Indiana State’s Curt Mallory won 2018 coach of the year in the Missouri Valley Football Conference for taking a winless team in 2017 to a 7-4 record and the cusp of the Division I playoffs. But his biggest win to me was recruiting an openly gay player when other coaches turned their backs.

In a New York Times profile of freshman Sycamores player Jake Bain, who came out openly as gay during his senior year in high school in St. Louis, Bain talked about how interest in him dried up after his being gay was known.

Yet Jake almost failed to make that roster, and his experience may help explain why so few college football players are out. When he was a sophomore, Jake was named Class 3 offensive player of the year in Missouri, the same year his high school won the state title. The following season he became the team captain. College coaches had flocked to Ladue to watch him play.

“After I came out,” he said, “everything kind of went radio silent.”

He said he tried reaching out to the coaches but never heard back, and when his own coach sought to get answers, he was told they had decided to go in a different direction.

“A different direction.” How many times have we heard that from coaches at all levels of sport? In this case, it means “we’re nervous about signing the gay kid.” Enter Mallory.

Indiana State, though, still wanted him to play. During a campus visit in the summer of 2017, he met with the head coach, Curt Mallory, accompanied by his mother and grandparents. “I told him I’m openly gay and that before I committed, I needed to know if that was an issue,” he recalled. Mr. Mallory told him he would do everything in his power to make sure Jake was accepted.

“We just treat him like everybody else,” Mr. Mallory said in an interview. “He fit right in. I never thought twice about it.”

In an interview I did with Bain right before the season, he spoke highly of Mallory’s approach.

“I knew that coming in, [being gay on] the football team was never going to be an issue. That’s what he told me and told me he would expect from his players,” Bain said.

Mallory’s approach extended to summer camp when he told the team there was going to be “a completely open and welcoming environment,” Bain said. “He was very clear about the nature of how he wants to shape this team and this program. With this being only his second year that was really important for him to set the standard for the team and I really appreciate that he did that.”

What Mallory did is what any good coach should — sign a dedicated, quality player and person who will make his program better. But it was clear that other coaches were letting homophobia or fear of creating a “distraction” from pursuing Bain.

Mallory and Indiana State that are coming out ahead. Indiana State football is getting the right kind of attention, glowing articles about one its student-athletes and a reputation as a progressive and accepting place that should draw more recruits. The school’s Twitter feed touted the New York Times story, Bain thanked his coach in a tweet and followed up after this story appeared.

All this happened because a coach didn’t think twice and did the right thing to make his team better. Mallory’s coach of the year award is richly deserved.

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