Big Ten’s only Black head coach, an example for athletes of color

Photo by Stephen Mally/Iowa A Vicki Brown

​Vicki Brown’s first season as Iowa’s permanent head volleyball coach ended positively last weekend with a four-set home win over Maryland. The Hawkeyes finished the 2019 season 10-21 but had a 4-0 neutral court record, which included a 3-0 sweep over then-No. 22 Washington State on Aug. 31. This was Iowa’s first win over a ranked opponent this season, and first on the road since 2012.

The Big Ten’s youngest coach at 33 years old, as well as the conference’s only Black head coach, agreed earlier this season to a five-year contract through the 2024 season. Brown joined the Iowa staff as associate head coach in 2017. She was named interim head coach in late May after the former head coach was put on administrative leave, then fired in June for violating NCAA rules of intentionally providing an impermissible benefit to a prospective student-athlete.

“Our team did a real good job this summer,” handling the turmoil surrounding the program, Brown told the MSR after a three-set defeat Nov. 23 at Minnesota. The Gophers were among nine ranked teams—14 of Iowa’s 31 matches this season were against ranked squads.

According to, the Hawkeyes had the nation’s third toughest schedule behind USC and Big Ten Champs Wisconsin. “There’s always a challenge every year,” Brown reiterated. “Next year will be a challenge [as well].”

“We had eight freshman—half [of] our team has never played in the Big Ten before,” the coach continued. “I’m proud that they are fighting through it, but there are lessons that we have to learn early so we know we can work through them in the moment.”

Prior to Iowa, Brown coached the University of San Francisco’s indoor and beach volleyball teams for one year. “It was very different,” Brown explained of the two USF squads. With beach volleyball, “There’s more emphasis with training, and also you can’t coach unless it’s between sets,” she added. “[There are] pairs rather than having six players on the court.”

Before that, Brown was at UC Davis (2014-15) as recruiting coordinator and team travel organizer, and two years before that, at Illinois State after a volunteer assistant coaching stint at the University of Toledo, where she worked with the opposites, liberos and defensive specialists.

Brown was a two-time All-Big Ten performer at Illinois [2004-07], who amassed over 1,000 career kills and broke the century mark three straight years in blocks, then played overseas after earning her communications degree.

She is now in her second head coaching position. “Now there’s no place I ​would ​rather be than coaching volleyball,” she said proudly. But she quickly added, “If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago, God, no. I saw all my coaches [at Illinois]—really good looking—and when I graduated, they [all] had grey hair,” the raven-haired young woman joked.

The Toledo native continued, “I did a year of volunteering and I fell in love with it. I always love the game, and coaching now offers a different challenge.”

Iowa announced last month that three prep players were signed to play there next season. The Hawkeyes coach is eager to move forward in preparing for her second full season in Iowa City. A huge part of her job​ is to teach her team “how they can work through ” she said.

Finally, being the Big Ten’s only Black head coach has brought approving smiles from opponents​’​ POCs, possibly inspiring them to seek a coaching role in their post-playing lives​ as well​. “I’ve heard plenty of our minority players in the Big Ten say, ‘Wow, that is so cool because I never saw it [before],” Brown concluded. “The more examples you have, the more you can see you can have options [after playing].”