The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament starts this week in the nation’s capital, and all 14 teams will have two things in common: championship dreams and a white head coach.
Once a national leader in the hiring of black coaches, the Big Ten is now the only major conference without one. The last black coach hired in the conference was Tubby Smith at Minnesota, and that was 10 years ago this month.
The story of declining racial diversity on college basketball sidelines is shared coast to coast. Diversity peaked just over a decade ago, with a third of major-conference teams (23 of 70) coached by a minority in 2005. That number has fallen steadily and hit 17 percent (13 of 75 teams) this season, the lowest since 1995, according to a Star Tribune analysis of hiring in the six major basketball conferences.
The trend is troubling to some coaches and proponents of diversity, yet solutions are hard to find.
A proposal from two leading advocacy groups that would mirror the NFL’s Rooney Rule and require schools to interview at least one minority candidate when a head coaching opening occurs has lost traction. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said diversity has “always been an important issue” but added that his conference does not get involved in hiring decisions of schools.
“[Hiring] should be based on fairness, opportunity and merit,” Delany said. “And that’s what it is — for the most part.”
After 30 years of having at least one black coach, in two of the past four seasons all of the Big Ten’s head coaches have been white. Meanwhile, 74 percent of players in power conferences were nonwhite last season (the most recent data available), up from 67 percent in 2008.
From the middle of Bob Knight’s conference-dominating glory days in 1983 all the way until Minnesota fired Smith in 2013, the Big Ten had at least one black coach — peaking with four multiple times in the mid-1990s. Diversity hiring faded from there, the Star Tribune’s analysis revealed, and now has sagged in every other major conference as well.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “The Big Ten in the world of college sport is one of the most prestigious conferences with a rich history. Some of the schools there had some of the earliest hiring of African-American coaches. The fact that the Big Ten has zero [coaches] puts a focus on the Big Ten. But for me, the focus has to be on all of Division I college basketball.”
The ACC, SEC and Big East had more black coaches than white in various seasons throughout the 2000s. For the past three seasons, each has had as many as three and as few as one. The Big 12 is down to one black coach, Shaka Smart at Texas. Five nonwhite coaches in the 2000s kept diversity steady in the Pac-12, but just three remain, and two might not keep their jobs past March.
Across Division I, 14 of the 53 coaching changes after last season led to the exit of a black coach, including Rutgers’ Eddie Jordan, the last black coach in the Big Ten (Jordan was hired when Rutgers was in the American Athletic Conference). Five of those 14 positions went to another black coach, but of the eight power-conference hires last year, none was a minority.
Of the 28 Big Ten coaches hired in the 20 years since the conference last peaked at four black coaches, 85.7 percent (24 of 28) have been white. Since Smith came to Minnesota in 2007, there have been 10 Big Ten hires — all white.
“I think the topic has been washed under the rug,” said former Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe, now a Morgan State assistant. “And there aren’t many young guys on the [hiring] lists to move up, either. The administrators, the alums, the people who influence college athletics are just not exposed to minorities and black qualified candidates on a regular basis. They don’t have a clue who these people are.”
Ninety percent of the nation’s athletic directors are white, according to Lapchick’s annual study, and their exposure to nonwhite candidates is crucial to diversity growth, said former Michigan State AD Merritt Norvell, the executive director of the National Association for Coaching Equity and Development (NAFCED).
“About 15-20 years ago, [athletic directors] were saying there were not enough qualified [black] candidates,” Norvell said. “There are plenty of qualified guys out there now. It’s not about the availability of talent. It’s the hiring process that is flawed.”
From four to zero
Minnesota’s Clem Haskins joined Georgetown’s John Thompson and Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson as the most prominent black coaches of the 1990s and still has the longest tenure of any black coach in Big Ten history (1987-1999).
Haskins may not have trumpeted his own trailblazing, but he was well aware of the significance, said longtime assistant Dan Kosmoski.
“Coach Haskins had a lot of firsts,” said Kosmoski, now the coach at St. Olaf. “He was one of the first black [players] at Western Kentucky. There were a lot of firsts for him. He took pride in that.”
The Big Ten had four black coaches in 1993-94 and again from 1995-97 — at the time, the most in major conferences.
“You had a guy like Clem Haskins, a pretty seasoned person in the game of basketball,” Ellerbe said. “That was a very, very strong thing for me to see as a young coach.”
Ellerbe, Jerry Dunn at Penn State, Mike Davis at Indiana and Randy Ayers at Ohio State became the first black head coaches for their schools in the ’90s and 2000.
“I always put pressure on myself, but I felt it was an added responsibility to be successful,” said Dunn, who went to one NCAA Sweet 16 in eight seasons with the Nittany Lions. “Because I thought it would open the doors for other guys like myself.”
A decade after the height of diversity, the drop-off started. In 2007, Smith and Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson were the Big Ten’s only black coaches. The Hoosiers fired Sampson after that season, leaving only Smith until his last season in 2012-13. Smith’s dismissal left the Big Ten without a black coach for the first time since 1982-83. Jordan joined the Big Ten with Rutgers in 2014, but he lasted only two seasons.
Three programs made hires in the past four years: Minnesota, Northwestern and Rutgers. Two of them decided not to hire black coaches back-to-back, which has happened only twice: at Michigan (Ellerbe to Tommy Amaker in 2001) and at Indiana (Davis to Sampson).
Perhaps more rare than a school following one black coach with another, Ellerbe said, is a second chance.
“As black coaches, we don’t get to weather out the tough years,” said Ellerbe, who after leading the Wolverines to the inaugural Big Ten tournament title his first season went 10-18 in his last. “So guys like me, we don’t resurface. Once you have that tough year, it’s labeled such a bad thing.”
There could be openings after this season. One black coach rumored to be Big Ten-bound is California coach Cuonzo Martin, who played at Purdue.
“You just take for granted that there are black coaches in every league,” said Davis, now Texas Southern’s coach. “But the way our coaching profession goes, there probably will be [a black coach in the Big Ten] in the next couple years.”
Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois and Nebraska have never had a black men’s basketball coach, though two of those schools — Purdue and Michigan State — have had very little turnover.
“These things do go in cycles,” Lapchick said. “There are some legendary coaches in the Big Ten where there is often not change. But nonetheless, if it’s the only [major] conference in the country that doesn’t have a black head coach in the sport where the numbers of black head coaches have historically been very good, it’s something that I’m concerned about.”
No rules, only ‘hope’
The NFL adopted the Rooney Rule — named after Dan Rooney, the former Steelers chairman and NFL diversity committee head — in 2003. A similar statute, named the Eddie Robinson Rule after the legendary Grambling football coach, was proposed by NAFCED and another organization last year.
The NCAA studied the proposal and a committee amended the idea. Norvell said his group didn’t accept the changes. “We asked them, ‘What is the next step?’ ” Norvell said. “They said you need to take that back to the operating committees of the NCAA to work through it. In other words: ‘We’re done with it and not going to worry about it anymore.’ ”
Instead, a “Presidential Pledge” was approved, signed by many school leaders and posted on the NCAA’s website last fall, making public a commitment to promoting diversity and gender equity. Delany and 12 Big Ten schools signed it, with Wisconsin and Nebraska absent.
Lapchick doubts this pledge will be enough to produce real results. “The hiring of people of color in prominent positions is not something that happens automatically,” he said. “There’s not a public glare, or a spotlight and pressure, put on colleges and universities, as well as organizations, to make sure they search out a diverse pool of candidates. And the ol’ boys’ network can come into play, as it often does.”
Delany said it’s not up to the Big Ten to insert itself into hiring processes of schools, which often pay search firms to find top candidates. But the commissioner encourages school leaders to make diversity a priority.
“What I hope it means at any given time — whether there’s one, four, six [minority coaches] — is that people who are in the pool get a fair hearing,” Delany said. “That the school did its best job to identify the most meritorious person in the pool. I hope that’s what happens. I think that’s what normally happens. To say all hires — whether they’re black, white, Hispanic or female — are good belies the point. Time will tell you whether or not the right person got the job.
William Lawrence Cofield was a pioneer even before he became the Big Ten’s first black coach in a major sport in 1976 as head of the Wisconsin basketball program. An Ebony magazine article two years earlier featured Cofield as the first black athletic director and head coach at a predominantly white college — Racine College in Wisconsin.
Also pictured in the article was a young white coach wearing a bow tie, plaid pants, a shirt with a long collar and even longer hair. Cofield’s head baseball coach and assistant basketball coach at the time was Bo Ryan.
Cofield brought Ryan with him when he took over the Badgers. Ryan, who would become the longtime Wisconsin coach and be nominated for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, heard from fans who were not happy about their new black coach.
“There were pockets of that, and that even exists today,” Ryan said. “But hopefully a lot fewer. There were some people who weren’t ready for [Cofield] to be a head coach at the University of Wisconsin. I know firsthand because I intercepted the mail.”
Ryan said he and Cofield had “many conversations” about what he would start by being the Big Ten’s first black coach.
“I said, ‘Coach, this is just like with players,’ ” Ryan said. “Once people get over these non-truths and more minority players started to be involved in college athletics and professionally, it was just a matter of time before more minorities were given [coaching] opportunities. … The landscape started to change around that time. Like anything else in our society, sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Pushing for progress
The Black Coaches Association disbanded in 2015, leaving NAFCED to fight for coaching diversity. Norvell’s group believes solutions depend on each school elevating the importance of the issue. Additionally, he wants the Big Ten to mobilize on the issue, as it did for athletes 45 years ago.
The conference created the Advisory Commission in 1972, the first coordinated effort by a conference to address issues for black athletes.
“What we propose is that every [conference] commissioner’s office should take on this responsibility for at least promoting and monitoring racial and ethnic minority hiring,” Norvell said. “Then they can collectively report back as a conference to the NCAA board of trustees on what the Big Ten is doing, what progresses they have made to hire minority coaches, or just to make sure there’s a diversified pool of candidates. … It would go a long way toward responding and answering to the need.”
If an opening arises in the conference this spring, as the decade mark approaches since the last hiring of a black coach, the coaching community and advocates will be watching.
“Every time you have a search, you have a challenge to be fair, inclusive and make a decision based on the merits,” Delany said. “We’re in the education business, and having role models from diverse backgrounds and diverse places is good business. The people you’re teaching, coaching, training, leading work better when they’re working with a diverse set of leaders.”
Ethan Nelson, a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune, contributed to this article.