Texans coach David Culley has yet to meet Astros manager Dusty Baker face-to-face, but thanks to a mutual friend they were able to have a phone conversation.
Culley admits he is a fan because of Baker’s legendary status as a pioneering sports figure. At the end of their conversation, Baker gave Culley his number and told him to call anytime.
“I actually called him one time, not to see if he would answer it but because I actually needed to talk to him, because a lot of times when they give you those numbers you say, `Do they really want you to call? Are they really going to answer?’” a smiling Culley admitted in an exclusive interview with The Defender. “I called it and he answered and I knew he would. He is a wonderful human being and he has seen it all as a player and a coach.”
Culley and Baker have quite a bit in common these days, along with Rockets head coach Stephen Silas. The three are in the unusual position of being three African American men heading up the three major professional sports franchises in the same city at the same time.
It’s hard for an African American to land one of these coveted roles. It’s a rare trifecta to have three in the same city at once.
“It’s an honor to actually be in a major market, the fourth largest market in this country, and have three African Americans running their football, basketball and baseball teams,” said Culley, who led the Texans to an impressive season-opening win over Jacksonville in his head coaching debut Sunday. “And it makes me feel good.
“They know I want them to be successful and I know they want me to be successful, and you kind help each other along the way because we go through things a little differently. We are looked at a little differently whether you want to realize it or not. But I understand what I’m in, I understand why I’m here. I’m here to win football games. That’s the bottom line, regardless of the situation.”
All three men have taken different paths in getting here, but they all have arrived at a time when the three franchises are undergoing much change and upheaval. Baker, of course, became the oldest manager in baseball when he took over the Astros at 70 last year on the heels of a sign-stealing scandal that rocked the club. The Astros needed a man of Baker’s respect and stature in the game to restore respectability.
Baker was able to the Astros back to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last season and this year has them atop the AL West in the final month of the regular season. Baker, of course, is in the final year of his two-year contract with the Astros and despite the success, he has had there is uncertainty about whether or not he will be brought back next season.
Silas was hired prior to the start of last season at the age of 47 to take over a rebuilding that still had two cornerstone All-Stars in James Harden and Russell Westbrook as building blocks. But shortly after the first-time head coach was hired, both Westbrook and Harden made it known they no longer wanted to play for the Rockets and both were eventually traded, resulting in a dismal 2020-21 season.
Culley was tabbed by new general manager Nick Caserio this offseason as a 65-year-old, first-time head coach to take over a franchise that had been allowed to be run into the ground under the Bill O’Brien regime, and left with little talent and draft assets as a result. To make matters worse, Culley inherited a franchise that is at odds with its most bankable asset in quarterback Deshaun Watson, who remains on the team but has made it clear he no longer wants to be here. For their part, the franchise relegated Watson to third-team quarterback while presumably seeking a suitable trade partner.
“This is why this is one of the most diverse places in the country,” said pioneering African-American journalist and the long-time voice on KCOH Ralph Cooper. “Now you see it on the athletic field when you see these types of things happen. It’s not a perfect situation for any of them, but it’s their opportunity.”
While Baker has managed to keep the Astros on the winning track, it’s more than likely Silas and Culley will have a much more difficult time finding immediate success.
“If the situation was right and everything was good, I wouldn’t be here,” Culley said. “I’m here for a reason. I’m here because things weren’t right. So we’ve got to get it right.”
That Culley is here, along with Baker and Silas at the same time is a fact that many thought would never be a reality, according to Cooper, who first began covering the Houston market as a 20-year-old in 1969.
“No, I never thought I would see this happen,” said Cooper, who was inducted into Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2020. “When I first started in 1969, the only thing Black out there were the ballplayers. It was just the Black players and everything else was white, the trainers, the ball boys, the equipment man, the public relations people and the coaches. Fast forward 50-plus years later and you see all of these different things happening.
“It’s not perfect but it is amazing to me because I never thought I would see it happen.”
Having three African Americans heading up three professional sports franchises isn’t unprecedented. For instance, New York achieved the trifecta when Herm Edwards was head coach of the Jets from 2001 to 2005 and during that time the Knicks were coached by Don Chaney, Herb Williams and Lenny Wilkens during that window and Willie Randolph came in to manage the Mets from 2005-08.
Nonetheless, the achievement is rare.
University of Houston Health and Human Services professor and author Dr. Billy Hawkins says achieving the trifecta is a tribute to the city and its diversity.
“It sends a serious message regarding the fact that here we are in Houston with one of the most diverse cities, and it has taken this long,” Hawkins said. “You’ve had a peppering of Black head coaches here and there, but to have three leading the three major sports is phenomenal.
“So it’s definitely about racial progress and it sends a message across professional sports and especially Major League Baseball.”
Culley, for one, is excited about the opportunity he has in front of him. He believes he will be successful despite the adversity in front of him.
“I felt like when I got the position, I felt like I had earned the position,” said Culley, who was also the first Black quarterback at Vanderbilt in the 1970s. “And I felt like I was ready.
“To this point, from the time I got the job until now, there is nothing that has happened to me that I have not seen happen before. Now I haven’t had to be the decision-maker on a lot of these things, but I think the big thing right now is that I haven’t been surprised by anything.
“I go back to dealing with all of the stuff we are dealing with with Deshaun, the situation with all of the other stuff,” he continued. “I’ve been around situations similar and seen things happen, so it’s not like I’m surprised or shocked.”
As for his other two contemporaries in the market, Culley says it was clear Silas was the best man for the Rockets job and that the three-time NL Manager of the Year Baker brings a record of accomplishment and distinguishment that speaks for itself.
“I’m probably most surprised with me being here than those two guys being here simply because I wasn’t one of those guys who was on the radar at that point,” Culley said. “All of sudden here I am. I’m here.”