SEC WBB coaches Dawn Staley and Nikki McCray-Penson
STORRS, CONNECTICUT- FEBRUARY 13: Head coach Dawn Staley of the South Carolina Gamecocks on the sideline during the UConn Huskies Vs South Carolina Gamecocks NCAA Women's Basketball game at Gampel Pavilion, on February 13th, 2017 in Storrs, Connecticut. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Culture

‘It Means a Lot’: Why Black Women Basketball Coaches Are Thriving in the SEC

Why this matters

In order to build the pipeline that is missing in women’s college basketball, Black women coaches have always understood they have to advocate for themselves and their fellow Black women, which is what legends like Dawn Staley have done over time in the historic Southeastern Conference.

During the first week of the current college basketball season, Black women coaching National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I women’s teams found unexpected packages waiting for them on their desks. The packages were from University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. Each contained a piece of Staley’s 2017 national championship net and a note explaining the meaning of the gift.

In 2015, Carolyn Peck had given Staley a piece of the net from Purdue University’s victory in the 1999 championship game, when Peck became the first Black woman coach to win the title. Peck instructed Staley to return the piece after she cut down her own championship net and to pay it forward by sending a piece of that net to another young coach.

Now Staley was honoring Peck’s request – and not to one coach, but to over 70 of them.

“I struggled to pick just one other coach,” Staley wrote in the enclosed note. “I don’t want to count Black women as National Championship coaches by one every few decades; I want us to do it so often we lose count!”

Staley hopes that the net will serve as a tangible inspiration for her fellow Black women coaches and a reminder to keep “pushing forward…and supporting each other in [their] journeys.”

For Black women basketball coaches, those journeys can be frustrating, littered with barriers to career advancement. While Black women have a robust history in the game as players, they are underrepresented on the sidelines, especially as head coaches. Despite Black women making up nearly 50 percent of players in the so-called “Power Five” conferences, they account for less than 15 percent of the head coaches in those same conferences.

A recent study by Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute examining the head coach hiring and firing patterns in Division I women’s basketball over the past three decades suggests that Black women are held to more exacting standards than their White male and female peers. Black women are more qualified on average in terms of previous playing experience and educational background yet are hired at lower rates.

Three years ago, Staley authored a Players’ Tribune article asking “Where Are All the Black Coaches?” That question remains relevant. Currently, there are no Black women coaching basketball in the Big 12 and just one Black woman apiece coaching in the Big Ten (Rutgers University’s C. Vivian Stringer) and the Pac-12 (the University of Arizona’s Adia Barnes).

In another Power Five conference, however, the script has been flipped. Last season, the 14-team Southeastern Conference featured seven Black women coaching women’s basketball. Staley and the University of Georgia’s Joni Taylor met in the league’s title game, the first time two Black women had coached in that contest.

This season, five of the SEC’s 14 coaches are Black women. Their collective success raises two important questions: How did this happen? And what, if anything, can the rest of women’s college basketball learn from the conference?

Singular Inspiration, Mutual Support

At first glance, the SEC may seem like an unlikely place to see Black women find footing as head basketball coaches. It is a conference rooted in Southern pride, regional identity, and an unabiding fervor for college football coming from schools that historically fought for and clung to racial segregation.

While the desire to win games helped pave the way for roster integration and today’s embrace of Black athletes within the conference, achieving diversity in the SEC’s head coaching ranks has been a different story. The conference didn’t welcome its first Black head football coach until 2004. When Staley arrived at South Carolina, she was only the second Black head coach at the school; currently, she is one of just two Black head coaches there.

But Staley’s singular success has reverberated across the conference. Sportswriter Tyler Rickey Tynes, who recently profiled Staley for GQ, says that she is “a symbol of what’s possible for Black women in basketball.” Staley recently earned a new and historic seven-year, $22.4 million contract extension. Last year, Georgia’s Joni Taylor told The Undefeated that she credited Staley with the SEC’s coaching diversity. “Athletic directors, presidents, anybody who is running a program, running a business, they want to win, want to be successful,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s look at what Dawn did and do the same thing.’”

Other coaches are inspired, too. When current University of Mississippi women’s basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin was coaching at Jacksonville University in Florida, she used to drive up to Columbia, South Carolina, to watch Staley coach in person. The two have known each other since McPhee-McCuin was a player at the University of Rhode Island and Staley was an assistant at Temple University. When McPhee-McCuin landed at Ole Miss, she told the Greenville (S.C.) News that Staley had been one of her professional mentors. “There has never been a time when I have called and she hasn’t reached out,” McPhee-McCuin said of Staley. “There have been several occasions where she has even talked to my team on my behalf. She just wants to see other young coaches be successful.”

“She inspired us to want to reach higher,” said University of Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack. “I haven’t seen this done for 33 years. No one has stepped out and made more of an impact on the masses than Dawn Staley.”

That sort of mutual encouragement and support – among coaches who are also competing against each other for recruits and victories – has been a key factor in the rise of Black women coaches in the SEC. A network of mentoring, solidarity, and compassion thrives informally via group chats and Zoom meetings and formally through organizations such as the Women of Color Coaches Network.

When Auburn University coach Johnnie Harris received her net from Staley, the newest member of the SEC coaching sisterhood tweeted, “Champions do what Champions do!” A long-time SEC assistant, Harris was inspired by Staley and the support and challenge provided by her conference peers.

“I have been in the SEC for 16 years, and I’ve coached and scouted against the best coaches in this country, some of the best coaches in this conference,” Harris said in her introductory press conference. “I’m prepared. It’s exciting that I get to come back and do it against some of the best coaches in the conference.”

Coming Home, Staying Home

Excellence, location, and tradition also help to explain why Black women coaches have flourished in the conference. As sports historian and University of Kentucky professor Derrick White explains, “There is a robust sporting history for Black girls and women in the South.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. national women’s basketball teams were almost exclusively composed of Black and White women from the South. Black women in the South also played for storied collegiate basketball programs such as the Bennett College Belles. Prior to the 1972 enactment of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program receiving federal money, Black schools in the South were just about the only places women could get athletic scholarships.

Today, about 70 percent of the women’s basketball players in the SEC are Black. Many of the Black women coaching in the conference grew up in the South, played in the SEC, and rose through the coaching ranks either in the conference or at Southern Historically Black Colleges and Universities. SEC women’s basketball also produced the first two Black women athletic directors in the Power Five: the University of Virginia’s Carla Williams, who played at Georgia, and Vanderbilt University’s Candice Lee, who also played at her school.

Related: Chutes and Ladders: Black Women ADs’ Long Journey to the Top

Even Staley, an extremely notable Philadelphian, has Southern ties. Like many Black Philadelphians, her family came to the city during the Great Migration. In an interview with NBC Sports, Staley told the story of how her mother, Estelle, had insisted on getting good quality meat from a local white butcher in her hometown of Swansea, South Carolina. The butcher, who was trying to sell her lower quality meat from the back, took umbrage at Estelle’s request. He threw her out of the store and warned her to never come back. These types of threats carried a heavy meaning across the Jim Crow South: People had been, and would be, killed for less. It was at this point that Staley’s grandmother decided to “put a plan in motion to get [Estelle] out of the state of South Carolina.”

Estelle settled in Philadelphia, where Dawn would later be born. When Staley took over the Gamecocks, she was in some ways coming full circle, becoming part of a larger story of Black Southern exodus and return. Staley later said that it felt like “the best of both worlds” to be able to coach in “such a high power league like the SEC as well as personally being able to bring [her] mother back [to South Carolina]” where her extended family remained.

The idea of Southern pride associated with the SEC is often attached to a perceived White identity. But the Black women coaches in the SEC exude a sense of Black Southern pride and identity, both of which can be seen in the palpable connection and commitment Black women basketball coaches in the conference have to their communities. Over the past few years, they have modeled what social justice commitments look like off the court and considered what it means to do that work in the places where they coach.

When McPhee-McCuin and now former Mississippi State University coach Nikki McCray-Penson testified in favor of changing Mississippi’s confederate-themed state flag, Georgia coach Taylor, who is from Mississippi, watched with tears in her eyes, cheering them on. When University of Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy took over her position last year, she reflected on returning to her home state to coach. “It’s a blessing, an opportunity and responsibility that I don’t take lightly,” Elzy said. “And my plan now is to give back to a place that has raised me.”

Elzy’s plan to give back echoes a common commitment articulated by all of the Black women coaches in the SEC: to be a visible representation of possibility for Black girls in and out of basketball, especially the little girls (and boys) who are from the towns and states they are from.

Former Tennessee player Andraya Carter, who now works as an analyst for ESPN/SEC Network, calls it “special and inspiring” to see the example the SEC is setting with so many visible Black women in leadership positions. “It means a lot to look on the court and see Black players, and then on the sidelines see Black head coaches not just coaching but winning, competing, being their authentic selves and not trying to fit into any mold,” she says. “I think it broadens the image that little girls see when they picture their future.”

Ongoing Challenges

Though the SEC has provided more head coaching opportunities for Black women than other Power Five conferences, career advancement remains challenging. According to Dr. Nefertiti Walker, a Professor of Sports Management and Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at UMass Amherst, “treatment discrimination” is to blame for the slow progress of Black women as head coaches, as they tend to pushed into non-strategic supporting roles such as recruiting coordinator or given “more communal or nurturing duties” than other assistants.

“The inability to see Black women as strategic thinkers who can lead a team results in the lack of head coaches we see, even as there are historically high numbers of Black women in assistant coaching positions,” says Walker, who also is a former Division I basketball player.

While hosting a roundtable of Black women coaches for the Players Tribune in 2018, Peck said that many qualified Black women assistants were being overlooked for head jobs – including Sytia Messer, a former standout player at the University of Arkansas who, after graduating in 1999, went into coaching.

Messer worked her way up the ranks for a decade before becoming the head coach at Tennessee Tech University. After leading that school to two postseason appearances in three seasons, she left to become an associate head coach at Georgia Tech University, the better to position herself for a Power Five head coaching job. Now, over a decade later, Messer has worked as an assistant for top programs including Baylor University and Louisiana State University, where she now is associate head coach.

During the 2018 roundtable, Peck pointed out Messer’s credentials and the fact that in the past few years Arkansas – Messer’s alma mater and a program she helped build up as a player – has had two head coaching vacancies. While Messer had been mentioned as a potential candidate for the job, the talk never amounted to more than rumors. In both cases, the position went to a White man. “What is going on?” Peck asked the roundtable to nods of agreement. “Sytia put Arkansas on the map!”

“We don’t get these chances, man,” replied one coach, even when you bring the coaching pedigree and the playing experience.

Mike Neighbors, the current coach at Arkansas, previously coached at the University of Washington. Before that, he worked as a Razorbacks assistant coach and in basketball operations at the school. Unlike Messer, however, he never played at the Division I level. That isn’t unusual. The GSI Field Study found that while almost 98 percent of Black women head coaches previously played Division I basketball, just 23 percent of White men coaches did the same.

Similarly, GSI Field Study data suggest that the head coaching opportunities Black women do receive are more tenuous than those enjoyed by White men and women. While the college sports industry is notoriously impatient and all coaches arguably are hired to be fired, Black women in the Field Study had the shortest average head coaching tenures and were the least likely to receive a second head coaching job at a comparable level. White women were twice as likely as their Black peers to be offered another comparable job. “I have been an assistant coach for 13 years,” Legette-Jack said. “I have seen African American coaches fired – and I never see them resurface.”

The Black women coaching in the SEC are not immune to this fragility. Six months ago, the conference boasted seven Black women head coaches. Today, that number is five. And that number includes Johnnie Harris, the first-year coach at Auburn University. White, the sports historian, cautions that there is a hidden consequence of having so many Black women head coaches clustered in a single conference: To win and keep their jobs, they have to beat each other.

 

The coaches are well aware of this. “It's a different level of pressure for women of color,” explains Nikki Fargas, who was one of the coaches who departed the SEC this past year to take over as president of the Las Vegas Aces in the Women’s National Basketball Association. “We don’t get recycled. You don’t get a second chance.” Moreover, that pressure is not simply an individual concern in the here and now; instead, it’s a persistent worry about the opportunities that might not materialize for future coaching candidates. As Fargas recently explained in a Global Sport Institute “GSM Live” conversation about coaching in women’s basketball, “If you don’t make it, that door might not open for the next woman of color or Black woman to come through that door.”

This is a moment in which it seems Black women coaches in the SEC are throwing up as many doors as possible. “Black women are finally being recognized for their ability as strategic thinkers of the game,” Walker says, adding that “Black women are both strategic and communal, and deserve the opportunity to lead in a sport their help build, brick by brick. Period.”

Indeed, the representation and leadership these women display on the sidelines is amplified by the way they also raise each other’s game on the court. They endeavor to strengthen each other – not by backing down, but by challenging everyone to be the best and most authentic coaches they can be. Despite the competitive dynamic in the SEC, the camaraderie among Black women head coaches remains steadfast. They want to win not only for themselves but also for each other – and for the next generation of Black women looking to make a mark on the sideline. It’s the same spirit of solidarity and sisterhood that inspired Staley’s packages and Peck’s gift before that.

Speaking of Peck: Although she won a national title at Purdue, she also has SEC roots, having played at Vanderbilt and coached at the University of Tennessee, the University of Florida, University of Kentucky, and her alma mater. “Being the first,” Peck once said about becoming the first Black woman head coach to win a national title, “meant I knew there had to be a second.” Today, that second coach, Staley, hopes to inspire the third, and the fourth, and beyond. Like the other Black women head coaches in the SEC, she understands that the road to opportunity and equity is better walked together.

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