Going from assistant to head job remains a tough climb for Black coaches in top men's conferences

By The Associated Press
Posted 12:26PM on Tuesday 2nd April 2024 ( 1 month ago )

Bruiser Flint remembers being a Massachusetts assistant coach building a resume that would one day have him running his own program. He had twice interviewed elsewhere before his moment arrived with mentor John Calipari bolting for the NBA, vacating the big chair for the Minutemen.

The breakthrough had come for Flint, who was 30 at the time: He had joined the limited ranks of Black men in charge of a top-level college basketball team.

“I was unbelievably grateful,” Flint recalled. “It was my first job ... and I think at the time, I might have been the youngest head coach in the country. That was one of my goals, that’s what you work for.”

Nearly three decades later, Flint has led two programs and again works with Calipari, now at Kentucky. And while numbers have improved, Black coaches remain in an unbalanced equation: They fill a majority of assistant coaching roles at the top level of men’s college basketball yet hold fewer than 1 of 3 of head coaching jobs.

“I think that there are more guys, I believe, that have come through the ranks as assistants that are prepared and just waiting on an opportunity,” said longtime Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, who is Black. "I think you’re going to see some more mobility in the future than it has been in the past because now there’s so many young, up-and-coming, prepared coaches that there’s always some qualified people available that are just waiting on the opportunity.”

An analysis by The Associated Press found Black coaches holding 59.4% of assistant roles in the top six basketball leagues — the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences — for the 2022-23 season. Yet the rate for Black coaches holding the head jobs was 29.9% compared with white coaches (64.9%).

Part of the issue is simple math. The sport has long had Black players account for more than half of Division I rosters, and those who transition into coaching have multiple avenues as assistants or in staff-support roles. That’s particularly true now with this season’s addition of two coaches for men’s and women’s basketball.

So there’s a natural bottleneck since head-coaching jobs (80 in the top six conferences) don’t change hands as often.

Yet that doesn't explain the disproportionately low percentage of Black head coaches.

“I don’t know whether it’s a Black-white thing or it’s just trying to find the best candidate,” said Miami assistant Bill Courtney, Cornell’s head coach from 2010-16. “The more that we can have success as Black head coaches, I think the more that people will get an opportunity.”

Richard Lapchick understands the disparity. He’s founder and former director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida, which has long published annual report cards examining diversity-hiring results for professional and college sports.

The numbers for the top six basketball conferences are ahead of a larger trend across Division I. For example, a recent TIDES study reported Blacks made up around 33% of men's assistant jobs in Division I for the 1999-2000 season but that had increased to more than 46% by 2021-22. The rate of Black D-I head coaches has remained largely stagnant — between 20% and 25% — going back to the turn of the millennium.

“There’s just an overall assessment that it’s disappointing we really haven’t changed the possibilities for Black head coaches, no matter how many Black assistant coaches who are successful,” Lapchick said. “While the numbers are still nowhere near where they should be, the fact that the most dominant basketball schools are hiring more Black coaches is a sign of potential progress for the future."

Lapchick points to at least one contributing factor: the underrepresentation of women and people of color in Division I leadership roles, outlined in previous TIDES reports.

“I think a large part of it is due to the relationships and network,” said Georgia Tech assistant Karl Hobbs, a former head coach at George Washington. “I think a lot of athletic directors and presidents just aren’t familiar with some of the African-American coaches. And I think overall there has to be a little bit better job in schools, athletic directors, search firms and so forth ... in getting to know who these coaches are.”

Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel III sees another factor.

“It used to be for the longest time that the Black coaches were just the recruiters,” Capel said. “You were charged to go recruit Black players, to go into neighborhoods, to go into places that maybe white coaches felt like they couldn’t get into or didn’t feel comfortable going into.

“I think we’ve certainly made so much progress since then with the opportunities and Black coaches being seen in a different light. Being seen for their mind, their X and Os, their strategy, not just being able to recruit or being able to connect with a certain demographic.”

To Capel’s point, North Carolina State head coach Kevin Keatts “kind of hated” the recruiter label that followed many Black assistants while rising in the coaching ranks. That made it, in his estimation, important to work for someone who trusts assistants with more than recruiting.

“You just need opportunities,” said Keatts, who has led this year's Wolfpack to the program's first Final Four since 1983. “I was a Black assistant coach, and I got opportunities. I worked for Rick Pitino (at Louisville), but he also helped prepare me. One of his things when he hired me is, ‘I don’t hire assistant coaches, I hire future head coaches.’ And I think whether you’re a Black or a white assistant coach, the guy that you work for needs to give you an opportunity to coach to help you.”

Back at Kentucky, Flint sees some positive changes, such as more assistants having agents to promote them. Yet the hiring process has changed dramatically and created different challenges. Advocates among Black head coaches nationally often lack the stature of vocal heavyweights like Georgetown’s John Thompson, Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson or Temple’s John Chaney.

“I still think we need to get in a better position,” Flint said. “The hiring process is a lot different than when I got into the business a long time ago. It used to be a situation where an AD would have some names just in case he needs a coach. Or the coach can call an AD and (say), ’Check out my plan.' Now, with the whole search-firm thing, it becomes a little bit different.”

In the meantime, Flint keeps an open door to Black coaches trying to learn from his experience and position themselves as head-coaching candidates. He views that as a responsibility and roots for success stories that open doors for the next generation.

It’s about doing everything possible to help others prepare for takeoff, knowing those opportunities don’t come around every day.

“You’ve got to prepare yourself for it,” Flint said. “It’s just not going to happen for you. You’ve got to have a game plan and then in a lot of ways, like I said, when it comes, you’ve got to be ready.”


AP Sports Writers Gary B. Graves, Will Graves and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.


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FILE - Kentucky assistant coach James "Bruiser" Flint speaks with the players after stepping in for head coach John Calipari who was tossed out of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. Black coaches in the top six men's college basketball leagues are still facing a tough climb in going from assistant to the head job. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
FILE - Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton watches his team during the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference second round NCAA college basketball tournament game against Virginia Tech, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Washington. Black coaches in the top six men's college basketball leagues are still facing a tough climb in going from assistant to the head job. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
FILE - Then-George Washington head coach Karl Hobbs gestures during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Temple Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011, in Washington. Hobbs is now an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. Black coaches in the top six men's college basketball leagues are still facing a tough climb in going from assistant to the head job. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez, File)

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