There was a rare sight at the Barn: during the first half of the Minnesota-Maine men’s basketball game—the last home contest of 2023—all 10 players on the floor plus both head coaches were Black.
“I’m glad that you caught that because it’s obviously an important thing for me,” Maine HC Chris Markwood told me afterwards. “It means the world to me that both guys like me and Ben [Johnson, the Gophers HC] have these opportunities to lead young men and help them achieve the goals that they want.
“I’ll never take it for granted,” said Markwood. “It means the world to me that we had a situation like that out there.”
It wasn’t that long ago when seeing five Blacks on the floor at a non-HBCU basketball game was an unwritten no-no. It wasn’t that long ago that seeing two Black head coaches at a PWI coaching against one another was rare as well.
Yes, in our current atmosphere where Black leadership at all levels is being questioned, undermined and scrutinized by people with deep-seated misconceptions, what this columnist/reporter saw is indeed a big deal—something that we suspect flew past many of the folks sitting in Williams Arena that night.
Markwood and Johnson both have Minnesota ties. “I used to go to Clem Haskins Basketball Camp,” recalled Markwood, who was born in Maine. “I saw Kirby Puckett play a celebrity basketball game in this gym.”
He also spent time in western Minnesota as a youngster, when his mom was assigned there as a local church pastor. “To be back here, this is always a place that meant a lot to me growing up as a kid.”
Markwood and Johnson also traveled similar paths to where they are today. Both played at the same schools they are now coaching. Markwood graduated from the University of Maine in 2006, after playing two seasons for the Black Bears. Johnson is a 2006 graduate of U of M who grew up in Minneapolis.
Both coaches at one time were also on their old schools’ coaching staffs as assistants, Johnson in 2013-18, and Markwood in 2006-11. Not counting this season, both men have nearly 40 years of PWI college coaching experience combined (16 for Markwood and 20 for Johnson).
Both men have paid their dues to be where they are. Markwood is in his second season at Maine, hired in March of 2022, and Johnson is in his third guiding the Gophers.
“I was a business major and got into the business world,” recalled the Maine coach. “Fortunately for me, nine months later my college coach called me up [and said], ‘We got a position—something you want to do.’ I always knew from a young age I wanted to coach. Jumped at it right away, and it was very fortunate to get into it at a really young age.”
Becoming a head coach one day also was the dream and a goal for Markwood. “Always felt that was a possibility for me and something that I worked towards. Been blessed to work with some great guys and play for some great guys that have helped my evolution and my growth through the game that has given me the opportunity.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the guys that I worked and played for,” admitted Markwood.
Both he and Johnson know their presence on the sideline not only shouldn’t be devalued but also provides an opportunity to do it right. “It’s on guys like me and Ben to do our job,” said Markwood. “We got to show progress and show that we’re capable of leading programs in the right way.
“Not just winning games but developing young men, so that the next guy can come up right behind us and do the same thing,” he said. “We’ve got to open up those doors. It’s a big weight on my shoulders that I want to make sure that we give guys their opportunities.”