College basketball has long been dominated by African-Americans on the court. The same can't be said for the sidelines.
And the numbers of minority coaches aren't getting much better — they're stagnant or even declining at the Division I level.
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt — who also coached at Georgia Tech for 11 seasons, leading the Yellow Jackets to a Final Four in 2004 — said "the marketplace for coaches is generally fair," but worries that a few recent trends are hurting minority candidates.
"It seems we're sometimes dealing with the law of unintended consequences," Hewitt said. "I don't think any one thing is causing the problem, but some of the recent trends in the sport could make things more difficult."
The latest Race and Gender report card released in 2010 by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that 21 percent of coaches in Division I men's basketball were African-Americans, down from the all-time high of 25.2 percent during the 2005-06 season. That's much lower than the numbers on the court — nearly 61 percent of Division I players were African-American.
The study is directed by Richard Lapchick, who has been studying minority hiring trends in sports for decades. He gives college basketball an A-minus grade for its hiring practices — thanks to the relatively strong numbers compared to other sports — but says the declining minority numbers are a major cause for future concern.
Hewitt pointed to two issues in particular. One is the popularity of professional search firms, who often help big-name schools pinpoint talented coaches. The other is the rising stigma that surrounds coaches who are trying to climb into the college game out of AAU basketball or the high school ranks.
Several high-profile NCAA scandals have centered around the sometimes seedy underworld of amateur basketball, but Hewitt said a few sensational cases have put a stain on a legitimate way for young African-American coaches to get into the college game.
"That's how I came up in 1989 — working at camps at Syracuse and Georgetown and getting my name out there to coaches," Hewitt said. "I didn't play Division I basketball, and to get my name out there I had to market myself. I really don't think there's anything wrong with that.
"As far as the search firms, it just adds another variable that's an unknown. Who do they know? Is diversity a priority?"
A surprising conference is bucking the downward trend.
The Southeastern Conference — which includes schools in the deep South such as Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina — is the only one of the six major BCS conferences that will have a majority of minority coaches next season in men's basketball when the league expands to 14 teams after adding Texas A&M and Missouri.
The SEC's current coaching demographics are:
- Seven African-American coaches, including Alabama's Anthony Grant, Auburn's Tony Barbee, Arkansas' Mike Anderson, LSU's Johnny Jones, Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, Missouri's Frank Haith and Mississippi State's Rick Ray.
- One Hispanic coach, South Carolina's Frank Martin.
- Six white coaches: Kentucky's John Calipari, Florida's Billy Donovan, Georgia's Mark Fox, Mississippi's Andy Kennedy, Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and Texas A&M's Billy Kennedy.
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson — an African-American coaching pioneer who led the Hoyas to success in the 1970s, '80s and '90s — isn't surprised by the SEC numbers.
"It doesn't surprise me that you're seeing those numbers in the SEC — not at all," Thompson said. "I never bought into that crap that the deep South is worse than the North. The North has always profited from that perception and it's totally incorrect. ... In the South, there are certainly problems, but at least people are more conscious of those problems."
The other five major BCS conferences have just 11 African-American coaches combined.
"It's a point of pride for us," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. "We view our league as one of opportunity. We also believe that diversity makes you stronger."
When Slive took over as the SEC's commissioner in 2002, the league had never had a minority head football coach. Next fall, there will be three: Joker Phillips Kentucky, Vanderbilt's James Franklin and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.
Combined with the basketball numbers, 11 out of the league's 28 most visible coaches (39.3 percent) will be minorities. The numbers aren't perfect, but they certainly represent progress for a conference in an area of the country that's long struggled with racial tension.
Slive said the transformation has been due to consistently pushing racial diversity within the conference. The SEC has distributed a minority database of assistant football coaches to league schools in nine of the past 10 years, hoping to educate schools on potential head coaching candidates.
"In light of the landscape, it's a very positive development," said Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches and Administrators.
The rest of the country generally hasn't kept pace.
Keith said the stagnation is unexpected and disappointing. He said the early success with hiring African-Americans in men's basketball might have given a false sense that equality had been achieved.
The SEC's coaching demographics are one of the few that come closer to mirroring the players on the court, but numbers can change quickly.
As recently as the 2008-09 season, the ACC had seven black coaches in basketball (Hewitt was one of them). Last year there was just one — Florida State's Leonard Hamilton. Virginia Tech recently hired James Johnson.
ACC Commissioner Jack Swofford said he was proud of the league's diversity in 2009 and is confident schools will continue to make good hiring decisions.
"Hopefully there's an environment created in this league that's very open and accepting," Swofford said. "But really, the institutions are the ones that make the decisions in hiring the right people that fit their situations best, and obviously over the years, they've had the insight and the acceptance to hire the best person."
Thompson said he believes the "atmosphere is better" for African-American coaches in the hiring process and that there's very few administrators who would discount a candidate because of race. But the bottom line sometimes stands in the way of equality.
"The business is so cut-throat," Thompson said. "You've got to win or you're fired — black or white. It's just a tough situation to be in when (African-Americans) started the race late. It's not going fix itself overnight."
A flurry of offseason hires gave the SEC its current racial makeup.
South Carolina grabbed Martin from Kansas State. Mississippi State hired Ray after he was Clemson's top assistant for two seasons. LSU's fourth-year coach Trent Johnson left after the season for TCU, and the African-American coach was replaced by another African-American, former LSU player Johnny Jones.
Slive said he could tell progress has been made because the hires made news because of their ability — not race.
Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin agreed.
"What's interesting is that we didn't even really realize we made a minority hire until it was completed," Stricklin said. "Don't get me wrong, I was aware Rick Ray was African-American, but it just never entered our thought process. We were looking for the best coach we could find, and he fit all our criteria."
All eight of the minority coaches in the SEC have been hired in the last three seasons — a testament to how volatile the coaching profession can be, no matter the color of skin.
"The landscape of the SEC has really changed," Mississippi State's Ray said. "You just look around here right here in the neighboring states and there's Tony Barbee, Anthony Grant and Johnny Jones. I think it's a phenomenal thing for the SEC because everyone has perceptions of the South, but they aren't necessarily true."