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Kevin Ollie needs company: A look at the disappearance of black coaches at the top of college basketball

Pat Forde
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Kevin Ollie, Connecticut overcoming all obstacles

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Dec. 19: Daily Zap

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Dec. 19: Daily Zap

Kevin Ollie will stand out at the 2014 Final Four.

The Connecticut coach is the new face amid long-established veterans, a guy who is less than 70 games into his head-coaching career. He is the one guy who had a long NBA career, playing 13 years in the league.

And, yes, he is the lone African-American head coach. That's more important – and more unique, and more troubling – than you may think.

Black coaches at upper-echelon basketball schools are more rare right now than they have been in many years. There is a devolution of diversity on the sidelines.

Among the 28 basketball programs that have been to the Final Four in the last 15 years and hail from power conferences – Atlantic Coast, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, Southeastern – only two currently are led by black coaches: John Thompson III at Georgetown, and Ollie at UConn.

Those 28 positions are pretty much the "destination" jobs in the college game. And in a throwback to a more monochromatic time, they belong overwhelmingly to white men.

College basketball was once the most diverse hiring ground in sports. Yet 30 years after John Thompson won a national title at Georgetown and 20 years after Nolan Richardson won one at Arkansas, the road to the top has antithetically grown less-traveled for black men, not more.

"It's definitely a concern," Ollie said Monday. "You know, we don't want to look at ourselves as African-American coaches. We want to look at ourselves as coaches. Hopefully our ability doesn't have to do with the color of our skin and we're judged by what we do on the court, on getting guys prepared on the court and off the court, getting them prepared for life. I admire John Thompson and Nolan Richardson, they paved the way for me, and for what I have.

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Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart is one of few black coaches in the college game today. (AP)

"But it's definitely something we need to take a long look at and hopefully get more African Americans in this job, in these positions, to run a program. I realize it's my duty to continue to be a role model and continue to do what I do and handle myself as a great person so that a young person that is 8 or 9 years old can aspire to be a head coach one day. I can provide that path like John Thompson and Nolan Richardson did for me."

A black coach has not won a national title since Tubby Smith did it in 1998 at Kentucky – he was the third in 14 years. In 15 tournaments since then, the number is zero.

Four reached the Final Four without winning it: Mike Davis at Indiana in 2002, Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech in '04, John Thompson III at Georgetown in '07, Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth in '11. None of those teams were considered Final Four favorites: Indiana was a No. 5 seed; George Tech a 4; Georgetown a 2; VCU an 11. Ollie's UConn team is a No. 7 seed. No black coach has had a team earn an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed since Lorenzo Romar did at Washington in 2005.

In fact, the year-in, year-out powerhouse teams led by black coaches have largely ceased to exist since Smith's run at Kentucky started to wane after 2005 (from '98 to '05, he had five teams earn No. 1 or 2 NCAA seeds). When Davis was forced out at Indiana in 2006 and Smith left Kentucky a year later, the blueblood programs were once again devoid of black head coaches. (Davis was replaced at Indiana by Kelvin Sampson, a Lumbee Native American.)

"If you're going to talk about the national-championship level, typically the teams that win a national championship – Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA – the coaches at those schools are not black," said VCU's Smart. "You could have a coach the color purple at those schools and you're going to have a chance. … Kevin Ollie is going to have a chance. Kevin Ollie is a star. He will be one of the guys everyone talks about in coaching. But I don't think it will be Kevin Ollie the black coach. It will be Kevin Ollie the grinder, the great guy."

Hewitt points to one fundamental advantage that the Thompson/Richardson teams had: the best players.

"We have to recruit better," he said. "They were getting the No. 1 players in the nation: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, Corliss Richardson. When was the last time a black coach signed the No. 1 player?"

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College basketball's dearth of coaching diversity isn't just at the top level. It's been a recent trend throughout Division I.

"The numbers are down," Smart said. "I do not think that's because there's less talented black coaches. … Who is getting jobs, period? Who's getting opportunities? There are a great deal of very, very talented and prepared African-American candidates out there who should and could be very successful head coaches if given the opportunity."

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Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida, does an annual Racial and Gender Report Card for college sports on the makeup of coaches and administrators. In 2005-06, Division I college basketball had an all-time high of 25.2 percent African-American head coaches. That number had decreased to 18.6 percent by 2012, before rebounding this year to 23 percent, Lapchick said.

"We had to get the focus back on people of color in college basketball," Lapchick said. "We have placed so much emphasis on increasing the number of African-American coaches in football that we hadn't been paying as much attention to basketball. The lesson is, you've got to keep pressure on."

But this spring has been a rough one for black coaches. Of the 25 jobs that have come open so far in 2014, 13 have been the result of black coaches being fired or resigning: Tony Barbee at Auburn; Jason Capel at Appalachian State; Louis Orr at Bowling Green; Clarence Finley at Central Arkansas; Ron "Fang" Mitchell at Coppin State; Greg Jackson at Delaware State; Mike Jarvis at Florida Atlantic; Cliff Warren at Jacksonville; Frankie Allen at Maryland-Eastern Shore; Stan Heath at South Florida; Jason James at Tennessee-Martin; Travis Williams at Tennessee State; and James Johnson at Virginia Tech.

Until a spree of diversity hires this week, only one school had filled a vacancy with a black full-time head coach: Kevin Keatts, formerly an assistant at Louisville, was named coach at University of North Carolina-Wilmington last week. Then on Monday, former Oregon head coach Ernie Kent got the Washington State job, Jason Gardner was named at IUPUI, and Hispanic Orlando Antigua of Kentucky was hired at South Florida.

Even presuming that Historically Black Colleges such as Coppin State, Delaware State, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Tennessee State fill their openings with minorities, college basketball could well be looking at a net loss in black head coaches from 2013-14 to 2014-15. And then there figure to be several more black coaches entering the season on the hot seat. Among them: Romar at Washington; Craig Robinson at Oregon State; Oliver Purnell at DePaul; Anthony Grant at Alabama; Frank Haith at Missouri; Mike Anderson at Arkansas; Trent Johnson at TCU; David Carter at Nevada; and Hewitt at George Mason.

If those jobs open, will administrators do what they so often do and hire someone completely opposite from the coach they just fired? The differences often are not just playing style or personality, but race.

One thing is certain: most of them will rely on search firms for assistance, and many in college sports see that as a major reason for the decline in blacks getting jobs. If search firms are simply an extension of college sports' old-boy network among overwhelmingly white administrators, it stands to reason that most of the recommendations will be to hire white coaches.

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Can Kevin Ollie lead UConn to a national title this season? (USA Today)

"There's no question that search firms, especially at the FBS level, are running the show," Lapchick said. "It's incumbent upon universities to make clear to the search firms to present a diverse pool of candidates."

Not coincidentally, one of the established advocates for minority coaching candidates has all but gone out of business. The Black Coaches Association was headed up for many years by Floyd Keith, but he left the BCA last year.

In his absence there has been no BCA, and thus one less voice championing diversity and calling out the schools who disregard it.

"I'm very concerned that the BCA has gone dormant," Lapchick said.

In one positive development, sources told Yahoo Sports that the NCAA is likely to fund a renewed BCA in the near future.

For now, though, college basketball's coaching diversity remains a surprising issue – years after everyone thought it went away. Kevin Ollie should have more company at the game's highest echelon, and there should be more rising black coaches getting a shot at the sport's intermediate tiers.

"There's some great guys out there," Smart said. "Please do a better job of looking at them."