Recent firings sound alarms for Black college coaches

BY SHANNON RYAN
CHICAGO TRIBUNE / TNS

When Tracy Dildy was growing up, watching men like Nolan Richardson roam the sideline at Arkansas and John Thompson win an NCAA Tournament championship at Georgetown inspired his career choice.

University of Connecticut Head Coach Kevin Ollie is one of a handful of African-American who are coaching big-college basketball teams.(JOHN WOIKE/HARTFORD COURANT/TNS)
University of Connecticut Head Coach Kevin Ollie is one of a handful of African-American who are coaching big-college basketball teams.
(JOHN WOIKE/HARTFORD COURANT/TNS)

Now the former DePaul assistant and current Chicago State head coach wonders about the future of his profession.

“Is the African-American coach becoming extinct?” he asked. “I’m wondering is anyone paying attention?”

Blacks fired
The names of fired coaches came in a flurry as they do every season. But this season, almost half were Black.

Eleven of 25 coaches who left their positions are African-American, eliminating many positions from an already small fraternity. Two of the coaches were from Chicago teams: DePaul’s Oliver Purnell, who resigned, and the University of Illinois Chicago’s Howard Moore, who was fired.

Disturbing trend
An annual report from Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport noted that head coaching opportunities for people of color “declined significantly” in 2013-14. Just 22 percent of men’s Division I basketball coaches were African-American, down from 23 percent the year prior.

The all-time high for Black head coaches came in 2005-06 when 25.2 percent were African-American.

The lowest rates came in 2011-12 when only 18.6 percent were African-American.

The inequity is striking given that 58 percent of college basketball players are African-American and nearly every bench includes at least one Black assistant.

“We can talk about rules and one-and-dones, but this is the elephant in the room,” said Richard Lapchick, the institute’s director. “We’re silent on issues of race and gender.”

Replaced with Whites
Of the eight African-American coaches who have been replaced, seven have been with White coaches.

Of the 25 openings in college basketball, two Black coaches have been hired, Dave Leitao at DePaul and Shaka Smart at Texas.

The numbers are even more dire for African-Americans coaching women’s teams. That number dropped from 20.6 percent in 2012-13 to just 14.3 percent the following year.

These issues are quite obviously on display during college basketball’s marquee event. In the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, there were no Black coaches in the men’s field.

“I don’t think any one particular race or any group has cornered the market on basketball knowledge,” former Notre Dame assistant and ex-Toledo head coach Gene Cross said. “You can’t just throw out a blanket statement and say (Black coaches) are hired and fired because of race. It goes a lot deeper than that. But it is a factor and it should be part of the conversation.”

“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, it just worked out that way,’ ” Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said. “Our business is built on outcome. You have to get those things right. But I am alarmed by the numbers. It looks nefarious.”

Donors, search firms
Many coaches point to the increased influence of big-money donors and the common use of search firms to identify candidates rather than old-fashioned networking by athletic directors.

Merritt Norvell was one of a handful of Black athletic directors when he worked at Michigan State before becoming an executive vice president at the search firm DHR International. He said his firm is committed to presenting the most diversified pool of coaching candidates.

“There is some truth that the search firms can influence the selection,” he said. “But for the most part, we present what the institution is looking for. But we should also present a diversified group. There’s enough qualified candidates to do that.”

Frazier said university presidents and athletic directors need to “work harder.”

“It takes majority males to be part of the solution too,” said Frazier, who’s conducting doctoral research on racial and gender barriers in sports administration.

Recruiters, not coaches
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said at last year’s Final Four, “We don’t want to look at ourselves as African-American coaches, we want to look at ourselves as a coach. Hopefully our coaching ability (isn’t judged by) the color of our skin.”

But too often, many said, they’re pegged as recruiters instead of coaches who can run a program.

“This is something we’ve been trying to fight,” Cross said, noting more coaches are being given associate labels to fight this stigma.

“The African-American coach or the minority coach is the one who would be out on the road more and it takes you away from practice and being involved in coaching.”

Few top jobs
Of Power Five conference jobs, only 20 percent (13 of 65 coaches) were held this season by African-Americans, and two of those have been fired. The Big Ten has only one African-American coach (Eddie Jordan at Rutgers), and it includes four programs – Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue – that have never hired a Black head basketball coach.

Lapchick suggests college athletics implement what he calls the “Eddie Robinson Rule,” akin to the NFL’s Rooney Rule to increase minority hiring through a more diverse interview process.

New coalition
Black coaches also have banded together again after the once-powerful Black Coaches Association faded away. Norvell is helping organize the newly formed National Association for Coaching Equity and Development, which includes a who’s who of successful African-American coaches, including Tubby Smith, Shaka Smart, Johnny Dawkins and Paul Hewitt.

“The coaches have said, ‘We’ve lost our voice,’ ” Norvell said. “We want to change that.”

“It’s got to be discouraging,” said Dildy, a coach for more than two decades. “You’re not seeing a lot of people who look like you in those positions. It kills your dream. If we ignore it, people are going to start looking to do other things. It’s looking like a can’t-win situation.”

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