitations they may once have had about hiring black head coaches, but college football, particularly at the most powerful programs, has been slower to adapt.
"We think that’s the sacred cow, football," he said. "At all the schools except a few, six or eight of them, football is the key sport. At universities, you have boosters that pay big bucks to the athletics department, and you have to go through them."
And yet, when Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin, Jeffries noticed something about the media coverage and Kevin Sumlin’s race.
"It’s never even mentioned in the write-up," he said, "unless you see his picture."
(February is Black History Month and FOXSports.com will feature athletes who made significant contributions on and off the field in their lives.)