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More Black head coaches doesn’t mean college basketball’s problem is solved

Despite a boost in numbers following the George Floyd protests, coaches climbing the ladder say barriers to equal opportunity remain

Excuse me for not handing out high-fives over the increase in Black college basketball head coaches this season. Pardon my lack of excitement over more opportunities arising from the murder of George Floyd. Let’s wait and see whether real equal opportunity has arrived.

As the season begins Tuesday, 34 of the 61 newly hired men’s Division I head coaches are Black. After taking replacements and firings into account, that means a net gain of 14 Black coaches. There are now 110 Black head coaches, up from 95 last season.

Wait, hold your applause — there are 358 coaches in men’s Division I basketball. Only 31% are Black, up from 27% last season. Meanwhile, more than half of the players are Black. And the higher you go in college basketball, in terms of quality and prestige of programs, the coaches get whiter and the rosters get Blacker.

Sure, the increase is a good sign, but it feels like the bank crediting money to your account out of nowhere — it could just disappear. Yes, it was encouraging to see Black excellence rewarded, from Ben Johnson at Minnesota to Isaac Brown at Wichita State, from Toyelle Wilson at SMU to the youngest Division I head coach in the country, 30-year-old Drew Valentine at Loyola Chicago. But anybody who knows the difference between a timeout and a turnover understands this hiring spree was a reaction to the massive racial justice protests that followed Floyd’s death under the knee of a white cop.

To make sure my skepticism wasn’t misplaced, I interviewed 14 Black head and assistant coaches. I wanted to know if it was wrong to think that when chocolate is no longer the flavor of the month, the head-coaching ranks could easily return to vanilla.

It defies common sense that so many Black players have produced so few head coaches. But there’s an ugly logic in the fact that an overwhelmingly white power structure — athletic directors, presidents, trustees, regents and the almighty donors — has mostly chosen white men to run their teams.

They were basically like, does a Baylor Bear dunk on the hardwood?

“I think this is just a one-time thing,” said an assistant who coached in the Power 5 last season. Like most people interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition that his name not be used, because he knows one Google search could cost him his dream job.

“I talk to current college assistants all the time and we say, ‘Hey, you do understand this may be as high as you can go?’ ” he said. “That’s a conversation amongst us — ‘I may not be able to go any higher than this.’ And you have to live with that.”

“We have to do it cleaner, and we have to do it better, and we can’t have blemishes,” said Kevin Sutton, an assistant at Florida Gulf Coast. “And clearly, we have to win. At some schools you have to win big. We have to be more professional, smarter and more consistent. We have to be twice as good.”

The reasons Black coaches have a tougher road to the top are at once mysterious and painfully obvious. It defies common sense that so many Black players have produced so few head coaches. But there’s an ugly logic in the fact that an overwhelmingly white power structure — athletic directors, presidents, trustees, regents and the almighty donors — has mostly chosen white men to run their teams. The next layer of the problem is the stereotype of Black coaches as recruiters and “relate to”-ers, instead of strategists and leaders — which is another way of saying that Black coaches aren’t as intelligent as white ones. There’s also the rapid 10- to 14-day time frame of most hires, which are run by search firms and tend to favor coaches within established white networks. Then comes the importance of coming up under the right head coach, who is historically more likely to be a white man.

Boston College men’s head basketball coach Earl Grant working with his players during practice at Power Gym on Nov. 4.

Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This is not an indictment of white head coaches in general — well, maybe some of them. Because it’s undeniable that some white coaches with mediocre records or questionable pasts continue to receive head-coaching jobs — or keep them after being accused of serious violations — while many Black coaches with spotless resumes remain stuck as assistants. Once in the top spot, plenty of white coaches with unspectacular results still get contract extensions — something that rarely happens with Black coaches.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes. In other words, to be truly free, we must have the freedom not to be successful, too,” Georgetown head coach John Thompson said in his autobiography, I Came as a Shadow, which I wrote with him.

In 1984, Thompson became the first Black coach to win an NCAA basketball championship. (He resisted that label, because he said it falsely implied he was the first Black coach with the ability to win a title.) Since then, out of 72 men’s and women’s titles, only five have been won by Black coaches.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was the most recent to do so, in 2017. She just signed a new contract extension worth more than $3 million per year. But women’s basketball did not see a jump in Black coaches this season — only 13 of 41 head coaches hired were Black. Only 25% of women’s coaches were Black in 2019-20, the most recent year for which NCAA demographic stats are available. Forty-six percent of players that season were Black; 31% were white.

Given all the history, can this year’s equal opportunity be sustained?

“That’s a great question, and I would love to tell you I knew the answer,” said Craig Robinson, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “I’m hopeful. And you’re right, it was the result of the racial reckoning of that we saw all of last year — but that’s OK.”

“We have to continue to advocate for equal opportunity beyond coaches,” Robinson said. “We need to see diversity at the athletic director level, at the provost level, at the president level, more people of color on boards of trustees and boards of regents, because that will have a positive trickle-down impact.”

Everyone I spoke with said the real test of this season’s progress will be what the numbers look like in three or four years, when this batch of contracts are nearing an end, wins and losses are being counted, and a new round of firings and hirings will commence.

New Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s head basketball coach Ben Johnson during his introductory news conference on March 23.

Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images

“You can do a great job and be in a tough position, and it just might take you a year or two to flip it, if you’re doing it the right way,” said Johnson, the new Minnesota coach. “I think people just need to recognize that and recognize when you see somebody that’s talented that can get it done, to give them that space and that opportunity to get it done. Sometimes you got to struggle to be great. I think history has shown, more times than not, the jobs that we do get are a little bit harder. We all don’t get handed that silver spoon, where it’s just like the table is set.”

The only new Black coach with a silver spoon this year is Hubert Davis at North Carolina, which is ranked in the preseason top 25. Davis played at Carolina, then the NBA, then assisted at his alma mater under the legend Roy Williams. Mike Woodson has a good chance to succeed at Indiana, where he played before going to the NBA as a player and head coach.

But most Black coaches are usually handed plastic forks for jobs that are uphill battles (Earl Grant at Boston College, Kyle Neptune at Fordham), long shots (Levell Sanders at Binghamton) or mission impossible (Tony Madlock at South Carolina State).

On the record, the coaches I interviewed expressed optimism while acknowledging that the playing field is not yet level. “I think once we knock down some of these stigmas of just being a recruiter, or that ‘he’s a player’s coach,’ you might hear some different things, like ‘he’s an in-game adjuster,’ ” said Shantay Legans, the new head coach at Portland. He got the job after leading Eastern Washington to the NCAA tournament last season, where it gave Kansas a scare in the first round. “Once we start getting those labels, then I think we’ll start getting looked at differently.”

Without their names attached, the comments were blistering.

“Well, being Black, you kind of don’t want to get your hopes up,” said an assistant for a mid-major women’s team. “George Floyd was being talked about so much and creating so much protest, it’s like, are they hiring Black coaches to shut everyone up.”

“The coaches that don’t succeed, schools might be like, ‘You got your shot, your one opportunity — now it’s time to go back to what we’re used to,’ ” she said. “Does a white man really go into a $500,000 coaching job with as much pressure as a Black female or Black man going into that position? I don’t think so. The pressure on us to succeed is significantly higher.”

Said a Power 5 assistant who works for a Black head coach: “I’ve had boosters come up and tell me, ‘Frankly, I have not been around Black people.’ They say about my boss, ‘I’ve never met someone like him.’ They gave him an opportunity and have gotten to know him, and they’re blown away at his substance, his core. But a lot of whites that give money haven’t been around Blacks. In those scenarios, if there’s not success and those relationships aren’t cultivated, then a lot of whites unfortunately go back to the status quo of being around people that they’re comfortable with that look like them.”

The uprisings of 2020 penetrated deep into college sports. Players protested on campus, knelt during the national anthem, even discussed delaying an NCAA tournament game. Many white coaches seemed out of their comfort zone. It’s not a stretch to see the hiring of so many Black coaches, in part, as the power structure trying to maintain control of its billion-dollar industry.

“This was a door opening because of George Floyd,” said one veteran assistant coach. “They bring everybody Black in and want everybody to feel good. They thought this was an opportunity to control the players. They hired these guys because they know where the money lies — in the players.”

American history is full of backlash to racial progress. After Reconstruction, Jim Crow. After Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight boxing champ, he was railroaded into prison. As the civil rights movement marched forward, the Confederate flag reemerged. After Fritz Pollard broke the NFL’s color line, Black players were kept out for another 12 years. After Obama, Trump.

As this college basketball season begins, equality is scoring some points — but injustice can still get back in the game.

Black coaches hired at Division I schools for 2021-22 season
Dwayne KillingsAlbany
Solomon BozemanArkansas-Pine Bluff
Nate JamesAustin Peay
Dominique Taylor Bethune-Cookman
Levell SandersBinghamton
Earl GrantBoston College
Patrick SellersCentral Connecticut State
Tony BarbeeCentral Michigan
Gerald GillionChicago State
Stan WatermanDelaware State
Tony StubblefieldDePaul
Desmond OliverEast Tennessee State
Stan HeathEastern Michigan
Kyle NeptuneFordham
Kim EnglishGeorge Mason
Speedy ClaxtonHofstra
Rashon BurnoNorthern Illinois
Mike WoodsonIndiana
Matt CrenshawIUPUI
Jordan MincyJacksonville
Alvin BrooksLamar
Drew ValentineLoyola Chicago
Shaka SmartMarquette
Ben JohnsonMinnesota
Hubert DavisNorth Carolina
Leonard PerryPacific
Micah ShrewsberryPenn State
Shantay LegansPortland
Darris NicholsRadford
Tony MadlockSouth Carolina State
Terrence JohnsonTexas State
Mike JonesUNC Greensboro
Justin GrayWestern Carolina
Isaac BrownWichita State

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.