Big Ten now home to five Black head coaches

Courtesy of Twitter Micah Shrewsberry (l) and Ben Johnson

It’s an all-time high for the league

The Big Ten this season has 10 head-to-head matchups between Black head coaches, a league first and an all-time high. Minnesota’s Ben Johnson, Micah Shrewsberry (Penn State), Danny Manning (Maryland) and Mike Woodson (Indiana) are all in their first seasons as HCs. Add Michigan’s Juwan Howard since 2019, and these are this century’s ‘Black Five.’

With three remaining matchups, Johnson is 3-1 in these Black vs. Black matchups, and 4-1 overall this season. The Gopher coach defeated Jacksonville, also with a Black head coach, in November.

The 41-year-old Johnson and Shrewsberry, age 45, are both former Big Ten assistants, the former at Minnesota and the latter at Purdue. They are also the conference’s two youngest coaches. This is the Minneapolis-born Johnson’s first head-coaching opportunity and Shrewsberry’s second such opportunity.

Both coaches told the MSR separately after their first-ever matchup in Minnesota Feb. 12, a 76-70 Gopher win, that they have huge respect for each other.

“He’s been doing a great job all season,” said Shrewsberry on Johnson.   

Johnson said of Shrewsberry, “I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Micah, and he does it the right way.”

Last week, the two’s second meeting in five days, Penn State defeated visiting Minnesota 67-46.

“We’re first-time head coaches in the Big Ten,” noted Johnson. “We’re both in programs where you’re trying to grow and build it the right way.”

The two Black coaches also have two of the conference’s least-experienced squads: Minnesota (2.56 years’ experience) and Penn State (2.74 years).

Shrewsberry called the Lions-Gophers contest at The Barn “pretty historic and good for our league. We’re just trying to continue to just push it forward to [other] Black coaches. We’re gonna do our best to push our teams forward.”

The MSR a few days before the contest talked to Shrewsberry by phone about his first season at the helm at PSU. After a playing career at Hanover College (1995-99), he started his coaching career as an assistant at Wabash (1999-2000), DePauw (2001-03) and Marshall (2003-05), then got his first HC opportunity at IU South Bend (2005-07).

Shrewsberry then took assistant jobs at Butler (2008-11), Purdue (2011-13), the NBA’s Boston Celtics (2013-18) and Purdue (2019-21).

“We’ve really been able to focus on our defensive system,” explained the Lions’ HC. “We’re trying to get our system into how we want to play.”

Despite his squad’s sub-.500 record this season, Shrewsberry believes his program is heading in the right direction: “I feel good about the direction we’re going, and especially defensively,” said the coach.

Although the Big Ten went from zero to five Black head coaches in less than three years, “the one-and-only” status historically tagged on Black coaches still exists. “I think it’s huge… There haven’t been many Black head coaches,” said Shrewsberry.  

“With a Black commissioner [Kevin Warren] of our league, we’re starting to transform it. I’ve known Juwan from our days coaching against each other in the NBA. We’re both competitors, but there’s so much respect between us.

“We have a responsibility now, Ben and I [as head coaches], to uphold the legacy,” he added, “and keep it going so the next guy can get an opportunity… How our teams play, how we are on the sidelines…we represent not only ourselves but we represent the other Black assistant coaches striving to get a job like ours.

“I’m thrilled to be the head coach here,” said Shrewsbury. “I’m thrilled to represent young Black coaches. I’m just trying to do my small part to help more guys get an opportunity.”