Fade to Black: Many Refuse to Hire Back Coaches
With the summer recruiting circuit in full swing, many star high school athletes can expect repeated knocks at their doors by basketball coaches from some of the top colleges in the country.
However, when a budding star and his family open that door, they’re more likely to see white recruiters than blacks because few blacks and minorities occupy the top positions at major colleges and universities around the country.
“I believe that there are outstanding African American coaches who are deserving of an opportunity to lead their own program,” said Shawn Heilbron, the athletic director at Stony Brook University in New York.
Heilbron, 42, said the lack of black head coaches isn’t because there’s a dearth of quality candidates.
“It would be great to see more African American assistant coaches earn leadership positions. When I worked with Craig Robinson at Oregon State, we talked quite a bit about the importance of having diversity, not just within the coaching rank, but the administration as well,” he said.
“The hiring of coaches remains arguably the most visible aspect of an athletic director’s job so they should be extremely involved in the process,” Heilbron said.
But, with July 9 kicking off the recruiting season in which coaches try to woo the best high school athletes, the lack of African American head coaches at NCAA Division I basketball programs remain a hot-button topic around water coolers nationwide.
With the anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act and 51 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the issue has become so volatile that most college presidents and athletic directors remain reluctant to discuss why they’re not hiring qualified black men to lead their programs.
Officials at high profile schools such as Duke, St. John’s, UCLA, Texas, Indiana, Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, Maryland, Miami, Michigan and Ohio State refused to comment.
“We respectfully decline to comment on this,” said Christopher Cameron, the associate athletic director at Boston College, where approximately three black head coaches have been hired in the school’s 110-year history.
Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said the university’s president, Eli Capilouto, directed him to offer a no comment. “We cannot accommodate your request,” said Blanton, whose school has had just one black coach in 110 years.
Kelly Anderson, Louisville’s assistant to the athletic director, said the school’s preferred head coaching candidates are presented to the university’s athletic association board of directors for approval, but she declined to address why blacks aren’t being considered for many of the top jobs.
Since the basketball program’s inception in 1944, Louisville has never had a black head coach.
“It’s an ongoing and troubling problem when black coaches are not getting a fair shake when it comes to hiring practices,” said Louis “Skip” Perkins, the athletic director at Howard University.
The Howard Bisons compete in Division I-AA and Perkins said he’s directing his comments toward major programs at Division I schools.
“When you look at the job that Johnny Dawkins did with a depleted Stanford squad in the NCAA tournament and a Kevin Ollie winning the national championship after facing several challenges, it makes you wonder why race is even an issue,” said Perkins, 41.
Additionally, Stanford has one of the most difficult admission standards in all of college athletics and, despite his success in going to the Sweet 16; the school has failed to reward Dawkins with a new contract.
The percentage of black head coaches has hit its lowest level in nearly 20 years. Included in Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport 2012 Racial and Gender Report Card, the authors noted just 18.6 percent of blacks served as head coaches in Division I college basketball.
Whites comprise 81 percent of the 450 full-time NCAA staff members. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the presidents and 89 percent of athletic directors are white.
The numbers reveal that it’s also difficult for former African American coaches to make what should be a natural progression into athletic administration. For instance, Brian Ellerbe, who has coached more than 20 years at major Division I programs in the Big 10, ACC, the Big East, and the Atlantic 10, hasn’t received any offers since his last head coaching job more than a decade ago.
Some college observers said with Ellerbe’s coaching experience — seven as head coach — and his more than 10 years in private and public business, he’d be an ideal candidate for an administrative post.
“Colleges have the worst diversity hiring practices when you compare them to any of the professional sports leagues,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
The report card, which did not include historically black schools, has led to more scrutiny of major college basketball programs with ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, and even The New York Times featuring news stories about the lack of black coaches.
Myron Medcalf, who’s written extensively for ESPN about the topic, reported that multiple administrators had passed on the opportunity to talk to him about the issue. He said NCAA officials wanted to see his questions and then they requested a pre-interview phone conversation.
An NCAA spokesperson declined to comment.
“After it appeared that we had made some progress when it came to hiring men’s basketball coaches of color, it’s apparent that progress has slowed or stopped altogether, and that’s incredibly disappointing,” said Carol Owens, Notre Dame women’s associate head coach. Carol Owens. “Not so long ago, it was the trendy thing to hire coaches of color, but I believe that those in the decision making apparatus have turned their backs on those they were so eager to hire just a few years earlier,” said Owens, 47.
Many have defended their hiring practices.
“The hiring process for athletic department employees is consistent with university guidelines,” said Stephen Dombroski, the assistant athletic director at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “The top candidates are identified and proceed through the interview process. Almost all times, the athletic director is involved.”
Craig Littlepage, the athletic director at the University of Virginia, said the hiring institution must determine how it will generate a list of names that it would like to consider for a vacancy.
“Since I coached college basketball for 17 years and served as the chair of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, I’ve had the advantage in knowing the college basketball community well,” said Littlepage, 62. “As a result, along with our executive associate director of athletics, who also played college basketball, we generate the list on our own. For those administrators that do not have the same background, they are probably well advised in using a search firm or other industry experts to match the candidate pool with the vacancy.”
But, numerous candidates have argued that search firms rarely have black clients, leaving even the most qualified black coaches out in the cold.
“Preferred head coaching candidates are presented to the university’s athletic association board of directors for approval,” Louisville’s Anderson said.
Blacks routinely are failing to meet approval at most schools despite the success of past and present coaches like John Thompson of Georgetown, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, and Kevin Ollie, who won the national championship this year at Connecticut.
Officials at programs like Auburn, where only one African American served as a head coach in the program’s 110-year history, continue to be tight-lipped about the plight of black coaches.
Auburn fired black coach Tony Barbee this year and hired Bruce Pearl, a white coach who remains under NCAA sanctions for several violations he committed at Tennessee.
“There’s no way that a black coach would be hired under any circumstances if he committed NCAA violations,” said one rival head coach who asked to remain anonymous. “Bruce Pearl can’t even recruit, he isn’t eligible because of the sanctions, and we’re currently in recruiting season. There’s no way to justify his hiring at all.”
David Roach, the athletic director at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, said the lack of black coaches isn’t a signal that school presidents and athletic directors have, “Al Campanis-type,” bias against blacks.
Campanis, the late general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, infamously said in 1987 that, “Blacks may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.”
“I wouldn’t say that’s the problem,” said Roach, 68, who’s also a member of the board of directors at the Black Coaches and Administrators, formerly known as the Black Coaches Association, headquartered in Indiana. “I’m fully aware that the number of African American coaches is down, but it’s worse in football.”
Roach noted that report cards have proved to be a vital tool in helping to boost the hiring of black college basketball coaches. He said he’d like to see more reports because they tend to hold school officials accountable.
However, in one stunning move that could signal change, Hartford University in Connecticut announced the hiring of former Bowie State athletic director Anton Goff to fill the same position at the Division I school. Most view the hiring as significant because hiring an athletic director from a historically black school to head a Division I program isn’t common.
However, Campanis-like thinking could still be a factor.
“Leadership is not a gender or ethnic issue. It’s an issue of education, successful experience and a propensity for the work at hand,” said Deborah Yow, the athletic director at North Carolina State University.
“Each school has its own unique culture. That culture dictates who has the final say in a highly visible coaching hire,” Yow said, adding that whether a gender minority or an ethnic minority, it can be challenging to break through at the highest professional levels. “As an example, within the last six months, we have seen two of the premiere football coaching positions at Texas and Penn State be filled by African Americans, both building off of their earlier tenures at previous schools. Success by either or both at these highly visible programs will likely be impactful.”
Candy Y. Sanders, the athletic director at Delaware State University, said she looks for quality, gender and a cultural fit. “They [African Americans] lack the opportunity, which shows on the résumé as limited experience,” Sanders said.
Whit Babcock, the athletic director at Virginia Tech, said the search for a head coach lies primarily with him, but the process usually involves the president and key members of the board.
“We are committed to thorough and inclusive search processes for all positions at Virginia Tech,” Babcock said. “We work to build deep and diverse candidate pools, and we believe in the principles of inclusive excellence; that a wide range of lived experiences are necessary to achieve institutional and organizational excellence.”
Officials at major programs around the country have offered few answers while many others have expressed frustration.
“We went from John Thompson and Nolan Richardson raising the bar and changing the mindsets to where we have to look hard to find black coaches in the profession,” said Perkins of Howard University. “It’s definitely a problem. The question is, what’s the solution?”
Words by Stacy M. Brown for Steed Media Service
This story was originally published by The Washington Informer.