USA TODAY US Edition
finding the next Thompson, Chaney,
During Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports examined the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020. This was one of the 28 Black stories in 28 days.
Before John Thompson walked off the floor prior to a January 1989 game against Boston College to protest Proposition 42, an NCAA rule that would have denied scholarships to players who didn’t academically qualify to play as freshmen, he told some of his Black coaching colleagues exactly what he was going to do.
By then Thompson was already a barrier-breaking legend and a college basketball icon, having led Georgetown to three national title games including the 1984 championship, making him the first Black coach to win one. He knew the power he had and how to effectively deploy it.
“We had a group of Black coaches who were up and coming at the time that would meet, and we had Coach Thompson in there,” said Cy Alexander, who was in his mid-30s at the time and in his first head coaching job at South Carolina State. “I’ll never forget it. He came in and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do. Now you guys can’t do this because you’re going to get fired.’ He was very honest about it. He said, ‘You need to sit down with your presidents and figure out what you can do to send the same statement.’ ”
Others followed Thompson’s lead. John Chaney, the second-most prominent Black coach during that era, called it a “racist rule” from “racist presidents.” Nolan Richardson, who was building a powerhouse at Arkansas, was also critical of the rule that many coaches felt was discriminatory, taking away opportunities from players who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Led by Thompson, the protests created enough controversy that the NCAA backed off. As Thompson wrote in his autobiography “I Came As a Shadow,” which was published last December: “The Proposition 42 experience awakened a lot of Black college coaches to the fact that we could change the system.”
Thompson and Chaney died within the past six months, and the memorials they inspired underscored the importance of having prominent Black coaches in college sports and the never-ending need for them to call out inequity and injustice.
Their deaths also were a reminder there are no more John Thompsons and John Chaneys to take on the ills of college sports from within, and possessing the same stature and conviction as they did. There might not ever be again.
“It’s because of John Chaney and John Thompson that doors are open,” said Gary Charles, who played for Chaney in the 1980s at Division II Cheyney University and has been involved in grassroots basketball for decades. “What people don’t understand is that they took the bullets. They would tell other coaches, ‘Go sit down, we’ve got this, just follow our lead.’ That’s a lot. That’s who they were.”
Times are different. Thompson and Chaney grew up in a segregated America, lived through the Civil Rights movement, and fought their way out of small-time jobs just to get in position to build powerhouse college programs. The number of college coaches these days who lived a similar experience, like Leonard Hamilton and Tubby Smith, is growing smaller by the year.
Now, merely landing a head coaching job at a power conference program means life-changing money. That brings more pressure to win games and get to the NCAA Tournament. With the stakes so high, advocacy often comes second to job security.
Craig Robinson, the former Oregon State and Brown coach who is now executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said in this era the pressure to win overrides almost everything else.
“Back when John Thompson and John Chaney were coaching, they coached at places for 15 or 20 years, and once you had a coaching job you had it for a while,” Robinson said. “In today’s environment you have to be paying attention to winning. Our coaches have to win games, so it gives you less time and less incentive to work on the issues that don’t directly help you win games.”
In a sense, that’s exactly what Thompson and Chaney fought for.
“This generation made it,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the longtime shoe company executive and marketer who began signing coaches including Thompson and Chaney to Nike contracts in the 1980s. “Whether you’re Black, white or anyone else, financially the world has changed. The duties have changed. The ones we talk about today, they’re all good coaches and good people, but you can’t duplicate what the pioneers did. I haven’t seen anybody put their job on the line the way guys like Thompson and Chaney and Nolan Richardson did.”
And college basketball itself is different now. In the 1980s and 1990s it was more of a mainstream sport with bigger audiences and well-known star players who were in school for multiple years. Marquee teams like Georgetown became cultural phenomena because they had a massive television presence at a time when people didn’t have dozens of choices about what to watch. That helped the high-profile coaches of that era become massive figures in a way that would be unlikely today.
Jamion Christian, the 38-year-old head coach of George Washington, said he only had a handful of channels on his television for much of his childhood in Virginia, which is why it was so impactful for him to see Black coaches at the time succeed on big stages.
“When those games came on, that was a big deal,” he said. “As a Black player, you were rooting for Black head coaches and on Big Monday you’re watching John Thompson giving those big bearhugs to his players and you could tell how those guys felt about him. Nolan Richardson winning a national title, you’re learning about his upbringing through the broadcast. Now it’s different because there’s just more. We have more things that can push us away from those individual stories.”
Christian’s recollection of being inspired as a teenager watching Tubby Smith’s Kentucky teams or Mike Jarvis take George Washington and St. John’s deep in the NCAA Tournament also underscores why representation is important and how the work isn’t close to being done.
Among the 87 schools in the five football power conferences plus the Big East and the American, which are at the top of the food chain in terms of budget and television exposure, there are just 21 with minority head coaches – a paltry 24% in a a group of schools whose players are roughly 75% non-white.
These are issues Robinson, who is well-connected outside of basketball as the brother of Michelle Obama and a former executive at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, has seen up close for much of his career. He plans on making them a direct focus of his role with the NABC. “I’m going to be outspoken about it and I’m going to try to be a partner in helping figure out a solution to the problem,” he said. “It’s my belief, just like I spent 14 years in corporate America before I got into coaching, and strategically the way to solve these problems is that the issues start at the top and they need to get solved at the top. We need to address diversity in university presidents, athletic directors, search firm roles, but we also need to help build the pipeline of folks who can get in those roles.”
Though the battles are different now than they were in the 1980s, there’s still a significant need for diverse voices in college sports leadership to help navigate the equity issues that are going to define the next couple of decades: Fairer hiring practices, name, image and likeness rights, transfer rules, long-term health care and much more.
The question is whether any of the young Black coaches are going to have the desire or power to shape it in the same way Thompson and Chaney did 30 years ago, or whether it’s reasonable to expect them to in this day and age.
“It’s challenging because I feel like it’s a responsibility that the white head coaches don’t have and what it does is it makes me respect and understand what all the Black head coaches before us really had to battle through,” Christian said. “I’m sitting here amongst a good number of Black head coaches and I’m trying to figure out when should I battle, when shouldn’t I? What should I speak up about and what shouldn’t I? What’s our obligation to our team, but what’s my obligation to our race?
“Our responsibility as Black head coaches goes beyond just winning games, and I don’t know that our white coaches have to worry about that as much as we do. When you look at guys like that who battled through it, it makes me understand their battle and it makes me really respect their journey so much more.”