It was typically hot in Nashville last July 1, but on that day there was evidence that Vanderbilt University football was suddenly getting cooler.
Four-star prospects Brian Kimbrow, a running back from Memphis, and Caleb Azubike, defensive end from Nashville, raised eyebrows by announcing their commitments to play for new Commodores coach James Franklin.
In the previous 10 years, Vanderbilt had signed just three four-star prospects, so getting two in one day was a stunning accomplishment.
Kimbrow, ranked the No. 1 player in Tennessee and the No. 3 all-purpose running back in the country by Rivals.com, said he chose Vanderbilt because he was impressed by Franklin’s positive attitude and energetic personality.
Kimbrow was unfazed by the fact that Franklin, like himself, is African-American.
“That was no factor,” Kimbrow said last week while participating in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. “Coach Franklin is just a great guy. You’d want to play for him if he was black or white or whatever. He’s different. He’s never negative.”
Although every college coaching staff is diverse, there is a school of thought that programs with African-American head coaches could have an edge in recruiting African-American prospects.
Numbers indicate that school is closed.
In the last decade, only two programs with African-American head coaches had recruiting classes ranked among the nation’s top 15: Miami, under Randy Shannon (No. 5 in 2008; No. 15 in 2009) and Notre Dame under Tyrone Willingham (No. 12 in 2003).
Several African-American prospects said the coach’s skin color was not a factor in their choice.
“For me, it’s a non-issue,” said four-star defensive back Alex Carter, who will play for David Shaw at Stanford. “I made my decision to go play at Stanford based on the school. Coaches come and go. You can’t go to a school based on a coach.”
Carter makes a good point. Twenty-six FBS programs have new head coaches this off-season, so making a choice based on a head coach or an assistant is a gamble.
Schools with legitimate chances to win championships and prepare their players for the NFL still win out.
Alabama, USC, Georgia, Florida State, Texas, LSU, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee all had at least three recruiting classes ranked among the nation’s top 10 by Rivals.com in the last five years. All also have had numerous players selected in recent NFL drafts.
None have had African-American head coaches.
“I don’t look at it as racist or anything like that as to who the coach is,” Dominique Wheeler, a four-star wide receiver committed to Texas Tech, said. “I don’t care. As long as I like him and we get along his race doesn’t matter.
“I want to play for the best coach I can that will develop me well and give me the best education.”
But Keith Brown, a four-star linebacker from Miami, acknowledged that Charlie Strong’s race was a factor in his choosing Louisville.
“It played a big role for me,” he said while in San Antonio. “They have a majority black coaching staff. That’s a turn on for me. You can feel comfortable around them. I feel we can bond better.”
Of course, it should be noted that Brown was originally committed to Illinois before coach Ron Zook – who is white – was fired.
“I was committed to Ron Zook,” he said. “I saw coach Zook as a good coach and I liked what he did.”
Javonte Magee, a four-star rated defensive end from San Antonio, said his interest waned in Texas AM after they fired coach Mike Sherman (who is white) and replaced him with Kevin Sumlin (who is African-American).
“I really liked coach Sherman,” Magee said. “The fact he left was a big reason that I backed off them a little bit. Race doesn’t matter to me as long as the coach is cool.”