Photo: ECU's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium
By TOM SHANAHAN
East Carolina quarterback Reid Herring sat comfortably among an American melting pot of teammates -- white, black and Hispanic -- at the Murphy Center. Campus enthusiasm was palpable under new head coach Mike Houston.
But a month earlier, on July 17, ECU’s nearby basketball arena, located just across the courtyard, was the site of a President Trump rally that escalated into something out of a Nuremberg Rally. The white supremacist scenes of hate went viral, transmitting images of ugly Americans.
The sycophantic crowd targeted Ilhan Omar, a black woman born in Somalia but also a duly elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Congress. Trump, stepping back from the podium into his familiar smug Il Duce countenance, soaked in the chant: “Send her back! Send her back!”
Herring cringed at the scene misrepresenting his school.
“I wish racial matters didn’t matter to people anymore, but clearly you can see it still does to some people,” Herring said. “It doesn’t matter on our team.”
College athletics, particularly football and basketball, are said to be front porch view of a school. This was not a good view.
ECU’s administration, to its credit, was quick to disavow affiliation or approval of the rally. The administration’s statement emphasized it did not endorse the event but as a state school was obligated to rent its facilities to for-profit or non-profit groups.
Now, it’s up to the football program to re-arrange front porch seats blown astray by the racial Hurricane Trump. The Pirates’ home opener is the first of six home games, some televised more widely than others, against Gardner-Webb on Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
ECU’s coach, on the job only since December, didn't have to deal with fall out that otherwise could have been expected. Parents of athletes the Pirates are recruiting haven’t called him with concerns.
“In today’s society, today’s world, I may not have control of outside voices and outside people and how they choose to conduct their lives or the views they express,” Houston said. “But I have firm control of my decisions, the values I have and the things I discuss with my team. I’m pleased with the culture we have in our program. We’re not perfect by any means, but we try to treat everyone with respect and try to conduct ourselves in a first-class manner.”
I had singled out Herring for his thoughts for multiple reasons:
--- Quarterback is the most important leadership position on a team.
--- He’s white. The election of President Obama, who was still in office when Herring cast his future with ECU, spurred hope for a post-racial America. Can we reclaim it from Trumpsters?
Trusting a black coach shouldn’t matter, of course, but there are only 12 black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision and three in the NFL. However, it apparently still matters to college athletic directors and NFL owners that are the hiring decision-makers.
Well, at least it matters more than what we’re seeing from Herring’s millennial generation.
“I loved Ruff and Scottie,” Herring said. “I thought both of them were great guys and great coaches. I enjoyed my time here with both of them.”
Better yet, in the case for a post-racial society, Herring says no one -- peers or adults -- raised the issue.
“I never heard that from anyone,” he said.
This season Herring is ECU’s backup quarterback, having lost the starting job to Holton Ahlers midway through 2018. Ahlers, who also is white and two years behind Herring, was the hometown hero in Greenville, N.C., when he committed to Montgomery as the head coach in the winter of his junior year.
But Ahlers’ ascent underscores Herring's comfort with ECU. College quarterbacks of this era are quick to transfer when not named the starter.
“I like it here,” Herring said. “I was looking forward to playing here ever since I was recruited.”
White quarterbacks playing for black head coaches remains a small sample size, but a month earlier I had the chance to ask similar questions of another white quarterback with a black head coach at the ACC media days in Charlotte, N.C.
Syracuse redshirt sophomore starter Tommy DeVito committed to Dino Babers in the spring of 2016, four months before Babers coached his first game. Syracuse struggled through 4-8 records in 2016 and 2017 until Babers’ rebuild took hold with a 10-3 breakthrough last year.
DeVito doesn’t know me as well as Herring, so he eyed my question suspiciously, and I don’t blame him. Or maybe he was just dumbfounded such a question is still considered relevant.
“It’s not an issue,” DeVito said. “I never thought about it; nobody ever said anything about it. When I went to Syracuse to meet with Coach Babers, I fell in love with the school and everything he was preaching. I was happy to commit.”
In a sad paradox, DeVito was speaking in the afternoon hours that were soon to be followed by the evening Trump Nuremberg rally taking place in the same state.
Although Herring, Ahlers and DeVito were clear they never considered race when weighing their college commitment, they are young enough they might be realize it wasn’t that long ago black quarterbacks weren’t trusted to lead a team.
Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty's 1960s Underground Railroad teams that led the integration of college football broke that barrier -- among others. Jimmy Raye was recruited from segregated Fayetteville, N.C., and earned the starting job in 1966 (and 1967) despite criticism and hate mail Daugherty received.
Later, Daugherty hired Raye as an assistant coach, setting his former QB on another pioneering path. There were only seven other black assistant coaches in the NFL when Raye joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1977. Raye was one of the NFL’s first black coordinators with the Los Angeles Rams in 1983 and 1984, although he never gained a chance as a head coach.
When ECU takes the field this season, starting center Branden Pena, who is Hispanic, snaps the ball to a white quarterback. The QB either hands off the ball or passes it to a mixture of black and white running backs and receivers.
That’s the Pirates’ American melting pot. Obama has said America’s struggle with racial progressive is sometimes two steps forward and one back. The U.S. military has been considered better integrated than almost any other U.S. institution and steps forward to an encouraging future for the rest of us.
Trump rallies, which try to distort the picture of America, are a giant step back, but overall momentum remains pushing forward.
There’s a message in there from ECU football on not giving up on America’s ideals.
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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”