Despite success, hiring practices for basketball coaches lack diversity

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When Kevin Ollie led Connecticut to the national title last month, a lot was made about how he was the first men’s basketball head coach ever to win it all in his first tournament appearance.

It was an impressive feat. Ollie and the Huskies were also the first seventh seed ever to win the national championship. Connecticut rallied their way after missing out on March Madness last season due to academic violations.

All of these accomplishments have now linked Ollie to a head-coaching job in the NBA. There is, however, one other fact that people have seemed to gloss over when discussing Ollie – he was the first African-American head coach in 15 years to win the title. Tubby Smith previously led Kentucky in 1998 over Utah.

While Ollie’s success may lead him to the NBA, the larger question should be if Ollie’s success will pave the way for other African-Americans to get hired.

“I’d like to think Kevin and UConn winning the national championship makes a strong statement that African-American can do an outstanding job coaching basketball,” DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell said.

For the 2011-2012 season, The Institute of Diversity and Ethics released its annual Racial and Gender Report Card for college sports. The report found that the number of African-American basketball head coaches was just 18.6 percent, the lowest it had ever been since researching the data. The number in 2013 jumped back to 23 percent, but it’s still a large disparity from the 57.2 percent of African-American players in college basketball.  

Purnell, who has been a head coach for 26 years, says the bigger problem is that African-American coaches aren’t securing high profile jobs like a Kentucky or Arizona. Pat Forde of Yahoo! found that of the 28 basketball programs from the powerhouse conferences that have been to the Final Four in the last 15 years, only John Thompson III and Ollie were black.

“African-Americans aren’t getting jobs that are in great shape,” Purnell said. “For African-American coaches, when they’re let go, there seems to be a hesitancy to hire another one. It definitely feels like there has been a decline.”

Purnell said the landscape of hiring coaches has changed dramatically during that time frame. He pointed to universities relying on “headhunters”, individuals in searching firms that are relied solely upon making recommendations of worthy candidates.

When DePaul conducted its search for Purnell, the Blue Demons used a searching firm.

“The headhunters are so involved now and they weren’t when I started coaching,” Purnell said. “When you want to move up, it’s important to make relationships with those folks because they are clearly influencing those who are making the hires. They have for the last 10 years.”

The bigger problem, Purnell said, is that African-American coaches aren’t securing commitments from the nation’s top recruits like they used to. There was a time when John Thompson was securing top talents like Patrick Ewing.

Since 2007, only two top-10 recruits committed to African-American head coaches. They were No. 2 recruit Derrick Favors to Georgia Tech in 2009 and Austin Freeman to Georgetown in 2007. Paul Hewitt, the coach that recruited Favors, was fired from Georgia Tech in 2011.

“Recruiting has changed a lot,” Purnell said. “It used to be that major influences in recruiting were the parents and the high school coaches. That’s clearly changed now. There are a lot more influences. Other kind of coaches like summer programs have the ear of athletes. When you look at it from that standpoint, it’s a changed game.”

The exact changes to help African- American coaches are still unclear. The NCAA isn’t allowed to implement the equivalent of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires minority candidates to be interviewed for positions, because the NCAA is technically a non-profit that can’t sanction university hiring practices.

One influence that could be a factor is the Black Coaches Administrators, a group that were advocates for universities to hire African-Americans. The group could help build relationships with headhunters and coaches. However, the problem with that is the BCA has been largely inactive since executive Floyd A. Keith left in 2013.

“I’m concerned for the younger guys in this business that the percentages for African-American coaches are declining,” Purnell said.