As a Black athletic director in a Minnesota college sports scene dominated by mostly white administrators, Macalester’s Donnie Brooks shoulders what he calls a “tremendous responsibility.”
Like any AD, he needs to put each team in position to succeed. And Brooks is determined to do that while creating racial diversity opportunities in areas where they rarely exist.
“I don’t take it lightly at all,” Brooks said.
At a time when calls to end America’s racial inequality are the loudest in decades, college sports at all levels are being singled out for lacking Black leadership.
“When George Floyd’s death happened, our Black athletes came to me and had concerns,” said Carleton’s AD Gerald Young, who is Black. “They wanted to see more coaches who looked like them.”
College administrators are listening, but all across Minnesota’s college sports landscape, there is major work to be done when it comes to hiring more leaders of color. Of the 30 Minnesota colleges and universities that compete in NCAA sports, Macalester is the only school with more than one Black head coach: Abe Woldeslassie in men’s basketball and Sarah Graves in volleyball. The Gophers have no Black head coaches.
Only two Minnesota schools have Black athletic directors — Macalester with Brooks, and Carleton with Young. Macalester and Hamline, both based in St. Paul, have made notable strides with their diversity hiring overall in athletics, but leaders at both schools say they have a long way to go with inclusion.
“My job now is helping to get more folks in,” Brooks said. “How do I support more people like me who want to be in this business?”
Brooks was once a Division III football player at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He had eyes on becoming an administrator in the NFL or in Division I. He never imagined working at Macalester or another D-III school because he never saw other Black men or women in those roles.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Division III had the lowest racial diversity among athletic directors of any level in the NCAA, at 92.5% white, with only 4.9% African American, in the latest data from the 2018-19 season. Meanwhile, nearly 13% of D-III athletes are Black.
Among Division I head coaches, only 8.7% are Black. That number drops to 5.7% at Division II, and 5% at Division III.
Minnesota has 20 Division III schools, and those institutions have a total of four Black head coaches, including Hamline’s Chip Taylor, the only Black college head football coach in the state.
“If we’re going to see any change in the composition of coaches, it’s going to be about us looking at who we hired to be our athletic directors,” said Hamline President Fayneese Miller, whose AD, Jason Verdugo, is also of color.
Among the nine Minnesota Division II schools in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, there is only one Black head coach — Krayton Nash in women’s tennis at Minnesota Crookston.
Dan McKane, commissioner of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, said he has challenged its schools to hire more female coaches and administrators. His hope is to place the same emphasis now on hiring for racial diversity.
“Once you make it a priority to talk about it in front of ADs and presidents,” he said, “you could hopefully see positive trends. … We need to do better.”
Diverse hiring is reflected in leadership all over Macalester’s campus.
In February, Suzanne Rivera became the school’s first Latina and female president. Three Black women have key roles in academics: Vice President of Student Affairs Donna Lee, Dean of Students DeMethra Bradley and Dean of Multicultural Life Marjorie Trueblood.
“I think here at the college, there is some intentionality in our work,” Brooks said. “We don’t want to become diverse by accident.”
Brooks isn’t the first Black AD at Macalester. That distinction belongs to legendary sports broadcaster Irv Cross, who led the Scots from 1999-2006. A former NFL star, Cross also was the first Black full-time sports analyst on national television in 1971.
That same year, Macalester made history by hiring Don Hudson from Minneapolis Central High. He became the first African American football coach at a predominantly white college in the modern era, although the school didn’t say much to promote the historic move until 2007.
In the early 2000s, Macalester had Cross, but the Scots’ head coaches looked like the coaching staffs at most Minnesota colleges right now — largely white.
Graves, a former Macalester volleyball standout, cherished her experiences as a player, even returning to spend six years as an assistant at her alma mater. Still, she knew something was missing.
“Athletics for many years has been very male, very white and very patriarchal,” Graves said.
Following two years as a head volleyball coach at Denison University in Ohio, Graves returned to Macalester in 2017. Soon after, she contributed to bringing more diversity, joining Lee on hiring committees for the AD and president, which led to Brooks and Rivera.
“Once you’re actually working in [diverse] environments, you realize how you’ve been towing the line in being a token in representation,” Graves added. “The experience is richer for you personally, your co-workers and your student-athletes.”
Hired as Macalester’s AD in January 2019, Brooks inherited two Black coaches — Woldeslassie and Graves — among the school’s 21 sports programs. Brooks looked to create diversity opportunities in other roles, too. This summer, the Scots added two entry-level positions to their department to help groom future administrators of color.
“My job really is for our young people of color and those who identify as minorities to give them fertile land and continue to water the grass,” Brooks said.
Taking tough jobs
Woldeslassie, a former Macalester player who grew up a few blocks from where George Floyd was killed in south Minneapolis, is now the only Black men’s NCAA college basketball coach in Minnesota.
The Scots went 3-22 the year before he took over the program in 2018, and they’ve improved to seven and eight wins in his first two seasons.
This summer, Woldeslassie gathered his mostly white team and gave the players a big-picture look at the importance of trying to build a program that could reach its first NCAA tournament. Their success could help show that coaches of color can win.
“I need to make sure this program performs well,” Woldeslassie said. “So that other coaches who look like me get a chance.”
John Parker had that same feeling 25 years ago, when Minnesota Morris made him the first Black Division II football coach in the state. Morris was riding a 19-game losing streak, longest in the country, but he took the job, having interviewed for 13 others without landing one.
“That’s typically the jobs many Black coaches get,” said Parker, who went on to earn NSIC Coach of the Year honors in 1997. “You get a job that no one has been successful in.”
Parker is surprised in 2020, there still is only one Black college football coach in Minnesota. Taylor took over a tough job at Hamline to win five games his first year in 2016, but he’s won just four games since.
For Hamline and Macalester, turning programs around is particularly tough with high tuition costs, strict admission standards and no athletic scholarships permitted in D-III.
Macalester’s men’s basketball team went a combined 9-31 in MIAC play during Woldeslassie’s first two seasons. The volleyball team was 8-20 overall in 2017, the year before Graves took over. Her team went 4-21 last season, and she dealt with players transferring and publicly criticizing her program.
Brooks, though, said he stands by both coaches and that it’s up to him to provide the best situations to be successful. For coaches of color, it can be even more stressful considering there might be few opportunities if they don’t succeed the first time around.
“We don’t, a lot of times as minority coaches, get a second chance,” said Woldeslassie, a Division I assistant for nearly a decade.
‘Has to be a focus’
The MIAC made history in 1994, hiring Carlyle Carter as the first commissioner of color at an NCAA conference that doesn’t include the HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
But convincing individual MIAC schools to take minority hiring seriously in athletics was a “real struggle,” Carter said.
Now, decades later, it frustrates him that most Minnesota colleges still are barely represented by head coaches and senior administrators of color.
“There’s no real excuse,” he said. “If in fact they want minorities in the [candidate] pool, they can reach out … and say we’re looking for an athletic administrator, and we’d like to include people of color. That’s all they have to do. It has to be a focus of the institution.”
Brooks and Young got their first start after being involved in NCAA’s Pathway Program aimed at teaching and molding future ADs. And they saw value pursuing careers in Division III instead of moving up (Young worked briefly at Oregon State).
Now they’re working to promote opportunities at the D-III level, the largest in the NCAA with 443 schools.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of programs and been paired up to mentor,” Young said. “Getting the foot into the door to get interviews [isn’t easy]. And helping to prepare those coaches and administrators for the process is important.”
At Hamline, Miller is the only Black president among Minnesota colleges. She hired Verdugo out of the Pathway Program.
Meanwhile, Miller is breaking ground herself as the only Black woman on the NCAA’s Board of Governors, the organization’s highest governing body.
“We have to put ourselves in that space to affect change in what [college leaders] look like,” Miller said. “We are not as many as we need to be.”