I was recently asked, “Why do you think it is important. as a coach, to take the lead in building bridges across racial and cultural lines in athletics?” Succinctly. I would say it would have to do with my background, my resolve and my opportunity. Let me expand on that reaction.
As for my background, I was born and raised in a town of 61 people. No one in my community had ever gone to college prior to my older sister, Nancy. My father had an eighth-grade education and was a laborer like everyone else who earned a living in Keystone, PA.
My entire world was white. I never knew another race in a meaningful fashion until I went to college, yet I was raised in a Christian environment among people who stressed sensitivity and love for all.
During the turbulent 1960s, I was in college and found myself very sensitive to the plight of African Americans. After graduation I would spend the next 29 years as a college football coach. Those 29 years afforded me the wonderful experience of knowing Blacks as well as I know whites. I learned very early that our African-American players were just as intelligent and moral as our whites. Yet, I saw a world that has treated the two races very differently off the field.
When I became the head coach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1991, I resolved to do all I could to help both races appreciate and understand each other. On the day of my appointment, I shared with them–staff and players, alike–a quote and a story.
The quote is used repeatedly by our staff. It is the only quote that hangs in our coaches’ locker room and it states: “Prejudice is a great time saver. It enables one to form opinions without bothering to get the facts.”
The fact is that all races are filled with trustworthy and talented people. We must invest the time to know one another.
The story I related concerned Ron Dickerson, who coached with me at the University of Colorado in the 1980s. More accurately, he was the assistant head coach, while I was the defensive coordinator. Although we were both from the same locale, had similar academic and professional backgrounds and each cherished the notion of being a head coach. I can tell you, candidly, my phone rang with much more regularity about job opportunities than did Ron’s.
You’ve guessed it. Ron is an African American. I told our squad in 1991 that, if I had been him I would have been angry. I would have been frustrated, not because I wasn’t a head coach, but because I had so little hope of becoming one. You take hope away from a man and he is left with anger. I can proudly state that Ron’s obvious talents were eventually recognized when he was appointed head coach at Temple University –but there are many who went before him who never had a deserved opportunity.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
UI at Urbana-Champaign has provided me with a very unique educational tool. I have four to five years with each player to have an impact on his thoughts regarding racial harmony. I am involved in a laboratory for two hours every day on the practice field with an environment that is 50-percent Black and 50-percent white. This is unlike any course on diversity or racial harmony that has ever been offered.
Our players must promise to open their arms (and minds) to the opposite race or they cannot accept a scholarship. Everyone enters our program knowing that all others have made that commitment. We house them interracially and seat them so that nearly every other seat is filled with a person of a different race. In addition, we have a constant flow of speakers who speak on racial issues. You cannot be a part of this program and not be highly sensitive to your brothers of another color.
We have made it a priority in our program because we believe it is the right thing to do.
LOU TEPPER, Head Football Coach, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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