He was just months into his first job on a college coaching staff, an assistant Director of Basketball Operations. That’s the bottom of the college coaching ranks, but for a basketball lifer who was trying to find his way after the ball had stopped bouncing, it was a foot in the door.
You don’t say no to that.
One night after a game, the DOBO — then a 20-something, African-American man — was cutting film when his head coach called. He was at a bar down the street and he needed someone to bring him his car. Not unusual. Chauffeuring the head coach around might as well be written into the assistant DOBO job description.
So he parks the car outside the bar and walks in. His head coach, who is white, is sitting at a table with a dozen of his white friends. One of those friends, a booster at the school, says, “Hey Coach, is this your new recruiter?”
“And everyone, including [my head coach], bursts out laughing,” the DOBO said. He did not want to be identified in this piece for fears that it could impact his ability to get hired in the future. “At that moment, I decided I would never be coined as a recruiter.”
That term — recruiter — is a code word in coaching circles, one with a negative connotation. It refers to the young, black assistant on a coaching staff who can relate to the black players a white head coach needs to win basketball games. It’s a label given to guys who walk into urban high schools and the living room of black families, that have the relationships that basketball programs need with high school and AAU coaches that allows them to bring talent onto a college campus.
Recruiting well isn’t the problem. The problem’s the insinuation.
Referring to a coach, particularly a black coach, as a recruiter implies that recruiting is the only reason they are on staff. They’re not there to develop players. They’re not there to scout or game plan. They’re not there to draw up practices plans, or to mentor the athletes on the roster, or raise money for the athletic department, or glad-hand administrators and boosters, or to evaluate which prospects should be offered.
They’re there to get the players they’re told to get.
As of the 2017-18 season, 53.6 percent of Division I men’s basketball players were black, up 0.6 percent from the previous season, according to data collected by Richard Lapchick, the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Those numbers only increase at the higher levels as the players get better. For example, nearly 80 percent scholarship players at major conference schools are black, according to a study done by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Of the 104 players that were named first, second or third-team all-conference in the sport’s seven biggest leagues last season — the ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — 87 of them were black, or 83.7 percent. Of the 15 players that were named All-Americans last year, 13 — or 86.7 percent — were black.
Those numbers don’t come close to matching up with the number of black head coaches in the college ranks.
There are 353 Division I men’s basketball programs, and just 103 of them — or 29.2 percent — have black head coaches. When HBCUs are taken out of the equation, the number falls to 24.1 percent. In the sport’s Big Seven conferences, that number is 22.9 percent. Half of the head coaches in the Big East and the American are black, so when looking at just the Power Five leagues, the number is a paltry 13.8 percent. The Pac-12 does not have a single black head coach. The only black head coach in the Big Ten is Michigan’s Juwan Howard, who was hired in May after John Beilein left for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s very disappointing that the numbers haven’t moved to a greater number of minority coaches faster,” said Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2000, 25 percent of head coaches in the six major conferences — prior to Big East splitting from the American — were black. In 2010, the number was 24.7 percent. As recently 2005, 32.3 percent (22 of 68) of high major head coaches were black.
What makes these numbers even more jarring is the fact that, in those seven conferences, more than 59 percent of the assistant coaches are black. Every single one of those 87 programs has at least one black assistant coach, but they aren’t the ones that are getting the opportunities to be a head coach.
A number of coaches interviewed by NBC Sports mentioned the increase in how search firms are used during the hiring process as a reason for the decline in recent years. As one coach put it, “white presidents hire white search firms to hire white ADs who hire those same white search firms to hire white head coaches.”
Glenn Sugiyama, who is Asian, of DHR International is the only executive at a relevant search firm that is not white, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, a college basketball insider that has broken the majority of coaching hirings and firings this decade.
“When I first got into coaching, there was no such thing as a search firm,” said Tulane head coach Ron Hunter, a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “There’s nothing wrong with the existence of search firms. What’s wrong is the process. They take a pool of people out of the mix.”
Hunter’s main quibble with search firms is that he believes they tend to skew away from black candidates, that they favor retreads and coaches that have a better resume than an assistant that has never been given a chance. “I don’t have the data,” Reed said, “but that is definitely a narrative and a conversation that you hear within our industry.”
What exacerbates the issue, coaches believe, is that ADs are more worried about the business and the bottom line than they are about whether or not they’re making the right hire. Part of the reason for this is that there has been a change in who lands in those leadership positions. In the past, athletic director roles were reserved for coaches that were tired of the coaching grind.
“Now there are more business people running athletic departments,” one high-major head coach said. “So it’s about the guy who speaks the best at a press conference, not necessarily the guy that can connect with the kids, work hard and have longterm success. What will help us look good in the moment.”
ADs often make the safe hire. Safe hires tend to be coaches with head coaching experience, and since the overwhelming majority of head coaches are already white, the retreads at major conference schools end up being those same white coaches, too. Some also feel there’s less leeway than their white counterparts have.
“They fired Tony Barbee in the middle of the night to hire Bruce Pearl with a show-cause,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton said.
Largely, this is about perception.
“We talk about tournament resumes this time of year. What I would like to see is someone do blind resumes with assistant coaches [during the coaching carousel],” Reed said. “What was it about this resume that made you pick him over a person of color? You’ll find there are going to be a lot of African-American associate and assistant coaches that are as prepared as the guy that gets hired.”
Mike Pegues is the greatest player in the history of the Delaware basketball program. He was the school’s first player to be named first-team all-conference for three straight years. He was the program’s first conference Player of the Year. He still holds the Blue Hens’ career scoring record, and he played in two NCAA tournaments. He’s been on Chris Mack’s staff as an assistant coach at Xavier, one of the best incubators of coaching talent in college basketball, and Louisville since 2011, but when the Delaware job opened in 2016, he couldn’t even get an interview. The school’s final four were all white assistant coaches.
Another talking point: Black coaches must take tougher jobs than their counterparts to prove themselves.
Boynton, Wyking Jones and Maurice Joseph were all promoted from within the program as assistants to the head coaching position in the span of seven months, and it was lauded as a great opportunity for young, black coaches to prove their worth. At the time, however, there was concern that this could set back black men in the coaching profession because none of the three were hired into situations where success would be easy.
Jones was given two years to try and turn around a moribund Cal program. He was not successful. Joseph stepped into an incredibly complicated situation at George Washington. He was gone in three years. Boynton, who is still the lowest-paid head coach in the Big 12 after getting a substantial raise, is the only one left standing.
Perhaps the biggest complaint among coaches of color is the lack of diversity in the hiring process.
At Division I schools, just 15.6 percent of ADs are black, a number that drops to 10 percent once HBCUs are factored out, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s study. In the seven major conferences, only 11 of the 87 universities (12.6 percent) have a black AD. Just one of those 87 universities has a black president, Ohio State’s Michael Drake.
“People hire people that look like them,” Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing said. “It’s not necessarily racist. Most of the time you hire a person you can relate to.”
For Boynton, this really hit home when he was an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin. At the end of his first season in Nacogdoches, Texas, the school board invited the team to one of their meetings. Boynton was the only black person in the room who wasn’t a player.
“They thought I was a player,” Boynton said.
Two years later, when then-head coach Brad Underwood got offered the job at Oklahoma State, he asked Boynton if he wanted to takeover at SFA. “I can’t get that job,” Boynton said. He knew he didn’t stand a chance when he saw the candidate pool. Kyle Keller, Matt Figger, Chris Ogden.
“They were all middle-aged white guys from high-major programs. That’s what Brad was. Their profile was set,” he said. “Many times, you have to be so much better [if you’re black] to really get a fair shake at it.”
The goal, according to many of the coaches and administrators that spoke with NBC Sports for this story, is not to put black people in positions to solely hire black people. It’s to ensure that the people in a position of power have a broader understanding of their applicant pool.
“There is a distinct consciousness about remaining polished in a professional setting when you’re black,” said Joseph, now an assistant coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. “It goes beyond dressing appropriately and conducting yourself professionally. It’s changing your accent, tweaking your personality, fitting the standards.
“Almost like you need to put on a show or else you will be perceived poorly.”
There are steps being taken to change that. The Big East, a league where five of their 10 men’s basketball coaches are black, is developing a conference-wide plan to maintain a central database for young people that have worked for the conference and its member schools. The goal, according to conference commissioner Val Ackerman, is to create a centralized locale to find candidates for potential openings and for those candidates to learn about job opportunities.
Then there is the John McClendon Minority Scholarship. Named after the first black head coach at a predominantly white university, the McClendon Scholarship develops those pipelines by helping young people of color earn graduate and master’s degrees in athletics administration.
“The issue with minorities in sports is we need more pathways to get into the pipeline,” said Martin Jarmond, Boston College’s AD. A former team captain on UNC Wilmington’s basketball team, Jarmond was the youngest Power Five AD when he was hired by Boston College at 37 years old in 2017. He was the first black AD in school history.
“The more minority assistant and associate athletic directors there are, the more minority athletic directors there will be,” Jarmond said, adding that this cannot solely be an issue that is championed by black people within the industry.
“A lot of [coaches], when they’re looking for a young minority, will call me and ask,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley. “The fact that you have to? Come on, man. You should know.”
“The bottom line is that too many times we put the impetus on black athletic directors,” Jarmond said. “There are white athletic directors that can do much more than I can to help minorities get opportunities in the pipeline. We’re going to keep talking about this until it’s a concerted effort by everyone. I didn’t get my chance solely because of black athletic directors. Joe Castiglione of Oklahoma has been so influential in my career.
“It needs to take root in more people across the board to invest in minorities.”
What makes this all the more complicated is the tightrope black coaches are forced to walk.
Recruiting is incredibly important. Evaluating talent, doing the background research on who the players are as people, ensuring that it is the right fit on both sides, all of that matters. But if you cannot actually go out and bring the players you identify into your program, evaluation is relatively meaningless. And it’s also important to have diversity on a coaching staff. The majority of college players are black, and putting together a coaching staff that does not have anyone of color isn’t ideal.
“We get pigeonholed,” said Tulsa head coach Frank Haith. When Haith landed his first head coaching job at Miami, it was because the AD “wanted to hire the top recruiter in the country.” Haith had just finished putting together a recruiting class at Texas that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and Mike Williams, all five-star prospects.
“I knew that was a big part of getting that opportunity,” he said.
The reason why, 16 years and three jobs later, he’s still a head coach is because he was prepared. Rick Barnes, then the head coach at Texas, allowed him to do more. Haith put together scouting reports. He did radio interviews. He did speaking engagements. He learned how to operate.
Every head coach interviewed by NBC Sports has a similar story.
When Boynton was a senior playing for Dave Odom at South Carolina, Odom made him give the opening statement for every postgame press conference. Cooley said he used to follow Skinner around as an assistant at Boston College to soak in how he interacted with reporters, administrators and opponents. Numerous coaches that spoke with NBC Sports said that they have made it a priority to attend as many meetings as possible with administrators, even if it’s just to observe.
“There’s no excuse not to take your career in your hands,” said George Washington head coach Jamion Christian, a 37-year old who is already on his eighth season as a head coach at his third program.
One of the issues that Christian identified was the amount of time that recruiters are asked to be off campus and on the road.
“You’re not at practice three days-a-week, so you’re not learning how to run a practice or how to run a program,” he said. “You’re not learning the ins-and-outs. When you get a [head coaching] job, are you prepared to succeed?”
The answer, Christian says, is to learn on your own. Read about the game. Watch video. Learn a new offense while on a flight. His goal is to one day establish a training center for assistant coaches that get put into this situation, a place where all of this can be drilled into coaches.
“I only worry about perfecting my craft,” Tennessee assistant Kim English said, adding that he’ll use travel time to stay up to date on trends in the NBA and the Euroleague and that he’ll rewatch tape of every single practice “so I know our players inside and out.”
“You’re not going to [become a better coach] by being fake, and the people that you’re around will see it and know it.”
Another part of the problem, according to coaches, is the lack of advocacy and public pressure from outspoken and outsized personalities. John Thompson Jr. isn’t coaching anymore. Nolan Richardson has been out of the game for nearly 20 years. John Chaney is 88 years old. “Those guys carry so much weight in their voices, and we don’t have that in our group anymore,” Haith said.
The fall of the Black Coaches Association has hurt as well. During the 1980s and 90s, the BCA was “a vibrant force,” according to Lapchick, one that un-apologetically campaigned for minorities in the collegiate space. Richardson, Chaney and Thompson were all intimately involved in it.
“I was on the board,” Lapchick said. “Whenever there was an opening we would send a list of qualified candidates to the president and the athletic director with coaches of color that they should take a look at, including a bio and his experience. I don’t think anyone is doing that anymore.”
The other problem lies with the media. As one coach phrased it, “the Luke Yaklich phenomenon.”
Yaklich was an assistant coach hired by Michigan’s John Beilein to turn around their defense. In the two seasons that he was in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines finished second and third nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The media — including this reporter, who was the first to write on Beilein’s new defensive coordinator — lionized Yaklich, who has since moved on to join Shaka Smart’s staff at Texas.
“What black coach has that ever happened for?” said the coach. “Luke Yaklich is this defensive genius. Then [Texas] goes and gets beat by  by Iowa State without Tyrese Haliburton.”
There wasn’t a single coach that spoke with NBC Sports on the record, off the record or on background that suggested that black coaches should be given opportunities simply because of the color of their skin.
“I don’t believe in handouts,” Hunter said. “I go back and forth on how I feel about affirmative action. Nothing should be given. But I believe in opportunity. Don’t lock us out of opportunity.”
Most of the coaches and administrators seemed to be against implementing something akin to the Rooney Rule in college athletics. Forcing people to make a hiring decision they don’t want to make will never be effective.
The answer is finding a way to ensure there is equal representation across the board, that there is a black voice in the room advocating for candidates of color just like there is a female voice in the room advocating for women.
“The NCAA runs a whole host of coach prep academies and leadership programming,” Reed said, “but this is not going to be a program thing. It’s going to be more about increasing awareness of the situation and letting people know the quality of [candidates] out there that could rise to the level of head coach.
“And then it’s going to take people having the courage to make that hire.”
“I don’t think it will ever be a 50-50 split,” said Cooley, “but we have to move the needle to give people that look like me, talk like me and comb their hair like me more chances.”