Kansas Coach Reflects On Race, Leadership

Marian Washington sees progress, but it's slow

IF women's basketball had a lifetime-achievement award, Marian Washington would be a top contender. Her achievements, though, transcend gender. - and race.

This University of Kansas women's basketball coach is a winner and a leader, period. During 22-plus years on the job, her teams have compiled a .629 winning percentage, played in 12 postseasons, and been a perennial Big Eight power. When she was recently selected one of three coaches to assist United States women's Olympic team head coach Tara VanDerveer, Washington called it ''one of the highest honors any coach could ever hope to experience.''

A two-year stint as president of the Black Coaches Association also reflects on her standing among her peers. In 1993 she became the first female president of the 3,000-member organization, which is 98 percent male and includes such forceful personalities as college coaches John Thompson of Georgetown University, Nolan Richardson of the University of Arkansas, and John Chaney of Temple University. She was the first to serve two consecutive terms.

Not surprisingly, Washington does not shrink from going toe-to-toe on the issues that concern her and her black colleagues, using reason not rancor.

''About 10 years ago, there were probably two black women coaching basketball at predominantly white institutions,'' she points out. ''Now there may be 12 or 15.''

''I could give you individual names, but I don't think that is so important,'' she says during a Boston interview, where she collected an award for her contributions to women's athletics from Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

''We have black coaches who have coached for a long time and done a great job,'' she continues. ''Just look at the pool of coaches at the historically black institutions. Do they ever have an opportunity to move on or maybe be considered for a predominantly white institution? Rarely.''

Within the women's coaching sorority, Washington sees very few white head coaches with black assistants. Most often, she says, blacks fill restricted-earnings positions where they ''help in the recruiting process or help maintain team unity, particularly if there are a lot of blacks on the team.''

In dealing with racial and gender discrimination, Washington admits some confusion about which side of the double-edged sword she faces: ''As a black female, you don't always know which it is. You have your challenges because you are a woman or maybe because you are a black woman.''

At times, she says, her Kansas teams have been predominantly black. ''But many more times,'' she adds, ''I'd like to think that we had good [racial] diversity. Over the last five years, our teams have been well mixed.''

She doesn't seek racial balance for its own sake, however. ''I think we all should be going after the best players ... white or black.''

Once the roster is set, she strives to instill a sense of togetherness. ''My teams, my players, work very hard to stay a family,'' she says. ''I have really enjoyed that relationship.''

A mother and grandmother, Washington says she has benefitted from her upbringing. ''I'm very fortunate,'' she says. ''I was brought up to believe that there's good in everybody.''

Washington was raised in West Chester, Pa, and attended West Chester State where, in 1969, she became one of the first two black women to make the US national basketball team. After graduating, she pursued a graduate degree in biodynamics and administration at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. An all-around athlete, she gravitated there partly to improve her discus throwing.

In 1973, she became the Kansas women's basketball coach. She was also the women's athletic director from 1974 to '79, but resigned that post to concentrate on coaching.

Washington loves her life in Kansas. ''It's not about athletics so much as it's about the community,'' she says. ''It's a really healthy environment, just a great place to bring young people to focus on education and developing themselves as strong athletes.''

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