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Big East leads the way in hiring black men’s basketball head coaches

Five out of 10 coaches are black in the league, ahead of all the Power 5 conferences

The Big East has long been a trailblazer in men’s college basketball.

Its dominance in the mid-1980s was led by Georgetown, St. John’s, Syracuse and Villanova. It continued with Villanova claiming national championships in 2016 and 2018 and even to this season with the Big East considered the top conference in the country by teamranking.com. At this point in the season, it has five teams in the Top 25, more than any other conference.

However, the Big East is No. 1 in a category even more important than wins and losses. In a day and age where few black people are hired as head coaches in sports they dominate on the field or court, 50% of Big East men’s basketball teams currently have African American head coaches, a percentage that dwarfs that of Power 5 conferences as a whole or individually.

Butler Bulldogs forward Jordan Tucker (1eft) talks to Butler Bulldogs head coach LaVall Jordan (right) on the sidelines during the Crossroads Classic college basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Purdue Boilermakers Dec. 21, 2019, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

LaVall Jordan (Butler), Dave Leitao (DePaul), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Ed Cooley (Providence), and Mike Anderson (St. John’s) make up half of the Big East’s 10 head coaches. On Saturday, Ewing’s team (14-10 overall, 4-7 Big East) faces Jordan’s Bulldogs (18-6, 6-5) for the second time this season.

When asked if he noticed the diversity of head coaches in the conference, Jordan smiled. “Obviously, it’s easily noticeable, right?” he said after a New Year’s Eve victory over St. John’s. “Just look at the sidelines.”

Jordan did not see much very diversity on the sidelines during Butler’s non-conference schedule, in which the Bulldogs went 12-1 and built a Top 10 resume. While black Division I men’s basketball head coaches made up 24.8% of all head coaches in 2018, according to Richard Lapchick’s 2018 Racial and Gender Report Card for college sports, only 16% of Power 5 conference men’s basketball head coaches are black this season.

The ACC leads the Power 5 with four out of 14 black head coaches, followed by the SEC (three out of 14), the Big 12 (two out of 10), the Big Ten (one in 10) and the Pac 12 with none.

The men’s coaches in the Big East not only notice their particular dynamic, as Jordan pointed out, but are proud of it. However, of the women’s head basketball coaches in the league, one only is black.

“I love the fact that the Big East is the leading conference in the country with minority coaches,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said during the preseason at Big East media day. “When you look around college basketball today, I think there are 17 [black] coaches that are at the high major level, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

The overarching theme among the coaches: opportunity. The feeling is the Big East schools are providing an equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, to find the best people for their head coaching positions.

Providence head coach Ed Cooley reacts during an college basketball game against Marquette in Providence, Rhode Island.

“Obviously, it’s the Big East. They take the initiative. They are ahead of the curve,” said Anderson. “They’re providing opportunities. No matter who you are, what color you are, it’s all about opportunities.”

Jordan expressed a similar sentiment.

“I think it’s something that the league is proud of,” he said. “I think it speaks to each university, trying to hire the best person for the job, regardless. That’s what every university should do.”

Once given the opportunity, several coaches said, they felt the responsibility to succeed and build on the legacy of the great coaches who paved the way for them.

“I think we all try to do the best we can, to be a positive impact for the next generation,” Jordan said. “I was one of those younger coaches looking up to guys like John Thompson and John Chaney back when I was hoping to one day coach, so I think we all take that very seriously.”

“I think the coaches that are in our league, they’re doing a great job of kind of carrying the mantle,” Anderson added. “When you talk about how they carry themselves, what they’re doing with their programs and how they run their programs.”

Rod Graves is a former NFL general manager who is now chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group that seeks to increase minority representation in NFL front offices and coaching staffs. Graves said creating diversity in a space where it has not existed must be done affirmatively by intentional acts. It doesn’t happen by accident or on its own.

St. John’s Red Storm head coach Mike Anderson: “I think the coaches that are in our league, they’re doing a great job of kind of carrying the mantle.”

Senior associate commissioner of the Big East Stu Jackson, who coached in college and the NBA before becoming associate commissioner in 2014, pointed out that the Big East has a good history when it comes to minority coaches.

“I think it bears mentioning that the Big East has historically always been ahead of the curve in terms of minority hires, dating back to as early as John Thompson being hired at Georgetown. So, I think there was a precedent set back then,” Jackson said.

Geography may also play a role.

“Also,” Jackson continued, “we’re a conference that was built and comprised of schools in bigger, urban markets. That may have some influence on schools’ decisions to hire minority coaches, it just makes good sense.”

Ultimately, Jackson credits the individual universities for being non-biased actors and simply choosing the best person for the job.

DePaul Blue Demons head coach Dave Leitao (left) talks with forward Paul Reed (right) during the second half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“For us as a conference, we’re extremely proud of the diverse makeup of our head coaches and coaching staffs at each of our schools,” he said. “That being said, as a conference we cannot dictate who schools hire as their head coaches and the fact that 50% of our coaches are African American in my mind exemplifies our individual schools’ commitment to hiring the best candidates they can for their respective schools.”

When asked what other conferences or sports can learn from the Big East, Jackson returned once more to opportunity.

“I can’t emphasize it enough, it’s all about making the decision to give minority coaches the opportunity,” he explained. “Oftentimes, minorities, whether it be women or people of color, they’re all just an opportunity away from success. That’s all it is, it’s just the opportunity.”

The Big East has been very good this season on the court, as usual. It has five teams ranked in the Top 25, with a chance to get five or six teams into the NCAA tournament. Last season, four teams made the field of 68 teams. But the league’s biggest contribution this season will be that half the coaches on its sidelines should be an example to the rest of the sports world.

Jamal Murphy is a sports writer, attorney and executive producer and co-host of the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast. Jamal has covered and written about the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, college basketball, men's and women's tennis, boxing and fantasy sports. This Brooklyn native is a recovering Knicks and Jets fan, but is still hanging in there with the Mets.