Black head coaches in college hoops rare as unicorns

The journey to becoming a college basketball head coach if you are Black can be like a Beatles song—long and winding. “You have to be above and beyond and great,” declared Notre Dame WBB HC Niele Ivey, who embarks on her first season as the school’s first Black female head coach. “I have to go beyond my [White] peers and [be] excellent in every way.”

Ivey was hired this spring after a season as a Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach in the NBA, but prior to that, she was an Irish assistant for seven years.

Ed Cooley won the 2014 Big East title three years after Providence hired him as MBB head coach. It is his second such job after five seasons as Fairfield HC (2006-11), then a combined 10 seasons as an assistant coach at two different schools (1994-2006).

“I had a really good training ground with Coach Skinner,” recalled Cooley of former Black head coach Al Skinner at Rhode Island and Boston College. “I saw what Coach did. I am someone who learned by looking, listening, and not saying a word. I said, “You know what, I can do that.”

“Definitely [there are] obstacles as I pursue my passion,” admitted Virginia Tech’s Kenny Brooks. He remembered an athletic director telling him, when he was contemplating seeking a head coaching position, “A university is not going to hire two Black head coaches.”

Brooks begins his fifth season as Tech’s women’s basketball head coach after 14 years as women’s HC at James Madison. He started his coaching career after graduating from there as a part-time men’s assistant coach (1993-94), then full-time assistant at VMI (1994-98) before returning to his alma mater as men’s assistant (1998-2002), then hired as the school’s women’s team HC in 2002.

These three coaches’ stories, told to ESPN’s LaChina Robinson during a WBCA virtual webinar in August, more than likely can be echoed by other coaches of color, either as HC or getting hired as one. “All three of us are at predominately White institutions,” Brooks pointed out.

Coaching, like most professions in this country, practices the “diversity quota”—“You get one POC and we’re good, we have diversity,” Robinson pointed out. “I feel that in my field. If you saw two Black women on one show, that was like the unicorn.”
Black coaches sadly are unicorns: There are only eight Black head basketball coaches in the Power Five conferences. The Big Ten has only two (C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, and Juwan Howard at Michigan).

Cooley is one of five Black men’s hoops HCs in the 10-team Big East, a non-Power Five league that also has one Black women’s HC. He said Blacks too often aren’t seen as whole people when it comes to coaching. “I don’t want to be categorized as a recruiter, because nine out of 10 times that’s the hole we are pigeoned into.”

“I’ve learned the power of my voice,” added Ivey. “Every year as an assistant I wanted to get better. That was a personal drive of mine.”