After being shut down a year ago due to the pandemic, college basketball is finding a way to bring back March Madness, albeit in an unfamiliar form. Like the truly professional leagues, the powers that be have decided the money is too significant and the show must go on.
For coaches, the pressure and expectations have not changed, despite the obvious impediments brought on by a pandemic. Just ask Doc Rivers if the pandemic bought him any patience from the NBA’s LA Clippers, or former Boston College coach Jim Christian, who was fired midseason.
For Black college basketball head coaches, the pressure is significant regardless of circumstances, because their opportunities are so limited. According to the NCAA Demographics Database in 2019, while Black coaches held 48% of Division I assistant coaching positions compared with 47% for white coaches, Black coaches made up only 28% of head coaches compared with 69% of white coaches.
The backdrop, of course, is that 56% of Division I basketball players are Black, compared with 23% white and 21% other. Thus, there is surely a pool of qualified head-coaching candidates for university presidents and athletic directors to choose from to close the racial hiring gap that exists.
In this spirit, here’s a look 12 Black coaches who have their college teams performing at a high level this season and are capable of making a run at the NCAA men’s tournament championship, despite the current climate.
Juwan Howard – Michigan
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel’s decision to hire Juwan Howard in 2019 has come up roses in 2020-21. The former Fab Five legend has his Michigan squad sitting at 20-4, with a Big Ten regular-season title, in what was the toughest conference in the country. Michigan enters this weekend’s NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. Howard is also a favorite to win National Coach of the Year.
With Howard’s wealth of high-level basketball experience, it’s not surprising that he knows what he’s doing. “I didn’t sit on my hands when I was an assistant with the Miami Heat. I sat there and I learned,” he told the media after Michigan’s 73-57 win over Indiana in late February.
“I played for a guy by the name of Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff,” Howard continued. “Then it went from Jeff Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, I also played for Larry Brown, Don Nelson, Erik Spoelstra. Those are some Hall of Fame coaches I just named. I picked up a lot of learning from how they coached me, that if I ever wanted to get into the game of basketball, [I would] keep those mental notes and see what worked and what did not work.”
All of that experience could not have prepared him for coaching a season during a pandemic, but for that he credits his players. “I really admire and respect our student-athletes for the sacrificing they have done to make it all work,” Howard told me last week.
As for what he expects from his team in the tournament, Howard is taking the same measured approach he’s taken to get his team to this point.
“Our goal, like all of the other schools, is to be the last team standing come April 5,” he told me. “But, we know it’s not going to be an easy task, so we’re going to take one game at a time, we’re going to prepare, we’re going to work hard and when game time rolls, I trust that me and my staff will have the team ready to go out there and compete at a high level for 40 minutes.”
Shaka Smart – Texas
In his sixth year as head coach of Texas, Shaka Smart has his best team. Led by three upperclassmen guards (Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman III), the Longhorns were a top 15 team all season.
They started the season 10-1 and looked like a potential No. 1 seed, but COVID-19 hit the program, including Smart. “[COVID had] a very powerful impact during the time when I was sick, mentally and physically,” Smart said over the phone. “I was unfortunately one of those people who had pretty strong symptoms.”
Much like other teams that have had bouts with COVID-19, Texas struggled to regain the chemistry it displayed earlier in the season. However, when the calendar turned to March, Texas clicked again. The Longhorns are undefeated this month and won the school’s first Big 12 tournament title against Oklahoma State, in a matchup that was also the first Big 12 final to feature two Black head coaches.
Of course, fair or not, college basketball coaches are ultimately judged by their performance in the NCAA tournament, so it will take a Final Four run like the one Smart led Virginia Commonwealth University on in 2011 to silence his critics. Texas is a No. 3 seed in this year’s tournament and has the look of a team prepared to do some real damage.
“That’s the exciting part,” Smart said of Texas’ prospects in the Big Dance.
Regardless, it looks as if Smart has the program on very solid footing now, with the right mix of experience and five-star potential. “I’m excited about the progress we’ve made,” he said. “I think our guys, culturally, have a much better understanding and buy-in and ownership of what we believe goes into success, on and off the court.”
Leonard Hamilton – Florida State
Coaching successful teams is old hand for Leonard Hamilton. Hamilton’s Florida State teams have won 20 or more games in five straight seasons. He has advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond the last two NCAA tournaments. Last season, he won the ACC regular-season title before the season came to an abrupt end. The only thing missing for Hamilton is a Final Four appearance.
Despite losing two lottery picks after last season (Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell), this season has been business as usual for Hamilton. Florida State has been arguably the best team in the ACC, finishing the regular season at 16-6, before being upset by Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final.
“Losing the talent we lost from last season, many people thought we’d take a step back, but the strength of our culture – skill development, etc. – is driving our success,” Hamilton said in late February.
Hamilton has used playing during a pandemic as a teaching moment for his players. “COVID is one of the things we’ve used to teach our players about the challenges of life,” he said. “We don’t want to use COVID as an excuse. We’ve been able to maintain discipline as a team.”
The Seminoles enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed in the East Region and have the talent and depth to make a run at Hamilton’s first Final Four.
Mike Boynton – Oklahoma State
Mike Boynton was far from a household name when he was named head basketball coach at Oklahoma State in 2017.
“I was hired with not a whole lot of fanfare, a lot of skepticism, to be perfectly honest,” he told me. “There was some head-scratching about, ‘Does Oklahoma State care about basketball anymore? We just hired a 35-year-old Black dude from Brooklyn, New York, who’s never been a head coach before.’ ”
This season, Boynton looks like one heck of a hire. After significant improvement last season, the pieces were in place for a breakout in 2020-21, thanks in large part to the arrival of projected No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham.
Neither Oklahoma State nor Cunningham has disappointed, as the Cowboys will play in their first NCAA tournament in Boynton’s tenure, thanks to a 20-8 record and a Big 12 tournament final appearance, good enough for a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance.
Cunningham has been a game-changer. He is averaging 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists and has had a long-lasting impact on the program, according to Boynton.
“Having [Cunningham] inside the building every day, you learn why he’s so good. He’s got a certain level of humility about him. He appreciates people and the opportunity to go out there and do something that he really loves, and he gains the respect of his teammates because he doesn’t view himself as above them,” Boynton said.
This has been a dream season for Oklahoma State, considering there was doubt the Cowboys would even be allowed to play this postseason, but the NCAA has yet to respond to the school’s appeal of the one-year postseason ban imposed on the program in June.
“We’re a young team, but we’ve proven we can play with some of the best teams in the country,” Boynton told me in reference to March Madness a couple weeks ago. “So, if we’re good enough and fortunate enough to get into the tournament, let’s make a run at this thing.”
Cuonzo Martin – Missouri
Cuonzo Martin has won everywhere he’s been, so it’s no surprise that Missouri has been a problem for its opponents this year. The only surprise is that this NCAA tournament will be Mizzou and Martin’s first since 2018. But that can happen when injuries hit a team, particularly its best player.
This season, Missouri is healthy and experienced, led by junior Xavier Pinson and seniors Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon. More importantly, the Tigers are back to playing the hard-nosed, gritty, winning basketball that is a reflection of their coach.
“You can’t have triumph without conflict. That’s part of it,” Martin told me. “You can’t win in life if you haven’t been in a boxing match. Because in order to know you won, you have to go against something.”
Mizzou enters the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed with a 16-9 record. As for Missouri’s chances in the Big Dance, Martin likes them, of course.
“I like our chances against anybody, I really do. I’m excited to be a part of it. I’ve always said, ‘We take one day at a time,’ but I like our chances against anybody, anywhere, if we’re healthy, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s why you do this. What other reason do you do this? Whoever’s the best, let’s play!”
Isaac Brown – Wichita State
When Gregg Marshall resigned in disgrace after it was found that he had been physically and verbally abusive toward his players, Wichita State handed the reins over, on an interim basis, to a little-known, career assistant who just wanted a chance to show he could lead a team.
Going into the season with Marshall at the helm, the Shockers were predicted to finish in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference (AAC). When Isaac Brown took over, the expectations were even lower.
“When I first took this job at the start of the year, I had to gain [the players’] trust, they had to gain my trust,” Brown told me. “They came here to play for a Hall of Fame coach and during that first meeting, man, it was tough. I was thinking some guys were going to opt out, all kind of stuff. And those guys bought in. I told them, ‘This is your program, I’m going to have you guys organized, I’m going to get you guys better. We’re going to make sure we do everything we need to do in order to have you prepared for every game,’ and those guys just bought in.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Wichita State shocked the college basketball world, and on Sunday night heard its name called as one of the last at-large selections to the NCAA tournament. And, oh, by the way, Brown was named AAC Coach of the Year.
Most importantly, Brown will be the head coach at Wichita State for the foreseeable future. At the end of February, the university removed the interim tag and gave Brown a five-year deal to remain the Shockers head coach.
I spoke to Brown the day before the news broke and asked him if he wanted to be the full-time coach at Wichita State.
“Yeah, I would love to be the head coach at Wichita State University,” he said. “This is a great basketball city, with great basketball fans, they sell the arena out every night. We’ve been to eight NCAA tournaments in nine years, that’s some high-level stuff. So, of course, I would love to be the head coach at Wichita State, if the university wants me.”
Wisely, Wichita State wanted him.
Patrick Ewing – Georgetown
There was no better moment last weekend than witnessing Patrick Ewing coach Georgetown to a surprise Big East tournament championship, 49 years to the day that his mentor and former coach John Thompson Jr. took over the head-coaching job at Georgetown.
Even before the Hoyas’ Big East final victory, Ewing felt the significance of what his team was accomplishing. Asked what the finals appearance meant to him, given Thompson’s death earlier this season, Ewing spoke from the heart.
“They asked me after the game what I think Coach Thompson is doing right now. I said both he and Mary Fenlon are smiling down on us right now,” he said after Georgetown’s semifinal win over Seton Hall. “They’re very happy and they’re probably dancing a jig, like he always says.”
He continued: “We’ve come a long way. It’s been a rough year for everyone all over the world with the pandemic. We lost Coach Thompson, also Coach [John] Chaney, pioneers of this profession, giving people like myself opportunities and a lot of people all over the country opportunities to go to college.”
Georgetown was not supposed to be here. The Hoyas were picked to finish last in the Big East preseason poll, and probably rightfully so. Their roster was bare and still recovering from major defections from the year before.
With nine new players and no real preseason, thanks to the pandemic, Georgetown had a rocky start to the season. However, after a three-week pause in January, due to COVID-19 transmission within the team, the Hoyas miraculously came back better and more disciplined.
“I can’t put my finger on one specific change, I think it’s just growth,” Ewing said when I asked what changed after their COVID-19 pause. “[We] were the last team on campus. A lot of teams were already [together] this summer, getting to know each other, working on their craft. My guys were at home. All our stuff was via Zoom. … And also the pause helped us. We were able to exhale, refocus and get back on the grind.”
The grind continues in the NCAA tournament. The Hoyas are a No. 12 seed and face No. 5 seed Colorado in the first round. The way Georgetown’s playing, it would not be a surprise to see the Hoyas reach the tournament’s second weekend.
Dennis Gates – Cleveland State
After 16 years as an assistant coach, eight of those under Leonard Hamilton, Cleveland State took a chance on the young Dennis Gates in 2019. That decision paid immediate dividends, as Gates won Horizon League Coach of the Year in his first season. Despite a 7-11 record in league play, the improvement in the Vikings’ program was impossible to ignore.
This season, Gates took it to another level. Cleveland State finished the regular season with a 16-4 league record, good enough for a share of the Horizon regular-season title. On March 9, the Vikings punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season with an 80-69 win over Oakland. Gates was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year for the second season in a row.
Gates’ success comes as no surprise to Hamilton. “I was extremely confident that he was one of the brightest, most professional, up-and-coming coaches in the country. His ability to relate to the kids, motivate them and mentor them was consistent with what he did [at Florida State]. We could not be prouder of his accomplishments. The good news is that he’s just getting started,” Hamilton told me last week.
As for what’s next for the Vikings, Gates has set lofty goals. “Our goal is to win a national championship, an NCAA tournament championship,” he told Cleveland.com before the Horizon League tournament. “When you do those things and you dream big and you work hard and your vision is aligned in that capacity, there are things that you earn along the way.”
What Cleveland State has earned so far this season could not have been imagined before Gates’ arrival.
Ritchie McKay – Liberty
Ritchie McKay has been a successful head coach for some time. He has won 58% of his games in 19 years as a head coach, including successful stints at Colorado State and New Mexico, respectively, before arriving at Liberty.
In his last three years at Liberty, McKay has guided the Flames to a combined record of 82-16, with what would have been three NCAA tournament appearances if not for last season’s shutdown.
This season, Liberty finished 23-5, including wins over SEC schools Mississippi State and South Carolina, respectively. McKay thinks his team will be ready for the start of the NCAA tournament. “Over the years, we’ve won a couple of [high-major] games, so I don’t think they’ll be afraid, but then again, neither will the other team,” he told the Marching to Madness podcast last week. “It’s all about matchups when you get to the NCAA tournament.”
McKay and Liberty’s first-round matchup will be No. 4 seed Oklahoma State. Expect both teams to be ready to go.
Shantay Legans – Eastern Washington
In his fourth season as head coach at Eastern Washington, Shantay Legans is making his first NCAA tournament appearance. The Eagles are 16-7, having won 13 of their last 14 games, including the Big Sky Conference championship against Montana State.
This season’s NCAA berth is a bit of poetic justice, when you consider Eastern Washington won 23 games along with the Big Sky regular-season title last season, only to have its postseason and NCAA tournament chances canceled due to the pandemic. Legans was named 2020 Big Sky Coach of the Year for his efforts.
Eastern Washington goes into this weekend’s tournament as a No. 14 seed and will face No. 3 seed Kansas. As daunting as that sounds, Legans is looking forward to it. He is also proud of the way his players dealt with this unusual season to get to this point.
“Our players are excited and it’s something you’ll never forget,” Legans said after the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. “When I sit back and think about this, I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve handled [playing during a pandemic]. It’s quite amazing, to tell you the truth. They handled it with great dignity and character and they are incredible men who have handled the highs and the lows.”
With a career .610 winning percentage, this could be the first of many tournament appearances for Legans.
Robert Jones – Norfolk State
Robert Jones’ Norfolk State squad is headed to the NCAA tournament after winning its last six games, including a 71-63 win over Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament final.
This will be Jones’ first NCAA tournament appearance, despite having had his share of successful seasons in his eight years as head coach. The Queens, New York, native has led the Spartans to top-two finishes in the MEAC six times and has a 92-32 career record in the conference. It took a while, but Jones finally got Norfolk State to the promised land. “Finally, luck was on our side, as well as being good. There’s the magic,” Jones told The Virginian-Pilot after the MEAC final win.
It will be a tough road for Norfolk State in the NCAA tournament, as it faces fellow No. 16 seed Appalachian State in the First Four on Thursday for the opportunity to play overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the round of 64.
However, the Spartans have history on their side. The last time Norfolk State played in the NCAA tournament, in 2012, the Spartans upset No. 2 seed Missouri. Jones was an assistant coach on that team.
Whether history repeats itself or not, this season has already been a successful one for Jones and Norfolk State.
Johnny Jones – Texas Southern
Johnny Jones has been here before. This will be his fourth NCAA tournament appearance, with his third team. His last appearance came in 2015, as head coach at LSU, one year before the arrival of a kid named Ben Simmons.
This season, Jones’ third at Texas Southern, he led the Tigers to wins in 14 of their last 15 games, including nine straight and a Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship. Despite the impressive streak, like Norfolk State, Texas Southern was rewarded with a No. 16 seed and a date in the First Four by the NCAA selection committee.
Regardless, Jones is proud of his team. “[It’s] gratifying the way we had to do it,” he said. “Through the pandemic, weather problems, these guys stayed together, stayed focused. They never wavered.”
It is also gratifying to see Jones leading another team to a successful season, after 11 years as a head coach at North Texas and leading LSU to at least 19 wins in four of his five years there.
These are just a few of the Black head coaches in college basketball who have done outstanding jobs this season, a season like no other, where a pandemic created unforeseen obstacles.
There are more, of course, like Mike Anderson, who has his St. John’s program way ahead of schedule in his second year and was this season’s Big East Coach of the Year. Also, Texas State interim coach Terrence Johnson led a team projected to finish in the middle of the Sun Belt Conference to a regular-season championship, despite taking over amid much turmoil. Last week, like Wichita State, Texas State made the wise decision to hire Johnson full time and remove the interim tag. He clearly demonstrated he could do the job successfully, under the most difficult of circumstances.