Florida State and Michigan are two of the most dependable names in men’s college basketball these days. Though both are traditional football powerhouses, each has seen far more recent success on the hardwood. Florida State is coming off of consecutive top-two conference finishes and has reached the second weekend of the Big Dance in three of the past four tournaments, while Michigan has made two national title games in the past decade and 10 of the past 13 tournaments overall. The two teams even met in the NCAA Tournament’s regional final in 2018, with the Wolverines prevailing, 58-54, en route to the second of those title games.
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The two programs also are led by Black coaches, which is more the exception than the rule: Leonard Hamilton of Florida State, in his 19th year in Tallahassee, and Michigan’s Juwan Howard, in his second year in Ann Arbor three decades after his playing career there. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 22.7 percent of the coaches in men’s Division I basketball in the 2019-20 season were Black, while 53.2 percent of the players were. Out of the 77 coaches to have led a team this season at the Power Six level,1 just 13 are Black.
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In a 2018 interview with William C. Rhoden of The Undefeated, Hamilton expressed disappointment and bewilderment in the continued underrepresentation of Black coaches in college basketball. “It has been extremely confusing at times, discouraging at times, to come up with the right answer,” Hamilton said. “It’s a mystery to me why progress has been so slow. It’s a mystery why the doors have not been opened wider.”
None of the blue bloods of college basketball — Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke — is led by a Black coach, and just one (Kentucky under Tubby Smith) has ever employed a Black coach. Out of the 25 winningest programs in Division I history, just two (St. John’s and Temple) are currently led by Black coaches. The entire Pac-12 has zero Black head basketball coaches.
|Leonard Hamilton||Florida State||ACC||1986||600-437|
|Mike Anderson||St. John’s (N.Y.)||Big East||2002||402-226|
|Ed Cooley||Providence||Big East||2006||286-204|
|Shaka Smart*||Texas||Big 12||2009||272-142|
|Dave Leitao**||DePaul||Big East||1994||212-241|
|Kevin Keatts||NC State||ACC||2014||151-74|
|LaVall Jordan||Butler||Big East||2016||80-79|
|Mike Boynton Jr.||Oklahoma State||Big 12||2017||72-58|
|Patrick Ewing||Georgetown||Big East||2017||62-59|
|Juwan Howard||Michigan||Big Ten||2019||41-16|
Prominent figures within the sport have long decried the relative paucity of Black coaches representing, mentoring and leading Division I basketball players, the majority of whom are Black. Some, like Kentucky’s John Calipari, have blamed a truncated coaching pipeline, arguing the NCAA’s elimination of graduate assistant coaching spots in the early 1990s made it more difficult for Black coaches to ascend the ranks. Others, like Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, point to a lack of representation among athletic directors; according to The Undefeated, just 12 athletic directors at Power Five conferences at the start of 2018 were Black.
“People hire people that look like them,” Ewing said in 2020. “It’s not necessarily racist. Most of the time you hire a person you can relate to.”
When those obstacles are overcome, the presence and success of Black coaches at high-major programs likely paves the way for more Black coaches in Division I basketball. As we discussed in our piece on his legacy, the late John Thompson Jr.’s success at Georgetown opened the doors for more Black coaches in the ranks of college basketball. Near the start of Thompson’s tenure, there were just seven Black head coaches at the Division I level who coached outside of historically Black colleges or universities. By the early 1990s, after the Thompson-led Hoyas had reached three Final Fours, winning one championship, that number had grown nearly fivefold, to 34. Among the 10 winningest Black coaches in Division I history, eight started their careers a decade after Thompson started at Georgetown.
One of those new coaches was Hamilton, whose path to Florida State and 600 wins — recently surpassing “Big John” — was anything but guaranteed. He almost left basketball in 1974 after the president of Austin Peay, where Hamilton was an assistant coach, told Hamilton that he would not be considered for the head coaching position because he was Black. Hamilton quit his job and worked briefly as a salesman before the former coach at Austin Peay arranged an interview for him at Kentucky, which had integrated only five years earlier. Hamilton spent 12 seasons as an assistant for the Wildcats before starting his head coaching career in 1986 at Oklahoma State. He then coached 10 seasons at the University of Miami and one season for the NBA’s Washington Wizards before landing at Florida State in 2002.
Howard’s journey back to Michigan, in contrast, was far less circuitous. After completing a 19-year NBA career in which he played for eight teams (including Hamilton’s Wizards), the former All-Star stayed on as a member of the Miami Heat, transitioning from player to assistant coach. When his alma mater came knocking after John Beilein left to coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the former Fab 5 star couldn’t say no. Still, Howard’s hiring generated criticism from a number of observers, some of whom pointed to his lack of experience as a head coach as a liability for the program.
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But the records of the two coaches speak for themselves. Hamilton has risen to the top of a conference with three Hall of Famers in Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim, and himself is on the ballot for the Hall’s 2021 class. Howard is just starting a career in arguably the nation’s most competitive conference and is one of just four coaches to earn a No. 1 seed in his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
At a time where the conversation around progressive hiring in sports has perhaps never been louder, the true test of schools’ commitments to hiring Black coaches will lie in soon-to-be vacancies at elite programs. Krzyzewski, Williams and Boeheim are all in their 70s, and it’s conceivable that each coach’s successor could come from his ranks of assistant coaches. Two of the three associate or assistant head coaches on each of the staffs at Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse are Black, suggesting that the next in line at each of these powerhouses could look different than each program’s historical coaching lineage.
But if recent coaching searches at other historically elite programs are any indication, there may be reason to be skeptical of such change. Each of these elite schools will no doubt feel pressure to score a big name with a proven track record — someone who, just by the opportunities already afforded them, is more likely to be white than Black. It may be hard to envision that any one of them would skirt outside the safe, well-traveled path of hiring “qualified,” white basketball coaches. Two Black coaches leading their highly ranked squads in the Sweet 16 may do little to change that.
“As a Black skin, some folks think that you’re not qualified enough,” Howard told the Michigan Daily in October. “I think that’s the ignorance that we have to ignore and continue to keep driving and doing whatever to be the best person of ourselves, no matter what people may say or think.”
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