Canisius’ Reggie Witherspoon, Buffalo’s Felisha Legette-Jack and Niagara’s Jada Pierce all grew up loving the game of basketball. Their journeys allowing them to share their passion right here in Western New York.
In 2010, the NCAA refocused its diversity and inclusion efforts saying, “The Inclusion Initiative at the NCAA emphasizes that an inclusive culture is the best approach to achieving diversity,” and it champions more than 20 programs for students, student-athletes, graduates and coaches for diversity.
However, the number of minority coaches, specifically African-American head coaches, remains low.
“I think the numbers are alarming,” Witherspoon said.
According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, during the 2014-2015 season, while 55 percent of student-athletes were African-American, while only 22.3 percent of all DI head coaches were African-American.
“What it says is, there is still work to be done. I look at myself and hope we’re doing a good enough job that we’re going to enhance the opportunity for somebody else," Witherspoon said.
For women’s programs during that same time frame, 15 percent of head coaching jobs were held by African-Americans, with women holding 11 percent of those positions. 47 percent of student-athletes that played basketball were African-American.
“ADs are going to hire somebody they’re comfortable with," Legette-Jack said. "They have to be able to communicate with you on a daily basis. If they’re not familiar with who you are, they’re not going to want to have you run their program.”
“I think sometimes that’s what happens and it doesn’t matter if the person is more qualified than somebody else they interview,” Pierce said. “I tend not to look at race being a factor all the time, but you look at what the facts are and it’s hard when you look at the numbers and you see such a small percentage.”
Witherspoon was the first African-American to be named a head coach at a public school in Western New York in the early 90’s when he took over at Sweet Home. He was the second minority coach hired at UB and the first at Canisius.
At Niagara, Pierce is also the first African-American to coach women's basketball.
Jack, was the first minority coach in program history when she was named the head coach of the Bulls in 2012, as she was at Hofstra and Indiana before that.
“I have to (consider myself a trail blazer),” she said. “You have to accept that responsibility of the first and I’ve been first in a lot of things that I’ve done. My prayer is that I was not only first, but I left a trail that others can be proud of and move it further beyond.”
“I think this is a great place,” Pierce added. “Western New York has a lot more diversity than I thought it was, and I’ve never lived out this way. What we have here is special and what we want other to understand is that it can be like this anywhere else. We can have a lot of diversity.”
Race in Coaching Circles
Reggie Witherspoon: “It is discussed because it’s a part of the American life. It is talked about and it was about before I became a head coach and It’ll be talked about when I’m done coaching. It’s a part of a fabric of our country that requires work.”
“When you look at something quickly, it’s easy to come to a conclusion that’s not really representative of the facts, by just looking at the surface and walking away. To diversify, we have to look beyond the surface and say, ‘What’s behind what I’m looking at?’ We have to look deeper and sometimes that takes time and an open mindedness. I think that’s the difficult nature of it. We have to look past, ‘Well, last time that I was around this group of people, this happened.’ It doesn’t mean you’re going to have the same encounter, even though there are similarities between the two people. That’s hard at times, particularly difficult depending on the environment they grew up.”
Felisha Legette-Jack: “With coaches, I have a Women of Color group that we said, ‘it’s time to stop pretending - the elephant in the room. We are at a disadvantage even though most athletes are minority – African-American or another minority – we are a minority. We need to have a place to go and have a place to figure out who do we go to? Who looks like us, talks like us, sound like us? We don’t have a soft-landing place, if you will.
“I was working with my assistant coach Sheri at Indiana and whenever I saw anyone that looked like me, I got excited. She said, ‘That’s weird you do that.’ I said ‘Look around the room. Look at every room we go I and I go and speak and there’d be 400 people in the room and I’d be the only one in the room that’s African-American. She never realized that. When you don’t see anybody that looks like you on a daily basis, when you see somebody that looks like you, you embrace that moment.”
Jada Pierce: “We talk about it a little bit. We try not to make it a focal point of conversation, but you can’t help but wonder why certain people will get an interview and you know you’ve sent your stuff and had your people talk to the ‘right people’ there to see if you could have a shot at it and you don’t get anything. You don’t get a response so you start to wonder, is it a factor?”
Searching for A Division I Job
Jada Pierce began her search for a DI head coaching job roughly six years ago. Prior to being hired at Niagara, she served as an assistant at West Point, Mount St. Mary’s, UMASS, UMASS-Lowell and also was the head coach at D-II Cheney University from 2004-2006.
Primarily, she has coached in the Northeast, but when her journey for a Division I job began, she was faced with a question she never imagined.
“I’ve had conversations over the years with mentors and colleagues and a lot of times, people will say to you ‘Oh, would you want a job in a certain conference that are historically black with colleges and universities?’ And, for me, I’ve only worked at one historically black college at Division II and never had that experience at Division I,” she said.
“It did surprise me a bit because if you know what my background is, you know I’ve never worked at a school in any of those conferences. I was taken aback by it and it was one of those things where I was going to keep plugging away and going a great job where that is, being at St. Joe’s or Army – the fact I was going to make my mark that way and then hopefully get myself noticed enough once I applied for head coaching jobs.
“Once I felt comfortable in 2014, I started to put myself out there to apply for jobs that were in the conferences that I worked in.”
Gender in Coaching
According to NCAA records, since 2007-2008 only one woman has been the head coach of a men’s basketball team, and that was during the 2012-2013 academic year.
NCAA records also show during that same time frame men coaching women’s teams decreased from 108 to 105 for 2008-2009, before climbing substantially each year.
133 men coached women’s teams during the 2014-2015 season.
Below is a breakdown of women’s coaching numbers from 2007 through the 2014-2015 season
‘07-‘08 – 195
‘08-‘09 – 202
‘09-‘10 – 205
‘10-‘11 – 202
‘11-‘12 – 197
‘12-‘13 – 193
‘13-‘14 – 186
‘14-‘15 – 186
Felisha Legette Jack: “Our challenge is, we’re not going to have many women coaching women’s basketball. They’ve changed the way you earn a salary, the way you can raise a family. Coaching the sport before, 10-15, 20 years ago, coaches coached because they loved it. They didn’t find a lot of men on this side because financially it was unappealing.
"My college coach, Barbara Jacobs, she would resign from Syracuse – she made $42,000. The numbers are dramatically different. People get into our profession on the women’s side, you think financially how can they make it work for their families and second I can learn to love women’s basketball, that’ll be something like the men. We’re under the rim, they’re over the rim. It’s so different.
"A lot of players that I recruit that I don’t get have contacted me after they graduated to help with opportunities moving forward after college. I share with them will help the kids that played with me first and then I’ll help them. A lot of coaches in the business now are in because you can earn money for their families and they’re not taking care of their kids after the game is over. It’s an unfortunate reality.”
Jada Pierce: “I’ve had a lot of colleagues and I’m going nearly 20 years back now, I’ve had a lot of female coaches get out of the business whether they had a bad experience with a person they worked with or worked for, or whether they wanted to get out and start a family and didn’t they could do both. I’m not totally surprised there are more males now.”