Black Coaches’ Odyssey to ‘Big Dance’

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With the NCAA Men’s Division-I Championship Tournament tipping off this weekend, millions of sports fans will be glued to their TVs to witness a field of 65 winning basketball programs attempt to knock each other off in an exhilarating one-and-done style tournament that has garnered the nickname “March Madness.”

Most African-American sports fans were pleased to see Georgetown make the cut, marking its 22nd appearance in the “Big Dance,” dating back to when legendary Coach John Thompson Jr. directed the team from 1972-1999. His son, John Thompson III, runs the Hoyas now, and will be making his fifth trip to the major tournament.

Thompson III is joined by Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt, Morgan State’s Todd Bozeman and Arkansas Pine Bluff’s George Ivory as the only Black coaches to “dance” this season, which prompted the AFRO to glance back at some of the more successful African Americans that have reached college basketball’s greatest stage.

Thompson Jr. led the Hoyas to an amazing 20 tournament appearances and was the first Black coach to win the national title, but he may not have received such an opportunity if it wasn’t for trailblazer Fred Snowden. The first Black coach hired by a Major D-I school, Snowden led Arizona University to two tournament appearances, including an Elite 8 berth in 1976.

Eighteen years later, Tubby Smith led Kentucky University to the national title, becoming one of only three African-American coaches to claim the championship.

Other Blacks who had success in the tournament include Bozeman, Kelvin Sampson, Mike Jarvis, Fang Mitchell and most recently Jamaica native Paul Hewitt, whose Yellow Jackets lost to the University of Connecticut in the 2004 championship.

Some folks believe more African Americans could have claimed an NCAA title, or at least come close. But racial conditions haven’t offered the fairest opportunities for African Americans in the field of sports administration.
Legendary college basketball coach Nolan Richardson—the only coach to have won a NCAA D-I Tournament title, a National Invitational Tournament title and a Junior College National Championship—was dismissed from his position at the University of Arkansas after accusing the school administration of mistreatment because he was Black. Richardson now coaches the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock, but with a résumé that includes 15 appearances in the NCAA Tournament and a national title, many wonder why he hasn’t been hired back into the college ranks. Richardson provided his own answer to that mystery during a recent interview with CBS.

“I've been asked by friends if I've been banned from college basketball all these years for being outspoken, and I'd have to say yes. Anyone can see that,” Richardson told CBS.

“I'm sure that after what happened to me at the University of Arkansas, I became, in the eyes of the guys who do the hiring and firing in college basketball, an uppity guy…All these years, athletic directors, I think, see me as someone with baggage. But look around. Look at some of the coaches who have gotten hired since I was let go. If I have baggage, what do they have?”

The point that Richardson makes supports his notion that Blacks coaches don’t receive the same treatment as White coaches as high-profile schools.

Popular coach Bob Huggins lost his head coaching job at University of Cincinnati after pleading no contest to driving under the influence, an embarrassing incident that was caught on video and aired on national television. Yet Huggins, a White man who has the same number of NCAA Tournament appearances as Richardson, was back into the college ranks just a year later. He currently coaches West Virginia University under a multi-million dollar contract. Huggins will lead his team into action on March 19 in the NCAA tournament first round against lower seed Morgan State, which is led by a Black coach who had to wait nearly a decade for his second chance at coaching.

Bozeman has successfully led Morgan State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in the past two years. But before he was hired in 2006, the District native was blackballed from the college ranks for eight years for violating NCAA rules while serving as head coach of University of California during the mid-1990s. According to reports, Bozeman admitted he provided several thousands of dollars in traveling funds for the parents of one of his recruits, which caused the school to forfeit its 1994-95 season, most of the 1995-96 season, as well as its appearance in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

The punishment for such a violation appears just, until you compare Bozeman’s situation to very popular White coach John Calipari. In more than 20 years of coaching, Calipari has become one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history, winning more than 400 games. He led both the University of Massachusetts and Memphis University to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But like Bozeman at California, both UMASS and Memphis were investigated for NCAA violations and were forced to vacate their most successful seasons. The only difference is while Bozeman was banned from the game, Calipari simply left the schools to deal with the mess while he took jobs at other major programs. He’s currently the head coach of No. 1 seed Kentucky University on an eight-year, $31.65 million contract.

“The difference is perception,” Richardson explained. “Black coaches, we're judged as a group and judged more harshly. White coaches are judged individually and usually more leniently.”

Richard said it’s been this way for decades, which is why many of the older Black coaches such as John McLendon or Don Corbett aren’t equally recognized as Whites.

“No matter how well they did, the white power structure in college basketball mostly ignored them,” Richardson said. “If McLendon had been White, he'd have been a star in the coaching world. If all the great coaches in basketball history like Knight or [John] Wooden had been Black, they'd be nobodies.”