Warde Manuel grew up in New Orleans, where he learned the politics of race at an early age. He remembers riding to the store when he was 10 and seeing Ku Klux Klansmen, clad in their hoods and robes, collecting money in cans by the side of the road.
Sometimes, it's right there in your face. Generally, it's a lot more subtle. But as a black man who has worked his way to the top of his profession, Manuel has never lost sight of one essential reality:
"In this society, race does matter," said Manuel, the University at Buffalo athletics director. "You can't get away from it."
Last week, Manuel made college sports history. By hiring Turner Gill as its new head football coach, UB became the first Division I-A school with a black AD, head men's basketball coach (Reggie Witherspoon) and head football coach.
Manuel says he didn't plan it that way. He didn't hire Gill because he was black. He believed he was the best man for the job, a dynamic young coach.
Still, it's a distinction for UB -- and Western New Yorkers -- to be proud of. There are only five black head football coaches and eight black ADs among the 119 schools that play D-I football. It's nice to know our university is at the forefront.
"It's something I take pride in," said Manuel, 37. "I didn't want it to take away from hiring Turner as a coach, a leader of young men. But we definitely have to take pride in leading the way."
Actually, UB has a proud history as a racial trailblazer in sports. In 1958, UB won the Lambert Trophy as the top football team in the East but refused a bid to the Tangerine Bowl because its black players wouldn't be allowed to play in Orlando, Fla. The school is believed to be the first to play with an integrated team in the South.
"I think it's important, given Buffalo's history in the African-American community, in terms of the Underground Railroad and some other things," Manuel said.
Manuel also knows people will be watching, eager to judge him if Gill fails. He accepts that. He's a competitor, a former defensive tackle under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He is confident that Gill, who played quarterback for three Big 8 champions at Nebraska, has what it takes to bring a winner to Buffalo.
First, Gill has to get some better players in here. He has a lot to recommend him to recruits. He contended for a national title. He works in the NFL with the Packers. And in a sport in which most of the top recruits are minorities, Gill's race can't hurt.
Kids choose programs for many reasons. But all things being equal, some black parents are inclined to trust their son with a coach of the same color. As Manuel pointed out, schools commonly send black assistant coaches to recruit African-Americans for black-dominated positions. That's why it puzzles me to see so few black D-I head coaches. You'd think more schools would see it as an advantage.
"Sure," Manuel said. "It's a connectedness. It's not the primary reason a kid would choose an institution. But I think it can help to establish a rapport, a relationship, a connectedness in terms of history or experiences in this society. As a student of psychology, I see it as normal behavior. We look for reasons to connect with each other. Race is probably the most outward indication of connectedness to a group."
Manuel remembers how impressed his parents were to see black recruiters in New Orleans when he was a high school star. It mattered to know that blacks were making progress in the coaching profession. Twenty years later, it still matters.
He doesn't mean to dwell on race. In Gill, he feels he got a potential star who needed an opportunity. Witherspoon got a chance and look what he's done. One day, we might look at Gill in the same way, as a terrific coach who happens to be black.
Maybe the day will come when UB's athletic department isn't seen as a radical exception, but a national model.