Feb 5, 2013, 8:30 AM EDT
In honor of Black History Month, CAA Football will interview a different league coach every week throughout the month of February to get his thoughts on black history as it relates to his life, his career, the sport of football and society at large. This week we talk with Albany head coach Bob Ford, who it should be noted is Division I Football’s active winningest coach after more than four decades at the helm of the Great Danes.
In what ways does black history relate to the game of football?
You’re probably talking to the oldest guy in CAA Football right now, so I can reflect back on the black impact starting with Southern Cal when it went to play Bear Bryant and Alabama. At that time, the SEC and the Southwest Conference were not integrated. Bear Bryant ultimately made the decision that if they were going to continue contending for national championships, then they had to integrate.
Then I’d go back to “The Elmira Express,” a film about a running back named Ernie Davis who went to Syracuse University during the days when it had very few kids on the squad who were minorities. Shortly after that time, I became the head coach at St. Lawrence University, and upon arriving on that campus there wasn’t a minority on the football squad.
For the most part, with rare exception, many schools had very few minority athletes on their squads. So, I think what it has done is open up opportunities for minority athletes to get an education at many of the better schools in the country and to play college football. What it has done diversity wise is phenomenal.
Can you speak to the contributions that African-Americans have made to the game both on and off the field?
I don’t want to necessarily say that they’ve outshone their white counterparts, but blacks have certainly excelled in intercollegiate athletic programs. Many of them are outstanding athletes who have made great contributions. They are part of our families; in our case, our Purple Family.
You find out pretty quickly in this relationship that when you get in the huddle we all seem to bleed red and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or an agnostic or Protestant or Catholic or black or white. We have to bind together to get this job done.
I think athletics has probably been one of the driving forces for the elimination of racial biases and dislikes and distrusts. During my tenure, which obviously is a pretty long one at one point, I’ve seen tremendous strides made in athletics.
How significant is it for a sport like football to have been so shaped by this legacy established by black players and coaches?
It’s interesting that you asked about black coaches here. A few years back, I was president of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), so I’ll reflect on my experiences with the organization. In the earlier years that Eddie Robinson was coaching at Grambling, he walked into one of our meetings and wondered aloud how much longer it would take for him to become president of the organization.
Back in the early goings of the organization, there weren’t a whole lot of black coaches in attendance, but it’s different today. We just got back from our AFCA Convention in January and probably one-third of all of the coaches there were minority coaches. Eddie Robinson went on to become president of the AFCA, and that was well before the time that our country was making that type of progress.
So I think some of the color barriers came down pretty quickly in the athletic arena, and it took a little bit longer for them to come down in politics and in other areas.
Were there any African-American individuals, famous or not, who influenced you as a child?
No, interestingly enough. I went to high school at a regional school outside of Worcester, Mass., and played and captained three sports. However, I cannot remember a black athlete on any of those teams. Then I go to college – Springfield College – walk into my room and my roommate was a minority student. He was a running back from Connecticut. That was my first exposure in all honesty to a minority individual. He and I became great friends.
The next person who had an influence on me came when I went into the service. I had a minority sergeant out of Mississippi, and I just fell in love with that guy. He could have made me run through a brick wall, climbed one of those high fences and have me do virtually whatever he wanted me to do. He was just a magnificent human being who knew how to motivate and drive and get the best out of people.
But then, looking back through my high school career and college career, I was never exposed to a black coach. On our staff right now, we have 11 coaches and five of them are minorities. I think the composition of college staffs has changed so dramatically. I know they were talking during the Super Bowl about the fact that there weren’t too many minorities hired during this latest round of hiring, but I think many of the coaches who have been hired over the years have done a great job.
Have there been any black individuals who have served as mentors to you since you joined the coaching ranks?
Yes, Joe Taylor, who was on the AFCA Board of Trustees with me and was president right before me. He and I sat next to each other for about a 15-year period of time and would share all sorts of thoughts and ideas. I came to have a great deal of respect for him as a clear-thinking football coach. Joe was at Hampton for many, many years and then went on to coach at Florida A&M before just retiring.
Mike Simpson, our defensive coordinator, has been with us for 27 years. He and I have spent a tremendous amount of time together both socially and professionally. And when he speaks, I listen. The wonderful thing is that Mike has always had my back.
Looking back, our racial climate in America has changed so much over the 53 years that I have been doing this. I think for many years, the minority athletes felt the doors had been shut on them, and they had. But then the doors were suddenly starting to open up. Some minority athletes came in with some biases. They felt like they had been cheated for so many years and sort of had a chip on their shoulder. I don’t think you see that now nearly as much as you did 20 or 25 years ago.
Children of all backgrounds are increasingly consuming sports and now have the opportunity to follow the careers of African-American players like never before. How important is it for the younger generation to have access to these kinds of potential role models, many of whom are black?
This is true, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that one of the greatest things that has happened was that we elected a Black president. I think what had started to happen was that as the young minority male was growing up, he had some athletic role models, whether it was Michael Jordan or Jackie Robinson, but there were probably too many of those and not enough doctors, lawyers and presidents.
When we elected a black president, it sent a tremendous message to every black youngster in the country: That they could become whoever they wanted to and that anything was possible in America. Looking back on it, It may have been the athletes who led the way and opened some doors through athletics, but I think they’ve subsequently opened up some other doors that are as important, if not more important.
Off the top of your head, when it comes to athletics, who would you consider some of the black role models for the younger generation nowadays?
I always thought that David Robinson did everything, everything the right way. I also think Donovan McNabb could be considered another one. I’ve had the fortune of knowing him after spending some time up at Syracuse when he was there, and I always thought he was as classy an act as you could get. I’d also say Don McPherson, a quarterback at Syracuse before McNabb, was another because he carried himself very, very well. I’m sure I could come up with all sorts of role models if I had more time to think about this
But we do obviously turn out some athletes who aren’t great role models; yet I’m not totally sure they have to be. Ray Lewis at one time in his life wasn’t the ideal role model, but he’s also made a tremendous effort to turn his life around. I think even he is worth emulation.
There are all kinds of athletes who are great models and others who are not good role models. In both cases, they have had an impact on opening doors for other people.
Sports, and football in particular, over the years have brought people of all backgrounds together to play in a spirit that exists outside of factors like race, color and religion. How important has this tradition to the sport and society at large?
It may be more important in the sport of football than in any other sport. You could be a pretty good boxer or track athlete – or even basketball at times in terms of an individual’s role in a team setting – but football is the ultimate team sport. Only, only through working together, overcoming adversity, paying attention to detail and cooperating are you going to achieve something. I think football leads the way in that because of the many players needed for a team and how much it requires that all of those athletes work together
I obviously do this for a living, and I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve got going. To bring these people together is just phenomenal.
Black History Month is an important month for not only blacks, but for people from all different backgrounds alike. Why should this month be celebrated by all people?
We have achieved so much more with the emergence of black people. My wife and I recently saw “Lincoln,” and it really wasn’t that long ago that we abolished slavery in this country. There are so many great individuals who took advantage of their freedom and became some of our best citizens. I’m glad that some of them became outstanding athletes as well. We should celebrate all of these individuals.
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