When Texas Tech and the University of Virginia play for the men’s NCAA basketball championship Monday night, most of the key players on both teams will be black.
This has become a customary sight in Power 5 basketball for nearly 30 years. The other customary sight is that most of the players’ coaches are white and male. This is a curious and underdiscussed aspect of big-time revenue-producing college basketball.
The pool of playing talent has remained black while the coaching pool has stubbornly remained predominantly white.
How does this happen? African Americans have dominated play at the highest collegiate levels of basketball for three decades. You would think this would have created a rich talent pool that produced Power 5 head coaches.
It has not.
Two Power 5 conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac 12 — do not have an African American men’s head coach.
More NCAA Tournament
- Grad rates for women’s teams in NCAA tournament are exceptional
- Black men do cry — in the NCAA tournament
- March Maddening: Why NCAA tourney will be bittersweet for Doc Rivers
- ‘Black Duke’ takes flight
- Dunk god Zion is on fire because of Duke, dunks — and YouTube
The Atlantic Coast Conference has three, the Big 12 has two.
With the firing of Mike Anderson at Arkansas and buyout of Avery Johnson at Alabama, the Southeastern Conference is down to two black head coaches now that Vanderbilt just hired Jerry Stackhouse.
The state of black female head coaches is just as weak.
The ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac 12 each have one black female head coach, the Big 12 has none, the SEC has four.
Why no progress?
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, prominent black coaches such as John Thompson, Nolan Richardson, John Chaney and George Raveling used their prominence to advocate for a number of issues, including more opportunities for black coaches in top coaching jobs.
Those powerful, experienced voices are no longer in the profession. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton is the most senior black coach.
“There’s a gap,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari told me Sunday.
“We don’t have enough guys who are willing to stand up and say stuff that needs to be said.”
The responsibility of speaking out and advocating for more black head coaches should fall on everyone’s shoulders, especially on white coaches who have been the beneficiaries of black talent.
Prominent coaches such as Calipari, who recently signed a lifetime contract with Kentucky, have to take up the mantle.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said prominent head coaches such as Calipari, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski exercise enormous influence with presidents and trustees who often rely on the same, usually white, pools of talent.
“I think those folks can have a huge impact,” he said during a recent interview. “If you’ve got candidates out there, men of color, let’s say, going after men’s basketball positions and a coach of the statute like Tom or Cal or any of those guys are willing to give them a seal of approval saying, ‘You know, you hire this guy, I promise you, you’re going to have a good coach. You will have no regrets.’ That screws up somebody’s courage a lot. They have a lot of stroke in this process if they chose to exercise it.”
After Duke eliminated Central Florida from the tournament, Duke head coach Krzyzewski went out of his way to praise UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins played for Krzyzewski at Duke.
That type of public sponsorship is invaluable.
“That was worth an enormous amount of street cred for coach Dawkins, because you got to see up-front how Mike was supporting somebody he’d mentored and the credit he gave him in the press conferences,” Emmert said.
Emmert was president of the University of Washington and knows how much weight that type of endorsement carries.
“If I was back at my old job and I was looking for a basketball coach, the first guy I might be calling is Coach Dawkins, at least in part because of that pedigree and because of his own success already,” Emmert said. “That kind of modeling, I think, can be very, very helpful.”
Katrice Albert, the NCAA’s executive vice president for inclusion and human resources, said influential white coaches and athletic directors are crucial. “I call those folks way-makers,” she said. “They provide paths and opportunities for young up-and-coming coaches, particularly those who are people of color. And to have a way-maker open doors into rooms where these folks rightfully belong, that says a lot.”
Michigan State’s head coach Izzo said that for all the influence a high-profile head coach may have, there has to be a commitment from higher up.
“Part of it is administration, too,” Izzo told me Saturday. “Probably, we need more black athletic directors.”
Currently there are 10 African American athletic directors serving at Power 5 schools.
When Virginia faced Auburn on April 6, the game marked the first Final Four in which two competing schools had an African American athletic director.
Allen Greene is the Auburn AD; Carla Williams is the Virginia AD.
But the responsibility for doing the right thing and righting wrongs can’t and should not always fall on the shoulders of the aggrieved.
Williams points out that most of her mentors were white men.
What’s being done now?
Calipari and other coaches have been active in pushing the NCAA to create more entry-level positions that will allow aspiring coaches to actually work with players during practice.
He believes that a major reason for the lack of black head coaches is the shrunken pipeline.
“The reason why we’re in this position we’re in, they’ve eliminated all the entry positions,” Calipari said.
“They said we had too many suits on the bench.”
Calipari, like most coaches over age 45, began his career as a graduate assistant coach. He was allowed to actually coach players during practice and work on the craft.
The position was eliminated in 1992 by the NCAA.
There are now various support personnel, but they cannot get on the floor and effectively learn the craft of coaching.
The legislation Calipari and others put forth in July 2018 to the NCAA board of directors would provide for additional positions that would allow coaches to work with players during practice.
The argument is that these hands-on positions are far more attractive and useful to current players than doing just administrative-type functions until they are either promoted or get another job.
More ‘courageous’ hiring needed
That measure was not approved and was referred back to the basketball oversight committee. The coaches association is working on a revised proposal.
Calipari said the problem with some white coaches becoming vocal advocates is that some — perhaps many — may have staffs that do not include many blacks, not just as bench coaches but in other staffing areas, such as managers, strength and fitness coaches, medical and video production and administration.
“When you look at your staff of people, who have you hired? How do you make those decisions?” he said.
In 2016, 80 NCAA member institutions signed a pledge, which is a covenant with their students around diversity in hiring so that student-athletes could see themselves reflected in those who coach teach, mentor and lead.
But how does the NCAA make the pledge effective?
Albert calls for courageous hiring.
“The only way that we’re able to future-proof the industry and help our student-athletes stay close to the game and consider coaching as a career opportunity is that they have to see themselves reflected,” she said.
“When head coaches turn over, how do we tell athletic directors and presidents and search firms, be very mindful around courageous hiring decisions so that diversity is a part of the bottom line when they are hiring.”
Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said the proclamations and good intentions are fine, but not binding.
“At the end of the day, we can talk about strategic plans, and report cards and pledges, but somebody has to pull the trigger and make the hire,” she said.
“It comes on the schools. The conferences and the NCAA really can only do so much. You have to be an army of one and do the right thing.”
Coaches often talk with pride about their coaching trees. Given the disparity between talent on the court and coaches on the sidelines, prominent coaches need to step up to ensure that their coaching trees yield more black fruit.