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Coaches vs. Racism uses tourney between HBCUs, Division I schools to spark conversation

North Carolina A&T will play Houston to kick off HBCU Roundball Classic

Six schools will converge in Houston this week to bring awareness of a single opponent: racism.

North Carolina A&T will play the University of Houston on Tuesday to kick off the second annual Coaches vs. Racism HBCU Roundball Classic at the Fertitta Center on the University of Houston campus. The event, in which Division I schools compete against historically Black colleges and universities, seeks to use sports as a platform for change and highlights coaches who are working together to fight racism.

A Saturday doubleheader at the James M. Delmar Fieldhouse also will feature Prairie View A&M taking on Montana and Texas Tech playing Jackson State as a part of the classic.

“We were trying to figure out a way that we could have some sort of impact and use sports as a platform to do that,” said Darryl Woods, executive director of the organization. “So what I wanted to do is kind of leverage my relationships to create a platform and to give coaches and student-athletes a space where they can speak freely about some of the things that go on in our country.

“So, the games [are] one thing and it does bring us together. [But] we don’t forget that it’s a competition. Coaches are there to play, compete and win games. So we wanna make sure that we don’t lose sight of that. And then also understand, it’s more than just a game.”

The nonprofit Coaches vs. Racism organization is an outgrowth of athletes who used their platforms to bring awareness to inequities against Black and Latino people throughout the country. The protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 compelled athletes such as Stephen Jackson, who grew up with Floyd in Houston’s 3rd Ward, to publicly condemn racism and police brutality.

Houston men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson said the classic helps maintain awareness of Floyd’s murder.

“After the George Floyd thing, everything exploded. The fact that we’re having this tournament and we’re attaching the word racism [to it] just brings it back to the forefront,” Sampson said. “As divisive as our country is right now, there’s more and more people hearing about it, but there’s more and more people uncomfortable talking about it.

“This is one of those events where we need to keep pushing it to the forefront so people are aware of it. Whether it’s a basketball tournament, a press conference or a conversation, there’s no negative in that. It can only be positive.”

Prairie View A&M men’s basketball coach Byron Smith said stops by the police are part of the conversations he has with his players daily.

“There’s a lot of profiling going on out there, because it’s a small place,” Smith said. “So it’s a conversation that we have every day, pretty much with our players about how they move, they travel [and] being very careful about your appearance so you don’t get profiled. So they’re tough conversations, but they’re conversations that need to be had to keep ’em aware [and] to keep ’em focused.”

This year’s classic is being played in Houston, where Floyd played football and basketball at legendary Jack Yates High School. Floyd earned a basketball scholarship to Florida Community College [now known as South Florida State College] after graduating from Yates in 1993.

That hits home for Smith, who played at the University of Houston and still has roots in the 3rd Ward.

“Obviously it’s something that’s near and dear to me in that area,” Smith said. “The platform that we have right now is to continue to push awareness, talk to our young men [and] just to try to be an agent for change.”

There have been successes this season that showcased HBCU basketball, coaches said, such as Alcorn State’s victory over Wichita State on Nov. 12; Texas Southern’s Nov. 13 win over Arizona State, Texas Southern’s only loss of the season thus far; and several matchups between Pac-12 schools and HBCUs, which are significant since they are paid games to HBCUs to help sustain their yearly budgets.

Last year, Michigan played Prairie View A&M in Washington in the inaugural Coaches vs. Racism HBCU Roundball Classic.

Both schools were selected as good programs being led by Black coaches: Michigan, coached by Juwan Howard, was coming off a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Prairie View A&M had gone 44-5 in Smith’s previous three seasons in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Their ranks may be growing, but there is a need to increase the low number of Black coaches – and that calls for dealing with inequities in their industry.

There were 110 Black head coaches in Division I men’s basketball last season, up from 95. That’s about 31% of all major college coaches. When Dawn Staley won a national title at South Carolina last season, she became the first Black coach, male or female, to win a second NCAA championship. Black women made up only 18.5% of Division I coaches as of 2021.

“When you look at our league top to bottom, we got guys who really know what they’re doing,” Smith said. “[But] we gotta go on the road and play 13 road games at a disadvantage every single night. Nobody speaks enough about what we have to do.”

The conversation on HBCU coaches moving ahead has to go beyond having the same standard in evaluating good coaches, he said.

“It ain’t even about that,” Smith said. “It’s just about the aspect of we have great coaches in our league and they can coach anywhere in America, and I don’t think they get the looks that they deserve ’cause of the situation that we’re in.”

Coaches have to be prepared when opportunities arise, Smith said.

“If you stay focused [on] why am I not getting an opportunity, it’s like a player sitting on the bench. So when people start talking [about] not getting a seat at the table, we’ve all shown that we are good coaches,” Smith said. “We’ve had some really good wins at Prairie View, but I try to stay focused on just preparing myself, being the best I can be every single day. … When it’s your time to be elevated, to be promoted, it’s gonna come.”

Many of these issues used to be addressed by the Black Coaches Association, which no longer operates in its original form. The association was at its peak during the 1980s through much of the 1990s, with basketball legends John Thompson, John Chaney, George Raveling and Nolan Richardson at the helm.

Given the times, a revival of the organization could be essential, some coaches say. 

University of Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said a revival of the Black Coaches Association is underway.

“I’m currently working with a group that has reestablished the Black Coaches Association, and they’re currently taking it further where it’s more than just basketball coaches, just actually every sport,” DeCuire said. “[We’re] currently active with Zooms and giving coaches a voice and currently creating a board and moving forward with some topics that will help us not only educate but support Black coaches nationally.”

Sampson said other coaches are also holding Zoom meetings with colleagues to address issues, and Marquette head coach Shaka Smart has started a group with Black assistant coaches. There’s also another offshoot of Black head coaches, he said.

Thompson, Richardson, Raveling and Chaney, who influenced Smith as a young coach, would be pleased with what’s being done, Smith said.

“They would be proud of a lot of the things, the grassroots things that are bubbling underneath the surface that a lot of people don’t know about,” he said. “That’s [what has] happened that I’m really proud of.”

That’s what the Coaches vs. Racism HBCU Roundball Classic is all about.

“This is just another opportunity to continue to educate people, whether it is creating a level of comfort or sharing perspective,” said DeCuire, who added he has done this throughout his career.

“Anytime you bring up the word ‘racism’ or anything pro-Black or pro-minority, the question is always why. Because there’s not a lot of empathy, whether there’s just not a lot of people that understand somebody else’s perspective of life. And so you constantly have to explain it.”

Coaches vs. Racism HBCU Roundball Classic

  • 8 p.m. EST, Tuesday: University of Houston vs. North Carolina A&T at the Fertitta Center.
  • 1 p.m. EST, Saturday: Prairie View A&M vs. University of Montana at James M. Delmar Fieldhouse.
  • 4 p.m. EST, Saturday: Texas Tech vs. Jackson State at the James M. Delmar Fieldhouse.

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.