The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Charlie Strong

Charlie Strong holds up the “Hook’em Horns” hand sign at a news conference in Austin Monday where he was introduced as the new football coach at the University of Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Charlie Strong shows the “Hook’em Horns” hand sign at a news conference in Austin Monday where he was introduced as the new football coach at the University of Texas. Strong becomes the first black coach of any Longhorns men’s team.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

IT WAS NOT UNTIL well into my adult life that I came to understand that my beloved home of Texas may have been the Dixiest of all the Dixie states in the South.

In the 1860 Census, the last head count that included black people living in slavery in America and a year before the start of the Civil War, no state had a bigger number of slaves than Texas.

A century later, segregation and Jim Crow laws were as much a part of most of the Lone Star State as anywhere in the old Deep South, as the country moved into a less violent but equally important civil right war that ultimately would turn slavery on its head.

Most public schools were still segregated, as were for the most part almost all of the state’s colleges and universities that were not black schools, and nowhere was that most obvious than in collegiate athletics in Texas.

The late Southwest Conference, which included most of the large colleges in the state, had not a single black athlete on any major sports team.

As if to underscore that, in the 1957 and 1960 Cotton Bowl games, Syracuse’s All-America running backs Jim Brown and Ernie Davis reportedly received racial epithets from their opponents on all-white TCU and Texas teams respectively.

Even among the so-called educated class, race sometimes still existed as a joking matter.

In 1966, in a nationally televised season-opening game against Syracuse, the color barrier among Southwest Conference teams was finally broken when an African-American walk-on running back named John Westbrook entered the game in the second half with no announcement of the historic significance.

In the press box, however, in an unfortunate attempt at humor after Westbrook rushed for short gain, the public address announcer alerted members of the news media with this unfortunate comment:

“And that’s Baylor’s contribution to color television.”

But the color barrier fell – and nowhere was that crash felt as at the University of Texas, where eventually African American running backs Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams became the only two Longhorn players to win the Heisman Trophy.

It was a drastic contrast to 1969, when the Texas Longhorns of that season were the last all-white national championship team in college football.

“Forty years later,” says Dallas businessman Robert Pharr, my childhood friend and a University of Texas alumnus, “we have our first African American head football coach, and the fanfare is about his ability, not his skin color.”

This week, the University of Texas again took yet perhaps the most poignant step in showing how far the Dixiest of Dixie States has come when it named Charlie Strong its new head football coach – in what school president Bill Powers called “a historic day for the University of Texas and a historic hire for our football team.”

Strong, 53, formerly the head coach at Louisville where he dramatically turned that team from a virtual scrub to a BCS power, becomes the first black coach of any men’s athletic team at the University of Texas.

The Arkansas native succeeds Mack Brown, who despite winning a national championship in 2005 resigned under fire last month after several disappointing seasons — only nine victories shy of the school record held by his late mentor, Darrell Royal.

Strong assumes a job that comes with as much alumni pressure and media scrutiny as any head coaching position in the country. And although Austin is one of the most progressive cities in America, some of the school’s fanatic base isn’t.

There have been no negative race-twinged comments of note, though Twitter and other social media have had comments like:

“The coaching search of a generation ends up with Charlie Strong. I’m surprised that Texas would hire him. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s bleck (stet). Red McCombs gon be ten kinds of pissed off.”

Longtime UT benefactor McCombs is the San Antonio billionaire and co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, as well as former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Vikings.

But according to an American-Statesmen report in December, McCombs would support the hiring of a minority head coach, if he was the right candidate for the job.

It is the same sentiment you will be through much of Texas today.

Robert Pharr can’t stress enough how far Texas has come from its old ties to Dixie.

The criteria under which Strong will be judged, he said, will be winning, winning big and, of course, beating the arch-rival Oklahoma Sooners.

“From Dallas to San Antonio, Texas is getting pretty cosmopolitan,” he said in discussing Strong. “If you go to deep East Texas you’ll find remnants of the Confederacy, but most Texans have rejected that culture.

“I seriously doubt that a noticeable number of UT alums will object to hiring a good Black coach. But if he can’t beat OU more than half the time, skin color will be a minor problem for him.”