We're all friends here, right? So let's be honest with each other for a second.
BYU isn't really all that good at diversity. There, I said it.
This probably wouldn't be a surprise to anyone who went to school there or spent even a small amount of time on campus. Heck, even just watching a BYU sporting event on television will yield countless crowd reaction shots of a student section that is so painfully white it almost hurts your eyes.
The numbers back this up, of course. As of the 2014-15 school year, BYU reported that an overwhelming 83 percent of its student body was Caucasian. And that proportion was even higher among teachers, with 90 percent of faculty members also identifying as white. Those significant disparities have positioned the school among the least diverse universities in the country, according to multiple evaluators. College Factual ranked BYU as the 1,396th best college for diversity, while the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings placed it 227th out of 257 "national universities" in maintaining an ethnically diverse campus.
When you combine the ethnic uniformity of present-day BYU students and faculty with the still-lingering memory of the LDS Church's acknowledged history of institutional discrimination against people of black African descent, it's not hard to see why the school has been perceived by many outsiders — rightly or wrongly, fair or not — as a university by white people, for white people. And as any good psychologist will tell you, perception has a funny way of very quickly becoming reality.
But some of that perception might be about to change — and if it it does, it will likely be due to a fresh infusion of uncharacteristic diversity among several of the most high-profile public faces of the university. I'm talking, of course, about the new BYU football coaching staff.
When Kalani Sitake was named the Cougars' new leader following the departure of Bronco Mendenhall, he became just the second active head coach from Asian or Pacific Islander descent at a Division I football program. (The other, Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, was reportedly also a candidate for the vacancy, but ultimately elected to remove himself from consideration.)
It's no secret that head football coaches are an overwhelmingly white fraternity at the collegiate level. According to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), 89 percent of head coaches at Division I programs were caucasian during the 2014 season. (By comparison, 0.9 percent were of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.)
In this context, the very act of BYU — one of the stereotypically "whitest" universities in America — pursuing and hiring a person of color to become perhaps the most recognizable and influential public face of the institution is nothing short of extraordinary, in and of itself.
But perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that the Cougars didn't stop there. As Sitake has put together his staff, he's assembled what undoubtedly represents the most diverse set of assistants in BYU history — and perhaps among the most ethnically diverse coaching staffs anywhere in college football today.
Again, the numbers can help shed some light here. According to TIDES, 68 percent of assistant football coaches at the Division I level were white during the 2014 season. But at BYU, in lily-white Provo of all places, Sitake's new staff appears to flip that expectation on its head.
Of the 14 coaches or staffers who have been announced thus far (including Sitake), nine are people of color. Nine. That means 64 percent of the total staff hail from non-white ethnic backgrounds. That's a huge number — not just at a place like BYU, but at virtually any program in the country. It paints a nearly inverse picture of the coaching profession writ large.
Does that make Sitake's new staff the most diverse coaching unit in major college football? I honestly have no idea. It very well could — it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility — but the data that would be required to make such an across-the-board comparison simply isn't readily available. But needless to say, regardless of how the chips stack up comparatively, this represents a huge shift for BYU — and, I would say, for the better.
Whether or not you think race or ethnicity should matter in these sorts of things, the reality is that it does. A lot. It matters in recruiting, it matters in marketing, and it especially matters in the public perception of the football program, the university, and the faith that sponsors both. And as Bronco Mendenhall reminded us repeatedly during his tenure, the image that the football program broadcasts to the world as a missionary tool for the LDS Church matters very much to the powers that be in Salt Lake City.
And today, that image is quite a bit different than it's ever been before. Seeing the football program led by a proud person of color, supported by a remarkably diverse staff, sends a fresh message about what BYU is and who it is for.
Admittedly, this isn't going to bust any stubborn stereotypes overnight. It's probably not going to make people think the student body is any less white. (It's not.) And it certainly won't immediately erase the memory of the church's unfortunate past policies. (That still happened.)
But having one of the most public faces of BYU — and, by extension, of the Mormon faith as a whole — be someone other than yet another old white guy makes for an interesting and appealing change of pace. Kalani Sitake and his staff may not single-handedly reverse the course of the university's racial reputation, but they'll certainly make it a lot harder to paint BYU with a broad brush full of white paint.