Black women coaches in college hoops rare as unicorns

Danielle O’Banion Charles Hallman/MSR News

Research says that having women as coaches matters. This was the premise of the University of Minnesota Tucker Center’s annual Distinguished Lecture Series “Why Women Leaders Matter,” which was held earlier this month. The first-year Gopher women’s basketball coaching staff was invited to speak on the subject.

Head Coach Lindsay Whalen and assistants Danielle O’Banion and Kelly Roysland, both former head coaches, answered questions posed by Tucker Center Co-Director Mary Jo Kane October 16 at the school’s Humphrey Center.

“I never wanted to stop being a part of the team,” O’Banion answered when asked why she got into coaching. She became an assistant coach at Harvard almost immediately after concluding her playing days at Boston College. “I graduated in May [2001] and became an assistant coach in June,” she recalled.

This is O’Banion’s second stint at Minnesota; the first was in 2002-07. Subsequently she was Kent State head coach for four seasons and then Memphis associate head coach before Whalen hired her this past May. “Basketball is a unique opportunity to learn life lessons,” O’Banion stressed.

Roysland also is in her second Minnesota stint — she was Whalen’s teammate as a player — then returned as an assistant coach (2010-14) and later was Macalester College’s head women’s basketball coach for the past four seasons before her return to the Gophers this spring. She said she always wanted to coach and teach at the high school level.

“I wanted to be a coach for six months and a day,” Whalen quipped. The former All-Big Ten and All-American player with the Gophers was hired in April to coach her alma mater. She retired in August after a 15-year WNBA playing career with four championships as the league’s all-time winningest player with over 300 wins. She then seriously admitted, “I didn’t know I would love [coaching] as much as I do.”

The Tucker Center — its complete title is Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport — since 1993 has actively promoted that young girls and women need strong and confident role models who enhance their own self-esteem, which might influence them to choose coaching as well.

“I had great role models when I was a student-athlete,” O’Banion recalled. “That’s part of the reason I wanted to coach. You never know who’s watching.”

The percentage of female head college coaches, however, has severely dropped from over 90 percent before Title IX was passed in the 1970s to barely over 40 percent today. The problem isn’t that not enough qualified females exist, but that not enough male decision-makers are looking for them, retired Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi pointed out.

“I think you need to search out to find female candidates,” Maturi explained. “You can’t just post the job and just hope you get the best candidate from that posting. There are enough qualified female candidates out there.”

There also are qualified Black females, but coaching opportunities aren’t as plentiful. Black women in 2016 held 11.4 percent of Division I women’s basketball head coaching positions in 2016. O’Banion is among the Black females who got a chance to run a big-time program at Kent State (2012-16).

“We as Black women are like a unicorn right now,” she told me after the panel. When over 80 percent of the college athletic directors are White males, “There will continue to be a disconnect” in improving the numbers for Black female coaches, she said.

The all-female Gopher basketball coaching staff, to a person, do not take their current positions lightly. “I would ask people from…the community to rally around our program, because that would make it better,” O’Banion concluded.