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April 1, 2014

A footnote? Hardly. This was a milestone

James Franklin has generated an impressive amount of publicity since his hiring as Penn State's 16th head football coach. What has surprised me is how little attention he is receiving for being the first black head coach in the school's 127-year football history and only the second in the Big Ten since the 2003 season.

When raising this momentous point with some of the media that cover Penn State athletics, the nearly unanimous reaction has been apathetic. Their consensus response is that it's not newsworthy because black coaches are more commonplace today. A few even suggested there was a tinge of racism in the mere mention of the subject.

I am probably more sensitive about the magnitude of this issue because of my in-depth research into Penn State's black athletes dating back to the school's first black student, Calvin Walker, in 1899. My interest started in the fall of 1996 when I began researching my book, The Penn State Football Encyclopedia. Before that, I had limited knowledge of the history of black players, not only at Penn State but throughout college and pro football. What I have learned has been an education, particularly about the racist culture that prevailed in athletics, not just football.

As I worked on the encyclopedia, I talked to many former players, including some whom I knew while covering Penn State football in the 1960s. Becoming the first director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum led to meeting more former players and enhanced my admiration for what the black players from the 1940s through the '60s went through during a time when the entire country was in a turmoil over civil rights.

So, maybe that's why I was startled by the "Big Yawn" I was getting in mentioning the historic nature of Franklin's hiring by Penn State.

I'm sure the Black Coaches and Administrators (formerly the Black Coaches Association) would agree with me. According to the BCA's latest report, of the 124 schools that competed in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012, only 15 had African-American coaches. Furthermore, only 312 of 1,018 assistant coaches and 31 of 255 offensive and defensive coordinators were black.

It's even worse in the Big Ten, even though the Big Ten became the first major conference to have a black head coach when Northwestern hired Dennis Green in 1981 and then Francis Peay to succeed him from 1986-91. The league's third black head coach was Bobby Williams at Michigan State from 1999-2002, but the fourth one didn't come until last season when Darrell Hazell became the 35th head coach at Purdue.

That makes Franklin only the fifth black head coach in the 119-year history of the Big Ten, but that milestone also has been almost entirely ignored by the media.

Because of the dearth of publicity about the historic hiring, even some of Penn State's great black players were unaware Franklin was black.

"I'm really happy to see James Franklin at Penn State, but I didn't even realize Franklin was an African-American until a basketball friend of mine told me he belonged to the Black Coaches Association," Dave Robinson said on the telephone as he was en route to the Super Bowl.

Robinson was a two-way offensive and defensive end from 1960-62 who became Penn State's first black All-American as a consensus first-team selection in 1962. That was one year after he was the first black player to compete in the Gator Bowl, and his experience off the field while practicing in St. Augustine, Fla., for the game was classic racism. Robinson went on to become an All-Pro linebacker with the Green Bay Packers, and he and linebacker Jack Ham are the only Penn State players enshrined in both the College Football and Pro Football halls of fame.

"When I played for Rip Engle, having a black head coach would have been out of the question anywhere in football," Robinson said. "When I finished up my NFL career with the Washington Redskins in 1975, [coach] George Allen offered me a job as an assistant coach. I didn't want to be an assistant coach all my life, and I felt I would not see a black head coach [at the college level or in the NFL] in my lifetime, so I turned him down."

Lenny Moore also was unaware Franklin was Penn State's first black head coach until I told him. "Is that right?" Moore said from his home in suburban Maryland. "That's really something."

Moore is arguably the best all-around player in Nittany Lion history and also is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a 12-year career with the Baltimore Colts.

"When I played, you never thought of anything near that," Moore said. "With the way the world was going during our time, it didn't look like any kind of movement of that enormity would happen that quickly. Back then, we even wondered if we would ever have an assistant coach [who was black]."

Moore, a star on offense, defense and kick returns from 1953-55, was part of the first contingent of black players recruited by Penn State after Engle became the head coach in 1950. Between 1950 and '55, 10 black players were on the varsity or freshman teams, including such standouts as Moore, tackle Rosey Grier, fullback Charlie Blockson and end Jesse Arnelle. In 1954, they had the distinction of being the first black athletes to play a college game in Fort Worth, Texas. The game was against TCU.

It may seem difficult to believe today, but before 1950, there had been only five black players in Penn State football history, and the breakthrough didn't take place until 1941. Only three earned varsity letters.

Dave Alston, a triple-threat back from Midland, Pa., is recognized as Penn State's first black football player, and a bust of Alston is featured in the Penn State All-Sports Museum. When he died unexpectedly in August 1942 after a sensational freshman season, his older brother Harry, who also had been on the freshman team, left school and never returned.

Denny Hoggard walked on that fall but left shortly afterward for World War II, and in 1945, freshman running back Wally Triplett became the first black player to start in a game and earn a letter. Hoggard returned in 1946, and that season the nearly all-white Penn State team voted unanimously to cancel a scheduled game at Miami after being told that Triplett and Hoggard could not play in the segregated city.

The next year, Triplett and Hoggard became the first black players to participate in the Cotton Bowl. Twenty-two years later, the Cotton Bowl would become the controversial element of a behind-the-scenes scenario involving Penn State's black players that may have cost the Lions a national championship.

Like Moore, Triplett had been waiting for decades for his alma mater to have a black head coach. He is pleased that it finally happened, using virtually the same words as Moore when asked his first reaction: "This is something."

I probably know Wally better than I know any of the other black pioneers. I have not only interviewed him many times but also have socialized with him and Leonore, his wife of 63 years. They are great people who I am humbly proud to call friends, and I still intend to write a book about the history of Penn State's black athletes, with Wally and his own family history as a central part.

The first black player to be drafted to play in the NFL - he was chosen by the Lions in the 19th round of the 1949 draft - Wally has lived most of his life in Detroit. He was also eager to talk about the Detroit Lions hiring their first black head coach at the same time as Franklin. Coincidently, Detroit's new man, Jim Caldwell, was the fourth black assistant football coach in Penn State history, coaching quarterbacks from 1986-92.

"Caldwell says he wants to win now and doesn't want to wait three or four years down the road," Triplett said. "I hope he can do that for Detroit, and I hope Franklin can do that for Penn State."

I'm with Wally. I have been a dedicated Detroit Lions fan since seeing my first NFL game on Thanksgiving Day 1952 at Briggs Stadium, and it has been a frustrating epoch for us Honolulu Blue loyalists since those glory days of the 1950s.

However, even more noteworthy than the Detroit-Penn State connection is the history that links Penn State and the University of Texas. One week before Penn State hired Franklin, Texas hired the first black head coach in its 120-year football history, Charlie Strong.

The link derives from a highly controversial episode that happened before both Franklin and Strong were born. Late in the 1969 football season, Penn State was presented with an opportunity to play Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl but spurned the Longhorns for a return trip to the Orange Bowl, where it had defeated Kansas the previous year.

In that era, bowl pairings were made a week or two before the end of the regular season. When the Cotton Bowl invitation was issued in mid-November, undefeated Penn State was expected to defeat Pitt, and undefeated Texas was expected to beat Arkansas and serve as the host Southwest Conference team. At the same time, powerful Ohio State seemed to have a lock on its second consecutive national championship, with only heavy underdog Michigan and a weak Rose Bowl foe standing in its way.

Penn State formally announced that players had voted during a team meeting to go back to the Orange Bowl, but the reason was not fully explained. Some reports indicated the sentiment was that Michigan had no chance of beating Ohio State, so why not go back and enjoy the warm beaches and hospitality of Miami again? That rationalization brought down the wrath of many in the media, who attacked Penn State for cowardly ducking a superior foe.

However, to this day, the players say they never saw the actual results of the votes made during a secret ballot. They were given the final result by coach Joe Paterno, and some players are still upset the team didn't play Texas. Michigan upset Ohio State, and Texas won the national championship by defeating Notre Dame, 21-17, in the Cotton Bowl.

It didn't become public until years later that the half-dozen or so black players on the team led by senior running back Charlie Pittman expressed a strong desire at the meeting not to go to Dallas because of the tense racial atmosphere in the Southwest Conference. The conference did not have a black football player until Jerry Levias at SMU in 1965, and desegregation was so slow that by 1969 there were only a handful of black players in the conference. Texas and Arkansas were still all-white teams, although Arkansas had a walk-on freshman in 1965 who never made the varsity.

Paterno believed deeply in racial integration, and when he became head coach in 1966, there were only two black players on the team. He intensified the recruitment of black athletes, starting that year with Pittman and linebacker Jim Kates, and in 1969 there were more black players with football scholarships than ever before. If Paterno told anyone else what the actual vote count was at that fateful meeting, it's still a secret. However, players and coaches say they would not be surprised if Paterno made the final decision himself on behalf of his black players, even knowing the ugly repercussions that would follow.

"We lived in an era where racism was prominent in the news," Pittman told me a few years ago, "and we also thought we didn't have anything to gain by going down there and playing Texas [virtually] on their home field because we thought Ohio State was going to win the national championship. We knew the Orange Bowl was more amenable to having blacks than the Southwest Conference was. I remembered Jerry Levias at SMU [which is located in Dallas] had to go to games in an armored car. And I said, 'I don't want to go down there and play under those conditions.' "

Two years later, Penn State was again invited to the Cotton Bowl to play a Texas team that now had its first black player, a reserve offensive lineman named Julius Whittier. With the help of two black running backs - All-American Lydell Mitchell and future NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris - the Lions demolished the favored Longhorns, 30-6, in what Paterno later called "one of the greatest victories in Penn State history."

Booker Brooks, a former high school coach in Ohio, had been a graduate assistant for the '69, '70 and '71 teams, and in 1972 he became the Nittany Lions' first black assistant coach. The difficulty that black players had encountered to play football at major colleges was being repeated with assistants, but this time, experience more than racism was the primary barrier.

Black players were reluctant to go into coaching because, as Dave Robinson pointed out, it didn't seem like a good career path. In 1983, Paterno added former All-American defensive tackle Randy Crowder to his staff. When Brooks departed after the season for the University of Buffalo and Crowder before 1985 for a noncoaching job, Paterno brought in two experienced assistants in Ron Dickerson (1985-90) and Caldwell (1986-92). Dickerson left to be defensive coordinator at Clemson and Caldwell to be head coach at Wake Forest.

It wasn't until the last decade that there were three black assistants on Paterno's nine-man coaching staff (2000-03, 2007), and since 2012 there have been four, including Franklin's new assistants.

Pittman is not surprised by either Franklin's hire or the number of black assistant coaches in college football. He said he thought that the hiring of a black head coach at Penn State "would eventually happen."

"I know it's historical, but I think we're at a point in our lives where it shouldn't be a big deal," he said from South Bend, Ind., where he just retired after a career as a corporate newspaper executive. "Sports has taught people many lessons, in how to truly compete to be the best and how the playing field should be leveled for people of all colors, race and ethnicities.

"There are five black head football coaches in the SEC. I remember when black players couldn't even play in the SEC. I don't think it's a coincidence that there are more black players and more black head coaches and the SEC is the best football conference in the country.

"We've reached a point where people understand the most qualified candidate should get the job. It should be based on their ability to coach and win football games. I'm happy to see Penn State take that step forward. I know all they want to do is win and win the right way. And from what I know about James Franklin, he will deliver for them."



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