By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Back in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the world that he had a dream in which his children would some day live in a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character.
Today, nearly five decades after King’s famous speech, we still aren’t living in that nation. Or, at least, University of Illinois trustees Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery certainly didn’t seem to be taking up residence there last week.
That’s because, on Thursday – ironically, just three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – Oliver and Montgomery, two of three black trustees on the U. of I. board, voted against the appointment of new Illinois football coach Tim Beckman for one simple reason.
Just prior to the board’s vote in Chicago to approve Beckman’s $9 million five-year contract, Oliver read a statement in which he took issue with the university’s coaching search to replace Ron Zook, who was fired in November after seven years on the job.
In his statement, which was echoed by Montgomery, Oliver called it a “sad irony” that U. of I., as a leading public university, places emphasis on diversity but has never had an African-American head football or basketball coach in its history. In the Big Ten, that “dubious distinction,” Oliver said, is shared only with Nebraska and Purdue.
“African-Americans predominate these two sports,” and have made significant gains in the assistant coaching ranks and to a lesser extent head coaching ranks, the Champaign News-Gazette described Oliver as saying, before he added: “I would hope that as a university we find this shutout unacceptable.”
Now, if Oliver had simply stopped there, I’d still express disappointment with his characterization of the coaching search at Illinois and with his decision to publicly embarrass new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas who hired Beckman.
But, I also would respect that this is a free country. And everyone is entitled to the freedoms of speech and expression, which is the key reason why I’ve long been such an ardent defender of Chief Illiniwek, another race-related issue that has long stirred strong emotions in Champaign.
Making a public statement, even a misguided one, is absolutely Oliver’s right. But what isn’t right is then following up that statement with a vote against a man simply because of the color of his skin.
Nevertheless, that’s precisely what Oliver and Montgomery did when they cast “nay” votes regarding Beckman’s contract. With those votes, the two trustees went beyond a simple expression of opinion about something that can reasonably be considered overdue and instead made it a point to effectively state that they didn’t welcome Beckman at the University of Illinois because he’s not like them.
His skin is the wrong color.
Tim Beckman deserved better than that. Mike Thomas did, too. And, quite frankly, so does everyone else associated with the University of Illinois, which again is sadly being misrepresented as a place that’s insensitive – or even hostile – toward minorities.
The facts in this case clearly indicate otherwise. Yes, it is true that Illinois is yet to hire an African-American as the head coach of either its football or men’s basketball programs and is one of just 11 schools in the six major conferences to have not done so.
However, Oliver himself acknowledged that two black coaches were interviewed for the Illinois football job in former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin and U. of I. graduate Kirby Wilson, the running backs coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who last month was badly injured in a house fire.
Multiple outlets have confirmed that before Beckman was hired, Thomas first offered the job to Sumlin, which he turned down to accept the same position at Texas A&M. The contract that Illinois presented to Sumlin has been rumored as high as $3 million a year, yet Oliver said last week, “We have to increase our effort. Making an opening offer for a hot African-American coaching prospect is not enough.”
Beckman, by the way, will make $1.8 million a year. Before him, Zook earned $1.75 million annually.
What Oliver also failed to acknowledge last week is that after Beckman accepted the Illinois job, the school has since gone on to hire an African-American defensive coordinator in Cincinnati’s Tim Banks, an African-American co-offensive coordinator in Vanderbilt’s Chris Beatty and a Hispanic co-offensive coordinator in LSU’s Billy Gonzales. That means that three of the top four figures in the Illini football program are minorities.
Now, race, as everyone knows, is a touchy, hot-button topic. But if someone chooses to touch that hot button in a situation such as this one in Champaign, he or she has to be fair and respect all the facts regarding the issue. The topic deserves nothing less than that.
But Oliver didn’t do that. Rather, he instead picked and chose the facts that he wanted to use to suit his stance, and then decided to simply ignore the rest.
That’s irresponsible, because the issue of Tim Beckman’s hiring in Champaign not only isn’t as simple as Lawrence Oliver tried to make it be, it’s also not so black and white.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.