As Pacific-10 Conference assistant football coaches, Nigel Burton and Ron Gould used to share their aspirations of some day becoming head coaches.
On Saturday evening at UC Davis, the two men who had an abiding respect for one another as rival recruiters Burton at Oregon State and Gould at Cal will meet again.
This time as head coaches.
Gould is a first-year head coach for the Aggies and Burton is in his fourth season at Portland State.
Making the matchup unique is that both are African Americans.
For years, African Americans and other minorities had largely been shut out of college head coaching jobs. But that trend has started to change, most dramatically in the past five years.
In 2005 there were just three African American coaches among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision Schools this season there are 14. There are currently nine including Gould and Burton - coaching among the 103 Football Championship Subdivision schools that aren't predominately African American institutions.
Still, the percentage remains far below the number of African Americans competing at the two Division I levels. The FBS consists of 51.6 African Americans and the FCS has 46.4 percent, according to a 2011-12 survey conducted by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
For Gould and Burton, the subject is like trying to sidestep a 300-pound nose tackle.
"I want to make sure we're not getting caught up in two black coaches," Gould said. "We're two coaches trying to help our teams try to win games. It's not about color, and it's never about me. I have a job to do and so does Nigel."
Burton grew up in Sacramento and was a star linebacker at Jesuit. He played at Pacific (which dropped football) and then Washington, where he was a three-time All-Academic Pac-10 selectee. From there, he served as an assistant coach at four colleges.
"It's really not a conversation piece anymore," Burton said. "There are so many African American coaches in the NBA and the NCAA that it's not even a story."
But N. Jeremi Duru, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and expert on sports and law, said it's still a big, evolving story.
"I understand their reluctance since race is still a fraught topic in our society," said Duru, author of "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL."
"It's an issue we have to stay attentive to. We still do not live in a post-racial America."
But Duru agrees that significant strides have been made, and he credits the NFL's Rooney Rule (all teams must interview at least one minority candidate for an open head coaching job) for paving the way for African American coaches at all levels.
While a handful of African American coaches had been hired before the rule, including Art Shell, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, at least a dozen African American head coaches have been hired since, including Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin (though he was not a Rooney Rule interviewee), who led the Steelers to a Super Bowl title.
"There's no doubt people before us laid great ground and opened doors for African American coaches to come in," said Gould, a 16-year assistant at Cal. "Tony Dungy Tomlin. The list goes on."
While not mandated by the NCAA, many FBS schools have agreed to interview at least one minority candidate when football coaching positions open, Duru said.
Duru also notes that Oregon became the first state to require by law (since 2009) that its public universities interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach or athletic director.
Burton, 37, who replaced former NFL coach Jerry Glanville at Portland State in 2010 and became the first Big Sky Conference African American head football coach, said he got his job through networking.
"I kept close ties to the area," said Burton, who was the defensive coordinator at Nevada before being hired at Portland State. "I had been an assistant at Portland State. I coached at Oregon State. I had a close association with the Northwest. So my hiring was very much an old-school process."
Gould, 48, was hired by new UC Davis athletic director Terry Tumey, who is also African American. Tumey made the decision to move away from UC Davis' tradition of hiring a head coach from within the Aggies program after Bob Biggs retired.
So Gould, with no previous affiliation with UC Davis, got the job over longtime Aggies assistant Mike Moroski, who has since taken over the reinstated football program at the College of Idaho (that begins play in 2014).
Gould is the third African American coach in the Big Sky. Northern Colorado's Earnest Collins Jr. was hired in 2011. Another Big Sky coach, Northern Arizona's Jerome Souers, is the only Native American head coach in Division I football.
Despite the growing numbers of African American coaches, some at high-profile programs such as David Shaw at Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, there are still many minority assistant coaches waiting for their opportunity and being passed over.
Because most colleges look for name recognition and previous track records, especially at big-money BCS schools, that presents another roadblock for African American assistant coaches hoping to get their break.
Executive head-hunting firms, once solely the province of Wall Street and high-powered CEOs, are now being hired more often by universities to bring in high-profile coaches, such as Mike Leach at Washington State and Jim Mora at UCLA.
"The old process was a job opened up, a search committee was formed and an AD vetted candidates," Burton said. "Now some schools are hiring a search firm for $100,000 to $500,000. Some are tied to agents of coaches.
"That's where I can see minority candidates getting lost in the shuffle and being locked out of the process."
Gould said that while diversity is important, it's performance that matters in the end. That's not only in the results on the field but how well players do in the classroom and on campus, too.
"The biggest thing to keep in mind is this isn't about African American coaches, it's about coaches having the opportunity regardless of the color of their skin," Gould said. "Just like everyone else, we have to go out and do the job."
Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly identify a coach hired before the Rooney rule.
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.