Black Coaches: Is the Game Played Fairly?

April 10, 1994|By JERRY BEMBRY

For a brief stretch last month, Loyola basketball coach Skip Prosser was the toast of Baltimore, and deservedly so. Assuming the reigns of a Loyola College team that had suffered through a 2-25 nightmare the previous year, Mr. Prosser led the Greyhounds to a 17-13 record that included a conference tournament title and the school's first appearance in the Division I NCAA basketball tournament.

Just over a week ago, Mr. Prosser was swift to reap the rewards for a job well done, accepting the head job at Xavier University, where he had previously served as an assistant coach for eight years.

"I'm really happy for Skip," said Coppin State basketball coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell, when asked about Mr. Prosser's new position. "I thought he did a super job at Loyola."

Mr. Mitchell should know about doing super jobs; over the last five years there isn't a coach in the state that can boast his impressive resume: two NCAA tournament appearances, one NIT tournament appearance, and four first-place finishes in the his conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

He's won on the road at the University of Maryland. At Creighton. And he's had Coppin, a historically black school of about 3,000 students, in a few close calls along the way. This season there were the 2-point loss at Virginia and a 1-point loss at Missouri -- a total of 3 points separating the Eagles from two Top 25 teams.

Yet, in a point that Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson repeatedly drove home last weekend during the Final Four in Charlotte, there are few chances for coaches like Mr. Mitchell -- talented African-American coaches -- to reap the rewards of a job well done.

It's been a busy off-season in terms of job availability in college basketball: Positions opened at Marquette, Xavier, Providence, Clemson, Boston University and Pittsburgh. But African-Americans haven't been mentioned prominently in any of those positions, which have or are being filled mainly through an exclusionary game of musical chairs.

And for a while it seemed the national title game last Monday, in which Arkansas defeated Duke, was of secondary importance to Nolan Richardson.

At every press conference, during every television interview Mr. Richardson constantly blasted a system that he feels denies African-American coaches opportunities, while at the same time forces them to live up to stereotypes and labels created by the media.

It was a brave stand taken by Mr. Richardson, a vocal member of the Black Coaches Association group that's asking the NCAA to be more attentive to minority concerns.

If a poll on the cable network ESPN is any indication, many college basketball fans didn't agree with Mr. Richardson's bringing an old problem to light at such a big event.

But Mr. Richardson, just the second African-American to win the national championship, stuck to his agenda. "There's a stigma placed on black coaches," Mr. Richardson said, lashing out at the labels attached to black coaches. "What a great recruiter. What a great motivator. I have a problem with that."

The biggest problem for Mr. Richardson is the lack of recognition that some African-Americans get for being great "Xs and Os" coaches, for being knowledgeable and effective strategists. "I have a problem with that," Mr. Richardson said.

At Coppin State, where's he left to recruit the unpolished players that most major school's avoid, Mr. Mitchell has indeed earned respect as a great "Xs and Os" coach.

Just ask the people at Creighton, who two seasons ago mailed Coppin a $10,000 check instead of risking losing on its home court to the Eagles a second straight year.

Or Loyola of Chicago who, after losing at home to Coppin earlier this season, won't play the Eagles again.

Or Boston College, whose players admitted preparing for Coppin more than for some of their Big East opponents.

And Maryland who, victimized on its home court three years ago by the Eagles, have seemingly lost Coppin's phone number while managing to schedule just about every other state school.

"His team's very disciplined," Maryland coach Gary Williams said about Mr. Mitchell last year. "Ron has proven he can coach."

Perhaps he's proven it too much.

"After we play some of the top teams tough, the coaches will tell me afterwards, 'You better enjoy this, because we're not playing you anymore,' " Mr. Mitchell said. "A lot of schools use black schools to pad their schedule, but they won't play against me. People can get fired by losing to a historically black school."

The fact that Mr. Mitchell can't schedule certain teams is a sign of respect. Yet while the "musical chairs of coaching" game gets played out after every season, Mr. Mitchell is never asked to participate. Since arriving at Coppin in 1986 he has not received a single call concerning asking him to consider a coaching opening.

Zero.

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