Black female coaches show 'representation matters' in basketball

It’s taken 41 years for two Black female head coaches to meet in a tournament championship of a Power Five league. In women’s college basketball, many student-athletes are nonwhite, but diversity in coaching is still a long shot.

Chuck Burton/AP
Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer speaks with players during a college basketball game against BYU at the University Events Center in San Marcos, Texas, March 22, 2021. Athletic directors are working on how to hire more diverse and representative coaching staffs.

Dawn Staley and Joni Taylor embraced before and after the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship, savoring a historic moment in women’s basketball.

It took 41 years for two Black women to meet as head coaches in a tournament championship of a Power Five conference. For it to happen quicker was statistically improbable with the few Black women coaching at the highest level of the college game.

And it remains a long shot to happen again in a Power Five league, other than the Southeastern Conference.

In the past five years, there have been a total of 16 Black women as head coaches at Power Five schools, and this past season there were just 13 – with four hired last year. Of those 13, seven resided in the SEC.

“You can’t dream what you can’t see,” said Ms. Taylor, whose Georgia squad came up short against Ms. Staley and South Carolina on March 7. “So [the SEC title game] was a chance for people to dream something that they haven’t seen before.”

The Big 12 was the only Power Five league on the women’s side this season without a Black head coach – male or female. The Atlantic Coast Conference had three Black female head coaches, and two Black male head coaches; the Pac-12 had two Black women as head coaches, and Rutgers’ Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer was the only Black female head coach in the Big Ten.

It is clear there still is work to be done when it comes to diversity even as women held 45 of the 65 head coaching jobs at Power Five conferences this season.

Ms. Staley said her phone was swamped by text messages from other Black coaches around the country congratulating and thanking her and Ms. Taylor after the SEC game “for giving them hope that one day they can be in this position, assistant coaches as well.”

The pipeline of potential candidates appears full, and hiring managers don’t have to look far to find them. Of the 65 Power Five schools, 62 have at least one Black assistant on staff.

But there is disconnect somewhere in the hiring process.

“There are a lot of assistant coaches out there who have had as long a career as I have assistant coaching, Black, white, all of them. But Black women haven’t got a whole lot of opportunities to be head coaches in Division I basketball,” said Ms. Staley, who noted her success has come because she has worked with people who believed in her.

Promoting assistants falls on athletic directors (ADs), where there’s an even greater lack of diversity. There are only five female ADs at Power Five schools, and two are in the ACC. And of the five female ADs, only Carla Williams at Virginia and Vanderbilt’s Candice Lee are Black.

Ms. Lee became the third straight Black AD at Vanderbilt and the first full-time female AD in the SEC last May. She also played basketball for the Commodores and loved watching Ms. Staley and Ms. Taylor coach in the title game because “representation matters.”

But the Vanderbilt AD also noted race and gender aren’t the only factors to look at when scrutinizing her peers around the country.

Ms. Lee, one of only two Black ADs in the SEC along with Auburn’s Allen Greene, said clearly white ADs have hired Black coaches in women’s basketball.

“Sometimes we exclude people because we use words like pedigree and pipeline when the reality is that we’re not making it a priority,” Ms. Lee said. “And if we believe that representation matters, and many of our women’s basketball student athletes are Black and brown, then I think it would come to bear that you would see more diversity in the coaching ranks. And I just think we’ve got to be intentional about rewarding opportunities.”

Ms. Taylor has a suggestion of how ADs can help improve diversity when hiring new coaches.

“People who are making decisions need to make sure they’re talking to different people when they’re compiling their list to make sure that list is diversified,” said Ms. Taylor, who led Georgia to the second round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart looked to the Wildcats’ bench to replace Matthew Mitchell. He made associate head coach Kyra Elzy the interim coach, then sat down with Ms. Elzy twice to let her make her case for the job.

After a 6-0 start, Mr. Barnhart made Ms. Elzy the second Black women’s basketball coach in Kentucky history, joining Bernadette Mattox. Mr. Barnhart said Ms. Elzy is the right person for the job, and yes, race was an important factor that can’t be ignored with all that has happened in recent months.

“It was important for our players to know that they were being supported on every level of playing, of personal, [the] cultural world that we’re in,” Mr. Barnhart said. “It was important on every level, and Kyra does that at a high level. She’s an absolute professional.”

A recent NCAA survey of athletes found that minority women’s basketball players reported having a far more challenging overall experience compared to athletes in other sports. One response was a push for the one-time transfer rule, which California coach Charmin Smith said Black female coaches questioned as an attempt to send unhappy players elsewhere.

Ms. Smith said the survey was a reminder of the need to acknowledge shortcomings of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“It’s time that we understand that that representation does matter,” Mr. Smith said. “And it’s extremely important in how it shapes the experience of our student-athletes. And that’s who we’re supposed to be catering to during this experience.”

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said they will keep raising the issue at the league’s headquarters, but noted the final decisions are made by schools. The commissioner does believe change is happening, and not just in the SEC.

“That is our future,” Mr. Sankey said, referring to two Black women coaching in the SEC title game.

“And it’s not simply the demographics,” he added. “It’s important for us. And I think it’s important on a national stage as well.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Contributing to this report were: AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli, Janie McCauley, Stephen Hawkins, Anne M. Peterson, Steve Megargee, Eric Olson, and Hank Kurz Jr.

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