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April 4, 2010

Former USC assistants get their shot

They lived one house apart. So nearly every morning, Charlie Strong would walk to Joker Phillips' house, or vice versa, and they would go for a run. Or sometimes, the run waited until the coaches arrived at their offices at the South Carolina football complex. In truth, there was more than the proximity of their homes that connected Strong and Phillips for that one year.

They lived one house apart. So nearly every morning, Charlie Strong would walk to Joker Phillips' house, or vice versa, and they would go for a run. Or sometimes, the run waited until the coaches arrived at their offices at the South Carolina football complex.

In truth, there was more than the proximity of their homes that connected Strong and Phillips for that one year, 2002, they were together on Lou Holtz's Gamecocks staff. They were both young, energetic and black - and working in a field in which opportunities for advancement seemed minimal.

So they waited, and worked. They made names for themselves. And this past offseason, it finally happened for both of them - a little more than an hour's drive away from each other.

Phillips became the head coach at Kentucky; Strong got the Louisville job. The friends and former coworkers are now first-time head coaches at rival schools.

"It's very ironic," Phillips said. "But I'm glad. I'm glad he got an opportunity. I wish he wasn't in our state, but he is. I'm happy for him for having an opportunity to run his program, too."

The two took different paths to the top of their profession. Each left Holtz's staff after the 2002 season: Strong, who had been USC's defensive coordinator, took the same job at Florida, where he remained until last year; Phillips, who had been the Gamecocks' receivers coach, took the same job at Kentucky, his alma mater.

Two years ago, Phillips was named the coach-in-waiting, and he was promoted in January after Rich Brooks retired.

Strong, meanwhile, spent what seemed like forever interviewing for jobs he didn't get, or passing on jobs in which he had no interest. Finally, in December, Louisville called.

Their hirings happened during what turned out to be a monumental hiring season for black coaches. Seven schools hired blacks, increasing the number that are leading programs at the FBS level to 13.

But their race wasn't what stood out when they coached in Columbia. A fellow member of that year's staff, offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, remembers Strong and Phillips for their recruiting prowess, their game-planning and their personalities.

"The thing about both of those guys is they're amazing with people," said DeGuglielmo, now the line coach for the Miami Dolphins. "Their personalities light up rooms. That's the biggest asset, is they have tremendous personalities. They can relate to players. They can relate to alumni. And, obviously, (they are) great football men. They understood what they were teaching, and they could get it through to players."

Phillips was in Columbia only one season, but he made his mark. DeGuglielmo credited him with the signing of tailback Demetrius Summers, who remains one of the biggest recruits in recent memory for the Gamecocks, although his career did not go as planned.

"When that thing was wishy-washy, Joker cleaned that up," DeGuglielmo said of Summers' recruitment. Phillips also helped lure quarterback Blake Mitchell out of Georgia.

Strong, meanwhile, was known for winning the hearts and minds of people in schools throughout South Carolina and elsewhere. His recruiting ability was a big reason former coach Ron Zook wanted him at Florida, and why Urban Meyer retained him.

There were six new African-American coaches hired at the FBS level this offseason: Strong and Phillips, Mike London (Virginia), Larry Porter (Memphis), Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina) and Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky). A seventh, Turner Gill, went from Buffalo to Kansas.

The best news might be that each hire made sense. Phillips, McNeill, Porter and Taggart are alumni of the schools that hired them. London has ties throughout Virginia, having played at Richmond and coached the Spiders to the FCS national title in 2008.

The seven blacks among 22 coaching hires this offseason matched the number at the FBS level last season. As recently as the 2005 season, three head coaches were black. There were four in 2002, the year Strong and Phillips were on Holtz's staff.

Still, it would be hard to argue the numbers are representative. Black coaches comprise 10.8 percent of the 120 coaches at the BCS level. Black players account for more than 60 percent.

Strong, in a roundtable discussion with the other black coaching hires organized by The Sporting News, was asked if he ever wondered if he would get the chance to be a head coach.

"Not so much if it ever was going to happen, just when someone would finally take notice - and not only for me but also for the other African-Americans that were hired," Strong said. "I always think about it like this: If you work for IBM and you do good work, you're going to move up. And that's what you were just hoping would happen in this profession, which has finally happened for some of us African-Americans."

The success of black coaches in the NFL helped.

Tony Dungy became one of the league's most respected coaches, winning the Super Bowl in 2007 when his Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears, coached by Lovie Smith. Two years later, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin won the Super Bowl, and this year Jim Caldwell reached the Super Bowl with the Colts.

The NFL has been way ahead of the college ranks, but Phillips thinks the success of Dungy and others at the pro level is making it easier for college athletics directors to hire minorities.

It would also help, Phillips said, for a black coach to be successful at the college level. High-profile hires - such as Tyrone Willingham, Karl Dorrell and Sylvester Croom - have not worked out.

"What got (college) basketball going is John Thompson's success," Phillips said of the former Georgetown coach. "When John Thompson started having success, it was shown that we could hold those type of jobs and win. ... That definitely helped college basketball, and it would help if we had that type of Tony Dungy in college football."

Strong and Phillips might not be the only former Gamecocks assistants to get a shot. The Sporting News ranked Tyrone Nix - formerly the defensive coordinator at USC and now at Mississippi - as the No. 1 black assistant in line for a head coaching job.

Strong, in the roundtable, described a moment at USC when he felt like a head coaching candidate. His third year, Lou Holtz said at his weekly news conference that Strong should be a head football coach.

"And I'm just sitting there," Strong said. "Coming from Lou Holtz, you're like, 'C'mon, coach. Wow!' And that's when it took off, because at that point I started preparing myself to a be a head coach."

But it would take nearly a decade for it to happen. Part of the reason is Strong waited for the right opportunity.

Phillips' epiphany happened in much the same way. One day a few years ago, Brooks walked into his office and said: "You're going to be the head coach here."

Phillips was taken aback. Brooks repeated it, then added: "As long as we keep winning." The Wildcats did, and two years ago Phillips was given the coach-in-waiting title.

When he reflects on his time with the Gamecocks, Phillips marvels at how his and Strong's careers progressed.

"You know what, the time that we were together at South Carolina, it was to try to help him get a job," Phillips said. "He was the coordinator, and I was an assistant coach, and you understood the progression. The progression was that he would be the guy that would get a head coaching job first because he was the coordinator. So he would get a job, and I would go work with him and become a coordinator. So we never really talked about us both going to become head coaches.

"But once I became a coordinator, then that ambition changed. And once I got the head coach-in-waiting, we were still hoping and wishing he would get an opportunity, and he did.

"It's just ironic that we both got the opportunity in the same year and the same state."

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