When I was close to getting the Maine job in 2014, I knew the most important thing I had to do was hire the right staff. They say when you get a job it’s about two things – who you sign, and who you hire. That will dictate your ability to have success.
After 9 years as a Division III head coach I knew I wanted to get guys with Division I experience, and at Maine that was going to be a challenge. We had a total of $138,000 to spend on four positions for our staff, so finding the right guys would be challenging. Fortunately I had a good relationship with a couple of guys who were on D1 staffs at the time – Matt O’Brien and Zak Boisvert – and both of them were interested in joining me. I knew they were great coaches and I was lucky to get them.
That left me with limited money to hire someone for the “minority spot.” While there is no rule in college basketball, it is pretty much an unwritten one – every staff needs to have one minority on it. The thinking is if you are going to be able to recruit and relate to players – the majority of whom are black – the players and their families are going to want to a minority on staff. And certainly other schools will use anything they can to help them in recruiting, and just by implying that your staff can’t relate to players the right way can have a negative impact. I don’t know the numbers regarding the 351 staffs in the country, but I’d be willing to bet 90% of them have at least one minority on staff.
I hit a home run when I hired Antone Gray as my last assistant at Maine. Antone played for me at Rhode Island College, had won a state championship in Rhode Island as a high school coach, and was the best leader and the smartest player I’d ever coached. He’s a star in the business and I was thrilled to be able to add him. I was able to put together a great staff.
So what is wrong with hiring a minority for your staff? On the surface, nothing. It makes sense to have a diverse staff and there are plenty of great coaches from all different backgrounds capable of helping college basketball programs. Hiring Antone Gray for my staff wasn’t a mistake, it was a great move.
What strikes me now when I think about it is the system. It’s the way the system is set up, and we don’t really think twice about it. I certainly didn’t. I had interviewed for a number of D1 jobs before I got the Maine job, and every time I did I had conversations with people about potential staffs. And there were plenty of conversations about who I was going to hire in my minority spot or as my “black guy.”
Shouldn’t that seem very strange when you think about it? It really didn’t to me, it was just accepted as the way you had to make up your staff. For as long as I’ve been in college basketball, coaches have talked about who they are going to hire as their black guy. Many coaches I know have had conversations about who they know that are good minority candidates for staffs, and I know some coaches have what they call “black books.” They are go-to guys when someone in the business needs a good minority candidate. I can tell you that I have thought about it for years – getting to know and staying in touch with good, young black coaches that I meet, with an eye down the road in case I get a new job. Is that a bad thing? It’s just part of the system.
Well, that’s the problem. When you look at the make-up of college basketball teams, you would think there’d be an incredible amount of minority assistants on staff throughout the country. There are plenty of great candidates out there. But somehow we have a system where we need to make sure we hire one minority on every staff, and we have conversations about who the good minorities in the business who might be able to help us down the road. Wouldn’t you think it’d be harder for white guys like myself to get jobs on college basketball staffs than it is for minorities?
The system is screwed up. And I can’t help but think that when we talk about systemic racism in our country, this is an example of it. Almost all of the decision makers in college athletics – Presidents, Athletic Directors, and head coaches – are white. Now I’m not saying they are racist, and they don’t want to hire minorities. But somehow the system is set up so that there aren’t enough great minority candidates, so we have an unofficial system in place where we make sure we hire one for every staff. And that system isn’t in place to combat systemic racism, it’s in place to combat negative recruiting. As a head coach it would take a lot of guts for me to get a job and hire an entirely white staff, regardless if they all happened to be the best fit for what I was looking for. Somehow the system in college basketball is one where we have to make sure we hire one minority on each staff, which tells me something is wrong.
Why is it that the first two people I hired for my staff at Maine were people who looked like me, people who grew up like me? They both grew up in middle to upper-middle class families, had parents with good jobs and could afford to go to great colleges. And I can say unequivocally that I hired the right people for the job. However, why is it that the right people for my staff both happened to be white guys from families with money? Not to mention the fact that I had gotten an opportunity to be a head coach as an upper middle class white guy.
Change isn’t promising to look more closely at minority candidates and make sure you give them a fair shot. Change is investigating why there aren’t as many minority candidates available to you, and doing something to impact that. And here’s where I’m disappointed in myself. Until I started thinking about this recently, I never even thought twice about it. I hired the best staff I could, and the first two guys happened to be white guys. After that, I went about finding the best minority I could. That’s how I put together my staff, and it was perfectly normal to me.
As long as that system and process are in place, we won’t have real change. I’m not saying more minorities should be hired because of the color of their skin, or white people should have a harder time getting jobs. It’s not that simple. But it should be strange to us when that is how we go about hiring coaches in college basketball, and we need to figure out why. We have to get to the bottom of why the system is the way it is.
What if the NCAA invested some money in graduate assistant spots, so that every staff could hire one extra person as a GA? And I’m not even saying that spot has to go to a minority. But there used to be coaching GAs on every staff – guys who could coach on the floor and recruit, and they were entry level positions. They were for young coaches trying to hustle their way into the business and prove their value. If we could create more entry level coaching positions – where graduate school, room and board were paid for – you would probably see more diversity at the entry-level positions on coaching staffs. Those are positions that people who may not have a lot of money can take for two years, prove their value, learn the business, and get a valuable masters degree.
Current entry level positions are very challenging for young coaches, especially those who don’t have some financial help. After I hired my coaching staff at Maine I had one position left for a Director of Operations, but I didn’t have any money. That was my plan, to hire the best 3 coaches I could with the money I had, and then find a volunteer for the Ops spot. Not an easy spot for someone to take. And who are the candidates going to be for a spot like that? People who come from some money, who can afford to work for nothing for a couple of years. That equation doesn’t favor anyone for entry level positions who don’t have financial support to make it work.
We can all do more. I know I can. Just remembering the way I hired my staff makes me think right now. There is no way that should be common practice in college basketball. We need to get to the root of the problem and figure out the tough solutions. I know I’ve been part of the problem, and I didn’t even stop to realize it.