I’ve never set foot on the New Mexico State University campus. In fact, I don’t even know anyone with real ties to the Las Cruces, NM, school.
But there’s a part of me that now cheers for the Aggies’ athletic program to excel.
Trust me: Even though New Mexico State isn’t the most recognizable athletic program in the world, scores of people will be paying close attention to it over the next few years.
Sort of how most of America has become obsessed with the President of the United States all of a sudden.
On Dec. 31, New Mexico State introduced DeWayne Walker as its new head football coach. The hiring of Walker, who is black, certainly is big news because it makes him only the seventh African-American head coach among 119 at the sport’s highest level, the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
But that’s not the only reason the scrutiny will be paparazzi-intense at New Mexico State now.
The school’s athletics director, McKinley Boston Jr., also is black. And Boston wasn’t just responsible for bringing Walker to the school; he hired the Aggies’ head men’s basketball coach, Marvin Menzies, another black man.
All of a sudden, New Mexico State is emblematic of what can happen when people with, shall we say, diverse backgrounds are an integral part of the hiring process: Chances are, a more diverse pool of candidates emerge, and one ultimately lands the job.
I’m not implying, in any way, that Boston hired Walker and Menzies because the three of them share skin color. That, first off, would be ignorant and then downright degrading. In fact, I don’t even believe most white athletics directors and NFL general managers hire other white men because of their race.
Employers just usually hire people they know and trust – or people their close friends and upper-management colleagues know and trust.
Let’s say you were given a job running a high-profile business – sports or otherwise — that had been struggling. When it’s time to hire someone to get that business to the top, what are you going to do? Immediately bring in someone with whom you’re entirely unfamiliar? Leave it all up to some headhunter who doesn’t truly know your philosophy.
Or are you going to first look to your inner circle and see if someone might be a good fit – or if that person knows someone who might be a good fit?
It’s human instinct, and it’s the way Boston, the New Mexico State AD, got his job in the first place. The man who hired him, former school president Michael V. Martin, worked with Boston when both were at the University of Minnesota. Martin, who now has the top post at LSU, happens to be white. But the fact that he’d seen Boston around the “country club” and knew he could do the job had to help.
And that’s the key to changing this insulting paucity of black head coaches in major-college football and the NFL: getting more diversity around the country club.
According to a 2007 Morning Call (Pa.) report, there were 15 black athletics directors out of 119 NCAA-member schools, not including historically black colleges. That’s 12.6 percent. And the sooner that increases, we’ll see more situations like the one at New Mexico State.
Again, that doesn’t mean that Boston made this week’s hire because Walker is black. It just means Boston was less inclined to instantly eliminate Walker from consideration because of his skin color – which happens more than you would think because some people aren’t sure an African-American can handle these enormous jobs. But my guess is, being a black man himself, Boston wasn’t worried about that.
Plus, Boston’s two previous black hires worked out pretty well.
In 2005, he brought in former NBA star Reggie Theus as head men’s basketball coach. In that first season, Theus took the Aggies from a team that went 6-24 the year before he arrived to a squad that went 16-14, matching the fifth-best turnaround in Division I history. The next year, Theus led the Aggies to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.
After Theus left to coach in the NBA, Boston hired Menzies, who promptly led New Mexico State to its first Western Athletic Conference regular-season title.
For anyone wondering, the 48-year-old Walker is qualified to replace former New Mexico State football coach Hal Mumme, whom Boston fired on Dec. 1. Walker was associate head coach at the University of Southern California in 2001. He’s been the defensive coordinator at UCLA for the past three seasons. He’s also had college stints at Utah State, Brigham Young and Oklahoma State and in the NFL with the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
Most colleges would be fortunate to have someone who spent time as an assistant coach with Pete Carroll (USC) and Bill Belichick (the Patriots). And I know scores of people are anxious to see what Walker does at New Mexico State.
Will much of the interest center on the fact that a black athletics director hired Walker and paired him with Menzies, an African-American holding the third high-profile athletic position at the school?
To that, I have two words: Go, Aggies.
C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.