When the University of Connecticut’s head basketball coach Kevin Ollie cut down the nets after winning last year’s National Championship, he joined a very select group. Since 1939, when college basketball began crowning its champion, only three other title teams were lead by an African-American Head Coach – John Thompson at Georgetown in 1984, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas in 1994 and Tubby Smith at Kentucky in 1998.
Back when Thompson, Richardson and other African-American coaching legends like George Raveling and John Chaney were working the major college basketball sidelines in the ‘80s, and especially after Big John became the first to break through that championship barrier at the game’s highest level, it was easy to envision a future where alumni, boosters, athletic directors and school presidents would readily accept and embrace more diverse and inclusive hiring practices.
But despite the relative success of the few who have been given an opportunity, we seem to be moving backwards towards a more homogenous time where the best opportunities, the so called “destination jobs”, are once again the overwhelmingly sole province of white men.
Why do we keep stepping backwards, when it’s been proven, time and again, that there is no shortage of talented black coaches out there?
Does no one seem to remember Paul Hewitt taking Georgia Tech to the 2004 title game? How about Shaka Smart taking VCU to the Final Four in 2011, or John Thompson III getting Georgetown there in 2007? What about Mike Davis taking 5th-seeded Indiana to the championship game in 2002?
Thompson III and Kevin Ollie are anomalies in today’s game because they are the only men of color leading powerful programs that have a championship legacy.
“The numbers are down,” Shaka Smart told Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde during last year’s Final Four. “I do not think that’s because there’s less talented black coaches…Who is getting the jobs, period? Who’s getting opportunities? There are a great deal of very, very talented and prepared African-American candidates out there who should and could be very successful head coaches if given the opportunity.”
“If you’re going to talk about the national championship level, typically the teams that win the national championship – Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA – the coaches at those schools are not black,” Smart told Forde.
The issue is often met in the mainstream with defensiveness and dismissiveness, because, let’s face it, race is something that most of the key decision-makers in sports don’t want to discuss.
In the same way that the Black College Quarterback was once stereotyped as an athlete who could only run the option, who was not smart enough to pilot a pro-style passing attack, today’s gifted assistant coaches are simply seen as great recruiters who are unable to captain an elite program.
And the old-boy network is not only alive and well, it’s thriving. Ollie was the beneficiary of it, having apprenticed under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun at UCONN. Calhoun fought for Ollie to get the job upon his retirement and had he not loudly advocated for him, it’s doubtful that he would have been given such a great opportunity.
In the old-boy apparatus, decision makers often make choices based on their own backgrounds and what makes them comfortable. And therein lies the barrier of a pronounced cultural partition.
It’s not rocket science: people surround themselves with people who they deem to be like themselves, folks they regularly network with, folks who have similar backgrounds and compatible belief systems. This inherently shrinks the hiring pool.
The lack of black head coaches is problematic, but people tend to ignore the interwoven correlation, which is the monochromatic nature of leadership in Division I athletic departments. When over 90% of the key decision-makers look a certain way, you’ll see that ultimately reflected on the sideline.
The major power basketball conferences should take some time to review the search and hiring processes of the Ivy League, who have a surprising 50% of their hoops programs led by African-American coaches.
Hiring practices will always fluctuate, but the larger issue, in a sport where the cash registers ring due to the exploits of black athletes, is that this issue of under-representation, on the sidelines and in the athletic administration offices must be addressed.
(Tubby Smith at Kentucky, Photo Credit: USA Today)
Scanning the current college hoops rankings, there is not one team in the top 15 that has a black head coach. Mike Anderson coaches 18th-ranked Arkansas, Smart leads 22nd-ranked V.C.U. and Ed Cooley is at the helm of 25th-ranked Providence.
The overall percentage of African-American coaches is at its lowest levels in 20 years. It’s a glaring omission. The continued stagnation stings even more, given the very false sense of equality that many thought had been achieved once Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson seemed to climb the proverbial mountain of sports’ racial inequality, when they won their titles at Kentucky and Arkansas in the ‘90s.
How long will it take for another black coach to join this elite fraternity?
It took Kevin Ollie 16 years to join the club. And until the coaching and administration demographics begin to match the racial dynamics of what takes place on the actual basketball court, it might take longer than that for the next one to come along.