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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Monday / July 23.
  • On hiring of African-American coaches in Division 1 basketball, ‘progress is a process’

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    NEW YORK – More than a decade ago, when David Cox was still coaching with the DC Assault AAU program, he attended a tournament in Los Angeles and spoke with an influential NBA agent.

    When Cox informed the man that he planned on one day becoming a Division 1 head coach, the agent, who was white, asked Cox, who is African-American, “What would you describe yourself as? An X’s and O’s guy, or just a recruiter?”

    Before Cox could get the answer out, the man said sharply, “Please don’t tell me you think you’re both.”

    “Well, actually,” Cox answered, “I do think I can do both. I am a student of the game. I have played for some very good coaches in high school and in college. And I will be both. I will be a very good recruiter and I will be a very good coach.”

    The incident sums up a stereotype that many African-American basketball coaches have battled over the years.

    Namely, that they are best – and perhaps – only suited for recruiting and not the many other aspects of college coaching, from running practices to scouting to game-planning to handling in-game situations to mentoring and developing young men of all colors and backgrounds.

    “We as a culture tend to label one another and it just so happens that many African-American coaches in different sports are given the label as recruiter,” said Cox, 44.

    ‘PROGRESS IS A PROCESS,’ BUT OBSTACLES REMAIN

    This offseason, Cox finally achieved his dream of becoming a head coach — at Rhode Island. He was awarded the job after Dan Hurley took the UConn job following two straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

    Cox is one of 24 coaches of color to be hired out of 50 Division 1 openings that had been filled as of June 14. That 48 percent is significantly higher than the last two years. In 2017, 18 of 53 (34 percent) hires were black, and in 2016 the number was 11 of 40 (28 percent), according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman who tracks college coaching hires.

    The list for this year includes Cox, Mike Davis (Detroit-Mercy), Jamion Christian (Siena), Jeremy Ballard (Florida International), Penny Hardaway (Memphis), Jeff Capel (Pittsburgh), Shaheen Holloway (Saint Peter’s), Ashley Howard (La Salle), Lorenzo Romar (Pepperdine), Walter McCarty (Evansville), Rodney Terry (UTEP), Ron Sanchez (Charlotte), Tavares Hardy (Loyola-Maryland), Darrell Walker (Arkansas-Little Rock), David Patrick (UC-Riverside), Dave Dickerson (USC-Upstate), Penny Collins (Tennessee State), Clifford Reed (Maryland Eastern Shore), Richie Riley (South Alabama), Justin Hutson (Fresno State), Sean Woods (Southern), Tubby Smith (High Point) and Dana Ford (Missouri State). Tony Pujol was named head coach at North Alabama, which is going D-1 this fall.

    (Texas Southern — where Davis departed to take the Detroit-Mercy job –, Chicago State and Delaware State remained open as of June 14. Keith Johnson, the interim head coach at Delaware State, is African-American.)

    This list includes hirings in several of the major conferences, including the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Atlantic 10.

    This latest round of hires “definitely shows progress,” Rhode Island’s Cox said.

    “Progress has been made without question but it could be better with the amount of qualified African-American, Latino and Asian coaches that still haven’t been afforded legitimate opportunities,” said Oklahoma assistant Carlin Hartman, who is African-American.

    In 2016-17, the last year for which figures are available, African‐American men accounted for 22.3 percent of the men’s basketball head coaching positions at the Division I level, which was up 1.5 percentage points from the 20.8 percent reported in the 2015-2016 season, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That is down 2.9 percentage points from the all-time high of 25.2 percent reported in the 2005-2006 season.

    At the athletic director level, the numbers are more daunting for African-Americans. Whites held 86.1 percent of Division 1 AD positions during the 2016-17 year, compared with African-Americans holding 9.4 percent.

    “I think when we see more minority athletic directors and search firm leaders those numbers [for coaches] could spike as long as the candidate is qualified for the job,” Hartman said.

    This suggests that systemic issues are at work behind the scenes — in terms of search firms, Presidents and athletic directors — that limit how many minority candidates get interviews.

    “I’m glad to see that black coaches are getting interviewed and being viewed as serious candidates again,” said one African-American former Division 1 head coach who requested anonymity. “The search firms became the major force behind hirings around 2007.  Their limited knowledge of the industry led them to promote people they were comfortable with.  As their hiring trends have been highlighted, it has forced search firms to expand their knowledge to build a more diverse list of candidates.

    “The days of people like Garf [Howard Garfinkel] and other prominent folks that were on the grassroots level recommending the next up and comers are over.  Today we have guys that go to mixers and networking functions to find their next candidate. I don’t think the people that run search firms are racist, they just default to people that look like them.  It is a natural human reaction when in social situations.”

    Said Richard Lapchick, the Director for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport:“This year’s hiring cycle has been the best in recent years and is very encouraging. It is getting us back near the all-time high for head basketball coaches of color.  But is that good enough in a sport where more than 61 percent of the student-athletes playing D-1 college basketball are players of color?  It is not enough for me in 2018.  Sport can lead the way in a nation so divided by race.  We need what I have been calling for since 2007- an Eddie Robinson rule requiring mandatory diverse pools of candidates – similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL.  And we need to hold the search firms accountable also.”

    FACING THE STEREOTYPE

    Often when a white head coach is hired, the talk in basketball circles goes like this.

    “Who will ‘the black assistant’ or ‘assistants’ be?”

    Every staff needs at least one black coach, so the theory goes, in order to help recruit black players and also to show players and parents that the staff is “diverse” and that there is someone on it who can relate to African-American players.

    “I guess there’s a stereotype that everybody needs a black coach because the coach needs to relate to the players,” said Holloway, the new Saint Peter’s head coach and former associate head coach at Seton Hall.

    Ed Pinckney, the former Villanova star and Villanova assistant coach and current Minnesota Timberwolves assistant, points out that it’s only logical that black coaches who are former players would be successful in recruiting black players from the inner-city areas.

    “Very often guys who have great ties in big cities are former players and tend to be black,” Pinckney said. “They tend to make good recruiters. There are also white players who played in cities who are good recruiters as well, too. If I was a head coach, I would try to get the best recruiter I could.”

    But black assistants don’t want to be pigeon-holed as recruiters only.

    “The biggest obstacle is shedding the label of the African-American coach being just a recruiter,” Hartman said. “That stigma has been the Achilles heal for most of us for a long time. There are so many bright and talented people out there who understand time and score situations, or in-game matchups, after-timeout plays, etc. The 48 percent hiring of African-Americans this offseason shows more people are starting to take notice and that’s a great thing.”

    RECRUITERS COME IN ALL COLORS

    Cox doesn’t deny that he’s a good recruiter.

    In November, he was ranked as the No. 23 assistant coach in the country by LockDraft.com. During his time at Rhode Island, Cox has been instrumental in the recruitment of Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson, guards Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell as well as center Michael Tertsea. He also was the primary recruiter for three members of the 2018 class – Jermaine Harris, Brendan Adams and Tyrese Martin. That class was ranked as a top 25 class nationally. (Adams has since de-committed and followed Hurley to UConn.)

    That didn’t hurt when it came time for athletic director Thorr Bjorn to hire a replacement for Hurley. But it wasn’t the only reason Cox was retained.

    “This is an important transition period for our basketball program, and we did our due diligence to make sure we hired the right person for the job,” Bjorn said in a statement. “David’s professionalism and leadership ability earned him the position. I am thrilled to continue to build the Rhode Island basketball brand by partnering with a wonderful coach, mentor and teacher.”

    Of course, the basketball world is filled with effective recruiters and communicators who are white.

    Still, very few head coaches are going to risk hiring an all-white staff.

    “If [the coach] wants to have an all white staff, the down side would be you might not get any players,” Pinckney said.

    Perception can become reality. And if a staff is not perceived as being diverse, then it may lose out on certain players.

    “Sometimes looks and perceptions are very important,” Cox said. “Without knowing a staff, if looking at a staff on TV you see there might not be somebody who you can relate to, you might not receive a call from them or you might not accept a call from them. Or you might not reach out to them even though you have interest. So if that hurts you in the recruiting world, you might want to take a look at that.”

    Under former coach head coach Dave Calloway, Monmouth had an all-white staff at times, but that didn’t deter black players from going there.

    Under head coach King Rice, who is black, Monmouth has since hired two black assistants in Duane Woodward and Jamal Meeks.

    Iona head coach Tim Cluess hasn’t had a black assistant in several years, but still has made the NCAA Tournament in five of the last seven years while recruiting many African-American players. His chief recruiter, Jared Grasso, who is white, recently left to take the head coaching job at Bryant.

    In putting together his staff at Bryant, Grasso hired two white assistants (Brock Erickson and Phil Martelli Jr.) and one African-American assistant (Chris Cole).

    “I wanted to put together a staff of well-rounded coaches,” he said. “I wanted guys from different regions and backgrounds who all have a passion for helping our student-athletes reach their goals on the court and in the classroom.”

    ELEVATED TO HEAD COACHING JOBS

    Both Cox and Holloway may be good recruiters, but that’s not all they wanted to be known for. Both men wanted to participate in every facet of coaching in order to one day become head coaches.

    “When I got to Iona, people asked me, ‘What, did you come into the game to be a recruiter?’” Holloway recalled before he became the Saint Peter’s head coach.

    “No, I’m going to be a coach, man. A coach does a little bit of everything. A coach recruits, he can do X’s and O’s, he can do time management. He can deal with the players. He can learn how to manage a game.

    “I want to be all of that. I don’t consider myself a recruiter. I don’t consider myself X’s and O’s. I consider myself a coach that has the ability to do a little bit of everything.”

    Now that he is the head coach at Saint Peter’s, he will have that opportunity.

    “The good thing about Coach Willard, he said from Day One, ‘I don’t want to hire guys that just want to be recruiters,'” Holloway said. “‘If you don’t want to be a head coach, I don’t want you on my staff.’ So I was very fortunate to work for someone that’s been molding me and growing me to become a head coach.”

    ***

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.