When Jean Bain got the call, he was sitting on a couch in his Morningside Heights apartment, unwinding after a Saturday afternoon basketball practice.
The call was unexpected. It was already October, late in the hiring process for college basketball coaches. The new season was right around the corner, and Bain was ready for another year of Columbia basketball.
But on the other end of the phone was Jeff Ward, the then-athletic director at Brandeis University. Ward was calling to offer Bain a job as the head coach of Brandeis’ men’s basketball. If he said yes, Bain would only have a couple of weeks to move to Waltham, Massachusetts to prepare the Judges for the upcoming season.
He accepted the offer and was ready to drive to Waltham immediately. Bain said he did not even need to see any contract details—on the spot, he made up his mind that the answer was “yes.”
Bain had been a journeyman of a coach. Following a decorated playing career at Northeastern University, the Massachusetts native went back home to coach at his high school. A couple of years later, he landed his first college gig as an assistant coach at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He then went on to hold assistant and associate coaching roles at the University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, and Columbia.
The call from Brandeis was the big break he had been waiting for.
“As an assistant,” Bain said, “what you work for your whole career is to finally get an opportunity to run your own program.”
While he had the same ambitions as many assistant coaches, Bain’s background was not the norm within the sport. As a Black coach in college basketball, many would consider Bain to be an exception to a long legacy of white coaches. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association demographics database, in 2019, only 28 percent of Division I men’s basketball head coaches were Black. Though it may not seem significant on the surface, this figure pales in comparison to the corresponding student-athlete population: 56 percent of Division I men’s basketball players in 2019 were Black, double the percentage of head coaches.
At the Division III level, this disparity is even more pronounced. While 33 percent of Division III men’s basketball players in 2019 were Black, only nine percent of coaches were, nearly a fourfold difference.
But since 2018, three Black assistant coaches from Columbia have gone on to become head coaches: Bain, Kenny Blakeney of Howard University, and Marlon Sears of Amherst College. In a profession where head coaching opportunities are so few and far between, networking often makes the difference between getting the job and not. For these coaches, coaching at an Ivy League institution in the Big Apple was a crucial step in their careers that helped them land head coaching jobs.
The Mecca of basketball: competitive advantages
Tobe Carberry, a current assistant coach of men’s basketball, met head coach Jim Engles before he ever got his first Division I coaching job. As a Division II assistant coach, Carberry would run into Engles—who was then the head coach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology—at games and recruiting events. The two would regularly share notes, player evaluations, and general thoughts about the games they were watching.
“It was great conversation anytime we met on the road,” Carberry said.
Over time, they kept in contact and built a close relationship. So when an opportunity to join Engles’ staff as an assistant came about this past summer, Carberry, who was previously an assistant at Yale University, “jumped on it.”
For Carberry and many others in the coaching business, opportunities tend to arise through preexisting relationships. Fellow assistant coach Justin Levine was connected to Columbia through his relationship with Sears, and Sears was connected to Columbia for his first stint in 2009 through his relationship with then-head coach Joe Jones and then again in 2019 through his relationship with Engles.
The relationship-based nature of the profession has historically been a barrier for Black coaches and coaches of color. Across the United States, racism shapes the social networks which different prospective job applicants are able to develop; white applicants typically have more connections to powerful hirers in the industry than people of color do, and basketball is no exception. However, Carberry and Sears both said that Columbia’s location allowed them access to New York’s networks—proving to be one of the strongest competitive advantages in their journeys to becoming head coaches, as networking opportunities in the city, especially for basketball coaches, are numerous.
“New York City, it’s the Mecca. … Every coach, every [Amateur Athletic Union] coach, everybody wants to come to New York, and when everybody wants to come to New York, Columbia University is one of the campuses they come to,” Sears explained. “I’ve left my office before and gone walking and have run into national team coaches. And I’m just like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ And they’re just like, ‘Coach, I’m just in town with my family, and we just decided to come visit campus.’”
“The great thing about Columbia is that everybody has to come through New York for something,” Bain added.
On top of these random encounters, during the summers, Columbia basketball hosts its annual Elite Overnight Camp, where high schoolers from around the country come to compete in front of college coaches. These camps, Bain said, allowed him to “to meet all different types of coaches from every level.”
Having experience coaching in the Ivy League also proved to be advantageous, particularly for Bain and Sears, who now coach in Division III. Division III schools, much like Ivy League schools, “place the highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students’ academic programs,” as written in the Division III philosophy statement. For Bain and Sears, their understanding of this philosophy was crucial in their hiring processes.
“If I was not an assistant at Columbia or places that I’ve been at, like Dartmouth, I don’t know if I could have gotten the Brandeis job just because the academic structures align so [similarly],” Bain said.
In addition to sharing a similar student-athlete philosophy, the Ivy League and Division III also both prohibit athletic scholarships, unlike most Division I schools. As a result, Sears’ experience recruiting non-scholarship athletes for Cornell University—where he coached from 2010 to 2015—and for Columbia was a major selling point when interviewing for the Amherst job.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to recruit scholarship players along with players that don’t get a scholarship,” Sears said. “That’s a very, very big part of the equation … [because] you gotta get kids that are high academic and then you gotta figure out the financial aid piece, because that right there brings challenges to the table.”
Coaches noted that perhaps the greatest advantage Columbia provides, though, is its name brand.
“Dude, it’s Columbia,” Sears said. “You’re talking about one of the greatest institutions in the world, and then you’re talking about the greatest city in the world. … I think that’s what really separated my interview process when I went after the Amherst job.”
“The name Columbia I think definitely is a separator from a résumé standpoint,” Engles added. “When you have the experience at a world-class institution in New York City, because you have access to everything that Columbia has and also that New York has, it gives you a lot of equity in regards to experiences from a coaching standpoint.”
Lack of opportunities for Black coaches
Despite the successes of these coaches, the statistics show that Black coaches in college basketball are hired to head coaching roles at a disproportionately low rate relative to the demographics of the student-athlete population.
College basketball coaching is a competitive enough environment, with such few openings that it is difficult for anyone to get into coaching. “No matter if you’re the best player out there or you had the best playing career, it’s still gonna be an uphill climb to try to find an opening,” Carberry said.
However, the struggle is especially intense for coaches of color, in part because of the “lack of the opportunities that minority coaches have gotten,” according to Bain. “I think that’s the big issue.”
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Sears summarized.
One key reason for the disparity in opportunities offered is the ways in which racism impacts networking. Athletic directors and administrators tend to hire people they already know. Often lacking a wide network of connections, many Black coaches aren’t given a fair look as a result.
“A lot of people tend to feel comfortable in hiring people they know,” Carberry said. “And if no athletic directors know me, I’m probably not going to get an opportunity because I don’t have that familiarity professionally with any administrators.”
In addition, more explicit stereotypes can play a major role. Bain said that there is a perception in college basketball that Black coaches are only talented as recruiters and thus are not capable of running their own programs—a stereotype that unfairly limits the opportunities available to Black coaches.
“They don’t get the same opportunities because they’re seen as the recruiters and not the X’s and O’s guys,” he said. “[But] there’s a lot of Black coaches in the country that are just as good in the X’s and O’s.”
Bridging the gap
Still, coaches said that steps can be taken to bridge the gap between the number of Black head coaches and Black players in college basketball. The first step, according to Carberry, is legitimizing and understanding the experiences of Black coaches.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey man, you need to change all coaches to all Black,’” he said. “That’s not what I’m saying. The first step in rectifying the problem or the issue is understanding. And understanding that a lot of these well-qualified assistants are upset because they feel that it is unfair that no matter how much experience they have, they don’t feel as if they would get a fair opportunity to get appointed as head coach as someone of [a] white background [would].”
Coaches also said that part of the solution could be expanding professional development and networking opportunities for Black coaches. These networking opportunities, Carberry believes, could even come in the form of Zoom conferences where Black coaches can meet with administrators and athletic directors “so that when opportunities arise, [Black coaches] can become candidates.”
“I think the more exposure you can give people, they can put themselves in positions where stuff opens up,” Engles said.
However, in order for meaningful change to happen, administrators and those in power need to make a conscious effort to fairly consider Black candidates for head coaching positions, according to Sears.
“I think it’s so easy to hire the people you know, instead of looking at the résumés and seeing it as a whole and being like, ‘Alright, who’s the best candidate for the job?’” he said. “Sometimes, everyone gets pigeonholed into ‘I have to hire somebody I know’ instead of opening it up and saying, ‘You know what, let’s figure out who the best candidate is.’”
Ultimately, though, coaches recognize that the lack of Black head coaches in college basketball is a complex issue that will not be solved overnight.
“I think it’s something we have to address every day, every month, every year,” Sears said.
For Engles, who recently joined College Insider’s “Eracism” committee, creating a more equitable sports world starts locally.
“If we do the right things here, in our small way, we’ll help the overall sports world,” he said.
Part of that work involves raising awareness about historically significant Black coaches. Last week, in tandem with the “Eracism” committee, the men’s basketball team honored Hall of Famer John McLendon, who was the first Black coach to win an integrated national championship.
“We’re trying to really educate people on some of the people who have trailblazed and who have come before us,” Engles said.
The importance of Black leaders
As Carberry looks forward to his coaching tenure at Columbia, he will always remember those who came before him. Legendary Black coaches like the late John Chaney and John Thompson, as well as Carberry’s high school and college coaches, were instrumental in his self-actualization as a Black player and coach.
“When I’m in the eighth grade or ninth grade, I’m looking at John Thompson [getting] guys that look like me into Georgetown; I’m thinking, ‘Man, well maybe I do need to focus more on my studies. Maybe I do need to get outside and work on my game a little more so I can be that. So I can be worthy of earning a scholarship, of playing at the Division I level at a high academic university like Georgetown,’” he said. “And as a coach, you look at things like that and you say, ‘You can be that.’”
That is why, Carberry said, representation is so important to him. The lack of opportunities for Black coaches harms not only the coaches and teams, but their players as well.
“It’s important for kids to look on staff and look eye-to-eye and be able to confide in someone who has the same background as them and understands everything that they’re going through,” Carberry said.
Sears expressed a similar view.
“It is so important and so big that Black men and Black women are put in positions of leadership,” he said.
With racial inequalities moving to the forefront of national dialogue due to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, Bain said that he is hopeful that the increasingly evident need for diversity will make administrators realize that “there’s a lot of great minority coaches out there that have not gotten the opportunities they deserve.”
“I don’t think it’ll all happen in one year where there’ll be a total change in the landscape of head coaches in Division I, but I think that people are now starting to open their eyes to the importance of that,” Carberry said.
However, as long as the status quo remains, Sears’ advice for young Black coaches is simple.
“If it’s high school, if it’s college, whatever it might be—become a head coach as fast as you can,” he said. “I think sometimes as a Black assistant, people don’t tell you that. They tell you to keep being an assistant coach, keep doing A, B, and C, instead of, ‘Hey, get out and do it on your own.’ I think that’s really important that you’re out and you do it on your own.”