The Big 12’s two-decades long coaching problem in women’s basketball
While other power conferences have shown signs of growth in the diversification of their coach hires, the Big 12 has yet to follow suit
Marian Washington’s impact as a coach and pioneer in women’s basketball is an integral piece of the sport’s history.
Synonymous with Washington’s indelible legacy is the University of Kansas, which joined the newly formed Big 12 Conference in 1996. Washington became the Big 12’s first Black women’s basketball coach and enjoyed four consecutive NCAA tournament berths in the conference’s first four seasons.
Following Washington’s retirement from Kansas in 2004, there was hope that her presence and success would help create opportunities for other aspiring coaches of color. While evidence of that progress has begun to take hold across college basketball, it has yet to be seen in the very conference where Washington helped break down those barriers.
As Big 12 women’s basketball enters a new era for the conference with the addition of four new institutions in July, it does so while carrying a blemish of the past. While other power conferences have shown signs of growth in the diversification of their head coaching hires, the Big 12 has yet to follow suit.
This past season, the Big 12 was the only power conference without a Black women’s basketball head coach. The same statement could be said two seasons ago, and the year before that.
Since 2004, there have been 22 head coaching openings in the conference. The Big 12 hasn’t had a full-time Black head coach leading any of its women’s basketball programs for almost 20 years – the last being Washington.
“We’re honoring Marian Washington for things that were done so long ago at Kansas. The fact that she was the last Black female to have a position in the Big 12 is downright scary,” said former Furman head coach Jackie Carson, former leader of the Women of Color Coaches Network.
The prevailing issue has left past Big 12 women’s basketball coaching pioneers disappointed, current college coaches of color searching for answers and newly positioned conference leadership scrambling to buck a glaring trend that its predecessors left unaddressed.
During her 31-year coaching career, Washington was a staunch advocate for more representation amongst head coaches, continually championing the importance of diversity on the sidelines. The lack of diversity in the Big 12, Washington says, has been sorely missed.
“It’s important to acknowledge that African American women have been coaching successfully in other leagues for decades,” Washington said. “From my own experience, both as a player and a coach of young women, I know how important it is to see yourself and have role models who look like you.”
Peggie Gillom-Granderson still remembers the conversations she had with Washington after accepting the head coaching position at Texas A&M, one of the conference’s original programs, in 1998.
“She gave me pointers when I first got there,” said Gillom-Granderson, who was the first Black head coach in Texas A&M women’s basketball history. Gillom-Granderson is the only Black head women’s basketball coach to be hired in the Big 12’s 27-year history. Washington shared with Gillom-Granderson tips pertaining to the experience of being an African American head coach and being in the Big 12.
“What to do, how to do and how to handle things,” said Gillom-Granderson, who was the first Black scholarship player for Ole Miss women’s basketball. “The things she said, I saw.”
When Gillom learned of the current hiring disparity in the Big 12, the news shocked her.
“Twenty years the Big 12 has not had a Black head coach in women’s basketball? Especially when you think about there being six or seven at one time in the SEC [in 2021-22] and we’re still waiting?” Gillom-Granderson said. “That says something.”
The lack of diverse hiring in the Big 12 comes at a time when, nationwide, Black coaches have steadily earned opportunities to lead college programs. When Washington retired in 2004, Black coaches represented 15.5% of all head coaches in Division I (Black women 9.1%, Black men 6.4%) according to NCAA demographics. In 2022, Black coaches made up 29% of head coaches in Division I, with Black women head coaches seeing a 12-percent increase.
There has also been a stable increase in coveted power conference opportunities. Each of the Big East’s three coaching vacancies this offseason, for example, were filled by Black coaches; Tasha Butts at Georgetown, Erin Bath at Providence and Billi Chambers at Xavier.
Opportunities given have yielded results on the national stage. In the last three years, three different Black head coaches have appeared in the Final Four (Dawn Staley, Adia Barnes, Kenny Brooks). Staley has won two national championships leading South Carolina.
This past season alone, Black coaches made history in almost every part of the country. Niele Ivey of Notre Dame was the first Black coach to win an ACC regular-season title and led the Irish to a second straight Sweet 16. Brooks of Virginia Tech was the first Black coach to win an ACC tournament championship and led his team to its first ever Final Four. Yolett McPhee-McCuin took Ole Miss to its first Sweet 16 since 2007. Outside the power conferences, Alex Simmons led Gardner Webb to the best season in Big South Conference history. In April, Simmons was named the new head coach at the University of Memphis.
“I think there’s been more intentionality by athletic directors and search firms because I feel like more Black women have gotten opportunities over the last few years,” said Carson, who was recently named the ACC’s new Senior Associate Commissioner for Women’s Basketball. “Not even just from an assistant to a first job but mid-major coaches moving on to higher jobs.”
But Carson says that intentionality has been missing in the Big 12. This offseason, West Virginia and Texas Christian University became the 21st and 22nd Big 12 coaching vacancies to not be filled by a coach of color since 2004.
“It’s unfortunate,” Carson said.
The conference has taken its first steps to begin to address the issue. Last October, Jenn Hunter was named the Big 12’s Chief Impact Officer by conference commissioner Brett Yormark. Hunter, a double HBCU alumna, joined the Big 12 after serving as the senior director of DEI for the Portland Trail Blazers.
When it comes to the previous coaching hires made in the Big 12, particularly as it pertains to women’s basketball, Hunter acknowledged the disparity in diverse hiring, but was firm in her optimism for the conference’s future.
“We can’t be disappointed about something that we didn’t touch,” Hunter said. “We don’t have to shy away from it. We see what it is. I can either sit in it and wallow in it and complain, or I can be proactive and do what needs to be done for long-term sustainability.”
Hunter said Yormark, who became Big 12 commissioner in August 2022, is aware of the conference’s hiring record over the past two decades. She added that the two plan to work on establishing an environment in which hiring in the conference is reflective of the conference’s communities.
“It is not just a plan for today but what the impact of this is going to be 15-20 years from now for the conference,” Hunter said.
Hunter identified a few areas where she’d like to see changes. She placed an emphasis on creating a coaching pipeline within the conference to create opportunities for student-athletes to get into coaching and build careers under the tutelage of the conference they played for.
“From a conference level, for us it’s having our own cache of up-and-coming coaches and keeping a pulse on who is out there so that we can keep folks educated about it,” Hunter said.
Hunter also wants to see the Big 12’s current coaches prioritize diversity within their coaching staff – coaches who could potentially lead to future hires within the conference. When it comes to the hiring of head coaches, there’s also been a push to see more diverse candidate pools put before athletic directors.
Whenever a dialogue around coaching diversity in college athletics arises, oftentimes a focus is placed on the diversity amongst the decision makers themselves. In 2022-23, all 10 Big 12 athletic directors were white men. Shimmy Gray-Miller, a former coach most recently as an assistant at the University of Minnesota, said that’s one of the roots of the problem.
“Who is doing the hiring? You tend to navigate and gravitate towards those that are in your wheelhouse,” said Gray-Miller, who served as an assistant at Texas Tech in 2018, including a stint as interim head coach. “If someone came to me and said I need an assistant coach, chances are if I gave you five people, four of the five people are going to be Black females because that’s who is in my network.”
The presence of a Black athletic director at power institutions has undoubtedly made an impact for Black coaches. Hirings in recent years has shown that. Lee Reed, athletic director at Georgetown, has hired several Black head coaches during his tenure, including his most recent hire, Butts. Kara Lawson was hired by Duke in 2020 in a search led by Nina King who would later be named the director of athletics in 2021. Former Auburn athletic director Allen Greene hired Johnnie Harris in 2021. Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson hired Natasha Adair as the first Black head coach in program history in 2022. Also in 2022, Carla Williams hired Amaka Agugua-Hamilton to lead Virginia.
Hunter says the Big 12’s athletic directors have been open and receptive to having conversations regarding diversity, and she is hopeful that those conversations will ultimately generate results for the conference.
“I have a great room of dudes in that space that have been open, listening and learning,” Hunter said. “I’m in that room and able to have those conversations so we can get the ball rolling. I really have a lot of belief that these programs, these pipelines and just more intentionality will result in more diversity within our conference for the next 20 years.”
Both Hunter and Gray-Miller raised another issue in addressing the lack of Black coaches in the conference – location. When Gray-Miller was the interim head coach at Texas Tech, she was living in Lubbock, Texas, an experience she said was challenging as a “liberal, LGBTQ, Black woman.” She added that the location of many Big 12 schools could serve as a deterrent for some Black women coaches.
At the time of her appointment as an interim head coach at Texas Tech in 2018, Red Raiders athletic director Kirby Hocutt was clear that Gray-Miller, who had just joined the Texas Tech staff the previous spring, wouldn’t be a part of the program’s full-time coaching search.
“If he had told me I had been on that list I might have been like, I don’t know if I want to live in Lubbock,” said Gray-Miller, who described the city as being very conservative and segregated. “I struggled there.
“You think a lot of the other big cities in the Big 12 — Stillwater [Oklahoma], Norman [Oklahoma], Manhattan [Kansas], Morgantown [West Virginia] … these aren’t exactly cities that probably would be a destination place for Black women. I’m not dissing those cities. Those are very fine cities, great places to raise families and things like that, but you would need a lot of support as a Black woman to thrive in places like that. Especially if you’re trying to be your whole authentic self.”
Hunter said it’s important that the conference invests in showcasing its markets to ensure no potential candidate feels deterred by a school’s location.
“I think once you make the Big 12 more alluring for people to want to come, that will be helpful,” Hunter said. “I think where our conference has an opportunity is to really show and sell and make sure that people feel welcome and that there is community in these towns to make the place attractive.”
The lack of diverse hiring in Big 12 women’s basketball becomes more intriguing when you take a look at the coaching landscape in Big 12 men’s basketball.
Last season alone, the conference had three Black head coaches leading programs – Jerome Tang at Kansas State, Rodney Terry at Texas, who was named head coach in March after serving as an interim, and Mike Boynton Jr. of Oklahoma State. The Big 12 has had at least one Black head coach in men’s basketball, even multiple head coaches for a number of years, dating back to the conference’s inaugural season in 1996.
Hunter said she couldn’t point to a specific reason why the disparity between the men’s and women’s side exists, adding that she hasn’t had those conversations of why the hiring practices have differed. She hopes to see intentionality in hiring happen “across the board.”
Carson does have a theory as to why, and it begins with a lack of investment in the women’s game – an issue she says is not limited to the Big 12.
“There are plenty of women of color coaches that run great systems, but do these athletic directors and search firms know who they are? No, but they’ll do that homework on the men’s side,” Carson said. We don’t do that homework enough on the women’s side.”
Gray-Miller agrees. When a friend updated her on the hires made during this recent head coaching hiring cycle, for several of those hires she found herself saying “what?”
“Some really lazy hires,” said Gray-Miller, who had been coaching at the collegiate level since 2000. “There are some really, really good Black coaches who are getting overlooked.”
Despite no coaches of color being hired in the Big 12 during the offseason, there will be Black coaches on the sidelines when the season tips off next winter. The Big 12 will welcome four schools to the conference in July – the University of Cincinnati, Brigham Young University, the University of Houston and the University of Central Florida. Of those new members, three of those programs – Cincinnati, Houston and UCF – have Black coaches.
Ronald Hughey has been the head coach at Houston since 2014. Sytia Messer, previously an assistant for Big 12 member Baylor for seven seasons under then-head coach Kim Mulkey, is the head coach at UCF. Katrina Merriweather will be in her first season at Cincinnati, where she played from 1997 to 2001, after successful head coaching stints at Wright State and Memphis. UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati all enter the Big 12 having each hired multiple Black head coaches in their respective programs’ histories.
Prior to becoming a head coach at Houston, Hughey served as an assistant at Big 12 member Texas from 2012-14. When asked if he was aware of the disparity in diversity on the sidelines during his time in Austin, Hughey said, “you don’t take a blind eye to it.”
As one of the first Black coaches in the conference in two decades, Hughey said he doesn’t feel any added pressure to succeed. If there is pressure for him and his colleagues, Hughey said, it’s the pressure of wanting to do best for themselves and their programs. In doing so, he believes more opportunities for others will follow.
“Hopefully coming into the Big 12, we do a great job and people will see that you can hire a Black coach in the Big 12,” Hughey said. “You hope that change is coming. I have a responsibility to be the best that I can be and represent so that I can create opportunities for the people who are coming up behind us.”
Washington is excited to see this new group of Black head coaches have the opportunity to lead Big 12 programs.
“More diversity in the Big 12 is long overdue, and I’m thrilled to see Katrina, Ronald and Sytia get this opportunity,” she said.
As the Big 12 moves forward, Hunter wants the conference to be able to lead in intentionality. With the opportunity to bring coaching diversity to a conference that has been devoid of it for almost two decades and seemingly made no effort towards improvement, Hunter believes the conference is on the right path.
“We want to have that diversity. We want to increase that in a lot of areas …,” Hunter said. “There’s a lot of women out here really grinding, particularly women of color, and we believe at the conference that they deserve those shots. We really hope that they get them and that they get them within our conference, too.”
ESPN’s M.A. Voepel contributed to this story.