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Clockwise from Left: James Franklin, David Shaw, Willie Taggart, Kevin Sumlin, Dino Babers, Frank Wilson and Scottie Montgomery Illustration by Beth Stojkov

An up-and-down year for black coaches in college football

2016 season saw one painful firing, one exciting hiring, and signs that barriers may be falling

The twisting path Charlie Strong followed back to the state of Florida illustrates the past, present and potentially brighter future for the tiny fraternity of African-Americans leading top college football programs.

Strong made his name a decade ago as defensive coordinator for two national championship teams at the University of Florida. When it became clear he would not get promoted to head coach, Strong left the state, and the Southeastern Conference, for the head coaching position at Louisville. After elevating the Cardinals’ program, Strong earned one of the nation’s top jobs at Texas – but immediately got slammed with a no-confidence vote from the school’s major booster.

Three seasons and a 16-21 record later, Texas fired Strong in November. Some feared he would never get a second chance to lead a team, or that his downfall would have a chilling effect on opportunities for other black coaches. Then Oregon hired Willie Taggart from the University of South Florida – and USF hired Strong.

Just 13 head coaches in the 128-team Football Bowl Subdivision are black. That’s 10 percent, compared with 54 percent of players, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Many obstacles remain to African-American coaching advancement, ranging from an overwhelmingly white administrative structure in college athletics to influential boosters who prefer to recycle the same name-brand head coaches. But Strong, 56, seems to have finally become one of those name brands. And Taggart, 40, is one of a cadre of younger African-Americans who are ascending quickly.

James Franklin’s Penn State team won the Big 10 conference this season and almost made the College Football Playoff, a remarkable resurrection after the horrific 2011 child sex abuse scandal. Including David Shaw at Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, there are four African-Americans leading programs with the resources, talent pool and tradition to compete for a national championship – something no black head football coach has ever won.

Taggart wants to be the first African-American to win that ring. On his first day as Oregon coach, he said he was inspired by Tony Dungy becoming the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl, with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007. Taggart coached Dungy’s son Eric at USF, and Dungy endorsed Taggart in a conversation with Oregon officials.

“It’s like my dreams, my goals, they’re getting closer,” Taggart said on SportsCenter.

The other eight FBS coaches are Dino Babers at Syracuse; Paul Haynes at Kent State, Mike Jinks at Bowling Green, Derek Mason at Vanderbilt, Scottie Montgomery at East Carolina, Lovie Smith at Illinois, Frank Wilson at Texas-San Antonio and Everett Withers at Texas State. Four had never been a top-level head coach before this season. All eight were handed the keys to struggling programs. None will last unless they turn those teams around.

Here’s a team-by-team breakdown:

WILLIE TAGGART, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA: 10-2

Head coach Willie Taggart of the South Florida Bulls looks on against the Florida State Seminoles during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Head coach Willie Taggart of the South Florida Bulls looks on against the Florida State Seminoles during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

BIRMINGHAM BOWL vs. SOUTH CAROLINA, DEC. 29

Taggart, a native of Bradenton, Florida, started four years at quarterback for Western Kentucky University under head coach Jack Harbaugh, father of star coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. Taggart became an assistant coach at WKU, then rose to co-offensive coordinator. When Jim Harbaugh was in charge at Stanford in 2007, he hired Taggart to coach running backs. Four years later, at just 33, Taggart became head coach at his alma mater. WKU had lost 20 straight games when Taggart arrived. He went 7-5 in years two and three and was hired at UCF for the 2013 season. This year’s 10-2 record is the best in school history. Taggart will need to return Oregon to the top of the rankings, and keep them there: His predecessor, Mark Helfrich, took the Ducks to the national championship game in 2014, but was fired after going 4-8 this season.

JAMES FRANKLIN, PENN STATE: 11-2, BIG 10 CHAMPION

Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions watches game action during the second half against the Michigan State Spartans on November 26, 2016 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions watches game action during the second half against the Michigan State Spartans on November 26, 2016 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

ROSE BOWL vs. USC, JAN. 2

No one expected Penn State to rebound this quickly after the Jerry Sandusky rape case forced the ouster of legendary coach Joe Paterno and the loss of dozens of scholarships. Franklin, 45, in his third year at State College, started this season 2-2 with losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan. Then he reeled off eight straight wins, including against second-ranked Ohio State, to reach the Big 10 title game against Wisconsin. Trailing by three touchdowns, Penn State came back to beat the Badgers 38-31 and finish the regular season ranked fifth.

DAVID SHAW, STANFORD: 9-3

Head Coach David Shaw of the Stanford Cardinal looks on against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the third quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.

Head Coach David Shaw of the Stanford Cardinal looks on against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the third quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

HYUNDAI SUN BOWL vs. NORTH CAROLINA, DEC. 30

Shaw was born to coach the Cardinal. He finished high school in Northern California while his father, Willie, was an assistant coach at Stanford. He played wide receiver at Stanford, became offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, then ascended to head coach in 2011, when Harbaugh left for the NFL. Since then, Shaw’s record is 63-17, with three conference titles and two Rose Bowl wins. Early losses this season to Washington and Washington State dropped the Cardinal out of the playoff picture, but at age 44, with 31 NFL alumni, including stars Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman, Shaw will remain a force in Palo Alto.

KEVIN SUMLIN, TEXAS A&M: 8-4

Head coach Kevin Sumlin of the Texas A&M Aggies watches his team prior to a game against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the 56th annual Autozone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on December 29, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin of the Texas A&M Aggies watches his team prior to a game against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the 56th annual Autozone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on December 29, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

ADVOCARE V100 TEXAS BOWL vs. KANSAS STATE, DEC. 28

Sumlin became a household name in 2012 when his freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel ran amok in Tuscaloosa to beat No. 1 Alabama. A hot shoe commercial increased the Sumlin swag. But this is the third straight year that Sumlin’s team collapsed late in the season. The Aggies started 6-0 this year and were ranked fourth, but the unforgiving SEC dealt them four cruel blows, ending with a 54-39 home beatdown from LSU. After five seasons at A&M, in the impatient football state of Texas, the 52-year-old Sumlin could lose his job next season if he ends up in another bowl sponsored by a direct-sales company.

DEREK MASON, VANDERBILT: 6-6

Head coach Derek Mason of the Vanderbilt Commodores coaches against the University of Massachusetts Minutemen at Vanderbilt Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Head coach Derek Mason of the Vanderbilt Commodores coaches against the University of Massachusetts Minutemen at Vanderbilt Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

CAMPING WORLD INDEPENDENCE BOWL vs. NORTH CAROLINA STATE, DEC. 16

Mason, defensive coordinator at Stanford under Shaw, got the Vanderbilt job when Franklin left for Penn State. After going 3-9 his first season and 4-8 the second, Vandy squeaked into a bowl this year with a strong second half of the season, including a 45-34 home win against No. 17 Tennessee. As the Harvard of the SEC, Vanderbilt doesn’t demand gridiron dominance, just respectability. If Mason, 47, wins more than he loses and secures a signature victory every season or two, his job should be secure.

FRANK WILSON, TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO: 6-6

UTSA Head Coach Frank Wilson during the NCAA football game between the UTSA Roadrunners and the MTSU Blue Raiders on November 5, 2016, at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, TN

UTSA Head Coach Frank Wilson during the NCAA football game between the UTSA Roadrunners and the MTSU Blue Raiders on November 5, 2016, at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, TN

Thomas McEwen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

GILDAN NEW MEXICO BOWL vs. NEW MEXICO, DEC. 17

UTSA played its first football game in 2011. Wilson, 43, arrived this season from an assistant position at LSU, where he was recognized as the top recruiter in college football and secured such talents as Leonard Fournette. The Roadrunners won their regular-season finale to qualify for their first bowl game.

CHARLIE STRONG, TEXAS: 5-7

Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong looks on against the California Golden Bears on September 19, 2015 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.

Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong looks on against the California Golden Bears on September 19, 2015 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The day Strong was hired after going 23-3 over his last two Louisville seasons, big-time Longhorn booster Red McComb said Strong “would make a great position coach. Maybe a coordinator.” That intensified the pressure at a program starving for a return to glory. With two games left this year and a team loaded with freshman and sophomore talent, Strong was 5-5 and could have saved his job. But an inexplicable loss at pitiful Kansas and a home thrashing by Texas Christian sealed his fate. Now at USF, Strong returns to the state where talent is thick and his recruiting ties run deep.

DINO BABERS, SYRACUSE: 4-8

Head coach Dino Babers of the Syracuse Orange congratulates senior players before the game against the Florida State Seminoles on November 19, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.

Head coach Dino Babers of the Syracuse Orange congratulates senior players before the game against the Florida State Seminoles on November 19, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Babers, 55, was head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green before Syracuse hired him this season. The high point of his first season was a win over No. 17 Virginia Tech, followed by Babers’ viral, full-preacher victory speech. The low point was scoring 61 points against Pittsburgh but giving up 76 – that is NOT a typo – in a basketball-score loss.

MIKE JINKS, BOWLING GREEN: 4-8

Bowling Green head coach Mike Jinks during game action between the Bowling Green Falcons and the Toledo Rockets played at Glass Bowl Stadium in Toledo, Ohio.

Bowling Green head coach Mike Jinks during game action between the Bowling Green Falcons and the Toledo Rockets played at Glass Bowl Stadium in Toledo, Ohio.

Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Think Taggart rose quickly to the heights of Oregon? In 2013, Jinks was still coaching high school. He broke into the college ranks in 2014 as running backs coach at Texas Tech. After one season as Tech’s associate head coach, Jinks, 44, succeeded Babers as head coach at Bowling Green.

LOVIE SMITH, ILLINOIS: 3-9

Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini is seen during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Memorial Stadium on November 5, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois.

Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini is seen during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Memorial Stadium on November 5, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Illini were “smothered under the crushing weight of mediocrity, scandal and the search for legitimacy” before Smith arrived this season, The Undefeated reported. Smith, the 58-year-old former head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached against Dungy in the Super Bowl. He says he’s committed to the long haul of rebuilding the program.

SCOTTIE MONTGOMERY, EAST CAROLINA: 3-9

Head coach Scottie Montgomery of the East Carolina Pirates watches as his players take on the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Head coach Scottie Montgomery of the East Carolina Pirates watches as his players take on the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Another first-year head coach, Montgomery, 38, was most recently offensive coordinator at Duke, where he played receiver. Montgomery played four NFL seasons, for the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, then coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers and at his alma mater. He succeeded another black coach, Ruffin McNeill, who was fired after a 5-7 season.

PAUL HAYNES, KENT STATE: 3-9

Head coach Paul Haynes of the Kent State Golden Flashes looks on during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on September 3, 2016 in State College, Pennsylvania.

Head coach Paul Haynes of the Kent State Golden Flashes looks on during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on September 3, 2016 in State College, Pennsylvania.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As a freshman at Kent State, Haynes walked onto the football team and led the squad in interceptions. But Haynes, 47, can’t catch a break as head coach, with a 12-35 record after four seasons. He still has his job, but the ax looms.

EVERETT WITHERS, TEXAS STATE: 2-10

Texas State head coach Everett Withers walks off of the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in San Marcos, Texas.

Texas State head coach Everett Withers walks off of the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in San Marcos, Texas.

AP Photo/Darren Abate

It was a rough first year with the Bobcats for Withers, 53, who was previously head coach at James Madison. Highlight of the season: a 48-17 victory over the University of the Incarnate Word.

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.