In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series “28 Black Stories in 28 Days.” We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This is the third installment of the series.
It’s been four decades since the Big East Conference, this radical newcomer and a vanguard in made-for-TV sports programming, made basketball history. When Georgetown University claimed a men’s national championship just five seasons into the league’s existence, John Thompson became the first Black coach to win an NCAA title, a potential harbinger for a day the coach’s office more closely resembled the players on the floor.
Yet not much has changed since 1984 – a positive for the Big East but a curious indictment for the rest of major college hoops.
See, the Big East remains a leader in coaching equity: Seven of its 11 men’s basketball programs are led by Black men, the only power conference where the African American player majority is reflected in the coaches guiding them.
It is a stark contrast to its rivals.
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At the start of this season, just two coaches in the 14-team Southeastern Conference were Black, along with two in the 10-team Big 12 and four in the 14-team Big Ten. Perhaps most startlingly, the Pac-12 Conference has zero Black men’s basketball head coaches.
The 50 teams among those four conferences hired just one more Black coach – eight – than the 11-team Big East employs. It’s a point that engenders both pride and consternation for the conference’s coaches.
“Say that out loud,” says Providence coach Ed Cooley of the Pac-12’s all-white coaching contingent. “And again, that’s (expletive). Those schools are hiring who they want and who they think can help them win. But come on, man.
“We’re not saying Black coaches are the be-all, end-all. We’re saying we are now getting opportunities that were not presented in the past for whatever reason. That’s what I’m grateful about. We’ve come a long way. But we still have a way to go, with the Big East being the leaders.”
Cooley, 53, is the dean of Big East coaches, vying for consecutive conference titles one year after going 27-6 and reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum is Kyle Neptune, a longtime Villanova assistant hired to replace the venerated Jay Wright, even though Neptune had just one season as a head coach, at Fordham.
But Villanova did not hesitate to bring Neptune, 38, back to the Main Line and take over a program that reached the Final Four in 2022. That show of faith comes in an industry where coaching progress is a paradox: Excluding HBCUs, Blacks comprise just 24.3% of Division I coaches, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s most recent report card.
That’s actually a drop from nearly two decades ago, when TIDES’ research indicated 25.2% of coaches were Black. The mixed messages are everywhere: The NBA doubled its number of Black head coaches, from seven in 2021-22 to 15, yet the NFL brushed off sideline-ready Black coaches like Steve Wilks and Eric Bieniemy. Major League Baseball has just two Black managers, one of them 73 years old.
College hoops should be different: With 350 head jobs available to fit any experience level, and a potentially more progressive mindset in a campus than a corporate environment, opportunity should abound, particularly with a former player pool that’s majority Black. While the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer inspired numerous equity initiatives in the sports industry, the momentum, three years later, has not been uniform.
“The Big East is a good example of what it could be,” says Neptune, joined by Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway in the ranks of rookie Big East coaches. “Our society’s not perfect right now, but I like the fact that the Big East is on the forefront and the cutting edge of what’s going on right now.”
Those who have benefited from its best practices are more than willing to devise a road map.
Any head coaching success story will involve some degree of timing, luck – and a hand up. For Marquette coach Shaka Smart, it was the good fortune of attending a career development seminar at Virginia Commonwealth – and a recommendation from an old colleague, outgoing VCU coach Anthony Grant – that allowed him the chance to replace Grant and reach a Final Four in Richmond.
DePaul coach Tony Stubblefield credits coaching legend and longtime Nike employee George Raveling, along with Oregon’s Dana Altman and UCLA’s Mick Cronin – who hired him at Cincinnati – for putting faith in him. Neptune says Wright and former Niagara coach Joe Mihalich were instrumental getting him on the fast track.
Even Patrick Ewing – the star of Georgetown’s ’84 title team under Thompson and one of the NBA’s top 50 players of all time – credits Thompson, high school coach Mike Jarvis and NBA coaches Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford and Tom Thibodaux for setting him on a path to coach his alma mater.
Yet the references and solids called in can only go so far.
Eventually, a coaching candidate will interview with an athletic director or university president, hoping for an open mind. According to TIDES, its most recent survey of the “power five” Football Bowl Subdivision conferences (SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast) revealed 84% of presidents and chancellors are white, along with 81.5% of athletic directors.
“I always fall back to when I was coaching and interviewing for jobs, I did not run into people I knew,” says Craig Robinson, the former Oregon State coach and now the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “I believe, rightly or wrongly, people tend to hire people they are more comfortable with.
“And it gets back to higher levels of leadership. When there are more presidents of color, and more ADs of color, and more commissioners of color, there will be more coaches of color. I just don’t think there’s enough at the top of that hiring pyramid.”
In this regard, the Big East has been proactive: Three of its 11 athletic directors, or 27%, are Black, including DePaul (DeWayne Peevy) and Creighton (Marcus Blossom) hiring the first Black ADs in their history.
“When there’s seven out of 11 coaches who are African-American,” says Smart, “the biggest positive with that is there were people in leadership positions who said, ‘We’re going to give these guys a shot.’”
Yet certain hiring practices aren’t in Black coaches’ favor. Universities have increasingly relied on search firms to identify incoming athletic directors, which tends to skew the hires away from an individual hailing from the coaching community in favor of the corporate community.
The result can be an almost incestuous new boys’ network, identifying chief athletic executives more skilled at extending a brand than extending a good coach’s contract.
“The former ADs used to be coaches and players,” says Cooley. “Now they’re businessmen, ex-CEOs. They don’t have the feel of coaching. They have the feel of running a business. They have a feel of managing corporate America. Of which we’re in, in our position, but it’s still not in that hot seat of athletics.
“It’s Search Firm Central, and a lot of the search firms who hired the AD, then the AD hires the search firm, and that’s the cycle.”
Even a favorable administration is no guarantee. Coaching comings and goings are often funded and ostensibly controlled by big-bucks boosters and donors, whose backgrounds tend to skew a certain direction.
“There are people who have influence over who gets hired or who gets fired whose names will never show up in the newspaper or on the Internet,” says Smart, who coached at VCU and Texas for six years each before leaving Austin for Milwaukee.
“Right now, in our world, those people are overwhelmingly white.”
How, then, does an institution convert well-meaning working papers and committees and coalitions and alliances into action?
Big men on campus
Today’s Big East – and the collegiate landscape – looks eons, not generations, removed from the league Ewing and Thompson dominated. The conference has undergone multiple makeovers following charter members’ defections, almost all of them driven by football.
Now, the Big East is virtually out of the pigskin game.
Seven of 11 member schools do not field a football team. Georgetown, Villanova and Butler play at the lower-key Football Championship Subdivision, while Connecticut is the lone club to field an FBS team – as an independent.
It always was a basketball conference and, after the Miamis and Virginia Techs have come and gone, so it is again. No. 9 Marquette leads four Big East teams in the top 20, and the Golden Eagles and Providence are both projected to receive a No. 4 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament.
The tradeoff is the conference and its schools miss out on the hundreds of millions of television dollars available through Big Football. Yet the league has found financial viability through a 12-year deal with Fox Sports that runs through 2025, and a concurrent agreement with CBS ensures every conference game will be televised.
Without a 100,000-fan distraction most Saturdays in the fall, Big East programs catch more scrutiny – but also more attention.
“When you have this FBS mega-elephant in the room, you figure that’s at least 120 people a day that have to be supported,” says Cooley. “When you don’t have that monster to deal with and the primary sport is basketball, it’s special. And in doing so, it allows you to have those conversations that center around the welfare of the student athletes without having to worry about football.”
Says Smart: “I’m not saying basketball isn’t important to SEC schools or Big Ten schools, but when you’re at a Marquette or Providence or Villanova that does not have big-time football, there’s just something about basketball that connects people who are part of that campus community in the way football does at some of those Power 5 schools. I’ve been a head coach at a couple places that we’re ‘basketball schools’ and at one place where certainly football was the most dominant sport.
“It is pretty neat to be at a place where the biggest priority is basketball.”
‘All we need is the opportunity’
That support is felt from the top down. Coaches were effusive in their praise for conference commissioner Val Ackerman and executive associate commissioner Stu Jackson for their commitment to diversity, be it in daily actions or initiatives such as this year’s alliance with the Black Fives Foundation, which teaches the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball, or the awarding of the John Thompson Jr. Award, which recognizes a conference member for efforts to fight prejudice and discrimination.
“I would say they’re ahead of not just most schools, but industries, in the number of people of color they have in leadership positions,” says the NABC’s Robinson.
For now, it does look anomalous; among power leagues, only the Atlantic Coast Conference and its six Black coaches among 15 schools comes anywhere near the Big East’s ability to reflect playing population among coaches.
“And that’s a shame,” says Ewing. “If you look at all these schools, the majority of the people playing are Black, or people who look like me. I think it’s a shame you don’t have more minorities or people of color to coach them.
“I know all we need is the opportunity, to either fail or succeed.”
Ewing’s Hoyas have struggled, as he’s posted a 75-106 record in six seasons, with a Big East Tournament title and NCAA bid in 2021 possibly extending him more leeway. St. John’s Mike Anderson has received fan and media criticism for struggles against the conference elite, although his 17-12 record is not atypical for the program this century. The offseason coaching carousel almost certainly won’t miss the conference, one way or another.
Yet even if one of the seven Black coaches moves on, they’re effusive about others down the bench getting their own shot. Cooley says his own assistants, Ivan Thomas and Jeff Battle, are head coach-ready. UConn’s Kimani Young, Butler’s Mike Pegues, former Pitt star Brandin Knight, Marquette’s DeAndre Haynes, St. John’s TJ Cleveland, Northwestern’s Chris Haynes – Black coaches say their pipeline is full, and they are prepared to pay it forward.
Will the rest of the industry be ready?
“They’re out there deserving of the chance to run their own program,” says DePaul’s Stubblefield. “Hopefully, I can play a part in helping these guys get an opportunity like I got an opportunity.”