TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On Thursday afternoon, the University of Alabama football program issued a long press release announcing the coaching staff for the upcoming season.
It included the hiring of quarterbacks coach Dan Enos and defensive line guru Craig Kuligowski, confirmed that popular running backs coach Burton Burns, who had overseen two Heisman Trophy winners, would move off the field to serve as the assistant athletic director for football, and defined everyone’s roles.
Also in that release that few paid attention to, Mike Locksley was promoted to offensive coordinator.
It had long been reported the move was going to happen following the departure of Brian Daboll for the Buffalo Bills, and Locksley was the logical choice. Although neither he nor his defensive counterpart, Tosh Lupoi, have NFL coaching experience, which Saban usually prefers for his coordinators, both have been with the Crimson Tide for at least a couple of seasons so there’s a familiarity with the players.
— Damien Harris (@DHx34) January 17, 2018
Locksley, of course, is African-American. The pinnacle program in college football hiring a black coordinator is significant.
But the real sign of progress was that nobody gave it a second thought.
“No one’s going to pay attention to that because Nick Saban is the head coach,” Wendell Hudson said. “He’s hired a lot of people and if you look at his staff you don’t think about those issues.”
Hudson was the first African-American scholarship athlete in any sport at Alabama, and the 1973 SEC Player of the Year in basketball. Former athletic director Mal Moore brought him back as an administrator in 2003, and he coached the Crimson Tide’s women’s basketball program from 2008-13.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Nick Saban because that’s not an issue,” Hudson said. “It’s, ‘I want the best players and I want the best coaches.’”
Here’s how overlooked the move was: Did you know that Locksley isn’t the first black offensive coordinator at Alabama?
Woody McCorvey had the job for one season, 1996. It was Alabama’s last with Gene Stallings at the helm and the Crimson Tide went 10-3, including a win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Overall, McCorvey was on the Crimson Tide coaching staff from 1990-97, seven as the wide receivers coach and had the dual title of assistant head coach under Mike DuBose. One of his former position players, Dabo Swinney, ended up hiring him and he’s had Burns’ job at Clemson since 2009.
Clemson assistant AD for football admin Woody McCorvey and Coach Dabo Swinney on the field prior to New Orleans Sugar Bowl pic.twitter.com/lEBSeG4VY3
— Eric Boynton (@ericjboynton) January 2, 2018
It’s been 22 years since that breakthrough season.
This isn’t to suggest that Locksley’s promotion is on par with other monumental steps, such as John Mitchell, the first African-American player to start for Alabama who also became the program’s first black assistant coach (1973-77), or Crimson Tide legend Ozzie Newsome becoming the first black general manager in the NFL.
It’s more on par with Vanderbilt playing Kentucky in 2011, the first SEC game featuring two teams with African-American coaches. At the time, James Franklin said about facing Joker Phillips: “I’m proud, but I don’t think of it that way and I hope it becomes something we don’t even notice.”
This certainly counts.
St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most respected religious figures in history (the co-patron saint of Italy), is credited with saying, “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”
It sounds like something that Mike Slive would say if he were still the league commissioner (2002-15). The man who led “The Golden Age” of the SEC calls former Alabama player Sylvester Croom becoming the league’s first black head coach at Mississippi State in 2004 the most “pivotal event” of his term.
Of course, it almost happened with the Crimson Tide the previous year only Moore opted for Mike Shula. In 2006, Croom’s Bulldogs applied the mortal blow to Shula’s tenure with a 24-16 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
We all know to whom Moore turned next.
During Slive’s final SEC media days appearance in 2014, the history buff quoted many of his heroes including Muhammad Ali (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up”), former president Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.
Near the end, though, his final citation was by another expert on race relations.
“Nelson Mandela once said, and I quote, ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.’ We see the truth of Mr. Mandela’s statement in numerous ways in college athletics.”
This was one of them, even if it was a small, quiet step.