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Progress made at Stonehill

Talley is named football coach

Robert Talley felt Stonehill was ready for a black football coach, and he got the job. Robert Talley felt Stonehill was ready for a black football coach, and he got the job. (STONEHILL COLLEGE)

EASTON -- Progress can be both large and small, slow and rapid.

When Stonehill College tapped Robert Talley to lead its football program yesterday, the number of African-American head football coaches in New England doubled in a single day, as the 38-year-old San Francisco 49ers special assistant and former Boston University All-American linebacker joined Mel Mills of Becker College in a very select fraternity.

Now, two of the 54 New England schools with NCAA football programs have African-Americans at the helm. The number is still minuscule. The significance of Talley's hiring is not.

"I believe any time a person of color gets hired in a head coaching position, it's progress," said Talley, who was introduced as the sixth head coach in the program's history.

"I think the interesting thing about this position is that it wasn't about color. My race, I think, is a bonus in this whole equation, but I don't believe it was a huge factor. One question I asked the search committee was, 'Is Stonehill ready to have a minority football coach?' Without any hesitation, the answer was yes. I'm proud to stand here as an African-American football coach, but first and foremost, I'm a football coach."

That's all Talley and other African-American coaching candidates ever have wanted -- to be placed on equal footing with their coaching counterparts. Even as progress is made at the NFL level, equality in the collegiate coaching ranks has been tough to come by, as a Globe story detailed last September. At the time of the story's publication, the latest numbers indicated that 16 of the 616 NCAA-affiliated football programs -- less than 3 percent -- had African-American head coaches, excluding historically black colleges and universities.

Talley is the first African-American head coach at Stonehill in any sport. Before being hired by Stonehill, a Division 2 school that plays in the Northeast-10 Conference, he was turned down for head jobs at Holy Cross, Dartmouth, and Northeastern, despite a résumé that included coaching stints at the University of Massachusetts, Colby College, and Dartmouth, where he coached from 1997-2004 and was defensive coordinator from 2000-04.

After failing to land a head college job, Talley turned to professional football; he already had worked during the summer with five NFL teams, including the Patriots in 2002, as part of the league's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. For the last two seasons, he was with the 49ers as a special assistant to head coach Mike Nolan.

Talley admitted he was ill-prepared for a head job when he first interviewed for one at Holy Cross in 2003.

In the Globe story last September, Talley said, "Some of the questions kind of blew me away. I wasn't as prepared as I needed to be."

Still, there were times when he felt like he was strictly a token interview. Talley said he could tell Stonehill was different from the start.

"When I first called here, I got a call back in 10 minutes," said Talley. "It was like, 'OK, there is this NFL coach and we should hear what he has to say.' I felt a lot more comfortable going through it this time. There was no doubt in my mind that I should have this job."

Stonehill athletic director Paula J. Sullivan said that at first she didn't remember Talley from the Globe piece, but his tale resonated with her when she read the story about the paucity of African-American coaches in college football.

"When you start reading the numbers off, that's what grabbed me," said Sullivan. "When there's only one African-American coach in Division 2 in the country and there's only one in any division in New England, it startles you. Here are people that have paid the price and been highly successful, so I'm sure they get very frustrated."

Yet, Sullivan was adamant that Talley's race was incidental -- not integral -- in his hiring.

"We were looking for the best football coach that we can find, and it happened that Rob is an African-American," she said. "We didn't go out trying to find an African-American who happened to be a great football coach, and that's a genuine statement. We feel blessed that's he's going to be here. He's a quality guy with a phenomenal résumé."

There were five finalists, including Talley, to replace Chris Woods, who left Stonehill in January to join Tim Murphy's staff at Harvard. Talley was the only African-American among the finalists. "He was our go-to guy from the beginning," said Sullivan.

Sullivan said Talley's hiring sends a message to the Stonehill community that the 2,386-student Catholic college is serious about diversity, but she and the college's president, the Rev. Mark Cregan, also said it conveys that they are serious about improving the football team's 1-9 record.

"I do believe we have found the right person to lead our football program," said Cregan.

Talley, who set the BU career record for tackles, is just the sixth African-American head coach in the history of New England college football. He's hoping he can increase that number by paving the way for the next Robert Talley.

"I would hope so," he said. "I think some of that is going to be how successful I am, because if you're successful, people can justify anything, so I need to take advantage of this opportunity.

"Hopefully, that will open doors. I think it will also send a message and hopefully will make a loud enough noise to send a message to other schools: 'Hey, take a look at some minorities in the equation and then give them a long, hard look.' "

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the college, a story in yesterday's Sports section about Stonehill's football coach incorrectly stated that Robert Talley is the school's first African-American coach in any sport. Harry Hart, who coached men's basketball from 1976 to 1978, was the school's first African-American coach.)