Opinion: The Significance of Houston's Squad of Black Coaches (and One GM)

Dusty Baker becomes only the second Black manager in MLB history to be joined by a Black GM.
Dusty Baker becomes only the second Black manager in MLB history to be joined by a Black GM. Photo by Jack Gorman
In the end, wins and losses are the only things that matter when it comes to coaching and managing a sports franchise. It is the singular gauge of success and failure. Sports is, after all, the ultimate meritocracy with an unforgiving finality that is judged by simply looking at a scoreboard.

But, beyond picking the person a team thinks gives them the best shot at more wins than losses, there are other factors that make a difference in hiring decisions. Do they matter as much as winning? Of course not. It doesn't mean they don't have significance.

How well a college coach recruits or a GM analyzes players. The ability to scheme an offense or defense and the leadership role coaches provide for their players. Even putting an entertaining product on the field, particularly if it includes star level talent. All of these things can mitigate wins and losses. They don't trump them, but they can change narratives, and lead to success on the field.

Then there is race. As tinged as the very topic is with political angst thanks to the climate we have fostered in America, the fact that there are not nearly enough people of color in coaching and executive positions as compared to the gen pop of basketball, baseball and football rosters is not just notable — it's weird. More critically, it's a symptom of a problem that is as embedded in the lives of everyday Americans as it is their athletes.

Houston and surrounding areas like Fort Bend County are some of the most diverse in the country. Drawn in by inexpensive housing and a mostly thriving economy backstopped by the energy industry, it is home to dozens of different languages and the people who speak them from all over the world.

Isn't it fitting then that our representative sports teams should be no different?

When the Texans announced the hiring of DeMeco Ryans this week as their new head coach, it brought the total number of Black coaches for the big three sports teams in Houston to...three. Add in Dana Brown, the new general manager of the Astros, and Kelvin Sampson whose UH men's basketball team might beat the Rockets on a good night, and you have a majority of Black coaches and executives in Houston, a rarity in any city.

For the Texans, this is their third straight coaching hire of color. Ryans was preceded by dubious tenures of David Culley and Lovie Smith, who some believed were token hires, that ended in epic failure. But it doesn't erase the fact that this franchise, now captained by the son of Robert McNair, who was once was accused of being racist by former players (inmates running the prison, apparently), now appears fairly progressive in its hiring practices, at least in the coaching ranks. And that's in addition to former GM Rick Smith.

The Astros are the only team in baseball with a Black GM in Brown and a Black manager in Dusty Baker. The Rockets have Stephen Silas, though for how long remains to be seen (that whole wins/losses thing is a bitch sometimes). And Sampson's radical success in resurrecting a once proud basketball team at the University of Houston is not to be ignored.

Some might argue that none of this is even slightly consequential. Who cares, they might ask. Hire the best guy and let the chips fall where they may. This is certainly not to suggest that ANY of these guys is only getting a look because they are people of color. Hardly. In fact, in every case, these were and are considered very good hires, particularly now that the Texans seem to have changed perceptions around the league with Ryans.

But, we would argue that this goes beyond coaching. Who cares, you ask? An awful lot of Black young people probably care. Just as Barack Obama changed the dynamic for people of color across America, these men can and likely will change the lives of people in Houston simply by being hired. It opens the field up to others and gives hope to youngsters who may have written anything of the sort off for themselves or people who look like them. And that is important.

Plus, this is Houston, the most diverse city in America. It's fitting and appropriate and, dare we say, worthy of a real sense of pride.

Will it matter when it comes to the tenure of these men? Not one bit. That too is progress. They were not chosen because they were Black. They were chosen because they were great at what they do. Now, it is incumbent upon them to prove it, or keep proving it in the case of Baker and Sampson, or they will be fired, not for their race, but for their failings at their jobs.

Coaches and GMs, they say, are hired to be fired, and that is true no matter who the person is. The scoreboard is the only thing of import in sports when all is said and done. But, if it comes with progress, any progress, that cannot be a bad thing.

Houston is at the forefront of diversity in America, why shouldn't that include our beloved sports teams? And why shouldn't we be proud of that?
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke