CHICAGO — When DePaul coach Tony Stubblefield was growing up in Iowa, he attended a basketball camp hosted by George Raveling and instantly was wowed by the then-Hawkeyes coach.
The experience was so inspirational to Stubblefield that when he became an assistant college basketball coach years later, he reached out to Raveling to ask for guidance. It changed his life.
“I wanted someone to mentor me, and thank God he was willing to do that,” said Stubblefield, 51, who earned his first head coaching job in April when DePaul hired him. “I could bounce things off him. He gave me a lot of advice. It’s important we have mentors. That was something Coach Rav afforded me. And I never made a decision without consulting him.”
Mentorship among Black head coaches has been a continuous undercurrent in college basketball, and many coaches said it was partly responsible for a wave of offseason hires in a sport in which Black coaches have been glaringly underrepresented.
Black coaches are encouraged by what appears to be a significant uptick in hires. And they’re cautiously buoyed not only by the numbers, but also by seemingly important changes in the range of candidates.
Young first-timers such as Loyola’s Drew Valentine — who was 29 on his hiring date to become the youngest active head coach in Division I men’s basketball — are getting a crack at attractive jobs. So are lifelong assistants who paid their dues such as Stubblefield, a 27-year assistant at Oregon, Cincinnati and other stops.
“We’ve worked so hard to show that we can do the job and that we can do the full job all the way around,” said Valentine, who noted his father’s influential role as a high school basketball coach. “There’s a stigma around the role a lot of Black coaches have on coaching staffs in college basketball. Getting the opportunity to be head coach, you have to be CEO, you have to do it all.
“It (has been) frustrating, but college athletics as a whole, they’ve made a better effort to change this year. I’m proud I can be part of that change and inspire the next generation.”
In 2019-20, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), 75.5% of Division I men’s basketball head coaches were white despite more than 53% of players — a seemingly natural field of future coaches — being Black.
The number of Black Division I head coaches has been relatively stagnant, usually fluctuating by a few percentage points year to year without dramatic change. In 2019-20, 22.7% of head coaches were Black, down from a peak of 25.2% in 2005-06 according to TIDES’ annual tracking of diversity numbers in athletics.
This past season, only 13 programs — about 17% — in the Power Six conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern) had a Black head coach.
But out of 51 head coaching vacancies filled in Division I men’s basketball this offseason, 26 went to Black coaches (51%). That included some of the most prominent jobs, including Hubert Davis at North Carolina and Shaka Smart at Marquette.
The Big Ten made the most impact. Penn State hired former Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry, 44. Indiana brought former Hoosiers player Mike Woodson, 63, from the NBA for his first college gig, hoping to replicate Michigan’s success after hiring alumnus Juwan Howard from an NBA assistant job. Ben Johnson, 40, a former Minnesota player and assistant and most recently a Xavier assistant, earned his first head coaching gig with his alma mater.
Howard has talked about the importance of Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton’s mentorship. During his introductory news conference at Marquette, Smart frequently credited his relationship with Doc Rivers for helping him develop. Stubblefield thanked Raveling during his news conference.
“There’s been a lot of minority hirings, which has been awesome,” Johnson said. “It comes down to opening eyes and (understanding) a lot of people can be successful if given the right opportunity and right space to have success.”
‘Let’s see if we can make this bigger’
Whether these efforts ultimately create sustained equitable hiring or amount to a temporary blip remains to be seen.
The vast majority of college athletic directors remains white; only 13 of the 130 athletic directors in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2020 were Black, according to the NCAA Leadership Report Card. Coaches chalk up the offseason diversity increase to a number of factors, including a cultural push during a year of racial justice movements for institutions to go beyond blanket statements about equality.
Perhaps, coaches speculated, athletic directors and college administrators were positively influenced by external calls for fair job searches that include racial minorities as serious candidates.
But Black coaches noted that their own efforts were as important, spurred on last summer by a desire to uplift a new generation and create meaningful change during a time of turmoil and unrest.
Mentorship among Black coaches, always an unspoken bond, became more intentional this year. Many banded together in a renewed and organized effort, harkening to their predecessors in the 1980s and ‘90s who passionately and publicly advocated for other Black coaches and athletes.
Various groups have sprouted up around the nation.
Black Coaches United “aims to be the premier advocacy group for all coaches of color at every level” with a focus on mentoring while also highlighting social justice initiatives. It includes notable founders such as Hamilton, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin and former Kentucky and Minnesota coach Tubby Smith.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches, led by former Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, began the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative, which works to “jump-start” young careers and provide networking opportunities.
At Texas, Smart created Black Coach University. Coaches met online during the pandemic and shared experiences. It soon expanded beyond his staff and has been an informal training seminar for coaches seeking practical advice on career advancement.
“It was grassroots in nature,” Smart said. “I felt I wasn’t doing enough for the young Black guys actually on our staff. We started this group and extended it to more people who had been on staff previously. It got to be like 10 people. Then after George Floyd and everything, we said, ‘Let’s see if we can make this bigger.’ ”
His group holds Zoom calls every few weeks with African American guest speakers. The topics focus on honing coaching skills, developing philosophies, fine-tuning interview skills and networking strategy.
On Easter, Texas State coach T.J. Johnson and Wichita State coach Isaac Brown spoke about their journeys from assistants to interim coaches to head coaches.
“COVID was driving everyone in their homes and all the social justice movements were occurring,” Smart said, “and a good thing that’s come out of the last year is Black coaches have been more intentional about mentoring other Black coaches and sharing ideas and supporting each other. It’s a profession like many others where there are added challenges if you’re not part of the majority group.”
Smart noted this isn’t a new concept, but there is renewed energy in the efforts.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, the Black Coaches Association was led by outspoken figures such as Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson, Georgetown’s John Thompson, Temple’s John Chaney and Raveling. They advocated for hiring equality while also mentoring young Black coaches and demanding the removal of barriers such as the NCAA’s Proposition 48 that disproportionately impacted Black athletes.
The BCA eventually dissipated without a replacement organization carrying similar weight.
In a 2018 Undefeated article, Richardson said: “You have a bunch of go-along and get-along guys now because it’s really tough compared to when we were around and you had the original BCA. We used to say to some of the young coaches, when they had issues and when they wanted to get out and tell everybody about it: ‘You sit in the background. They can’t destroy us. They can’t blackball us. We’ve been out here fighting, and we’re going to continue to fight.’
“I don’t think these Black coaches have that backup anymore to keep their jobs. That’s because they don’t have the John Thompsons and the John Chaneys, and it angers me.”
Smart said instead of asking why the BCA went away, a more important question to ask is, “Why did the voices of top Black coaches, why was that voice diminished?”
He recalled a conference call a few years ago with Raveling in which he implored active Black coaches to “carry the torch.”
“The reasons why the voices became quiet, there’s socio-cultural reasons why, as there are in many areas of American life,” Smart said. “The 24-hour social media and media news cycle and scrutiny has probably made things more complicated.
“Those guys (leading the BCA) reached a point where they realized it wasn’t about the next game or next recruit or next job. It was about saying what’s right. That’s just so impressive. We’re trying to work our way back there.”
‘I feel like something is happening’
A similar wave seems to be taking hold in other college sports.
After South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Arizona’s Adia Barnes made history as the first Black women to coach in the same Final Four this season, women’s college basketball hoped its successes would make administrators consider hiring other African American women as head coaches.
In 2019-20, only 13.8% of Division I women’s basketball teams were led by Black coaches, according to TIDES. This offseason, eight of the 17 Division I head coaching hires (47%) were Black coaches, seven of them women, according to The Undefeated.
College football, which did not see a notable rise in diverse hiring practices during the offseason, has created potential inroads with various initiatives. Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is one of 12 participants in the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches’ first Coalition Academy, a mentorship program pairing athletic directors with “minority football coaches.”
“What can we as minorities do to help one another?” Walters said. “Everyone talks about it, but here’s something being done and there’s action behind it. It was a no-brainer for me to join and to stay active in it.
“The college football community is small and people talk. The more you can network and have a background and history to help the hiring process, the better. The hope is by the time I retire there are more minority coordinators and minority head coaches than when I started in this profession.”
Smart points out how the legacy of Black coaching mentorship shaped his career.
A former Division III player, he said when he was a graduate assistant, he made a spreadsheet with all of the Division I contacts he knew. There were two names on the list.
But working for two Black coaches early in his career — Bill Brown at California University of Pennsylvania and Oliver Purnell at Dayton — was instrumental to launching his career.
“Part of the reason I enjoy mentoring is because there are young guys out there getting started who feel (isolated), and whether it’s me or someone else they can get to know, they feel there’s a network to support them,” Smart said.
Sometimes the influence is less direct. Racial representation can plant a powerful seed, whether it was Stubblefield rooting for Raveling at Iowa or Johnson growing up with Clem Haskins roaming the Minnesota sideline.
“You see someone who looks like you and it adds to the fact that it could be real for you, whether you consciously recognize it or not,” Johnson said. “That turns you to seek out others.”
For Johnson that was Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar, whom he models himself after. Of course, Johnson said, he also has white coaches who are friends and who provide guidance.
But hurdles exist, specifically related to career advancement, for Black coaches.
“There is that bond,” Johnson said. “I think it’s good and healthy to have those talks with guys about stuff you have gone through or will go through. It’s always good to have a sounding board of someone you can relate to and say, ‘How do I handle this?’ There is some uniqueness and there are some obstacles and some barriers we have to push through.”
Coaches tempered their optimism about this offseason’s hiring upswing with the knowledge that numbers have fluctuated in the past. A decrease in Black head coaches of more than 6% took place by the 2010-11 season, just four seasons after the sport saw a record high.
But this year feels different to many.
“I feel like something is happening,” Smart said. “I think there’s a lasting feeling among a lot of us that we need to help each other and help others. We need to uplift the next group of guys. That’s a real good start now.”