TUCSON – On the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the University of Arizona introduced the football program’s first African-American head coach, Kevin Sumlin.
History was made in college football for the second time in the state with Sumlin’s hiring. UA’s rival, Arizona State University, hired its first African-American head football coach, Herm Edwards, in December.
“Some say it’s a historical day, and you know what, it is,” Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke said. “We broke a barrier. We should be really proud of that. Clearly we found the right guy to lead this program, to be the next guy to take Arizona football forward.”
Sumlin recognizes the importance of being the first black head coach of the football program, but he hopes his hiring paves the way for a future where the hiring of an African-American head coach no longer is the main topic of conversation.
“It is significant, but this is my third time being the head coach, and I’ve been asked that question every time,” said Sumlin, who was at Texas A&M University and the University of Houston. “It is significant and it shouldn’t be overlooked but, you know, you hope that in time, that is not the first question you get.”
With three, the Pac-12 has the most black head football coaches of any FBS conference. The lack of diversity in college sports has been of particular interest to The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which has reported that the coaching numbers don’t reflect the diversity of the sport’s athletes. Its most recent study said 53.6 percent of players in the FBS are African-American.
Kenneth Shropshire, the Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and CEO of Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, cautioned against reading too much into the recent hirings.
“I don’t take it to mean a whole lot,” he said. “As of today, there are still no African-Americans hired in this round at the NFL level. The two items of note are that this is Arizona, the former home of no MLK holiday … so that’s the positive of the optics. The second is the further progress in African-American coaches finally getting into the second- and third-opportunity realm. That is still relatively new … and Sumlin is exhibit A.”
Sumlin, meanwhile, is in tune with the university’s history and remembers the late Fred Snowden, the Wildcats’ first African-American basketball head coach, who comes from Sumlin’s hometown and joined the Wildcats in 1972.
“When I was a kid, I was 8 years old, my dad was a football coach in a segregated school system in Brewton, Alabama,” he said. “He was very proud of Fred Snowden, I was able to kind of follow his path, and watch what he did. That did have an impact on me because it’s such a small town.”
Heeke made it clear he didn’t just hire Sumlin to break a barrier at Arizona.
“We were looking for a person and a coach who had great integrity and character, who fits what we want. Who fits what we want to be and who we are here. Who shares our vision and values. Develops young men, leads young men forward,” he said. “Someone who values the community, the ability to connect in Tucson. I thought we really connected when we talked on the phone about where we wanted to go with the program. I head that passion and desire, that determination and excitement to be at Arizona.”
Although there were other candidates to consider, Heeke said Sumlin was the the right man for this program.
“I want to be clear, Kevin is the only person we offered the job to,” he said. “He was the first person we offered the job to, and I’m thrilled he accepted the job. He’s going to do great things for us.”
Sumlin also knew this was going to be the right position for him.
“The vision is clear, and it starts at the top,” he said. “I’ve done this long enough to know that’s extremely important if you want to be successful. I really believe that this is a special place. It’s a great place to live.
“I see great potential in this football program. Our goal here is to win championships, and to graduate our student athletes. I’m excited to be here, I’m excited to be a Wildcat, and I’m excited to say, ‘Bear Down.’ ”
The hiring has been well-received, including from university President Robert Robbins.
“Thirteen days ago, Dave Heeke and I made a decision to go in a different direction with our football program,” he said. “I asked him to find someone who was going to be of the highest character. Who was going to focus on academics, was going to win, and we got our man right here, coach Kevin Sumlin.”