The ‘Russell Rule’ promotes a wider group of candidates for college coaching jobs — Andscape
There’s a bright spot out West amid the dim landscape of diversity in college sports leadership.
The West Coast Conference has an initiative called the Russell Rule, which requires schools to interview candidates from underrepresented groups when hiring top coaches and athletic administrators. It’s named after the late Bill Russell, who starred at the WCC’s University of San Francisco in the 1950s before becoming an 11-time NBA champion and advocate for racial equality. In the WCC’s most recent hiring cycle that ended in July 2022, more than half of the candidates hired were from underrepresented communities.
The Russell Rule emerged from the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020. Like colleges across the country that rely on Black athletic talent, many WCC schools released statements supporting racial equality. But during the WCC’s 2020 meeting, said Gloria Nevarez, who was then commissioner of the league, “Our presidents got in a room and said, ‘Look, our students want more than just a statement from us. We want to make meaningful and lasting change.’ And I had the idea of a hiring commitment bouncing around in the back of my brain.”
With help from Richard Lapchick, who leads The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, also known as TIDES, Nevarez pushed through the Russell Rule in a few months. Now, all 10 WCC schools must include at least one candidate from an underrepresented group, which can include women, when hiring an athletic director, senior administrator, head coach or full-time assistant. TIDES will monitor the hiring numbers.
“It made some folks nervous,” Nevarez said. “But it made us more deliberate on some of those pipeline jobs. We always do big search firm or national searches for the head coaches and the big high-profile jobs, but it’s those pipeline jobs that need intentionality as well.”
In the 2021-2022 cycle, seven of 15 head coaches hired came from underrepresented communities, although most were not from marquee sports. The pipeline numbers were more encouraging: 49 of 83 assistant coach hires went to members of underrepresented communities. For senior administrators, such as assistant or associate athletic directors, 16 of 28 hires fit that criteria.
Nevarez, who is of Mexican, Filipino and Irish descent, is the first Latina to lead a Division I conference, according to the WCC. She played basketball at the University of Massachusetts and held administrative positions at San Jose State, Cal, Oklahoma and the Pac-10 conference before becoming commissioner of the WCC in 2018. The WCC schools are Brigham Young, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, Pacific, Pepperdine, Portland, St. Mary’s, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara. At the start of this year, Nevarez became commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, where she hopes the Russell Rule can be applied as well.
Her initiative is similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior front-office jobs. But critics say the Rooney Rule has been ineffective, and that team owners easily evade it. So why has the Russell Rule shown results in the WCC?
Accountability is a key component of the rule, in the form of annual monitoring by TIDES. Also: “The membership, the president and athletic directors, have really leaned into it,” said Nevarez. “We represent colleges and universities who have missions and core values that match the intent of this policy.”
Lapchick, a longtime advocate for equality whose TIDES institute is housed at the University of Central Florida, said the Russell Rule has been successful because the racial reckoning of 2020 made more people sensitive to the effects of systemic racism. “I think most people also realize that it’s not only a moral but a business imperative,” Lapchick said. “The studies we do on graduation rates for teams in the men’s and women’s basketball tournament show that teams coached by people of color have higher graduation rates than teams whose coaches are white.
“It was courageous of Gloria Nevarez and the WCC to enact the Russell Rule,” he said. “It’s a proven success there, and it’s a model for other conferences to adopt. For decades we tried to get it done at the NCAA level, but they refused. The conference level is where the most possibilities are.”
Diversity in the top ranks of college sports remains a problem. The 2021 TIDES College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card, the latest available, gave an overall grade of C+ for racial hiring practices, a C for gender hiring. It found that 82% of Division 1 athletic directors and 84% of associate athletic directors were white. Those percentages were even higher in Divisions II and III. At NCAA headquarters, 76% of administrators were white.
“Until we get a better pipeline, which the Russell Rule will help create, nothing will change,” Lapchick said. “These numbers haven’t changed since the turn of the new millennium.”
If other conferences looking at the Russell Rule are hesitant, Nevarez said they can start by collecting diversity data, and then build up to interview commitments and accountability.
“You can take any one of those pillars,” she said, “and build on it.”