The Derek Chauvin trial currently playing out in Minnesota serves as context for what got us here, to a place of small progress in college basketball. The sports world cannot fix serious societal issues, but it can react to them, and the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white cop, among other traumatic events in the spring of 2020, spawned a reckoning on U.S. college campuses.
In one corner, at least, an embarrassment is being addressed. Black men’s basketball coaches are being hired at a significant rate.
Athletes spoke up. Athletes marched. Athletes voted. College administrators—and many others—performed some self-examination. And upon reflection, the overwhelming whiteness of head coaches in college hoops was unjustifiable. Less than a year later a market correction of sorts has been underway.
Of the 47 head coaches hired thus far in ’21, a majority (24) have been Black. There have been 24 first-time college head coaches hired in this cycle, and 18 of them are Black. Those personnel moves have played out across the spectrum of the sport, including at its highest level.
Of the 11 open jobs at Power 5 conference football schools filled this spring, five are Black: Earl Grant at Boston College; Mike Woodson at Indiana; Ben Johnson at Minnesota; Hubert Davis at North Carolina; Micah Shrewsberry at Penn State. Woodson and Davis take over two of the highest-profile positions in the sport, at schools that have won a combined 11 men’s NCAA tournament titles, and Davis is the first Black head coach of the Tar Heels men’s program.
While five of 11 Black hires at the P5 level might not seem like a big number, consider the abysmal place where college basketball was during the ’20–21 season: Only nine of the 65 jobs were filled by people of color. That was even fewer than the ’20 season in college football, which has historically been much slower to diversify its head-coaching ranks. Basketball’s leadership diversity had slid that far.
But voices raised nearly a year ago have been heard.
“I love the fact that there has been an uptick,” says Craig Robinson, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “First and foremost, the coaches are ready. Second, the people doing the hiring are looking differently at their pool of candidates, for whatever reason.”
Robinson, a former coach at Brown and Oregon State and brother to Michelle Obama, was hired in July 2020 to lead the NABC. He has a pretty good idea what one of those reasons is. “Everything in regular society bleeds into sports,” he says. “I am sure the focus on social justice issues opened a lot of people’s eyes. I’m sure there was a magnified lens on equity and diversity of personnel.”
Football went through its late-2020, fire-and-hire cycle pretty much ignoring the echoes from spring and summer protests. Exactly one Black head coach was hired at the FBS level: Alabama assistant Charles Huff at Marshall. Andy Avalos, who is of Latinx heritage, was hired at Boise State. Hirings at the athletic director level remain heavily white.
That is not the case in college hoops, which spent the offseason leading the charge to register athletes to vote; forming an NABC Committee on Racial Reconciliation; and helping launch the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative—a program designed to provide greater employment opportunities in college athletics. Named for John McLendon, the first Black men’s basketball coach at a predominantly white university, the program drew high-profile support from the likes of John Calipari, Patrick Ewing, Tommy Amaker and others. The sport did more than just talk the talk about meaningful change.
Upon reentry into the college game after a stint as an administrator in the pros, Robinson believes it’s more important than ever for coaches to meet players where they are. The one-time free transfer rule is upon us, and players are more empowered to speak out about their athletic experience. This isn’t a great time for coaches who can’t relate or won’t try.
“It really highlights the fact that you need to have coaches who can connect with these players,” Robinson says. “Student-athletes have a voice, and they can vote with their feet [to leave].”
Paul Hewitt, former head coach at Siena, Georgia Tech and George Mason, sees college basketball potentially emerging from a period of backsliding on diversity. Though he’s taking a wait-and-see approach for what comes next.
“Will there be a level of patience with these coaches?” he asked. “That remains to be seen. But I’m happy for Isaac Brown, who earned his way into that position [at Wichita State]. Earl Grant earned his way into that position [at BC]. For about 15 years, it wasn’t like that. A lot of really qualified and exceptional coaches of color weren’t getting that opportunity.”
While there has been a social awareness that college basketball’s hiring practices were indefensibly out of line with its player diversity, the fact remains that winning matters most for athletic directors. And that’s where we may have found the convergence of doing the right thing with copying a successful blueprint.
That Venn diagram overlap is colored maize and blue. Is there a Juwan Effect in the sport?
Juwan Howard has had such immediate success at Michigan that there seem to be a number of copycat hires being made in this cycle. Hiring alums is suddenly back in vogue. Especially Black alums.
Look no further than the Big Ten, which Howard’s Wolverines won this past season in his second year on the job. In ’20–21, there was one Black coach and one alum leading a basketball program, and both of them were Howard. In ’21–22, there will be four Black coaches and three alums in the league, with Woodson at Indiana and Johnson at Minnesota adding to both totals.
Outside the Big Ten, former star guard Speedy Claxton was promoted to head coach at his alma mater, Hofstra. Stan Heath returned home to coach Eastern Michigan. (Davis’s promotion at North Carolina also fits the rubric, although that plan likely had been conceptualized in Roy Williams’s mind well before Howard had ever coached a game in college.)
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said a friend recently pointed out similar hires elsewhere in the sport and noted that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. “If people want to look at us and say, ‘I’d like to try to have that,’ that’s great,” Manuel says. “Juwan has been a great fit for us.”
Manuel was vigorously second-guessed for hiring Howard from the NBA without a minute’s work on a college sideline. With an inherited football coach who has underachieved (Jim Harbaugh) and replacing a legendary coaching mind (John Beilein), this was a move Manuel needed to get right. When Howard began his head-coaching career 7–0 with victories over North Carolina and Gonzaga, the second-guessing stopped.
Howard has brought a lot to the table very quickly: NBA-level expertise as a longtime assistant; a zest for teaching the game; a mixture of pride and understanding of what it’s like to be a star athlete at Michigan—particularly a Black star athlete; a knowledge of the AAU’s recruiting terrain after immersing in it with his sons; and still-viable name recognition from his playing days as a member of the iconic Fab Five teams.
“Juwan is the real deal,” says Michigan assistant coach Phil Martelli, the longtime head coach at St. Joseph’s who is in something of a sensei role as Howard’s right-hand man on the bench. “I’m not saying that because I work with him—I absolutely believe that. If you combine his talents with his love for his school—he sees this as his school, not his job—he’s a Mount Rushmore guy.”
It’s early, but keep the sculptor on call. Howard’s work to date: a 42–17 record in two seasons; a Big Ten title; an NCAA tournament run that stopped two points short of the Final Four despite a key late-season injury; the No. 1 incoming recruiting class for next year. No wonder other athletic directors want an order of what Manuel is enjoying.
“I’m happy that African American coaches have been hired in the Big Ten,” Manuel says. “I give credit to my colleagues and their presidents. People are always watching me as an African American AD. They’re always watching Juwan. In the past they were watching coach [John] Thompson, [John] Chaney, C. Vivian Stringer.
“If [Howard’s] success has given people the O.K. to look at an African American who doesn’t have head-coaching experience at the college level, that’s the Juwan Effect I love.”
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