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On Barry Saunders

On a certain level, even though he's a big boy and should expect criticism, at times you almost have to feel sorry for Joe Alleva. It's pretty rare that he gets a good word from anyone. Rarely, though, has anyone been much harsher than was Barry Saunders on Tuesday when he basically called Alleva a racist. Alleva isn't perfect and has been legitimately criticized for quite a few things, but calling him a racist for not hiring an African-American football coach is way over the top. It's about as bombastic as Bomani Jones calling Duke a white supremacist institution. A white supremacist institution would never have hired Houston Baker, and presumably he would never work for such a place.

A couple of points before we go on. About Barry Saunders first: not that he'd remember, but we've met him and we liked him. He's a nice man. He's also a pretty good columnist who manages to provoke a lot of sharp reactions from time to time, which is what he's paid to do. And he's not entirely predictable, which is a great thing in a columnist.

And we wrote here earlier about how Duke could find an overlooked coach by looking for the very best African-American assistant coaches, since there are a lot of them, and no one is hiring them. A lot of these guys want to be in charge of their own program, and while hiring an assistant may be a gamble, that gamble is somewhat mitigated by the fact that no one else is hiring them, so the quality of the candidates is pretty high. For Duke, a long-term disaster in football, that's a way to find a higher quality candidate than they would find by hiring a current head coach.

We got a few e-mails suggesting that we were only interested in affirmative action hires: not true. The confluence of self-interest and the weak state of Duke football require creative thinking, and that was our contribution, such as it was. We can't help but think that there are the football equivalents of Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, and John Cheney, gifted coaches who just couldn't get someone to take a chance on them. UNC can get Butch Davis. Duke absolutely cannot. So the search has to be different.

Enough background. There are a couple of things that Barry may have either not known or overlooked. First, Duke interviewed at least three minority candidates - Rod Broadway, Karl Dorrell, and Atlanta Falcons assistant Hue Jackson were interviewed. Correct us if we're wrong, but isn't that three more minority candidates than UNC or State interviewed when they hired coaches recently?

Like Saunders, we'd like to see Duke hire some African American coaches and administrators in the athletic department (apparently they nearly hired a black lacrosse coach but John Dankowski was a better fit). We heard that Alleva was prepared to hire Dorrell, but that the committee wanted to do more interviews first, and of course David Cutcliffe emerged as a very promising candidate.

Also, according to Dave Glenn of 850TheBuzz, Alleva and Rod Broadway are good friends. You shouldn't base an important hire on friendship, any more than you should eliminate people because of their race.

Paul Hewitt was quoted recently as saying that no one should be expected to hire a coach simply because he's black, but that it was increidbly important to get minority coaches to the interview stage so that they could at least make a case.

Did Duke, as Saunders argue, make a "safe" choice in Cutcliffe? Well, maybe, but Duke gambled, and gambled poorly, on Carl Franks. Ted Roof was a safer bet, but he had problems of his own.

We would have been very happy with Broadway, less happy with Dorrell, and know next to nothing about Jackson. But as Saunders implies, any of the three would have been a less safe pick. Broadway has done a tremendous job as a head coach, but he's done it at Central and for one year at Grambling, and one of Alleva's criteria was to get an experienced 1-A coach. Dorrell just got fired at UCLA, and if you struggle at a school with all of UCLA's advantages (location, power conference, winning tradition), what leap of faith makes it easier for him to succeed at Duke?

Our hope was that they would find a brilliant but frustrated assistant at someplace like Miami or USC who was ready to hit the ground running. But when Cutcliffe's name came up, we listened.

And he began to make more and more sense. Aside from the fact that he won as a head coach and trained great quarterbacks at three different schools, his presence eliminates one tricky problem for Duke: whenever the offense looks good, a big-time school snatches up the offensive coordinator. Can't happen with Cutcliffe.

And secondly, his promise of a no-huddle offense, of putting an absolute premium on speed, and the fact that all the Mannings so highly recommended him, it made him sound less like a safe choice than a very canny one.

Saunders goes on to say that Alleva "owed it to us" to explain why he didn't pick Broadway. Well, that's not what most people do when they introduce a coach. They go on about his brilliant potential, tell a few jokes, say how bright the future is, slap him on the back, and turn him over to the reporters.

Oh. Well, as Barry Jacobs pointed out, only one regular Triangle columnist (presumably Caulton Tudor) showed up for the introduction, and if anyone fits the "safe" description, it's Tudor, who rarely takes the sort of chances as a writer which Saunders clearly relishes.

But here's another thought. As an N&O employee, Saunders could surely have gotten a press pass for the press conference. Then he could have asked all these tough questions himself, and maybe gotten some answers, instead of making assumptions and hurling accusations.

And maybe, if he hadn't developed a reputation as a rhetorical bomb thrower, someone at Duke might have even returned his phone calls.

His shtick is funny - Sweet Thang could be as interesting a character as William Raspberry's cab driver or one of Mike Royko's toughs - but there's a price to be paid for firing from the hip.