Virginia Tech’s Kenny Brooks has become ‘the standard’ for Black male coaches in women’s college basketball
Brooks has the Hokies on the rise while increasing his advocacy for aspiring Black coaches
At a young age, Kenny Brooks learned quickly that his connection to basketball was different from his peers.
While his friends were only interested in hooping on the playground, Brooks was always keen on diving deeper. He wanted to engage with the ins and outs of the sport. Brooks became obsessed with statistics and game strategy.
As a sophomore in high school, his grades almost cost him a spot on the boys basketball team. The reason? He had become enamored with a basketball board game, one in which players roll a die to dictate basketball actions.
“It became about strategy,” Brooks said. “I played it to the point where it was almost detrimental because I wasn’t doing my homework.”
Brooks’ obsession reached a point where his high school coach had to intervene.
“I stayed on my basketball team by the skin of my teeth,” he said.
A knack for coaching has always been ingrained in Brooks, who has molded a youthful curiosity into a distinguished 20-year head coaching career. Entering his seventh year as the head coach of Virginia Tech, Brooks is leading one of the most intriguing teams in women’s college basketball – a team that he has transformed from a conference bottom-feeder to a national target. He’s also done it as one of the few Black male head coaches at the Division I level. He’ll walk the sideline this season as the only Black male head coach of a power conference program.
Among the small contingent of Black male head coaches in Division I, Brooks currently stands at the forefront, a lone representative competing against the game’s most heralded teams. Brooks and his peers are aware that his performance and continued success at Virginia Tech hold the potential to create change for others who hope to join him at the same level.
“It’s huge,” said Norfolk State head coach Larry Vickers. “Athletic directors are seeing what he does and they’ll be like, well who is next up. He runs an excellent program.
“He’s definitely the standard for us.”
‘I just remember being able to handle it all.’
Brooks remembers when he realized that he could not only make a living as a coach but as a formidable head coach. At the time, he was an assistant on the James Madison University men’s basketball team, his alma mater, where he played from 1988 to 1991. In a matchup against the Virginia Military Institute, with the Dukes trailing by double digits, JMU head coach Sherman Dillard received his second technical foul of the game. As Dillard disputed the call, Brooks ran to calm him down and hold his head coach back.
“Then all of a sudden it hit me, ‘damn, I need to coach the game now,’ ” said Brooks, who filled in for Dillard in his absence. “I start coaching and barking out plays. I got the armpit sweat going, which had never happened before. Players were coming up to me asking what we wanted to run. … I just remember being able to handle it all.”
Under Brooks’ leadership, JMU came back to win the game by double digits. Following the game, it became clear to Brooks that he had a future on the sideline. He calls it his “ah-ha” moment.
“From that point on, it was just a matter of time until I got an opportunity,” Brooks said.
In 2002, Brooks took an assistant coaching role on the JMU women’s basketball team before being named the interim head coach that same season. The following year, he was named the program’s new head coach. Over the course of the next decade, Brooks would develop JMU into a mid-major power.
In the last three years of Brooks’ tenure at JMU, the program had reached a point where it essentially ran itself. Brooks’ teams went 60-3 in conference play, won three straight conference championships and made three NCAA tournament appearances.
Brooks believed it was time to see if he could challenge himself at the next level, but he wouldn’t leave JMU for anything. At the same time, despite his success in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he won more than 300 games, Brooks said that college athletic directors weren’t necessarily beating down his door to offer him that opportunity.
Then, Virginia Tech came to the door.
For Brooks, a transition to Virginia Tech seemed like an appropriate fit. He grew up a few hours away from the Virginia Tech campus, attended James Madison with Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, and he saw an opportunity to build something on the court with the women’s basketball team. Before Brooks’ arrival, Virginia Tech had fallen on hard times. The Hokies had gone the previous 10 years with just two winning seasons, no more than five ACC wins in a single season and were without an NCAA tournament appearance.
Brooks took a leap of faith and was introduced in March 2016 as the seventh head women’s basketball coach in program history. The challenge that Brooks sought wasted no time in presenting itself like a brick wall to the new power conference head coach.
“I came here and very quickly learned that if you wanted to make some chicken salad, you had to have some chicken,” Brooks said. “We didn’t have a lot of chicken and we were playing in the best league.”
Aisha Sheppard, who recently won a WNBA championship this summer in her first season with the Las Vegas Aces, was the first recruit Brooks signed to Virginia Tech. As Brooks says, he sold Sheppard the dream “without any proof in the pudding.”
“He told me that if I took the opportunity to become a Hokie, that he would start to build a new culture and ultimately he would end up surrounding me with people who were like-minded,” said Sheppard, who starred for Virginia Tech from 2017 to 2022.
“I told her, look, we’re going to build this thing,” recalled Brooks. “I said it’s going to be a little bit rocky in the beginning, but before it’s over with — if you meet me halfway — I’ll get you to your dreams.”
Brooks produced three winning seasons in his first three years with the Hokies, with each of those teams posting 20-plus wins. In each of those seasons, Virginia Tech would play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, making an appearance in the WNIT final in 2018. The Hokies’ struggles in each of those seasons came in conference play. Virginia Tech never finished better than ninth in the ACC regular season.
When Brooks coached at JMU, his teams would draw a circle around a handful of conference games that would be real challenges. The rest of the conference slate would represent opportunities for his program to, as Brooks described, “get fat.”
“Then when I came here [to Virginia Tech], it was like, you’ve got Louisville on a Thursday, Notre Dame on a Sunday and North Carolina on the next Thursday and Duke on that Sunday,” Brooks said. “It was just like, where is the game where we’re going to get fat? We were that game.”
In those early seasons, Brooks worked to figure out which kind of player he needed to compete in his program. In the beginning, his approach was simple – stack the roster with athletes. But in doing so, he found that while he had recruited these talented athletes to his team, they weren’t players who fit into his system.
In Year 3, Brooks decided to change his philosophy on recruiting. Being a gifted athlete was no longer the only requirement for an incoming player. Brooks targeted skilled players, shooters, and high IQ talents in an attempt to get his program over that ACC hurdle. In came players such as center Elizabeth Kitley, and guards Georgia Amoore and Cayla King to complement players such as Sheppard.
“When we got them and got them into our system, they fit exactly into what we wanted to do,” Brooks said. “That was really the biggest thing that helped our program turn around – we understood what type of player and person we wanted in our program. It has elevated us.”
In March 2021, Brooks and the Hokies sat together in their team film room, hoping to hear their name called as one of the 64 teams for the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Virginia Tech, which finished the season 14-9 overall and 8-8 in ACC play, hadn’t made a tournament appearance since 2006. As the broadcast revealed the Hokies had been awarded an at-large bid, chaos ensued. The room erupted with players cheering excitedly as they experienced a previously unfamiliar moment in their collegiate careers.
Two members of the group remained calm, however: Brooks and Sheppard, then a senior. As celebratory screams surrounded them, Brooks and Sheppard found one another. No words were exchanged, they didn’t have to be. Just an acknowledgement. The promise made by Brooks to Sheppard years ago had been kept.
“In that moment, everything kind of just came full circle,” Sheppard said. “In that moment, I realized the evolution of the program and everything that we had talked about.”
Last season was Brooks’ most successful in Blacksburg. The Hokies finished the year 23-10 overall and 13-5 in the ACC, set program records with five ranked wins and 13 conference victories and advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals for the first time. That success has expanded the capabilities of Brooks’ program, particularly in recruiting.
This summer, the team welcomed multiple big-name players to its program in Boston College transfer Taylor Soule, a fifth-year forward who averaged 16 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Eagles last season, and Maryland transfer Ashley Owusu, one of the best shooting guards in the country, who was a third-team AP All-American in 2021.
“Over the years, we’ve built our brand up to the point that it’s respectable. You say Virginia Tech and people are like, ‘oh, I saw you guys play, you guys are good,’ ” Brooks said. “You’re just building up equity, building up respectability.”
While Brooks will readily welcome All-American level talent to his program, he also relishes the opportunity to develop his players into All-Americans. Being able to unlock potential in his players and grow their games is his favorite part of the job.
Brooks has previously joked about how he enjoys recruiting what he calls “Five Guys All-Americans,” a nod to the heralded McDonald’s All American game held each year for the country’s top prospects.
“There are McDonald’s All Americans and we feel like we can get some Five Guys All-Americans because we got to make it right in front of you,” Brooks said.
Last season, Kitley, who was not a McDonald’s All American as a high school prospect, became the Hokies’ first AP All-American. Sheppard left Virginia Tech as the program’s all-time scorer, while setting a record for career 3-pointers in the ACC.
“He’s found ways and different options to let people’s games flourish at what they are best at, and also add to that throughout the year,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s something underrated about his teaching.”
‘You’re doing this for us’
When Brooks was at JMU building his program and fighting for respectability as a head coach, other coaches — particularly Black male assistant coaches — approached him.
“Hey, man, you’re doing it for us,” they would tell him.
Initially, Brooks didn’t understand what those coaches meant. As far as he was concerned, his motivation for succeeding as a head coach was solely centered on keeping his budding career afloat and supporting his family. At the time, representing Black male coaches hadn’t been an active part of that equation.
As Brooks’ career advanced, however, his stance has greatly shifted. Along the way, he’s steadily taken on more responsibility and become more aware of who he is, the position he holds and how his performance can affect others.
“There are a lot of Black males that are being overlooked,” Brooks said. “I’m one that’s very fortunate that I got an opportunity and I think I’m making the most of it and can be a role model. I do have guys coming up to me, DMing [direct messaging] me, calling me asking how did you do it. Now, I am more about, ‘Hey, yes, I am doing it for us.’ ”
Brooks points to the social unrest seen across the United States in 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd while in police custody and killing of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky, as a period that he says really opened his eyes to become more of an advocate for Black men. He was forced to be open and be vulnerable with his team. He pushed to create open discussions with his players and sharing his experiences as a Black man.
“For 50 years, I have been Black in America. I have experienced racism. I have been called names. I have not been given opportunities sometimes I probably could have gotten or should have gotten,” Brooks said. “There’s not a room that I walk into that I don’t wonder if someone is judging me because of the color of my skin. … I’ve learned for it not to deter me from achieving my goals and just learned to work through it even though I know that it’s there.”
When Brooks takes the sideline at Cassell Coliseum for the Hokies’ season opener on Monday, he’ll do so as the only Black male head coach of a Power 5 conference program. On the other end of the sideline will be Antoine White, another Black male head coach who will begin his second season leading Mount St. Mary’s. It’s a rare head coaching matchup in a sport where Black male head coaches have been a minority.
As Black male head coaches push for a stronger presence, they do so with an acute awareness that they operate in a women’s sport. Over the last 25 years, female head coaches have seen little change of their own share of head coaching roles in Division I. Opportunities for women to coach men’s basketball, meanwhile, remain almost nonexistent.
“I would definitely like to see more Black male head coaches but I also get that it’s a female sport,” White said. “I think a lot of women’s basketball programs, they want to be coached by women. I completely get that. I understand that.”
But even when looking at the number of male coaches in women’s college basketball, the numbers are lopsided. During the 1995-96 women’s college basketball season, 6.4% of head coaches in Division I were Black men, according to NCAA statistics. By the 2005-06 season, that number was down to 4.9%. In 2015, that number rose to 6%. Brooks and White are a part of the 7% of Black male head coaches in 2021, an increase of 0.6% compared with more than 25 years ago.
For comparison, white male head coaches made up 28% of all Division I head coaches in 2021. A comparison of male assistant coaches provides a smaller divide: 18% of Division I assistants were white men, and 14% were Black men.
Vickers said that in his seven years leading Norfolk State, he has coached against only three other Black male head coaches in nonconference play. He’s confident that if the fit and timing for prospective Black male head coaches align, opportunity will follow.
“I would love to see the number go up of Black male head coaches in our women’s game, but we have to win, develop players on and off the floor, don’t make mistakes,” Vickers said. “You really have to be on top of your stuff.”
Following the end of the 2022 national championship game, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley used a portion of her postgame press conference to bring awareness to Black male coaches.
Last November, Staley sent every Division I Black female head coach a piece of her 2017 championship net. After winning her second title in five years, Staley said her 2022 championship net would, in part, be going to Black male coaches.
“Some of our Black male coaches, they don’t get opportunity,” Staley said.
“To have her say that and speak on the behalf of Black males who want to be head coaches in women’s basketball, that definitely goes a long way,” said White, who along with Brooks were the only Black male head coaches in last year’s NCAA tournament. “I’m sure that grabs a lot of important people’s attention when it comes to this matter. I also appreciate her saying that because it then doesn’t turn into a male versus female thing.”
“I’m willing to be that advocate for Black male coaches because I think that there’s a lot that deserve opportunities. There are a lot of good ones out there who want to invest in the development of kids and their lives and not just wanting to be a head coach.”— Kenny Brooks
At Virginia Tech, where he’ll have more eyes on his program than ever, Brooks has attempted to increase his advocacy for Black male head coaches.
“I’m willing to be that advocate for Black male coaches because I think that there’s a lot that deserve opportunities,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of good ones out there who want to invest in the development of kids and their lives and not just wanting to be a head coach. I think of that responsibility very seriously now.”
Brooks pointed to the strength and effectiveness of the Women of Color Coaches Network, an advocacy group that exists for female coaches in women’s basketball that provides organized programming, networking and mentorship opportunities. In 1995-96, Black women made up 9% of all Division I head coaches, In 2021, that share is now 21%. Such a group doesn’t formally exist for Black male coaches, but its existence could mobilize support alongside the continued increase in Black women coaching the sport.
During the height of the pandemic, a recurring Zoom call was organized for Black male head coaches in women’s college basketball. For those who joined, it was an opportunity to chat X’s and O’s, coaching philosophy or situational planning. Brooks said the group has stayed in touch through a group chat.
“We encourage each other,” Brooks said. “If somebody has a milestone, we’re all in there. If somebody has a birthday, we’re all in there. It’s a group that’s extremely important to us and helped me get through a lot of tough times, but also when you do great things they help you and celebrate you. When sometimes you don’t know who is with you and against you, you definitely know those guys are for you.”
In some ways, Brooks is a much different coach today from when he began 20 years ago. The ability to adapt and change has been a requirement for his longevity. He finds that he yells a lot less, even though the mistakes his players make and his frustrations have remained the same.
Also unchanged are his Coach Brooks-isms, passed down to hundreds of players. A favorite of Sheppard’s: It’s not how fast you do it, it’s how you do it. It’s been a theme of Brooks’ process that has amounted to successful culture changes at two programs, 461 career victories and a Virginia Tech team ready to stake its claim as an elite contender.
“We walk onto the floor now and there is an expectation we are going to win the basketball game regardless of who we are going to play,” Brooks said. “That’s an element that you have to have to be successful. You can’t hope to win at this level. If you hope to win, you won’t win. If you expect to win, you give yourself a chance to win. I think that’s where we are.”