Jeff Capel carries a measure of gratitude with him every time he paces the sideline at Petersen Events Center.
As he enters his second season as Pitt's basketball coach, he thinks of his late father who went from a volunteer JV high school coach to head coach of an NCAA tournament team in fewer than 20 years. He thinks of John Thompson and Nolan Richardson, national-championship-winning coaches who doubled as aspirational figures. He thinks of all the other black coaches who never reached those same heights, but whose achievements helped make his story possible.
"I'm here because of my dad and because of the guys I just mentioned, because of their shoulders and because of the things they did to open up the door," Capel said.
Now, at age 44 and in his 11th season as a Division I head coach, a future that once seemed so boundless for men like him seems dimmer.
Pitt's game Wednesday against Florida State wasn't only going to be unusual because it's the rare conference matchup to open a season; it's also because each team is led by a black coach, with Capel on one bench and Leonard Hamilton on the other. In a sport in which a majority of assistant coaches and an overwhelming majority of the scholarship players are black, the number of black head coaches lags behind.
Of the 75 programs in college basketball's six major conferences, only 14 have a black head coach (18.7. If the count is limited to the so-called Power Five leagues, eliminating the Big East and its five black head coaches, that number dips to 13.8%. The percentage of black head coaches in those six conferences is lower now than it was during the 1996-97 season, when Capel was a senior at Duke University.
To those in the sport, particularly those most affected by it, it stands as a glaring and maddeningly resilient set of numbers that, even when they prompt discussion, has seldom led to change.
"As long as this continues to go, you're always going to have coaches who are getting left out and are not getting those opportunities," said LeVelle Moton, head coach at North Carolina Central. "It's heartbreaking, man. It's really heartbreaking."
Shortage at the top
The statistics that illustrate the realities for black college basketball coaches are most noticeable at the top levels of the sport.
Across all of Division I men's basketball (353 schools), 29.2% of head coaches are black. It's a much higher percentage than it is in the major conferences, but when coaches at black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are removed from the equation, that number falls to 24.1%.
After an offseason in which four black head coaches were fired in the six major conferences, the Pac-12 doesn't have a single black coach. When Michigan tapped former standout Juwan Howard as its new coach in May, he became the first black head coach hired by a Big Ten program since 2007.
These gaps are happening while 78.9% of the major-conference scholarship players are black, creating a disconnect.
"It's a great concern," said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). "We know we have quality people capable of being head coaches. One can say 'Are coaches of color getting opportunities?' You would clearly say the percentages suggest no."
It's not as if the low number of black head coaches is the product of a shallow talent pool, either. At Division I programs, 50.1% of assistant coaches are black, and even when assistants from HBCUs aren't included, that number is still at 47.6%.
"More people need to understand this — it can't be that we can play the game and our assistants can recruit the game, but we can't ask head coaches at the highest level to coach the game," said Ron Hunter, head coach at Tulane University and a former NABC president.
What's most distressing to some in the industry is that the share of head coaches who are black has fallen significantly in the past 15 years.
As far back as the 1997-98 season, exactly one-quarter of major-conference head coaches were black, a group including Tubby Smith, who led the University of Kentucky to a national championship that year. That figure was above 30% from 2000 to 2006, peaking at 33.8% during the 2004-05 season. In each of the past six seasons, however, it hasn't been higher than 21.3%, sinking as low as 16% during the 2016-17 campaign.
"I've been disappointed and confused with the whole process," Hamilton said. "I've been searching, trying to figure out how we come to some resolution on where we go from here."
A look at leadership
The problem, as anyone will carefully explain, is complex. It is a creation of a litany of factors, variables that extend beyond present circumstances and the gyms in which the games are played.
The reason that's easiest to understand, or is at least the most quantifiable, is that a lack of diversity among coaches is the byproduct of a lack of diversity in leadership in athletic departments and at universities. At Division I schools, 15.6% of athletic directors are black, a number that falls to 10% at non-HBCUs. In the major conferences, 13.3% of athletic directors are black. Only one university president in those leagues, Ohio State's Michael V. Drake, is black.
"That's the worst report card we issue every year in terms of grades. The only one that really has Fs in it is the D-I leadership report," said Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "If it's a bunch of white guys making decisions, it might not necessarily be that they're racist, but it might mean that they just don't know any people that don't look like or think like them."
The background of athletic directors was also frequently cited. As college athletics has morphed into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, a profession once dominated by former coaches — which Ricky Lefft, an attorney who specializes in sports law, said led to its own form of cronyism — has increasingly shifted in the direction of people with business experience.
As the profile of athletic directors has changed, so too have the way coaching searches are conducted. The prevalence of search firms was identified by any number of coaches as a factor. The hiring process is no longer as simple as an athletic director connecting with a candidate, so much so that even schools at the Division II and Division III levels employ search firms. Though he doesn't speak for everyone in the field, Daniel Parker, vice president of Parker Executive Search, said 10 of the 21 Division I men's basketball searches his firm has done over the past four years resulted in the hiring of a black coach.
The dissolution of the Black Coaches Association (BCA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the growth of minorities in coaching, has also played a prominent part in the current predicament. For years, the BCA — with men such as Georgetown's Thompson, Arkansas' Richardson and Temple's John Chaney serving as its face — wielded significant power, applying pressure on the powers-that-be to improve hiring practices, as well as helping educate black coaches and prepare them for the hiring process. Its influence was one reason why minority coaching percentages were once so high. Its absence has created a vacuum.
"It kept a balance," said Perry Clark, a former head coach at Tulane and Miami who is now an assistant coach at South Carolina. "It allowed us to have a voice in that arena."
A handful of coaches pointed to how black coaches are often thrust into more difficult jobs, which there is some truth to. In the past 20 years in the major conferences, 72.9% of the black coaches hired were brought in after their predecessor was fired (compared to 60.8% of their white counterparts). Others believe black coaches, if they fail, aren't given the same kind of second chances others in the profession are, raising examples such as Al Skinner, who led Boston College to one of its most successful stretches ever only to lose his job in 2010 and not get another head coaching job until he was hired by Kennesaw State in 2015. That sentiment largely isn't backed up by data, as 13% of fired major-conference black coaches in the past 20 years got another job in one of those leagues, only slightly lower than the 15% of white coaches who did.
In the eyes of others, though, there are more deeply rooted, insidious obstacles that remain.
A glass ceiling
Even 14 years removed from it, Capel will never forget the conversation.
Shortly before his final season at Virginia Commonwealth in 2005, Capel was an assistant for the United States' team in the World University Games in Izmir, Turkey, where he wrote a series of blog entries that appeared on VCU's website detailing the experience. While in his office one day after he returned home, someone who worked at the university complimented the pieces and asked who wrote them for him. When Capel replied it was him, the other person was incredulous, asking again who wrote them.
"I was like 'I did graduate from Duke, man,' " Capel said. "I don't know if a white coach would have gotten that."
His experience is hardly unique. For many black coaches interviewed for this story, their time in the profession has shown them that, merely because of the color of their skin, they're liable to be viewed a certain way, even if there's no malicious intent behind it.
It's perhaps most evident in the gulf between the percentage of black assistants and black head coaches in the Power Five conferences and Big East. In those leagues, 58.7% of assistant coaches are black, more than three times as high as the 18.7% of head coaches who are black. Each of the 75 programs in those conferences has at least one black assistant.
That gap illustrates what many black coaches see as a widely held view that they're often best-suited as recruiters. When Capel was approached by Duke in 2011 to be an assistant following his firing as head coach at Oklahoma, he said he didn't want to be brought in only to be what he dubbed "The Black Recruiter."
"In some peoples' minds, there's a difference between relating to players and running a program," Clark said.
That distinction can lead to a label that can stunt career advancement, serving as a glass ceiling of sorts.
"It can be crippling," Capel said.
That all-too-common portrayal of black coaches was reinforced by the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Rick Pitino, a white head coach, was fired after his Louisville program was implicated, but among the 10 people arrested in 2017 when the investigation was revealed to the public were four assistant coaches — Emanuel "Book" Richardson, Chuck Person, Tony Bland and Lamont Evans — all of whom are black.
"That bothered me," Hunter said. "Those four guys weren't the guys that caused the issues that we've got in this business. But what came out of it were four African-Americans that had to go to trial and that became the face of college basketball. That was one of the low points I've had in this business."
"They're the face of it," said Stan Heath, a former head coach at Arkansas and South Florida. "They're the scapegoat of it. It just doesn't smell right."
Nearly one-quarter of the 103 black Division I coaches are at HBCUs, where they face stifling elements of their own. When Capel first got into coaching, his father, a graduate of an HBCU who coached at HBCUs for years, told him not to take a job at an HBCU because it's hard, if not impossible, to move up to a bigger program. In the past 20 years, only four black coaches have gone directly from an HBCU to a predominantly white Division I institution.
At schools in smaller leagues, some of whom are severely limited in their resources, advancement in the college basketball hierarchy can be difficult.
"You do get pigeonholed," said Moton, who has led North Carolina Central to three consecutive NCAA tournaments. "It's almost like Major League Baseball and then the Negro Leagues. It's Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and Jackie Robinson. They're over here and everyone else is pretty much over there. They're not invited to the party."
Eddie Robinson Rule?
For years, Lapchick and organizations like the National Association for Coaching Equity & Development have advocated for what they call the Eddie Robinson Rule. Named after the iconic Grambling football coach, the measure would require schools to interview at least one minority candidate for any head-coaching or leadership position before settling on a final hire. In spirit and practice, it's similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL.
The NCAA has said that it, as a nonprofit and voluntary member association, can't legally adopt such a rule. Instead, it asked members to sign a pledge committing to promoting diversity and gender equity. According to the NCAA's website, 290 Division I school presidents have signed it, but a handful of notable schools, such as Notre Dame and Boston College, haven't. More than three years after the pledge's introduction, minority representation among college basketball coaches, athletic directors and college football coaches (only 10.8% of Football Bowl Subdivision coaches are black) remains low.
In Oregon, which has required state schools to interview candidates of color, Lapchick sees an example of how the Eddie Robinson Rule could work effectively, but it also makes him wonder why more states haven't taken a similar approach.
"Unless we change the hiring practices, we're going to end up with the same type of figures deep into the future," Lapchick said.
Short of anything codified, most prescriptions are tied to broader changes in culture and mindsets, with the hope that such shifts would lead to substantive change.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, one of 10 black people in the major conferences to hold such a position, thinks back to his time at Arizona State, when the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) would host sessions in which minority coaches could connect with athletic administrators. He believes similar events and a more concerted effort from conferences could improve matters.
"To me, it's those moments where an AD can have 20 minutes in a casual environment back in the day, when Shaka (Smart) was coming through or an Ed Cooley," Smith said. "You'd have a chance to just connect and say 'OK, if I ever have an opening, that guy is going to be on my list.' To me, that's an effort that needs to be more intentional, broader and deeper."
Though the Eddie Robinson Rule would require it, many believe universities voluntarily widening their candidate pools to include racial and ethnic minorities would help. Merely getting in a room with decision-makers could help make what was previously an afterthought of an option the eventual hire, opening doors that were once not apparent.
Improving the diversity among athletic directors is another potential answer, one that could bring overlooked experiences and viewpoints into positions of power.
"I don't think it has progressed nearly where it needs to be," said Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke. "Anyone who says it has is crazy. Carla Williams (at Virginia) is the first African-American woman in the Power Five ever. Ever. There has never been a woman in the SEC, ever. I don't know the ethnic diversity numbers as well, but they're limited. When I go to an AD meeting, it's noticeable."
The influence of prominent coaches, white and black, to help push minority assistants into head-coaching positions could also make a difference. Heath's first head-coaching job, at Kent State, came after an impressive interview, but that was made possible by a call to the university from Tom Izzo, under whom he was an assistant at Michigan State. While Pitt was conducting its search prior to hiring Capel, school leadership spoke indirectly to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
There remain shreds of hope that the next Thompson, Richardson or Chaney is out there, somewhere, particularly as nine of the 14 major-conference black coaches have only coached two or fewer seasons at their present employer.
Perhaps Hamilton's continued success, with back-to-back runs to the NCAA tournament's second week, could help, even at age 71. Maybe Penny Hardaway's early success at Memphis, where he just signed the sport's No. 1 recruiting class, is a harbinger of a long, decorated tenure at his hometown program that could help create opportunities for other black coaches, especially those with non-traditional backgrounds. There's optimism to be found in the ascent of N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, who went from a high-school coach to the head of an ACC program in just six years.
As thankful as Capel is for the black coaches who preceded him, he's just as cognizant of the black coaches who will one day follow him and what his success or shortcomings could mean for them. It's a responsibility that's omnipresent.
That such a burden exists, though, is yet another sign of just how much work remains to be done.
"Is it unfair? Maybe," Capel said. "But it's the reality. I think it's the reality that black people feel throughout history in every walk of life. If you have a black person that becomes a doctor and gets an opportunity there, they probably feel a certain responsibility to their community. I know that it's there. Do I feel pressured by it? No, but I know it's there."