The Gophers women’s basketball team this season will play six games where their opponents are coached by Black women. Coming into the Dec. 7 home contest against visiting Kentucky, Minnesota is 0-1 in such contests. Virginia (coached by Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, last week’s ESPN Coach of the Week) defeated the Gophers 73-70 on Nov. 26.
Kyra Elzy leads Kentucky. She became the Wildcats’ head coach in December 2020 after a 6-0 start as interim coach, and was associate HC (2015-20) in her second stint at the school, having held a similar position in two previous seasons (2010-12).
Niya Butts is Kentucky’s associate head coach. She is also in her second stint in the program since she returned in 2016. Butts was an assistant coach (2003-08) and once was Arizona’s first Black head women’s coach (2008-16).
The two women were once teammates at Tennessee in the late 1990s. Both admitted in separate MSR interviews that at that time neither envisioned coaching in their respective futures.
“I never saw myself coaching,” recalled Butts. “When I was a player in college, my coaches used to always say, ‘You’re here to coach.’ And I would always be dismissive of that because I was thinking no way.
“My life has taken me on this absolutely incredible journey, and I wouldn’t change that,” said Butts. “But early on, I couldn’t see this far down the road.”
Elzy said she wanted to stay in basketball but in a non-coaching role. “Actually, I didn’t want to coach. I met with Coach [Pat] Summitt and she told me I would make a great coach. I said no, it’s too much responsibility, too much time.”
However, when an administrative position opened up with the Virginia Tech program, “Coach Summitt convinced me” to apply for the job, recalled Elzy. “I got the coaching bug, walking in my purpose. I am exactly where I am supposed to be and the person I am.
“Well, 22 years later, I guess Coach was right,” admitted Elzy.
Both Kentucky coaches are keenly aware of their unique position today in women’s college basketball—being a Black coach.
“It is an honor that Black coaches have not had,” said Elzy, one of six SEC Black coaches, a high among Power 5 conferences—the Big Ten only has two. “I think of the Black female coaches that have paved the way, opened the door for people like myself, to be in the position that I am in. We understand the assignment and the responsibility.”
Butts added, “I’m definitely happy with where I am—the woman, the coach I have become.”
Butts and Elzy both are looking forward to their games with the Gophers at The Barn: “It’ll be fun,” said Butts.
Tim Eatman has been in this game for a long time, so the first-year South Carolina State head women’s basketball coach hasn’t yet pressed the panic button. The Bulldogs have gotten off to a rough start this season but Eatman, who talked to us after his team’s loss at St. Thomas, stressed that they were shorthanded. SCST only had eight players at the November 12 road contest, three players out with injuries and two others awaiting NCAA clearance.
“I tell people by January we will be a good basketball team,” he predicted. “We just got to keep going with what we have and keep fighting at practice every day. We still haven’t been able to put in our entire playbook.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.