Kevin Sumlin is the first African-American head football coach in Arizona Wildcats history, a milestone he was reminded of countless times after getting hired in January 2018. It’s also something he’d heard during at the outset of his stints at Houston and Texas A&M.
But since his arrival at the UA he’s watched as several other Pac-12 schools have hired black head coaches, including Colorado (Karl Dorrell) and Washington (Jimmy Lake) this offseason.
Throw in ASU’s Herm Edwards and longtime Stanford head man David Shaw and the Pac-12 has five of FBS’ 13 black head coaches, a statistic not lost on Sumlin.
“When you talk about 13 across the country and almost half of them are in the Pac-12, yeah that’s very significant,” Sumlin said Friday on the Pac-12 Perspective podcast. “I think that speaks to our league, I think it speaks to this part of the country also. Just the progress that’s been made, just the overall outlook of this area. I’m happy that I’m in a conference that is progressive.”
Speaking with hosts Ashley Adamson and Yogi Roth, Sumlin also discussed how he has addressed the racial tension enveloping the country in the wake of the George Floyd killing more than a week ago. Sumlin issued a statement on Sunday with his thoughts on Floyd’s death and its aftermath, but not before addressing the topic with his entire team on a Zoom call a few days earlier.
“You see a lot of young people who are just frustrated and angry,” he said. “Right now we have an opportunity to help people. What do you do with that? It’s up to us to help young people know, to give them a path to do something with those feelings and create real, legitimate change instead of just anger and frustration. How can we help, particularly the people that we touch on a daily basis, deal with the emotions that they have right now and really effectively use those emotions to create change and create a dynamic that looks different than what it does right now.”
Born in Alabama in the mid-1960s, Sumlin grew up during the Civil Rights movement. He said he vividly remembers his father coaching football at a segregated high school and how difficult it was just to feed his team afterward since many restaurants wouldn’t serve black players.
After his family moved to Indiana in the 1970s he said he got to watch things from afar, much like he has of late with the current protests and demonstrations.
“You’re looking at a television every night, where basically 50 years ago the same thing was going on,” Sumlin said. “There’s been progress made, but how much? Right now that’s where everybody is.”
Sumlin said he’s told his team his generation “probably didn’t do enough” to help affect change, but the current one can. Being part of a football team can only help with that cause, he said.
“There is probably not a better example of what you can do than a football team,” Sumlin said. “We’re dependent on different races, different cultures, different countries to make a first down. There’s no better melting pot than that. There’s nobody more equipped to create change than a lot of student-athletes across the country, because of their experiences and what they deal with on a day-to-day basis to be successful.
“To be successful, it’s not about you, it’s about the team. My message to our team was, hey, listen, there’s no better example than being a great teammate. A great teammate is somebody that supports everybody else, regardless of what it is, because they know they can’t accomplish the main goal, which is to win, by themselves. It takes everybody. It takes your ability to be flexible in situations, it takes your ability to welcome things that you aren’t used to.”