For coaching diversity, Big East puts bigger conferences to shame

Courtesy of Xavier Xavier Assistant Coach Ben Johnson

It’s not one of the almighty Power 5 conferences, but among college leagues the Big East leads the nation with 50 percent of its men’s basketball teams having Black head coaches.

LaVall Jordan (Butler), Dave Leiteo (DePaul), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Ed Cooley (Providence) and Mike Anderson (St. John’s) comprise half of the conference’s 10 HCs.  Georgetown also boasts the Big East’s only double-double: Both the MBB and WBB (James Howard) coaches are Blacks. 

“They are great coaches and great ambassadors for the league,” declared Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman in an MSR phone interview. “I think there is a good track record here, led by [the late] Coach [John] Thompson and other Black coaches over the years.”

Thompson died last August at age 78. He was Georgetown’s first Black coach, went to three Final Fours, won the 1984 national championship, and twice finished runners-up, along with five conference titles during his tenure (1972-99).  “He was an important part of my life when he first started recruiting me to the day he died,” admitted Ewing, one of Thompson’s first big-time recruits in the 1980s.

During its first virtual media day last November, which the MSR attended, the Big East announced that it will establish the John Thompson Award to be given annually to an individual, team or athletic department.  It recognizes Thompson’s efforts to fight prejudice and discrimination and his fight for social change.

Ackerman told us that Thompson’s family gave the conference its blessing for the new award. The league honoring the great coach is only fitting, Xavier Assistant Coach Ben Johnson later told the MSR.

“John was the catalyst and outspoken and got the ball rolling,” said the Minneapolis native. “We all are trying to work in his footsteps.”

Johnson is among the 21 conference Black men assistant coaches last summer who started Coaches for Action (CFA). Among its first initiatives were Black Lives Matter patches worn this season by every Big East player, creating a new scholarship fund, and promoting voting awareness in their respective communities.

“I think what we really tried to do is for each school to get with their student-athletes and have an open conversation of what’s on their minds, what things troubled them…help them facilitate that talk,” explained Johnson. “It’s been a great league with Val and Stu [Jackson, associate commissioner] to allow us assistants to promote this. They’ve been real supportive of this whole process, which has been awesome to see.”

As for coaching diversity, the Big East is putting the other bigger conferences to shame. The Big Ten has one Black HC on both sides (Michigan MBB Coach Juwan Howard and Rutgers WBB Coach C. Vivian Stringer), four in the ACC, SEC has three, Big 12 has two, and only two Pac-12 WBB have Black coaches.

The SEC, however, leads the Power 5 conferences with six Black female WBB head coaches. 

“I’m super proud of the SEC,” said South Carolina’s Dawn Staley. “All of us have had some success, and other people are seeing it.”

Johnson hopes one day to join the HC list. “Right now my focus is to do whatever I can to help Xavier win and be successful,” he said. “The ultimate goal as an assistant coach is to have the opportunity to run your [own] program, but we all know that comes with doing a good job where you are at, and having success where you are at.”

Ackerman said she’s proud that her conference is setting the standard for coaching diversity. The Big East schools “have a hiring road map to use. We got a concerted effort in our conference to make sure that we’re bringing diversity at all roles in athletics.”