By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
Charlie Strong was nine years old when the University of Texas beat the University of Arkansas in the Game of the Century to become the last team to win a national title fielding an all-white team. As of this weekend, some 44 years and a month later, the Arkansas-born Strong is the first African-American head coach of the Longhorns. A lot of changes (and Steve Patterson) had to come Texas for this to happen. Patterson's hiring of Strong -- who went 37-15 in his four years at Louisville -- is a statement about the direction of athletics at the school and is in line with the way UT and Austin like to position themselves as progressive bastions within conservative Texas.
But this positioning isn't entirely accurate. Austin is the most segregated city in Texas, a product of its history of aggressive city planning to keep it that way. African-Americans are underrepresented in UT's student body and faculty, while admissions policies designed to increase minority enrollment are still contentious. Conflict over affirmative action plays out from the Supreme Court -- both Hopwood and Fisher v. UT -- to the West Mall, where the Young Conservatives of Texas held an affirmative action bake sale (with race- and sex-based pricing) and tried, unsuccessfully, to have a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" mock sting in November. To talk about race at the University of Texas isn't to talk about distant history. It's about the present. Yet predictably, some Texas fans suggest that it shouldn't even be discussed, one telling a local columnist, "I can't believe in this day and age you are still bringing up skin color."
UT sociology associate professor Ben Carrington, whose work focuses on race and sports, was forward-looking in May of 2012 when he told a Daily Texan interviewer "If you want to talk about a symbolic moment, I think UT's football team being headed by a well-paid, well-qualified black head coach is the day we can really say we've changed." I spoke with Carrington on Sunday about how much has actually changed, and why white football fans would insist that race is a topic that should be set aside.
"[Stong's hiring] reminds them that the institution was a historically white institution. It reminds us of the facts of racial segregation and discrimination that took place at UT and its legacy into the present," Carrington said. "It's not surprising that [for] some white fans, even mentioning the fact that Charlie Strong is African-American is itself, they'll argue, a form of racism. That's to get things backwards. It's really to acknowledge the existence of race."
It's also to acknowledge that it is more than mere coincidence that Strong is the first African-American head coach of a major men's sport at UT-Austin. It's the marker of great change at a school where only a couple of generations have passed since athletics were integrated. As Carrington points out, honored alumni of a certain age attended a segregated school. "Among the boosters who sometimes fondly hark back to the days of Darrell Royal would have been students [who] played on teams which were all white," said Carrington. "Whatever Royal's strengths as a coach, he explicitly said that the reasons why there were no African-American players during his time is because he couldn't find any that were good enough. You either believe that at face value or you have to concede that part of the history of the football team at UT-Austin and the university itself was kind of mired in and reproduced forms of anti-black racism."
Conceding that a beloved coach was part of a racist system, regardless of what he said or felt later in life, is not a comfortable act, but the discomfort of fans confronting the history of their sport can never compare to the actual lives hurt by institutionalized racism. Consider, at least, the personal pain inflicted on Strong, who says that his marriage to wife Victoria, a white woman, has been a factor in why he wasn't a head coach before 2010.
There have already been some awkward moments when Strong's hiring has been discussed in the press. The Dallas Morning News clumsily repurposed an unattributed Lou Holtz quote into a tweet calling Strong "Not a Hip-Hop Coach," and the Fort-Worth Star Telegram published a column saying the coaching change was "as if the Longhorn Network fired Leno and hired Arsenio." We can look forward to more cutting edge cultural references in the coming week, no doubt -- maybe more Blazing Saddles GIFs, too.
But once all the uncomfortable responses and tasteless jokes pass, there will be the matter of turning the Longhorns into a title contender. "I think a key sign as to whether or not UT has really changed will be when someone like Charlie Strong is given seven years before he wins a national championship or if he can go five years straight losing to OU and still keep his job, and if two of those defeats include defeats of about 50 points," said Carrington. After all, Texas fans are not known for their patience, and aren't likely to give Strong the benefit of the doubt. But if he can capture the boosters, he might have a shot at proving himself, even if success isn't immediate.
As for the here and now, the type of change that Strong represents is a statement and maybe a sign that the school and the city are willing to think about what kinds of places they want to be. Austin long ago stopped being defined by UT, but it's never stopped being a product of it. And history never stops informing the present, especially not for someone who sees it -- and even makes it -- change around him.
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Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin. She is also a fourth-generation University of Texas graduate.