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Posted at 10:37 p.m. PDT Monday, Aug. 13, 2001

A voice for black coaches

The new head coach of the Spartans speaks out for progress in hiring African-Americans while taking on a tough task: winning at SJSU

Mercury News

The printer in Fitz Hill's small, disheveled office at San Jose State spits out page after page of information. As he waits, Hill rummages through a pile of books and papers on the floor, hunting for a copy of his 203-page doctoral dissertation about the plight of African-American college football coaches.

Most coaches play golf in their spare time.

Hill's hobby is researching what he calls the hiring bias in football.

``Now if you want to be an ostrich about this and stick your head in the sand, then go right ahead,'' Hill says. ``But don't deny to me that there's a problem. Just look at the numbers. The data is astounding.''

He reaches for the printer and reads aloud some statistics he has gathered.

Since 1996, he says, there have been 96 Division I-A head-coach openings and just five blacks have been hired. After last season there were 25 vacancies and one African-American was hired: Fitz Hill.

``I deal in facts,'' he concludes. ``And this is why I have a strong obligation to speak out.''

There are 115 Division I-A football programs, yet there are only five black head coaches. Two of them are in the Bay Area: Stanford's Tyrone Willingham and Hill. They will be on the same field Sept. 15 when their teams meet at Spartan Stadium.

Hill, 37, is beginning his head-coaching career at a school where success doesn't come easy. The San Jose State athletic department is in a financial crisis and desperately needs a football program that wins and makes money.

If that weren't challenging enough, Hill carries the added weight of knowing that if he fails, it will be looked upon as a failure for all aspiring black coaches.

``I've told him: `Fitz, I love you, but you've got to win, too,' '' says Charles Whitcomb, a San Jose State faculty member who chairs the NCAA's Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. ``Minorities tend to be seen collectively, not individually. Fitz knows he has to be successful here because it lays the groundwork for anybody coming after him. That's the unfortunate burden he carries.''

But Hill says he welcomes the pressure, adding: ``I want to break down barriers.''

No one understands those barriers better than Omon Fitzgerald Hill.

Career tracks bring

problem to light

It's not hard to see why San Jose State Athletic Director Chuck Bell was taken with Hill, a devoutly religious man who radiates confidence. Hill knows the history of Spartans football, yet unabashedly calls the program ``a sleeping giant, and God called me to awaken it.''

Wire-rim glasses lend him the air of a college professor, and he hopes to teach a class on campus in the spring semester. But the immaculately polished shoes give Hill away as a military man, and it's his Army background that has fed his passion to change college football's hiring practices.

He was a star receiver at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., when his father died. Six weeks later, his mother suffered a stroke. Hill joined the Army ROTC program to help make ends meet.

In 1990, while serving as a volunteer assistant on the Arkansas football staff, his Army reserves unit was activated and shipped to the Persian Gulf. Hill spent eight months in the desert as a transportation officer, returning home from Desert Storm with two medals.

The dual tracks of coaching and military service showed Hill a startling contrast. He found that if a black man did his job well in the Army, he got promoted. But a black man's reward for coaching competence was to keep doing the same job with little chance of advancement.

``The military has offered as much opportunity for minorities as anybody during the past 30 years, and Colin Powell is a perfect example,'' Hill says. ``They promote objectively. In college football, they hire subjectively. There are a lot of Colin Powells in college football who haven't moved up the ranks because of biased hiring practices.''

Hill realized there was a problem in 1989 when, as a graduate assistant, he attended his first coaching convention. He noticed a newly hired head football coach. Hill advised an acquaintance to give the man his résumé. No, he was told, the coach already had hired a black assistant.

``I said, `Yeah, but there's eight other positions on the staff,' '' Hill recalls. ``The guy looked at me and said: `How long have you been coaching?' He was right. That man hired only one black coach.''

Now, the status quo on most coaching staffs is two black assistants -- one on offense, one on defense. And African-American head coaches still remain a rarity.

That is why Hill had vowed he would change careers if he weren't a head coach by age 40. He didn't want to end up like other black assistants he often saw at conventions -- older men who still chased a coaching dream that never would materialize.

But he clearly was on a fast track. Hill was a full-time assistant at 26 and stuck with the Arkansas staff through a succession of head coaches. He got his doctorate in 1997 and was named assistant head coach of the Razorbacks in 2000. Then Bell called.

While Hill was bucking one trend, he also was following another.

``The black coach tends to get the death-bed cases,'' says sports sociologist Harry Edwards. ``That includes San Jose State, and I say that as an ex-Spartan.''

Becoming a beacon

for broad change

San Jose State is not a plum job. Attendance is anemic. ``Cannon fodder'' road games against national powerhouses are scheduled for big paydays. There was the messy departure of Coach Dave Baldwin, who feuded with Bell during unsuccessful negotiations for a new contract even though the Spartans went 7-5 last year -- their first winning season since 1992.

But Hill is also a realist.

``Let's face it, I knew the odds of me getting the job at Ohio State were very slim,'' he says. ``I also don't like to follow paths. Everybody in technology comes here because of the innovation. Why do something that has been done before when you can do something that hasn't been done?''

Yet he agrees with Edwards' point. He pulls out another paper listing the 19 African-Americans who have coached Division I-A programs. Only one -- Willingham -- has a winning record. But, Hill adds, look at some of the schools. Wichita State. Temple. Wake Forest. New Mexico State.

``Most black coaches get jobs at rebuilding programs,'' Hill says.

It won't be any easier at San Jose State.

One man who is pulling especially hard for Hill is Richard Lapchick, the executive director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Lapchick has been a strong -- and frequent -- critic of collegiate hiring practices.

He says more schools began hiring black basketball coaches only after prominent figures such as John Thompson, John Chaney and Nolan Richardson were willing to risk their careers by speaking out.

``There's never been a football coach who has done that,'' Lapchick says. ``But I think Fitz, in an intellectual way, is going to be the voice that hasn't existed. It gives me hope that something is about to happen.''

That's a heavy load. But Hill, who hired four black assistants, hopes to use his new job as a bully pulpit to increase the dialogue about the lack of African-American coaches.

``The way you change things is with information,'' Hill says. ``I want people to know that it is a very demeaning feeling to know that I might not get a job just because of the color of my skin. That's wrong.''

But the reality is that in college football, one thing will resonate louder than articulately spoken words:


Contact Mark Emmons at or (408)-920-5745.

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