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Success by Black female head coaches in the SEC shows strength in numbers

South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Georgia’s Joni Taylor are among six coaches in the league

“What you saw gives Black women hope.”

Those were the words of South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley after her Gamecocks beat Georgia in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship game two weeks ago. Georgia is coached by Joni Taylor. Staley and Taylor’s matchup was the first time two Black female head coaches faced each other in a women’s Power 5 conference title game.

That is life in the SEC now, the Power 5’s most diverse conference when it comes to women’s basketball coaches. Yes, the SEC, with its member schools entrenched in America’s Deep South.

The SEC is also arguably the best conference in women’s college basketball this season. The conference received seven bids to the NCAA tournament, with six teams seeded in the top four seed lines.

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor reacts as her team comes down the court against Texas A&M during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Jan. 31 in College Station, Texas.

Sam Craft/AP Photo

The 14-team SEC had seven Black women helm their women’s basketball programs this season. Including Staley and Taylor, there is Nikki Fargas at LSU, Kyra Elzy at Kentucky, Nikki McCray at Mississippi State, Yolett McPhee-McCuin at Mississippi and Terri Williams-Flournoy, who was let go by Auburn earlier this month.

That type of diversity dwarfs any other Power 5 conference in women’s basketball. There are three Black female head coaches in the 15-team ACC, zero in the Big 12, one of 14 in the Big Ten and two of 12 in the Pac-12.

According to the NCAA Database in 2020, only 14% of Power 5 women’s basketball head coaches were Black women, compared with 52% white women and 29% white men. Black women basketball players make up 49% of the Power 5, compared with 24% white women and 28% other.

How important is the coaching diversity in the SEC to Black women in the profession? It’s huge, according to Fargas.

“When you see us, you be us,” the 10-year LSU coach told me on the day of the SEC championship game. “This will be the first time that my 9-year-old daughter will see two women of color [coaching] for an SEC championship.”

LSU head coach Nikki Fargas greets players during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M during the Southeastern Conference tournament March 5 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/AP Photo

Fargas, who has taken the Tigers to five NCAA tournaments, including two Sweet 16s, described a group chat she’s in with dozens of current and former Black women coaches. “I can’t tell you how excited they all are for today, for Joni and for Dawn,” she said. “It is the same feeling that you had for Barack [Obama]. It’s the same, like, ‘look at us, we are here and being recognized and we are representing.’ ”

Taylor, in her sixth year as head coach at Georgia, with three NCAA tournament bids under her belt, expressed a similar sentiment about today’s SEC. “To go from not seeing anyone in Division I women’s basketball, that I can recall, other than C. Vivian Stringer, as a high school player, to seeing one SEC Black female head coach when I was a player in the conference, to now think that players who play in the SEC can look around and half of the league has Black female head coaches,” the former University of Alabama power forward told me before the SEC tournament.

“It is exciting. In the South, mind you. I think it speaks to the SEC being progressive, but also, just on our institutional campuses, the commitment that the institutions have made.”

We know that in order to allow for true diversity within organizations or professions, intentional acts to create such an environment must be taken to make up for centuries of intentional acts meant to prevent it. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says the league is doing just that.

Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson joins other athletic staffs from the state’s public universities calling for a change in the Mississippi state flag during a joint news conference at the Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 25, 2020. Several head coaches met with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Speaker Philip Gunn and their lawmakers to lobby for the change by their respective bodies. The flag included the Civil War-era Confederate battle flag emblem, which has been the center of a long-simmering debate about its removal or replacement.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

“The Southeastern Conference is proud to continue to be at the forefront in developing intercollegiate athletics leaders from historically underrepresented populations,” Sankey wrote via email. “The SEC has set the standard for diverse leaders in women’s basketball, but our commitment to diversity must touch every sport and administrative role. With eight Black women serving as Senior Woman Administrators on SEC campuses, we lead the nation in diversity among SWAs, a group that has produced two Black Division I athletics directors in the last four years, Vanderbilt’s Candice Storey Lee and Virginia’s Carla Williams.”

While the efforts of the SEC and its individual institutions are noted, the league’s current Black women coaches say the most important factor has been their success. This season, three of the seven Black women coaches in the league made the NCAA tournament, all three of their teams – South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky – won its first round games and South Carolina advanced to this weekend’s Sweet 16.

“I’m going to credit Dawn Staley because she got to South Carolina first and she won and she was successful,” Taylor said. “Athletic directors, presidents, anybody who is running a program, running a business, they want to win, want to be successful. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s look at what Dawn did and do the same thing.’ ”

Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy instructs her team during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Lexington, Kentucky on Jan. 10.

James Crisp/AP Photo

Staley is in her 13th year as head coach at South Carolina. She has more than 300 wins with the Gamecocks, has won 76% of her games there and has participated in nine NCAA tournaments. She has taken eight Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and won a national championship in 2017. South Carolina’s round of 64 win over Mercer on Sunday was Staley’s 500th of her career.

“I think I’ve been a part of the success [in terms] of what could happen,” Staley said. “When we can create that kind of success, it does put a little bit of pressure on other members of this conference to say, ‘Hey, this might not be a bad idea.’ ”

Of course, this issue is not about whether white coaches can be good coaches or positive allies or influences, which they can be and have been. The issue is about equal opportunity for coaches of color and options for players of color.

“I don’t think the entire pool of coaches should look like Black people,” Staley said. “I do think it should be a lot more than what we’re seeing, because 50% of the makeup of our sport is Black young women. It’s not to say other coaches aren’t good at what they do, white coaches, Asian coaches, whoever. I’m not saying they aren’t good. I will say this: They will never be able to walk in a Black woman’s shoes and be able to navigate through life and tell them how to do it, because it’s not just ‘do the right thing,’ it’s not.”

Fargas struck a similar tone.

Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Mississippi and Texas A&M in Oxford, Mississippi, on Feb. 21. Texas A&M won 66-55.

Thomas Graning/AP Photo

“When you look at this game and all of us who played, about 70% of us are minorities, but us being in a leadership role doesn’t reflect that,” she said. “The numbers aren’t matching up as far as the number of us who played, who gave our blood, sweat and tears to this game. And then the opportunity to come back to the game that you have run many, many sprints for, you’ve dove on the floor, you’ve had surgeries, you try to rehab, you come back and then the game doesn’t want you.”

The SEC has been the consensus best conference in women’s college basketball this season, thanks in part to the coaches on its sidelines. It has, by far, the most diverse collection of coaches of any Power 5 conference in the nation. Other conferences should take heed if they wish to match the SEC’s success both on and off the court.

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.