What’s the normal path to getting hired as head college basketball coach?
Many have been assistant coaches, others former head coaches and some have little experience at all. For some, such as newly hired George Mason women’s basketball head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis, the journey comes with twists and turns.
Blair-Lewis began her coaching career as a 24-year-old at her alma mater Mount St. Mary’s. In her nine years there, she won 120 games, had two 20-plus win seasons and won two Northeast Conference championships. She then decided to leave for Bethune-Cookman and rebuilt a program that had only two winning seasons in the 19 years before her arrival.
Blair-Lewis led Bethune-Cookman to five consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) regular-season championships and was named conference coach of the year four times.
Coaches at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) struggle to get opportunities at predominantly white institutions for myriad reasons.
However, Blair-Lewis is an example of the promising number of Black college basketball head coaches who have been hired since the end of the 2020-21 regular season. Toyelle Wilson, who was head coach at Prairie View A&M, was hired by Southern Methodist and Semeka Randall Lay, who was a head coach at Alabama A&M, was hired full time by Winthrop.
Eight of the 17 Division I head-coaching hires (47%) in women’s basketball have been Black and seven have been Black women, including two of the five Power 5 vacancies.
In the men’s game, 25 of the 49 (51%) Division I head-coaching hires have been Black, including seven of 13 in the Power 5 plus the Big East.
The number of Black players and assistant coaches in NCAA Division I college basketball compared with the number of Black head coaches has long been disproportional. According to the NCAA Demographics Database in 2019-20, Black players accounted for 56% of all players, Black assistant coaches accounted for 48% of all assistants, and Black head coaches only represented 28% of all head coaches.
When it was time for Blair-Lewis to make her decision, she said it was hard to leave Bethune-Cookman.
“I had been at institutions and kinda raised in communities that didn’t look like me,” she said. “And I just felt like there was a time in my later years at [Mount St. Mary’s] where I wanted to be able to be authentic, and I needed something for my journey, just for me. And it’s not a traditional trek, with the success that we had at Mount St. Mary’s, to go to an HBCU. You in the sports world know that’s sometimes considered taboo, ‘Don’t go there.’
“When I went on the [Bethune-Cookman] interview, I was just really blown away by the history, by the authenticity of being able to be celebrated for your difference. I just remember meeting the young ladies that looked like me and I asked them, ‘What do you want in your new head coach?’ And you know, I believe this is why I felt the need to take that job, was because her answer was, ‘We just want someone to not give up on us.’ ”
The result led to success at Bethune-Cookman. In the last five seasons – Bethune-Cookman did not participate this past season due to the coronavirus pandemic – the Lady Wildcats won 69% of their games and were 68-12 in the MEAC.
“I was getting calls and emails like, ‘Are you crazy, why are you going to do that, why would you do that?’ And then those calls turned into, ‘How are you doing this?’ ”
Blair-Lewis hopes her story will inspire other young coaches who are hesitant about coaching at HBCUs because of the unfounded negative perception that may exist.
“That is a conversation I’ve had with some young coaches that look like me,” she said. “I think our student-athletes are the ones that miss the opportunity to be coached by some of the youngest, the best and the brightest, and not just African Americans [should] go to HBCUs, I encourage everyone.”
Blair-Lewis is more than excited for her next chapter at George Mason.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” she said. “When [George] Mason called, it was a chance for me to step up to a new challenge, it was a new rebuild, but also to come back home to do it.”
The number and percentage of Black coaches hired during this year’s cycle is significant. But, is this true progress or simply a blip on the radar?
Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, who has been a men’s head coach for 34 years and took this season’s Seminoles to his fifth Sweet 16 and the third straight Sweet 16 for the team, is cautiously optimistic that the recent coaching hires equal real progress.
“It’s obvious that this is a year that a lot of qualified guys got some tremendous opportunities, more so than in the past,” Hamilton said. “You’d like to think that guys are preparing themselves more and are becoming more attractive for some of the better jobs in the country. Let’s hope that the climate is changing.”
Dawn Staley just finished her 20th year as a head coach after reaching her third Final Four with South Carolina. She sees this hiring cycle as hard-fought for progress.
“I think we’re in a place where people are more apt to hire, you know, Black bodies,” she said. “Partly, it’s because of people speaking out on it and awakening decision-makers, I also think that people are looking at their athletic departments and they want a more diverse look. Whatever the case may be, it’s a good thing for us. We have to make it a great thing for us by succeeding.”
While Staley likes the early signs, she also knows there will be more challenges and more work to do.
“It’s more representative of what the numbers are for our student-athletes,” she continued. “But, I also know there is going to be some backlash, I know there’s some people who aren’t in favor of what’s taking place because it’s taking jobs from what the numbers looked like before these Black coaches got the jobs. So, you know, move over. There’s enough room for everybody to be represented and I’m happy that the ADs and the presidents who are making these hires, if they’ve been out there for diversity and inclusion, they’re putting their money where their mouth is, then that’s a great thing.
“It’s nothing against a white coach or a male coach, it’s nothing, truly, against them. It is everything [about] giving Black people, Black coaches an opportunity to run programs. And for the [Black coaches], you gotta do right, you gotta be prepared, you have to make sure that you’re not just a number, you are part of the change that must continue to trend this way.”
Here is a look at the new Black coaches and the universities where they will be patrolling the sideline next season.
Johnnie Harris – Auburn
Johnnie Harris is a career assistant coach who played at Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the mid-1980s and has coached at Arkansas-Little Rock, NC State, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State over her 37-year coaching career. Last season, she was associate head coach at Texas during its Elite Eight run.
Marisa Moseley – Wisconsin
After nine years as an assistant coach at UConn, Marisa Moseley led her alma mater Boston University to a 45-29 record over the last three years as head coach, including a 12-3 record in 2020-21. She takes over a Wisconsin program that finished dead last in the Big Ten this past season.
Katrina Merriweather – Memphis
Katrina Merriweather comes to Memphis from Wright State, where she led the Raiders to three NCAA tournament berths, a 113-47 record and a first-round upset of fourth-seeded Arkansas in last month’s tournament. She was also a three-time Horizon League Coach of the Year. Memphis was 4-15 last season.
Toyelle Wilson – SMU
The New Jersey native gets her chance to run a major program after 15 years as an assistant coach and three years as head coach at Prairie View A&M, where Toyelle Wilson took the Lady Panthers to the NCAA tournament three straight seasons. Most recently, Wilson spent six seasons on Baylor’s staff and the last two seasons at Michigan. Wilson was the lead assistant and recruiting coordinator at Michigan, which lost to Baylor in last month’s Sweet 16.
Simon Harris – East Tennessee State
A career assistant coach, Simon Harris brings 10 years of coaching experience from successful programs. A second-generation basketball coach and former player at Elon and NC State, Harris spent seven years at Dayton, three years with the men’s team and four years with the women’s team. He then went on to coach at NC State and Ohio State.
Brittany Young – Austin Peay
Brittany Young began her coaching career as a graduate assistant under Staley at South Carolina in 2011. Before landing at Austin-Peay, she was Nikki McCray-Penson’s assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Mississippi State. She is considered one of the best recruiters in the women’s college game.
Semeka Randall Lay – Winthrop
Semeka Randall Lay served as the interim head coach at Winthrop this past season and had that interim tag removed, making her the 17th women’s basketball head coach in the school’s history. Randall-Lay was part of the 1998 undefeated national championship Tennessee team and played three seasons in the WNBA. She was head coach at Ohio University for five years, at Alabama A&M for three years and had stints as an assistant coach at Wright State and Cincinnati before joining Winthrop’s staff in 2019.
Hubert Davis – North Carolina
UNC’s decision to appoint Hubert Davis as the legendary Roy Williams’ successor was an easy one from the outside looking in. North Carolina is known for hiring from within its “family,” and Davis was the family member with the best resume and most gravitas. Davis was a star player for the Tar Heels from 1988 to 1992, under another basketball legend Dean Smith, and went on to have a 12-year NBA career. While in the NBA, he played for great coaches such as Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Doug Collins, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown. After four years at ESPN as one of the network’s lead college basketball analysts, Davis returned to Chapel Hill and joined Williams’ staff at UNC as an assistant coach. He spent nine years in that job before Williams’ retirement announcement. Davis is the first Black head basketball coach in UNC’s history and only “the fourth African American head coach in any sport in the history of the University of North Carolina,” as he pointed out during his introductory news conference.
Mike Woodson – Indiana
You can say Indiana went the unconventional route when it plucked Mike Woodson from the NBA ranks. Yes, we’ve seen coaches leave the NBA for college, but often it’s the younger coach who has yet to be an NBA head coach who decides to take on the college challenge. The 63-year-old Woodson has been a successful head coach in the NBA with both the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. The connection here is that Woodson was a star player for Indiana in the late 1970s. He was drafted 12th overall by the Knicks in 1980. Despite his Indiana roots, the pressure will be on Woodson to create a winner in Bloomington. The storied program has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2016.
Shaka Smart – Marquette
Shaka Smart returns to his home state of Wisconsin to coach at Marquette in the Big East, replacing Steve Wojciechowski. Smart spent the last six seasons as head coach at Texas. It has been widely reported that Smart was 0-3 in the NCAA tournament while at Texas. Less widely reported was that Smart reached three of the last five NCAA tournaments and won a Big 12 championship. In fairness to his critics, Smart was unable to produce at Texas to the level he did at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he reached the tournament five of the six years he was there, won six tournament games and reached the Final Four in 2011. Marquette could be a great fit for Smart, as solely a basketball school with a rich tradition.
Earl Grant – Boston College
Earl Grant is headed to the ACC after compiling a 127-89 record at the College of Charleston, including three 24-plus win seasons. Before being a head coach, Grant served as an assistant at Clemson, Wichita State, Winthrop and The Citadel. Boston College has struggled over the last decade, but Grant plans to instill a new culture. “You want to have competitive guys and you want to have guys that have a chip on their shoulder, it starts with that,” he told me. “There is a thing of outworking somebody, there is a thing of outhustling somebody, there is a thing of outcompeting somebody. So, it starts with those intangible things.”
Ben Johnson – Minnesota
Ben Johnson was a star high school player in Minnesota. He led DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis to two Minnesota state championships before playing two years at Northwestern. Johnson transferred to the University of Minnesota to finish out his college playing career. He has been a college assistant coach since 2005, most recently completing stints at Nebraska, Minnesota and Xavier.
Isaac Brown – Wichita State
Isaac Brown took over as the interim head-coach at Wichita State after Gregg Marshall was forced to resign. Not much was expected, but Brown led the Shockers to an American Athletic Conference regular-season title, an NCAA tournament berth and was named conference coach of the year. He was smartly rewarded with the permanent position. Before his success in 2020-21, Brown was an assistant coach for 23 years. “I always felt I could recruit, coach, manage kids,” he told me in February, while still the interim coach. “When you can do those three things, I think you’re ready to be a head coach. I just was never given those opportunities.” Brown got the opportunity at Wichita State and took full advantage.
Micah Shrewsberry – Penn State
Micah Shrewsberry has an impressive resume as a college and NBA assistant coach. He was Brad Stevens’ assistant at Butler and the Boston Celtics, and also served two separate stints as Matt Painter’s assistant at Purdue. Shrewsberry was a head coach at Indiana University South Bend, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, from 2005 to 2007.
Tony Stubblefield – DePaul
New DePaul athletic director DeWayne Peevy tabbed Tony Stubblefield, a longtime assistant, as DePaul’s newest head coach, replacing Dave Leitao. Stubblefield had a brief stint as interim head coach at New Mexico State in 2005, but since then he’s been an assistant at Cincinnati and for the last 11 years at Oregon under Dana Altman. Stubblefield will have his work cut out for him at DePaul, which hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2004. “I have no doubt that he will get that thing turned [around] and I think he will do it quickly here within the next couple of years,” Altman said after Stubblefield’s hiring.
Drew Valentine – Loyola Chicago
After a run to this year’s Sweet 16, head coach Porter Moser bolted to Oklahoma and Loyola turned to the 29-year-old Drew Valentine. Valentine, the brother of former Michigan State and current Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valentine, was an assistant coach on Moser’s staff for four years. Before his time at Loyola, Valentine spent two years at his alma mater, Oakland University.
Kyle Neptune – Fordham
Kyle Neptune has been well trained, having spent the last eight seasons on Villanova’s bench under Jay Wright. The 36-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native will be working hard in the Bronx to get the Rams to their fifth NCAA tournament and first since 1992.
Speedy Claxton – Hofstra
New York native Speedy Claxton was a star point guard at Hofstra during the late 1990s and perhaps the school’s most celebrated player. Claxton went on to have a seven-year NBA career and went back to his alma mater and served as an assistant coach from 2013 to 2021.
Kim English – George Mason
Kim English was a star four-year player at the University of Missouri from 2008 to 2012. The Maryland native is headed Virginia to coach the Patriots after assistant coaching stints at Tulsa, Colorado and Tennessee.
Shantay Legans – Portland
Shantay Legans led Eastern Washington to the NCAA tournament in March and then gave Kansas all it could handle before losing in the first round. He was rewarded with the head coaching position at the University of Portland. Legans seeks to get Portland to its first NCAA tournament since 1996.
Stan Heath – Eastern Michigan
Stan Heath returns to the college sideline after four seasons as head coach of the Lakeland Magic in the NBA G League. Heath previously held NCAA Division I head-coaching positions at Kent State, Arkansas and South Florida.
Desmond Oliver – East Tennessee State
East Tennessee State tabbed Desmond Oliver to replace head coach Jason Shay, who resigned after much backlash based on Shay’s decision to support his players’ social justice protests. Oliver is ETSU’s first Black head men’s basketball coach. He was an assistant coach at Tennessee for the past six seasons and has had stops at Niagara, Texas A&M, Cornell, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Georgia, Canisius and Charlotte.
Alvin Brooks – Lamar
The longtime assistant is headed back to where it all started. Alvin Brooks played at Lamar from 1979 to 1981 and was an assistant coach there for five years after he graduated. He’s spent the last 11 years as associate head coach under Kelvin Sampson at Houston.
Rashon Burno – Northern Illinois
Rashon Burno played at DePaul from 1998 to 2002 and has been an assistant coach since 2010, with stops at Towson, Manhattan College, Florida and Arizona State. He takes over a Northern Illinois program that has not reached the NCAA tournament since 1996.
Matt Crenshaw – Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis brought back one of its best players in school history in Matt Crenshaw. Crenshaw spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach at Ball State. Before that, he served as an assistant coach and associate head coach for the IUPUI Jaguars.
Jordan Mincy – Jacksonville
Jordan Mincy moves about an hour and a half up the freeway from Gainesville, where he spent the last six years as an assistant at the University of Florida, to Jacksonville University. The 34-year-old Mincy also was an assistant at South Carolina, his alma mater Kent State, College of Charleston, Toledo and Louisiana Tech. Jacksonville has not made an NCAA tournament appearance since 1986.
Nate James – Austin Peay
Nate James was a four-year player at Duke and won a national championship in 2001. He returned to Durham, North Carolina, and served as an assistant coach and associate head coach for 12 seasons under Mike Krzyzewski. In his first head-coaching job, he will seek to take Austin Peay to its first NCAA tournament since 2016.
Terrence Johnson – Texas State
At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Terrence Johnson took over as interim head coach when former coach Danny Kaspar resigned after being accused of making racist remarks to his players. Johnson led the Bobcats to the Sun Belt regular-season title and was named conference coach of the year. In March, Texas State removed the interim tag, making Johnson the official head coach. He served as an assistant coach for six seasons at Texas State and three seasons at Samford. “When you’re what I am, we don’t get many opportunities,” Johnson told me in March, before being named permanent head coach. “There’s always some level of doubt to where you want to know if you’re good enough. And when you get the opportunity, you know the pressure is on.” Johnson handled that pressure and was rewarded.
Justin Gray – Western Carolina
After just two years as an assistant coach at Winthrop, the 37-year-old Justin Gray gets his first head-coaching opportunity at Western Carolina. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native played four seasons at Wake Forest and 12 seasons professionally overseas.
Dwayne Killings – Albany
Dwayne Killings, named University of Albany head coach in March, has been a college assistant coach since 2010, on the staffs of Boston University, Temple, UConn and most recently, associate head coach at Marquette. He also has NBA experience, serving as a video coordinator for the Charlotte Hornets and working in player development in the NBA D-League.
Tony Madlock – South Carolina State
Before he was named head coach at South Carolina State, Tony Madlock was an assistant coach for 25 years and an interim head coach at the University of Mississippi during the 2017-18 season. Madlock has spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with Memphis, under head coach Penny Hardaway.
Levell Sanders – Interim, Binghamton
Former Seton Hall guard Levell Sanders enjoyed a long professional career overseas. His coaching career also began overseas before he landed at Binghamton as an assistant coach in 2019. Sanders was named interim head coach in March after coach Tommy Dempsey’s contract was not renewed.