When Miami’s Randy Shannon and Houston’s Kevin Sumlin lead their teams onto the football field Saturday, advocates of diversity in higher education will have much to cheer about.
University of Miami President Donna Shalala and University of Houston President Renu Khator and hired Shannon and Sumlin in 2006 and 2007, respectively, as the first black head football coaches in their respective schools’ histories. Fortunately, their pressure-packed decisions seem to be paying big dividends this season. Shannon and Sumlin have lead their teams back to prominence in relatively short periods of time. Their early success has surprised many, but not diversity experts.
“I think that because women have encountered their share of challenges, have been through so much themselves, they may be more open to giving leadership opportunities to minorities,” says Diana Cordova, director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education. As to why the success of these coaches has come about so soon, she says, “These two women tapped into talent pools that had been overlooked, so their success doesn’t come as a huge surprise.”
Shannon, who started at linebacker on Miami’s 1987 national championship team, is in his third year as head coach at ninth-ranked Miami (2-0). He served as the team’s defensive coordinator for six seasons. Sumlin, in his second year at 17th-ranked Houston (2-0), served as co-offensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma from 2006 to 2007.
Both programs have proud histories but had fallen on hard times in recent years. Miami has won five national championships and has sent star players like Ray Lewis, Clinton Portis and Ed Reed to the NFL. But over the past few years they have struggled to break even.
Shannon’s hiring was met with misgiving by many sports experts. Save the overwhelming support of current players and former players, Shalala knew she would be second guessed if the decision didn’t work out.
“The bigger the program, the more risk is associated with the selection,” Cordova said. “You want the coach to do well because there is so much money involved in the success of these programs.”
However, in announcing the appointment, Shalala said, “Randy Shannon is Miami tough, disciplined, smart, caring, compassionate, enthusiastic and no-nonsense. He’s been preparing himself for a head coaching position his whole life, and I am very happy that the opportunity came at the University of Miami, his alma mater.”
Sumlin guided Houston to won its first bowl game in 28 years with a victory over Air Force in last season’s Armed Forces Bowl.
“He inherited a team that pulled us out of mediocrity,” Houston Associate Athletic Director Chris Burkhalter said. “We had struggled for so long. Coach Sumlin has taken what we had and elevated it to a whole new level.”
With sold-out games and alumni support on the rise, experts say others will take note.
“We’ve seen a spike in Cougar Pride,” Burkhalter said.
Said NCAA Chief Diversity Officer Charlotte Westerhaus: “All parties, but especially these two women presidents who made the appointments as well as their athletic directors, were wonderful and did exactly what they were supposed to do. They’re not only talking the talk, but running the run.”